Archive for October 2008

Crooked minds beget a crooked nation

October 28, 2008

Casmir Igbokwe

 

An email message I received recently from a reader of this column aptly captures the essence of this piece. It is a joke about a machine invented in Japan to catch thieves. The inventors took the machine to different countries for a test. In 30 minutes, the machine caught 20 thieves in the United States of America. In the same 30 minutes, it caught 500 thieves in the United Kingdom. In Spain, it caught 25 thieves in 20 minutes. In Ghana, in 10 minutes, it caught 6,000 thieves; Uganda in seven minutes, it caught 20,000 thieves. In Nigeria, in five minutes, the machine was stolen.

 

This is not a laughing matter. In the US, UK and many other Western nations, there are so many good Nigerians doing wonderfully well in different areas of life. No need mentioning the Philip Emeagwalis, the Chinua Achebes, the medical doctors and nurses who have continued to project the positive image of Nigeria abroad.

 

In this world, unfortunately, negative news travels faster than a positive one. And that is why on the mention of the name Nigeria, it is the negative aspects of our life that flash in the minds of foreigners. Call it advance fee fraud, drug peddling, armed robbery or even black magic; we tend to give the impression that ours is a crooked generation, a crooked nation.

 

Take the issue of the free meal to students the government of Ekiti State introduced a few months ago for instance. Immediately I read about the free feeding, which involves giving eggs and beverages to students; I remembered what usually happens in some of our towns with regard to sponsoring of get-togethers. A few years ago, one particular rich man took it upon himself to always host his townspeople’s annual end-of-year parties in Port Harcourt. In one particular year, some of his fellow citizens kicked against the idea of one man hosting the event every year. They refused to eat or drink anything at the event, saying the man was indirectly collecting their blessings and good luck with his free food and drinks. In other words, he was using them for juju purposes.

 

This is why I was not surprised when some parents of Ekiti free-food students, last Tuesday, accused the state government of using juju on their children. They reportedly labelled the cups, plates, and spoons used in feeding their children as demonic items. Last Friday, the juju scare took a new dimension when some individuals reportedly attacked a class teacher, Mrs. Olayinka Falade, and the head teacher of a community nursery and primary school, Victoria Aladejana, and some other teachers. The alleged attack was sequel to the sudden illness of a pupil. Education authorities in the state have since closed down the affected school.

 

Until those individuals making this juju noise tell us how and why a governor would wish to poison all public primary and secondary school students in his state, that allegation remains bunkum. It has no place in a civilised society. Even at some higher levels where one expects to see mature behaviour, some Nigerians still stand reason on its head. Last Thursday, it was reported that the Provost of the College of Legal Studies, Yola in Adamawa State, Mallam Musa Nuhu, expelled nine students from the institution. The students did not steal. They did not cheat in the exams. According to media reports, they simply protested the suspension of three Christian students from the institution. The crime of the suspended male and female students was that they felt excited after an examination and hugged each other. The provost, who reportedly saw the hugging from his office, felt outraged and decided to suspend them for one semester. Another female student was also suspended for allegedly wearing a Fulani traditional dress with a necklace that has a cross design.

 

I had to crosscheck to be sure that the school is actually College of Legal Studies and not College of Religious Studies. The alleged action of the provost has exposed the quality of education the school is imparting on its students. It’s a shame that such a person is the head of an important higher institution as that. It is as if the man is not yet tired of the religious crises we have had in this country. The state deputy governor, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, among others, have asked the provost to rescind his decision. But they should go beyond this; they should replace the man immediately.

 

Almost in every discipline or profession, we have people who survive by being crooked. Car owners, for instance, will tell you what they suffer in the hands of auto mechanics. In March this year, my car air conditioner developed some problems. I took it to a man I thought was an expert. He first condemned the compressor and I had to buy another one. He fixed it and refilled the gas. The problem did not stop. He suspected the evaporator, and then the condenser. I gave him enough time to detect the fault and by early this month he did what I may call his final work on the AC. Now the problem is worse than before the man started his work.

 

If you are travelling on any major road in Nigeria, pray that your car does not break down, especially in the night. If you escape armed robbers or hoodlums, you may not escape dubious and crooked mechanics. Sometime last week, my car suddenly stopped close to Dopemu Roundabout in Lagos. It was about 10pm. I knew the problem had to do with the battery. All I needed was a battery to start the car. Suddenly, two young men who claimed to be mechanics came around. Pretending to be concerned at my predicament, they offered to hire a battery for me at N500. I paid. When they brought the battery, the car had no problem in starting. But the crooks asked me to turn off the engine, claiming that the coil was sparking.

 

To cut the long story short, they manipulated some electrical connections in the car, brought one iron they called coil and told me they had transferred the current there to my coil. They gave me a guarantee of two years. For this, they charged me N6, 500. Of course I made some argument with them, but when I noticed the hunger in their eyes, I parted with the N4, 000 in my pocket. It was when I bought a new battery the following day that I discovered that the fault was that the alternator, though still good, was not charging the battery fully. The only thing a good electrician needs to do is to connect a cable direct from the alternator to the battery. The first electrician I called claimed to know what to do. He ended up bridging two wires that eventually burnt the alternator. “Oga, you need to change your alternator o,” was all he could offer. For a minor fault that I should have spent less than N500, I ended up spending a total of about N11, 000.

 

It has become imperative that before ever we criticise our leaders, we should ask ourselves if we are not guilty of the same maladies we always kick against.

Reflections on Nigerian banks and global financial crisis

October 20, 2008

 By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 19 Oct 2008

I have an account with HSBC, one of the leading banks in the United Kingdom. For some time now, I have been thinking of transferring the money I have there to my account in Nigeria. The urge to transfer this money intensified with the current global financial crisis. My thinking was that the global credit crunch was mainly the headache of Western industrialised countries; and that if I didn‘t really retrieve my money soonest, I might start hearing unpalatable stories about it.

In my reflections, I remembered the crisis that rocked Northern Rock, hitherto one of UK‘s solid banks, last year. Information had filtered out that the bank was having some problems. Being in the UK then, I was alarmed at the rate depositors rushed to the bank to withdraw their deposits. Government‘s intervention and assurances did not assuage the mad rush. People had lost their confidence in the bank.

I’m not an economist. Neither am I an expert in stock/financial analysis. But from what I have read so far about the current financial crisis in the world, nay Nigeria, something tells me that all is not well. This has nothing to do with the frequent allegation that banks turn their female staff to near prostitutes in the name of soliciting funds from rich clients. It has nothing to do with the suspicion that some bank staff aid and abet armed robbery incidents or other financial crimes in their banks.

My concern stems mainly from the conflicting comments emanating from some of our financial experts. For instance, the Chairman of Stanbic IBTC Bank, Mr. Atedo Peterside, in a front-page report in THE GUARDIAN of October 12, 2008, said Nigeria was not an island but susceptible to the volatility of the worsening credit difficulties. He compared margin lending by Nigerian banks to the sub-prime crises in the global market.

He was quoted to have said, “If you substitute margin lending to finance the purchase of stocks on the Nigerian Stock Exchange by people who do not have enough income to service the loans for ‘dodgy’ US and UK mortgage lending, then the similarities are striking. If you also substitute falling NSE stock prices for falling US house prices, then the similarities are even more striking and that is why we cannot afford to be complacent.”

However, the Federal Government has repeatedly assured Nigerians that there is no cause for alarm. The Nigerian economy, the Minister of Information and Communication, Mr. John Odeh, reportedly said, was insulated from the global financial crises. The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Prof. Chukwuma Soludo, had equally assured that the global crises would not affect the nation‘s financial system. Even the former Minister of Finance and Managing Director of the World Bank, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, also believes the nation could withstand the global financial meltdown.

Amid these confusing signals, I sought the opinion of some friends in the banking industry. They allayed my fears, saying there was no correlation between the sub-prime crises in the global market and margin lending in Nigerian banks. Sub-prime mortgage lending involves giving loans to individuals at interest rates below prime lending rates. This is to attract such individuals with the hope that the property will appreciate and generate much profit and engender repayment. Margin lending by Nigerian banks, on the other hand, is said to be fully commercialised and collateralised.

Whatever, there is need to restore confidence in the financial sector. Some Nigerians are yet to recover from the loss of their hard-earned money trapped in some collapsed banks prior to the banking consolidation of 2004.

But the dog-eat-dog syndrome in the banking sector appears to be resurfacing. Or how does one explain the so-called text messages suggesting that five banks selected as market makers to arrest the downturn in the stock market, have liquidity crisis.

Our penchant to either make mischief or reap fortunes from crisis situations is further exemplified by the laughable alibi provided by the Minister of Transportation, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke. The minister was quoted to have said last Thursday that the global financial crisis might affect her ministry‘s road rehabilitation efforts. According to her, allocations to ministries and agencies will drop because of the planned review of the oil price benchmark for the 2009 budget, which was brought about by global financial problems.

She said, “We must keep on asking that Nigerians keep bearing with us. We are looking for creative ways to get additional funding and the more we can get, the more we will do. If there are major roads that we have not been able to address, it is not because of lack of time, it is because of funding. It is as simple as that.”

I don’t think Nigerians want this rain-is-still-falling type of excuses now. Alison-Madueke should lift the spirit of her compatriots by aggressively embarking on the rehabilitation of the dilapidated federal roads.

Likewise, our banks should stop giving us conflicting signals. What Nigerians want now is assurance that their investments are intact in spite of the global financial turmoil. Perhaps, we should take a cue from the renowned American investor, Warren Buffett, who reportedly said he was buying up stocks in the US.

As he reportedly put it, “A simple rule dictates my buying: Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.” My understanding of Buffett’s statement is that the market will bounce back, the current global financial mess notwithstanding.

I am tempted to follow Buffett and start buying now that some people are divesting from the capital market. I’m also tempted to close my HSBC account and plough the money back to my account in Nigeria. After all, to be a billionaire like Buffett, one must take some risks. But then, we need genuine guidance from our financial experts.

Nigeria as a wayward child

October 13, 2008
By Casmir Igbokwe
THERE are different sides to the name Raila Odinga. As a computer virus created recently by hackers, Odinga replicates itself and attacks hardware. As a politician, the name reminds one of the violence that trailed the Kenyan presidential election earlier in the year. The violence was sequel to the allegation that President Nwai Kibaki out-rigged Odinga in an election he presumably won. As the incumbent Prime Minister of Kenya (a position he got after a power-sharing deal with Kibaki), Odinga is now a leader on whose shoulders many of his compatriots lean for support. An aggregate of these attributes came to play last week when the Kenyan leader X-rayed the problems of Africa, nay Nigeria, in a lecture he delivered to mark the Silver Jubilee anniversary of The Guardian newspapers in Lagos.

At first, Odinga identified and attacked what one may call the hardware of Nigeria’s problems. According to him, he was in Nigeria during the 1999 and 2003 elections as well as in 2006. Somebody told him then that the presidency was rotated between the North and the South; that since Chief Olusegun Obasanjo had taken the turn of the South, it was time for the North to ascend the throne again.

The Prime Minister stressed, “I asked what happens to the South-East and I was told that the situation is like that because Northerners do not trust the Easterners. If you say that some people can vote and cannot be voted for, then why are we here? Something similar to that happened in Kenya too in the past when they said that the uncircumcised could not lead the country. This situation causes disintegration. The right to vote also confers on one the right to be voted for.”

Amplifying Odinga’s standpoint, renowned author, Prof. Chinua Achebe, said, “At the end of the 30-month war, Biafra was a vast smouldering rubble; the cost in human lives was a staggering two million souls, making it one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history. I find it difficult to forgive Nigeria and my countrymen and women for the political nonchalance and cruelty that unleashed upon us these terrible events, which set us back a whole generation and robbed us of the chance clearly within our grasps to become a medium range developing nation in the 21st Century.” He described Nigeria as a wayward child.

Clearly, there are animosities and mutual mistrust among different entities that make up Nigeria. And this is at the heart of the country’s problems. Some may say leadership is the major problem. Others may say it is corruption. To an extent, that is true.

We need purposeful leaders who will galvanise the people towards a common goal; leaders who will not only promise to build roads, hospitals, and provide water and security, but will also fulfil such promises in record time.

As for corruption, the challenge is also enormous. Last week alone, there was a harvest of arrests, detention and prosecution of leaders suspected to have engaged in corrupt practices. In Abia State, for instance, the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission reportedly intensified investigations into the money laundering allegations against the Abia State Governor, Chief Theodore Orji. The Commission had purportedly detained the state’s Accountant General, Mrs. Bridget Onyema, for allegedly transferring a total of about N1.9632bn as travel estacodes for the governor, his deputy, their wives and families and 23 others to attend World Igbo Congress in the United States in September this year.

Besides, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission on Thursday in Abuja arraigned the Chief of Staff to Rivers State Governor, Mr. Ezebunwo Nyesom Wike, over alleged N5bn fraud. The EFCC, also that Thursday, arraigned former Minister of Aviation, Babalola Borisade and three others over their roles in the N6.5bn aviation fund scam. The same Thursday, the EFCC raided the offices of the Nigerian Aviation Handling Company Plc in Lagos to unravel the mystery surrounding the mismanagement of NAHCO’s N210m.

I don’t think it’s in our blood to be inherently corrupt. I don’t also think that it’s in our system to breed dubious leaders. Individually, Nigerians excel in any endeavour they find themselves, anywhere in the world. Why then is it difficult for us to excel as a country?

The answer lies in Odinga and Achebe’s observations. The burning nationalism that moves people to die for their country is lacking in most Nigerians. That is why a leader goes to Abuja not to serve the greater interest of the people, but to loot the treasury in order to satisfy his selfish interests. The nation can go to blazes for all he cares. Arrest that leader tomorrow, his townsmen will be the first to protest and accuse the authorities of witch-hunting their son.

The common assumption in Nigeria today is that the North will not allow Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan to assume the mantle of leadership if anything happens to the President.

The truth is that it is easier for a Nigerian to get better opportunities in a country like the United Kingdom than in Nigeria. A brilliant student of Southern extraction will likely be denied admission in most universities in the North because Northern students, who may have performed below average, must be admitted first. Same thing goes for a brilliant Northern candidate seeking admission into a Southern university.

This is partly why there is a proliferation of ethnic groups like the Arewa Consultative Forum, the Oodua People’s Congress, the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, Ijaw National Congress and so on. These groups are basically there to champion the interests of their own people.

The delusion in many parts of the East now is that Biafra will soon gain independence from Nigeria. Already, we have characters who go by the name Igwe (king) of Biafra. Some have made themselves commissioners or ministers in the yet to be actualised Federal Republic of Biafra.

I was home in August and I had a chance encounter with one Igwe Biafra in my home town. He was so sure that President George Bush of the US had consented to the independence of Biafra that he vowed to commit suicide if it failed to materialise by September this year. Well, September has passed, and I’m not sure my Igwe friend has committed suicide.

Nigeria needs to reassure the Biafran Igwes that they are still part of Nigeria. It needs to reassure the Ijaw man that the oil in his backyard is a blessing and not a curse. It needs to let the OPC man, the Arewa irredentist and sundry ethnic jingoists know that there is no deliberate attempt to sideline any of them in the scheme of things in the country.

One major way to do this is to hold a conference of ethnic nationalities. Representatives of each nationality will tell one another the home truth and then map out strategies on how to live together as a nation or how to separate peacefully if need be.

 

Prayer, faith and we-will-do government

October 6, 2008

By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 5 Oct 2008

The situation in Nigeria today could be likened to the pranks some teenagers play. It‘s usually during communal meals. A mischievous fellow could say, ”close your eyes and let us pray.” Of course, some people will close their eyes. But by the time they open them after the prayers, there may not be any meat remaining in the soup.

At every occasion or anniversary, our leaders usually urge us to pray and commit our nation to the lord. We have been praying and will continue to pray. But while we close our eyes in total obeisance to God, some of these leaders, who even lead us in prayers, pinch the meat in our collective soup.

Last week, we had long holidays. Monday and Tuesday were for the Eid-el-Fitri celebrations. It was a joyous occasion as our Muslim brothers and sisters, who had been fasting and praying for themselves and for Nigeria, broke their Ramadan fast. As usual, it was a moment for sober reflections; a moment leaders of different hue sent messages of goodwill to Nigerians.

Our dear President, Umaru Yar‘Adua, used the happy occasion to reaffirm his commitment to giving our nation ”the able leadership it requires to successfully overcome the present challenges and move forward at greater speed towards the attainment of our collective aspirations as a people.”

Greater speed? Yes, greater speed! With Almighty Allah as his guide, the President says he is already taking steps to restructure and strengthen the machinery of government. As he put it, “This process of revitalising and repositioning our administration for enhanced efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery will be carried forward in the coming days to ensure that more positive developments occur rapidly in critical sectors of our national life.”

What are these processes for enhanced efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery, you may ask? Perhaps, the sacking of Babagana Kingibe last month is one. The cabinet reshuffle that has been in the news for almost one month now is another. The creation of Niger Delta ministry is the third. The fourth one, perhaps, is faith in the Almighty Allah whom the President prayed to reward our pious observance of the Holy month of Ramadan with greater blessings.

The third day of the holidays, Independence Anniversary, came with more supplications and promises. Again, the President led the pack. But unlike Eid-el-Fitri message, which promised greater speed towards the attainment of our collective aspirations, the independence day message highlighted the resolve of this administration not to resort to quick-fix methods and short-cuts in approaching fundamental problems which require methodical and sustainable solutions.

Yar’Adua also told us that our economy was on a strong footing with an average growth rate of 6.9 per cent, a single digit inflation rate and external reserves of $63bn. The government has also realised over N400bn from unspent capital releases to ministries, departments and agencies. The government has also evolved a holistic strategy for the development and rehabilitation of the nation‘s transport system.

According to Mr. President, “We intend to concession the most economically viable roads across the country, while aggressively pursuing a road sector development and maintenance programme estimated to cover 5, 700km.” On the whole, the major objective of this government is to totally transform this country into a strong, stable, democratic and progressive major player on the global stage by the year 2020.

These are lofty goals. But for now, we seem to be moving round and round a particular spot. This government is fast becoming a we-will-do government. What we hear these days are, “Yar’Adua will reshuffle cabinet; Presidency to tackle job, food crises; FG plans to rehabilitate Benin-Ore Road; Transport minister promises to repair Niger Bridge; Nigeria to generate 6, 000 megawatts of electricity in 2011; National Assembly will pass Freedom of Information Bill” and so on.

This we-will-do attitude should have gone with the first few months of assumption of office. Now, Nigerians want more of action. We want to hear more of “Yar’Adua commissions state-of-the-art hospital in Enugu; Alao-Akala repairs Iwo Road, Ibadan; Obasanjo kisses Gbenga Daniel for building well-equipped libraries in all the secondary schools in Ogun State; Yar’Adua signs the FOI Bill into law…”

By the way, what politics are our lawmakers playing with the FOI Bill? Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, asked people in power to be accountable to the electorate to ensure faster growth of the country. Senate President, David Mark, in his Independence Day message, promised (this same promise) that the Senate would speed up (remember Yar’Adua’s greater speed?) the passage of bills that would take the country out of the woods.

But feelers from the Senate do not indicate that our lawmakers are serious with transparency and accountability. For instance, the Senate Committee on Media and Information has recommended some amendments to the FOI Bill. One of such is that an information requester will first apply to a High Court and must be ready to prove that such information will not compromise national security.

I don’t see how this type of clause will ensure accountability. Our lawmakers should shame their detractors by speedily passing the FOI Bill and other bills that will ensure a speedy growth of our country.

President Yar’Adua should also shame his detractors by fulfilling his promise to move this country forward speedily. Somebody like Pastor Tunde Bakare of the Latter Rain Assembly, in his Independence Day sermon, said a sick leader cannot deliver a dying nation. Mr. President should disappoint such people by giving us ministers who will transform this nation in a transparent manner without the encumbrances of any secrecy oath.

Generally, Nigerians of all classes should always think of practical ways of salvaging the country. Prayer is good. Having faith is also good. But faith without good works is dead. As Sam Harris said in his Letter to a Christian Nation, “Faith is nothing more than the licence religious people give to one another to keep believing when reasons fail.”

May our own faith not be like that! We must guard against praying with closed eyes, as some of our leaders admonish, while they keep stealing and putting our common meat into their own pot of soup.