Thursday, February 16, 2017

USA Africa Dialogue Series - Fw: Prof. Ayo Olukotun's Column

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Sent: Thursday, 16 February 2017 10:07
To: Ayo Olukotun
Cc: Joel
Subject: Fw: Prof. Ayo Olukotun's Column

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From: Femi Babatunde <>
Sent: Thursday, 16 February 2017 08:57
To: Ayo Olukotun
Reply To: Femi Babatunde
Subject: Prof. Ayo Olukotun's Column


By Ayo Olukotun

Baba Buhari did not anticipate the problem that we are in. I am sure you are all aware. The people who caused this problem are the ones challenging the government. I tell you that they will fail in the name of God. In fact, they have failed. - Babachir Lawal, Secretary to the Government of the federation, addressing pro-Buhari rally in Abuja, February 14, 2017.
Even by the indifferent standards of political rhetoric in Nigeria, the remarks credited to the Secretary of the Government of Federation, Babachir Lawal, quoted above, would appear to have reached a new low. Babachir was speaking at a pro-government rally organised by the Citizens Support for Good Governance in Abuja on Tuesday. Apparently organised to counter last week's rally by the #IstandwithNigeria Coalition which featured several well-known civil society activists, the pro-government rally appeared to have come straight from the playbook of previous Nigerian leaders, whose public acclaim and approval were fast receding.
In the view of this columnist, that rally, limited in geographical spread and bereft of well-known names in civil militancy, did nothing to improve the public standing of a government which began its tenure as a widely acclaimed change agent. Moreover, it did little to console Nigerians, who are going through the terrors of an unprecedented recession, but rather, sought to blame or demonise them as the cause of the problem. It is difficult to understand why Babachir believes that those protesting against slack or ineffective government are the same ones who, in his words, "caused this problem". Nothing would have been lost if the rallies confined to two Nigerian cities so far, have not been held.
As hinted earlier, pro-government rallies frequently employed during the military years have an unpopular history, tainted as they are, with hints of being manufactured or sponsored in order to create an illusion of popularity. Under the Abacha dictatorship, for example, women and unemployed youths frequently carried placards in the vicinity of government houses, several of them holding their placards upside down. On a particular occasion, a senior journalist narrated how at the seat of government in Alausa, Lagos, he encountered some market women chanting "komonweli, efi gomina wa le". This is a corrupted form of "Commonwealth, please, leave our government alone". As many would remember, the Commonwealth at the time had imposed sanctions on the Nigerian government for shocking human rights violations, which included the hanging of the minority rights activist and writer, Ken Saro Wiwa. The sitting governor in Lagos, who apparently organised the demonstration, was not the one in contention. But, how were the illiterate women enticed with handouts to know? In other words, those so called protests were a caricature of civil activism and were so cynical and so artificial that they did not care to conceal their true identities as alter egos of the government information departments.
For that reason, they became sources of popular jest and were treated as such. Looking at this week's protests, it is interesting to observe the double standards with which law enforcement handled them compared to the previous week. As several commentators including Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, have pointed out, the police goofed by hamstringing the protesters who went out last week, after failing, through the intimidation of Tuface Idibia, to abort the marches. We see a different face of the police, however, in the way it treated the pro-government protesters by putting no obstacles in their ways whatsoever. It is also interesting that the privileged status of the "activists' was revealed through the honour done to them by two high-ranking government officials, not just to address but to thank them. A report in one of the newspapers, quoted Garba Shehu, Senior Special Adviser on Media and Publicity as saying to the assembly, "you people put this government in place and you want to show support for what the government is doing. Nobody has a problem with this, so we welcome your demonstration, we welcome your support because this is what will keep the government strong". Like a jejune and low-brow Nollywood film, this is a play that leaves little to the imagination of the viewers.
Before developing the narrative further however, this columnist requests the reader's indulgence to allow a short take. Perhaps, because of the biting recession and the continual erosion of the survival margins of most Nigerians, very little attention has been paid to the on-going shenanigans in the upper legislative house to redraw the map of our financial and lending institutions through the introduction of a Bill on the establishment of a National Development Bank of Nigeria. Projected as an institutional overhaul, the proposed Bank would collapse all previous existing lending institutions, including the Bank of Industry, into one lending giant, which will guarantee, in the words of the authors, long term borrowing and capitalisation. Interestingly, the Bill has passed the first and second readings and has been sent to a committee of the Senate for detailed inspection. To be sure, the arguments have raged back and forth, as to its advisability. Before it becomes law, however, it may be pertinent to inquire what the fate of institutional behemoths and big institutions, often unmanageable and with weak accountability have been so far? It has not been specified clearly in the ensuing debate what the advantages of this grand financial institution will be, in respect to what already exists. In a political economy where imperious size drives the logic of private accumulation, as in the Nigerian National Petroleum Company, for example, it may be logical to wave a slow down sign in the face of the legislators bravely canvassing the new option. In other words, can the problems identified be resolved by strengthening existing institutions or must we go all the way to new centralisation with its attendant risks? In politics, as in economics, this columnist emphasises that "small is beautiful". The proposed Bill should be allowed to rest in the graveyard of failed and unwise legislative Bills.
To return to the initial discourse, there is a hint of intimidation and intolerance in the harsh tone and tenor of Babachir's condemning rhetoric and blame game. It is also pertinent to ask why the SGF, who has recently been the butt of criticism over some of his financial transactions, has suddenly moved to the offensive? Could he be projecting his sense of siege on the understanding of public issues? Even if Babachir has decided to stonewall public agitation for his removal, would it not have been wiser for him to lie low in deference to the force of public opinion? However these questions are answered, it is important to restate that this country deserves more than orchestrated rallies and manufactured civil activism, which do nothing to redeem the image of the government. Tender words and decisive ameliorative actions must replace the current tendency to rehash old discredited scripts or blame critics or past leaders for political failure.
In the aftermath of the protests, it is important for government to demonstrate that it has listening ears and is sensitive to the heartbeats of Nigerians struggling with the odds of meltdown. This will be more helpful than sponsoring more rallies.

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