Re: Achebe’s Influence on African Literature

So someone dug up this rather interesting piece by Helen Rittelmeyer on how Chinua Achebe influenced and continues to influence African literature till today. If only for originality, it’s a very refreshing take on something I have strong biases about.

Be sure to click on the link above and read the whole thing.

Anyway, was discussing it via email with a couple of friends and one of them – let’s call her Omo Baba Printer – sent me her comments. With her permission, I am sharing them here. There’s also a cameo by another friend of mine – let’s call him Omo Baba Ibadan.

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Omo Baba Printer: Well, I think it is a very interesting article.  Rare to read something this original and well thought through. However, I’d say I’m only in agreement with about 60% of it.

 

a remarkable distinction to bestow on an author who published his first novel in 1958 and his last novel (bar one late-in-life flop) in 1966, and who in the last decades of his life published little apart from a handful of essay collections and a meandering war memoir. – 

OBP:True. I own all of Achebe’s work and while Things Fall Apart is great.  The rest of his novels feel quite same-y in terms of themes and a bit mediocre.  They are not bad novels, but there’s nothing special about them.  One of them is a bit funny – Man of the People, but I’d never recommend the other books particularly highly.

 

the American novel has evolved through a multitude of vogues and phases while the Anglophone African novel has, for the most part, remained as it was when Achebe launched it: unremarkable in its prose, flat in its characterization, anti-Western in its politics, and preoccupied with the confrontation between tradition and modernity.

OBP: True.  One issue I have with African novels is how relentlessly depressing they are. But this is  another good point. Everything is about how African tradition is fighting Western modernism.  We are so obsessed by it, it is unreal.  It’s like nothing else is going on in our lives other than this battle.  There is almost always a white character who is patronising and doesn’t really get the culture and either gets his comeuppance or is taught how to understand us by a helpful native – that’s if he or she isn’t just presented as a total shitbag.  Achebe is really awful with this.  His white female characters are quite misogynistically written.  He clearly felt that white women were whores and African women purer or more chaste.  Unfortunate.

My non-African partner has read more global literature especially non-Western novels than I, and we had this discussion.  He said for much contemporary African fiction, when he reads one it’s like he’s reading the same story over and over, almost in the same way we remember a time every Naija movie was about polygamous households.

Unless you break out of the genre, and go to stuff like Ben Okri.

 

It was a deliberate collaboration between Achebe, his publishers, and Western multiculturalists that made it that way, to serve the personal interests of the first two parties and the political interests of the third.

OBP: False.  I am always sceptical when I read about these conspiracy theories. People simply do not sit down in offices and plot how to infiltrate the recommended reading of the general public, or genocide, subjugation of Ndigbo, 9/11, etc.  It’s just not how bad things happen.  They are more by accident than by design.  I agree that this may be the end result, but I doubt that it was deliberate.

Aguntasolo: I definitely agree with this. Indeed, if the Francophone writers turned out the way the author claims, it almost certainly wasnt the intention of the French. It just happened.

OBP: I think a lot of what this writer is saying is biased by their own particular interests.

They are clearly the sort of person who likes to read Salman Rushdie or even Will Self.

Such a person will look down on Achebe and prefer a Soyinka (who I believe to be completely inaccessible to the general population anywhere in the world) Clearly only someone who liked the “highbrow” would claim Teju Cole was the best known African author in America and not Chimamanda Adichie who does not even get a mention.  Cole’s writing is just completely different, so evidently there is more than one type of fiction but for a continent of 1 billion people, this  is simply nowhere near enough.

But she is definitely right that Soyinka is easily the more cerebral of the two – but he has a Nobel Prize in Literature to show for it, so wrong to say he is not as well known.  Those who like highbrow know Soyinka, the majority who need easier novels will prefer Achebe. Simples.  Achebe has simply catered to the mass market while Soyinka is doing luxury writing.

Interestingly the writer talks about Francophone African authors who to be fair I don’t believe I have ever come across.  This is sad. There should be more translations.  But Africans are bad at linking up with each other in so many ways – trade, road networks and now I realise in literature too.  I’ve read more by Russian authors than French African ones because Europeans have made the efforts we have not to translate each other’s works.

The reviewer also claims Anglophone Africans don’t do humour.  We definitely do, just not very much. E.g. Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is quite funny.  But we don’t do humour consciously.  The subtlety in African humour is fast appearing to be a lost art.  Certainly I know there is a lot of humour in Yoruba language and Yoruba literature, but it may not translate well.

 

The other influential tastemakers were the literary reviewers, and they too brought certain expectations to African literature which proved restrictive. Early reviews had praised Things Fall Apart for being “an authentic native document, guileless and unsophisticated” (New York Herald Tribune) and “written neither up nor down” (Times Literary Supplement). The stubborn identification of “authentic” with “guileless and unsophisticated” led to a perverse situation where simplistic but bad African writing was considered more praiseworthy than anything that seemed to be, as the TLS put it, written up. –

OBP: Two words: Amos Tutuola.

I read Tutuola I got the sense it had been published in the same way someone would publish a book because a monkey had written.  Wasn’t any good and well below the level expected of a feted author… but wait… A MONKEY wrote it!

Omo Baba Ibadan: A bit harsh on Amos Tutuola. The guy was a house boy and told an interesting story in a simple and unique style. His abilities were limited and he made the best of it. I don’t think anyone holds him as an example of cerebral writing of even decent grammar and certainly not a great author. He was simply a guy who told an interesting story.

OBP: He should have written in Yoruba. I didn’t think the story was that interesting. Couldn’t even finish it. Is it harsh? Probably, but nobody writing like that would get published today.  It now just remains as an example of “primitive African writing”. I don’t like it

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I thought that was worth sharing. I have removed the normal £1/comment charge so its free to comment on this post if you want to 🙂

FF

Rhetoric Matters – Lessons From Innoson and Bollywood

I’ve written about Innoson recently, so it was quite nice to see a long interview with Chief Innocent Chukwuma in The Vanguard this last weekend. It’s a very interesting interview that I think is far more important than the kind of ‘testimonies’ that are more common in Nigeria today. 

The piece is delightfully long so I am going to pick out the things I found most interesting.

Apprenticeships and True Federalism

He was interested in reading engineering at the university. While he waited for his result he decided to report to the medicine store of his elder brother, Gabriel to occupy his time. He immediately discovered that he had a natural talent for trading. When his result came out he was unable to make the grade required for him to go for further education. By then, he had made up his mind to be a businessman, anyway.

His elder brother wanted him to learn how to trade on motorcycle parts. He was given to Chief Romanus Eze Onwuka, who became his Master. Eze Onwuka is otherwise and more popularly known as Rojenny, the founder of the first private sports stadium in Nigeria. Rojenny Stadium is located at Oba, near Onitsha

Last year, 530,700 young Germans started apprenticeships in the country. In the same year, just under 500,000 Germans started a University degree. The German apprenticeship system is legendary and so many countries have tried to copy the model with varying degrees of success. During my MBA, I had a German classmate who never went to University but instead completed his ‘degree’ via an apprenticeship with Siemens.

When a policy is that successful, you instinctively know that the policy/law trailed extant behaviour i.e. the policy would have arrived to support something that was perhaps a cultural practice. Indeed, the roots of German apprenticeships can be traced as far back as 1300 to the guild system of trades.

Today one can look at the German system that pays €650 per month to apprentices and marvel at the ‘genius’ of policy making in that country. Yet, the system would surely have started not much different from what Mr Chukwuma described above with government policy arriving much much later to lock and institutionalise the practice. A policy has a greater chance of being successful if it gives state backing to something people are already used to doing (this is why banning things in Nigeria hardly ever works).

I don’t know what the Igbo apprenticeship system is like today but at some point government policy should have stepped in to back it up and turn it into an institution. But the diverse nature of Nigeria means that the way apprenticeships work in the South East is different from how they operate in the South West or North so a one size fits all policy would never have worked (another thing that kills policy making in Nigeria).

In short, this is the kind of thing we need proper federalism for.

Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick

At every juncture that Innoson broke new grounds, he was always led to it by necessity. The old sayings that necessity is the mother of invention, and that in every crisis there is opportunity fit his circumstances like a glove.

For instance, in 1984 when the military intervened and introduced an economic regime that led to scarcity of all categories of goods, many companies closed down. Leventis and other companies were no longer able to supply goods and Innocent had to look for greener pasture in Asia.

He went to Taiwan and applied the same business principles he had used to win over Rojenny in Nigeria: honesty as the best policy. His Taiwan partners started giving him credit sales. The banks in Nigeria started scrambling to loan him money because he never defaulted and his business was booming

For me this was really refreshing to read because it is the same trajectory of success you would normally get in most other countries – where you start has absolutely no bearing on where you will end. Today Mr Chukwuma is settled as an industrialist – given the size of the investments that have gone into his businesses now, we can safely predict that in 10 years time he wont be selling pure water or making jeans.

But the early days were characterised by him doing all sorts of different things as the opportunities came to him. Whereas back then he was at the mercy of crazy government policies and having to react to them as quickly as he could, today he can more easily influence government policies.

Indeed, before he became an oil baron, John D. Rockefeller was an accountant. The ability to spot opportunities and seize them – taking the current when it serves – is a skill on its own. And it is a pattern that you’ll find in the most successful people across the world.

I’ve previously referred to the Nigerian government as the enemies of enterprise and traducers of trade. You always have to run your business on the assumption that the people in government are totally brain-dead and can be relied upon to do something to destroy your business. See the recent 62.5% tariffs on books as an example.

Sadly, until we can get to the point where society at large is strong enough to resist government’s madness, being nimble will always be a requirement to doing business successfully in Nigeria.

Talkin’ Bout A Revolution

I found out that the motorcycles from Leventis were expensive because they were only able to pack forty units into a 40-foot container. Because of the experience I had in motorcycle spare parts, I went there and asked them to strip it down to pieces.

That way I was able to pack over 200 units of motorcycles into the same 40-foot container, while others were packing 30, forty pieces. I will bring the spare parts down here and couple them manually. Because of my experience in motorcycles I found it very easy.

You’ll often hear of how very successful people stumbled on a simple insight that handed them a profitable opportunity. It is said that Rockefeller was watching men manually offloading barrels of oil off a train when the idea of a pipeline to transport the oil came to him.

In the case of Henry Ford, he did the revolutionary thing to double his factory workers salaries to $5/day when the market rate for their labour was $2.25/day. This has been greatly misunderstood to mean that Ford wanted to pay his workers enough to afford the cars he was making. But was this the case?

In the year before he raised wages, Ford hired 52,000 workers but actually never had more than 14,000 workers at any point in time. In other words he had huge staff turnover. Given that this was factory work, he must have been spending a fortune training workers only for them to leave after a few months. By raising wages significantly – beyond what his competition could cope with – he got rid of this problem while saving costs and increasing production from 170k to 202k cars the year after the pay rise.

Looking at what Mr Chukwuma did now – it does look obvious. But then the question to ask is why didn’t Leventis do it?

Impulse Control

He has been using it [Peugeot car] and the car is still good. When it becomes old he will pick up an Innoson car. He doesn’t have to throw away the car now

I have recently been reading The Triple Package by Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld. It’s a really fascinating book that I cant recommend highly enough. One of the three things they highlight as recurring traits in successful groups is ‘impulse control’ – the ability to reject/resist the dominant cultural narrative in your society. So for example if you live in a society where the prevailing narrative is to live and enjoy the moment, paradoxically such a society will reward you for doing the exact opposite i.e. being frugal and saving for the future.

Or as Rudyard Kipling famously put it – if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs […] yours is the earth and everything that’s in it.

I doubt that he suddenly became this way – it must be something he has had with him for a long long time in his business career and now, even when he can afford to splurge, he can still control the impulse to buy a Bugatti. People like him always manage to have seed capital to start something new if they need to.

The Robots Are Coming

I know that a businessman always wants to reduce cost. Reducing cost is good. But there are some costs I don’t want to reduce. There are certain things we must give a human being to do. People are looking for work. They are begging you for work.

You have work but you decide to give to a machine. I don’t want to do that. The land where I built the motor factory in Nnewi was given to me free by the community just to make sure that I employ people.

Now if I decide to use automatic where will the people work?

This bit of the interview was quite interesting. When I wrote my earlier post, I talked about using export markets as the ultimate industrial learning. The thing is that the ‘costs’ he is referring to are not just the salaries paid to the people assembling the cars (Vanguard noticed that everything was being done manually in the factory). If your competitors are automating processes and you are still operating manually, your costs are much larger than just the salaries you are paying your staff.

Whereas they can run their factories for much longer with practically zero mistakes, you will have to deal with human errors and lower efficiency. As admirable as it is that he wants to provide employment to as many people as he can, the moment Innoson becomes a global company, all bets are off and he will have to do as everyone else is doing to compete.

Furthermore, it is not always the case that technology takes away jobs. Yes, in some obvious ways, jobs will disappear but as the economist Tyler Cowen points out in his book ‘Average Is Over‘ – whereas it requires less than 100 people to support an F-16 fighter jet for one mission, a Global Hawk Surveillance Drone requires 300 people working in the background to make its mission possible. In this case, fighter jet pilot jobs have been ‘demised’ obviously, but technology has created even more opportunities that were not there before.

Mr Chukwuma need not be too worried – he will always create jobs. The problem to solve is that as his business grows and requires newer and more advanced skills, he can find the talent locally. To this end, he will have to invest in education and training such as partnering with the local University to ensure he has a steady supply of talent.

Or just build his own school even.

Why Rhetoric Matters

I liked this interview for many reasons. To turn Nigeria into a serious country, we have to consciously celebrate counter cultural people who go against the grain by manufacturing things in a country where it is more fashionable to be ‘into oil and gas’.

It’s also important to see that there is absolutely no magic to the man’s success other than sheer hard-work, street smarts and delayed gratification. There is no evidence that he ‘tithed’ his way to his achievements either or the wealth of sinners being forcefully and spiritually transferred to him.

It’s very important to elevate stories of those who played the long game and got rewarded for it to the front page. The less we hear about people throwing 40th birthday parties costing billions when we have no idea what it is they invented to make their fortune, the better. These things corrupt the body fabric of a nation.

One fascinating economic research I came across recently is by an Indian Professor, Nimish Adhia. He trawled through Bollywood movies starting in the 1950s and tried to plot the characters of heroes and villains.

What he discovered was that as economic liberalisation started to take hold in the country (especially after the Licence Raj reforms in 1991), the good guys in Indian films started to change from government officials to business men. Simultaneously, the bad guys changed from factory owners to policemen. Try to watch the whole video below if you can.

Especially around 11mins; you will see a clip from a movie called ‘Guru’ with the protagonist giving an impassioned speech in court.

The things a society talks about has serious effects on shaping the culture and attitudes of the people. The more normal it becomes to see (Hi Nollywood) and hear stories of people who did nothing more than build a business from ground up, the more people see that as a viable road to travel.

So shout out to Mr Chukwuma and Vanguard for doing this. More please!

FF

The Konkere Wars Part II: Starring Alhaji as V. V. Putin

Fellow Nigerians, It is with much sadness that I have to write this piece.

You will recall that in late 2012, there was an outbreak of hostilities in Nigeria’s ‘nascent’ cement industry. This compelled me to write The Konkere Wars in January 2013. Shortly after, there was an outbreak of peace and the belligerents sheathed their swords. Alas, this peace was not solidified and only a few months ago we began to witness sabre rattling in the industry. War is afoot yet again.

Whereas the last dispute was the ‘War of The Glut’, this new conflict can be subtitled the ‘War of The Standards’ (WoTS). Let us examine the points as best as we can.

1. It is impossible to understand Nigeria without an appreciation of the role that faceless organisations play in the polity. Whereas it can take up to 3 weeks to register a legal company, a faceless organisation can be established, for any purpose whatsoever, in a maximum of 8 minutes. They are like special purpose vehicles except that they appear and disappear a lot quicker.

In the same way that it is impossible to chronicle the origins of World War I without including Gavrilo Princip, we cannot talk about WoTS without talking about ‘Mr. Tunde Ojo’. Who is he? Well, I don’t know, so you tell me. All I know is that he is the spokesman for a ‘coalition of civil society groups and professional bodies in the construction industry‘.

In the first week of February, this group burst on to the scene claiming they were going to start a campaign for the standardisation of cement production and importation in Nigeria. Specifically they said they wanted the government to enforce ‘42.5 grade’ as the standard in Nigeria i.e. anything below this should be banned.

This ‘press release’ (I don’t know what else to call it) was carried by virtually all the newspapers at the time. Here is the ThisDay version. It was pretty much the same in all the newspapers as a quick google search will show you:

A coalition of civil society groups and professional bodies in the construction industry is set to launch a major campaign for the standardisation of cement production and importation.

Specifically, the coalition said it would call on the relevant authorities to initiate actions to make 42.5 grade of cement the standard product in Nigeria.

It noted that nearly all the cement manufacturers and importers in the country are in the habit of taking advantage of the lax regulation and lack of enforcement to vary their pigmentation in favour of the lower grade cement (32.5), which in most cases, is used in building works, and seen to be partly responsible for building collapse.

Speaking on the development, the coalition’s spokesperson, Mr. Tunde Ojo, blamed the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Mr. Olusegun Aganga, for alleged complicity with manufacturers and vowed to mobilise block makers nation-wide against manufacturers and importers of poor quality cement

You can read the rest of the story at the link which goes into a bit of ‘technical’ detail about cement grades.

2. Another important thing to understand about Nigeria is the long standing and inextricable link between Nigerian journalism and the brown envelope – our journalism never met a brown envelope it could refuse. Once a faceless organisation has been launched, it can then be ‘brown enveloped’ into all the newspapers for prominence. This will explain why such a report was carried by all the newspapers for more than a week. It even became the subject of editorials in The Sun and Daily Independent and articles in The Vanguard (the exact same article appeared in ThisDay).

As I am told, it is not very hard or expensive to get a matter to ‘trend’ in our newspapers like this. And it is clear the newspapers were simply regurgitating what they had been fed without doing any checks or investigations of their own.

3. One week after the coalition announced its arrival on the scene, Ekanem Etim, the sales and marketing director at Dangote Cement called for regulation of the Nigerian cement industry to ward off the ‘threat’ from the coalition:

Dangote Cement is a key player in the industry and believes that Nigeria deserves the best. The SON approved 42.5mpa grade upon domestication of cement production and we believe the standard should not drop and upheld it.

“We believe we have to give back to the society so that the incidence of building collapse can be tackled and the use of poor building materials stemmed.”

According to Etim, the 42.5mpa cement grade possesses higher strength capability and can be used for concrete structures and columns, while the 32.5mpa grade can only be used for certain aspects of building construction like plastering and rendering, among others.

He added that over the last few years, the company had been engaged in educating block moulders and other cement users on the appropriate use of the product.

Etim called on SON to step in so that substandard cement would be taken off the market and the manufacturers would held responsible for the quality of their products.

He said, “How come during the import era, we were all compelled by the regulatory authorities to bring in 42.5mpa grade, but since 2012 when importation was banned, the same regulatory authorities are condoning the production of 32.5 grades?

“If SON says the standard is 42.5mpa, then every manufacturer should abide by that decision. To that extent, we believe that compliance is better so that Nigerians can get the best from what we produce

Who can argue with that? No sensible Nigerian can resist any moves that will put an end to buildings collapsing in Nigeria.

The ‘pressure’ was building. And something needed to be done.

4. A bit of digression to explain the Putin reference in the title of this piece. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin – Liberator of Crimea – has been in charge of Russia for the better part of the last 14 years. One way he has held on to power is by ensuring that Russians never have a viable alternative to him. To this end, he has the habit of creating fake political parties and candidates to run against him periodically. Even dictators like to show some respect to democracy by giving off the appearance of a ‘fair’ competition.

Here’s an example from The Economist:

And the Kremlin debars any plausible opponents. Three of the men running against Mr Putin—Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the clown nationalist, and Sergei Mironov, the leader of Just Russia, a party initially created by the Kremlin as fake competition for Mr Putin’s United Russia—have for years been in the business of losing elections. The only fresh face is that of Mikhail Prokhorov, a liberal business tycoon. He actually has his own agenda, but was allowed to run despite this handicap because his support is seen as very narrow

Or as the writer Teju Cole recently put it:

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 19.18.50

5. Still staying with Putin. We have seen how the bureaucracy in Russia has broken all known speed records in its efforts to grant the people of Crimea their desperate wish to be part of Russia. Things that would normally take months if not years, all of a sudden only take a matter of minutes. 

Take this example from the New York Times from just a week after Russia entered Ukraine:

Russia’s takeover of Crimea is already so complete that commercial flights to Kiev from the region’s main airport, located outside Simferopol, the regional capital 50 miles from Sevastopol, now leave from the international terminal instead of the domestic one as they did until last week. The shift suggests that Kiev and the rest of Ukraine are now classified as foreign territory

As long as the end result is known ahead of time, everything else is a mere formality. This is an important point as we will soon see.

6. Last week, Dangote Cement Group announced that it had launched the higher grade 52.5N cement into the Nigerian market. Even if you don’t understand what this means, you can at least see that 52.5 is a bigger number than 32.5. In cement, big is better than small.

This world record-breaking achievement was widely covered in the newspapers:

To contribute to the arrest of the problem, allegedly caused by the preponderance of lower grade (32.5) of cement in the market, Dangote Cement announced the completion of the calibration of its factories across the country to produce 52.5 grade of the product. With this, the company becomes the first cement company in Africa to achieve the feat.

For about two months, major concerns had been raised by various interest groups, over the standardisation of the essential product. Stakeholders had warned that the prevalence of 32.5 cement grade in the market was a major cause of building collapse in the country, threatening to stage protests against cement manufacturers who produce the lower grade of the product.

I don’t know how easy it is to calibrate factory production, but what Dangote Group managed to achieve in just 2 months sounds spectacular indeed.

That was not all. The Group Managing Director of the company, Devakumar Edwin, explained further:

However, the Group Managing Director of Dangote Cement plc,  Devakumar Edwin, told journalists in Lagos that they had further demonstrated their commitment to delivering high quality and safe product to Nigerians by raising the quality bar beyond the high grade of 42.5 cement to a much higher grade of 52.5.

He said the company had commenced the production of the cement grade from all of its three plants in Ibese, Ogun State, Gboko, Benue State and Obajana in Kogi State.

Edwin said the cement giant had scored another first as the 52.5 grade of cement was being produced in Africa for the first time, thus attesting to the resolve of the company to be a leading international producer of the essential product.

Basking in the euphoria of the new achievement, Edwin disclosed that the new cement grade, which had been certified by the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), conforms to the requirements of NIS 444-2003 and other relevant standards, would sell for the same amount as the lower grade 42.5 type.

The GMD stated that it costs more to produce the 52.5 grade but that Dangote Cement decided to sell at the same price in the interest of its customers and so as to make it affordable

If I am not mistaken, this is what is known as going above and beyond the call of duty. Not only did they exceed the call of the civil society groups, they magnanimously kept it at the same price. Greater love hath no company ever shown for its country.

7. So to recap – Mr. Tunde Ojo (I assume he’s a man) arrives from nowhere and shakes up the Nigerian cement industry. Newspapers are falling over themselves to tell us how important what he’s saying is. The biggest player in the market comes out to defend its reputation and ‘floods’ the market with a higher grade than is required.

All that is left is for the regulator to come out and ‘do something’. They did not disappoint. Just yesterday, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) announced that it was commencing a review of cement standards in Nigeria. Here’s how The Guardian reported it:

THE Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) Monday, commenced a process to review the standards of locally produced cement, as part of measures to address current raging controversy over quality of the essential building material being produced by the nation’s manufacturers as well as the rising profile of building collapse.

With the aid of a technical committee comprising of manufacturers, civil society organisations, academia, regulatory agencies and other stakeholders, the SON hopes to develop reviewed standards regulating the composition and conformity criteria for common cement alternatively known as the NIS 444-1:2003

An impressive technical committee has already been put together to ensure that the review goes according to plan.

There is more:

Although, a review process in developed climes is expected to take at least 36 months, the SON noted that it hopes to complete the process sooner than the timeline considering the prevailing situation of building collapse in the country.

Indeed, various stakeholders in the industry recently, raised concerns over the production of 32.5 grade of cement in the country, against the 42.5 grade, which SON earlier approved for imported brands, while some have begun a local production of higher grades of the product

You can see the alacrity with which the bureaucracy is moving. I don’t want to speculate but I suspect that that 36 month timeframe will be compressed to around 14 minutes for SON’s review.

Note also that Mr. Tunde Ojo has since disappeared from the scene. The work is almost finished.

Today, ThisDay also reported that manufacturers are now ‘fretting’ following SON’s announcement of the review:

It was a tension-soaked atmosphere yesterday in Lagos as the technical committee convened by the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) began the review of cement standardisation in the country, with the primary objective of ensuring that only cement that guarantees safety of buildings and human lives is produced and sold in Nigeria.

The Chief Executive Officer of Lafarge Cement WAPCO, Mr. Joseph Hudson, Group Managing Director of Dangote Cement, Devakumar Edwin, Managing Director of UNICEM, Olivier Lenoir, and a representative of Ibeto Cement, all present at the technical committee review meeting, were visibly apprehensive over the possible outcome of the process.

Bearing in mind that depending on how the committee votes at the end of the session, the lower grade 32.5 cement may be eliminated from or restricted in the Nigerian market, cement manufacturers seemed to make their last ditch efforts to ensure that experts present at the meeting understood their points of view.

Just by reading the article, I can feel the tension, not to talk of those in the industry.

Dr. Joseph Odumodu, Director General of SON, did not mince words when giving the Technical Committee its marching orders:

We have seen a lot of building collapse in the country and we know that most of these have caused avoidable deaths and we cannot allow it continue. So in this meeting, we expect to get expert technical insights on the way forward in standardisation of cement.

The media has been awash with varied information about different classes of cement and so to bring succour to Nigerians, we have brought together a critical mass of knowledgeable experts to provide direction on the issue.

Many questions have been asked by Nigerians that need answers. To be sure, there is no substandard cement produced in Nigeria because we have cement standards well elaborated in the country. But there are  issues that must be addressed. For example, SON has established that people in the country, who go to the market to purchase cement for one construction activity or the other, do not actually know what they buy from the market.

“When the whole controversy began, we embarked on a basic survey and administered questionnaire to different people who are stakeholders in the building and construction industry, asking basic questions and the response revealed that the people did not actually know what they were buying from the market. When they get to the market they just ask for a cement and at best they ask for a particular brand name of cement. This invariably leads to misapplication of the product and to check this unfortunate situation, we have put this committee together.

I highlighted some lines above to remind you of how effective Mr. Tunde Ojo has been in this matter.

From point 6 above, we know who is NOT fretting. Before the exam, someone has already passed. So we can guess that the end result of this SON review will be to effectively reduce competition either by banning some players or increasing their costs. Both will have the same effect.

What Next?

The obvious question to ask is if 32.5 grade cement is really inferior to 42.5 or 52.5. Does using 32.5 grade really lead to building collapse? I am by no means a cement expert but simply looking around the internet tells me that 32.5 grade cement is sold openly on the market around the world i.e. it is not an illegal product.

What this suggests is that the 3 different grades have different uses not that one is superior to the other. Obviously, the type of cement needed to build a bridge cannot be the same strength required for building a house.

32.5 grade cement is for regular construction i.e. building houses and general use by consumers. 42.5 is mainly for precast work while 52.5 is for heavy-duty usage.

Here’s an education paper by Cemex in the UK which explains the differences between grades. It’s full of jargon so go straight to pages 7 and 8:

The standard strength class is the strength that will be achieved at twenty eight
days by a prism of cement, sand and water of a fixed composition tested in a
prescribed manner. There are three strength classes 32.5, 42.5 and 52.5. The
appropriate standard lists the exact requirements for determining the class and the
permitted range of strengths within each class

Nowhere will you find that 32.5 is ‘low grade’ while 52.5 is the ‘standard’.

It also begs the question as to why SON has mobilised such a ‘high powered technical committee’ to investigate something that can easily be found on the internet. There really is nothing to find here – 32.5 grade cement is not an illegal product, neither is it sub-standard. Indeed, using 52.5 grade cement for regular housebuilding might be problematic as I am made to understand.

The End

I love capitalism. I really do. But nothing is more painful than crony capitalism. Because not only does crony capitalism cheat consumers, it makes people who should normally be fans of capitalism – and all the wonderful things it does – become enemies of it.

When people start to believe the game is rigged, they start to hate the game and ask for a new game entirely. We should be wary of this. With the privatisation of the power sector for instance, we are slowly moving toward a private sector led economy in Nigeria. This should be a very good thing but we are seeing here an example of how easy it is to rig the game ultimately against consumers who will, rightly, feel that they exist simply to make some people rich. Even the regulator meant to protect Nigerians is openly in the pocket of the producers.

Nigerian cement is already one of the most expensive in the world. Anything that reduces competition must be resisted.

What exactly is the point of made in Nigeria cement when we have a 17 million housing deficit? Think about that.

FF 

P.S The Economist recently started a Crony Capitalism Index. There’s a long and interesting article which explains the index and crony capitalism in general. It’s here

The Acronyms of Power – A Movie About Electricity Reforms (1988 – 2014)

Anyone will tell you Nigeria is crying out for structural reforms. Some, like the Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, have hinted at just how difficult reforms are with her book Reforming The Unreformable. Thankfully, the difficulty doesnt stop anyone from attempting reform. The problem is a bit more, what’s the word now, mundane.

Power reform can be classed as a pretty much successful government reform so let’s use that as an example. When did it all begin? It might surprise you that it all started under IBB. This suggests that as far back as 1985 – 1993, at the highest levels of the Nigerian government, people knew that government simply couldn’t run our power sector anywhere near optimally. Also, the IBB government may have been influenced by the wave of privatisation that was being pushed by Margaret Thatcher in the UK (which began in 1979).

So some dates below. It’s possible I miss something out so please use the comments to let me know

1989 – 1993 – IBB

Decree 25 of 1988 had been passed the year before. This decree established the Technical Committee on Privatisation and Commercialisation (TCPC). I cannot remember correctly if he was the first ever Chairman of the committee, but I do recall that Dr Hamza Zayyad ran the TCPC for much of the time under IBB. The first thing the TCPC was to do was to ‘commercialise’ NRC (railways), NEPA and NITEL i.e. get them to start operating like businesses even if they were to remain government owned.

But Nigeria had nowhere near the kind of private sector we have today that can mobilise capital in the way that we have seen recently. So whatever was done was obviously limited.

1993 – 1999 – Abacha (and Abdulsalami)

This one was funny. Decree 78 of 1993 established the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) presumably to take over from the TCPC. But nothing absolutely nothing – was privatised in this period. The decree listed over 120 companies to be privatised (including power companies) but nothing was done. In other words, whatever was gained under IBB (82 companies privatised and others ‘commercialised’) was either halted or reversed under Abacha (we’ll excuse Abdulsalami for being distracted with the hot potato of power in his hand).

As you know, General Sani Abacha was recently honoured as part of the centenary celebration. As bad as that honour was, what makes it even funnier is this excerpt from the statement released by the government justifying the award:

The Federal Government also said Mr. Abacha oversaw an increase in the country’s foreign exchange reserves from $494 million in 1993 to $9.6 billion by the middle of 1997; and reduced the external debt of Nigeria from $36 billion in 1993 to $27 billion in 1997.

Mr. Abacha, the government noted, had brought all the controversial privatisation programs of the Babangida administration to a halt, reduced an inflation rate of 54 per cent inherited from the Ibrahim Babangida administration to 8.5 per cent between 1993 and 1998, while the nation’s primary commodity, oil, was at an average of $9 per barrel.

This is LWKMD-esque indeed. For setting us back 5 years or even more, we gave him an award. Genius.

1999 – 2007 – Obasanjo

The whole thing came back alive in this period. Previous decrees had made provision for the establishment of a National Council of Privatisation (NCP) but never seemed to happen. It finally happened in this period. In 2000, the Electricity Power Implementation Committee (EPIC!) was established. One year later, EPIC delivered the National Electric Power Policy (NEPP) which in turn took another 4 years to become the Electricity Power Sector Reform Act 2005 (EPSRA). This was the big one – it made power reform the law of the land meaning that from here it could be delayed but not denied.

EPSRA broke up NEPA into 11 DISCOs, 6 GENCOs and one Transmission Company (TCN). It also transmogrified (apologies Igodomigodo) NEPA into a public holding company called PHCN. All of these were the first steps to the eventual sell off of these companies.

If these companies were to be privatised, then they needed to be regulated being utilities. The smart people who wrote EPSRA made provision for the National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) and this was established in 2005.

By the way, in 2004, the National Integrated Power Project (NIPP) was launched as a way of government stabilising power supply while the power sector was going through change. This was no more complicated than government building fast track power plants (7 gas-powered plants around the gas-producing states in total) to boost supply. The first funding of $2.5bn was released from the Excess Crude Account (ECA) in 2005 (back in those days we could shake body and drop billions of dollars). The Niger Delta Power Holding Company (NDPHC) was established to hold the assets of the 7 NIPPs (even I am getting tired of these acronyms).

Things were going according to plan. Life was good. We were unstoppable. You could excuse us if we took time out to kiss the sky even.

So if you are President Obasanjo who managed to achieve all these things, who do you hand over such a delicate legacy to?

2007 – 2009 – Yar’Adua

Imagine this whole being a baton, the final leg was to be run by Yar’Adua. What was required of him was to sell off the companies. The framework was already in place and all the hard work had been done. So what do you if you are Yar’Adua? You suspend the process for 2 years.

For reasons that remain unclear till today, Yar’Adua went hostile to the reforms and all sorts of probes into the power sector began. by 2007, NDPHC had already spent close to $3bn and had close to another $2bn in letters of credit out of its almost $8bn commitments i.e. even though Yar’Adua suspended funding to them, work continued using the $2bn from letters of credit. There was much strife in the land and after so much noise, the Yar’Adua government released another $5bn+ from the ECA to continue the work.

Yar’Adua claimed that Obasanjo wasted $10bn ‘with little or nothing to show for it’. Dimeji Bankole and the House said it was even higher – they put their figure at $16bn (no one knows how they arrived at this figure. Jonathan’s later probe put the total amount spent at $3.08bn). Whatever the figure was, the ‘polity’ was sufficiently ‘heated’ guaranteeing that no sensible debate could be had. There was so much probing going on and people were being fingered here and there as culprits behind the theft of this (imaginary) money.

Yar’Adua died

2010 – 2013 – Jonathan

After pausing for breath in the previous 2 years, President Jonathan kick started the process. I will speculate that he had an advantage here – the NCP is traditionally headed by the Vice President so he would have been familiar with the process to an extent while Yar’Adua was President. He knew what exactly needed to be restarted.

If you are following, you will remember that what was left to do here was to sell of the DISCOs and GENCOs, finish the NIPPs and hope for the best. He set up the Presidential Task Force on Power (PTFP) and the Presidential Action Committee on Power (PACP). President Jonathan headed PACP while Barth Nnaji, the former power minister, headed PTFP. The job of these two bodies was to implement EPSRA fully so a body like Nigeria Bulk Electricity Trading (NBET) was incorporated in July 2010.

Much of the rest of the process is recent history so I wont bore you with the details but suffice to say that the sale of the DISCOs and GENCOs was finalised in November 2013. The NIPP project resumed and have been mostly completed. The plan was always for the government to stabilise power supply with the NIPPs but some of this has now overlapped somewhat. In any case, buyers have been found for the 10 NIPPs and they now have 6 months to come up with the money. The FG has sold 80% of the NIPPs for a total of $5.8bn suggesting they were worth $7.3bn. Just by looking at the figures above, you can see we’ve lost some money on the deal but let us be thankful.

After some needless quarrelling with Manitoba, TCN also seems to have stabilised (if we take silence to mean that everything is going ok). It’s all out of the government’s hands now so what’s left is for the new owners to run the companies like serious businesses. This can only happen if they deliver power of course and get customers to pay for said power.

In The Final Analysis

If we take Decree 25 of 1988 as the starting point of all this, it’s taken us 26 years (7 of which were totally wasted) to get to a reasonable point in the process where we can say we’ve wrapped it up. I don’t want to sound mean but in that time, the reform has had to be rescued from near death by ‘death’ itself (Abacha and Yar’Adua). There have also been so many times when we have taken the gun of reform, loaded it with bullets, pointed it at our own foot and then fired it. Given that we lack strong institutions, reforms are very much still subject to the whims of the Oga At the Top (OATT) and which side of the bed he wakes up on. Even if he cant kill the reforms, as we have seen, he can certainly delay it.

But most of all, what this shows is that the whole thing is a process that, given our general bad behaviour, is almost impossible for one person to complete. Let us take EPSRA in 2005 as the point of no return for the process – it has taken almost 9 years after that point to finish up the work. It is best to have something to work with when you come into office i.e. government, for the sake of Nigerians, ought to be a continuous exercise.

Which brings me to the final point. In April 2000, President Obasanjo constituted the Oil and Gas Sector Reform Implementation Committee (OGRIC) headed by Professor Rilwan Lukman. The job of these guys was basically to restructure the whole damn oil sector. The NNPC is a deadlier beast than NEPA and it wasnt until 2007 that the National Oil and Gas Policy (NOP) was published. One year later, Lukman’s OGRIC came up with a ‘final’ document that was to be submitted to the NASS i.e. the EPSRA for the oil industry. This is what has come to be known as the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) today.

There are similarities with EPSRA – the PIB seeks to commercialise and break up the NNPC into various bodies as a first step towards privatisation. It will also create new regulatory bodies for the oil sector just like EPSRA created NERC for power. Oil and gas is above my pay grade so I will leave the details to the experts. What I do know is that Yar’Adua didn’t pass the PIB in 2008 (obviously) and Jonathan changed it in 2012. As we speak, it continues to gather dust in the NASS.

Now we know that the stakes are higher for oil and gas and NNPC is more complex than NEPA so it’s not unreasonable to imagine that it will take at least 10 years to properly implement the PIB from whenever it is passed – give or take another anti-reform President dying in office. It will not be done by Jonathan certainly and it may not even be done by whoever succeeds him. But take heart, by that time our oil industry may have been gutted by shale oil, electric cars may have become mass market, every African country may have discovered oil or some other technology may have arrived to disrupt the whole thing. In short, reform will become by force and we will have no choice.

If we want to get anything done, we need to start early and be in a hurry.

FF

P.S This is by no means a complete account of the power reform process. I have glossed over a few things but you get the gist. I have used so many sources to write this that I am unable to put them all in here. Sorry. But they were all from Google (if that helps).

Mr. Wendell Simlin

Perhaps it is worth putting all the points of this ‘case’ in a blog post. So here goes.

First off, if every Nigerian was forced to be in one of two camps – ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, it’s safe to say I’d firmly be in the ‘pro’ camp. I like the man. That’s my bias. So when I see news stories making wild allegations against him, I tend to give them a second look. As an example, a few weeks ago, ThisDay newspapers reported that CBN awarded a N9.5bn contract to a bankrupt firm, Dermalog. I thought this was odd and within 30 minutes of looking around the internet, I found the story to be 100% false – not even 1% true. ThisDay has since deleted the original story but published this apology/retraction a couple of days later.

So last week when a journalist friend of mine mentioned that her online paper had received an email making very strong allegations of the religious kind against SLS, I asked her to please forward me the email which she did. I was keen to see what the new gist was about and if it was true. Here’s what followed.

The email was sent out by one Wendell Simlin with the email address wendellsimlin@yahoo.com. We (I will use ‘we’ because I shared the email with a couple of friends and we sniffed around it together) then did some checking around the email. To be clear, I have always been suspicious of the President’s Special Adviser on New Media (I wont dignify him be typing his name in this piece). To my mind he has always been a duplicitous character skilled in the dark arts. But we didn’t do anything special at all. Just basic checks around the email and crucially, the attached word document.

1. A simple google search of Wendell Simlin turned up a Facebook page with only one photo. The photo had about seven people in it, including the SA New Media (it has since been deleted). Is this enough evidence to say it was him? Of course not.

2. Do you know how to check an email’s header? Go to this link which shows you how to do it in a few clicks. Again, this is nothing complicated at all. When we checked the email header, it pointed to an IP address in the Kubwa area in Abuja. The ISP was Galaxy Backbone, which provides most of the internet hosting services to the government. On its own is this enough evidence? No.

3. Searching around Facebook again pointed to a long standing ‘relationship’ between Mr Simlin and the SA going back to at least 2010 spanning ‘pages liked’ and threads commented on. Enough evidence on its own? I doubt it.

4. The final piece in the puzzle however was that Mr Simlin typed out the allegations against SLS in the body of the email but then included the same text in a word document and attached it to the email. Again, nothing ‘technical’ was done here – it was as simple as opening the attached word document and right clicking to pull up its properties. There it was – his name as the author and person who last saved it on Hewlett-Packard computer (this is automatically done when you use your computer to generate a document).

Now a lot of noise has been made around this part of the evidence namely ‘anyone can type a word document and change the name’. This is true. But it is also simple to check out – all those who received the original email with the attachment have carried out the same check and found the exact same properties. Perhaps I have so much time and hatred for this guy that I went out of my way to edit the properties with his name but it is tough to explain how I did that with the original recipients given that I wasn’t the one who sent out the email.

5. Furthermore, an online newspaper, Premium Times, who have received official emails from the SA in the past have checked out previous email headers from him and compared it to this particular one from Wendell Simlin. They matched i.e the emails were sent from the same computer/location.

Perhaps each of the above items is not enough to convincingly prove that it was him. Perhaps. But it is very difficult to argue against all of the evidence taken together.

All of that is hardly the story though. There are very worrying issues thrown up by this matter. The first is that the email to smear SLS with Boko Haram was sent by an aide to the President just a day after 59 school children were massacred in a school in Yobe. At a time when even the most hardened Nigerians were saddened by the atrocity, someone somewhere in the Presidency thought it a good time to score political points by directing suspicion towards an ‘enemy’ of the President who has already been suspended from office and charged with very serious offences.

Secondly, religious baiting is a very dangerous thing to do in Nigeria. More than 100 people died over a matter as trivial as a Miss World competition in 2002. Once the religious touchpaper has been lit in Nigeria, no one really has any control over it and many lives will be lost before people calm down. The email sent out by the SA was dripping with Islamophobia and also contained outright lies and smears not just against SLS but against Alhaji Mutallab – a man who reported his own son to the American authorities when he noticed extremist tendencies in him.

In any other country, this would be a sacking offence and possibly worthy of prosecution. But not only has the SA in question here kept completely silent, he is actually writing articles where he hints that online critics of the government might be ‘satan’ afterall. All of this is amusing but hardly surprising. He works for a government that not only recently gave Sani Abacha an award, it actually went out of its way to justify the awards on the grounds of his wondrous achievements as Head of State.

We’ve sent a formal complaint (along with all the evidence) to a government minister but I am not sitting here holding my breath that he will be so much as censured. It is what it is. We are also exploring other avenues to make formal complaints. He is afterall paid from the public purse.

But it’s important to make the point that just because you remain in your job and you can keep quiet about the matter, presumably till it dies a natural death, does not mean those who accused you are fools.

FF