Ojukwu and the discourse of (dis)unity

December 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Kenneth Amaeshi
Guardian Newspapers: Friday, 02 December 2011 00:00
HE came from a wealthy stock. He was educated in the best schools. He was a soldier. He was a radical. He was an adept. Some will describe him as unpatriotic, while others see him as a nationalist. Some see him as a villain and others see him as a hero who fought for justice. In life and in death, Ojukwu appeared to have embodied the paradoxes of life and its extremes.
Notwithstanding his rare characteristics represented in a somewhat mystic personality, the name Ojukwu will for a long time remain synonymous with the defunct Biafra. As the ex-warlord of Biafra, Ojukwu was a historic figure upon which the apparent ethnic and tribal disquiet in Nigeria has been incessantly loaded on to. It is therefore not strange and difficult to see the political class working hard to extract some social and political capital from the Ojukwu discourse even in his death. The quest of the political establishment and her actors in this regard appears to suggest and entrench the view that ethnic and tribal sentiments are still rife in the Nigeria forged by the British for the British – a Nigeria that is more of a concatenated geography for the British interests than a nation of people with common interests.  Ethnicity and tribalism have often been blamed for the ills of Nigeria. I tend to agree with this view, though. However, it raises some interesting questions about the meaning of ethnicity and tribalism in contemporary Nigeria. What defines an ethnic group? What defines a tribe? How relevant and necessary are geography and locality in articulating the meaning of ethnic groups and tribes? Can ethnicity and tribalism be loosely articulated to mean a community bound by a common set of practices?
While I accept that geography and locality matter in articulating and defining ethnic groups and tribes in Nigeria in the traditional sense of it, there is a new ethnic group and tribe in Nigeria today not bound by geography and locality. Rather, they are bound by the aggressive pursuit of their self interests under the guise of national interest. For lack of a better description, I call them the nouveau political and economic elites. They are ruthless in their pursuit and unashamedly vocal and oppressive. Obviously, they are not interested in the Nigeria project, as they are bereft of any identifiable national ideologies. For them, Nigeria is a national cake to be shared. They appear not to see beyond their personal interests; and seem not to see how their carelessness could turn on them destructively. When they are sick, they go abroad because there are no worthy hospitals for them in Nigeria. They send their children and wards abroad for studies, because there are no worthy schools for them in Nigeria. It doesn’t seem to bother them that they are contributing to the growth and development of the other countries they buy from, and invest in, at the expense of Nigeria – our country – and Nigerians. Their usual hobbies and measure of self-worth are expensive assets and gadgets – “my Mercedes is bigger than yours mentality”. They are not up to 1 per cent of Nigerians, yet they hold the rest to ransom and dance on the graves of many. Their common creed is: “Though tribe and tongue may differ, in I-chop-you-chop we stand!” Another name for this ethnic group and tribe is corruption. The group is well embedded in the Nigerian fabric, and have come to epitomise the true meaning and face of multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicism, as the group cuts across the traditional cultures and ethnic groups in Nigeria. This new ethnic group is everywhere in Nigeria, but Abuja appears to aptly capture these gory characteristics in abundance.
Although one can trace the early cracks in Nigeria’s nationhood to the traditional ethnic and tribal tensions that characterised the pre and post independence days, the civil war led by Dim Ojukwu being a classic example of that, I am inclined to think that those ethnic and tribal led tensions have significantly metamorphosed in the course of the modern history of Nigeria. Shortly after the war, in the 1970s, the Igbos (the main ethnic group and tribe represented in the Biafra project), accepted defeat, moved on, and paid the harsh price of marginalisation. They went back to their trades and spread across Nigeria, once again. They have continued to re-integrate themselves into the Nigerian polity. From time to time, however, they become victims of religious riots; but these times, the conflicts and tensions are often defined along religious tribes, which could also unleash their peculiar ethnic and tribal sentiments in their own rights – the sort of sentiments different from the traditional Nigerian ethnic and tribal ones. The Pentecostal churches, for example, represent a different form of multi-ethnicism and multi-culturalism in Nigeria, where brothers and sisters are united not by their State of origin and traditional ethnicity, but by their shared Christian faith. The same also applies to the Muslims and their different sects.
As characteristic of the controversies that trailed Ojukwu in his lifetime, his death has opened a cacophony of discourses, which need to be carefully unpicked.  Since his death, the traditional ethnic and tribal sentiments and discourse are being hyped as if they are as necessary and relevant in today’s Nigeria as they were in the 60s. At best, this comes across as a misrepresentation of the prevalent and dominant ethnic and tribal sentiments in today’s Nigeria. I see it as a false discourse to divert attention from the disunity orchestrated by corruption and looting in Nigeria. At worst, it is a dangerous discourse, which has the tendency of re-opening old wounds – especially as it could easily descend to a condescending overture. In my opinion, the political establishment should exercise some care here – despite what might come across as a very good intention. In return, the Nigerian citizenry should not allow themselves to be deceived by these subtle antics from some members of the political class to (consciously or unconsciously) draw attention to the fading ethnic and tribal sentiments, as the main source of disunity in Nigeria. Instead, we should join forces to hold the political class – the new ethnic group of corruption – accountable and responsible.
This nouveau political and economic class that knows no ethnic and tribal boundaries is the embodiment of disunity in Nigeria and should be subdued and marginalised through constructive and informed actions. I see this article as a discursive action to refocus attention from the waning traditional ethnic and tribal affiliations to the corruption that has continue to stand in the way of Nigeria as a great nation. The discourse of national (dis)unity needs to be captured before it is, once again, exploited by private interests to the disadvantage of many well meaning Nigerians. Whilst the death of Ojukwu unleashes further discourses, this piece being one of them, history will now remain his best judge with regards to his intentions for Nigeria; and others will devote time to deconstruct him as he did deconstruct others in his study of history at the University of Oxford back in the 50s.
Adieu Dim Ojukwu. May God now rest your disembodied soul!
• Dr. Amaeshi is the Director of Sustainable Business Initiatve, University of Edinburgh Business School, and the founder of “Nigerian Thought Leadership Forum.”
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Nigerian middle class and the politics of apathy

December 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Kenneth Amaeshi

Guardian Newspapers: Monday, 11 April 2011 00:00

MOST Nigerians, home and abroad, are very fascinated as the political drama in the country reaches its climax. Those in the diaspora are almost in frenzy about it. When it comes to news about Nigerian politics, they behave like starved lions. Their hunger for authentic news is unquenchable yet understandable. Unfortunately, they are not on ground to actively keep abreast of things for themselves; but rely on sparsely reported, and sometimes filtered, news items on both print and electronic media. Notwithstanding their nuanced perspectives, depending on the news media you pay attention to, from time to time, these Nigerians go back and forth in their analyses of the political happenings in the motherland.

Often, they inadvertently, but erroneously, measure the quality of Nigerian politics against the political standards of the countries they reside in – especially those in North America and Europe. Sometimes, you can feel their frustration and passion for Nigeria to realise its great but latent potential. They want to return to a great country. They know better than most that there is no place like home, and for many of them, they have outstayed their welcome in the diaspora. They want Nigeria to wake up from its slumber and wonder why we can’t make it as a country if other countries less endowed and enriched than we are have made it. These Nigerians in the diaspora are not necessarily in the middle class of the society in which they live in. However, they have been influenced by and socialised into political discourses and the power of politics in the societies in which they live.  They have seen firsthand how the collective power of the people can create positive governance in a good society, by holding the political class to account – an appreciation, which has eluded the ordinary man and woman in Nigeria. This is only a side of the coin.

In contrast to the passion and enthusiasm of the man and woman of the diaspora for a better governed Nigeria, there is this middle class Nigeria resident who is equally aware of good governance practices and, is potentially powerful. However, he has become unshakeably westernised in his tastes and preferences. He might even have lived abroad at some point in time and still has frequent opportunities to migrate beyond the shores of Africa.  Often times, he is materially and financially more advantaged than the average Nigerian in the diaspora.  His typical lifestyle would include a year long season ticket to premiership games, business class flights on business trips and first class flights to exotic locations.  His wife no doubt shares his flair for all things western. Her pastimes include catching up on Oprah Winfrey, Tyra Banks, and Loose Women. Their children are in private schools, with the hope of being transformed into westernised idols and icons.

Both parents probably work for a bank, a telecoms firm, an oil and gas company, or are self-made entrepreneurs in some knowledge-based industry. So many things seem to work well for them, and they try to re-create western lifestyles and tastes in their own self-made world. When you talk to them, they tell you that Nigeria is the place to make the big bucks. But this is where their attachment to Nigeria ends. Aside this, they remain aloof and disconnected from all the goings-on in Nigeria. They can give you a minute by minute analysis of the UK and U.S. by-elections, based of course, on their regular BBC and CNN channel feeds. Yet, they often know close to nothing about the parties and candidates contesting in their local wards. Did they even register to vote? And if they registered, would they vote?

Notwithstanding, this class of people is very knowledgeable. They have been exposed to and know what a good society should look like. To a large extent, and without prejudice, they are decent individuals who have worked their way to the top, counting less on good luck and banking more on hard work. They have grown to be independent of the government, and as such find the government very irrelevant to their cause. In the main, they think that the Nigerian brand of politics is a dirty and unprofessional game that should be left for the touts and no-gooders. Albeit, this perception is gradually changing, but not in quantum leaps and bounds. On the few occasions when they engage in political discourse, they know what is wrong with Nigeria and what could be good for the country, yet for reasons best known to them, they do not want to be part of the solution. As the proverbial underground animal, they have created escape routes in case Nigeria goes bad at any time. They have multiple nationalities – are their children not American and or European citizens? In sum, they are prone to behave like holocausts and feed on Nigeria as parasites. It is this detachment that is overly worrying.

However, given the global reach of their mindset, the average middle class resident Nigerian is usually de-tribalised. He constitutes a potential powerful force to re-balance the Nigerian political dynamics and landscape, only if he could be meaningfully engaged. His votes are not likely to be bought, since he is to a large extent financially self sufficient. He can serve as a credible link between the top and the bottom of the Nigerian polity. He can afford to hold the political class accountable. He can add rigour and vibrancy to the demands of the grass-root political activists. His mind offers a very fertile ground to sow the seed of ideology driven politics. Yet he remains passive and aloof. What will wake this sleeping giant amongst us, many ask? Definitely, not the old generation politicians who strive on the political patronage of god-fatherism with no ideological bent. These politicians are mere political prostitutes who epitomise the grand principle of the oldest trade: “money for hand, back for ground”.

Despite the political hopelessness of the nouveau middle class in Nigeria, I sense some level of optimism for change. This change, I suspect, will be led by the internet and information communication technologies. It will be led by the twitters, the facebooks, linkedins, and blackberries of this world. These technologies are beginning to serve as a link between the grass-root passions of Nigerians in the diaspora and the economic power of the middle class Nigerians resident in the country. I suspect that through these media, the tastes and preferences of the middle class Nigerian resident would be challenged to the point that he would be galvanised into very potent political astuteness. There have been pockets of such as the elections roll on.

Irrespective of their rudimentary nature, they could contribute to some permanent changes to the fundamentals of the Nigerian politics that has for a long time now been constrained by religious bigotry and ethnic rivalries promoted by corrupt and selfish politicians. To further demonstrate the power of the internet generation, as I was about wrapping up this piece, I got this message on my blackberry in relation to the Senate and House of Representatives election: “MESSAGE to the winning teams: We didn’t vote for you, we voted for change, if you mess up, you’re out in 4 years or before then. TRUST US!” One can only hope and wish that our politicians wake up to this new age politics; and long may the struggle continue!

 • Dr Amaeshi teaches Strategy & International Business at the University of Edinburgh Business School United Kingdom.

Petroleum Subsidy Removal: a grand illusion or a trust rebuilding exercise?

December 27, 2011 § 4 Comments

Kenneth Amaeshi

The recent live debate on the proposed subsidy removal on Channels television focused on the question “Removal of Petroleum Subsidy: In whose Interest?”  I watched the debate with keen interest, and must congratulate the organisers for such an initiative, which demonstrates an emerging democratic culture in Nigeria and the critical role of the media in that process. I thought it was a very balanced debate between the government team represented by Okonjo-Iweala (Minister of Finance), Deziani Alison-Madueke (Minister of Petroleum Resources), and Sanusi Lamido Sanusi (Governor of the Central Bank) and the people’s team represented by Olisa Agbakoba (Lawyer and Human Rights Activist), Isa Aremu (Labour Economist), Ben Bruce (Media Entrepreneur), and Femi Falana (Human Rights Lawyer).

The government team made and defended the case for the removal of subsidy. From my understanding of their position, they mainly based their arguments for the subsidy removal on the optimism that it would make financial resources available for other infrastructural and development initiatives; and spur both local and foreign investors to invest in the Nigerian economy. The government team defended its corner vociferously, latching on one neoclassical economics tenet or the other – ranging from the forces of demand and supply to rent-seeking behaviours created by inefficiencies in the system. One thing the government team excelled at was to accentuate their free-market ideology and its accompanying   economic principles, while undermining the institutional requirements necessary for effective subsidy removal. For them, it was relatively easy to separate the effectiveness of the subsidy removal from its institutional context. And that, in my opinion, weakened their argument.

Economic thinking and scholarship have evolved to recognise the role of institutions in shaping economic policies. A branch of economics known as institutional economics, which scholars further developed in the late 20th century, was primarily established as a response to this recognition. This view has led to the understanding that there are multiple versions of economic capitalism informed by differences in institutional contexts, historical antecedents, and systemic configuration. For example, there are variations between the European style of capitalism, which is often referred to as stakeholder capitalism because of it consensual approach and close state-market interaction, and the shareholder capitalism of North America driven by arms length free-market ideology. In addition, there is an evolving Sino-capitalism from China characterised by heavy State involvement in the governance of markets.

These different forms of capitalist systems, which reflect the diversity and historicity of societies, are meant to internalise local realities and bring some customisation and domestication to economic policies. Unfortunately, this form of economic customisation is often missing when it comes to economic planning and implementation in Africa, especially when led by hyper neo-liberal economic actors such as the World Bank and the IMF. And that’s why most of the economic policies they champion in the continent have continued to perform abysmally. The implementation challenges of the structural adjustment programme of the mid 1980s, for example, were a classical case in hand, which necessitated the 2002 World Development Report on Building Institutions for Markets.

Empirical evidence from institutional economics suggests that the main socio-economic problems in Nigeria are traceable to poor governance, weak institutional context, and lack of institutional trust. As a result, Nigerians who have suffered repeatedly under successive brutal regimes and have been disappointed many times by kleptocratic governments will find it difficult to believe a word of what the government of the day says.  This is a necessary context for the appreciation of the subsidy debate. Going by the tenets of institutional economics, before any subsidy removal, the government needs to win the hearts and minds of the people through tangible actions – including containing its own prominent financial extravagancy and profligate Epicureanism. To acknowledge that the government is over-bloated and do nothing about it, as a necessary first step, appears to me as a miscalculated judgment and a further manifestation of the old behaviour, which the people detest. For once bitten, twice shy.

But it does not end there. Poor governance and weak institutional context are recipes for creating successful markets for corruption. Corruption, as one of the deadly socio-economic ‘diseases’, has continued to threaten and diminish quality of life in Nigeria.  Pretending that the removal of the subsidy would work, without first addressing the issue of corruption in Nigeria, is one of the best examples of grand illusion of our time. It is nothing but an ostentatious belief that a basket will one day hold water. In other words, despite the rhetoric that subsidy removal is about helping the poor in the country, it only appears that the government is much more prepared to spend resources and time on the symptoms rather than the main problems of corruption orchestrated and perpetrated by cabals, who are by no means hidden from the glaring gaze of the government and its agents. Claiming that the subsidy removal is the best option, for now, is simply playing the ostrich. It is akin to building a castle on faulty foundations with the misplaced hope that all would be well after few further structures have been built on it. The argument of the government team sounded very much like this very erroneous conception of reality.

The points made by the government for the subsidy removal are only tangential to their arguments and could be met without necessarily going down the route of subsidy removal.  In the first instance, the government can find money to meet its infrastructural and development needs by plugging the existing holes and leakages in the system and trimming itself, if it claims to be competent. Latching on to subsidy removal as an easy prey seems intellectually lacklustre and politically lazy. President Jonathan should read the handwriting on the wall and respect the intelligence of the masses. The people are not as dull and passive as the government may want to believe. The people have been hard pressed for so long, which would prompt any reasonable person to conjecture that Nigeria is teetering on the edge at this moment and a cost shift in the name of subsidy removal could send the country over the cliff. The lessons from the Arab Spring are still very much fresh in the minds of people. On the other hand, to suggest that the rent-seekers are the main problem and yet do nothing about arresting, prosecuting, and punishing them if found guilty, is a million dollar question begging for a credible and trustworthy answer from a government that is struggling to win the people’s trust. It won’t be surprising if Nigerians would wait long for an answer since these rent-seekers appear to have some strong god-fathers behind them and probably in power.

Finally, the claim that foreign investors will come to Nigeria only if the subsidy is removed is bogus. There is no sound research behind this claim, and the government could do better than this. Most foreign investors ask for good and benevolent investment climate, which includes good governance, respect for the rule of law, security, and protection of property. Nigerians do not need soothsayers to know that these are clear areas where successive governments have continued to fail them. The current boko haram debacle, if uncurbed, will do more harm to the drive for foreign investments than any subsidy could. Thinking that the subsidy removal will do the magic is preposterous. Removing the subsidy without, first strengthening our governance institutions will rather attract dangerous foreign investors to exploit and repatriate our resources to their home countries. These are not the type of foreign investors we want in Nigeria. Encouraging such would be the height of economic un-patriotism. The telecoms sector, which is often celebrated as a success story, is still struggling with its institutional challenges and massive capital flight. We should set our house in order, first, by enhancing our governance institutions as we try to attract foreign and local investors. The government should be sincere to the people, at least for once by doing the first things, first!

Dr Amaeshi holds a PhD in Political Economy and International Business. He teaches Strategy and International Business at the University of Edinburgh, UK; and is the Founder of Nigerian Thought Leadership Forum

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