Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The gospel according to Hillary

PERHAPS, I should begin by saying that I have never been a fan of Mrs. Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, and the reason is simple. I perceive her as someone who's very calculating and arrogant. She carries on with an astonishingly high level of omniscience that tends to arrogate to her and indeed the Clinton clan the magic wand for solving all of America's problems.

These clearly came through during her face-off with Barack Obama, now her boss, during the DNC presidential primaries. Well, all of that is now water under the bridge, as she has literally swallowed her pride and taken up a position under Obama (pardon the pun). But I have never doubted her brilliance and remarkable candour. These attributes did come through during her eight-year career as First Lady of the United States, and now as she traverses the world, selling and defending the U.S. foreign policies. If you ever watched her town hall sessions in Nairobi, Kenya, Kinshasa, DRC, and Abuja, Nigeria, you will appreciate the point I am trying to make.

There was something remarkable at each session. In Kenya, she playfully turned down an offer from one of the attendees to pay her the dowry for her daughter, Chelsea. While in DRC, she lost her cool at an obvious misinterpretation of a question (asked in French), which mistakenly sought her comments about her husband's view on an issue rather than that of President Obama.

In Abuja, she proved a handful for her hosts, because she seized the moment to tell the leadership of the country some gospel truth. It actually started in Kenya, where she regretted that, as the fifth largest producer of oil in the world, Nigeria has nothing to show for it - which is true. My friend, Karl Maier, in his book This House has fallen, expressed similar sentiments and put it down to visionless leadership driven by greed and avarice. And that was the kernel of Mrs. Clinton's message to Nigerians and those running the affairs of the country.

According to her, the most immediate source of disconnect between Nigeria's enviable wealth and its staggering poverty is a failure of governance at the federal, state and local levels. While this truism is not new knowledge to Nigerians, it has become important for such a high level international personage to tell our pretentious leadership the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I don't know about you, but there are times when I get the feeling that there is no leadership in Nigeria. Otherwise, how could true leaders sit idly by, like Pharaoh, fiddling while Rome, nay Nigeria is burning. There is absolutely no sense of urgency in the way and manner some of the leaders go about their job, even when it is crystal clear that our desperate conditions require desperate measures. The lackadaisical attitude of the mostly self-imposed leaders definitely belies the enormity of the problems at hand.

Mrs. Clinton not unexpectedly spoke with neither fear nor favour on the tendentious issue of corruption. This could not have been stated any better and any more bluntly. Now in Nigeria, one gets the feeling that the prevailing political system is "kleptocracy" and not democracy, as we are made to believe. Several people, who should otherwise be cooling their heels behind bars, are pounding the corridors of power with flagrant impudence. As a consequence, young people have lost patience with the government of the day and have now elected to take the laws into their hands through misguided militancy, kidnapping for ransom and outright armed robbery. Today, Nigeria has become more or less a theatre of the absurd and a country under siege. Insecurity has become the order of the day, and night.

What's the way out? Mrs. Clinton had two popular suggestions: Reform the electoral system expeditiously and bring back the era of earnest anti-corruption. In making these interventions, Mrs. Clinton knew exactly what she was talking about, because she comes from a system where criminals are never set free once they breach the "11th commandment": thou shall not get caught. In the United States, as it used to be in Nigeria in the years of yore, "everyday is for the thief and one day is for the owner of the house". But all such historical antecedents in dealing with corruption and corrupt people have paled into insignificance with the infiltration of government by reputable criminals. They not only sustain their invidiously nefarious activities, they go to great lengths to protect their own. Such is the leadership conundrum we have found ourselves in as Nigerians - a situation of cats taking care of rats (both of them thieves).

While there is no gainsaying the fact that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) under Olusegun Obasanjo was too high-handed and fairly unorthodox in the way it combated corruption, it is incontrovertible that the commission in its current form is way too subservient and controlled. Placed on a see-saw with the Ribadu era, the current EFCC looks like a toothless bulldog just there to fulfill all righteousness. As far as I know, not much has been done to prevent government officials from stealing. So, it is important to apprehend and punish those who steal as a deterrent to intending thieves. Therefore, Clinton stated that "we (the U.S.) want to see the reinstatement of a vigorous corruption commission. The EFCC, which was doing well, has kind of fallen off in the last one year. We will like to see it come back to business to be able to partner with us." End of story!

The other point Madam addressed is that of electoral reform, which government officials are paying lip service, at best. A Catholic priest once told me that he rescued a ballot box after a fracas at a polling station within the precincts of his parish in 1999. One decade after, the ballot box is still nestling the church altar and nobody has had the courage to come and claim it despite his frequent calls for such. Meanwhile, someone was declared winner and has gone ahead to "represent" the people in government. Not a surprise, you would say, but it is a point to ponder when discussing electoral reforms.

During my more reflective moments, which have become more frequent in the last year or so, I wonder what drives people in government. One would not need to consult a soothsayer to know that what motivates people (or should motivate people) to run for elective positions in government is service, service to the people. So, when one sees people in government coasting around heedlessly without showing any serious concern about the situation of the people, one begins to wonder what fires our own breed of politicians into gracelessness...and wickedness.

I work for a company that also has an operation in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, according to World Bank statistics. Malawi is probably comparable in size to Ogun State and half of Lagos demographically, but it is doing much better than Nigeria in several respects. Take electricity, for instance. While our company's Nigerian operation functions with five per cent public power and 95 per cent privately generated electricity, Malawi conversely operates with 95 per cent public power supply and about five per cent private power generation. Isn't that ridiculous? Isn't that heart breaking? Yet the likes of Senate President David Mark proudly proclaim that all is well with Nigeria!

So, Mrs. Clinton has come and gone, but our problems as a people will remain our problems, as she says. Nobody will come from the U.S. or any other country to resolve our challenges for us. At best, they will make suggestions. It, therefore, behoves our leaders to have a change of heart and begin to do what they are sworn to do in government. As for the people of Nigeria, we need to shake off the unfortunate, repulsive culture of being long-suffering. It is said that if you push a Nigerian to the wall, he (or she) will break the wall to get away - instead of the time-tested practice of reacting (or rather protesting), when pushed to the wall, which even animals do. We need to adopt or imbibe the culture of protestation, in our own interest.