19 November 2012

Nigeria: Notes for Nigerians From the U.S. Elections


Nigerian voters, media, politicians (of both the ruling party and the opposition) as well as INEC (if its officials like) have a lot to learn from the just concluded United States elections.

And nobody should tell me that there is nothing to be learnt since the United States' democracy is over 200 years old and we are a "nascent" democracy. Nigerians have made the word "nascent" sound terrible. Nothing that we saw in the just concluded US elections was nuclear science. It is the same way Ghana, Botswana, South Africa and other smaller African nations conduct their democratic affairs. It is only that Americans conducted theirs in the full view of the world.

Nigerian voters generally need to know that they are king in this matter of democracy. As we all saw during the US campaigns, the stakes for the presidency of a nation, especially for one like Nigeria, is so high that we cannot afford to be complacent. And as we have seen in the last few years in Nigeria, it is too risky not to give a damn about who becomes the president. The American electorate were engaged throughout, listening to every word both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney had to say. They listened to their debates, watched their lifestyles and examined their antecedents. A lot of money was deployed, more than $6 billion by official estimates, which translates to about N960 billion, but the money was spent mainly on media advertisements - to send their messages across. They also spent money on organisation and mobilisation. Nigerians must start insisting on knowing the programmes and manifestoes of their candidates.

The Nigerian elite must insist on that. It is not enough for any candidate to simply come up and talk about seven-point agenda or a transformation agenda. The media must mercilessly interrogate candidates on the particulars of such agenda. The media must also test the veracity of what presidential candidates say. For instance, when Governor Romney insisted that he would not increase taxes as against Obama's plan of increasing taxes for those like himself earning more than $250,000 per annum and above, it was the media, almost speaking with one voice, that said it was not possible to not increase taxes and expect to increase revenues that would be necessary to bring down the huge and perilous deficit. It got to a point that Romney started looking like a liar. He was actually called one by Obama himself.

In all future elections in Nigeria, the media and the elite must thoroughly interrogate a presidential candidate who starts talking about a transformation agenda to see whether the candidate even knows the spelling of "transformation". We must insist on several presidential and vice-presidential candidates' debates to assess the IQ of the person we are handing over power to. We must grill them on the issues that matter most to Nigeria, the first being this matter of corruption that has now assumed a life of its own. And it will not just be enough for a presidential candidate to say he will tackle corruption. Obasanjo, Yar'Adua and Jonathan declared that they would tackle corruption but we saw what they eventually delivered. They ended up giving former President Mobutu Sese Seko a good name.

If you are going to tackle corruption, how are you going to do it? That is the kind of question we should be asking the presidential candidates of 2015. What kind of deterrent are the presidential candidates going to put in place? If a governor or minister is contesting for the presidency, what are his credentials in the fight against corruption in his place or former place of work? It is corruption that has deprived this nation of good roads, good hospitals, an effective security and intelligence force that curbs crimes, etc. Why is it, for instance, that the federal government does not give funds to the police anymore, leaving that to be done by state governments even though the police force is a federal responsibility? The next presidential candidates must be able to know and work with figures and must talk the modern language of politics and governance. What is the total revenue of the country today? Is that enough for a country that used to be the largest producer and exporter of groundnuts, groundnut oil, cocoa, palm produce, etc? Why is it that in spite of our very huge marine resources - rivers, lakes, creeks and the Atlantic Ocean - Nigeria imported N100 billion of fish last year instead of exporting same?

In 1999, just before the PDP took over power, Nigeria imported about $13 billion of food, which translates, at today's value, to roughly N2.08 trillion. But between 2007 and today, when presidents Yar'Adua and Jonathan were at the helm, Nigeria imported N100 trillion worth of food items. This is scary and irresponsible. That is a principal reason why a dollar can scandalously exchange for as much as N160 today. This nonsense must stop. It is really a thing of shame that Nigeria is currently one of the largest food importers in the world, yet ours is among the best arable lands in the world. The dollar should not sensibly exchange for more than N50 or even less if we had serious leaders. But where a president would go to Malawi, the poorest country in southern Africa, and ask them to export their rice to Nigeria on top of our already N1 billion per day import of rice (last year, we imported more than N356 billion of rice), it shows clearly that democracy is not working in Nigeria. These are going to be the questions and issues for the Nigerian presidential candidates to answer during the 2015 presidential campaigns. This disorder has to stop!

In 2010, Nigeria spent N635 billion on wheat imports, even though there are now heat-resistant strains of wheat seeds; N217 billion on sugar imports, and, as I said earlier, N100 billion on fish imports in spite of our marine resources. We import some of these fish products from countries like Namibia that have access to the same marine resources. Nigeria is the world's largest producer of cassava with 45 million tons annually but with zero per cent export because we add no value to the produce, while Thailand, which produces about 30 million tons annually, accounts for about 80 per cent of the world trade because they export cassava chips and pellets to Europe where they are used as animal feeds. The reason, of course, could be that the Thai people do not consume cassava as part of their diet but, in Nigeria, cassava products such as garri are staple food. But if one considers that the 45 million tons produced in Nigeria came through the primitive initiative and brawn of the small-scale, poor Nigerian farmer, then, with serious intervention from a serious government, we can double this output, produce much more than we consume, and edge out Thailand from the export market in Europe since we are much closer to Europe than Thailand and can therefore beat them in pricing.

That's not all. In the 1960s, Nigeria accounted for more than 60 per cent of global palm oil exports, making us the largest in the world. Today, Malaysia (which got its seedlings from Nigeria) and Indonesia account for more than 80 per cent of the global export of palm oil. Last year, Malaysia made a cool $26 billion from palm oil. Nigeria is today a net importer. Nigeria also had 30 per cent of the world's export of groundnuts and 25 per cent global groundnut oil export, making us also the world's largest. Today, we import groundnut products from Ghana. Then, we also accounted for 15 per cent of global cocoa exports. These shall be the issues for the 2015 elections. Nigeria cannot continue to remain in this prostrate situation.

Oil will also be a major talking point in 2015. We currently produce about 2.5 million barrels daily but those familiar with the industry say we can easily produce 4 million barrels daily, with a serious government. So what is stopping us? Why is it that the theft of crude oil has reached alarming proportions since Jonathan became president? The theft is now put at over N1 trillion annually. Why is it that the government has not shown any seriousness in its quest for oil and gas in the other geopolitical zones known to have oil or gas deposits? And what are we doing about our gas resources? The United States has described Nigeria as a gas province with little oil. Our gas resources are simply breathtaking. It is gas that has made Qatar a rich nation today and it is gas that continues to make Saudi Arabia even richer. Why is it that we do not really benefit from our gas resources? What is to be done to reverse the situation? Those who wish to be the next candidates must prepare for these questions.

The United States which imports 9 per cent of our oil intends to surpass Saudi Arabia in 10 years in oil production through its very successful oil exploration technique called "fracking". President Obama made this promise in 2008 and the government has supported the private sector to improve on the fracking process, resulting in the production of more oil on the American soil and the reduction of America's oil import by one million barrels daily in the four years Obama has been president. Do we have any plans towards that as a nation, since we substantially depend on oil for our revenues? When an American president makes this kind of commitment, they usually follow up. When President J.F. Kennedy promised in 1960 that an American would be on the moon in 10 years, by 1969, they had already put someone on the moon. So, clearly, the world oil market is about to witness a new era as Americans intervene to protect their interests. Are we doing anything to further or protect our own interests? Or, are we just watching? This also shall be a talking point during the 2015 presidential campaigns.

As for the opposition, it is clear that they cannot continue to complain about election rigging and expect Nigerians to take them seriously. Politically, there is nothing wrong with the PDP; it is the opposition that has a problem. The PDP is only a criminal organisation in governance, but, in politics, if the party rigs elections, it is because the opposition is too weak to stop them. And the opposition is not only weak, it appears too unserious to capture power. What else would explain the fact that, up until this moment, the parties have not merged? Considering the current fear and anxiety in the land, if the current opposition parties do not come together, new groups would come up and fill the void before 2015. The situation in Nigeria has become too dangerous to continue to rely on ineffectual opposition.

Someone asked if Obama would have won if he were a presidential candidate in Nigeria. My response was that, for a presidential candidate with the kind of nous that he possesses, Obama could also have won the presidential contest in Nigeria because he would have developed the strategy that would bring together and mobilise all the demographics in Nigeria to make rigging against him impossible. Nigerians have done it in a few points - in Kano and Lagos in 2003; in Lagos and Bauchi in 2007; in the entire south-west in 2011 and in Edo and Ondo in 2012. Obama strategically mobilised the people in 2008 against the American political establishment, prompting the United States secret service to codename him "The Renegade". He made history in 2008 to become the first African-American to be elected president. In 2012, he made another type of history by becoming the first president to be re-elected with an unemployment rate of more than 7.5 per cent. Obama was re-elected on a day more than 29 million Americans were struggling for jobs. Anyone can make history, but there is a price to pay.

In the American election we just witnessed, it was the media that virtually announced the winner by simply collating the figures. The media deployed their correspondents in all the counties and collated the results as they were being announced. There is no reason why that cannot be done in Nigeria. We all now know that the corpses in Nigerian elections are buried at the collation centres. Journalists in a democracy have a critical role to play in ensuring free and fair elections and keeping everyone involved honest. All the major newspapers, radio and television houses in Nigeria should deploy correspondents and stringers to the major points in the country.

It will be a very expensive venture but credible media houses can seek foreign grants or even collaboration with local and foreign civil society groups for this. Media houses in Nigeria should also be announcing the results as they are released from the polling booths. This will significantly reduce fraud. Nigerians no longer trust the collation centres. Democracy is too important to be left to the officials of INEC alone to determine. Besides, the constitution supports this watchdog role for the media. We should all remember that the media is also mentioned in the constitution and has as much stake as the executive, the legislature and the judiciary in the affairs of the polity. To contain the frauds at the collation centres, the media must be fully involved in 2015. Anyone that is against this should be viewed with suspicion.


Revolutionary Obasanjo

Not a few were amused recently when former President Olusegun Obasanjo insinuated that Nigeria was already ripe for a revolution. But many more didn't laugh. It is only in a country like Nigeria that a person like Obasanjo would be walking so freely and speaking the revolution language. Whatever is happening in Nigeria today is the direct result of Obasanjo's crookish governance of the country. Yes, Nigeria is ripe for a revolution and, if it started today, the first assignment of the revolutionaries would have to be carried out in Abeokuta or Ota, wherever Obasanjo would be on that fateful day.

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