Archive for May 2008

Hunger, anger and strategic food security

May 26, 2008

By Casmir Igbokwe

 

Published: Sunday, 25 May 2008

Many Nigerians are already familiar with the story of Kola and Seyi Woniye. This couple in Oyo State reportedly attempted to sell their five- and three-year-old sons a few months ago. The British undercover journalist, who posed as the buyer, revealed that the price tag on the boys was N1m (N500,000 each). Recall also that a Nigerian woman purportedly sold her twin children for N120,000 recently. Every year, hundreds of children in Nigeria fall victim to this kind of situation. Some are reported. The majority of the cases go unreported.

The question is: What can push a mother to ever consider selling her child? The answer lies in the fact that most Nigerians are heavily indebted to poverty. And to recover this debt, poverty has taken food off many tables. By the estimation of the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources, 65 per cent of Nigerians do not have food security. This entails insufficient access to the amount and variety of food that makes for a healthy and productive life. The ministry also puts the number of stunted children under five at about 40 per cent. Besides, Nigeria ranked 20th in the 2006 Global Hunger Index. I suspect that these statistics are grossly underestimated.

To worsen matters, food crisis suddenly surfaced in different parts of the world since December last year. In Nigeria, for instance, the price of rice jumped from about N5,000 to about N10,000. A bag of beans goes for about N7,000 as against the former price of about N4,500. The price of a bag of wheat also went up to about N10,000 from the initial price of about N7,000. The World Bank had warned that food crop prices would remain high in 2008 and 2009.

One major cause of the global food crisis is the conversion of food crops into bio-fuels. What this means is that countries searching for clean and cheap fuels are converting such crops as wheat, soybeans and corn into fuel. This has caused undue scarcity of essential food items. And due to the shortages experienced in the world, two leading producers of rice, Thailand and India, put restrictions on the exportation of the staple.

The food crisis has caused riots in such countries as Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Mali. In Nigeria, some housewives have also staged their own ”riots” against their husbands. Feeding money is no longer enough and most women want an increase in their feeding allowances. Some hoodlums now steal cell phones and other valuables just to survive and make ends meet.

As part of efforts to mitigate the food crisis, the Federal Government resorted to releasing grains from the strategic grain reserves. The Federal Capital Territory, for instance, reportedly got about 30 trucks of grains with 50 per cent subsidy. The FG also suspended all levies and duties on rice imports for a period of six months; established a N10bn credit facility from the Rice Levy Account to support local rice processing; and plans to increase the capacity of the National Strategic Food Reserve from 300, 000 metric tonnes to 600, 000 metric tonnes.

These efforts are laudable. But they are not enough. Media reports last week indicated that the Food and Agricultural Organisation‘s recommendation was that every country should have reserves of 20kg per person for three months at any point in time. What this means, experts say, is that Nigeria should always have a minimum of 2.8m tonnes in its reserves. But it currently has only about 10 per cent of the FAO recommendation. Prof. Yomi Omotesho of the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Ilorin, reportedly doubted the ability of the country to even store grains up to the limited capacity of its reserves. Perceptive governments elsewhere, Omotesho noted, were further boosting their already sumptuous reserves. Even a poor country like Zimbabwe is said to have strategic reserves of five million tonnes.

As a matter of urgency, the Federal Government should raise our grain reserves to, at least, meet international standard. Besides, waiving duties on rice importation for six months may not solve the problem. The permanent solution is to boost local production. The first step towards this is to build feeder roads and develop other infrastructure that will aid agricultural production. If the government was ready to stake N80bn for rice importation as initially announced but later jettisoned, I believe it could go beyond the N10bn credit facility it earmarked for farmers.

We can toy with many things. But we should not toy with food security. If there was food on the table of the Woniyes, I don‘t think they would have ever contemplated selling their children. I hope the situation does not get to the point where we also have to sell our wives to survive.

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Deportees as symbol of a failing state

May 19, 2008

By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 18 May 2008

IN JUNE 2006, some Nigerian deportees allegedly caused pandemonium at the Caracas International Airport in Venezuela. They had disembarked from a commercial flight from Trinidad en route to Lagos. As they were to go through Madrid in Spain, they got to the tarmac to board an Iberia flight to Madrid. But, as they were boarding, they reportedly started shouting “asylum, asylum.” Aboard the aircraft, the shouting continued. Nauseated, the captain of the aircraft refused to move, saying the Nigerians posed a risk to the flight. Normality returned when officers of the Venezuela National Guard ejected the Nigerians and took them into custody. The following day, Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard sent an aircraft that brought the deportees back to that country.

Although we are not fighting any war, nor are we afflicted by natural disasters, Nigerians have continued to emigrate from their country en masse. The unlucky ones are caught and sent back to the country. Last Wednesday, about 156 Nigerians were deported from Libya. Some of the deportees included a four-month-old baby and her mother, who said she was actually heading for Italy to join her husband. Last year, Libya repatriated over 700 Nigerians from its territory. The deportations were for either criminal or immigration offences. Also, last year, the United States Department of Homeland Security reportedly repatriated about 50, 000 Nigerian illegal immigrants.

Some of these deportations had ended on a sour note. In November 2000, thousands of Nigerian deportees from Libya staged a demonstration in Abuja. Their grouse was that the Nigerian government allegedly refused to pay them $25m the Libyan government purportedly provided for their resettlement. In May 2001, a 27-year-old Nigerian asylum seeker, Samson Chukwu, died in a detention centre in Switzerland as the authorities of that country attempted to deport him forcibly. Last year, Osamuyi Akpitanhi met his own untimely death when Spanish immigration authorities tried to forcibly deport him to Nigeria. Similar tragic death of Nigerian deportees had been recorded in such countries as Austria, Belgium, Germany and some other Western nations.

Perhaps, this was why some Nigerians decided to intervene to save their compatriot from forcible deportation at the Heathrow Airport in London last month. The intervention sparked off a row. One issue led to the other and, pronto, about 136 Nigerian passengers were asked to disembark from the Lagos-bound British Airways aircraft. Many Nigerians have expressed disgust over this incident and have been campaigning for a boycott of British Airways.

The fundamental questions are: if the living condition in our country is good, will our countrymen be migrating in their thousands to other countries? If there are employment opportunities in the country, will they seek asylum in Trinidad, Spain, or Belgium? And what could have made Nigerians prefer staying in prisons abroad to coming back home?

Recall that the Foreign Affairs Minister, Ojo Maduekwe, last month, expressed surprise that Nigerian citizens serving various jail terms abroad rejected attempts to bring them back to serve their jail terms in Nigeria.

Surely, Maduekwe would have known the reasons by now. Earlier this month, THE PUNCH published a report, which indicates that the UK government spends £48,000 (about N11.8m) a year for the upkeep of one Nigerian prisoner in that country’s prisons. Due to this huge maintenance cost, Britain is seriously considering transferring those prisoners back home. Indeed, how many able-bodied free Nigerians can ordinarily afford half of this amount of money?

Recently, a lawyer friend who is a member of staff of Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria expressed his strong desire to relocate to the United Kingdom. As he put it, “It won’t be out of place to find a way to fit in there as each day we get serious doubt that our leaders here have any vision.” For a privileged oil company worker to contemplate checking out of Nigeria shows the serious decay this nation has fallen into.

And why will anybody want to remain in Nigeria when we have refused to move forward as a nation? We cannot maintain our roads. We do not have access to potable water. Even the generators we buy to provide us electricity have turned out to be part of our major problems. Last week for instance, fumes from a generator killed a family of six at Ozuoba in the Obio/Akpor Local Government Area of Rivers State. The generator ran throughout the night because there was no prospect of getting public power.

Life has no meaning to the majority of Nigerians anymore. Even those who are working are not sure of what will become of that work tomorrow. Earlier this month, I read reports that Shell was planning to sack over 3,000 workers. The retrenchment was said to be a reaction to the cuts in output occasioned by frequent attacks on the company’s facilities by Niger Delta militants. The Niger Delta crisis is seriously threatening the revenue base of the country. Already, Angola has reportedly overtaken Nigeria in the last one month as the leading producer of crude oil in Africa. As at last year, Nigeria was still Africa’s leading oil producing country. But the way things are going, Angola may take over that position in 2008.

We have all failed and come short of the glory of Nigeria. The President who promised a seven-point agenda, but has no blueprint to achieve any of them after almost one year in office has failed Nigeria. A governor or local council chairman, who pads up his foreign bank accounts with public funds, has failed Nigeria. The legislator, who is only interested in foreign trips and fat allowances, has failed Nigeria. A legislature that has only passed 11 bills out of 65 before it in about one year, as admitted recently by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, has failed Nigeria. A judge who collects bribes to grant spurious injunctions has failed Nigeria.

A minister or permanent secretary, who corners unspent budget of his ministry and shares it at the end of the year as Christmas bonus has failed Nigeria. An accountant or auditor, who collects such loot and refuses to alert the nation about it, has failed Nigeria. A journalist who collects brown envelope and turns facts upside down has failed Nigeria. The auto mechanic who collects money for original spare parts, but fixes fake ones for his customer has failed Nigeria. The businessman/woman who sells fake drugs and fake drinks to kill their compatriots has failed Nigeria. The contractor who collects mobilisation fee to build roads or electricity, but pockets the money and does nothing has ruined Nigeria.

Collectively, we have contributed in sending our citizens abroad as asylum seekers. We have made Nigeria a fragile state, a failing state. At the fullness of time, we shall all pay for our sins against this country. But as an incurable optimist, I believe that collectively, we can still reverse the situation such that our people will change their chant of “asylum, asylum” to “paradise, paradise.”

The trouble with our lawmakers

May 12, 2008

By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 11 May 2008

LAST week, we got the information that members of the Rivers State House of Assembly were in Australia for a capacity-building retreat. Perhaps, the retreat was to enhance their legislative duties. It ought to be so. But from media reports, we got to know that some of them not only built their capacity to fight, but also enhanced the capacity of their libido to function optimally.

Simply put, they allegedly engaged in a free-for-all. According to reports, a principal officer of the House purportedly abandoned two of his female colleagues for a younger and more beautiful lady, who travelled with them. The abandoned women got angry. And, like a wounded lion, they reportedly pounced on their male colleague and almost stripped him. They have also vowed to initiate the removal of some principal officers of the House as soon as they return this week. What is not certain is the charge the House will slam on those officers. Could it be dereliction of duty? Or jilting of lovers? Or disruption of capacity-building assignment?

In Ekiti State, the fight is of a different hue. Lawmakers in that state had some misunderstanding about the appointment of some members of the State Independent Electoral Commission. The quarrel led to the disappearance of the mace, the symbol of authority of the House. Last Monday, the Action Congress members of the House allegedly marched to the Speaker‘s office to search for the mace. That action generated some disquiet in the state. Tension is still high.

As Ekiti legislators continue to flex muscles, Osun State Assembly members bicker over the N150m constituency allowance graciously made available by the governor, Olagunsoye Oyinlola. The money is part of the N600m earmarked for constituency projects this year. Each of the lawmakers, whose constituency comprises two local government councils, got N10m. Those with one local government council received N5m. This, ostensibly, was to provide dividends of democracy to the constituencies.

But the AC members of the House feel that paying the money into their private accounts amounts to corrupt enrichment. They petitioned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission over the issue. The Speaker, Adejare Bello, reportedly defended the allowance. He said he utilised the N60m he got in the last four years to build edifices in his constituency, which outweighed whatever any contractor would have put up. In 2004, Bello had enthused that 110 blocks of classrooms were constructed in 2003 as constituency projects by the lawmakers.

Oyo State lawmakers are not divided over their own constituency largesse. They are probably full of gratitude for the N20m Governor Adebayo Alao-Akala promised each of them as constituency allowance. Besides, the governor has reportedly arranged a 10-day foreign trip for the House members between May 19 and 29. Six days shall be for capacity building. The remaining four days shall be for relaxation, or satisfying the libido if you like.

Delta State lawmakers got a similar treatment late last year. As some reports put it, they travelled to the United States to enable them to relax after 100 days of hectic legislative duties. However, the state government said the trip was to enhance legislative business. In October 2006, the immediate past governor of the state, James Ibori, gave 29 Prado jeeps to the lawmakers to also enhance legislative business.

When shall we learn our lesson as a nation? Nigeria is a rich country. The Niger Delta states in particular, derive resources from federal monthly allocation, derivation fund, ecological account and excess crude oil account. In spite of this, life is short and brutish in that region. Endemic conflict, social deprivation, abject poverty and poor and greedy leadership define the region.

In most states of the federation, armed robbers have made life unbearable for citizens. Roads are death traps. Public hospitals are comatose. Power generation has fallen to below 1,000 megawatts. Corruption is endemic. Unemployment is high. And some people have resorted to selling their babies because of poverty. Amid these problems, the legislators enjoy lining their pockets under the guise of capacity-building trips and constituency project allowances.

It is this same capacity-building trip that has put Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello into trouble. As the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, she allegedly supervised the disbursement of N10m they got from the Ministry of Health. The House of Representatives Committee quickly returned its own share when it learnt that the money was part of the N300m unspent budget of the ministry, which President Umaru Yar‘Adua had ordered returned to the treasury. But members of the Senate committee decided to spend their own on capacity-building trip to Ghana.

Our lawmakers seem to be guided by selfishness. The game plan, I suspect, is to create some avenues that will make it look as if they are working and then use that as an opportunity to make money for themselves. These legislators should realise that they are not contractors. Their main duties are to make laws, to effectively represent their constituencies and to perform oversight functions. They seem to have abandoned these responsibilities. They seem to have abandoned their constituents to serve themselves.

If they so love their people that they want to attract amenities to them, what they should do is to sit down with the executive and agree on the relevant projects to be sited. Execution of such projects should be left for the executive. In other words, legislators can attract the building of primary schools in their constituencies but not to collect money to build the schools themselves. As things are now, can the Oyo lawmakers impeach their governor if he does any wrong? Can the Peoples Democratic Party members of the Osun Assembly support any move to remove the governor for corruption?

Anti-graft agencies should be interested in those who have abandoned their legislative duties to become contractors. Every money collected must be properly accounted for. Constituency project should not be another security vote that leaders could embezzle without proper account.

Lawmakers should be contented with their legitimate salaries and allowances, which the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission generously beefed up earlier in the year. For instance, a Senator‘s annual basic salary is N2m. He also receives N4m as accommodation allowance and N6m as furniture allowance. Each lawmaker is also entitled to a car loan, vehicle maintenance allowance, domestic allowance, entertainment and utilities allowances and so on.

The legislature is the backbone of any democracy. That is why any military junta that comes to power suspends it immediately and assumes that role. If the legislature fails, our democracy is doomed. This is why Nigerians must always hold their elected representatives to account. Like the Nigerian Labour Congress that staged a protest march against corruption in Abuja last Thursday, people should rise up against those legislators, who enjoy looting our common wealth and going abroad to quarrel over the loot with their concubines.

Big bottom, Queen Elizabeth and our dying culture

May 5, 2008

By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 4 May 2008

MOST people define African women by the colour of their skin and the shape of their bums. In some cultures, the bigger the bums, the more appreciation the woman receives. In Ivory Coast, bobaraba, which is the Djoula language word for big bottom, appears to be the most popular word at present. According to the BBC, Bobaraba is a form of dance, which is inspired by a hit song entitled Bobaraba by DJ Mix and DJ Eloh. Whenever the music is played, people reportedly flock the dance floor to shake their buttocks.

The thing is so popular that some Ivorian women now purportedly sell bottom enhancers in the markets. Those who buy the enhancer, also known as Vitamin B12, are required to inject it into their bottoms once a day. The medicine is also said to come in form of a cream with the words: big bottoms and big breasts. Boys, naturally, tend to like the trend as the BBC quoted one boy to have said, “We appreciate these things because when women use the treatment it attracts us, but for women it’s not good.”

Our own Shina Peters also composed a song similar to Bobaraba a few years ago. I suppose he called it Ikebe Super. Whenever the music was played, people always gyrated and shook their bodies. Makosa and some other traditional African music also revolve around shaking of waists and buttocks.

There are cultures that even encourage women to put on weight. In some places in Cross River State, for instance, women used to undergo some fattening rites before getting married. In ancient traditional Igbo society, the practice also existed. It was called iru mgbede. Prospective wives were usually kept indoors to do nothing but eat and nurture their bodies for their husbands. The fatter the woman, the healthier and wealthier people perceived her to be.

However, what we hear more in many parts of the world these days are figure eight, hot legs, hot mini, hot pants, and such stuffs. Of course, a girl cannot win Miss Nigeria or Miss World with a big bum. Such titles are reserved for lean damsels.

Culture is dynamic. As people acquire new ways of doing things, they discard their old identity. The Western culture has had a great influence on our way of life. The type of dress we wear, for instance, is largely patterned on the Western style. Last Tuesday, I attended a reception to celebrate the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II at Ikoyi, Lagos. I took time to examine what people wore that day.

The British High Commissioner, Bob Dewar, was regal in his Scottish attire, which comprises a suit on top of what looks like a red skirt. The former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, wore his native Igbo dress with a red cap to match. The Chairman of Stanbic IBTC Bank, Mr Atedo Peterside, was immaculate in his white Rivers long-tailed shirt. A few other people were in their native dresses. The rest of us wore suits and other English attires.

British people cherish their way of life. The Queen happens to be the custodian of that culture. The celebration of her birthday in Lagos indicates that her people still have high regard for her. Can we say the same thing of our traditional institution?

I doubt. Partisan politics has beclouded the sense of judgement of some of our Obas, Obis, Igwes and Emirs. Some have sold their consciences because of money. Some, like the Ijesha Traditional Council, bicker over how to share the five per cent accruable to them from the local council allocations from the Federal Government. Some other traditional rulers have expressed their readiness to live and sink with their governors. I don’t so much blame them because any show of disloyalty to the powers that be could result in the withdrawal of their salaries and other perks.

The celebration of the Queen’s birthday was also a testimony to how Britain exports its culture to other parts of the world. English, for instance, is gradually driving away our local languages. Take Igbo language, for instance. Most of these children that grow up in urban areas hardly know that “bia” means come. At school, they speak English. At home, their parents also force them to speak English.

During the last Easter break, I took my children to the village to commune with their roots. It was interesting listening to their conversation in Igbo when they came back to Lagos. They asked each other to interpret different Igbo words and phrases. In particular, each of them wanted the other to tell them the meaning of “bia rie nri,” “je nyuo nsi” and “je rahu ura.” They correctly interpreted them to be “come and eat”, “go and defecate” and “go and sleep”. It was not difficult for them to interpret because these are the things they know how best to do for now.

We need to do something about our dying cultures. True, the world is now a global village. But while we take some positive things from other cultures, we can as well influence other people to copy ours. This is why I tend to appreciate what people like the Central Bank Governor, Prof. Chukwuma Soludo, have done. Soludo was hitherto addressed as Charles. But he now prefers to be addressed by his native name.

My own native name is Chibuzo. But people call me Casmir. The name was not my choice. As Catholics, my parents took me to the church as an infant and had me baptised with that name. I decided to retain it simply because it is not as common as Charles or Peter or Simon.

Many of us bear foreign identities. Some prefer fake outlook. Or how does one explain the fact that some black people bleach their bodies to become white. Some manipulate their flat noses to look pointed. Some do tummy tucks to look ageless. Some artificially blow up their buttocks and breasts ostensibly to attract men. We can imbibe positive aspects of foreign and local culture. But for those ones that will make us look foolish or faceless, we must collectively say, no way!

 Re: Tales of encounter with marshals

My brother,

I read your piece in the SUNDAY PUNCH on the encounter you had with our marshals on Kingsway Road, Ikoyi around 1440hrs on Monday April 14, 2008. I have asked Lagos Island to give me a report on the issue in order to identify the lady marshal that attempted to extort money from you.

I also demanded to know the circumstances that led to non-issuance of receipts for the transactions. We shall investigate all the issues raised. Please avail us your telephone number(s), for the investigating panel to get in touch with you.

Thanks for providing us the feedback opportunity. The Federal Road Safety Commission appreciates such opportunities, as we do not condone indiscipline. We frown seriously on extortion. In fact, we have fished out and flushed out many. It is a continuous process. Once again, Thanks.

Kayode Olagunju,

(Corps Commander),

Sector Commander, FRSC, Lagos.