Powerless: It wasn’t Ghana’s team that just lost. It was the president

By FRANKIE EDOZIEN
QUARTZ

June 17, 2014

ACCRA, Ghana—Poor Dramani.

The year is barely halfway through and it is turning out to be an annus horribilis for Ghana’s president, John Dramani Mahama. It seems everything he touches turns to cow dung.

Ghanaians are experiencing untold financial hardships at a time when a president a year from the next election should be rolling out new initiatives to soothe the masses. At least that’s how it often works in many places in West Africa.

But Mahama’s government is accused by many here of living beyond its means and plunging the government into more and more borrowing to stay afloat.

To stop the dollarization of the economy brought about by little confidence in the local currency, the Ghana cedi, his team put in place reforms that include not allowing pricing in dollars and permitting holders of dollar accounts to only withdraw their funds in cedis.

The reaction to that has been a drastic 25% drop in the value of the cedi to the dollar. The falling cedi, currently at about 3 cedis to $1, has resulted in price increases for all and sundry. Increases in the cost of living and a currency losing value are enough to stoke discontent among a populace who loved Mahama when he was vice president under the late John Atta Mills.

But then Mills died in 2012 and Mahama was elevated to the top job. And as president he has brought in his own team. And he and his team have to govern.

With his well-written memoir (My First Coup D’état) many people expected more from him. But his policies and cabinet reshuffling elicit yawns. The problems seem to be worsening.

The genial but “accidental” president, also the chairman of the regional bloc, summoned his counterparts to Accra to tackle the issue of Islamic militancy in Mali and Nigeria earlier this month.

They came. They tied up traffic—forcing Accra residents to be trapped in roads for hours—and then they left with nothing to show but a communiqué.

No troops, no drones, no nothing.

All this and an increase in power cuts like Accra hasn’t seen in years.

The “Light on light off” phrase so pervades the vernacular because not a day has gone by in months without electricity being cut.

But for the FIFA world cup in Brazil, particularly during Ghana’s matches, Mahama and his team decided to give the roughly 25 million citizens uninterrupted power supply. Ghana can’t produce enough power so Cote d’Ivoire, its neighbor, agreed to pump in 50 megawatts, since their games don’t overlap.

“These plans are put in place for consumers to watch uninterruptible football matches during the World Cup,” the Public Utilities Regulatory Commission said in a statement to Bloomberg News. “Within these arrangements the load-shedding schedule, though varied, still exists.”

Before the first match Ghana played, which was against the United States, Mahama was on the airwaves encouraging his soccer-fanatic nation to wave flags and show love for the Black Stars who had beaten the US in the past two World cups.

Ghana’s team was about “skill and talent,” the president said, joining the national frenzy here.

Well, the lights didn’t go out and the carnival atmosphere on the streets lasted for hours.

Until the Black Stars lost to the US 2-1.

Mahama has now failed to deliver a sure-thing soccer victory against America like his predecessors. His political rivals are smelling blood. At least the power was on for the night.

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Goodluck Indeed: What’s really behind Nigeria’s kidnapped girls: a very weak president

By FRANKIE EDOZIEN
QUARTZ
MAY 8 2014

Like US president Barack Obama, Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan gave people hope.

After all, the story goes, he was the son of canoe makers who grew up without shoes in the Niger Delta area but lifted himself out of poverty through education.

Not just a university degree, but a PhD. He became a symbol that, no matter the circumstances of birth in Africa’s most populous country, one could rise to the highest levels of political success: the Aso Rock villa. That’s Nigeria’s “White House.”

Yet there were elements of luck too. Jonathan was twice a running mate who was elevated because his principals could not serve out their terms. As vice president, he kept a low profile but then his boss died in office, elevating him to the top job.

The tale of a poor man, not part of any political dynasty who rose to be president by the dint of his hard work and strokes of luck, played well in 2010.

Then it was time to govern. To deliver on promises made.

But things never seemed to get better for the average Nigerian, despite the booming oil-rich economy.

Back then, he promised to stabilize electricity in Nigeria—but the country still remains in darkness most nights and every citizen who can afford to buys a generator. Power cuts last for hours on end.

In early 2012, the president removed the subsidies that made it affordable for the Nigerian Everyman to buy gas for their cars and portable generators. Nationwide #Occupy Nigeria demonstrations paralyzed the country for five days.

A year later, he told CNN (to the bewilderment of many Nigerians) that should one inquire about the power situation, ordinary folks would agree that he had made great strides. His government had “kept faith.”

Was he completely out-of-touch? Hand he not been outside the presidential villa in any city at nighttime? Or had he simply morphed into a quintessential say-anything politician? The facts be damned?

Yet the reality was Nigeria was sliding backwards and his inner circle appeared to either shield him from that or simply not care.

Today the CIA World Factbook points out that 62% of Nigeria’s 170 million people live in extreme poverty. Seventy percent are below the poverty line. Government revenues are $23 billion-plus annually.

His cabinet members showcase excessive displays of wealth (likely from taxpayer coffers) such as buying armored BMWs and hiring private jets. Yet it is impossible for him to find fault or discipline them.

But when central banker Lamido Sanusi sounded the alarms bells that $50 billion is, well, missing from government accounts; he gets fired.

For Jonathan, the optics are rarely good and embarrassment isn’t even in the equation. And after months of unanswered questions, unwittingly, turns the matter into a joke.

He careened from crisis to crisis, but instead of solving problems, Nigerians have a leader who seems consumed with reelection in 2015.

Thus, he began the year pandering.

First to the religious right; he offered a draconian criminalization of citizens who are sexual minorities and anyone who has any association with them.

Then he fast-tracked the construction a new bridge over the River Niger, which residents have sought for decades as the current one is old and in disrepair.

Yet at the same time he backed criminalizing gays and made promises to deliver on infrastructure.

The reality: Highways remain dilapidated, airports continue to resemble crumbling abandoned edifices, and one job vacancy elicits thousands of applicants. Universities remain in shambles. And millions scrape by eking out a living that places them among the world’s poorest despite the nation’s wealth.

What happened to the promise and hope of leadership from Jonathan?

Much of Nigeria’s success stories—and there are many—are derived from the private sector and with the $510 billion economy now Africa’s largest. But still money is concentrated in the hands of the few while millions are mired in poverty. For all its growth and revenues, Jonathan’s government has no Emirates-style infrastructure achievements to show. Money has simply vanished.

It is against this backdrop that the terror group Boko Haram has been escalating its war on the Nigerian government. Northern Nigeria remains extremely poor. It is fertile ground for Boko Haram’s message: They claim western education is forbidden and say they want an Islamic state with strict adherence to the Koran.

So their modus operandi has been to create chaos.

Bombing churches, attacking and killing high school students, detonating bombs in car parks—and now abducting teenage girls.

Jonathan’s first response was to try to crush them militarily.

And he failed.

Then he seemed to shrug his shoulders and hope for the best. His attitude can, at best, be described as ineptitude—namely by not heeding the warnings that girls would be abducted after terrorists slaughtered young boys in another school a few months ago.

On April 14, members of the Boko Haram stormed a boarding school in Chibok, Bornu state, and took hundreds of girls by lorry into the dense forests near the country’s border with Chad.

Only after finally fed-up Nigerians pushed the world to intervene by simply saying #BringBackOurGirls online and in demonstrations around the world … finally Jonathan broke his weeks-old silence.

Only to admit he has no clue where the 276 girls are.

And Boko Haram’s feared leader, Abubakar Shekau, believed to be in the dense Sambisa forests continues to taunt Jonathan, saying he’s selling the girls.

Only then did his finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who spends considerable effort telling—some would say bamboozling—western press how wonderful her efforts have been in turning the economy around, decide the girls were worth mentioning.

The minister under who is coordinating Africa’s Davos, the current World Economic Forum for the continent, has been known to tell journalists how she could be earning a fat paycheck at the World Bank but she’s instead she’s doing the hard work in Nigeria with her boss, Jonathan.

Before flying to New York last week to get an accolade from Time magazine, she rattled off to journalists plans for the 6,000 military personnel to protect world leaders and Fortune 500 representatives in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, this week for the summit.

But of course there was no mention of the missing girls.

Only after the outcry of the ordinary people, with their supporters on Twitter around the world, did she now claim that she and president can’t sleep at night out of worry. (The optics are never good for these folks.)

And it is backfiring as international press now think of him as ineffective and leading a corrupt bunch.

Only after the outcry did Jonathan’s wife, Patience, display what seemed to be crocodile tears on national television. Then she promptly berated activists and women for demonstrating against her husband’s administration.

The writer Teju Cole, rightly dubbed her ‘The First Lady of Surrealistan.”

How is it possible that a government can only respond to such heinous crimes only after pressure from the outside world?

Would he have been so slow to act or even convey sympathy and empathy were these girls his daughters, his friends’ daughters, or children of the elite?

Time is running out for Jonathan to be an agent of change. He still has time to lead from the front, not behind. He still has time put people first—not just business interests to ensure he gets another term.

Once again, the president could actually take a page from Obama’s book. With elections looming in 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck and Obama and his team were all hands on deck. The election took care of itself.

If only Jonathan and his team would do the same. And act like they care? Maybe do something bold.

If only. Few are holding their breath. I’m not.

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Ghana’s Growing Gay Pride Faces Now-Familiar Evangelical Backlash

graphic

COLORLINES

August 30 2011

By Frankie Edozien

On particular midweek nights, throngs of men and women gather at a few particular clubs to dance the night away to pulsating beats, and sometimes live music. The men dance provocatively close to each other, with reckless abandon. The few women around do the same with each other. Kisses are even exchanged.

At seaside dance parties where beer and reggae flow to all and sundry, it’s no longer uncommon for men and women in Ghana’s capital city, Accra, to test the waters and try to pick up companions of the same sex. Even in conservative Ghana, it seems that gays and lesbians are taking steps out in the public domain, at least at night.

But like elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, a backlash to that new openness has erupted as well. Since late May, it has spilled out onto the radio. Hours are spent debating whether gays should be allowed to exist here. Then Ghanaians wake up to national headlines screaming that gays and lesbians are dirty and sinful and ought to be locked up.

The pattern is becoming a familiar one throughout sub-Saharan Africa. As evangelical Christianity has seen its fastest growth on the continent, gay communities have simultaneously grown more open. The parallel developments have led to a growing list of countries in which politicians and media outlets have both incited and exploited social panic around sexuality. In the late 1990s, a beleaguered Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe drew global attention as he invited violence against gay people and blamed the country’s growing troubles on the European deprivation he said they symbolized. Since then, similar moments have struck in places stretching across the continent. Most recently, Uganda has been embroiled in controversy over a proposed law that would, among other things, allow the death penalty as a punishment for homosexuality. The authors of that law are closely tied to the U.S. religious right.

Now, this West African nation is having its own gay-dialogue moment and, once again, much of it has been unsavory, with religious leaders and some politicians stoking the flames.

“Gay bashing had never been a feature of the Ghanaian social landscape until, oh, I would say the last 10-15 years. And it came with the evangelical Christians,” says Nat Amartefio, 67, a historian, lifelong resident and former mayor of Accra.

“It’s these evangelicals who are looking for Satan everywhere, in everybody’s drawers, who have created this specter of an expanding gay universe. In all fairness, maybe they see things that those of us who are not involved cannot see. But they are the ones who are driving this hysteria,” Amartefio adds.

The recent hysteria began when a front-page article in the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s largest circulation newspaper, claimed that organizations doing health work in two regions had “registered” 8,000 gays—many supposedly infected with HIV. The claim was taken from a participant in a workshop for health workers to assist them in dealing with patients with sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV. The U.S. government, through its Agency for International Development, sponsored the training.

Religious leaders took to the radio to denounce the gays and ask the government to intervene, with one cleric saying he didn’t want Almighty Allah to destroy Africa. The Bureau of National Intelligence claimed it was investigating, and one Presbyterian leader branded gays as “unbiblical, un-African, abnormal and filthy.”

Each week in June brought a slew of new headlines with one legislator, David Tetteh warning that gays could be lynched like robbers.

”You cannot trace this act to any of the settings in Ghana. So this is foreign and I am I saying that Ghanaians cherish our culture a lot so for anybody to adulterate the cultural setting in Ghana … I have the fear that people could take the law into their hands in future and deal with this people drastically,” he suggested to a local journalist.

The “un-African” claim has recurred in each anti-gay backlash that’s hit the content, despite mounds of historical research showing that, in fact, gay and lesbian people have been part of many African cultures for centuries. Rather, homophobia was imported with European colonialism—and today’s growth in evangelical Christianity. Amartefio and other noted Ghanaian intellectuals have pointed out that gay men have been in the society from time immemorial and are sometimes referred to as ‘Kodjo Besia.’

Despite the rhetoric, Amartefio believes the moment will pass quietly. He doesn’t expect a “kill the gays” bill like what was proposed in Uganda. “I don’t believe it will lead to an open pogrom. There just are so many gays in this society who are in all walks of life, in all stations of society who don’t draw any attention because nobody is looking out for them.”

But the daily newspapers trumpeted a different perspective—the voices of those most virulently opposed to sexual freedom. Breda Atta-Quayson, a Daily Graphic deputy editor who wrote many of the headlines that had “Homos” in bold type, says the paper has no anti-gay agenda but wants the issue discussed openly.

“Unfortunately the stories we are getting are the ‘negative’ ones. But it’s not that we are putting it there because we are anti-gay,” he told Colorlines.com. “That is why we have refrained from even writing editorials. We wanted it to be in the public domain for discussion.”

Nana Banyin Dadson, a senior editor at Graphic Communications, adds that interest is high. “Editors are supposed to have a pulse of readership. It is what is strange that sells. It’s strange because this is the first time that it has come up as a subject of discussion openly.”

Against the onslaught from the religious leaders in the media, however, very few voices for LGBT rights could be heard.

One popular radio journalist, Ato Kwamena Dadzie, spoke out and devoted two articles supporting Ghana’s gay community. The response was vitriolic. He was called gay himself and many wrote in response that was the reason he had gone through a divorce.

“One of the jobs of the journalist is to give voice to the voiceless and one of the most deprived people in this country—in terms of voice—is the gay community in the country and I’m more than delighted to speak for them,” Dadzie says.

The former country director of Journalist for Human Rights adds that the piling on is a direct result of poverty. “If I struggle to get one meal a day and I have a band of homosexuals coming into my community and I’ve been told that this band of homosexuals cause God to come and take away the single plate of food that I have, I would fight,” Dadzie says.

Ghana has a high unemployment and nearly 30 percent of the populace lives below the poverty line, according to figures from the CIA World Factbook.

Accra resident Atta-Quayson, 59, says the frenzied coverage is ultimately good. “This topic is going to lead into a liberal society. Now that it is coming to the fore, a lot of people will want to find out what it is. Even though the religious right is so anti-gay.”

Dadzie believes that as the country grows more prosperous, society will be more open. He’s putting together a “coalition of the willing” to challenge the current interpretation of the unlawful carnal knowledge law, which criminalizes homosexual sex acts.

“We’re not going to get to the point of same sex marriages soon, but we’d get to a point where people will decide, ‘He’s gay so what.’ Maybe when I’m dead and gone we can get to same sex marriages,” Dadzie jokes, “but I’ll be surprised if in my lifetime we talk about same sex marriages in this country.”

Still, gay Ghanaians interviewed by Colorlines said they are waiting for the government to offer some protection and leadership in turning down the volume.

“This is what we are praying for,” says one corporal in the army, who has lived with a partner for two years. They would like to move openly into the barracks one day, where the accommodation is free. But for now, freedom on the dance floor is the only option. To see more and comment click here.

Frankie Edozien is a New York City-based journalist who is the director of New York University’s Reporting Africa program.

 

“The man who shamed Nigeria” Nigerians struggle to understand why a privileged son tried to become a bomber.

GLOBALPOST

By FRANKIE EDOZIEN

ABUJA, Nigeria — Nigerians are still struggling to come to terms with the news that Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old son of one of this country’s most prominent and wealthiest bankers, allegedly tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight as it landed in Detroit on Dec. 25.

“The man who shamed Nigeria,” is what the local newspaper, “The Guardian,” dubbed Abdulmutallab.

In a country where the majority of people live on just $2 a day, people are asking how someone who’s been born and reared with a golden spoon in his mouth could throw it all away?

And if the privileged young man could be drawn by Islamic extremism into a suicide bombing plot, what does this say of about Nigeria’s efforts to encourage its Muslim and Christian populations to live together peacefully? Muslims make up about 50 percent of Nigeria’s 149 million people, while Christians comprise 40 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up a passenger-filled airliner has left Nigerians angry and puzzled. And it comes at a time when officials here are trying to improve Nigeria’s image.

“This singular act has done unquantifiable damage to the nascent re-branding project,” said Steven Douglas, an executive with the Nigerian National Petroleum Company. “He was simply unenlightened and stupid to allow himself to be used.”

Abdulmutallab’s father Umaru Abdulmutallab, 71, is at the top of the heap of the Nigerian elite, and has been for years. His 16 children and two wives share massive homes around the world. His home on Asa Street in the tony Maitama district of Abuja is palatial, as is his country home in the sleepy Funtua in the nearby Katsina state.

He just retired as chairman on First Bank, one of the nation’s largest, after serving on its board for 13 years. And before that he ran the large United Bank for Africa (UBA). For decades Abdulmutallab, has worked the corridors of power here, serving as a federal minister, as far back as 1975 and currently heading up the current president’s Business Support Group. He has racked up national honors over the years.

In a country where some 90 percent of the people struggle economically, Abdulmutallab’s wealth allowed him to give his son, Farouk, an international education that most Nigerians can only dream of.

Abdulmutallab sent his son to a posh boarding school, the British International School in Lome, Togo and then to the University College, London, where his son lived in swanky apartment. The younger Abdulmutallab seemed destined for success.

After graduating in the U.K., the quiet young man, who was dubbed “alpha” and “the pope” because of his saintly ways, went off to Dubai for post-graduate studies.
He never completed them and reportedly left due to nonpayment of fees. The younger Abdulmutallab instead went to Yemen to study Arabic. By August he was severing ties with his family and his worried father was calling the U.S. embassy to warn of his son, who he was worried was now under the sway of extremists.

The son re-entered Nigeria on Dec. 24 in order to board the KLM flight to Amsterdam that same night. He used an e-ticket that had been purchased from Accra, Ghana. And he boarded the international flight with just one piece of hand luggage and no checked in luggage, which is most unusual in Nigeria, where traveling light means two checked bags.

“The man in question has been living outside the country for awhile. He sneaked into Nigeria on Dec. 24 and left the same day,” said Dora Akunyili, Nigeria’s information minister.

From the bustling seaside metropolis of Lagos with its searing skyscrapers, to the red soil dirt roads of Asaba, on the banks of the River Niger, Nigerians can’t understand what has transpired. And it’s the talk of many towns.

“It is a reflection of poor family values but more importantly it is a clear evidence of the disadvantage of allowing very young children to live a life away from family from a very young age,” said Ifeanyi Ukoha, 39, a banker in Lagos. “The young man’s values would have been so mixed up thus opening him up to extremism.”

Ukoha added: “Nigerians in the diaspora will suffer in terms of a renewed perception as terrorists. Already Nigerians are grappling with issues relating to immigration abuse and advanced fee fraud.”

Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan said Abdulmutallab’s actions may lead to a clampdown on all Nigerians.

“A Nigerian has created an additional problem for us by wanting to blow up an aircraft,” he said after a church service here. “That means that those Nigerians who travel out of this country will be subjected to unnecessary harassments and searches.”

Timothy Obiorah, 43, an oil and gas industry manager concurred: “Everyone will be a suspect now. This was the bleakest Christmas in this country.”

One Detroit-based businessman who landed in Abuja right after Christmas said that when he withdrew thousands of dollars from an American bank for his trip, he did not want to tell the teller that he was traveling to Nigeria, because of the hysteria about Abdulmutallab.

“I said I was heading to Kampala [Uganda],” said the traveler. “With all this stuff, she might have thought to herself, out of an abundance of caution, to call the FBI and say ‘this black guy just withdrawn all this money and is heading to Nigeria.’ I just don’t want the hassle.”

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How Bad Is Security at the Lagos Airport?

Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009

International travelers flying out of Nigeria’s Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos during the Christmas season are used to being hassled by security. Usually, it’s a demand for tips and gifts. At every point of contact with officials, from check-in to final boarding, the requests are constant.

As a result, many passengers familiar with the Lagos airport aren’t surprised that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young man accused of trying to blow up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit, could have boarded his flight with liquid explosives. “They tell you, Take your shoes off, take your boots off, take your belt off, but the woman who is looking at the X-ray machine is looking at you to give her a tip,” says Victor Chidi Asaba-One, 41, a businessman who shuttles between Detroit and Lagos about 20 times a year, often on the same KLM and Northwest flights that Abdulmutallab used.

The 23-year-old son of one of Nigeria’s wealthiest men and most prominent bankers has lived outside Nigeria for years and had severed ties with his family. On Dec. 24 he re-entered Nigeria and boarded a KLM flight to Amsterdam that same night. He used an e-ticket that had been purchased in Accra, Ghana.

Shortly after the thwarted bombing attempt, Nigerian authorities stressed that its airports had recently passed the International Civil Aviation audit and just last month passed a Transportation Security Administration audit as well. “However, in light of our new developments, we have reinforced our security systems in all our airports,” said Information Minister Dora Akunyili.

Nevertheless, Ifeanyi Ukoha, 39, a banker in Lagos who flies from the Lagos airport regularly, insists the security at Murtala Muhammed International Airport is comparatively lax. “Unauthorized persons are allowed beyond the stipulated point mostly because they are in uniform,” he says. “And security personnel will keep soliciting gratification, especially during festive seasons.”

Other passengers say screening processes, particularly at Lagos, are geared toward looking for drugs. In fact, there is an additional checkpoint for local drug enforcement once passengers have passed customs and immigration.

At the airport in Lagos, as well as the one in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, passengers are now subjected to extra screening, with officials there saying everyone will now be subjected to body-screening. “It’s a joke, man,” Asaba-One says. “They may have functioning X-ray machines, even though they are older, but I’m not sure the person looking at the screen even knows what to look for. If, for example, I had a liquid explosive that is going through it, will they be able to tell the difference between a liquid bottle of Coke versus a liquid bottle of PETN? I don’t think they can tell. I know they can’t tell.”

Some passengers also know that liquid gels in plastic containers less than 100 ml don’t set off magnetometers. They say they simply put them in their pockets and let their shirts hang over them as they walk through airport checkpoints in Nigeria — and head for Europe and the U.S.

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