Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Promissory Jokes

My undisputed winner for word of the year 2011 is "transformation." It was amusing this year, to watch politicians infuse that word into their every breath and sigh. Equally amusing was watching critics make a mince-meat of it at every chance they got.

But my most instructive encounter with the word was a rather private one. It was one early afternoon, in that space between sleep and consciousness, that I saw it --a crowd in a stadium, enraptured and cheering uncontrollably as an overweight man, dressed in flowing agbada and a fedora hat stood on an elevated stage, addressing them. His incongruous dressing aside, the man was reeling a long list of promises to the people and they seemed to be holding onto his every word as they would their messiah. His words were like bread to them and they fed on it. "I will send all your sons to the moon and back," he said and they cheered. "I will build a bridge that will connect Sokoto to Bonny," he said, amidst more cheers. The overweight man went on and on until the people's hopes and expectations seemed to take a physical shape, hanging like a belt on his waist. He too was beginning to feel the weight of their expectations. "I will transform your lives, trust me, I will transform your lives," he said finally, before turning to leave. Then he made a blunder. Forgetting that there was an open mic on stage, he asked an aide by his side: "Why are they so passionate about this transformation thing? How can they believe I'll do all those things? Can't someone joke with these people?" On hearing those words, the stadium fell into a hush for about a minute or so. Then, without notice, the crowd descended on him till he turned into that which makes no speeches.

As far as I can tell, no politician in Nigeria literally campaigns on jokes. Yet whenever I ponder on my dream, I always come to one conclusion: Politicians don't take us seriously. We might be a joke for all they care. They make promises and issue deadlines, then flout it and move on to another as if their life's purpose lies in the next promise and deadline. If goals, targets and visions were ceramic bowls, those of Nigeria would have shattered into a million shards.

Still, of all our past presidents, none tantalised Nigerians with as much promise of lucky manna as President Jonathan and his Transformation agenda. In state after state, Jonathan proclaimed promises like a water fountain unleashes water. Rehashing them here again is unnecessary. Seven months into the dispensation, there is a realisation in the land that not much progress is being made towards achieving the pillars on which he campaigned.

Let me use an example to illustrate how recklessly I believe the Jonathan 2011 election train hobbled. On the issue of power, Jonathan's rhetoric didn't disappoint. His promises pertaining to the entire power supply chain can fill the entire CBN vault. So one would have expected that when Prof. Nnaji, the power minister, was asked a simple question like "how much power will guarantee round-the-clock electricity around Nigeria?" he would have had a ready response. Prof. Nnaji's response, however, was a stunner: "We are presently conducting a load demand study," he said, "and after that we can know what we need." Meaning that up till now, government doesn't even know how much power Nigeria needs, yet they threw around figures during the campaign, making promises, not knowing what they were promising.

One should therefore not be surprised that since the end of the election season, the picture has often been that of a baby's faltering steps as far as fulfilling the promises have been concerned. The government has carried on as though the idea of governance is startling to them. That's why the president has chosen to adopt an issue he never campaigned on, as his major policy thrust in the coming year: fuel subsidy removal.

Perhaps this would serve as a warning to us that in the future, any aspirant scared to take on fellow aspirants in a credible debate cannot and should not be trusted with the burden of leadership. For it is during debates like the NN24 debate which President Jonathan infamously evaded in the build-up to the 2011 elections, that candidates are asked how exactly they intend to fund their promises.

Americans would go to the polls to elect a president in November 2012, yet, a full eleven months to the D-day, the opposition Republican Party candidates have already locked horns in ten debates so far. It's in those debates that many stars have shone and faded based on the public's reactions to candidates' performances. It's in those debates that jokes packaged as ideas have been exposed under the bright glare of media flash bulbs and intense public scrutiny.

Jonathan did not debate other candidates. Jonathan promised us heaven on earth in stump speeches before boisterous crowds. He did not tell us that the carrot which would persuade heaven to relocate to Nigeria was subsidy removal. Yet he's pressing on with it despite its overwhelming rejection by Nigerians. It seems Aso Rock's opulent kitchen has learned a new recipe for disaster and is determined to try it out no matter what. Government must understand that it would be foolish of Nigerians to accept this proposed imposition of hardship. The definition of governmental delusion is demanding and expecting a tabula rasa from Nigerians, a clean slate to hand them another trillion naira when nothing in the far or recent past lends any hope that things would be different this time. Just their word? That's all? No thanks.

A time comes, and maybe it's here already, when grandiose statements on elevated podiums before rented crowds would no longer be tolerated; when the people suddenly realise that they're about to be the butt of someone's jokes yet again and avow that hitherto has this come but no further. When common men and women with rolled sleeves, shorts and wrappers would defy the agbadas and fedoras and say simply: Enough is enough. And they will mean it. That would be the real transformation.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


It’s become a familiar refrain: Whenever serious issues arise in the polity, Nigerians cry out to hear their president speak. But President Jonathan doesn’t talk much, which fires up his critics as they circle and slam. In the odd case when he decides to speak, it fires them up even more as they pass him for “clueless” and “uninspiring”. So how did President Jonathan perform in his latest Obasanjoesque media chat? Well... it depends. The president neither hurt nor helped himself based on his Monday night performance. It’s unlikely that any critic was won over, but for many in the president’s support base, it was a reassuring performance. By any standard, a media chat arranged by the presidency is a big deal. Hence, it would serve the cause of the president better in future, if notice is given to the public anytime a session like that is to be organized, especially if his aim is to reach the widest audience possible.

Shrouded and Scripted
A big question on the lips of many is: Was the interview scripted? Were the questions vetted by the president’s handlers? We can’t be too sure. For one thing, the session wasn’t broadcast live, an attempt perhaps by the president’s aides to mitigate a primetime disaster. Many pundits agree that the president seemed more composed and confident during the chat than at any other time since he assumed office. For that, he had a very friendly and subpar panel led by Stella Din of Silverbird Television to thank. Most of the questions were decidedly softball. It seemed the journalists had an agreement not to press the president for any specifics or ask intelligent follow-up questions. At a point, as they discussed politics, they looked at each other, confused on what to ask, until the lead anchor signalled that they move on to agriculture.

Matters Arising
To his credit, President Jonathan touched a wide range of issues, as he wasn’t given to the sort of long, winding answers favoured by Obasanjo in media chats of yore. But despite its breath, the session was shallow on specifics. Nonsense was made of assurances by President Jonathan’s adviser on new media, Reno Omokri, that “Mr President is presently talking about detailed plans of the FG...”, as the president shied away from making commitments or giving timelines for performance. “I’m not going to talk on any megawatts by any time, but I can assure you that we are working day and night,” he said in response to a question on power. When asked about a particular figure, the president replied that, “I would have to ask my finance minister.” The only definite time-bound commitment made by the president was on rice. “By the end of this administration,’ said Mr President, “we won’t import some food items, especially rice. I tell Nigerians to watch out.”
One other clear fact that emerged from the session was that President Jonathan still doesn’t know enough. Ninety percent of his examples were based on his knowledge of “my constituency, Bayelsa.” Someone needs to tell him that his constituency now is the whole of Nigeria and not just Bayelsa. Two clear winners emerged from the session. The first was the Minister of Agriculture, Mr Adesina, who received glowing tributes from the president, which he capped with, “I believe in the young man.” The second winner was Africa’s richest man, Alhaji Aliko Dangote. The president referred to the businessman so often that, “Dangote says so,” began to trend on twitter in the moments succeeding the interview. The most quotable moment in the interview came when President Jonathan was asked if he regretted introducing the 6-year tenure proposal. "I have no regrets at all," said the president, "Transformation is costly, transformation is painful. There's no leader that wants to transform that won't be criticized." Never has a truer word been spoken, though it's doubtful if anyone outside the president's inner circle would agree that the happenings of the past 100 days resemble transformation. But then, they say 100 days is too soon to judge.
The chat also showed that President Jonathan and Mallam El-Rufai despite their much publicized differences, aren’t so far away from each other on some issues –actually on one issue: wikileaks. They both described it as "beer parlour" gossip or “goship” in the case of the president, which I assume is worse than mere gossip. The president also generously dished a lot of anecdotes. At different points, he tried to prove that in politics, “people don’t think”, by comparing politics to chieftaincy disputes, land issues and lawyers. The high point was when he inimitably described the Libyan issue thus: “It’s like you are carrying a pot, you drop pot and everything scatter,’ he said, as his interviewers nodded, perhaps in understanding. One of the biggest oversights by the media panel, was questioning the president on the Libyan crisis without doing a follow-up on the hundreds of Nigerians being assaulted and terrorised over there by the TNC.
The conclusion of the matter is that based on Monday night's chat, Nigerians did not really cover new grounds or gain better insight on the person of the president or the state of the nation. The president did just enough to rally his base one more time. The chat did not convert critics, turn-off supporters or inspire independents. It was just that –a chat. But at least it was on the record, not beer parlour goship.

Follow this writer on twitter @stanleyazuakola

Sunday, June 19, 2011

LAST WEEK IN THE NEWS (with a pinch of salt)5

1. Once again, the attempt to sell-off NITEL which began since the end of the civil war has failed as OMEN International Consortium couldn’t meet the deadline given by the BPE. Consequently, the FG has decided that the only remaining option is to dash the former national carrier to a lucky company. The DG of the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE), Ms Bolanle Onagoruwa, released a statement last week saying that a lottery will be conducted to choose the winner. Already, a NITEL-MUST-GO bag has been placed at the entrance of the BPE containing the names of interested firms. Some of the companies that have confirmed interest include Indomie, Emzor, PDP, Moukafoam and Geepee tank.

2. The Old Boys Association of the 6th Assembly National School held their inaugural meeting last week at the EFCC lounge. Unfortunately, only two members, Dimeji Bankole and Usman Nafada, were present. Top on the agenda was sports development for their alma-mater. They resolved to take out a ten billion naira loan to construct a bail-jumping complex for the school. They also expressed hope that in their next meeting, other Old Boys like Patricia Etteh, Iyiola Omisore and Ayo Arise will make themselves available.

3. Nigerian websites have been adjudged worldwide to be the most free-thinking and independent-minded in terms of browsing outcomes. A Pinch of Salt decided to investigate for itself, and the results were remarkable. When A Pinch of Salt visited the ASUU website, it was greeted with “This site is permanently on strike.” Boldly written on the website of the Federal Government of Nigeria was “President Yaradua is not around now, please try again later,” while that of the House of Reps said “Site on recess.” The Nigeria Police Force website carried, “Boko Haram is not our friend,” The last stop was the EFCC website where the EFCC eagle logo appeared, carrying these words on its beak, “Muahahahaha, you have been scammed.”

4. A new world record was set in Kenya for the most people reading out loud from the same text in different locations at the same time (about 80000 students participated.) In retaliation, a Nigerian group, Piss for Change Nigeria (PFCN) has vowed that Nigerians would set a new record next week for the most people simultaneously peeing by the roadside. According to the National Coordinator of PFCN, Dr, Apiss Onyou, the aim of the initiative was to spark the imagination of our nation on “letting it all out and never keeping it in ever again.” He advised however that due to security concerns, women in certain states like Borno, Bauchi and Zamfara would not be allowed to piss. Interested participants are expected to take a picture or shoot a video that shows them happily peeing, and upload it on the PFCN website.

5. Last week Thursday was the International Day of the African Child. A pinch of Salt eavesdropped on the prayer made by a Nigerian girl child in the secrecy of her bedroom and was taken with her level of maturity. Here’s the summary:
§  Father I pray that you provide a fine, sweet, nice guy like Wizkid to ask me out. I promise to take care of him well and nothing bad will happen between us in the night.
§  I thank you for the corporate dinner President Jonathan organized for daddy and other business men. I also thank you for the lunch that he had with Uncle Dave and his fellow youths. Father, I pray that you touch his heart to organize a breakfast session for us the Nigerian children too. I know that he will give us money for sweets and it will not be tom-tom.
§  I commit Brother Chisom into your mighty hands even as he writes his JAMB this Saturday. I pray O God that the runs flow well-well in his centre so that he will make mummy and daddy proud.
§  I also pray that you touch facebook people so that they will remove age limit from their site and allow children to join too so that it’s not only Brother Chisom them that will be enjoying it alone.
§  Finally Lord, you remember the last time that there was voters registration exercise, I did not go to school for up to one month. I was very happy. Please Lord, let the INEC people find another excuse to do another one. And please make this one to reach like 90days. I will come back to return all the praise and glory to your holy name.

CROWNED CLOWN THE WEEK: The Cee-Cee for this week goes to Lagos preacher and running mate to Gen. Buhari in the last elections, Pastor Tunde Bakare. It would seem that the reverend has a severe case of malignant loquacity. He preached a message last week where he reportedly used words like “imbecile”, “bastard”, “nincompoop”, “son of a concubine” and many other unprintables, to describe a certain Yoruba politician. The revered reverend is hereby called to order. If he is angling to become the leader of the Yorubas, he should present his case and not resort to defamation. A Pinch of Salt respects the reverend but believes that his utterances this time are uncouth and only fit for a clown.