Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Open Letter to Awoist: It is time to Apologize to Ndigbo for that Starvation Policy

“But when I went what did I see? I saw the kwashiorkor victims. If you see a kwashiorkor victim you’ll never like war to be waged. Terrible sight, in Enugu, in Port Harcourt, not many in Calabar, but mainly in Enugu and Port Harcourt. Then I enquired what happened to the food we were sending to the civilians. We were sending food through the Red Cross, and CARITAS to them, but what happen was that the vehicles carrying the food were always ambushed by the soldiers. That’s what I discovered, and the food would then be taken to the soldiers to feed them, and so they were able to continue to fight. And I said that was a very dangerous policy, we didn’t intend the food for soldiers. … So I decided to stop sending the food there. In the process, the civilians would suffer, but the soldiers suffered most.” –Chief Obafemi Awolowo.

We can either chose to live in denial and pretend that Awo never participated in the terrible decision to starve people of eastern Nigeria of foods and medicine during the Biafran War or own up to the fact that he did it to save Nigeria, apologize for it, and then move on. The abuse of anyone who dares to raise the fact that Chief Awolowo was culpable for the death of millions of children as a result of the policy will not make this disastrous policy go away. Awoist and Chief Awolowo family need to stop getting unnecessarily defensive and antagonistic when this issue is raised. Fact is fact and nothing we humans do could suddenly turned facts into fiction or fiction into facts. Fact is Chief Awolowo championed the policy on starvation to win the war to use his words. There is no other way to look at it. It does not diminish the greatness of the man in terms of what he achieved for his people. We can even disagree on what motivates him to take that decision: ambition? Or statesmanship? But what should not be subject to pejoratives and needless harangue is the very fact that the decision happened at his watch.

Some have tried to put the blame on Gowon or the military leaders but Chief Awolowo’s own words is clear: “I decided to stop sending the food there.” It was not a military decision by Adekunle or Murtala. This is a decision made by the Finance minister of the federation, Chief Awolowo. He owned that decision in the interview quoted above. Whenever this issue is raised Awoist and the Awolowo family usually drew umbrage, assailing whoever called Awo out on this issue and generally attacking the character of those who dare to confront Awoist on the frailties of their leaders. It is time for Awoist to realize that Chief Awolowo is not infallible. He made some sound decision in governance as well as other horrendous decisions, one of which is this starvation policy. He might have done it to please the northern oligarchy who had promised to install him as president or he might have had a truly altruistic motive; whatever the case this is a sadistic policy that should never have been put in place by any Nigerian leader.

The impact on Biafra’s children reverberates around the world. It was such that over 40 years later, Steve Jobs referenced it in the interview for his biography written by Walter Isaacson. In fact it had such an effect on him that it turned him against the Christian God that would permit such a cruel injustice on poor children. Lets quote the biography: “In July 1969, LIFE magazine published a shocking cover showing a pair of starving children in Biafra. Jobs took it to Sunday school and confronted the church's pastor. "If I raise my finger, will God know which one I'm going to raise even before I do it?" The pastor answered, "Yes, God knows everything." Jobs then pulled out the LIFE cover and asked, "Well, does God know about this and what's going to happen to those children?" We may not be able to know for certain if God knows about those children but we do know for a fact that Chief Awolowo knows and understand the impact of his decision on those children as evident from the above excerpted interview. To quote him directly, “So I decided to stop sending the food there. In the process, the civilians would suffer, but the soldiers suffered most.”

What is more, Chief Awolowo, as an intellectual should have known better. The 4th Geneva Convention put in place in 1949 specifically require that civilians be protected during wars. It requires parties to the conflict in Part II, Article 15 to make provisions for food supply to the civilian persons in the war zones, either directly or through a neutral State or some humanitarian organization. Nigeria did contract with CARITAS but Chief Awolowo yanked the arrangement after visiting the liberated cities of Calabar, Port Harcourt and Enugu. As he stated in the interview I quoted above he did what he did because he believed the food was being used to feed the soldiers. That may well be true, but Nigeria suffered more public relation damage for that blockade than it gained. At that point in the war it was clear that Biafra had lost. Several strongholds had been liberated and are under control of Federal forces. What do we stand to gain by starving innocent children to death to punish soldiers?

Some Awoist have argued that Professor Achebe excused Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu; my response to them is to wait until Achebe’s book is out before rushing to judgment. And by the way, when does the other guy is also bad becomes a defense to genocide? The starvation policy led to the death of millions of innocent Igbo children and civilians. It is a moral disaster for the federal government of Nigeria and until the leaders of Nigeria own up to the depravity of that decision we will continue to drift as a nation. It is often said that a nation that will not learn from its history is bound to repeat it. If we can’t learn from such monumental loss of judgment by our revered leaders, our standing in the comity of nations will continue to slide, and our unity will remain a mirage.

I believe it is now incumbent on Awoist and the Awolowo family to finally accept the frailties of their leader before they trot out the many things he did to help the Ndigbo. Fact is Chief Awolowo helped many Ndigbo recover their properties in Lagos after the war. This is why the abandoned property saga is not as pronounced in Lagos as Port Harcourt. But all these will pale into insignificance if Awoist and the Awolowo family do not summon courage to confront the fact that Pa Awo was wrong on that starvation policy. You cannot deny the glaringly obvious inconvenient facts and expect others to appreciate your other good deeds. It is time for Awoist to stop living in denial. War is evil and the only true debt we owe posterity is to tell the truth about our past. When we do that we honor the memories of the dead and prepare ourselves to face the future with fortitude. It is only then that the labors of our heroes past will not be in vain.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Jonathan’s Administration: Confronting Simple Problems with Drastic and Complex Solutions

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” ~Leonardo DaVinci

A good summary of Steve Job’s autobiography by Walter Isaacson could be aptly put: “simplicity”. Job committed his entire life to turning complex human technological problems into a simple easy to handle tech marvel anyone and everyone can use. No wonder people of all hue will readily pay any price to lay their hands on any Apple products. The current regime in Nigeria on the other hand could easily enter the Guinness Book of Record for turning simple problems into nightmares for everyone. The regime is well known for recommending complex palliatives to simple problems. Some of their recipes for what ails our land are often mostly “hit and miss” badly thought out proposals without a grand view of the impact on the society.

One can run through a gamut of the current government’s miscues since Jonathan’s election to the highest office in the land. For instance, when it found it was paying too much to oil barons who are exploiting the oil subsidy to make quick money. What did they recommend? Their first thought was not to apprehend the criminals but to abruptly remove oil subsidy. When the Central Banks discovers that the cost of printing notes is too much, the first thought was not to find out why foreigners own the patents to the notes in the first place, and how the cost of printing the notes could be reduced. They came up with an unconstitutional policy restricting how much notes Nigerians could withdraw from a bank, all in the name of cashless banking. And now the same Central Bank thinks that the new solution is not to address the systemic inflationary indices, but to print more notes in higher denominations.

The Central Bank imbroglio is atypical of Jonathan’s administration ineptness. The regime has never found a problem they can’t turn into a hydra-headed monster even if it comes to them with a simple solution wrapped in a manger! Their pronouncements on economic structures of the country are as firm and arrogant as some of the religious fanatics they are fighting in the northern part of the country. Whatever problems lurk on the horizon, be it economic, social or structural are imagined primarily as hydra headed political problems, orchestrated by the enemies of the regime and the only way out is to “settle” the opponent by throwing the poor and the dispossessed under the bus. It does not matter if such opponent is a terrorist. The victims of their nefarious acts must be made to pay the cost of transporting their abuser to Aso rock, where the killer will be feted and received with pomp and pageantry. Of course, what inevitably pass as governance in Nigeria is money changing hands between politicians and top civil servants of all hue. No thoughts on building infrastructures and systemic structures that can stand the test of time. Inevitably while the politicians and their accomplices in government shower money on themselves and their children the poor masses in our country pay dearly for the cost of such inept governance.

Sad as this may appear, this problem do not begin with the Jonathan’s administration. The genesis could be traced to his predecessors particularly the infamous Obasanjo regime. Obasanjo’s adventures in power could at best be termed the lost decade for the country, more because of the opportunity lost than any other factor. He had been in power in the 1970s and many thought his second coming would at least be a corrective one, albeit with lessons learned. Sadly, his eight years as a civilian president could serve as a public administration case study on the pitfalls of visionless leadership. What began with hope and pageantry with an unusual inclusion of many of Nigeria’s best technocrats’ home and abroad, mutated into corrupt, bloated and wasteful regime that left more Nigerians in poverty than any other civilian regime in the history of our country. Obasanjo’s neglect of the institutions and infrastructures that he inherited will take Nigeria at least another decade to repair and restore. For those who doubt this assertion just take a drive on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, or the eyesore called the Asaba-Onitsha bridge gateway.

The Jonathan’s regime is hell bound in outdoing Obasanjo record of nonperformance in office. At the height of Obasanjo’s debt repayment hypocrisy, he famously referred to the cell phone “GSM” revolution as perhaps his greatest achievement, an achievement for which his regime contributed nothing in terms of infrastructures and policy mechanism other than setting up proxy telephone companies owned by retired military officers. And now Jonathan’s is on the cusp of making such claims with power distribution in the country, even though all it did is to collect rent for foreign corporation who will gouge ordinary Nigerians in the guise of providing electricity.

“Why is our country in such a dire straits?” a friend of mine asked me casually on a recent trip back from the heartland. My first retort is to point to other countries in Africa undergoing the same pain, but realizing that my friend will not take such a pessimistic answer from me while we are on 15 hour flight together I decided to take my time to answer him. More so, when he knew that my knowledge on public administration in developing countries is well known. So I gather my thoughts and pointed out to him point blank that no developing countries will ever get out of doldrums if it spends 90% of its income on payment of salaries to politicians and public servants and less than 10% on infrastructural development. He immediately asked me what should we do, I told him what we need is a public will and constitutional amendment to force every government in Nigeria to raise taxes it will use to pay salaries for itself out of a general fund, while all income accruable from our natural resources and dedicated levies are paid directly into an enterprise account for building and maintenance of infrastructures, like hospitals, roads, educations etc. Politicians and their comrade in civil service salaries will only be paid by the people impacted by the structures they build. This may not be a perfect fix to the problems of leadership in our country but it is at best the best place to start. Of course, for this idea to work, we need to make governance a community affair. The closest government to the people is often the ones that impacted them most. The days of sitting in Abuja to preside over the cost of repairing water-works and drainage in Ilesa should be over.

The federal government as currently set up is over bloated and needless. If we need a legislature at all, we do not need a bicameral body, membership there should also be part time with a strict instruction to meet for three months to set policy direction for the executive, approve budgetary allocations unless there is a special session called by the executives. The executive arm should also be pruned; the federal and state governments should have no business managing sports and cultures. These are practical simple solutions to anemic problems, but our governments are used to chasing shadows.