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Strictly Personal

Who is the next president? By Lasisi Olagunju

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“Someone who should know told me that our next president has not declared yet; that all those who have so far declared won’t be president.” I call him my mystery friend from the north. I have never met him. He comes around into my social media handles like a thief in the night, he drops his very few words as private messages and disappears. On Saturday, he came again with the first sentence of this piece. My response to him was that I suspected so. He didn’t ask me why I did. But I followed up to ask him if he thought what we had was a democracy. He answered no; otherwise, some people somewhere won’t be Nigeria’s real electors who choose for us before our election days. They are presently playing the game the old effective way. They are breaking ‘declared’ heads with coconut shells. They have set the parties on fire. INEC gave political parties from Wednesday, April 6 to Friday, June 3 to conduct their primaries and settle all disputes therefrom. That deadline is 46 days away from today, but the political parties we have are not ready; they are sick, down with epileptic fits, fighting civil and internecine wars. The Lagos content of the APC has particularly been noxious in its fratricidal feud.
When a journey portends evil, the Yoruba call it Igbo Odaju; its direct English translation is forest of the heartless. Elders always warn girls without fathers and boys without mothers not to take that route. If such boys and girls are already on that road to peril, they are told to go back home. What is rumbling the jungles of Lagos APC is a war of witches, they know what they ate which has now inflated their bellies. Let no ordinary person go by their ringside to watch and speculate. I am an orphan, I have no father, I have no mother; may I never be found getting involved in that family affair. I hope the sick taking sides in this coven fight know the implications. It promises not to end in praise. I also hope such people know what I know: that a fish with a closed mouth fears no hook and never gets caught. Family members fighting over who takes the bedchamber of the charmer are particularly taking a dangerous gamble. Skulls will be cracked, limbs will be lost. You already heard the father declaring not having a son. And like Elesin Oba’s Olunde in Soyinka’s ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’, the son too may soon post a disclaimer: “I have no father, eater of leftovers.”
The frenzy we feel is like bandits struggling over the spoils of their felony. The world of crime bears very uncanny resemblance to what you are seeing playing out in the politics of your country. A criminal enterprise. That is what many call our parties and their governments. Criminal enterprises have structures and there are hierarchies in there. Crime mirrors politics as literature reflects life. Professor Akinwumi Isola did a review of crime in Oladejo Okediji’s detective novel, Agbalagba Akan. I refer to his ‘The Modern Yoruba Novel: An Analysis of the writers art.’ He writes on page 140: “The criminals are known and feared. But they still operate in the society using a network of services. Theirs is a syndicate with active branches in the neighbouring towns. Olori Aye is the chief of them all. He resides at Ibadan. Oyeniyi Seriki is the deputy at Egbeda; Lamidi Olojooro controls Lalupon; Adegun directs operations at Origbo. Olori Aye (alias Doogo) has the last say in everything. He does not consult anyone on any point, he gives out orders that must be obeyed. Each time he says something he adds ‘Mo pa a lase ni o (it’s an order).'” That is the geo-politics of crime according to literature. At every level of our politics, you see each of the characters mentioned above. There is always an Olori Aye (supreme head of the world) calling the shots, directing the affairs using able lieutenants like Olojooro (the fraudulent) as ruthless foot soldiers. Think deep and look around; they are here.
But is this how we will continue? Swift-legged hare once found himself among flesh-eating beasts of the jungle. How did he come back home in one piece? He said he hung out with the big cats with ogbon inu (inner wisdom) and escaped with opolopo imo (a lot of understanding). Those are what we need to survive this season of war without help. Don’t you find it curious that as terrorists kill, maim and abduct, and relations of victims wail and beg our government to please be government, what concerns the regime is completely different? It is not even the next election. That one is settled. What remains to be done must be done. The government decreed last week that very early next year there would be census, the sum of the Nigerian people. There are millions hiding in diseased forests either as terrorists or as victims of terrorism. Will they be counted too? What better way to rupture the vessels of the system than having census and elections lumped together right in the middle of a war? So, I beg you, stop praying to these gods for protection, they assault their own temples with poisoned offerings.
The Nigerian presidency has a synonym, it is death. It is a repository of what a poet calls “the seven things of price.” It has gold; it has silver, pearl and coral; it has catseye, ruby and diamond. That is why people kill persons and characters and good manners to get into the vault. Daily I watch ambitious southern Nigerians seeking to be president of Nigeria. You cannot say you know how many they are. Even they themselves know not their number. As the list lengthens daily, so is the acrimony that attends their politics. The many from the south fight dirty; the four or five from the north form a Man United team stalking the riotous south, seeking holes to sink their goals into. Where brothers fight to the death, strangers inherit their father’s property. It is not only unthinking siblings who suffer this fate. Friends, associates deliver one another to the enemy whenever they think only of themselves. And, here, I consult the Greek, Aesop, classical master of ageless tales.
Aesop wrote his very many tales long before the sun and the moon were born. There is the one he entitled: “The Ass, the Fox and the Lion.” It is the tale of Ass and Fox, comrades who moved together daily, shoulder to shoulder, and lived on the generous carelessness of their society. Aesop says Ass regularly fed from cropped fresh bits of greens while Fox derived his nutrients from devouring chickens from a neighboring farmyard. Fox also filched cheese from the dairy next door. Aesop continues and says: one day, the pair unexpectedly walked into a Lion. The Ass was very much frightened, but the Fox calmed his fears. “I will talk to him,” Fox told Ass.
So the Fox walked boldly up to the Lion. “Your highness,” he said in an undertone, so the Ass could not hear him, “I’ve got a fine scheme in my head. If you promise not to hurt me, I will lead that foolish creature yonder into a pit where he can’t get out, and you can feast at your pleasure.” The Lion agreed and the Fox returned to the Ass. “I made him promise not to hurt us,” said the Fox. “But come, I know a good place to hide till he is gone.” So the Fox led the Ass into a deep pit. But when the Lion saw that the Ass was his for the taking, he first of all struck down Fox who thought he was smart and safe. The end of the comrades is the end of their tale.
There is also a grander story from father of English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer in his magnum opus, The Canterbury Tales. It is the story of three riotous fellows “who lived for gaming, eating, drinking, and merrymaking.” They set out one day to kill Death because Death killed their friends. Chaucer writes: “…One of the drinkers then swore an oath on God’s sacred bones that he would seek Death out. ‘Listen, friends, we three have always been as one. Let each of us now hold up his hand and swear an oath of brotherhood. Together we will slay this traitor Death!’ And thus with a blasphemous curse, they swore to live and die for one another and together to seek out and challenge Death before the next nightfall. In a drunken rage, they set forth…swearing grisly oaths as they went.”
How did they end their story? Instead of meeting Death, it was fortune that met them. Chaucer continues: “They found a pile of golden florins, well nigh onto eight bushels of them, they thought. The sight of all the bright and beautiful florins quickly caused them to abandon their search for Death, and their thoughts turned to how they might best protect their newly found treasure. The worst of them spoke the first word, ‘Brothers,’ he said, ‘Fortune has given us this great treasure, but if we carry it home by light of day, people will call us thieves, and our own treasure will send us to the gallows. We must take it home by night, and then with utmost prudence and caution. Let us draw lots to see which one of us should run to town and secretly bring back bread and wine. The other two will stay here and guard the treasure. Then in the night we will carry the treasure to wherever we think is best.'” The lot fell to the youngest, and he immediately departed for the town. The two behind plotted to kill the one who left so that they could have enough of the treasures. The one who left thought through his plot too to kill the two so all the treasures would be his. Both sides succeeded in their plots. The youngest came back with food and drinks and the two ran their daggers through his back. “They killed him, just as they had planned, and when the deed was done, one of them said, ‘Now let us sit and drink and make merry. Afterward we will bury his body.’ And while still talking, he drank from the poisoned bottle, and his friend drank as well, and thus the two of them died.” End of story. Now, the question is: Who inherited their treasure?
Who is Nigeria’s next president? That is the only question worth asking now. The next president is not among those killing one another before the day of battle. That is what my northern friend said. Except history sloughs off its skin, my friend will be right. No one who demanded the presidency of Nigeria has ever got it. Let’s look at history starting from 1999: Olusegun Obasanjo was drafted into the race; he drafted Umaru YarAdua into the race; death installed Goodluck Jonathan; Muhammadu Buhari got it only after he announced he was quitting politics. The system brought him back, cleansed him of the curse of perpetual inelectability and put him on the throne. Everyone knows unreadable Buhari is scheming to do what Obasanjo did in 2007. We wait to see how far he can go with his plans – outside the power court (and cult). When an elder loses what Teresa Washington describes as “control, composure, and reticence,” he loses his place at the pinnacle where spirits hold court. The choice has never been Nigerians’. The owners of Nigeria always take charge at the appropriate time and level. They always give us their choice to elect. We pay the price, they take the bride. Meanwhile, let the feuding old birds in Lagos APC continue their flight of death. It is their last rite, their last flight.

Strictly Personal

Umeme, grain and coffee: Why Kenya should fear Uganda’s economic gamble, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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Uganda, the 1990s shining Africa poster boy for privatisation, is engaging in what could be East Africa’s biggest economic liberalisation reverse gear. Last year, the Uganda government formally announced it would not renew the contract of electricity distributor Umeme in 2025, when its concession expires, and that it will form a state-owned entity to take over its business.

The government’s main criticism of Umeme is its margins are too high, so it has failed to lower electricity costs, and the expensive rates have hobbled Uganda’s industrialisation ambitions. Umeme counters that it is just a distributor, and the high electricity costs are passed on from the power generators.

In two years, the debate will be resolved. Uganda will be in the midst of campaigns ahead of the January 2026 election, when President Yoweri Museveni, weighed down by the wear and tear of 40 years in office, will likely be bidding for a record-shattering ninth term, with his son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, among those trying to wrestle the crown from his head. It will be the worst possible timing because incumbents rarely make the most enlightened decisions during heated election campaigns. As the West Africans say, there will likely “be a lot of cry.”

Distribution concession

Umeme was formed in 2004 when the government of Uganda granted the distribution concession to a consortium belonging to Globeleq, a subsidiary of the Commonwealth Development Corporation of the UK, which held 56 per cent, and South Africa’s now inept utility corporation Eskom, which had 44 per cent. In 2006 Eskom exited the consortium, and Globeleq became the sole owner of Umeme.

The regional impact could be significant because, among other things, Umeme shares are cross-listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange. If it unravels, Kenyan shareholders would be left crying in their bowls, and we could be back to the feud over regional assets that followed the break-up of the first East African Community in 1977.

Too messy to swallow

The renationalisation of Umeme will not be unique. Kenya just tried to renationalise cash-haemorrhaging national carrier Kenya Airways but found it too messy to swallow. The recently elected new government of President William Ruto has decided to throw it back on the block.

The difference in Uganda is that Umeme is just the shallow end of the pool. There are other moves to renationalise the very lucrative liberalised coffee sector by granting a near-monopoly to a Vinci Coffee Company, owned by controversial and shadowy Italian “foreign investor” Enrica Pinetti, to process and export Uganda’s coffee. That would take Uganda back to the early 1990s when the disastrous Coffee Marketing Board was disbanded.

A similar move is being made to give the Grain Council of Uganda, on paper a non-profit membership organisation, the kind of sway over the country’s grain last seen in the colonial era.

The force behind the Grain Council is the otherwise amiable president’s younger brother, retired Lt-Gen Salim Saleh (Caleb Akandwanaho), a sly operator who is the second most powerful figure in the land. A nationalist and statist, Saleh has led a quiet but effective assault against laissez-faire liberalisation, which he argues has mostly benefited foreigners and left Ugandans with only holes in their pockets. He has taken over a large chunk of the country’s agricultural budget and several “development” functions under the amorphous state-created vehicle Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) that he heads and inserted disciples in key national economic institutions.

Return to old roots

This state of affairs is a dramatic return to old roots. Uganda launched the first of a series of economic liberalisations in the 1990s that were deemed impossible in Africa at the time and anathema in the hyper-nationalist traditions that were entrenched in post-independence Africa.

It was the first country in Africa to radically liberalise its foreign exchange market and still maintains one of the least-interventionist approaches to the money market on the continent. It was also the first in East Africa to pass laws that gave the central bank extensive independence.

It was the first on the continent in the early 1990s to liberalise the fuel market and scrap fuel subsidies. Again, in East Africa, at least, it is the government that meddles least in setting the price of gas at the pump. When fuel prices skyrocketed everywhere following the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, it alone was the East African government to flatly refuse to even consider a fuel subsidy and price cap, as all the rest of the EAC states did.

Price of food

Uganda, too, is the country where the price of food is most considered none of the government’s business. When Ugandans read stories and political fights over maize in Kenya, and the government setting the price, to some of them, it sounds like a tale about an alien planet.

The country and economy that Uganda is today are about to change. Some of the changes have to do with the politics of the Museveni succession and how the family and vested interests that have coalesced around the State House view their future security. A lot of it, though, is because of some good things: the rebirth of the EAC; the end of the wars in Uganda and the ushering in of the country’s longest spell of peace; the rebound of a post-KANU Kenya; and the Rwanda post-genocide recovery.

If there are two people in East Africa outside Uganda, who have edged Uganda to the fork in the road where it is today, they are Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and former Kenya president Mwai Kibaki.

The author is a journalist, writer, and curator of the «Wall of Great Africans». Twitter@cobbo3

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Strictly Personal

In honour of Komla African scribes should lead renaissance, By Elsie Eyakuze

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Somehow the only news we watch on the TV at home is offered by the Tanzanian Broadcasting Corporation or any one of several Kenyan stations that the person who holds The Power chooses. As a result, I have been on an imposed “news diet” for a few years now.

It is nothing serious, just a touch of burnout with a soupçon of ennui for flavour. There are newspapers, too, but I am a decade past my paper-chasing days and I have noticed the click-bait flavour of headlines and I don’t like it.

In other words, I am growing older, crankier and particular about my news. This led me to believe that I am bored by the business that the industry might indeed be floundering — a position I do not really hold. After all, my job as a journalism-adjacent writer is to support the news and the people and institutions that bring it to us.

Maintain my optimism

I can’t afford to be cynical. I have to maintain my optimism and commitment, even through lazy editing in Tanzanian newspapers, and ulcer-inducing anxiety over Freedom of Expression when it is threatened.

But, yea, you know, it is 2023 — a year that honestly belongs in science fiction, not in real life. Like you, I get most of my news online these days, in small doses, and only when I want it. I have meandered off the path of keeping abreast into the woods of barely knowing what is going on, and it is has been wonderful for my mental health.

And that would have been that, but an energetic young journalist decided to invite me to the launch of the BBC’s Komla Dumor Awards, which took place last week in Dar es Salaam.

Apart from it being the Komla Dumor Award, there was a clear intention to spark some enthusiasm in Tanzanians to apply for the prize.

Observing old journalists encouraging young journalists while enjoying free snacks was just what the doctor ordered.

I watched young master Dingindaba Jonah Buyoya expertly handle a live recording of a show, saw a lot of familiar faces, and got reminded that journalism “is a calling, a vocation.”

Power of a calling

Nothing will kick the stuffing out of your cynicism like understanding the power of a calling, a vocation. There is a largely positive compulsion that drives people into journalism: Most of them are trying to help. They are hopeless romantics with a vision that the work that they do matters, that it can make the world a better place like a Michael Jackson song. So they take their notebooks and their electronics and venture forth to cover stories and bring them back to us in the comfort of our homes and devices.

If you spend any time thinking about it, this is a pretty radical thing to do. And we cannot live this modern life without the people who make it happen. The Komla Dumor Award is about fostering excellent African journalists, and I know exactly why young Tanzanians are hesitant to apply. I was a young Tanzanian once, I know.

They should take heart: If I managed to charm hard-nosed editors in Nairobi into letting me keep this gig, they can certainly conquer Africa, the BBC, and the world news.

We — I — need that from them more than they realise.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report; Email elsieeyakuze@gmail.com

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