A young Lagosian friend was in Abuja last week and decided to pay me a visit. I had not seen her for a long time so when welcoming her, I joked, “Eyinlokan” (meaning it’s your turn, in reference to the inauguration of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu which she had earlier told me brought her to town). But she interjected, “Uncle Segun, you are in the old; the slogan now is ‘awalawanbe’”, (meaning, ‘we are now fully in charge’ or to put it in pidgin, ‘we full ground remain’). Since we often learn important lessons from jokes, my concern is that under the current dispensation ‘Awalawanbe’ can connote either service for the public good or hubris.
President Tinubu came to office with a pledge to take tough decisions – exactly what times like this demand if Nigeria is to overcome its enormous challenges. That he has started to act in such direction is also not in doubt. With just four cynical words, “fuel subsidy is gone”, Tinubu may have succeeded where his predecessors failed. On Monday, the last (and biggest) resistance on the issue of fuel subsidy removal fell with the decision by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) to suspend its nationwide strike earlier scheduled to commence yesterday. In deference to the judgement of the National Industrial Court, the NLC opted to join negotiations with the federal government. But as Professor Olatunji Dare pointed out in his column on Tuesday, the usual ‘palliatives’ will not do for the most vulnerable Nigerians. “The protections (that the federal government needs to offer) will have to be substantial, well-targeted, and delivered transparently,” he wrote. I believe that for the first time, Nigerians have resigned themselves to the reality that the fuel subsidy regime is indeed gone. As an aside, I learnt during the week that in the sociology department of a Nigerian University, one ‘Ogbologbo’ lecturer has already tasked his students to write a term paper on ‘The impact of fuel subsidy removal on inter-state adultery’!
Meanwhile, fighting corruption may not have been a campaign issue for Tinubu but I have a feeling that he may be the one who dismantles the architecture of this wholesale corruption in Nigeria. If you successfully remove the subsidy element from the downstream sector of the petroleum industry and free the exchange rate of scandalous arbitrage, those two actions alone could take away as much as 50 percent of the public private partnership (PPP) corruption in Nigeria. We can then begin to deal with the equally monumental retail corruption that feeds from abuse of power and lack of transparency and accountability in the public space. For those who may not understand how subsidy enables unwholesome practices, they can go through my 857-page e-book, ‘The Verbatim Report: The Inside Story of the Fuel Subsidy Scam’ published in 2013. It is available on my web portal, olusegunadeniyi.com for free download: http://bit.ly/1EY9s80.
However, now that he has succeeded in removing the fuel subsidy, it would pay the president to also extend ‘tough decisions’ to his own immediate family. Nothing erodes the credibility of a Nigerian leader as quickly as when family members constitute themselves into principalities and powers. Unlike Lagos, Abuja is a small town where there are no secrets. And inside Aso Rock, there are flies on every wall (perhaps the ubiquitous ‘demons’ that my friend, Reuben Abati keeps talking about). Already, tales abound of entitled persons who want to create ‘Office of The First Son’, ‘Office of The First Daughter’, ‘Office of The First Cousin’ etc. It is in the interest of the president to crush such inordinate ambitions before they become a problem for him and his administration.
The early days represent the most important period for any government in Nigeria because that is when appointments are made. It is also a period for signaling. Already, Abuja is filled with the usual job seekers, so this is also the season for influence peddlers. Displaying ‘Awalawanbe’ by people who were not on the ballot on 25th February will be counterproductive for Tinubu and his administration. Even if we discount the controversy that trailed his election, Tinubu still came to office with 37 percent of the total votes cast. That means almost two thirds of Nigerians who exercised their franchise on 25th February did not vote for him. Statistically, that is a very narrow mandate. Yet, with less than two weeks in office, he has succeeded in getting Nigerians to bear the pains and disruptions associated with the removal of fuel subsidy. That is a big gesture that the president and his handlers should not misread.
Under his predecessor, there were shadow presidents (young and old) who carved out empires for themselves and were engaged in all kinds of shenanigans. But given the contradictions in his personal and political life, Tinubu would not get away with such infractions. The challenge of the moment is how he can rise above himself to establish a legacy that could cleanse his past sins and prepare him for heroic statesmanship. It is not impossible. If Tinubu runs a minimally credible government with sensible policies that promote economic recovery and national unity, he may regain elite solidarity and consensus. If his policies improve the general welfare of ordinary people, his popular support will also improve and blur his electoral and personal handicaps.
For that to happen, President Tinubu needs to be ‘aware’ of what is going on around him at this most critical period!
APC and the 2015 Echoes
Election of National Assembly presiding officers should be routine, especially since voting is only by members. But in Nigeria, nothing is ever straightforward. We now have a situation where contenders for the offices of Senate President, Deputy Senate President, House of Representatives Speaker, and Deputy are running expensive media campaigns. And the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) seems not to have learnt any lesson from what happened eight years ago. With ill-gotten money from ‘Paris Club refund’, some fat cats think they can buy the Senate gavel and the rest of us should go to hell on the issue of fairness, equity, and diversity in a plural state. They must not succeed.
Now, let me make something clear. To build a society where majority of the people are lifted out of poverty, there must be collaboration between the executive and the legislature. That precisely is how the presidential system of government which we copied from the United States was designed to function. And for that reason, it is important for the National Assembly leadership to work in harmony with the executive, especially when the ruling party is in the majority at the federal level. However, the idea of checks and balances would not work if the legislature were shackled by the executive as we can also see in practically all the 36 states of the country today.
To that extent, the next National Assembly cannot be an appendage of the executive. As the institution with the power of the purse, it should not only be independent, but it should also be seen to be so. I am therefore advocating that when they convene next week, members should be allowed to elect their presiding officers without any form of coercion from the executive. That is also hoping that the members themselves will be responsible enough to consider the necessity for ethno-religious balancing in the country. While most Nigerians would agree that the 9th Senate under Saraki was far more productive than the outgoing 9th under Lawan, the manner of his emergence as Senate President was a problem for the APC right from the beginning.
As a reminder and warning, I want to recall excerpts from my 11th June 2015 column, ‘Saraki, Dogara and APC’s Naivety’.
Following the election of Dr. Bukola Saraki and Hon. Yakubu Dogara as Senate President and House of Representatives’ Speaker respectively on Tuesday, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) National Publicity Secretary, Olisa Metuh, released a cynical statement. He told the APC to “stop whining and accept the will of the people, respect the independence of the legislature, as the PDP is not responsible for their naivety and crass inexperience.”
I believe that the APC leaders will do well to heed Metuh’s admonition. To imagine that the person you needed to truncate a legally convened legislative session is the Inspector General of Police rather than the Clerk of the National Assembly was poor judgement. And not following on what was happening within the PDP camp was a sign that the APC leaders still need to learn the ropes when it comes to high-wire politics in Abuja.
The night before the election, 47 PDP Senators had gathered at the Apo Legislative Quarters’ residence of the immediate past Senate President David Mark to present to him three options. Option one: Exploit the division within the rank of the APC by sponsoring Mark to contest for the office of Senate President. The argument was that by the Senate rule, all that a winner needed was a simple majority and since neither of the two APC contenders (Ahmed Lawan and Bukola Saraki) would likely step down for the other, Mark would get more votes. And once that happened, Mark could take the gavel. The only thing the APC could do in such situation would be to go to court. But Mark declined the offer. Option two: Conduct a mock poll among themselves (the PDP Senators in attendance) on who between the two APC candidates, (Lawan or Saraki) they should back but with the proviso that PDP would produce the Deputy Senate President. That was something they were not prepared to negotiate. Option three: Allow the APC to nominate a candidate, then counter-nominate another APC Senator and give him their block vote in what would amount to divide and rule.
This option has a precedent. A similar scenario played out at the Cross River State House of Assembly in 1991 during the transition to civil rule programme of General Ibrahim Babangida when there were two political parties, the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). While Mr. Clement Ebri of the NRC won the gubernatorial election, his party secured only 12 of the 25 seats in the House of Assembly with the SDP winning the remaining 13. On the day of the election of Speaker, there was drama. The moment the SDP nominated its candidate for the office, a member from the NRC nominated another SDP member to be Speaker and he went on to win on the strength of his own vote added to that of the 12 NRC members. As it would happen, the said SDP member had done a deal with the NRC by trading away the position of Deputy Speaker.
By Monday night, at the end of what was the third PDP meeting in Mark’s house, it was the second option that prevailed. But with 32 of the 49 PDP Senators coming from the South-east and South-south, there was a strong argument at the meeting that Lawan, most favoured by Mark, holds extreme views when it comes to the issue of North and South. “He is, in fact, seen as a northern irredentist. From the PIB debate to confirmation of appointments to state of emergency and insurgency debates, Lawan employs hurtful, arrogant, and clearly divisive dictions”, said a returning Senator from the South-east. That gave Saraki a huge advantage.
However, the biggest odd against Saraki was that he had long-running ego issues with Mark who considers him arrogant and disrespectful. There was also an argument at the meeting that supporting Saraki by PDP would be like rewarding bad behaviour since he was one of the people who brought the party down. However, Ekweremadu argued in Saraki’s favour that he is more cosmopolitan and nationalistic in his approach to issues. A PDP Senator also told Mark that since Saraki was once a member of the family, it would be easier to work with him than with someone like Lawan who had never been a member of PDP in the last 16 years of his membership of National Assembly (eight years in the House and eight in the Senate).
So, even before the PDP Senators began to cast their mock ballots, it had been concluded that with Lawan being the choice of the APC, it was more pragmatic to go with Saraki who had been sounded out and had agreed to run with a PDP man for the office of Deputy Senate President. The choice of Ekweremadu was also strategic because, being very close to Mark, that helped to douse whatever ill-feeling the former Senate President may harbour against Saraki. There was also a strong sentiment against Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu at the meeting as many of the Senators argued that a vote for Lawan would be a vote for the APC National Leader. It was the same sentiment that was employed against Femi Gbajabiamila in the House of Representatives.
With the mock poll conducted among the PDP Senators while Mark and Ekweremadu abstained, Saraki polled 28 votes and Lawan secured 17 votes. By this time, the acting PDP National Chairman, Chief Uche Secondus and Metuh, who were practically in Mark’s house throughout Monday, had entered the fray to seal the decision of the Senators as that of the party. Saraki was then brought into the meeting where he agreed to offer the position of Deputy Senate President to the PDP, specifically to Ekweremadu.
However, once the APC leaders got wind of the PDP decision, a meeting was immediately scheduled for 9am at the International Conference Centre (ICC), just one hour ahead of the time that the National Assembly was supposed to be inaugurated. Meanwhile, since the president had already transmitted to the Clerk of the National Assembly the proclamation order and did not withdraw it, Mark and Ekweremadu, experienced in such matters (with sufficient clout to put pressure on the Clerk) knew the APC Senators were misreading the rule of the game by staying away from their inaugural session on the pretext of holding a party meeting elsewhere. To worsen matters, attempts were made to use the police to prevent the National Assembly members from entering the premises. Who gave the directive is still a matter of speculations, but it only infuriated the PDP Senators who rallied behind Saraki who had also got some of his APC senate colleagues to attend the session. By 6am, Saraki was already inside the National Assembly premises.
10am on the dot, the Clerk of the National Assembly commenced the session for the election of principal officers in the Senate. With Lawan and several of his APC colleagues still marooned at the ICC, Saraki was nominated for the post of Senate President and since he was unopposed with enough senators to make a simple majority, there was no contest. By the time the APC leaders and the senators (who were still expecting the president to arrive the ICC) realised the futility of their action, it was all over. Many of course rushed back to the National Assembly only to meet Saraki holding the gavel as the Senate President…
ENDNOTE: Enough said!
The African Migrants
In October 2021, I received a call from Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka, seeking permission to take excerpts from my book, ‘From Frying Pan to Fire: How African Migrants Risk Everything in their Futile Search for a Better Life in Europe’, for a project he was working on. He laughed when I told him that I would feel honoured if he took the entire contents of the book. A few days later, I got a mail from Ms Tanya Larkins, an award-winning writer who teaches at the department of English, Tufts University, United States. She said she was acting on behalf of Soyinka for a publication, ‘The Black in the Mediterranean Blue’ in the anniversary issue of ‘TRANSITION: The magazine of Africa and the Disapora’. After signing and returning the permission request document, I heard nothing again from her.
Last week, I eventually received a copy of the 463-page publication where seven pages were devoted to excerpts from my book. Guest edited by Soyinka with Ms Alessadra Di Miao, the central theme is the perils of irregular migration from the continent, especially across the Mediterranean Sea. With contributions from 78 respected intellectuals and professionals from across the world, (many either of African or Italian descent), the publication is very compelling. As Di Miao, who teaches African Literature and Post-colonial studies at the University of Palermo, Italy, reminds readers, “today’s migrants tread the same ancient slave-routes dating back to the Roman Empire.”
Reading through the collection is rather sobering. But it should also be a clarion call for African leaders. If we create the enabling environment for our young people to thrive, they would not be risking their lives on the Mediterranean Sea. “Between the covers of this special edition,” Soyinka wrote in the introduction, “our readers will encounter some truly harrowing narratives of the Mediterranean experience. The defining morality of these ‘encounters of a close shave’ is ultimately—Choice. Many had none.”