Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Nigeria's financial markets: Grave and present danger

AS humankind gets into a financial and economic crisis being unanimously described as a meltdown and the plausible beginning of a world economic recession, it is apt to reassess the Nigeria financial authorities' engagement with the matter at hand, and where our embryonic money and capital markets would find insulation from the collateral shocks already holding sway. All over the world, comparisons are being made of the current events with the recession years of the 1920s and 1930s.

What was derisively regarded, a year or so ago, as small town America sub-prime loans problem has today metamorphosed to multibillion-dollar bank crashes, nationalisation of legendary businesses and interventions by several Governments to bail out banks. Without doubt, the landscape of the world economy is being redrawn by the colossal loss of fortune by both banks and non-bank financial institutions and the wipe-out of the middle class borrower. The magnitude of the credit collapse and its multiplier effects is estimated to be in excess of US$ trillions (not computing emotions and damaged lives) in the OECD countries, that is, the world's net surplus and donor countries.

In the immediate past year, the Nigerian Stock market had recorded phenomenal growth, month after month was a record performance and the world was said to be toasting to its very impressive returns to investors, albeit, its new and impatient investors. Every trading session was a self-fulfilling prophecy of growth. In the money market, the banks have been leveraging on the post consolidation boom to post unprecedented profits and dividends though the commitment of bank credit to the real sector of the economy has become a vexing challenge to its touted profit figures.

For most part of this year, commentaries on the Nigerian Stock market and the Money market have been strident that the apparent intensity of trades and turnover being witnessed there is being driven not by so much growth in the fundamental indices of the Nigerian economy, but by a mix of bankers, domestic speculators and a new breed of overseas money managers testing their feet in the exotic African market. In the past fortnight, it has all turned from sour to outright panic.

Stock price index having declined nearly 40 per cent from its January 2008 point is about to move into a freefall and there are genuine fears the trend may not be staunched until a so-called correction of Nigerian stock market exuberance has fully taken place.

In the wake of widespread monetary and capital markets dislocation across the world, Nigerian financial markets show that they are hardly immunised against these externalities. Some consequences had tip-toed in the past months namely: International hedge funds managers have taken flight with their estimated US$10b Nigerian markets portfolio; Credit lines to Nigerian banks for Letters of Credit have been constricted if not cancelled altogether; fund-raising for the nascent Nigeria Infrastructure fund is massively jeopardised.

To the extent that no one, now, disputes the global village profile, where money comes only to its safest haven, the current crisis calls for a robust domestic response and then also, the need to erect whatever brick wall as a supplement to what the world benchmark institutions have also put up against the global meltdown.

The response of the lead Nigerian monetary authority, the Ministry of Finance has been laughable: it constituted a Presidential Advisory panel made up of the same operatives whose actions and prejudices required independent review in the first place. It also publicly hinted that it would send N50 billion into the stock market.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, on its part, constituted two expert panels to deal with market issues in Governance and Operations and submit their reports at the end of 2008; a measure, laudable in itself as medium term response but doubtful as an appropriate response to raging market indiscretions especially alleged insider trading and the prop up of banking and insurance sectors' stocks.

The Nigerian Stock Exchange authorities went in search of emergency market makers to hold the basket as the floodgate to dumped shares opened without concurrence with its supervisory agency or the federal legislative watchdogs.

On its part, Central Bank of Nigeria held an emergency Monetary Policy Committee meeting and announced an adjustment of the monetary policy instruments-Monetary Policy Rate, liquidity and cash reserve ratios to increase liquidity in the system. It became unusually taciturn thereafter. An action that the industry suggests is a direct fallout of the recent undermining of the CBN leadership.

One attribute of all these reactions stand out: they were uncoordinated and tentative. More importantly too, there was no market or indeed, political leadership to take ownership of the initiatives. Another is that, in beating back a financial market trend, speed plus robustness are imperatives because a major cause in the market is the calculus of fear and uncertainty. It is important to convey the determination, vigour, competence and resolve of the authorities to hold a trade position. In the enlightened economies, the highest professional and political leadership took over the pronouncements to the markets, assuaging the people and ensuring accountability to the legislatures.

All the measures by Nigeria's four disparate money and capital markets authorities appear half thought - through on their announcement dates and as days ran further, it became apparent to the financial markets that the implementation frameworks were uncharted. Fear and uncertainty legitimately increased.

The notion that this trend can be sufficiently contained by short-cuts solutions has been stealthily debunked in the past four months by events in those same markets. We are amazed, for instance, at the slapdash gestures choreographed by the Central Bank of Nigeria: it was reluctant to admit its discomfort with margin trading and this was eventually poorly communicated in a market where information is the cornerstone; it pulled its punch on implementing the uniform end of year for the banks - a policy initiative announced long ago and well agreed that this is a panacea to clean up all the banks' books once and for all; as well as its recent instruction to banks to have their lending and deposit rates published on the internet - a directive operating since the 1990s, the publication in all banking halls. How many infractions of these rates have the CBN banking examiners who are to monitor actual transaction costs in the about 5,000 bank business offices in Nigeria sanctioned?

Unlike in many other countries where the stock market perfectly mirrors the economy and state of the nation, it could be argued that the Nigerian money and capital markets only mirror in part the formal economy. This opinion may even be sustained by the abrasive claim that about 40 per cent of currency in circulation is still outside the banking system. That is not sufficient to accept the authorities' cavalier approach to a major market crisis. A large number of Nigerian middle class joined the financial markets and encouraged by the lending policy of the banks, rode what has become a tiger. Greed and fear have now come full cycle.

While many have burnt their shirts, it need be said that Nigerians must not be allowed the delusion that there is fool-proof reward without risk, there are bound to be winners and losers in both the money and capital markets. Hopefully, the CBN-inspired elongation of loans tenure may turn the corner for these victims of the meltdown.

But the Nigerian financial markets have grown dramatically in the past five years to rank as a medium term power-house and currently mirror the promise of a nation that would someday, not too distant, meet the challenges of the 21st century world in terms of opportunities for domestic credit, wealth creation and infrastructure financing.

The state of affairs in the world markets is unprecedented. With globalisation, and it can be averred that despite it, the situation in Nigeria's financial market today is grave. Let the current crisis be availed for cleanup of both regulators and the market operators to inaugurate a fresh, though battered, beginning.

This danger presents a demand for leadership in all respects to stabilise the Nigerian markets and prescribe a detailed indigenous road map. We call on all the affected authorities to emulate the rest of their counterparts in the world and sit up to the emergent reality.

EFCC and the missing files

BARELY one week ago, one of Nigeria's globally acclaimed literary giants, Prof. Chinua Achebe in a keynote address at the Silver Jubilee lecture of The Guardian in Lagos succinctly captured the Nigerian of this generation: "Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting..." Nigeria needs help, he submitted shortly after he declared her a prodigiously endowed but incredibly wayward country. He has his reasons for choosing that distinguished audience to direct his words of wisdom. You may want to agree with him or disagree with him. But the fact is that certain developments in the country do confound Nigerians themselves, enough to lend credence to such assertions by those who should know, really.

Being a Nigerian could be frustrating and unbelievably exciting indeed if we could wake up one day to be told by a watchdog agency we have all come to admire for its courage to battle corruption and reduce corrupt tendencies among the itchy fingers in high places that case files on suspects are missing. I shudder to think what the future holds for this great nation if the generation that should learn from the mistakes of the present are inadvertently being encouraged by the omission or commission of the commission to perfect the styles of the big guns and be more daring at treasury looting.

Mrs Farida Waziri is in charge at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) having succeeded Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, the diminutive man politicians loved to hate. Mrs. Waziri promised at her inauguration she would step on toes because of the nature of her job. We don't have any cause to doubt her but she has literally had none to step on yet. Now, she has been given a big job to do now as she may have to look inward to find out what happened to the case files of more than 21 former governors who had been investigated by Mallam Nuhu during his tenure and had been certified fit to be tried. We are waitng for her to report back to Nigerians. The Ribadu we know was not used to making frivolous claims in the course of doing his job. He unceremoniously took his exit courtesy of the powerful forces he had taken on then. Some of these power brokers Ribadu allegedly declared corrupt and reported 31 of the ex-governors to the Senate last year. Ten have already been arraigned including the latest Rashidi Ladoja(Oyo), BoniHaruna(Adamawa),Saminu Turaki(Jigawa), Ayo Fayose (Ekiti),James Ibori(Delta),Orji kalu(Abia),Lucky Igbinedion(Edo),Chimaroke Nnamani (Enugu), Joshua Dariye(Plateau) and Jolly Nyame, a reverend from Taraba State.

By Monday this week at a public forum, the new EFCC boss stunned her audience saying there was nothing in the other ex-governors' files with the commission to warrant prosecution. "If there is nothing in the files there is nothing I can do," she declared., as my Igbo brothers would love to interject when they strongly disagree with an opinion or a claim. I disagree, madam. There is a lot you can do to find out what the position is, one of which is to officially contact Mallam Ribadu for assistance. He is still a public officer whose allegiance is to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Then you can begin to ask some salient questions especially from your staff and operatives. Did Ribadu leave any such files for investigations to proceed? Could any or some of the EFCC agents have been compromised to remove sensitive documents from the files? Does the agency make provision for back-ups? Even in this age of advanced technology, are we saying an agency as sensitive as the EFCC does not have e-storage links for its data, similar to the one being used by the Central Securities and Clearing Systems(CSCS) in the stocks market which is said to be indestructible?

If the files and statements are distorted, who tampered with them in the custody of the anti-graft agency, and when was this?

At the same round table in Abuja, a mild drama was also reported when Waziri claimed she had no petition standing against former President Olusegun Obasanjo. The CNPP representative at the forum, Mr Osita Okechukwu, disputed her claims as he drew her attention to the three petitions the conference sent to the agency. Okechukwu fired:"How can you talk about fighting corruption when you have consistently ignored the petitions we sent to your commission...?" The boss also gave an excuse that the ex-public officers had learnt smarter ideas of making the agency's prosecution and recovery of stolen money more difficult. Ma, what do you expect them to do; fold arms and shamelessly lament that their being exposed is an act of God?

For goodness sake we are talking about transparency accountability of those in positions of trust. There should be no rooms for excuses. In spite of the ridicule arrests by operatives of the agency have subjected the looters to, I am not sure it has stopped the tendency to loot the coffers the more even among the present generation of elected or public officials. It is logical. There would always be the temptation to dip their ugly fingers into the common wealth because the few identified looters are still going around unashamedly and calling the shots in the society; it has taken an age to determine their culpability. Former Bayelsa governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha and former police chief Tafa Balogun must be so unlucky to have their petitions dispensed with so quickly as to make them look like devils among the saints.

Are we surprised that there is and would always be a mad and deadly rush for public offices in spite of EFCC threats? The lures of office are simply irresistible for any deterrence. The looters will always get smarter as Mrs Waziri fears, at least until the bubble bursts.

The EFCC may be trying its best within the available resources and the environment it operates. But their perceived lawful approach to law enforcement could only be made more meaningful and pungent if there are no half measures in arrests or prosecution of offenders. In law, there ought not to be any sacred cow as Nigerians now believe, rightly or wrongly. The spirit of 'there is nothing I can do' must be banished from Waziri's mind. Then and only then would she have proved to be working in the country's interest and for the people, whose common wealth has been plundered as if there would be no tomorrow. The missing files have to be recovered. If they cannot be traced, the alternative is to start all over again. I refuse to buy the idea that all hope is lost on the former governors who misplaced the trust their people placed in them. They are not going to have the last laugh. They must be made to account for their deeds and misdeeds.

The suffering continues

Trust sarcastic Nigerians. They are ever ingenious in coining phrases to fit acronyms of some national institutions. Take NEPA (the electricity firm that transformed to PHCN) for example. The inefficiency of the body was enough to coin Never Expect Power Always. So it is with the National Youth Service Corps(NYSC) which simply became Now Your Suffering Continues. It is assumed that students generally suffer in school in pursuit of the ultimate - the degree. Going into the national service for many of them again turn to be nightmares. The objectives of the scheme remain as laudable as ever but the scheme has been bastardized first,through under-mobilization of corps members. The attempt to mop up the avoidable excess of the past is the current over-mobilisation. The exercise has been particularly harrowing for majority of them who emerged from the backlog. They have become lay-about around town because they can't secure places of primary assignment. The inability to secure places is not new but I understand this current stream under batches A,B and now C is, for the commission, like biting more than one can chew conveniently. This I think is also traced to the uncoordinated admission processes in various institutions many years ago until the NUC woke up from a slumber to restore sanity in the system. Our educational system should not remain a laughing stock in the international community.

Neglect safety and perish

"IF wishes were horses, then beggars would ride". This old saying, in our age, the age of innovationism, modernism, progressivism, changism, globalism, newism, secularism, and materialism refers, not to beggars, but to bio-scientists, bio-engineers, bio-technologist, molecular bio-logists, and stem cell bio-cloners. Of interest is the relation between innovation and diseases. Nigerian's traditionally, are not people who carry out actions based on or because of the use of language, except, where language is used to command a person to act in a particular or specific way or manner. If no command is given, Nigerians, traditionally, are moved to act by what they see.

We are, traditionally, empiricists and inductionists; not rationalists and deductionists. The British are also, traditionally, empiricists and inductionists, not rationalists and deductionists, as their philosophical origin shows. That is where Nigerians and British people share a common intellectual and epistemological root and culture. When it is said that a nation or an ethnic group has empiricism and inductionism as its philosophical and epistemological methodology, that does not mean that the nation or ethic group did not think or depend on thought for their way of life. What is intended is that the beginning of their epistemological process was keen observation (empiricism). Then they subjected what they observed to reason or thought (rationalism). The next stage is to see or identify a relation or connecting factor or principle between one observation and another observation and more than one other observation. Finally, to generalise based on the identification and establishment of the truth of the connection between two things and among more than two things observed.

Let me illustrate this using Nigeria. In Nigeria, Igbo people, Ndi Igbo, say: Afunaanya ekwe. This means, literally, when it is seen, it is consented to or agreed with. It expresses empiricism-based epistemology. We are familiar with the saying: "Seeing is believing". This, although the same as the Igbo expression, it is believed, comes from British traditional epistemology and represents the British tradition of empiricism-inductionism-based epistemological methodology. The Igbo expression warns against dependence on a second source for knowledge concerning anything. It advises, promotes and encourages independence in achieving knowledge about anything and everything. "Independence" used here, does not mean that one should block his ears and turn off his mind against information from anyone; or that one should not read any book, attend any school, or take lectures at a university. What it means, is that one must see, if it is possible to see, experiment, if it is possible to experiment, or intellectualise if neither the former nor the later is possible, before one accepts anything or makes conclusion about anything.

Yoruba people say: Iroyin ko ni to afi oju ba, eni ti o ba de ibe ni ole so. This means, story, told by a person, is less than seeing by a person, the person who is present at an event or scene (alone) can speak about it. The "alone" is implicit. The saying posits that truth rests on the one who is present at an event or scene alone and not on the one who later informs another person about it or writes about it. The reason for this is clear: The person who tells another person may add his version and therefore distort the truth. He may pervert it or change it altogether. Whatever the one who later tells the story says or writes, it would be impossible for him to say or write about what is, that is, reality as reality - aliquid est - objectively. Just as in the analysis of the starting point of Igbo epistemology, the Yoruba eni ti o ba de ibe, the one who gets there - seemingly through physical presence alone - does not only mean being physically present at an invent alone.

It means that and it means, in addition to that, carrying out a personal experiment or intellectualisation of the object of pursuit or interest as a thing that is worth knowing and desired as an object of knowledge, carrying out a personal experiment or intellectualisation of a thing that is another person's, nation's or organisation's idea, theory, model, practice, standard, ethics or value; or in respect of a physical object that is obtrusive, challenging, threatening, or attractive, before making a judgment and decision about it. When one experiments or intellectualises a thing, one gets into the thing and, therefore, is able to understand it. Such understanding is authentic and whatever the person does with the understanding would be authentic.

Our fundamental problem as Nigerians is that we do not put ourselves at or in a thing. That is to say that we are not intellectually independent, authentic, progressing, progressive, civilised, civilising, developed or developing. Nothing about Nigeria is authentic now; nothing, not even one thing can be seen to be authentic because of our intellectual, epistemological, and axiological dependence. Take the case of the application of genetic engineering and biotechnology to the production of foods, drugs, vaccines and fuels. How many of us have seen - physically now - genetically modified foods? How many of us have seen the consequences of consuming genetically modified foods by a rat or a person? And, how many of us are promoting, supporting, and encouraging the production and consumption of genetically modified foods?. How many of us are demanding that we should be left to have our knowledge, gained independently, before we make our decision about genetically modified foods? How many of us have said that genetically modified foods should not be given to people until they have been established to be safe universally?. What we find is that most Nigerians are opposing this author although I have intellectualised the production of genetically modified foods independently and I defend whatever I say on the basis of my independent intellectualisation of it aided by or to support what researchers have found out about the foods.

Nigerians demand that I show them my personal experiment but they have not demanded that the people who tell them that genetically modified foods are safe must produce evidence that they are safe. What is clear from this is that Nigerians of our time, contrary to the practice of Nigerians of our ancestral past, are driven by the apertainment or emotiveness or symbolism of the use of language. Nothing can speak educational backwardness, intellectual mindlessness, docility, and gullibility more than this situation? We may use any of the other words that are used to drive action - that is besides innovation - to illustrate this truth. They include rights, freedom, democracy, globalisation, global village, change, and, pariah state. Genetic engineering and biotechnology are being drive by innovation and not by what the innovation produces.

The world-renowned and respected Nigerian who is called "the father of computer", Professor Philips Emeagwali, has written and spoken on the basis of the current drive for innovation, as a means of promoting the practice of genetic engineering and biotechnology, at several and different forums known to me, including when he addressed Nigerians of Igbo ethnic origin, and Nigerians in two universalities, one in the USA and the other in Canada. He spoke under the titles Africa must produce or perish and Intellectual Capital, not Money, Alleviates Poverty. This author objects to the contents of both of them; but only the former is argued against here, very briefly.

Concerning the former, it is argued that it is not the lack of innovation that would cause Africans to perish; that it should be observing that we have been innovating and getting worse; and that what would cause Africans to parish is mindlessness, docility, gullibility, and subservience - an always readiness and willingness to ape or copy Americans, or defer to Americans and the United Nations organisations. A particular aspect of the mindlessness, docility, gullibility and subservience that would cause Africans to perish is the adoption of genetic engineering, biotechnology, molecular biology and stem cell cloning practices concerning the production of foods, drugs, vaccine and fuels without intellectualising the implications and consequences of that, which are terminal diseases, polluted and carcinogenic environments, and deaths. The lack of innovation does not cause a person or nation to parish; it is the lack of attention to what is produced through innovation - that is, whether it is safe or not safe - that would cause Africans to perish. It is the neglect of safety in the application of innovation - bio-science, genetic engineering, biotechnology, molecular biology and stem cell cloning of our foods, drugs, and vaccines - that would cause not only Nigeria , but the whole world to perish.

This is why Yoruba adage, presented as a dialogue, says: Won ni omo go. Oni, "Ki iku saa ma pa". Kilo fe paa bi ko se ago. As we celebrate an insult that has persisted as independence, let us do something about our intellectual dependence and strive deliberately and seriously to be independent intellectually and to act independent of America and United Nations ideas, concepts, models, practices, standards, ends, ethics and values. Genetically Modified Foods are really Genetically Poisoned Foods. The innovation that produces the foods is why there are many new diseases, increase of old ones, deformities, disabilities, infertility, and deaths. But changing our attitudes to the use of language must also include changing our attitudes to the emotive or psychological intention or symbolism of the use of those words that have cause our domestic, social, and institutional values to be upside down and meaningless. I mean rights, freedom, democracy, globalisation, moving Nigeria forward, global village, gender, gender sensitivity, and culture.

Neglect safety and perish achieves the same purpose and has the same effect as neglect morality or spirituality and perish.

A President Obama is becoming real

ALL things considered, I make bold to say that if Barack Obama fails to become the president of America in January 2009, it is not because he is not sound, experienced, qualified or fit for the job; it may just be because he is a black American. Obama has changed the cause of history, surprised critics and registered himself as somebody that can no longer be ignored in American political equation for a long time to come. He has risen from the backwaters to give hope not only to black Americans but to blacks all over the world. In the course of the campaigns, in the debates, Obama has shown remarkable improvement and improved capacity that the distance between him and Capitol Hill is becoming closer by the day. I have my reasons.

Blacks in America have come a long way. They rose from the tortuous centuries of slave background to struggle for equality and recognition and today, America, known as Land of Freedom and Liberty is gradually coming to terms with the stark reality that it is no longer going to be business as usual. If America still believes in universal suffrage of equality of man, electing Obama as president will send a clear signal to the world that God's own country can walk the talk, match proclamations with deeds, and move away from rhetoric to reality.

In a public debate recently, General Collin Powel was quick to dismiss an insinuation that suggests that he is likely to support Obama because he is a black man by insisting that first and foremost, he is an American. At this stage and age, Collin Powel is telling Americans that time has come for them to come of age and throw away the primordial and racial sentiments they have lived with for centuries and move on. America cannot continue to live with humanity's oldest problem of discriminating against people who are different from us.

Barack Obama is young (47), strong, sound, fit, dynamic, charismatic and intelligent. Senator John McCain has experience, sound and intelligent too but he is too old to be American president in these times of crisis. If Obama is young and strong, his deputy Senator Joe Biden is a rare gift to the Americans. He is loaded, focused, experienced, knowledgeable, composed and deep. If anything happens to Obama, Biden can adequately fill in the gap but if anything happens to McCain, considering his age, Sarah Palin may not have the capacity to preside over this huge and vast country, called America.

If the state of the economy of the United States is anything to go by, this is an election the Democrats must win outright and in a landslide victory. Former president said he created some 20 million jobs during his 8 years reign and it has been reduced to about 5 million jobs by President George Bush's bad leadership. Today as I write this, a bill for $700 billion US economy bailout is with the Senate and House of Reps in the United States for consideration. America cannot reward the Republicans for leading them into political, economic and social quagmire. This is the time for change and Americans know it.

World opinions have given the mandate to Obama. The world knows that only Americans will decide who will rule them come January 2009 but world opinions cannot be ignored. America may be far away but the world will not go to sleep when an American President is being elected. Whoever becomes the President will automatically assume the position of a world leader and his actions and deeds affect the whole world. It is not a surprise that Obama recorded 200,000 admirers in Berlin, Germany, recently during his campaign tour.

Election of Barack Obama as US President will in no uncertain terms change the world's perception on America. It will change the world's views on America and earn the God's own country many friends. It will promote world peace. What President Bush has been spending billions of dollars, and wasting precious human lives to fight for can be resolved over a conference table by a President Obama because the world will see him as one of their own. Bombs and bullets have their own limitations. US cannot continue to live by virtue of power alone.

Raila Odinga, strong man of Kenyan politics says "Obama's success will inspire us all to break the shackle of ethnic preoccupation in determining political leadership in Africa". A President Obama will unleash an unprecedented growth in America, it will give black Americans a sense of belonging, it will heal old wounds of oppression, suppression and repression, it will cause the blacks to release their energies and potentials for the common cause, it will create a new America and the world stands to gain from it.

No one hand can cover the sun. Nobody is big or strong enough to stop a popular idea whose time has come. I am told that the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn from history. History must be allowed to blaze its path.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

One million blind Nigerians

The nation’s disease burden is yet to show any signs of abetting going by the recent disclosure by a national survey that over one million Nigerians are blind while another 3.1 million are visually impaired. More disturbing is the very fact that 75 percent of such blindness was avoidable.

The two-year survey conducted by the Federal Ministry of Health between 2005 and 2007 also revealed that the scourge affects both sexes as well as all parts of the country.
Geographical distribution of the menacing ailment shows that the North West geo-political zone came first with 0.32 million blind people. It was followed by the North east and North Central geo-political zones which had 0.22 million and 0.18 million blind people respectively.

The South West came fourth with 0.15 million blind people. The South East and South South maintained a distant fifth and sixth with 0.13 and 0.12 million blind people respectively.

One veritable outcome of the survey is that there is no significant difference between the prevalence of blindness among men and women and that between urban and rural areas.
It is unfortunate that the cases of blindness were caused by treatable health conditions like cataract and glaucoma. While cataract accounted for 50 percent of the disease, glaucoma was responsible for another 16 percent.

Positively, the National Committee for the Prevention of Blindness in Nigeria has assured that about 50 percent of Nigerians suffering from eye ailment will have their sight fully restored by the use of lenses while another 15 percent will have their sight restored by surgery.

The growing incidence of blindness in all parts of the country is very alarming. The disturbing situation has shown that a lot of work needs to be done in the area of providing eye care services.
Concerned stakeholders should therefore put some measures in place to address the rampaging health problem. The health authorities of the three tiers of government should take it as a challenge to enlighten the public on the need to take eye care and medication very seriously.

The fact that 75 percent of the disease is avoidable is an indication that people have not been accessing eye care treatment when it mattered most. There is no doubt that some of the affected people may have presented their cases when the situation must have degenerated and gone far beyond medical redemption.

Besides, the seeming paucity of expertise in this aspect of medicine in our shores may have aggravated some of the reported cases. Many Nigerians have to contend with poor diagnosis and needless medication in some instances while some have lost their sight due to faulty treatment.
Considering the importance of sight to the individual, we urge those in charge of medical education in the country to step up measures to make ophthalmic medicine attractive to a significant number of our medical students.

We enjoin Nigerians to take eye care seriously as they take other ailments. Those in the habit of patronizing non-specialists should desist from such inimical health practice forthwith. Let all the state governments emulate the example of Lagos State Government which had been offering free eye care services since the return to democratic rule in 1999.

We believe that such free eye treatment will nip in the bud cases of cataract and glaucoma, the major causes of blindness in the country. Above all, let all Nigerians take adequate nutrition that aids eye longevity and sight. Since the areas with higher percentage of poverty in the country habour majority of cases of blindness, there is the need to decisively tackle the problem of poverty in the country.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Letter from America to Yinka Craig

Our last meeting was years ago at a function organized by the Lawuyis at their residence. I still remember the warm handshake, the hug, and the pat on the back. I also remember trying to beat you to the smile, but mine was quickly overshadowed by your signature smile, with both sets of teeth partially showing and wrinkles stretching happily from the corners of your mouth to the ears. The encounter felt like being received into the NTA studio for an interview session with you on Newsline or AM Express, thus recalling Father Kukah's experience as he narrated it in his tribute to you (The Guardian, October 3, 2008).

I did not realize that you were at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, recently until you had left there never to be seen or heard alive. I missed newspaper stories about your illness until very recently, because I was consumed in my own illness at about the same time. Had I been fully aware of your situation, I would have loved to share some notes with you. I even would have flown to Minnesota to cheer you on and to offer you some inspiration from my own experience.

I was not afflicted with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma like you but I had a problem that required the same kind of treatment you went through, namely, intensive chemotherapy, followed by bone marrow transplant. My disease was myelodysplasia. My bone marrow was producing more useless blood cells than useful ones, which kept me dependent on blood transfusion for nearly three years. I eventually had to undergo chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant in order to prevent the disease from progressing to full blown leukemia, a dreadful blood cancer, which killed an ace journalist like you here in the United States two years ago. I am talking about Ed Bradley of CBS's 60 Minutes, whose smile was as infectious as yours. He was 65.

As I tried this week to piece together the story of your ordeal, I discovered that Tunde Fagbenle had written about your health struggle in the Daily Sun of April 20, 2008, in which he indicated that the struggle went years back. I missed the article because I was still recovering from my transplant at that time. However, I managed to write about my own transplant experience the following month (Punch, May 18 & 25, 2008). It is this experience I would have come to share with you in Minnesota. I also would have been able to share with you the experience of a colleague of mine who had precisely the same disorder that afflicted you but was able to survive it. He and I were lucky to have been diagnosed early.

Now that you are gone, we are left with your wonderful family and your invaluable legacies as a first-class broadcaster on radio and TV, a seductive interviewer, and an innovator of first-class television programmes.

How great would it have been if the nation upon which you bequeathed these legacies reciprocated in kind? Nigerians today mourn your loss, the more so because the legacy your country left for you was that of a poor healthcare system of which you were an unfortunate victim.

The country you served so well for over forty years did not have the necessary facilities to properly diagnose your illness, let alone treat you. So, after languishing in misdiagnosis for some time, your specimen had to be flown to South Africa. The results led you to head for England on several occasions for proper diagnosis and treatment, before finally winding up in Minnesota for the last lap. How I wish you had headed for the United States three years ago at the slightest showing of your symptoms?

The story is already looking like a movie script. But that is the story of your country's healthcare industry. As you well knew before you left, you were not the first person to be misdiagnosed in Nigeria and you certainly will not be the last. Thousands daily are misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all and die as a result. My own mother was a victim of wrong diagnosis before a family friend, who happens to be a medical doctor, ordered the appropriate tests, by which time her leukemia had advanced beyond intervention.

Sony Okosuns lived with colon cancer for some time before he knew it. An early colonoscopy would have detected the problem or the propensity for it. Just as you once looked to South Africa for diagnosis, Okosuns headed for India. Like you, he ended the quest in the United States.

Chief Gani Fawehinmi recently shared his experience of misdiagnosis with the Nigerian public. He, too, has had to go to England for proper diagnosis and he is receiving treatment there. Just last week, former Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Victor Malu (rtd), was flown to Paris, France, following a coma that resulted from complications from Type 2 diabetes. In our younger days, young people went overseas for education, while older ones, who could afford it, went abroad for vacation. Today, the elite go overseas primarily for medical check-up, diagnosis, and treatment because our hospitals lack the necessary facilities. Not only do they lack the facilities to cure various diseases, they also lack the facilities for early detection of symptoms that could lead to them.

The reason is not far-fetched, therefore, why many Nigerians die routinely from preventable diseases, including prostate cancer, breast cancer, and renal failure. I know that we often engage in self-congratulation that incidents of colon cancer are low, because of our okele habits, but then there are no statistics to go by. In areas where there are statistics, the negative figures are staggering. For example, we lose over 60,000 women annually during pregnancy and twice as many infants die annually within their first few years. Overall, the probability of not attaining age 40 is now higher than in previous years. Yet, our government's budgetary allocation to healthcare is far below UNESCO and WHO standards. And our health ministry has been without a substantive minister for over seven months, despite the intervention of the nation's doctors.

It is unfortunate that it is at moments like this, when we mourn the premature departure of friends and relatives like you, that the decrepit state of our healthcare system stares nakedly into our eyes and mind. The solace in your own case is that you left for your country far better legacies in radio and television broadcasting, that will continue to benefit others, than the healthcare system your country provided for you, and which will continue to kill others.

But knowing the type of person you were, you would have preferred to use your broadcasting acumen to sensitize the public to these problems and provide education on health matters. I know, for example, that if our healthcare industry were this bad during your heydays on Newsline, you would have held a special Newsline spotlight on health matters to which you would have invited notable experts in the field. So, let me tell fellow Nigerians what you might have told them at the end of such a special programme:

"Before we sign off tonight, it is important to bear in mind what Drs. so and so just told us. First, you should have regular check-ups. Second, make sure you tell your doctor about any new symptoms you noticed since your last check-up. Third, if symptoms persist, seek a second and even third opinion and then head overseas for proper diagnosis and treatment, if you could afford it. Never allow symptoms to last too long before you take action.

"You noticed that the ill or dead people mentioned in this broadcast (read this essay) were all over 60, which means that some of these diseases come with age. That's why doctors recommend that you take your annual check-ups seriously once you are over 50. And every time you do your check-up, you should ask your doctor to order your complete blood chemistry and your PSA count (for prostate cancer) or mammogram (for breast cancer). There are also various specialized tests you should be interested in, depending on the nature of your symptoms. These include EKG (to measure the electrical activity of the heartbeat), MRI (to take pictures of specific tissues or organs that could show abnormalities, such as malignant tumours), and CAT scan (to analyze the internal structures of various parts of the body).

"These specialized tests are particularly useful for early detection of health disorders. But the equipment needed to perform these tests costs money. That's why our federal, state, and local governments, as well as the super-rich among us should take note and begin to invest in their procurement. They are very essential to the practice of preventive medicine, which should be the cornerstone of our government's healthcare policy. Thank you, and goodnight."

Goodnight, Yinka.

The New Customs Tariffs

Nigeria’s Customs and Excise Tariff Book for the period 2008–2012 has been presented. According to Dr. Bright Okogu, Director-General, Budget Office of the Federation, the new tariff book is aimed at facilitating trade and industrial growth.
Highlights of the book include the implementation of a new regime of customs and excise tariffs, reducing the duties paid on primary raw materials from 10 per cent to 5 per cent and prohibiting the importation of used motor vehicles above 10 years. Buses and trucks, no matter their age, are, however, excluded from the prohibition list.
The new regime of tariffs also prohibits the importation of textile fabrics and articles thereof, including Hollandais, English Wax, Ankara, Lace fabrics, wedding gowns and ceremonial apparels, second hand clothes, rugs and carpets, as well as recharge cards.
According to Okogu, the import prohibition list is to consolidate Nigeria’s drive towards industrialization. This is a valid point. Even with growing globalisation, it is clear that some Nigerian products are not competitive. This is because of the relatively poor enabling environment and the high cost of production. It does raise the question whether a country should depend on cheaper imported alternatives or encourage local production. For a nation battling to grow its economy, the protection of domestic industry remains a core responsibility.
We, however, worry about overall policy consistency and proper implementation of the customs and excise tariffs. For the ailing textile industry, the ban on some textile products may have come as a relief. The smuggling of these products contributed immensely to the collapse of the local industry. Although there has been some improvement in checking smuggling, Nigeria’s long borders are still porous or it is made to be so by the very people paid to bar the entry of banned products. Too often, those who are supposed to enforce government’s policies and laws connive with unscrupulous persons to circumvent such laws, and over time it seems as if such laws are non-existent.
The other point is that with the closure of so many textile companies, would Nigerians not be forced to look elsewhere for their basic clothing needs. If our local industry was encouraged to grow, why would Nigerians look up to even less endowed West African countries for fabrics like Ankara? Or who indeed would prefer to wear used clothes to brand new ones?
We feel that the ban, as a singular measure, cannot revive the textile industry. In situations where foreign textile, which are sometimes of higher quality, cost far less than the local products, patronage of the imported textile is bound to rise. And this may be understandable. The high cost of production in Nigeria, given our peculiar manufacturing challenges, contrasts sharply with the conducive operational environment of most foreign countries, which ultimately beats down their production cost. That perhaps explains the heavy influx of China textiles in the Nigeria market. Given the huge market in Nigeria, a buoyant textile industry is well positioned to take full advantage. But this has not been the case.
We also notice that the ban on the importation of used tyres may not really resuscitate local production. The two major tyre companies have closed down, the last one mainly because of the country’s tariff structure and other production cost. With ban of used tyres, there will be additional pressure on supply, forcing people to smuggle in tyres.
To encourage local production, what the companies require and which we have heard them say repeatedly, is for government to provide an enabling environment for them to operate in. If they have to provide their own infrastructure, they end up with high unit cost of production with the resultant high prices that put them at a hopeless disadvantage in the flurry of imports. At those prices, products have to be very special for their producers to compete favourably with imported goods or even contemplate exports.
Although it takes more than a ban to encourage local production, the department of Customs and Excise must at least play its part. The recent ban of select items represents a new challenge to Customs and other law enforcement agencies, many of whom are crammed around the nation’s entry points. They must rise to the duty of protecting the nation’s borders effectively, if this new policy will have any effect.
In all, the ban of these items should, ultimately be to the benefit of the Nigerian economy. And unless it is so, the measure will serve as double punishment, as it would have denied them the ultimate benefit and the immediate gain or pleasure if they patronized the banned items

Achebe’s Enduring Classic

In fifty years of its existence, Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart has lived up to its reputation as perhaps the best work of fiction to have come out of Africa. Celebrated for its story line, its simplicity of language and its unaffected African setting, Things Fall Apart has proved, over the past half a century, to be a highly readable and influential novel. To date, it has been translated into more than 100 languages across the continents. That alone says a lot about its wide appeal to readers of diverse national and cultural backgrounds.
Just the other day, this epic novel was, not surprisingly, named as one of the top national best sellers in the United States where many highly respected colleges and universities have adopted it as recommended text for literature students. This distinction coincides with the golden jubilee celebration of the novel in many parts of the world, but more so in Africa and the English-speaking world generally. Achebe, the author of the book, who now lives and teaches in the US is scheduled to speak at a number of commemorative events for the golden jubilee of the great novel.
Things Fall Apart which has earned a place in some of the world’s most renowned libraries including the famous US Library of Congress, is ironically no longer a recommended text in Nigeria’s School Certificate syllabus. This has been so for more than a decade now. However, what the novel appears to be losing at home it is inversely gaining abroad where more and more countries are showing interest in the study of the book as a guide towards a better understanding of the cultural underpinnings of African traditional societies.
At its publication in 1958, Things Fall Apart was an apt reflection of the cultural contradictions of the African society. Through Okonkwo, the tragic hero of the novel, the tension between African traditional values and the modernizing influence of the western culture epitomized by Christianity, could almost be sliced with a knife. Achebe captured in a tellingly artistic manner the dilemma of the Umuofia people who were torn between retaining their culture – warts and all – and submitting to the positive, even disruptive, influence of Christianity. This nagging conflict had to be resolved one way or the other. It wasn’t easy but through a carefully plotted tragi-comedy crafted in a typical Achebesque style, a painful resolution was made. Okonkwo, an impetuous, self-appointed custodian and defender of the Umuofia culture found himself committing murder ostensibly to preserve the traditions of his community. To escape the shame of facing trial for such a capital offence, Okonkwo aggravated matters by committing suicide, an ignominious way of dying in Igbo cosmology.
Things Fall Apart is indeed an all-time classic. Its thematic relevance in understanding the clash of cultures between Europe and Africa in the run up to political independence by many African countries, continues to make it a compelling reading in many parts of the world. It also explains why it has continued to enjoy a pride of place in the literature syllabus of many an African university as well as Black colleges around the world.
That it is still among the national bestsellers in far away United States is cheering news. It goes to demonstrate the continuing relevance of the novel. It is also further proof that a good artistic work will command good attention and overcome racial and other prejudices to take its rightful place.
The lesson in this for budding writers is that a piece of good writing has no artificial boundaries. If any is erected it will break it down. Nor does it have a glass ceiling. If any is put up, it will shatter it to take its rightful place.
We congratulate Prof. Achebe whose 76th birthday incidentally is only weeks away. He has been a source of inspiration to many young writers. By this feat, he has added another feather to his repertory of literary honors. Nigeria, Achebe’s land of birth, would do well to encourage its youths to deepen their reading culture. It is puzzling that in spite of the great wave that Things Fall Apart has made globally, millions of Nigerian youths are yet to read this classic. How so ironical!
The government should therefore take deliberate steps to promote the reading culture among Nigerians. This has many benefits not the least being the opportunity to expand one’s horizon.

Justice dispensation under the Mango tree

THE situation whereby a High Court of Justice in Urualla, Ideato North Local Government Area of Imo State sits openly under a Mango tree is bizarre. The circumstances that necessitated the development are clearly unacceptable and should be promptly addressed. To condone such a situation amounts to making a mockery of the court and the judiciary as a whole.

Presided over by a female judge, Justice C. A. Ononeze-Madu, the High Court is reported to have resorted to sitting in the open following the deplorable state of facilities in the court building. Naturally, lawyers have expressed their embarrassment at the situation and called for action to reverse it. It is unconscionable that the authorities allowed the degeneration in the first place.

The picture of the court's setting was expressly contemptuous of a state organ that is supposed to embody law and order. At a recent session, lawyers and court clerks sat in the open at the premises while the judge took shelter at the garage of the dilapidated building. She reportedly used her official car as chambers and dressing room. Three mango trees and an umbrella tree provided shield for lawyers, litigants and court officials.

Again, it is no surprise that such a court could not make meaningful progress in dispensing justice, let alone accelerating it. In one day, seven cases on the cause list were called, but lawyers in the various cases could only hurriedly seek adjournment, in the light of the discomfort of the environment. The building housing the court - which was donated by the community - is so dilapidated as to constitute a death trap.

In addition, the building's roof has caved in, it is also leaking. Due to the neglect, reptiles are said to have turned the place into their lair. There is no electricity or toilet facilities even for the judge and court staff, and no functional furniture, as available desks and chairs are in bad shape.

Reportedly too, many judges and court staff who had been posted to the court considered their deployment to the court as a punishment and had consequently rejected the posting. This necessitated the transfer of cases meant for the court to the Orlu High Court. Apparently, entreaties made through letters to the authorities, including the two local governments close to the court building, were unsuccessful. The situation has remained unchanged.

It would appear that the court decided to sit in the open out of frustration, and perhaps in protest against the unpleasant situation in the court building. The development calls for serious questions as to the responsibility and commitment of the Imo State Government to the judiciary. Is the government aware of the deplorable condition? Is its inaction deliberate or negligent? Is the Urualla situation a misnomer or does it represent the standard picture of other courts in the state?

The public certainly needs an urgent explanation from the Imo State government, which has demonstrated a tendency to advertise what it has supposedly achieved in the past one-and-a-half years. If indeed the government has performed well, why is such performance not reflected in the judiciary?

As the third arm of government, the judiciary in Imo State, as in other states and at the federal level represents a check and balance institution between the executive and the legislature. Besides, it is the last hope of the common man in matters of law and governance. Such an organ of government deserves more respect and a much better treatment than that accorded the Urualla High Court.

The Imo State Government must demonstrate that it is not out to despise the judiciary or ridicule judicial officers. It can only do this by promptly addressing the problem in Urualla and other courts that may be suffering similar fate in the state.

In this regard, government should give assurances that it is not deliberately under-funding the courts. If there is a case of misappropriation, this should be properly established and investigated.

It is sad that while governments all over the country boast of spurious achievements to justify huge expenditure, the judiciary, a vital institution, has suffered accumulated neglect. The scenario in Urualla is not limited to Imo State. Other states are guilty, at varying degrees. Yet, incidents of this nature largely contribute to the low development index of Nigeria, in Africa and the world.

It is time for governments to have a change of heart. Nigeria needs genuine and sincere development efforts to be simultaneously replicated in all areas including the judiciary. There is currently unacceptable deterioration in education, health, transportation, housing, roads, electricity supply and the provision of other basic infrastructure.

Incidentally, this is a direct consequence of corruption and greed among top public officials. The country cannot experience real development as long as officials put themselves first, before the nation. Perhaps Imo State can take the lead by immediately rectifying the anomaly in Urualla and its judiciary.

Sycophancy & Niger Delta struggle

The Federal Government shouldn’t play the scrooge on the Niger Delta issue and our so-called leaders in the Niger Delta should avoid being seen as scroungers who work on the aegis of the Niger Delta leaders.

Prince Tonye TJT Princewill, the leader of Action Congress (AC) in Rivers State and a member of the Niger Delta Caretaker Committee was it who said that the Niger Delta issue could be a lifetime one if the art of sycophancy is not tamed among the frontrunners of the region’s cause. In an interaction with journalists in Port Harcourt, the dude extolled the humility in President Musa Yar’Adua and thanked God for giving Nigeria Vice President Goodluck Jonathan whose only sin Princewill said is trustworthiness and he happens to come from the Niger delta extraction. So, we are blessed.

Without sounding alarmist, many people have died in the Niger Delta cause, and a lot people have been strangled to death. The Niger Delta problem can’t be won if self-assuming people in our midst don’t turn a new leaf. We don’t always need violence to achieve our aims, what we need is unity of purpose.

Our youths should moderate their activities, and checkmating the youths could endanger ones life. Youths are a people of different philosophy and ideology due to their exuberance. We should abrogate the talk that Niger Delta is for the Niger Deltans alone; It is a global issue.

Princewill condemns any attack on the president of Nigeria and the VP. He sees them as sensitive people. They have been responding to the Niger Delta situation and shouldn’t come under fire. They should be encouraged because it is not easy to achieve good from bad. He believes that nothing good comes easy.

Our people should stop making derogatory statements! Our people should stop playing sycophants. We should be together like the broom, and not like the withered leaves scattered everywhere by the wind. Errant Niger Delta people should send such behaviour on errand. We have to dine and wine on one table and with one cup. No Niger Deltan is superior to the other. In all, it is not time to tread blames on individuals from our region that may have derailed as humans. We have to encourage ourselves for the betterment of the Niger Delta issue than playing the sycophants.

Against compromise diplomacy

At the dawn of the 21st century the Nigerian foreign policy must take turning point for the betterment of its expanding graving population living within and out of the auspices of its territorial margin.

In as much as Nigeria and Cameroon exhibit firm diplomatic ties over four protracted decades as well as cultural links, this does not mean that the Nigerian foreign policy should be too relaxed to its famous eastern neighbour.

The reasons for a tit for tat foreign policy are not so far-fetched. It is a truism that over seventy percent of Nigerians living in Cameroon were born and bred in the country in question. These Nigerians are subjected to human rights abuse. They are liable to pay huge sums of money as resident permit to Cameroon.

Even some as young as fourteen years of age are exposed to this ‘indemnity’ despite the unpleasant economic hardship playing the nation. The resident permit has not been used only as a source of income, but as an alternative to eject Nigerians from the country.
Moreover, their policy has made it extremely difficult for diplomatic mission to yield any meaningful dividend. This is attributed to the fact that any report filed by the diplomatic mission must pass through the Ministry of External Relations. This is a trick to slow down action.

It is not in doubt that the Cameroon government has done little to guarantee of these Nigerians. Morestill, Nigerians who are born and bred in Cameroon are totally excluded in the job market. They are not allowed to enroll into professional institutions as well.

This unwelcome attitude has being carried over from generation to generation. Moreover, the judicial system has never worked for fair and impartial justice for Nigerians inclusive striking examples include Damion Madu, Peter O. Ebenezer all based in Cameroon.

Furthermore, the traders too are subjected to harsh and uncompromising treatments by Cameroon officials. Traders are liable to pay excess taxes. Meanwhile their Cameroonian counterparts are exempted from the exercise. The aim is to oust Nigerians from business. Besides the above, no Nigerian is allowed to drive a business vehicle or passenger cars. This has made life very uncomfortable to number of Nigerians.

This explains why each year, thousands of Nigerians are bound to return home under poverish condition. Hence, adding more salt to the injury on the economy. The government of Cameroon has made life very uncomfortable to bona-fide Nigerian fishermen who are liable to pay the sum of N750,000 naira as tax on annual basis. The aim is to eject them from the exercise.

Audit of Federation Account

The directive by the Senate Committee on Public Accounts to the Auditor-General of the Federation, Mr. Robert Ejenavi, to audit the federation account and financial books of selected government agencies is, indeed, timely.

It is in keeping with constitutional requirements.
Section 85, subsections (2) and (4), demand for a periodic audit of public accounts, and empowers the Auditor-General of the federation to conduct such checks of all government statutory corporations, commissions, authorities and agencies established by Act of the National Assembly.

Specifically, the corporation, parastatals and agencies listed for audit by the Chairman, Senate Committee on Public Accounts, Ahmed Lawal, include the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA), the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and Universal Basic Education (UBE).

We welcome the audit of the accounts of these aforementioned corporation and agencies, not only because of the constitutional mandate given to the auditor-general of the federation, but because, in the main, every nation is as good as its public institutions. This can be measured to a large extent by the level of transparency, or otherwise, in the eyes of the general public. As a matter of fact, the extent of transparency and accountability of these public institutions can go a long way to either strengthen or weaken democratic institutions in that country. Only last week, President Umar Musa Yar’Adua restated how these public institutions have become vital to his government’s policy thrust.

Unfortunately, despite the critical role of these public institutions, many of them have fallen short of the transparency test, as scams have become their second nature. And the nature and depth of such sleaze are sometimes unimaginable, indeed scary. Three key public institutions – NNPC, NCS, and NEMA have been making the headlines lately, all for the wrong reasons.

Recently, NNPC was indicted by renowned chartered accountants and auditors, Akintola Williams Deloitte and Muhtari Dangana & Co. for failing to remit N374 billion to the Federation Account for the months of October – December 2007. According to the auditors’ report, fixed assets account in the NNPC ledger sharply disagreed with the fixed assets registers and schedules. Also, in 2006, NNPC was indicted for withholding the princely sum of N310 billion from the federation account accruing from oil mineral receipts.

Disclosures of mind-boggling financial malfeasance pervade many of our public institutions such as the Customs and Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). While the federation account is seeing red, few individuals are feeding fat on the finances of these public institutions. Such is the loss of public confidence in our key public service institutions that currently, the United States government is prosecuting some of its citizens involved in high-profile crude oil scam where some top staff of NNPC have been implicated. One of such scams involves N180 million from the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project executed from 1994 to 2004.

Had periodic auditing of the accounts of these public corporations and agencies been carried out, and had the necessary legislative oversight been done diligently, there would have been a steady rise in public confidence and trust in our institutions by both the citizenry and potential investors. Therefore, the consequence of failure of audit of accounts of public institutions erodes the essence of accountability and public service.

We urge the auditor-general of the federation to carry out this directive by the Senate Committee on Public Accounts with utmost sincerity of purpose. Also, we ask all the institutions slated for this audit - NNPC, NCS, FERMA, NEMA and UBE to open their books without let or hindrance. This is the time to probe what goes beyond the walls of these key public institutions. Our democracy cannot flourish if these essential institutions are riddled with sleaze as a result of lack of transparency and due process.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Nigeria Economy

THE World Economic Forum in a recent report ranked Nigeria 50th out of 52 countries. A World Bank-International Finance Corporation survey showed that Nigeria dropped from 108th position last year to 118th this year on the Doing Business Index. These should cause the managers of the nation’s economy sleepless nights and should disturb the rest of us too.
For more than two years, the Central Bank of Nigeria , CBN, has engaged in self-congratulations over the success of the bank consolidation exercise. Nigerian banks have been receiving awards from various global institutions and three or four Nigerian banks now rank among the biggest 1000. Nigerian banks are going global in every direction. All these, we were led to believe, constituted clear evidence that the global community gives the reforms in the financial sector a pass mark.

Apparently, we have been deceived or the managers of our economic policy have been self-deluded. Quite clearly, size, while a necessary condition for attaining global status, is not a sufficient condition. Quality of service and the consolidation of trust are also very important.

We have no idea how Nigerian banks operate abroad, but if a recent survey were to be believed, Nigerian banks are rapidly losing the trust of depositors in the domestic market. Many feel strongly that banks cheat their customers and are slow to redress grievances even when errors are proved to them.

For many customers, the use of Automatic Teller Machines, ATM, is a nightmare, which is nevertheless forced on them. If the ATM is representative of the quality of other services, then from all indications, consolidation might have resulted in bigger banks but those banks are turning off depositors. The customer has been lost to the race over size.

Banks pay mere lip serve to the customer who is hardly informed of the bases of the charges that banks make on his account. Few banks provide meaningful explanations for the deductions.

When perceived poor banking services are added to low ranking on the Doing Business Index, it is easy to see why Nigeria is still not the preferred destination for Foreign Direct Investment except in oil and gas and telecommunications. Even the investment in hydrocarbons is being redirected elsewhere gradually, as Nigeria fails to tackle issues related to stable supplies to the international market.

These call for a sober re-assessment of our real position. Clearly, the self-congratulation must stop because it is wearing thin and becoming less credible given the reports from more credible sources.

We certainly will not make the top 20 global economy not only in 2020 but for a long time after. South Africa, Botswana, Egypt, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Morocco all beat us repeatedly on all the important indices. Our claim to being the giant of Africa is the result of self-deceit; it insults others.

It is true we have come a long way, but there is a longer way still ahead of us - we must forge ahead more decidedly, to attain global relevant.

Police Try To Impress

VARIOUS police formations around the country are trying too hard to get the attention of the authorities. They want to show that they are working hard, or are they hardly working? The Inspector General’s announcement of promotions for police personnel who exhibit bravery and commitment to their duties could be behind the laughable efforts that the police make, sometimes actually giving criminals the advantage.

Last week, the police in Lagos paraded some suspects – a practice that abridges the rights of those arrested, as they have not been charged to court – for stealing mobile phones, loitering at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport and siphoning 25 litres of aviation fuel.

The police boasted about how these arrests would serve as deterrent to others. Hashimu Argungun, Commissioner of Police, Airport Command said at the event, “We have realised that Nigeria will be better if the data of criminals are released to the public. The public will be able to know who the criminals are. It will be easier for the public to know who are fit to hold public offices. I believe if Nigeria had been doing this, many evil perpetrators would have changed”.

We expect that Mr. Mike Okiro, the Inspector General of Police, who is a lawyer, should call his people to order. Suspects are not criminals, only a competent court can determine the status of a suspect, the police are not a court.

It is also surprising that Mr. Argungun has such a simple view of what should change Nigeria. Those suspects are unlikely to have electoral ambitions, even if they do, there are opportunities for the police to investigate their past, a task that the police routinely neglect.

How are unauthorised people able to gain access to critical areas of the airport? Is it not too effortless for the police to reason that someone who steals aviation fuel wants to use it as substitute for kerosene? Would the police even be interested in locating his collaborators? Did the possibility of a syndicate, operating in other airports strike the police? Was any thought given to the dangers of aviation fuel being in places people gain unlawful access to it?

Are there no chances that the aviation fuel could be contaminated through this practice? Does fuel contamination not pose dangers to the aviation? The police have succeeded in scaring away those who should be answering these questions.

Obviously, the issues are larger than a man fetching 25 litres of aviation fuel, off an aircraft or from a storage tank. If he had no collaborators, he will not succeed. He must have buyers, to venture into this high-risk enterprise. These matters should bother the police.

It is becoming the norm to parade suspects before the media and release them a little after. The police can and should do more. Nine years after they made all the right noises about Clifford Orji – the police called him a cannibal – the case was quickly charged to court and the matter has been on hold.

Proper funding for INEC

Recent reports that the activities of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) are being hampered by paucity of funds are disturbing. This is because the smooth operation of the commission is very crucial to the growth, survival and flowering of democracy.

According to reports, the commission’s operations have been affected adversely by the recent mop-up of about N400 billion from Federal ministries and agencies. It was also reported that of the about five billion Naira which the commission requested for its operations, it got just about one fifth of the sum.

Scenarios such as this are clearly not good for a body that has an arduous statutory responsibility that borders on the conduct of elections, among other related functions.

There is no doubt that proper funding of INEC is a necessary requirement in a polity that aspires to democratic ideals. That is why the Electoral Act, 2006, made special provision for the funding of INEC. The Act establishes for the commission a fund to be known as INEC Fund. The fund is for carrying out its functions and purposes under the Constitution and the Act. It requires that the commission establishes and maintains a separate fund from which there shall be defrayed all expenditure incurred by it.

Apart from the functions reserved by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, for the commission, the Act goes ahead to assign it more roles such as the conduct of voter and civic education, promotion of knowledge of sound democratic election processes, and conduct of any referendum required to be conducted in line with the provisions of the 1999 constitution, among others. It is in recognition of the centrality and indispensability of these functions that the Electoral Act made allowance for the establishment of a special fund for the commission.

Under the present democratic order, the electoral commission led by Prof. Maurice Iwu has been undertaking these statutory responsibilities. Apart from the conduct of elections, particularly the landmark elections of 2007, it has undertaken voter registration and conducted voter and civic education at various fora.

At moment, the commission is carrying out the onerous task of delimitation of electoral constituencies across the country. These are money-gulping ventures which can hardly succeed without ready availability of funds.

The need for the commission to succeed in this regard is made even more imperative by the fact that ours is an evolving democratic order which requires that we plug any loophole that is capable of hampering our march towards a stable polity. There is therefore the need for INEC to be properly funded so that it will be in good stead to meet these all-important constitutional and statutory imperatives.

Regardless of the reservations in certain quarters, the present leadership of INEC has demonstrated commitment and readiness to bring about the needed changes in our electoral system. Apart from weathering the storm that attended the 2007 elections and even the repeat elections that followed in some States, it has gone ahead to seek the enthronement of equity and balance in the delineation of electoral constituencies. The latter exercise is still on-going.

These responsibilities come with a lot of challenges. But it is reassuring that INEC is confronting them with determination and utmost sense of patriotism. The progress which the commission is making in this regard must not be hampered by paucity of funds.

The Presidency should therefore take a good look at the statutes establishing INEC, especially as it concerns its funding, and act accordingly.

For a commission which holds the key to free and proper conduct of elections, the need for its protection through proper funding cannot be overemphasized. A properly and adequately funded INEC is less likely to be prone to the manipulations and machinations of governments and political marauders. It is therefore gratifying that we have in place the Electoral Reform Committee which is working hard to produce a blueprint with which our electoral system can be elevated to a more acceptable level. Proper funding of INEC should be one of its concerns.

Those who always find a whipping boy in INEC should also spare a thought in this regard. Criticizing the commission is not enough. Seeking realistic and selfless ways out of its handicaps and shortcoming is a more noble preoccupation.

Surveillance cameras in banks

Jolted by the ever increasing armed robbery attacks in banks and financial institutions across the country, the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Mike Okiro, has issued an ultimatum to these institutions to install surveillance cameras in their banking halls and premises.

The warning came on the heels of the recent armed robbery attack on a new generation bank in Ibadan, Oyo State, in which some policemen were killed.

To this effect, the IGP has given these institutions up to January 1, 2009 to comply with the directive or risk the withdrawal of the services of the Nigeria Police. Okiro had, while giving the warning at a meeting with the executives of the financial institutions at the Force Headquarters, Abuja, explained that the decision was borne out of the need to protect police personnel posted to such outfits for official duties. To underscore the seriousness of the order, the IGP has directed all Commissioners of Police nationwide to ensure that police personnel are posted to only financial institutions that have complied with the security directive after the deadline.

It is not in doubt that the global trend in security now is greatly in favour of the use of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) and other surveillance gadgets and monitors. In our own case, it has become more compelling to use these novel techniques to secure banking operations in view of spates of bank robberies in recent times.

The idea to introduce the surveillance cameras in the nation’s banking halls and premises of financial institutions is long overdue because their absence further exposes these banks to higher risks of robbery attacks.

There is no doubt that the introduction of the cameras is going to significantly improve the security situation in these banks and assist in keeping the robbers at bay.
While lauding this crime-bursting technique in our land, we also suggest that these financial institutions should link the gadgets to the nearest police stations for effective crime monitoring and prevention. The gadgets should be installed in such a way that the robbers would not have access to them or tamper with them.

This also brings to the fore the need for internal security in these banks. We say this because it is now common knowledge that most bank robberies these days take place with the active connivance of an insider. It is also largely the case that a robbery operation in a bank will hardly succeed without insider collaboration. It therefore behoves these financial institutions to know who their staff really are. The need for proper screening of employees during recruitment exercise has become instructive more than ever before in view of insider sabotage.

If the banks and financial institutions are able to solve the problem of insider dealings, then the war on bank robberies would have been partially won. Besides, the country is now ripe for the installation of surveillance cameras at strategic locations in our urban cities to help nip crimes in the bud. The time has also come for the police to have a data bank of identities and finger-prints of Nigerians as part of general crime prevention and control measures.

The security agencies should also evolve clever and scientific methodologies of curtailing armed robbery operations in the country. Beyond this, let the government step up efforts to create jobs for the teeming army of unemployed Nigerians. There is no way we can divorce the upsurge of criminal activities in the country from the general poverty and unemployment in the land.

Abuja Streets and Our Heroes

Any society that overlooks the contributions of its past heroes finds it difficult to make meaningful progress. This is because it kills role models from whom contemporary and future leaders should learn. It also discourages patriotism and selfless service. So, most people, given the opportunity, would rather grab whatever they could from the commonwealth as a form of self-reward than wait for any national reward after they might have retired or expired.
Such is the case with Nigeria where our skewed national reward system for past heroic efforts tends to portray us as a patently ungrateful people.
In a ground-breaking move last Wednesday, the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Alhaji Aliyu Modibbo Umar announced the naming and renaming of some major streets and roads in the FCT after national icons whose contributions in various ways to the country’s socio-economic, political and cultural development were widely acknowledged by the public, but were not so recognised by government.
Names of such great Nigerians as the late Sir Dennis Osadebey and the late Nwafor Orizu, both First Republic Senate Presidents, Dr Joseph Wayas, Second Republic Senate President, Professors Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, both literary giants, late Prof. Claude Ake, renowned social scientist, late Prof Chike Obi, renowned mathematician, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, Bishop David Oyedepo, late Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, the late Pa Michael Imoudu, the late Dr. Tai Solarin, the late Dele Giwa, late Babatunde Jose, Malam Turi Muhammed, Abubakar Imam, Ali Ciroma, Kanu Nwankwo, Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Mary Onyali, late Sam Okwaraji, Comrade Hassan Sunmonu, late Mrs. Margaret Ekpo, late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, late Sonny Okosun, Mamman Shata, among others, will now adorn Abuja streets.
Hitherto, most of the streets used to bear the names of events, institutions and people that have little or no historical, political, geographical or sociological relevance to the country.
This move, coming auspiciously on the nation’s 48th independence anniversary, is a worthy and commendable recognition of the heroic deeds of these citizens. It is a double-edged sword, by which the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) not only gave honour to those who deserve it, but also corrected the anomalies of previous street naming exercises in the FCT. In particular, the FCT Minister should be commended for correcting the misnomer in the naming of streets in the Apo Legislative Quarters. Before now, most streets in this bastion of our fledgling democracy were curiously named after military personnel. The minister has, however, corrected this with the renaming of streets in and around Apo after Nigerians with democratic credentials.
It is, however, noteworthy that the list of honorees is not exhaustive as it omits the names of some prominent Nigerians whom we think are also deserving of such honour. For instance, we consider people like the late Chief Bola Ige, assassinated former Attorney-General of the Federation and Justice Minister, Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie, the late Rev. Fr. Tansi, the first African Catholic Bishop to be beatified and the late Sheikh Muhammed Kamaldeen, the late founder of the Ansarul-Islam worthy of having streets named after them in Abuja, the nation’s symbol of unity. And definitely, it would not be a bad idea if the late Ogoni rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa was included in the list of honorees, if only to heal the wounds of his execution by the Abacha regime.
President Umaru Yar’Adua and his deputy, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan were also included in the list of honorees, but, according to the FCT Minister, both turned down the gesture on the basis that it should take a succeeding administration to name things after them if they are found worthy. This, to say the least, is a mark of the duo’s modesty and a subtle lesson that such honors should not be dispensed as a mark of obsequious handouts to incumbents.
In the same regard, we expect the Federal Government to stop the growing trend in which award of the annual national honours is done, as if it is an automatic entitlement of people.
People should be rewarded for landmark achievements made and not merely for holding a political office, which, in any case, is often abused by many.

Nigeria and the Malaria Scourge

The World Bank has once again delivered a damning indictment on Nigeria over the country’s handling of the malaria scourge. Speaking recently during the United Nations special session on the Millennium Development Goals in New York, the Bank’s Group President, Mr Robert Zoellick said Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo account for 30 to 40 per cent of all deaths arising from the disease, adding that it would be difficult to attain the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Africa if malaria was not fought and eliminated in the two countries.
Malaria is a serious health problem. Caused mainly by mosquito bites, it affects mostly children under the age of five and pregnant women in sub-Sahara Africa resulting in a death rate of nearly 3,000 every day. Most countries have successfully fought the scourge and drastically reduced the mortality rates therefrom. A World Health Organization (WHO) statistics shows that out of the 1.2 million people that died from malaria in the world last year, one million were from sub-Sahara Africa, with Nigeria alone recording one third of the cases.
It is baffling that malaria, which has been identified as a scourge in Africa since the pre-colonial era, remains the number one killer more than a century after the continent had contact with modern medicine and about 50 years after most African countries gained independence.
The deleterious damage wreaked by this scourge is not only in its notoriety as the number one killer, but also in the fact that it is responsible for much of the squalor and backwardness in sub-Sahara Africa. It contributes in part to the elusiveness of foreign investments, as many tourists and potential investors shy away for fear of being infected.
The World Bank’s Group President painted a grim picture of the vicious circle created by malaria when he said the disease “preys on the poor and keeps them poor”. He pointed out that “poverty makes many people vulnerable to malaria infection, as they could not afford bed-nets to prevent malaria and medicine to cure it”. He added, “when people are struck by the disease, parents miss work, children miss school, and malaria emergencies plunge families into debt from which they can’t recover”. It’s so pathetic. This is a largely preventable and curable disease. That Nigeria is still listed among the worst malaria-endemic countries in the world ought to be really embarrassing to our leaders. What has happened to the efforts, especially the huge yearly budgetary allocation, to combat the disease and the oft-celebrated insecticide-treated mosquito net scheme? It implies that all past efforts at combating this scourge have not been successful. So, what could have been the problem? It is either we have not been seriously committed to the battle or that our efforts have been continuously sabotaged by an insincere bureaucracy. Either way, what is needed is a renewed commitment on the part of our policy makers to frontally attack this scourge and rout all impediments to total victory.
A first step towards tackling the scourge is to solve the basic hygiene and environmental problems confronting majority of Nigerians. Gutters and drainages in urban centres should be regularly cleared while rural dwellers should be encouraged to always keep their surroundings clean. This would go a long way in dislodging the disease-carrying mosquitoes that breed in those filthy places. With that done, the battle is half won.
Effort should also be doubled at popularising the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets by making it affordable and generally accessible to the majority of the people. The rural poor who are the most vulnerable victims of malaria are mostly neglected.
Malaria drugs should also be made affordable for majority of the people, as most deaths from this disease are due to the victims’ inability to buy prescribed drugs.
So, it will not be out of place to suggest a policy review that will make the treatment of malaria-related ailments free in all government hospitals, as is currently the case with tuberculosis, another killer disease.
One of the reasons for Nigeria’s inability to win the malaria war is, like in the other areas of national development where we have failed in the face of huge yearly resource allocation, our inability to win the war against corruption in high places. Money voted for live-improving projects often finds its way to the private purses of government officials.
We expect therefore that all funds allocated to combat the malaria scourge, including Nigeria’s share of the fresh World Bank’s $1.1 billion grant to tackle the scourge in some African countries, would be judiciously used.

The Hackers Challenge

Much as information technology has helped global interaction by reducing it to a global village, it has brought with it a pack of discomfort and pain. One such pain is brought by the activities of those who secretly invade the privacy of others on the internet. Otherwise called hackers, these co-users of the internet, put their superior knowledge of the Internet to mischievous use.
The recent case of a strange e-mail on President Umaru Yar’Adua, sent to some media houses purportedly under the internet platform of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), may be just one of the many examples of the evil hacking has come to present. NAN has denied sending such an e- mail from its platform. Unless otherwise revealed through investigation, what possibly happened was that hackers had invaded the NAN internet domain and sent the mail, all to achieve mischievous ends.
In the same way, one of the major newspapers in the country also had its platform invaded recently. The hackers had declared that they were “a group of hackers in Nigeria” and boasted of having seized the CMS (Content Management System) of the newspaper’s site in such a way that the hackers’ message that displaced the newspaper’s stories could neither be edited nor scrambled.
That the information highway in Nigeria is porous and vulnerable is no longer in doubt. Indeed, the “group of hackers in Nigeria” had berated the Nigerian government for not doing enough to secure and protect the Nigeria-based internet domains.
For a nation striving to encourage electronic transactions - registrations, financial transactions, and communication - the need to protect the “internet integrity of the nation,’ cannot be over emphasized. Left unprotected and not maximally secured, there is no gainsaying that the nation and indeed all businesses in the country are in grave danger over the harm hackers can cause in the system.
It is perhaps in the full realisation of this danger that the Senate is presently considering a Bill aimed at containing the activities of these internet criminals.
The Bill has proposed a 14 years jail term or Five Million Naira fine (or both) for those involved in any category of the listed internet crimes, including those who send viruses to wreck the computer systems of others.
The hackers who often operate like mercenaries can indeed shut down the information system of institutions, conglomerates and indeed vital agencies of a nation. The enormity of the harm these hackers can cause should make the senators speed up the bill. It must not be one of those bills that spend eternity in the chambers without becoming laws.
Experts have however argued that a better means of protecting the nation is by signing on to uncommon internet portals like Nigeria’s domain. The experts explain that common portals like Yahoo, Hotmail, and Gmail are more prone to hackers’ mischief, notwithstanding efforts by organisations to shield themselves from hackers through system upgrade.
While it is crucial that the government takes urgent measures to protect the country from the activities of these criminals, entrepreneurs must also invest heavily in anti-hackers’ softwares and facilities as a way of protecting the soul of their businesses.
Even at that, the human element as a factor in all of this cannot be underestimated. Technical personnel placed in charge of such sensitive posts in various organisations must be people of impeccable character who will not compromise nor sabotage the integrity of their organisations.
It is also important for Nigerians to be aware of this menace, and particularly for security personnel to consider it as a lead in their investigation of cases as the one that caused untold embarrassment to NAN and Channels Television. Governments, businesses and organisations in Nigeria must wake up to this new wave of crime.

Nigeria’s Anti-Bunkering Campaign

For a nation that has oil as its mainstay, it is to be expected that no effort would be spared in protecting oil facilities from vandals, economic saboteurs and plain crude oil thieves. It is against this backdrop that President Umaru Yar’Adua recently raised the alarm at the global forum of the 63rd session of the United Nation’s General Assembly, where he vowed that Nigeria would lead the global campaign against oil theft.
He had argued that proceeds from stolen oil are “Blood Oil” as it was with “Blood Diamond” in Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Illegal bunkering, also known as crude oil theft, is a crime that came with the discovery of oil in Nigeria. Often, the crime is committed with the active connivance of two parties-- local and foreign saboteurs.
While the foreign crime partners provide the huge capital outlay, logistics and operational facilities needed to perpetrate the crime, the local partners provide the guide and protection needed for a successful operation. The proceeds of the crime greatly enrich the criminals, albeit, illegally.
That the activities of the crude oil thieves have had a negative effect on the earnings of the country from oil is to say the obvious. Coupled with the unrest in the oil-rich Niger Delta, which has adversely affected production output, this evil has all but shrank the financial health of the nation. That should explain the determination of President Yar’Adua in seeking global co-operation in taming the criminal trend. One less discussed problem is the environmental pollution the theft causes from resultant oil spills and fire.
The international community which has often expressed concern over the mismatch between Nigeria’s enormous oil resources and the widespread poverty in the country should support these efforts the best way they can.
While we commend the fresh initiative at fighting bunkering on a global platform, it is necessary to remind the government that much more work needs to be done at home if the campaign is to yield the desired result. Indeed charity must begin at home. The nation must be prepared to deal decisively with the local collaborators in the bunkering business, before expanding the frontiers of the battle to the global front.
Though the government has often lamented the losses suffered to crude oil theft, it has hardly come down heavily on arrested suspects. Too often, much show is made when a group of high profile crude of thieves are caught, but no sooner had the arrests been made, than the case is forgotten. This has fuelled the strong suspicion that certain “powerful forces” are behind the criminal act in Nigeria.
For instance, three months ago, a group of 14 Filippinos were arrested on board a vessel with 150-160 metric tonnes of stolen crude. They even confessed to their crime, giving details of how their principal based in Greece directed the operation with the assistance of local partners. But till date, not many Nigerians know what became of the case. We are not aware of any conviction as a result of illegal bunkering.
In the past three years alone, the Navy and JTF have arrested 260 ships. What happened to them? Regularly, there are allegations of how even military personnel posted to guard oil installations collude with crude oil thieves to illegally sell off our commonwealth. The military authorities have, however, often denied this.
Along with the violence in the Niger-Delta region, oil bunkering has accounted for the loss of one-fifth of the nation’s production out put, and has indeed, reduced daily output to less than 2 million bpd. This should compel the nation to be firmer in applying the laws against these saboteurs. Treating them with kid gloves can never curb the crime. Worse still, foreign collaborators will never take the nation seriously if it continues to pay mere lip service to the campaign against oil theft.
The plan to launch a global war against oil bunkering is thus laudable as long as the nation is prepared to decisively deal with her own criminals in this respect.
Luckily, experts say the oil in Nigeria has its own peculiar character, finger print, and thus can be identified in the global market. That should further help in the anti-bunkering war.
But the worry is which global anti-bunkering police that can stop these thieves in their tracks at the international market? In order to succeed, Nigeria must thus work out an elaborate scheme of weaving together a tight network of surveillance that can help reduce the incidence of oil theft in the country and also be seen to have punished arrested crude oil thieves..