Archive for November 2009

Extracting our fat at gunpoint

November 30, 2009

Casmir Igbokwe

First published in Sunday Punch, Nov.29, 2009

 Penultimate week in Peru, the Police arrested four people for allegedly killing dozens of people in order to sell their fat and tissue. The commodity is said to be essential for cosmetic uses in Europe. The finished product, which comes in liquid form, costs $15,000 a litre. The strategy is to target people on remote roads, kill them and then extract their fat.

 As bad as our situation is in Nigeria, we have not heard cases of this nature. But that does not mean that we are totally free. There are other forms of fat extraction going on. They come in different guises.

One of them is called deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum industry. They say it is good for us; that it will not hurt the common man who does not have a car not to talk of buying petrol; and that it is now or never. They cite the telecoms industry as a good example of deregulation working wonders.

I’m tempted to join in singing this deregulation song. In a free market economy, there should really be little or no governmental control of the market forces. Prices of things should take their natural course. And since a student in Covenant University does not pay the same fee as a student in the University of Lagos, why should we expect that the price of petrol should be the same everywhere?

 The deregulation debate is still ongoing; but the Venezuelan ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Enrique Arrundell, appeared to have put sand in the Federal Government’s food. According to him, since 1999, Venezuela has never raised the price of fuel. He said filling his tank in Nigeria would take N12, 000 whereas that would cost him N400 in his country.

The trick, he said, was that Venezuela took its destiny into its own hand. “All we are doing is in the hands of Venezuelans,” he asserted. “How come Nigeria that has more technical manpower than Venezuela, with 150 million people, and very intellectual all around has not been able to get it right?”

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind – the wind of corruption. A former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, did not waste time in telling us this to our faces last week. At a lecture he delivered in Lagos on statecraft, corruption and national development, Mohammad said corruption was a function of the culture of the people. A people with no sense of shame; a people whose greed overcomes their better judgement, he added, would never put a stop to corruption.

Mohammad did not tell us anything new. Or do we have any sense of shame? Hold your answer first and let’s look at some current trends together. For instance, we are now talking about the 2010 budget. But that of 2009 has not been implemented to the letter. Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Usman Nafada, said he discovered that N30bn was allocated to projects that had been completed in the previous budgets.

 What this means is that whoever is making such allocations does not know his job, or there is an intention to defraud. Ultimately, some of the money will enter some private pockets as allocations from unspent funds from the budget.

Greed and corruption are not the exclusive preserve of people in leadership positions. The man who sits down to craft 419 letters is greedy and corrupt. The woman who sells expired frozen fish as though they are fresh is greedy. The nurse who expects some tips before passing a patient’s file to the doctor is corrupt. A mechanic who buys oil filter for N500 but presents a bill of N1, 500 is a cheat.

 Everywhere you go and in every profession you turn to, there are people making it look as if corruption is truly a major part of our culture. This is why people will embezzle money meant for rehabilitation of roads and nothing will happen. This is why rather than improve on the corruption perception index, we are retrogressing.

And that is why Nigerians will continue to be sceptical about deregulation. It is so bad that some people have even insinuated that the ruling Peoples Democratic Party intends to use the accruals from the exercise to fund the 2011 electioneering campaigns.

The Venezuelan Ambassador has told us that his country has no illiterate people; that there is no payment of school fees in his country’s universities; and not just that he graduated without paying a cent, he took three meals everyday while in school. Elsewhere in the advanced world, there are social security systems put in place to take care of the less privileged.

 What has our own government done for us to ginger us into supporting deregulation? Not much I’m afraid. Nigerians depend on boreholes and underground wells for their source of water. Generator fumes have killed many while the Power Holding Company of Nigeria is on standby. Even the roads that were built by previous administrations have become death traps as contracts for their rehabilitation end up in breach.

 To further confirm government’s insensitivity to the plight of the ordinary Nigerian, the proposed 2010 budget has little benefit for the masses. Allocation of N162bn to health, for instance, is lower than the allocation to the military which is N232bn.

 I’m almost certain that many Nigerians will support deregulation if the government shows sincerity of purpose. Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State has the support of many of his subjects and garners praises here and there because people have seen what he is doing with taxpayers’ money.

 There is every need for the Nigerian government to show more commitment to the welfare of the citizens before implementing any belt-tightening measure. To start with, all those who have been mobilised to repair our roads must be compelled to do their work. Secondly, the National Assembly and some others have levelled sundry allegations against the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. The corporation is yet to respond to these allegations. It must cleanse its house first.

I don’t see why we cannot put our four refineries in order and stop wholesale importation of petroleum products. Let nobody tell us again that the Catalytic Cracking Unit of Warri Refinery or any refinery for that matter is not working when people won contracts to repair these units.

Unless and until we put our house in order, talking about deregulation will amount to skinning the poor alive.

Or put in another way, extracting our fat mercilessly.

The fear of visiting home

November 23, 2009

Casmir Igbokwe

First published in Sunday Punch, Nov. 22, 2009

It was my boss, Azu, who amplified the congratulatory messages I got for returning safely to Lagos from the East. “Thank God you escaped the kidnappers,” he enthused.

The journey had elicited sympathies and prayers at the same time. “Please don’t go home. You are a prime target for kidnappers,” became the refrain of some of my friends. To some close relatives, I must not travel without spiritual fortification.

 And that was how I became familiar with some spiritual oils like olive oil, St. Michael oil, Back to Sender oil and Mustard seed. The belief of those who use these items is that they protect one from many dangers. For instance, whether one puts St. Michael oil in one’s bathwater or rubs it after bath, it is believed that it could ward off any spiritual attack. Back to sender oil, as the name implies, returns any evil attack to the sender.

What bothered me was that nobody assured me of the protection of the joint patrol team of the police and the military. People kept telling me, “Anambra! That your state sef. Please be careful o!”

 Careful or not, I took the first flight to Enugu en route to Abakaliki, the capital of Ebonyi State on October 26, 2009. I didn’t really have time to tour Enugu as such, but for the few areas I visited, the roads were okay. I’m talking about roads because that’s one visible thing Nigerians appraise their leaders on. Every other thing may not be working well, but once people see bulldozers and the resultant tarred roads, they say the governor is trying even when the roads may not withstand the test of two rainy seasons.

 My trip to Abakaliki was to see my father who resides there and to commiserate with the family of my maternal uncle, Chief Andrew Onyeguili, who died early last month. Regrettably, the Enugu-Abakaliki Road is not only narrow, it is bad. The only sign of work in progress on this expressway was a few wheelbarrow pushers filling some potholes.

 Being a capital city now, Abakaliki boasts of a few infrastructural changes. For instance, the roads in the city are far better than what they used to be. But to my surprise, the major road in the town hitherto known as Ogoja Road is now called Sam Egwu Road.

Sam Egwu is the Minister of Education. He was the immediate past governor of Ebonyi state. I don’t really know the wisdom behind renaming the road after him. But it goes further to show that for every little thing some Nigerian leaders achieve, they would want to imprint their names on it. We used to have Orji Uzor Kalu mass transit bus in Abia. In Kogi State, the former governor of the state, Abubakar Audu, named the state university he established in 1999Prince Abubakar Audu University. In some other states of the federation, governors relished naming one monument or the other after themselves.

In Anambra, I didn’t see any monument bearing Peter Obi’s name. I observed that the man has some achievements to showcase in terms of road construction and rehabilitation. I also noticed a big billboard at Ekwulobia roundabout announcing the rehabilitation of Obizi/Aguata regional water supply scheme. According to the billboard, such towns as Akpo, Achina, Ekwulobia, Uga, Oko, Isuofia, Igboukwu, and Umuchu, now have potable water. “His Excellency, Mr. Peter Obi, thank you,” the advertisers concluded.

My town is one of those listed as benefiting from this regional water scheme. In the whole of my village, I did not see any pipe or any indication at all that the town is benefiting from this water scheme. I asked around, but nobody seems to know who the beneficiaries are. It is either that people are not aware where to go and fetch the water or there is some deceit going on.

The governor, who I have a lot of respect for, should tell us where to fetch this potable water from. Or tell those who mounted the billboard to remove it without further delay. I had actually wanted to go to my town’s special convention held on October 31, 2009 to complain about this, but I was reminded to play it cool to avoid the wrath of kidnappers.

 Though I didn’t consider myself a prime candidate for kidnapping, it is worthy to note that the day Pa Simeon Soludo was kidnapped was the day I arrived in my town. One of my reporters who felt concerned sent me an SMS saying, “Prof. Soludo’s father has been kidnapped. Please be careful.”

Being from the same town with Soludo, I became more careful, restricting my movement only to the compound where my larger family had a week-long burial ceremony. I also noticed that many wealthy people in my place are averse to visiting home these days. Some of those who brave it keep their visit secret while some go about town in chartered cars.

 In all this, what nauseates me more is the level of poverty in the land. The greatest ceremonies people attend now are burial ceremonies where, at least, they are assured of a meal and a drink.

 It’s this poverty, I suppose, that triggered the rumour that there were people going round to buy old television sets, wall clocks and ancient beds from those who still have them. The amount ranges from N3m to N15m. I was around when the agents of the purported buyers came around for inspection of the old National TV, which is one of the remaining relics of my father’s property. With a mobile phone handset, they searched for the so-called mercury that would fetch millions of naira if found. They wasted their time and left without locating the mercury.

 On my return to Lagos, I deliberately decided to go by road to see if there was any improvement on the Lagos-Benin Expressway. The reason is to see if I could bring my family home this Christmas. Of course nothing much has changed on the road. For 10 years of democracy, we have been talking about rehabilitating a particular road without success. Billions of naira had been budgeted for the road. Yet no improvement!

I remembered that I had warned on this page before when this kidnapping thing started in the Niger Delta that it would come to a point nobody would feel safe anymore.

It has come to that point and now that our ranking has slipped from 121 to 130 in the corruption perception index, many Nigerians may continue to sing, “Lord of mercy and compassion, look with pity upon me,” for a long time to come.

Wobbling and fumbling to football glory

November 17, 2009

Casmir Igbokwe

First published in Sunday Punch, Nov. 15, 2009 

I had planned to resume after a four-week break with my experiences in Anambra and some other states I visited during my vacation. But football is in the air. Golden Eaglets will play their U-17 World Cup finals with Switzerland today in Abuja. Yesterday, the Super Eagles beat the Harambee Stars of Kenya by 3-2 to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

 The victory of the Super Eagles, no doubt, is a sweet one. Every patriotic Nigerian will continue to rejoice until the conclusion of the game in South Africa. On my part, I have toasted to this victory. It ennobled my soul and renewed the patriotic spirit in me as a Nigerian. My Kenyan friends, Sam and Roberts, will not know peace for sometime. I will make sure I constantly rub in this victory in their consciousness. If they had any doubt that Nigeria is the giant of Africa, this is the time to shut them up permanently. Victory or success has many brothers and sisters. But failure is an orphan. Nobody wants to associate with it.

As our U-17 team file out against Switzerland today, many Nigerians will be praying for a resounding victory. If that victory comes, we will have double celebration. We will have confirmed to the world and to our enemies that the Nigerian spirit conquers all obstacles.

For instance, we fought a 30-month civil war. Many predicted our disintegration. Against all odds, we triumphed. We are still together as a country. Some foreign analysts who are yet to recognise and appreciate the Nigerian spirit have also predicted our demise as a country in the near future. Those armchair analysts will eat humble pie. Nigeria will continue to grow from strength to strength. We are very good at turning any unpleasant situation into something pleasant and lucrative.

 But let’s ask ourselves some pertinent questions. Did we qualify for South Africa 2010 because we prepared well enough for it? Did our U-17 team succeed in the age group competition because they played with their mates? Will the handlers of the national team consolidate the Super Eagles’ victory? Will they start now to prepare for the World Cup proper? Can the Nigeria Football Federation boast of contributing significantly to this national celebration?

If we must tell ourselves the home truth, we are just lucky. We never learn from our mistakes. We always depend on permutations, “prayers”, and sometimes, fraud, to achieve our ambitions.

Just look at our U-17 team. We are all happy at their success. But does that success stand on a solid ground? A lot has been said and written on the fielding of over age players in that team. I won’t bore you with the details again. But rather than commend and honour the man who blew the whistle, Adokiye Amiesimaka, some of us resorted to blackmailing and insulting him.

Those who say Amiesimaka is not patriotic miss the point. To those who say he shouldn’t have released the information now, the question is, if not now, when? I laughed when I read some comments credited to some of our football administrators. To some of them, it would have been a thing of joy if Amiesimaka’s column is stopped.

In my interactions with the man since he started writing for SUNDAY PUNCH, I have realised that he is somebody who holds tenaciously to what he believes in. And he is not somebody who can easily cower. If he wants anything done, he pursues it until it gets done.

That is the type of person our country needs. Unfortunately, Nigeria is a country in search of truth. We are where we are today because people have refused to locate and embrace truth. Hence, it will be foolhardy for anybody to tell us to postpone the search for that truth.

 We hosted the COJA 2003 All Africa Games. A lot of money went down the drain. Some people became instant millionaires. Our hosting of the U-17 World Cup has also been trailed by financial scandals. Sports Minister, Sani Ndanusa, and chairmen of committees and sub-seats are talking from two sides of their mouths. We do not know who to trust or what to believe.

It’s even a miracle that FIFA gave us the nod to host the World Cup. Typical of us, we were not fully ready even when the competition had started. There were hiccups here and there. Flood took over some of the pitches. Publicity was too poor. In Kano, there was electric power failure in the night when a match was on. Ironically, the FIFA Vice-President, Jack Warner, who okayed the facilities in the first place, condemned this show of shame. Conversely, facilities in Egypt that hosted the U-20 World Cup in September/October were ready one year before the competition.

One other thing about the Super Eagles victory is that it will re-energise the delusion in many of us. We will be happy and temporarily forget our misery and misfortunes. The ruling party may make some noise about it. Some prophets will claim to have interceded on our behalf as more souls will troop to their sanctuary for miracles. More prayer requests will be made.

 But as we celebrate, let us remember that qualifying for the World Cup is one thing; doing well in the competition is another. Let us remember that our comatose infrastructure is another opponent we need to defeat on the field of governance. And let us remember that our collective destiny lies in our hands.

If we don’t continuously remind ourselves of these facts, we will be like a beauty queen who uses garri bag to sew skirt and blouse.

 Congratulations Nigeria!