The Case of Nigeria’s Missing President

By FRANKIE EDOZIEN FEB. 17, 2017

President-elect Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria arriving for his Inauguration in Abuja, in May. Credit Sunday Alamba/Associated Press

In April 2015, Muhammadu Buhari became the first opposition politician to defeat a sitting president in Nigeria, in a mostly free and fair election. Mr. Buhari, a former army general, who ruled Nigeria for 18 months from 1983 to 1985, had a reputation for being incorruptible and a disciplinarian.

When Mr. Buhari returned to the Aso Rock presidential villa, Nigerians were disgruntled by reports of widespread graft by government appointees, and public services were on the decline. His election was supposed to usher in change, but less than two years later, he has been acting as if tending to the country’s needs should come on his own schedule.

On Jan. 19, Mr. Buhari left for a 10-day holiday to London; it seemed odd to leave the warmth of Abuja for the misery of English winter. By early February, Nigerians were told that Mr. Buhari had extended his trip for unspecified medical tests. No return date was given. Who can begrudge a 74-year-old the medical tests he is said to be undergoing in London?

If only Mr. Buhari had invested in the human resources and infrastructure required to conduct such medical examinations and treatments in Nigeria. Every year around 60,000 Nigerians seek medical treatment abroad, mostly in India and Dubai. Women who have a choice will spend every penny for maternity services abroad. People in Lagos openly talk of hospitals rationing supplies for those who have to go there.
When he first took the reins of government from Goodluck Jonathan, who governed during an oil boom, Mr. Buhari lamented that he found an empty treasury, that Nigeria faced millions of dollars in debt and wasn’t even able to pay civil servant salaries.

As Africa’s largest oil producer, Nigeria was hit hard by the global collapse in oil prices; crude is responsible for more than 90 percent of its exports and 70 percent of its government revenues. Oil prices plunged sharply, from close to $100 a barrel in 2015 to about $70 a barrel now, after recently climbing again.

The measures Mr. Buhari took to reduce Nigeria’s dependence on oil may yet yield fruit. He has emphasized expanding agriculture and reviving a gargantuan but dormant steel manufacturing plant, linking it by a railway line to iron-ore mines, ports and customers.

Mr. Buhari curbed the Central Bank’s independence and refused to allow the currency, naira, be determined by market forces, pegging it at about 35 percent higher than one would get on the black market. Nigerians significantly reduced banking transactions because on the streets their dollars were worth more.
It incited a severe scarcity in foreign exchange that hasn’t abated yet. Nigerians weren’t able to purchase things abroad or pay tuition fees for students in Europe, the United States and elsewere in Africa.

Even though the president relented a bit by easing restrictions and allowing market forces to determine the value of currency, “Buharinomics” hasn’t made life easier. For a time Nigerians couldn’t even use debit cards abroad. Of course, stock markets tanked. Today you can get five different exchange rates in one day. Thousands of Nigerians have lost their jobs.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that Nigeria’s economy under Mr. Buhari’s leadership has fallen to its worst levels since the early 2000s, with a 15 percent drop in gross domestic product. Yet there lies some hope, with the I.M.F. predicting 0.8 percent growth this year.

But power supply remains erratic; the prices of rice, kerosene and bread have gone up; and tens of thousands of young people remain unemployed. Inflation and recession are constant conversation topics as staples begin to disappear from the dining table. Businesses are firing employees they can no longer afford. And this week anti-government protests broke out in Lagos and Abuja over economic woes.

President Buhari is from the predominantly Muslim north, and the protests erupting among predominantly Christian southerners are a reminder of Nigeria’s fragile ethnic fault line. Things are particularly fraught in the Niger Delta. The area remains impoverished, and past governments, including Mr. Buhari’s in the 1980s, have done little to change that.

Angry militants have been sabotaging and blowing up oil pipelines; Nigeria lost $100 billion to sabotage in 2016 alone. Yemi Osinbajo, the vice president, traveled to the delta last week to establish a truce and soothe tempers.

In the north, the violent Boko Haram extremist group isn’t yet vanquished. As a candidate, Mr. Buhari had promised to tame Boko Haram, and he has reclaimed areas it controlled under his predecessor. In probably his greatest success to date, he has galvanized a demoralized military and pushed the group out of large swaths of the Nigerian northeast that seemed to have been ceded to them by his predecessor.

But Mr. Buhari’s absence has emboldened the terrorist group to unleash fresh attacks near Chibok, where nearly 300 girls were abducted in 2014. Mr. Buhari has also been silent about allegations that the nomadic Fulani herdsmen are raping and killing southerners.

Mr. Buhari should know the effect of his silence. In 2010, President Umaru Yar’Adua left Abuja for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. He returned months later on life support, to die at home. The secrecy was galling then, and it is now. Mr. Buhari’s phone conversation with President Trump has helped assuage rumors of his death. Yet his refusal to address Nigerians is a matter of serious concern.

Last year, Mr. Buhari went to Britain for treatment of an ear infection. A Lagos businessman tells me many feel he’s back there for the same reason: his inability to hear the voice of the people of Nigeria. President Buhari ought to reach out to the people. Our patience is wearing thin.

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THE SHEA PRINCE

 

By Chike Frankie Edozien

 

It’s taken twelve hours on a ‘luxury’ bus to get here. My noise cancellation headphones block the relentless gospel music the driver favours. I rock to my heathen divas – Tina, Mariah, Beyoncé – and look out the window, watching the Ghanaian landscape change from verdant to sparse.

My first impression of Tamale is that it’s dry, dusty and low rise; not like overcrowded Accra. The Twi murmurings there are replaced here by smatterings of Hausa and Dagbani. I haven’t crossed a border but I feel I am in a different country. I’ve journeyed up north in search of women.  Those dynamic women who, after trudging for miles at dawn, picking up shea nuts, process them into butter by hand.

This butter is used in confectionary products, but is better known for properties that nourish hair and skin. It is now a key ingredient in the cosmetics trade. The women who pick shea have rarely had a chance to go to school, but shea income pays for their children to stay in school. One of those ‘shea babies,’ now an adult, is helping me navigate the terrain.

His name is Will and he’s a heartthrob. I’ve come to write a journalistic piece on economic development and my focus is now derailed. I’m distracted and ‘Heartthrob Will’ is the culprit. We converse about shea but veer off into other things.  I’m not sure how old Will is, but he estimates he’s thirty-seven. Like many Gonja people, he doesn’t have a birth certificate. He was born in a hut near Navrongo and uses a national holiday here as a birthday, putting that down on forms and also celebrating himself on that day, like other people do.

Will has made sure his own children were born in a hospital, where births are customarily recorded. Today he’s a clerk for a non-governmental organisation, with dreams of owning a coffeehouse. He’s been married, divorced, and married again. He remains a babe magnet. The women hover. It’s easy to see why. He’s skinny and very dark, but his smile and savvy fashion make him stand out among the other tall dark men in Tamale. He favors form-fitting Tee’s, jeans and sneakers in a place where traditional dress is often de rigueur. He has a full head of hair and delights in sporting mohawks, with shaved-in lines. The goatee and a high watt smile emphasise his deep dimples. He oozes vitality in a laid back Tamale. I’ve found a dandy.

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TIME TO MARRY? OR NOT?

By  CHIKE FRANKIE EDOZIEN

 

 

 

Growing up in Lagos, I don’t remember our contemporary leaders ever conceding that perhaps they just might have got something wrong. Often our leaders prefer to focus on what they feel are their positive contributions to Africa’s largest economy.

So when Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s most recent ex-president showed up in London in June 2016 to defend his governance record to the international community, I only expected a spirited defense of his stewardship of the country.

And of course more bluster from his surrogates. After all, his successor, Muhammadu Buhari accused Jonathan and his team of leaving behind an empty treasury.

As I watched Jonathan go on about how that was not possible at a roundtable organized by Bloomberg News, I started to reminisce about how I found my métier. Story telling.

It seemed like just yesterday I was crouched on floor of the old English colonial in Ikoyi, reading a stack of newspapers. I devoured them every time Dad returned from work carrying the bunch. The newsprint had a stale smell that I couldn’t get enough of.

In truth it was four decades ago that I was asking mum what those words in the Daily Times meant. I knew big words before my classmates knew the complete alphabet. So naturally I wanted to write stories. I wanted to be a journalist.

Like many Nigerians I abruptly found out telling stories could be fatal when I was sixteen. Dele Giwa, a writer for Newswatch, had a letter bomb sent to him at home. My folks talked about it for days and fear gripped the city. It was 1986.

Few years later, I left that increasingly politically charged climate and gallivanted abroad, holding on to my love of storytelling, particularly the African ones. As the years passed my frequent visits to Lagos provided occasions for me to write about us. But, as I was no longer a young man I would steel myself for the inevitable question.

“When are you getting married?”

I didn’t always know how to answer truthfully. Do I open up a can of worms with strangers and say ‘I’ll get married when marriage equality is the law of the federation?’ Or do I continue with my boilerplate response; ‘when I find the right one I’ll let you know.’

One of my Nigerian pals, Dike, is over 40 and gay. He now lives in London and it’s unlikely he will ever move home for good. But on his last visit to his hometown, Owerri, he told me how an aunt worried so much that he hasn’t brought home a bride. He thought he’d escaped the dreaded question until he went over to give her money before departing and she fell on her knees wailing.

“Please, please find a wife. Please I am begging you in the name of God, please.”

Dike replied: “Please Aunty, get up. I have heard you. I will see what I can do.”

Suddenly hopeful she says: “Oh, are you looking for one over there in England?

“Ah, ah Aunty, does it matter where she comes from?” Dike said.

“That’s true but it is better if she hails from these parts,” she replied.

“But aunty at my age, I don’t think I want to get married any more.”

“Eh?!” she screamed;

“Don’t say that oh. There is a 70-year-old man in the next kindred, who is looking for a young wife. You are a man. You can even marry at 70. I have been praying for you. I prayed for you this morning that a good woman will come your way, In Jesus Name.”

I feel Dike’s pain.

Recently a friend from secondary school called me up to ask I that donate to a fund to refurbish the school’s kitchen. He expected a substantial donation and said: ‘you are not married and you have no kids.”

His reasoning was I ought to have more to give since I’m only responsible for myself. I was flabbergasted since my friend knew of my long-term relationship and I had to gently remind him that my male partner of close to a decade is my family. And no, I may not be conventionally married, but I’m not single.

Sometime ago I decided to try and tell the story of folks who are either burdened by the weight of the dreaded question or work around it by jumping into unhappy matrimony. I began researching in Accra, Ghana. I found, men who were so in love with each other but then married women because it was what was expected. I found women who were routinely dating other women who were married to men.

Was this clandestine living the best they could hope for?

“This is Africa. Why are you asking questions you know the answers to,” one told me. I moved on to Lagos, where I wanted to get answers to the same questions.

But earlier that year, January 2014 to be precise, the president, (Goodluck Jonathan) had signed into law a bill criminalizing gays, adding even public displays of affection.

Clearly it was an Election Year gambit that while popular, yielded few votes for him. He lost by a landslide. But his actions opened the floodgate to beatings and harassment by police and unscrupulous citizens. Just the suspicion alone could land one in trouble. And who wants to risk a 14-year-jail term?

So even though I’d had high hopes for good reporting, my writing was stalled by the paranoia in Lagos and the sheer refusal of folks to speak on the record, or even off sometimes. Those who did were so afraid, it seemed that shadows freaked them. I could barely hear their whispers.

Still I found men and women in love or looking for love despite the cultural anchor on their necks. Jonathan’s action spurred open homophobia and shaming in spaces that ought to have been safe. Violence spiked and it was easier to be scornful and derisive of sexual minorities in polite company. All of this in a country that often condones pre-pubescent brides marrying elderly men.

No Nigerian space was truly safe.

In 2015 my sister had a milestone birthday party and all my brothers and a trove of cousins gathered to celebrate. My cousin Henry was there with his wife. I’d never met her but knew of her. I eagerly asked him introduce me.

“I’ve heard about you, she said. I smiled big and said ‘Good things I hope.’

But all that came my way was a small, tight, cold, smile that ended at her lips: ‘Not really.’

Then she laid into me.

“Where is your family?”

“Where is your wife?!”

“Where are your children?!”

It was aggressive. Menacing even.

In full view of my siblings and even my mother, she tried to shame me. I was dealing with an angry emboldened homophobe. (Thanks to Goodluck Jonathan, women of her ilk feel no compunction to go on the attack in public and I wish I could say it was an isolated incident but others have told me similar tales) So I smiled and said my partner was at home. ‘He couldn’t make it.’ And I left her company.

So I was truly caught off-guard when Jonathan, in the middle of his defending his government from corruption allegations and bilking the Nigerian treasury he told Bloomberg that the anti-gay bill he signed into law may have to be revisited.

“When it comes to equality, we must all have the same rights as Nigerian citizens,” Jonathan said at a forum at Bloomberg’s European headquarters. “In the light of deepening debates for all Nigerians and other citizens of the world to be treated equally and without discrimination, and with the clear knowledge that the issue of sexual orientation is still evolving, the nation may at the appropriate time revisit the law,” Jonathan said.

That only took thirty months. But from 2015 to 2016 he may have evolved but being out of office he’s not in a position to stop carnage.

Days after his pronouncement there was a grisly massacre of 49 gay people by a deranged gunman in Orlando Florida. Jonathan, who as president ignored his gay constituents, sent out a condolence message to the grieving families via twitter.

I condole with the victims and I pray that Almighty gives us the wisdom to deal with terror whether in #Florida or in any part of the world – Goodluck E. Jonathan (@GEJonathan)

But even that message also prompted controversy from the Nigerian ‘twitteratti.’

Jonathan cannot undo the damage caused by that law, but stories from those affected matter, and could change the reflexively antagonistic environment in Nigeria. Every Nigerian story will be told. And I have to do my part to tell our collective story. And that includes those who some want to shame and shunt aside.

I can start by answering the marriage question honestly. When will I get married? Maybe when we have marriage equality in our federation. Or maybe just when Scott, my partner wants to.

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