Archive for October 2007

Reflections on Nigeria’s romance with India

October 29, 2007

Casmir Igbokwe

Published Sunday, 28 Oct. 2007

Last April, female civil servants in India almost revolted against their government. Their grouse had to do with new appraisal forms, which required them to reveal details of their menstrual cycles. They were also to write down their detailed menstrual history, history of last menstrual period and date of last maternity leave. These were besides the health checks that are conducted among civil servants every year.

This tended to confirm the fear of some Nigerians that some Indian companies care less about the welfare of their workers. Remember that labour leaders of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, earlier this month, kicked against the proposed concession of electricity transmission in the country to the Power Grid Company of India. One of the points they raised was that Indian firms within the country lacked good staff welfare record.

These, among others, occupied my mind as I reflected on our current romance with India. Penultimate week, the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was in Nigeria on an official visit. The visit led to the signing of strategic pacts between Nigeria and India. Among the key decisions taken is that within the next six months, Nigerian travellers to India can do so by direct flight. There will not be any need to connect flights in Dubai or Addis-Ababa. The two countries also agreed to strengthen cooperation in the areas of culture, health, education, information and communication technology, infrastructure and small and medium enterprises.

These are steps in the right direction. We are now in a global village, and countries achieve more by cooperating with one another. Recall that India once gave Nigeria $5 million to resuscitate the Nigerian Machine Tools Company in Osogbo. It has also promised to give more grants to Nigeria. Besides, there are Indian companies doing businesses in this country. Global Infrastructure, for instance, is running our Ajaokuta and Aladja iron and steel industries.

No doubt, India is Nigeria’s largest trading partner in Africa. That country has achieved successes in the ICT sector. If it could replicate those successes in Nigeria, that will be good. In the area of electric power, the PHCN has failed Nigerians woefully. If an Indian company could transform electricity transmission in the country, that will also be wonderful. But beyond oil, and perhaps, 419, what else has Nigeria got to offer that country?

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, reportedly noted that Singh’s visit would make a way for Nigerians to establish businesses in India. I only hope his optimism will not be like that of young Nigerians who travel to India to play football and end up as drug couriers and advance fee fraudsters. As the Nigerian High Commissioner to India, Ambassador Mohammed Lawal, put it, over 75 per cent of Nigerians living in India have no meaningful means of livelihood.

A few years ago, Nigeria and India were almost on the same economic pedestal. Today, that country has overtaken us. Malaysia has left us behind. Singapore is far ahead of us. These countries did not look up to any country for salvation. They looked inwards, tapped the talents they have within to achieve their goals.

I have my doubts about the successes of any business we intend to establish in India. If it will not be to the benefit of that country, it may not work. Remember that Nigeria reaffirmed its support for India’s permanent membership of the United Nations’ Security Council. India, on its part, said it would respect Africa’s consensus on new permanent membership from Africa. What does that mean? Why can’t India express unalloyed support to Nigeria?

Our salvation lies more within us. Not with India. Not with China. Not even with the United States. Individually, Nigerians have excelled in any endeavour they find themselves. Just recently, former Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was appointed the Managing Director of the World Bank. Also, a Nigerian scholar of international law, Dr. Obi Aginam, has just been appointed as the Director of Studies, Policy and Institutional Frameworks, Peace and Governance Programme of the UN’s University Centre in Tokyo, Japan. Three Nigerian dons were also reported to be part of the work of the UN’s Inter-governmental panel on Climate Change that won this year’s Nobel Peace prize with Al Gore of the US. A Nigerian undergraduate, Mubarak Abdullahi, was recently reported to have built a helicopter with scraps from old cars and motorbikes in Kano.

Charity, the cliché goes, begins at home. Maduekwe should first go to the cabinet meeting in Abuja and help in initiating policies that will encourage Nigerians to establish businesses in their country first. The Nigerian environment is too hostile to businesses. Do we talk of poor and irregular electricity supply? Do we talk of bad roads? Do we talk of inconsistent government policies that stifle businesses? These are the issues Maduekwe and his colleagues should concern themselves with first. We cannot talk of establishing businesses abroad when we don’t have a firm root at home.

I only hope the enthusiasm to consummate our affairs with India or any other Asian nation does not leave us brooding like a woman with painful and irregular menstruation.      


Re: Sudden death, spiritual protection and our lawmakers

Dear Mr Igbokwe,

I left Nigeria many years ago and came to visit a few months ago. I had to go outside Lagos to another state. It was like a race to hell in commercial (combi) bus I travelled in. The roads were bad all right, but the drivers! Have you ever noticed how very careless, reckless, impatient and irresponsible Nigerian drivers, both privates and commercials are?

Everyone drives like they are running a race on a bad road. Can you imagine a car on a speed of 160 kilometres per hour even on a bad road and the people talk about accident being the work of the devil. Yes, the devil that is in them…their impatience, carelessness, etc. Even the many air disasters are as a result of carelessness and irresponsibility.

I decided to fly back to Lagos because of my experience and boy, what a disaster, what a nightmare! The Virgin Air almost collided with a flight that was just taxiing off. Thank God the pilot was quick to act (they were white). Can you believe that the air controller gave them the order to land? Carelessness in the highest order..! I hope the authorities will create awareness on the issue of over-speeding and have a minimum speed limit put into effect in the cities as well as on the highways.

Elizabeth Sodipo

Sudden death, spiritual protection and our lawmakers

October 23, 2007

Casmir Igbokwe

Published on Sunday, 21 Oct. 2007

In recent times, the House of Representatives has treated Nigerians to a free movie. For that is what the crisis over the N628 million-house-renovation scandal has become. Hitherto, the honourable members’ play had been full of entertaining spectacles. But last Wednesday, it turned into a tragedy with the sudden death of a lawmaker, Dr. Aminu Safana. This was shortly after a scuffle in the House. To a fellow legislator, Emmanuel Jimeh, there is something diabolical about the death. In less than four months, he  noted, the House had lost three members. 

No doubt, every human being must die. That is the major debt we owe life. But in Safana’s death, there is a metaphor staring us in the face. It has to do with untimely death, which has become the lot of Nigerians. It revolves around the fact that our lawmakers prefer to pursue rats while our house burns, while Nigerians die in their numbers daily because of the bad policies of our leaders.

In Nigeria today, burial ceremonies have become a major outdoor event. This is typified in a recent report I read about a truckload of bodies allegedly abandoned at Ijeta Community in Ikorodu area of Lagos. The Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Dr Jide Idris, reportedly said about 10 bodies are picked on the streets of Lagos everyday. The mortuaries, he also noted, had become congested.

One major cause of these untimely deaths is road accident. That most roads in Nigeria are bad is no more news. The regrettable thing is that the government seems to have developed deaf ears over calls to repair these roads. For over five years now, the Lagos-Abeokuta Express Road has been under repairs. Even as repair work is still ongoing on one side of the road, there are potholes on the opposite side. The Minister of Transport, Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke, once lamented over the state of some of our roads. Until date, the Shagamu-Benin Express Road, for instance, is still a far cry from what a good road should be. In most of these death traps called roads, there are no road markings. No danger signs to warn drivers about the craters on the roads. Some motorists have lost their lives to this neglect.

Some of those who escape death on the road may not escape the poison some mobile medicine vendors sell in some of our commercial buses. Recently, in one of the popular luxury buses plying the eastern route, a vendor marketed what I may call a wonder balm. The medicine cures arthritis, rheumatism, high blood pressure, aches and pains and so on. The manufacturers were even honest enough to note that the claims have not been evaluated by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control. But the seller claimed that an ex-minister once came from Abuja to buy the wonder balm in Lagos. The balm, he added, could be used any time because it had no expiry date. Many people believed him and bought this medicine even when it is clearly written that it expires in 2009. It is even good that this one is for external use. People have bought fake anti-malarial and antibiotics that led to their untimely deaths.

Armed robbers and assassins are another group that send Nigerians to the grave without any warning. Just last Tuesday, a stray bullet fired by bandits reportedly killed a medical doctor, Nelson Idehen, on Benin-Auchi Road. Nobody is safe in their hands. Even those who have nothing to offer are not free. 

Those who have survived thus far do not know what tomorrow will bring. Some receive death threats for one flimsy reason or the other. Last week, I got an eight-page letter from somebody who describes himself as a semi literate reader of this column. He calls himself Okwuokwu Kpachapuanya (sounds like a fake name). And he says he lives at Sabo Geri, Kano. According to him, an article I wrote in this column on July 1 was a revival of Osu caste system in Igboland.

The story, entitled “See what swindlers have done to us”, merely stated in the first introductory sentence that Nigerians abroad suffered discrimination like an unfortunate Osu in Igboland. It was just a simile. But Kpachapuanya felt outraged. The matter, he noted, was “discussed at length and some people suggested your outright elimination using hired killers because you are reviving a dead and better forgotten culture of referring to an illustrious son or daughter of Igbo as Osu.” He called me unprintable names and placed a curse on my family uptill the fourth generation. I have received worse death threats, most of which are based on misinterpretation of the written word.

The police whose duty it is to protect lives and property are themselves victims of untimely death. Ill equipped and hungry, some of them have succumbed to the superior firepower of armed robbers. Out of frustration, sometimes, they move against the people they are paid to protect. Last September, for instance, the police in Akwa Ibom State allegedly brutalised many and killed over five people in a community called Afahakpo Enwang. Their major grouse, as reported in the Sunday Punch of September 23, was that about N8, 000 they extorted from commercial vehicle drivers and bike riders was stolen from the bush where they had hidden it.

This is partly why some Nigerians have chosen to disregard the police and adopt the Nepali solution to protect themselves. Recall that the Nepal’s state-run airline was reported to have sacrificed two goats to appease a Hindu god last September. They performed the sacrifice in front of a Boeing 757 aircraft that had technical problems at Kathmandu airport. A senior official of the airline gleefully announced that after the ritual, the plane flew successfully to Hong Kong.

On their part, some Nigerians visit native doctors to prepare charms for them. A few years ago, a herbalist in Benue State shot and killed a man while testing a bulletproof charm he prepared for him. Some besiege churches and mosques on a daily basis to pray for God’s protection. They put their trust in olive oil, back-to-sender oil and other types of spiritual materials. Even Jimeh, the lawmaker who perceived diabolism in the death of Safana, urged devout Muslims and Christians to come to the House to pray and dedicate it to God.

Christians always remind God that He delivered Paul and Silas, and as such, must surely deliver them. But it will be good if we as a people could make efforts to deliver ourselves first. May the death of Safana spur in our legislators the need to avoid trivialities; to stop using the hallowed chambers of the House as a boxing arena; and to use their good offices to proffer solutions to all the vendors of death confronting Nigerians today.         



Our priest has come late again

October 15, 2007

Casmir Igbokwe

published Sunday, 14 Oct. 2007

The road to the Catholic Church at Ejigbo, on the outskirts of Lagos, is not just bad. It changes the colour of car wheels to brown whenever it rains. Last Sunday, some worshippers in this church (name withheld) had more than the road to grumble about. They had gathered early for the second mass, which was to start at 8.30am. But this service did not start up until about 9.20am – almost one hour behind schedule.

There was no explanation for this lateness, which is becoming perennial. No apologies. Towards the end of the mass, people got the clue of what might have caused the delay. After the formal announcements, there were second collection, tithe collection and thanksgiving collection. The majority of those who came for this thanksgiving came with a tuber or two of yam and a roll of toilet tissue.

As the worshippers danced to the ‘Up! Up! Jesus, Down! Down! Satan’ tune, those who came for the third service were waiting outside. The second service was to end 10.30am. But at about 11.30am, the bazaar committee was still collecting donations towards the church’s forthcoming harvest and bazaar. There was no sense of urgency. No time consciousness.

This situation occurs in some other churches and public functions in Nigeria. There is no problem with a church engaging in fundraising activities. There should also not be any problem with people who willingly wish to pay tithe or sow a seed in order to multiply their wealth. But there is a problem when we have no respect for time; when we show no remorse for our mistakes; and when we continue to believe that it is African to do things the wrong way. The Catholic Church considers it a sin to come late to church. But what do we call it when that lateness emanates from the church authorities.

It is understandable when an event starts five minutes behind schedule. But starting one hour late is unpardonable. In advanced countries, there is a great respect for time, even in churches. If a bus or train is scheduled to leave at 7am, it leaves exactly at that time. Whoever comes five minutes after, will miss that train. Here, when transport operators advertise 7am as departure time, expect that bus to leave around 9 or even 10am.

Poor attitude. Wrong values. These are at the heart of our problems. We often blame our leaders for our predicaments. But we all share in the blame. You pay a carpenter to come and do a work for you; he promises to come tomorrow at 10am. One week after, he may not appear. When he finally emerges with lame excuses, he does the job with substandard and fake materials.

The auto mechanic? You cannot leave your car with him and have peace of mind. Some of them will replace the original parts of your car with fake ones. If you decide to buy the parts yourself, he devises another way of fleecing you. Drive that car for one week and it develops worse problems.

What of civil servants and other workers? Some of them come to work just to chat, lazy about and collect salaries at the end of the month. A banker, for instance, may see a long queue of people waiting to cash money. That is when she may decide to make that secret telephone call to Tony.

I was amused to read about the recent protest march of labour leaders of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria in Osogbo. Workers of the company were reportedly angry over the proposed concession of electricity transmission in the country to Power Grid Company of India. To them, Indian companies in the country do not have good staff welfare record. Nonsense. If they have done their job efficiently, would there have been any need to bring in the Indian firm? If tomorrow, the government decides to bring in a Chinese firm to manage our domestic wastes, people will also complain.

We throw away rubbish anyhow, urinate in street corners and turn pedestrian bridges into emergency toilets. The War Against Indiscipline introduced by the Muhammadu Buhari government almost put a stop to this. But the little gain we made in that era went with that regime. Occasionally, some refuse collectors come to collect domestic wastes in my area. They seem to be from the government. But residents have since learnt to put less trust in them. They dispose their refuse their own way.

We complain about corruption among our leaders. We complain about poor infrastructure. But when an opportunity comes to shame those leaders who put us in this mess, some of us resort to playing the ostrich. Somebody like Diepreye Alamieyesiegha was convicted of looting the treasury of Bayelsa State. A few weeks after his release from prison, some of his people organised a grand reception for him. When I discussed this issue with a prominent Ijaw son, he said his people took that action because they discovered that the former president who persecuted him was also not clean.

This argument is called a you-too fallacy. The fallacy occurs when the conclusion of an argument claims that an accusation is unwarranted because an accuser or another party is open to a similar or worse accusation. By pointing fingers of corruption at the former president, the organisers of that reception wanted to divert attention. Their aim, perhaps, was to repackage their man as a relevant power broker – the Governor-General of Ijaw nation. But there is a limit to how far you can fool a people. 

We are very good in glorifying idiocy. We have no respect for our laws. No respect for traffic rules. No consideration for other road users. In saner environments, once you step onto a zebra crossing, any oncoming vehicle stops for you. If you do that here and escape being crushed to death, then you must be a very lucky fellow.

This is why the recent conviction of six persons who drove against the traffic by an Ikeja Magistrate Court in Lagos is welcome. The six men served 20 days in Kirikiri Maximum Prison. The sentence appears to be harsh, but the fact is that most Nigerians are fearful. They may ignore jingles. They may not heed public enlightenment campaigns. But the moment they know that there is a price to pay for any misdemeanour, they will behave themselves properly.

Leaders of all hue should also lead by example. It is not enough for religious leaders, for instance, to tell their congregation how Israelites crossed the Red Sea. Or how to sow a seed and multiply their wealth. They should impress on their members the need to, among others, repent from African time syndrome, driving recklessly, glorifying illegal wealth and defecating on pedestrian bridges.           

Welcome back to Nigeria

October 8, 2007

Casmir Igbokwe

Published on Sunday, 7 Oct. 2007

Musaazi has a way of passing across a mischievous message. When I informed him of my intention to travel back to Nigeria in a Nigerian airline, he giggled and exclaimed, “A Nigerian airline from London to Lagos! The flight must be full of drama.”

This Ugandan journalist, who just finished his Master’s in the UK, was right. Scene one of the drama started from the airport in London. While travellers from other nations checked in quietly, Nigerians moved their heavy luggage up and down. It was as if the weighing scale at the airport was reserved only for them. They queued to weigh their baggage.

As a rule, each traveller is entitled to two bags of 25 kilograms each and one hand luggage not exceeding 10kg. Excess baggage must not exceed 32kg. I came with two heavy bags. I was ready to pay for the excess baggage. But each of my bags weighed over 40kg. Though I paid £50 for the excess luggage, I still had to throw away precious gift items and personal belongings. This was to reduce the weight of each of the bags to 32kg.

Scene two of the Nigerian drama started when we boarded the aircraft. There were loud conversations. One particular boy sitting beside me seemed to have quarrelled with his girlfriend. For more than 30 minutes, this boy was talking angrily on the phone. Among the things he said, I can only remember “You shouldn’t have done this if you truly loved me.”

Tired of listening to this soured-love conversation, I got up to stretch my joints and use the loo. There also, people had queued up. Only one toilet was functional. The second toilet, one of the crewmembers said, could only be used when the aircraft was airborne. When I eventually got in, I found the toilet in a messy condition. I held my breath, urinated as fast as possible and tiptoed out of the place. 

Despite this small problem, I felt proud as a Nigerian that a Nigerian airline, fully manned by Nigerians (I did not see any white person in that aircraft) could take off smoothly from a place like London.

When the plane stabilised in the air, I closed my eyes and started dreaming. My mind wandered from Mrs Patricia Etteh’s scandal to the ambitious first ladies of Adamawa. I dreamt of a future where an aircraft fully built, serviced and manned by Nigerians will fly around the world. I was almost dozing off when I heard a loud shout of “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” My heart flew away.

There was confusion. The aircraft was moving smoothly. The pilot did not even warn of any danger. Yet the woman who created the scene kept panting and fidgeting as if the plane was about to crash. I searched under my seat for the life jacket should there be an emergency landing in the ocean.

When I moved to the scene of the commotion later, I only found an overweight man lying across three seats. Perhaps, the man was sick and had collapsed for reasons only doctors could say. He regained consciousness when a crewmember wanted to remove his trousers. He held tightly to the flap, saying, “No, no, no. Leave it. I am all right now.”

Every other thing was also all right up until we landed at the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos.  For more than 15 minutes, we could not disembark from the plane. The pilot said the authorities in charge of bringing the staircase caused the delay. They eventually brought one staircase. And all passengers were made to come down from the rear exit.

Grumbling, we went in for immigration formalities. From there, I moved to the airport car park together with a relation who had come to take me home. There, we met three young men who claimed to be policemen guarding the premises. They were in mufti. And all they wanted were pounds. I gave them some naira notes. But they were more interested in hard currencies. I ignored them and asked my brother to move on.

It was about 6.30am. We meandered through the rough roads and contended with bus drivers trying to brush us aside. We got to a point on Isolo – Ejigbo Road, and saw between six and eight men who mounted what looked like a roadblock. They all had big guns. They wore no uniform. Some were barefoot. Some wore just bathroom slippers. They blocked the road halfway with their vehicle, which had flat tyre. From the panic in their eyes, we concluded that they must be armed robbers looking for another vehicle to escape. Miraculously, the gunmen asked us to move on. As my wife put it, “That is the handiwork of God.” She said she had some fears about my travel. Hence, she called her prayer warriors and they staged a vigil in my house throughout the night until the morning I arrived.

Anyway, I thanked her and went in to rest. Emma (not real name) came in a few hours after to see me. He said his landlord increased his house rent from N60, 000 to N100, 000 and asked him to pay for two years. Geoffrey has been idling away for months now. He has not been able to pay N15, 000 rent for the small space where he displays his articles of trade at Ikeja. I went out later to have a feel of the old Lagos. On Obafemi Awolowo Way, Ikeja, I met a man selling stickers. One of the stickers reads: “It’s a blessed day. Anything I touch today shall be blessed.”

This sticker is N20. And that is what the man survives on. Distressed by the wretch I have seen, I decided to go back home and rest. But as I drove back home, I ran into a police checkpoint on Idimu Road. They stopped me. One of them peeped into the car and said, “Oga, anything for us?” I discharged them my own way and moved on.

A few days after, I settled down to write. I had hardly written the first paragraph when electricity went out. I was optimistic the Power Holding Company of Nigeria would soon restore power. My optimism stemmed from the fact that since I came back, I have been enjoying regular power supply in my area. I waited for hours, still no electricity. I tried to put on the generator, but it suddenly developed a fault. I picked my biro, scribbled a few words and dozed off.

I had boasted to Musaazi that Nigeria would soon be among the 20 biggest economies in the world. I pray he does not read this and begin to feel that his negative impression about us is right.