The Nigerian Elections - A matter of confidence

Reflections on the return to democracy in Nigeria

    Deputy Editor,
    African Programming
    BBC World Service

Back in January 1999, I spent ten days in the northern city of Kano. My main business was rather mundane, I was running a course for journalists on election coverage, even though for reasons which are still a bit difficult to comprehend, the authorities at the BBC had decided , we couldn't call the series of courses, "training courses", because it was feared that the pride of the Nigerians will be sorely offended that anybody would be presumptuous enough to offer them "TRAINING COURSES". I think it was decided to call them, workshops, or colloquium. By the evening of the first day, only my other colleague from the BBC and I were still struggling with "colloquium", all 25 participants, mostly journalists, and some NGOs were insisting on "course", and indeed the word "training" had to be there to make it worth their while. They were not in the least bit offended, far from that, they were of the opinion they needed training and how dare anybody suggest otherwise. My experience in Port Harcourt and Lagos was exactly the same.

To start with I was slightly worried, what had happened to the famed Nigerian self confidence bothering on arrogance? On further reflection, I decided, it was all still there, you must have a lot of self confidence not to want your ego massaged.

But back to my time in Kano, everything was happening..... The political situation was still very fluid with people declaring for this and the other party with such regularity, I was certain some people couldn't remember themselves which party they belonged to on any given day, I was in the midst of it all. Under the pretext of wanting to emphasize the practical nature of the workshop/ colloquium, I attended with the participants, every press conference, every declaration of loyalty or defection. But it wasn't all politics, I got to Kano in time for the Id el Fitr festival and the big durbar held by the Emir of Kano every year. I was enjoying it all, but there was only one niggling problem and I admit it is probably something that only journalists would classify as a problem.

The television in my hotel room had facilities to keep me informed about every twist and turn in Bill Clinton's battles with the American Congress over his "inappropriate behaviour" , the television could tell me if I wanted to know what the temperature was in Kathmandu, and even what new misery the users of the Northern Line were having to endure in London, I could even find out what the latest gadget there was to help reduce the increasing bulge around my midriff at 49.99 US dollars; all that but I couldn't see on television any of the exciting events in Kano. Not the declaration by Alhaji. Abubakar Rimi to run for President, not the magnificent and colourful durbar and the breathtaking horse riders, not even the solemn promise made by the newly elected governor of Kano state that there will be no room in his administration for corruption. The hotel simply did not carry the state television, it took three days of constant complaining and a threat to move out before the very pleasant hotel staff would even believe that I did not want to watch CNN or Sky News or even BBC World for that matter. Why would I want to watch Nigeria television, I kept being asked over and over again.

To keep me amused, an engineer was sent to try and fix it so the television in my room could get state television, after four days of trying he gave up. He needed a special aerial, or a decoder to enable me get the output of Nigeria television in my hotel room in Kano. By the time I left Kano I had become something of a curiosity around the hotel, "that is the woman who doesn't want to watch CNN" for those who felt I was a very sad person or, "that is the person who wants to watch Nigerian television" for those who felt my head needed examining. So much then I thought for the self confidence of Nigerians.

Then I came to Lagos where it was possible to get NTA, Nigeria Television Authority programmes on the hotel television, not as clear a signal as CNN and not as slick in the production but you could see the Nigeria story being told by Nigerians through Nigerian eyes to Nigerians. It was a Sunday morning and after about two hours, I began to wonder. There was a particularly smooth talking preacher man who was screaming about the riches that awaited all who left everything to the Almighty. His church was packed and people were delirious on his incantations. Whatever happened then, I thought to the central Nigerian belief in CAN DO.

The exploits of various preacher men and the extraordinary hold they seem to exercise on the lives of people was to amaze me throughout the three months or so that I spent travelling around the country. I am therefore not too surprised now that the whole of Nigeria has been seized by the "predictions" of another of these preacher men, who has pronounced that the hand over of power from the military to the elected government on May 29th will not take place. According to this particular Pastor, a certain Tunde Bakore of the Latter Rain Assembly, God had spoken to him that not only is General Olusegun Obasanjo the elected president, not Nigeria's Messiah, "he is a ram being kept for slaughter". This prophet speaks in particularly gory details about his vision. According to him, the axe will come down on Obasanjo's head and he will be hewed into pieces, right before our eyes. Two weeks ago, rumours swept the country that the General had died/been killed under strange circumstances.

There were riots in Lagos, property was destroyed and many people were injured when youths took the streets because according to them, "they" have done it again,... Who are the "they"? The same "they" that killed Chief Moshood Abiola had done it again. General Obasanjo had to go on television to assure the country that he was still very much alive. In the meantime, it appears the General is not taking any chances, he has gone on a fast and a prayer for good health and success in the job he is about to take on. The General who is said to have become a born-again Christian during his incarceration for alleged coup plotting under the late unlamented General Sani Abacha has not treated all these reports of visions about his impending death with the nonchalance one suspects he would have done some twenty years ago. For the past two months his farm has been the site of constant praying by various groups trying to neutralise Pastor Tunde Akore's vision.

Everybody appears to be a believer. The difficulty comes when you try to pin down exactly what it is that people actually believe in.

But then you realise it is probably just as well that people are such great believers, because Nigeria's rulers have asked for a lot of belief on the part of their compatriots without providing much reason why they should.

Take the entire programme of transition to constitutional rule for example, a lot of faith has been needed, blind faith some might say, bringing it thus far. General Abubakar Salaami has felt it is enough that his compatriots should trust him to keep his word. Maybe that is why most people prefer to watch CNN, the images are so far removed from the reality of the lives of the ordinary person that it is easier to cope that way.

There has been the case of the Mysterious Constitution. A document shrouded in such secrecy, many were beginning to doubt its very existence. I have not read the whole document, but what I have read and it is quite a substantial part, makes me wonder about why there had been such reluctance in making it public unless it is simply a case of bloody mindedness. Or a case of General Abubakar's assumption and indeed insistence that his compatriots should have confidence in him simply because... He has asked for their confidence.

But I am jumping ahead of myself. Before I take a look at what this document does say, lets go back briefly to the transition programme as a whole because it is important not to forget that there were many in Nigeria who had no belief whatsoever in it. Not many would be surprised that Gani Fawenhimi the gadfly human rights lawyer said he had no belief in it, you expect that, you would feel there was something wrong, if Gani Fawenhimi had embraced the programme, Gani exists to keep Nigeria sceptical of officialdom. But you had to get worried when Beko Ransome Kuti joined the ranks of the unbelievers. Even though he had good reason to be sceptical about the military, Beko Ransome Kuti remains a soft spoken, infuriatingly reasonable man in the midst of all the loud noises of Lagos, but he did not believe in the programme either, he was among the advocates of the Sovereign National Conference, the mainly sophisticated and articulate people you find mostly in the south-western part of the country. They wanted radical new questions asked about Nigeria, should there even be a Nigeria, and how should this Nigeria be governed. And then there are the youths in the Delta oil producing region.

But maybe I do them an injustice, the youths of the Delta region that is, when I suggest they are unbelievers. Because they are believers all right, it is simply that they do not believe in what the outgoing military leader General Abdulsalami Abubakar says, or the incoming elected president General Olusegun Obasanjo or the losing presidential candidate Chief Olu Falae for that matter. And they are not persuaded about the merits of a Sovereign National conference at which fundamental questions about Nigeria would be asked and resolved either. These youths now believe only in themselves. They did not participate in the elections and for a while, it appeared they were determined that nobody else would be allowed to participate in an exercise they saw as a farce and an irrelevance either. The violence that swept the Niger Delta areas in December and January was deliberate and meant to deter people from taking part in the elections. In the end it was a miracle that the relentless schedule for the elections put into place by General Abubakar was by and large, adhered to. The only serious postponement was in Bayelsa state.

The young people in these areas were not having arguments about how to govern Nigeria, they were not having arguments about which of the three parties had a better plan to deal with their problems, nor were they even having arguments comparing General Obasanjo with chief Falae. Tell me why I should call myself a Nigerian they dared me over and over again in various Rivers and Bayelsa State towns. And as one young lady famously said, there doesn't even exist any piece of paper anywhere that documents my existence as a Nigerian. Shocked though I was at such cynicism from such a young person, it probably encapsulates what had gone wrong with Nigeria.... The state had failed, the trappings were of course all there, what with the various MILADS as the state military administrators are fondly called and their motorcades and the police and their checkpoints and the civil servants who go through the most unimaginable indignities simply to be able to go to work. To borrow a term that was popular in my native Ghana back in the late seventies when the economy of Ghana had crumbled; "the state pretends to pay all these people and the people were also simply pretending to work". And it was not only in the very literal sense of salaries not having any relationship with the cost of living that this pretence was going on, for all its display of power and endless decrees and directives that had been coming out of every state house and from Aso Rock in Abuja these past how many years, if as my young lady in Port Harcourt said there did not exist any bit of paper anywhere to show that she was a Nigerian, and if her death or ill health were matters that concerned only her family, where then was point of this state called Nigeria?

If the young people in the Niger Delta States were having any arguments, they were over what tactics to employ to cause the maximum amount of disruption in the work of the oil companies that operate in their areas. From their perspective, they were the only things that worked. The only reality there was apart from the grinding poverty there was around them.

Their oil wealth, they feel, is not just taken away and used to develop other parts of the country their land is degraded and there is a genuine fear that when the oil does run out, not only will they not have anything to show for it in terms of infrastructural developments, they can't even farm or fish. The anger of these youths is quite frightening to watch but not too difficult to understand.

But I am reluctant to portray a picture of a sullen, murderous group of young people in these parts of Nigeria, embittered by a sense of deprivation and plotting revolution. Even though it is quite easy to get such an impression if you only spend an hour or so and if you happen to have a television crew with you.... They watch CNN after all and they have mastered the art of the sound bite, so they will put on a bit of "revolution" for you if they think that will enhance their bargaining position. If you do spend some time with them and once they get over their initial distrust, you discover that these young people in Yenagoa and other towns and villages in the oil producing areas are not unlike the young people you had met in Kano or Kaduna or Abeokuta for that matter. The only difference being that the young people of the Niger Delta have the symbol of the wealth of the country right under their feet and underneath their rivers. And so they use the tactics that they have learnt to be effective, they know after all that the inhabitants of Aso Rock and the various other state houses all watch CNN.

What then is the picture that you get when they are NOT performing? We are poor, and there is no good reason why we should be poor. Now that happens to be a refrain that is not limited to any one part of the country, nor for that matter is it limited to any age group. The next thing is: " The military have brought Nigeria to its knees." There are many other subtexts of course but by and large, that is the sum of it all. Even the Sovereign National Conference brigade with their high minded arguments come down to a revulsion of the current condition of Nigeria and who should be blamed for it.

But I did meet lots of people who still had faith and not in the Pastor Akures and their predictions. I met people who have made enough money to afford to send their children to fancy schools in England and are indeed doing just that, but, who are terribly upset that their own children are missing the opportunities that they had to go to good schools in Nigeria. These people know that the self confidence that they had to confront the world was helped in no small measure by the fact that they grew up and went to schools in Nigeria and were still educated well enough to take on the world in any field. Some of those people have entered politics and some of them have taken on board the disaster that overtakes a country when successful people pretend they can create islands of prosperity for themselves in the midst of general misery. Such people are ashamed that there are schools in Nigeria where there are six children sharing one book on the floor. Such people are alarmed that the Universities in Nigeria they attended and where they received degrees that are comparable with degrees from the most prestigious Universities anywhere in the world have been reduced to embarrassing institutions. Such people do not have blind faith.

So how have such people coped with the curious case of the mystery constitution? Not very well, but as the Nigerians say God loves Nigeria, and I might add that the Ghanaians on their part are convinced that God is NOT a Lagosian, which is the word we used to have and call all Nigerians, but back to where we were, luckily, the mystery document has proved at first sight not something to want to hide and doubtless the lawyers are pouring all over it now and will be out with their verdicts soon. I mention only two things, there appears to be an attempt to address the anger of the oil producing area with the 13 per cent allocation of revenue specification, which cannot be a bad thing and is at least a good starting point. But a minister from every state? 36 ministers before you even start? Surely that is taking Federal Character to an absurd length even for Nigeria?.

I have not said anything about corruption, make of it what you will, maybe I am bored by it or I don't feel particularly like saying anything about the subject, nor have I said anything about the North/South dialogue. On that I would only like to repeat what an elderly gentleman said to me in Ikot Abassi. It is a small town in the Akwa Ibom State in the very south eastern part of the country, it rains there endlessly, everything is very green, and the air feels very damp all the time. About sixty percent of the towns and villages are only reachable by boat, what roads there are, are in an atrocious state, they produce a lot of oil, in many of the villages almost everybody over the age of 30, 35 speaks perfect English, most of the towns have no running water, there is evidence that once upon a time things were better, there is electricity, at least most homes are wired and there are television sets in most living rooms, except at the time I was there, there had been no power for the third week running.

But back to Ikot Abassi and what the old gentleman told me after he had made me tell him my account of the Jos convention at which Obasanjo had emerged as the PDP presidential candidate. We, in the south, are always unifying the north, and the northerners are always dividing the south. If Sani Abacha had been from Enugu and had done all the things he did, no-one from the north would have said "the southerners" are oppressing us, they would have said the "Ibos" or even the Enugu man is oppressing us, thus making sure that the Yorubas wouldn't feel they are being targeted as the enemy as well, nor the Ibibios, nor any of the other numerous groups that go under the broad heading of the South and southerners. And yet the North is as different in its diversity as the south. Should people's anger have been directed against Kano and its people therefore, seeing as General Sani Abacha was a Kano man and is buried there etc. etc., . Maybe for as long as people would take into account that a third of the city of Kano has not had any water running in the taps for the past four years!

But every morning when the young people go to fetch water from wherever, mostly they buy them from enterprising merchants who have tankers that go and bring it from I know not where, every morning, they try on the public standpipes first, just in case. Now that is confidence, seeing there hadn't been a drop out of them for four years.

By Elizabeth Ohene

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