I concede that the title of this column is very unusual but then I am in an unusual country at a very unusual season in my own country, Nigeria. I am writing this column from Banjul, capital of The Gambia, where I arrived on Sunday as the keynote speaker at the conference on ‘Media and Economic Development in a Globalising World’ organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat. The discussions here have been rather interesting and while my
address on Monday was critical of the media landscape in The Gambia which I described as hostile to journalism and restrictive of free speech, both their Minister of Foreign Affairs and his Information and Communication Infrastructure counterpart were nonetheless gracious to me after my presentation.
As it is, however, typical of Nigerian journalists anytime we have travel out of the country, we usually share our experience, most often to depict how things work in our host country and why they don’t in ours. Well, considering that this is also my first time in The Gambia, I have also been taking notes and I want to say that even with all the challenges we face as a nation, and despite the failed promises, I still feel very proud to be a Nigerian.
The above headline is the official title of the president of The Gambia which is embossed on all his portraits which litter the country and it is the way he is addressed by government officials and by the media even when he is not present. Every official speaker at public events as well as newscasters on their public television (no private station in the country) begins by reminding the audience of the great accomplishments of His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen, Commander In Chief of The Armed Forces and Chief Custodian of the Sacred Constitution of The Gambia; and the way they do it, you would assume it has already been crammed almost as a national anthem in the country.
The Sheikh title came about because the president is an ‘Islamic scholar’ and everywhere he goes, he carries around a Quran and a sword. For holding a Quran all the time, that makes him an Islamic scholar and perhaps for that same reason, he is a Professor of Islamic study without ever writing any dissertation! The Alhaji we can understand because he must have travelled to the Holy Land of Mecca several times but then he is also a medical doctor. That title was conferred on him because of his ‘effective herbal treatment programme in the cure of HIV/AIDS, Asthma, Diabetics, Hypertension, infertility and several other diseases in his quest to save humanity’. At different times, several people are usually paraded as having been cured of one ailment or the other by the president even when what he says at such occasions give him away as a medical illiterate. When Ms Fadzai Gwaradzimba, then country representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in The Gambia expressed doubts about these claims which she warned might be encouraging risky behaviour, she was ordered to leave the country.
Yahya Jahmmeh, who came to power through a military coup d’etat in July 1994 before contesting and winning election in 1996, will be seeking a fourth time (of five years) in office as president in November and it is most likely going to be another coronation for him despite having spent 17 years in power already. On Monday, I watched him on television where at a public event he brought out physical cash for the people to share and lavish praise was showered on him as a generous man. The same was done with bags of rice he distributed in the spirit of Ramadan to selected citizens.
Now, the essence of my piece is really not on the idiosyncrasy of Jammeh or even to compare Nigeria with The Gambia. I know better than to do that even when I also concede that is what we journalists do when we compare United States, United Kingdom and some other advanced societies with Nigeria wherever we travel there. The truth is that there are few countries in Africa that compare with Nigeria in terms of socio-economic development (and I have travelled wide within the continent) but that is also not the beef of my piece today.
That Nigerians hardly compare our country with The Gambia or any of the countries in Africa aside South Africa is essentially because given our enormous resources and the intellect as well as entrepreneurship of our people we have a higher standard to which we aspire. That also explains why when the issue of tenure comes up, our people easily become rather emotional. The reason is simple: They know that most of these countries that have been reduced to no better than banana republics is because the people allowed themselves to be subjected to the domination of one man. Nigerians are therefore ever vigilant to preserve their hard-earned democracy, however imperfect its operation may be at the moment.
Ever since the proposal was announced by President Goodluck Jonathan for a single term of longer (than the current four) years for the president and the governors, there has been a serious opposition from the media, the civil society and the political elite outside the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Today, it would seem a national consensus is already building for the rejection of the idea even when the president has said he would not be a beneficiary.
There are three reasons why most Nigerians are wary of this ‘single-term’ proposal which I can categorise under three Ts: Timing, Trust and the factor of Tomorrow. In timing, President Jonathan has not even spent 100 days in office when he elevated to national discourse the idea of tenure ‘elongation’ which has always been a hot-potato issue. For a president who came with the promise to transform the landscape, Jonathan’s job was well cut out for him in that he needed to mobilise Nigerians around critical issues like deregulation in the downstream sector of the petroleum industry; the need for a more competitive tariff structure in the power sector; the nature of our federation; the unresolved issue of N18,000 minimum wage for workers against the background of claims by some states that they cannot pay; the security challenge posed by Boko Haram etc. The last thing such a president needed was to have his motives questioned yet Nigerians are never more suspicious of a leader than when he raises the red flag of tampering with tenure.
The second factor is that of Trust. Although the president has said he would not run in 2015 if the idea passes, majority of Nigerians have become rather cynical of such promise. And they have good grounds for that disposition. In Africa, the only man who has made that pledge and kept faith with it is former South African President Nelson Mandela and the whole world is agreed he is a breed apart. Right now in Liberia, a certain Mrs Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who promised to spend only one term as president is already campaigning desperately for a second. But Nigerians do not even have to travel across the border. No leader in our country has ever willingly surrendered power, not even the constitutionally elected ones. While not doubting the sincerity of President Jonathan we also know that there is no legislation against groups which would soon begin to campaign for his second term. Even if he discountenances them, there will be people in government who would gladly fund such groups and the moment ‘Corporate Nigeria’ notices that, then the campaign would have a life of its own.
The third reason is what I call the factor of Tomorrow. Let us assume that President Jonathan is indeed able to withstand the ‘pressure’ that will quite naturally come his way to seek a second term in office (either of four or six years), he will most certainly be succeeded by a Nigerian from the northern part of the country regardless of party affiliation. In such event, I foresee a situation where someone would come up (and we have several political mathematicians in our country) to argue that the ‘South’ spent 13 years in power (eight years of Obasanjo and five of Jonathan) while the ‘North’ had spent only three under the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
The argument then, and I have read something like that already, would be that after the new president might have spent six years, the ‘North’ would still lag behind the ‘South’ by four years. This would then necessitate the campaign to go back to the original two terms of four years. Of course, whoever is the president at that particular period could also say he would seek only one term of four years (to complete the 13 years of the North) and hand over power. That definitely is not the way to run a country yet that is usually the beginning of the absurdity that breeds the kind of situation that we have in The Gambia today. I sincerely believe that there are far more pressing issues we have to deal with as a nation than to begin to dissipate energy again on the issue of tenure of public officials.
While I do not doubt that President Jonathan means well with his proposal, it is my considered view that given the controversy the idea has already generated, he should weigh all his options before asking himself whether going ahead is really worth all the trouble.
Following the announcement on this page of the death of my mother last Monday and her burial three days later; as well as the death of my father-in-law who was also buried last Saturday, I have received several mails and text messages from readers commiserating with me. Even while I cannot reply them all, I appreciate every single one. I pray that God will also stand by you all in your moments of distress.
Prof. Olupona at 60
For the first time since I left Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife in 1989, I was back to Oduduwa Hall about three weeks ago to attend the 60th Birthday Lecture of Professor Jacob Kehinde Olupona, one of the two Nigerian tenured-Professors at Harvard University, the other being Biodun Jeyifo, another former Ife lecturer and literary giant. I was impressed with the serenity of the campus and the modern air-conditioning system at a far better Oduduwa Hall--where in 1987 a classmate, Biola Jawando, lost her life due to suffocation. It was also nice to meet Mrs Adeola Faleye, a lecturer in the department of Linguistics who acted as Kabiyesi’s wife in Tunde Kelani’s classic, Agogo Eewo, as well as Charles Ukeje, my former classmate (the only one who stayed behind) who is now An Associate Professor in the department of International Relations. With the little I saw that day at Ife, our federal universities are not beyond redemption if only some of us can play some little roles, a lesson Prof Olupona has been teaching us by giving back to the university he left as a lecturer 21 years ago.
As a respected professor of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Chair of the Committee on African Studies (2007 to 2009) and Professor of African Religions at the Harvard University Divinity School, Olupona is not only recognised globally but is very much in high demand. Yet nothing preoccupies him more than two issues: how Nigeria can advance in education and the development of the institutions he and many others still call University of Ife. Olupona, who in 2007 received the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) in recognition of his outstanding contributions to scholarship, last year got Harvard to establish a new forum called ‘Nigeria and the World’, a monthly lecture series under the auspices of the Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs which brings distinguished visitors to the university to discuss our country. That of course coincided with the period Dr. Charles Akindiji Akinola and I were also at the Center even though the discussion on the issue had been going on for about two years before our arrival.
Olupona is no doubt a worthy ambassador of our country as my sister, Hauwa Ibrahim, my brother, Innocent Chukwuma and my friend, Aminu Gamawa and several other young and brilliant Nigerian members of the Harvard community will readily testify and I cannot but wish him all the best in the years ahead.