The Mystery Of The Disappearing Blog Post

I have deleted the blog post I put up about my encounter with the Agric Minister here in London.

It was bad form for me not to at least have told him I was going to write about our meeting. He might have said some more things and he might not have said some things, but I should at least have told him.

So out of respect to him, I have taken the post down. It was my most enjoyable encounter with any Nigerian government official so it’s a shame to have to do this.

I am not a journalist so I sometimes forget that I should tell people that I have a public blog.

I hope I can get to put it back up because I think it’s important to have this kind of information out there to at least counter some of the ignorance we all suffer from every so often.

 

FF

P.S If you have a cached copy of the post somewhere, please dont re-post it. I have not been asked to take down the post, it’s something I decided to do as I didnt think it was cool appearing like some sneaky ambush journalist. So be nice, keep it to yourself.

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Big Governments and Small People

A couple of different things that have happened in Nigeria in the last week have left me with a few questions. So I am writing this to sort of crowdsource answers to these questions in my head.

 

Makoko

On Tuesday July 17th 2012, the Lagos State Government began demolishing dwellings in the Makoko area of Lagos. According to the letter sent to the residents by LASG, the structures constituted an

Environmental nuisance, security risk and an impediment to the economic and gainful utilisation of the waterfront and undermined the megacity status of Lagos

Dont laugh, that’s not why we are here. I think we can agree that it’s not beyond the powers of a government to destroy property sometimes. It’s part of the package we all sign up to when we decide we want to be an organised society with central authority.

Sometimes govt might decide that it’s worth dislocating a few people so as to benefit the majority. It’s ok to do that. We might need a new road built or a train track laid so we ask a few people to leave an area so the majority (including the displaced people) can have better infrastructure. There’s no better way to do this other than democratically. Here in London for example, some people are going to be displaced by the Crossrail line due to come on line in 2017 as an example. So they will need to move elsewhere.

What is important is that because the underlying reason for the dislocation is the need to extract better value from the land, the current users should always get compensation. It’s the decent thing to do and ensures that people are treated like human beings. Before construction could commence at the new London Gateway port in Kent, 350,000 animals (including 600 snakes) had to be ‘relocated‘ to new habitat. So you dont even need to be a human being these days to have your rights protected.

In short, the govt doesnt need to declare something as ‘illegal’ before having a reason to get rid of it as long as it’s for the benefit of wider society. So I am curious; what does LASG want to use the Makoko Waterfront for? Will this be something that will benefit Lagosians given that the demolition is being done in their names? Bear in mind that it is estimated that half of the fish eaten in Lagos is produced in this same Makoko that has been declared an ‘environmental nuisance’.

If LASG has better plans for the waterfront, why not just tell the public and let everone be convinced of the need to move the people away from there? Why the need to portray the place as a den of thieves where people can be electrocuted at any time as was done by one Adesegun Oniru who wears epaulets designating him as Commissioner for Waterfront Infrastructure Development?

So, does anyone know what better use LASG wants to put the Makoko Waterfront to and if indeed there is such, why werent the people compensated and allowed to move on?

Or is this just a typical big government flexing its muscles against small people who cant fight back? I would have thought that if the criteria was just ‘illegal structures’, LASG could go on a demolition spree in Lekki and Victoria Island and not finish in the next 5 years even. 

By the way, did the current government receive any votes from this ‘illegal’ settlement in the 2011 elections?

 

Cassava Bread

Even if you’ve been living inside a cave in Nigeria for the past 1 year, it’s hard to imagine how you would have managed to avoid all talk of cassava bread as a national issue. Mr President has eaten it live on national TV and has fed it to his deputy as well as decreed that no other type of bread should be served him from the Aso Rock kitchen. Again, this is not a problem at all.

But so great is the Cassava evangelism currently sweeping through our government that they cannot wait for us to start eating this bread in the name of local content or whatever it is. While government has promised the establishment of a Cassava Bread Development Fund which will be used to train 400,000 ‘master bakers’ across the country in the art and science of cassava bread making, like a man who is rushing home to use the toilet, the govt has gone ahead to slap punitive tariffs of 65% on imported wheat.

The Agric minister, Akin Adesina has even resorted to using strident language like calling wheat importers ‘unpatriotic’. Perhaps some of these importers will be shot before the next elections?

All of a sudden the sky is falling, Nigeria is about to collapse under the sheer weight of the wheat import bill. Something must be done. This is something. Therefore it must be done! We are also told that this cassava bread is ‘just like’ wheat bread and people will not be able to tell the difference. This might beg the question, why not just put it in the market and let people buy it and gradually move away from wheat?

Dr Adesina has a PhD in Agricultural Economics from Purdue University. I dont imagine you can get a PhD from there without doing some real work to earn it so perhaps, like many before him, he has simply sacrificed his principles on the massive altar of political expediency that the Nigerian govt offers.

Economists know that there is no such thing as a ‘solution’. Everything in life is a series of trade offs no matter how appealing and ‘perfect’ it looks. Cassava bread is not a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of wheat bread (a problem sometimes has to be manufactured to fit a pre-determined solution you see). It is nice to build a 10 lane highway to link Lagos to Ibadan as an example. But this might also mean that future generations have less bitumen at their disposal to build roads when they need to if we use up a lot of bitumen today. So we decide to build the road now using the bitumen perhaps hoping that the road lasts long enough so future generations dont need it to build roads anyway.

To be fair, this is not a uniquely Nigerian problem – the tendency to find ‘solutions’ to problems. Take the issue of ‘green energy’ as an example. It was only a few years ago that windmills were all the rage. What could possibly go wrong? Just stick a mill in open space and let the wind blow it and generate electricity in the process. Ignoring the amount of concrete that needs to be used to get those windmills in place in the first place, the things dont actually work. In America today there are 14,000 abandoned wind turbines scattered across the country. Nevertheless, those who think it is a ‘solution’ to energy ‘problems’ continue to be seized by religious like fervor in their belief in them.

Taking their cue from the govt – cabal alert! – The Association of Master Bakers of Nigeria have come together to decree a 20% increase in the price of bread for everybody. In any normal country this kind of behaviour will be 100% price fixing and punished accordingly but the govt doesnt even have time to protect the consumer. It is too busy feeding us with cassava bread and in any case it has a stated aim to get wheat bread more expensive to force us to eat the preferred cassava bread.

Who elected a government and gave it the power to tell us what to eat? To the point where the govt is now throwing its weight around and punishing people financially for daring to eat something they have been eating all their lives?Is this cassava bread so perfect that there couldnt possibly be any side effects from eating it especially in a country where garri, akpu and other cassava derivatives are already all the rage for the majority of the people?

But the most important question I want to ask is this – who the fuck does Dr Akinwunmi Adesina think he is that he can prescribe a diet for 160m people? Why doesnt he quit his govt bully pulpit, open a bakery and sell his wonderfully glorious cassava bread on the open market and let the market tell him where to get off?

 

FF

 

Between Linda Ikeji and the 1st Amendment

Yesterday on twitter, I got involved in a long running debate about a post that appeared on Miss Linda Ikeji’s blog relating to the one time actor and now Delta State Commissioner for Arts and Culture, Richard Mofe-Damijo.

The post itself was all of 3 lines which began by wishing him a happy 51st birthday and ended by informing her readers, rightly or wrongly, that he had moved into a new mansion which ‘is said to have cost’ N250m.

It turns out that, beneath the cool exterior of Mr Mofe-Damijo lies a prima donna as he then took to twitter and in a series of tweets, began by ‘warning’ Ms Ikeji to stop spreading lies about him and then for good measure, he left us in no doubt as to what he thought was a ‘dignified career path’ and what wasnt. He was also sure to let us know that he would ordinarily not ‘dignify her type’ with a response but was only doing so because he had been inundated with phone calls from his friends asking what was going on.

From his tweets, it was clear his beef was with the value Ms Ikeji had placed on his home although he didnt quite tell us what the supposed real value is (probably recognising that that would be a lose lose battle for him). It is my personal opinion that the Commissioner is rather silly and takes himself too seriously. 10 years ago, acting in Nigeria was looked down upon and actors were very easily referred to as ‘their type’. I am unclear as to what Mr Mofe-Damijo is benchmarking as a ‘dignified career path’ compared to Ms Ikeji’s gossip blogging – his acting which brought him fame and fortune or his current government job?

But let’s leave that and move on to something more important.

In the course of the debates, I was sure to defend Ms Ikeji, not because I have ever met her or even read her blog (I dont), but because I think there is a more important principle at stake.

It is also my personal opinion that the greatest words ever put down on paper by a politician in any country is the American Bill of Rights, specifically the 1st Amendment. They are generally attributed to James Madison who had been mentored by the incomparable visionary, Thomas Jefferson, a man light years ahead of his time. Madison himself went on to become President and would govern by the rights he had authored and learn to live within its constraints.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The emphasis is mine. Pause and think about the above statement for a minute. Madison wrote those words in 1789 or thereabouts. He went on to become President 20 years later from 1809 to 1817. The man was clearly thinking less about himself and more about the country because enshrining such rights into the constitution is bound to be at best a nuisance for any leader.

Not only was Madison granting the press freedom, by enshrining it in the constitution, he was making it impossible for the government to take that right away as that could only be done by the Supreme Court.

Mr Madison, who was part of the establishment along with his mentor Mr Jefferson, were essentially protecting Americans from the government they were part of. This is a hard concept to grasp. The government was effectively saying ‘look, we dont trust ourselves with power. Our tendency is to always trample over individual liberties especially as we have the guns and money so we want you to be able to at least restrain us. And one of the ways you can do this is by being able to say whatever you want about us without us punishing you for it. You can also have a free press that can investigate us and write whatever they like about us and we wont be able to retaliate against them’.

Like I said, these are hard concepts. As an example, in Nigeria, those who wrote the constitution granted political office holders (themselves) immunity from prosecution and we cannot get them to take it away even after 13 years of democracy. It is not enough that they have the guns and money, they also want to be able to rob us blind and for us not to be able to do anything about it.

When Americans hold their founding fathers in deep awe, it is because of things like these. When those men had a choice between self aggrandizement and selflessness, they went for selflessness 100%.

To the 2nd point – why freedom of speech? Why not freedom to yawn in public? Why did the American founding fathers consider this right so important that they felt the need to enshrine it in the constitution?

The simple answer is that yawning is unlikely to offend anyone and even if it does offend, it is not a right that can be taken away. That is to say, even if you were to yawn in front of a government official who had access to soldiers and money, he cannot take that right away from you if your yawning were to somehow offend him.

But freedom of speech is serious business. Madison and friends knew that the whole point of freedom of speech is that is bound to offend someone from time to time. Without this ability to offend, freedom of speech is infact useless and there would be no point to it. It is fine if I was to say something that offended say a colleague at work. I could easily apologize and we would end it there. Essentially we are equals and we would deal with it as equals. 

However it is a completely different ball game when someone in government is offended by something you say. If a fight were to ensue as a result, it could never possibly be a fair one. Government, like I said earlier, is leviathan by virtue of their access to guns and money. And most importantly, the right to free speech can be taken away by imprisonment or generally harm being done to you.

So we come to decision time – given that we know that the freedom of speech is bound to offend someone, especially people in govt, and we also know that if an ordinary citizen were to get into a quarrel with the govt, it cant ever be an equal fight – is this right to free speech as well as a free press worth defending inspite of its potential to cause offence? Mr Madison thought it abslutely was.

Several years later, Mr Madison’s judgement was proved correct when two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, took advantage of the press freedom rights to essentially bring down Richard Nixon with the Watergate scandal. Is it possible that Nixon could have been innocent of the allegations against him and those two journalists ended up tainting his name forever? The answer is it doesnt matter. What was more important was their right to investigate him and then write whatever allegations they had against him.

Now, I am not getting carried away here – Ms Ikeji is no journalist. She sells gossip on her blog for which there is apparently a huge market in Nigeria. She did not create this market, she merely, like any smart entrepreneur, saw the current when it served and took it before losing her ventures….to paraphrase the Bard.

Is Mr Mofe-Damijo’s house really worth N250m as she suggested on her blog? The answer, again, is that it doesnt matter. What is more important is that she has a right to publish it. Mr Mofe-Damijo is a government official and Ms Ikeji is a private citizen. She, like any other Nigerian, has a right to say what she hears or sees without fear of offending his feelings. Her right to say it, is far more important than the possibility that Mr Mofe-Damijo might get offended by it.

Nigeria is a country where 70% of all money in circulation is government related. A local government Chairman is capable of taking away a citizen’s rights not to talk of higher up the political chain like governors and senators. Every day government tramples on the rights of ordinary citizens not just by arrest or physical harm but by sheer evil policies that are designed to serve their own interests above those of everybody else. And come election time, they do all they can to take away the last right we have – the right to kick them out of office if we are unhappy with them – by rigging elections and manipulating our votes with the sheer array of powers they have at their disposal.

In this fight between we the citizens as David and the government as Goliath, the right to be able to say what we want about them is the one stone we have in our sling. The Nigerian government would never have invented blogging, twitter, facebook or the internet if it was down to them. You only need to look at the tight grip they maintain on NTA to understand how much this freedom of speech is able to offend those in power and how far they will go to curtail it. 

I dont know Ms Ikeji and I dont care for her blog. Not because I dont like gossip, I actually do, but I prefer political gossip as opposed to the ‘celebrity’ variety she peddles. This is a matter of personal taste. I read Guido Fawkes blog here in the UK to get gossip on what’s going on in the corridors of power in Westminster i.e. what you wont read in The Guardian or Daily Telegraph. The entire point of that blog is to offend politicians specifically Labour politicians as Guido is of course Tory leaning. There are equivalent blogs on the left attacking politicians on the right.

But if she somehow offends a government official, then I know where my loyalties lie, absolutely no questions. Because it isnt really about Ms Ikeji – there is no way you can make a law to stop a blogger from speaking freely that it wont be used for something else, this is the nature of government and what Mr Madison tried to guard against. Using a random example, when the UK government wanted to seize assets belonging to Iceland after that country’s banks collapsed in 2008, they used anti-terror laws to do it! Laws that were designed to protect citizens from terror attacks were somehow used to seize another country’s assets. Even though they were justified in seizing the assets, it goes to show what a government can do when it is determined to do it.

I hear Mr Mofe-Damijo is exploring ‘legal options’ against Ms Ikeji. I am desperately praying he does this. For one, it will help us know what is inside Nigeria’s libel laws which were no doubt written before the internet was invented. It is also a battle he cannot win. If he takes offence at his house being valued at N250m, not only will he need to prove that Ms Ikeji knowingly and deliberately overstated the value of his home, he will also need to tell us the real value. At that point it will then become a matter for the public to decide exactly how much is too much or too little for a Commissioner of his stature. In a land where 70% of the people are poor, your guess is as good as mine as to what will be an acceptable value for his house.

I think Mr Mofe-Damijo, as is typical with government officials in Nigeria, was being a bully. I also find it hard to believe that Mrs Ikeji deliberately overstated the value of his home to get page views. At the very worst, she’s guilty of not double checking her facts before publishing, a crime of which she is merely 1 in 1,000,000 guilty persons in Nigeria. But there’s nothing to say she wont learn or get better in future. I dont even blog regularly but over the years as I have gotten more people reading my posts, I have learnt to be a bit more accurate with my facts before publishing anything. It is what any normal person would do – the more readers you get, the more you are forced to be more responsible – and there is no evidence that Ms Ikeji is an abnormal person.

 

The road is long for Nigeria and we will only get there by winning small battles that broaden the power base in the country and create a system where we at least have a voice that government is forced to listen to. Anything else is a recipe for Why Nations Fail.

FF