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Putin’s tribal war by Dare Babarinsa

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The Ukrainian conflict may prove to be the most consequential war of the 21st Century. It may also signal the end of the Vladimir Putin era in Russian politics and the reduction of the once-mighty Russia into a glorified Third World country armed with nuclear weapons. That may be the ultimate oxymoron, but it is not far-fetched.

On Monday, Russia and China denied America’s allegation that Russia is seeking military help from China. That this allegation could be made, at all, is a pointer to the terrible straight Russia had found itself under Putin. Without its oil export today, Russia cannot even compete with China not to talk of its old Western Allies with whom it fought Germany during the Second World War.

The Ukrainian War may also signal an end to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), in its old form as a military alliance. Faced with serious challenge from the catholic economic muscle of a resurgent China, the NATO alliance needs to reconsider itself as a military body.

Economics and diplomacy may dominate future conflicts without counting the army divisions of each side. The Western powers may be thinking that it is time to seize the initiatives from the Chinese factory workers who are dominating the world. They have even surpassed the Japanese as the ultimate economic rival to the Western World.

In 1987, I had joined a team of 15 distinguished visitors to Capitol Hill, the home of the American legislature, The Congress. On the corridor were many television monitors broadcasting live on C-Span network, the proceedings of The Senate. All the television sets that we saw were Japanese-made, mostly of the Sony brand.

A female Senator, who hosted our team in her office, complained that Americans were surrendering to the economic aggression of the Japanese.

Few years after our visit to the Capitol Hill, Japanese automaker, Toyota, surpassed General Motors as the number-one automobile manufacturer in the world.

Now both Japanese and the Americans are facing the competition of their lives from the Chinese. These were the Chinese that were so beholding to the Russians in the first half of the 20th Century.

During his 25 years in power, China’s Supreme Leader, Chairman Mao Zedong, travelled outside his country twice. On both occasions, he journeyed to Moscow to meet with Russian leaders.

During the Chinese Civil War that lasted for almost 30 years, the Chinese were the clients of the Russians, beholding to them in every way. Mao knew the Chinese Revolution would have been a non-starter without the help of the Russians and their leader, Comrade Josef Stalin, the famed Man of Steel.

Today, there are not enough steel in Russia to arm its troops and change the map of Europe. Putin’s gamble in invading Ukraine is nothing but a reckless attempt to force the world to reckon with him. Russia still has the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Its military is still ranked as second only to America’s.

By igniting another tribal war in Europe, Putin is making a bad situation worse. His victory, if it ever comes, would be very costly and unsustainable in the long run. Instead of having Ukraine as a buffer zone between his country and the West, he is turning almost all former satellite states of the old Soviet Union into anti-Russian countries.

Putin has rightly gambled that the West would not want to confront Russia militarily on the ground or in the sky. Despite the repeated request of Ukraine and its leader, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, that America and its NATO allies should declare Ukraine a no-flying zone, America declined to do so. Ukrainians know that if America declares Ukraine a no-flying zone, Russia does not have the capacity to confront America in the sky. The Russian air force is second-rate compare to the air-muscle of the United States and its allies. Though it might be tactically effective to create a no-flying zone over Ukraine, it would be strategically suicidal.

Russia is not just another country with a second-rate air force. It is a nuclear power, the greatest in the world after America. It has enough nukes to destroy the world 10 times over. Russia is also a dictatorship where one man rules. If Putin is humiliated in the sky, he might be tempted to use chemical weapons or even reach for the nuclear button. A thermonuclear war with Russia may not last more than one week, but all the major cities of the world; New York, Moscow, London, St Petersburg, Paris, Washington DC, Rome, would be destroyed. Humanity may be reduced to ground-zero and civilisation returned to where it was 5,000 years ago.

It is evident that the Ukrainians are the losers in this conflict. The young Ukrainian president, who came to power on the wings of anti-Russian rhetoric, refused or was unable to acknowledge the strategic importance of Ukraine to Russia. In recent past, Ukraine had joined NATO forces in staging an elaborate joint military exercise on Ukrainian soil.

Zelenskyy had also upped his rhetoric against Russia by saying he was ready to defend his country’s territorial integrity by all means. He thought his NATO allies would go to war to defend him. He was wrong.

Putin has done enough to provoke Ukrainian hostility. First he seized Crimea, the rich resort of Ukraine. He is also promoting separatist agenda within Ukraine in provinces that have substantial number of native Russians. In truth, Putin was acting as an arch-tribalist, promoting only the interests of his kinsmen. Yet despite these provocations, a more mature leadership would have handled Russia differentially.

There are many things for Ukraine to protect. Its citizens live better than the Russians; they are richer, healthier and have greater access to the good things of life. Ukraine has the best health system in the old Eastern Europe, certainly better than Russia’s. This week, the United Nations Secretary General described Ukraine as the food basket of the world. If the truth must be told, the Russians envy their wealthier cousin, the Ukrainians.

With a more experienced leadership, Ukraine would have avoided this new tribal war. They could have done less with Russian baiting despite the heavy breathing of the Russian bear and the reckless ambition of Putin. By their ceaseless dalliance with the West, they provoked the anger and belligerence of the insecure Putin. It is no consolation that this war is most likely to end badly for Putin and his corrupt and inefficient oligarchy.

There is a lot to learn from the Ukrainian experience. One, war does not give sufficient notice. Two, no one, no matter how much he loves you, will fight your war for you. Three, it is always better to be prepared for war if you want peace.

Nigeria is not at war, but we have seen how unprepared we are even to maintain a semblance of peace. Few weeks ago, some well-fed billionaires imported bad fuel for us and for weeks, queues have resurfaced at fuel stations. No one has been sanctioned or considered culpable. Let the people bear the brunt. There is no strategic reserve for our oil in case of crisis, war or natural disaster. Mere wrong importation by some fat blokes had disrupted the national balance.

Even our trains cannot run its schedule course without running out of fuel and passengers get stranded in the middle of nowhere. Of course, it is normal and no one it to be blamed. How then can we be surprised that a suspected killer had the presence of mind to become the queen of Kirikiri Prison? One wisecrack declared: “If you are living in Nigeria and your BP is normal, then you are not normal!”

 

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Strictly Personal

Air Peace, capitalism and national interest, By Dakuku Peterside

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Nigerian corporate influence and that of the West continue to collide. The rationale is straightforward: whereas corporate activity in Europe and America is part of their larger local and foreign policy engagement, privately owned enterprises in Nigeria or commercial interests are not part of Nigeria’s foreign policy ecosystem, neither is there a strong culture of government support for privately owned enterprises’ expansion locally and internationally.

The relationship between Nigerian businesses and foreign policy is important to the national interest. When backing domestic Nigerian companies to compete on a worldwide scale, the government should see it as a lever to drive foreign policy, and national strategic interest, promote trade, enhance national security considerations, and minimize distortion in the domestic market as the foreign airlines were doing, boost GDP, create employment opportunities, and optimize corporate returns for the firms.

Admitted nations do not always interfere directly in their companies’ business and commercial dealings, and there are always exceptions. I can cite two areas of exception: military sales by companies because of their strategic implications and are, therefore, part of foreign and diplomatic policy and processes. The second is where the products or routes of a company have implications for foreign policy. Air Peace falls into the second category in the Lagos – London route.

Two events demonstrate an emerging trend that, if not checked, will disincentivize Nigerian firms from competing in the global marketplace. There are other notable examples, but I am using these two examples because they are very recent and ongoing, and they are typological representations of the need for Nigerian government backing and support for local companies that are playing in a very competitive international market dominated by big foreign companies whose governments are using all forms of foreign policies and diplomacy to support and sustain.

The first is Air Peace. It is the only Nigerian-owned aviation company playing globally and checkmating the dominance of foreign airlines. The most recent advance is the commencement of flights on the Lagos – London route. In Nigeria, foreign airlines are well-established and accustomed to a lack of rivalry, yet a free-market economy depends on the existence of competition. Nigeria has significantly larger airline profits per passenger than other comparable African nations. Insufficient competition has resulted in high ticket costs and poor service quality. It is precisely this jinx that Air Peace is attempting to break.

On March 30, 2024, Air Peace reciprocated the lopsided Bilateral Air Service Agreement, BASA, between Nigeria and the United Kingdom when the local airline began direct flight operations from Lagos to Gatwick Airport in London. This elicited several reactions from foreign airlines backed by their various sovereigns because of their strategic interest. A critical response is the commencement of a price war. Before the Air Peace entry, the price of international flight tickets on the Lagos-London route had soared to as much as N3.5 million for the  economy ticket. However, after Air Peace introduced a return economy class ticket priced at N1.2 million, foreign carriers like British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Qatar Airways reduced their fares significantly to remain competitive.

In a price war, there is little the government can do. In an open-market competitive situation such as this, our government must not act in a manner that suggests it is antagonistic to foreign players and competitors. There must be an appearance of a level playing field. However, government owes Air Peace protection against foreign competitors backed by their home governments. This is in the overall interest of the Nigerian consumer of goods and services. Competition history in the airspace works where the Consumer Protection Authority in the host country is active. This is almost absent in Nigeria and it is a reason why foreign airlines have been arbitrary in pricing their tickets. Nigerian consumers are often at the mercy of these foreign firms who lack any vista of patriotism and are more inclined to protect the national interest of their governments and countries.

It would not be too much to expect Nigerian companies playing globally to benefit from the protection of the Nigerian government to limit influence peddling by foreign-owned companies. The success of Air Peace should enable a more competitive and sustainable market, allowing domestic players to grow their network and propel Nigeria to the forefront of international aviation.

The second is Proforce, a Nigerian-owned military hardware manufacturing firm active in Rwanda, Chad, Mali, Ghana, Niger, Burkina Faso, and South Sudan. Despite the growing capacity of Proforce in military hardware manufacturing, Nigeria entered two lopsided arrangements with two UAE firms to supply military equipment worth billions of dollars , respectively. Both deals are backed by the UAE government but executed by UAE firms.

These deals on a more extensive web are not unconnected with UAE’s national strategic interest. In pursuit of its strategic national interest, India is pushing Indian firms to supply military equipment to Nigeria. The Nigerian defence equipment market has seen weaker indigenous competitors driven out due to the combination of local manufacturers’ lack of competitive capacity and government patronage of Asian, European, and US firms in the defence equipment manufacturing sector. This is a misnomer and needs to be corrected.

Not only should our government be the primary customer of this firm if its products meet international standards, but it should also support and protect it from the harsh competitive realities of a challenging but strategic market directly linked to our national military procurement ecosystem. The ability to produce military hardware locally is significant to our defence strategy.

This firm and similar companies playing in this strategic defence area must be considered strategic and have a considerable place in Nigeria’s foreign policy calculations. Protecting Nigeria’s interests is the primary reason for our engagement in global diplomacy. The government must deliberately balance national interest with capacity and competence in military hardware purchases. It will not be too much to ask these foreign firms to partner with local companies so we can embed the technology transfer advantages.

Our government must create an environment that enables our local companies to compete globally and ply their trades in various countries. It should be part of the government’s overall economic, strategic growth agenda to identify areas or sectors in which Nigerian companies have a competitive advantage, especially in the sub-region and across Africa and support the companies in these sectors to advance and grow to dominate in  the African region with a view to competing globally. Government support in the form of incentives such as competitive grants ,tax credit for consumers ,low-interest capital, patronage, G2G business, operational support, and diplomatic lobbying, amongst others, will alter the competitive landscape. Governments  and key government agencies in the west retain the services of lobbying firms in pursuit of its strategic interest.

Nigerian firms’ competitiveness on a global scale can only be enhanced by the support of the Nigerian government. Foreign policy interests should be a key driver of Nigerian trade agreements. How does the Nigerian government support private companies to grow and compete globally? Is it intentionally mapping out growth areas and creating opportunities for Nigerian firms to maximize their potential? Is the government at the domestic level removing bottlenecks and impediments to private company growth, allowing a level playing field for these companies to compete with international companies?

Why is the government patronising foreign firms against local firms if their products are of similar value? Why are Nigerian consumers left to the hands of international companies in some sectors without the government actively supporting the growth of local firms to compete in those sectors? These questions merit honest answers. Nigerian national interest must be the driving factor for our foreign policies, which must cover the private sector, just as is the case with most developed countries. The new global capitalism is not a product of accident or chance; the government has choreographed and shaped it by using foreign policies to support and protect local firms competing globally. Nigeria must learn to do the same to build a strong economy with more jobs.

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Strictly Personal

This is chaos, not governance, and we must stop it, By Tee Ngugi

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The following are stories that have dominated mainstream media in recent times. Fake fertiliser and attempts by powerful politicians to kill the story. A nation of bribes, government ministries and corporations where the vice is so routine that it has the semblance of policy. Irregular spending of billions in Nairobi County.

 

Billions are spent in all countries on domestic and foreign travel. Grabbing of land belonging to state corporations, was a scam reminiscent of the Kanu era when even public toilets would be grabbed. Crisis in the health and education sectors.

 

Tribalism in hiring for state jobs. Return of construction in riparian lands and natural waterways. Relocation of major businesses because of high cost of power and heavy taxation. A tax regime that is so punitive, it squeezes life out of small businesses. Etc, ad nauseam.

 

To be fair, these stories of thievery, mismanagement, negligence, incompetence and greed have been present in all administrations since independence.

 

However, instead of the cynically-named “mama mboga” government reversing this gradual slide towards state failure, it is fuelling it.

 

Alternately, it’s campaigning for 2027 or gallivanting all over the world, evoking the legend of Emperor Nero playing the violin as Rome burned.

 

A government is run based on strict adherence to policies and laws. It appoints the most competent personnel, irrespective of tribe, to run efficient departments which have clear-cut goals.

 

It aligns education to its national vision. Its strategies to achieve food security should be driven by the best brains and guided by innovative policies. It enacts policies that attract investment and incentivize building of businesses. It treats any kind of thievery or negligence as sabotage.

 

Government is not a political party. Government officials should have nothing to do with political party matters. They should be so engaged in their government duties that they literally would not have time for party issues. Government jobs should not be used to reward girlfriends and cronies.

 

Government is exhausting work undertaken because of a passion to transform lives, not for the trappings of power. Government is not endless campaigning to win the next election. To his credit, Mwai Kibaki left party matters alone until he had to run for re-election.

 

We have corrupted the meaning of government. We have parliamentarians beholden to their tribes, not to ideas.

 

We have incompetent and corrupt judges. We have a civil service where you bribe to be served. Police take bribes to allow death traps on our roads. We have urban planners who plan nothing except how to line their pockets. We have regulatory agencies that regulate nothing, including the intake of their fat stomachs.

 

We have advisers who advise on which tenders should go to whom. There is no central organising ethos at the heart of government. There is no sense of national purpose. We have flurries of national activities, policies, legislation, appointments which don’t lead to meaningful growth. We just run on the same spot.

 

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator

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