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Peter Obi: Time to destroy this Temple by Lasisi Olagunju

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There is a trending video of a senile Paul Biya, President of Cameroon, at the just concluded US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC. He is called to deliver his speech after President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. He comes out, sits down and starts browsing aimlessly through a pamphlet he is holding. He mutters some words to no one in particular. Then he gets up….People who understand the French spoken in the video say the man acted and said things which showed that he was not aware of where he was and why he was there. Eighty-nine-year-old Biya marked 40 years in power last month. He became president of the Republic of Cameroon on November 6, 1982 and has seen the country and its fortune melt progressively like wax set on fire. The man is the country; his son is positioned to be the future. More than 90 percent of Cameroon’s almost 25 million people have known no other president in their entire lives apart from Biya. They call him ‘father.’ You are likely to say Nigeria can never have a Biya who would sit tight here for 40 years. You may be right – and you will be wrong at the same time. Look at those very old men seeking to be our president in 2023. None of them will win and spend forty years on the throne – merciful nature will take care of that for us. But imagine one of the old men, if he wins, and he wills it, subsequently deciding to buy the throne for his thirty-something-year-old son. We will gladly sell out to him because we are always willing to sell. And, if the son is smarter than the dad, he will be there and get our lawmakers to amend the constitution, and buy power from us for himself and his descendants forever. We have enough foolishness, and madness, and the potential – and the structure- to make that happen.

There will be a Biya in Nigeria unless we demolish and reconstruct Nigeria’s house of abuse. Nigeria’s Labour Party’s presidential candidate, Peter Obi, said that much in Akwa Ibom last week: “The structure they have today is what we want to dismantle. It is a structure of criminality,” he lashed out at the establishment people who have forever held the knife and the yam of Nigeria. The big men, especially Obi’s opponents, taunt him repeatedly that he ‘lacks structure’ to translate his mass appeal and mass following to electoral success in the coming poll. And for them, he had bad news. He said the structure his opponents gloated about “is the structure that produced 133 million people living in poverty, 20 million out-of-school children, and made Nigeria surpass India in infant mortality. It is the structure that destroys us; we want to destroy that structure.” He spoke well, very well – the best words he has uttered since the beginning of this contest. There is no doubt about it that the killer-structure deserves to go if we must save ourselves and the country.

Ask computer engineers what to do to fix a bad system. They will tell you that the first fix is to restart your computer. Sometimes restarting demands force. “If it isn’t responding, and you can’t turn it off, then on, try forcing it to restart.” That is the advice from the makers of iPhones. They say so because they are wise. The sensible thing to do when a country is failing, or has failed, is to rework the structure, the parts, including the expansion joints. The pernicious Nigerian structure, if it survives the 2023 elections, will produce more than what Obi said. It will produce leaders worse than Biya – he has a senior, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the president of Equatorial Guinea; that one has been in power since 1979. How long should an era last? His son is also the heir there. We do not yet have a Biya or an Mbasogo family gnawing at our guts but we have a ruling caste feasting on the heart of the system. They’ve narrowed the route to survival and they man the gates. And it will get worse. So, how do we escape that which is coming? Obi B. Egbuna was a Nigerian novelist, short story writer and playwright. He once wrote that “one way to destroy a people is to allow only the fools to survive.” And who is a fool? Plato has a definition: the one who revels in malicious pleasure. Plato’s teacher, Socrates held that mankind is made up of two kinds of people: wise people who know they’re fools, and fools who think they are wise – we have them as leaders and followers; both have a role to play in the coming contest for the soul of Nigeria.

One of Obi Egbuna’s most popular works is ‘Destroy this Temple’, a book about defiance and decisiveness against decay. I believe he took that book title from the Bible where Jesus Christ saw an abuse of structure and moved against it. Yesterday was Christmas, the festival of celebrations of Jesus’s birth. How many of those who sang and danced in celebration yesterday live their lives like Christ who left here over 2,000 years ago? He was calm and gentle but there was a lone incident where he lost his cool and went physical against abusers of privileges. The Bible has that instructive story that fits this narrative about breaking down and rebuilding a bad system. Men of advantage had ‘abducted’ the space of the Temple in Jerusalem and turned it into “a den of thieves” and “a house of trade” – a structure for sleaze and greed and hightailed loots of the ruling class. Jesus saw it but didn’t just whine and leave. With whip, he expelled the merchants and the money changers. “And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves” (Mathew 21:12). Bible scholars call this story the cleansing of the Temple narrative. We need a reenactment of this rite in Nigeria. The Nigerian nation is like that Biblical Temple; it has become a haven for bandits and a place of refuge for ‘money changers’ to hold court.

The lesson from the temple story here is that there is no system that cannot be corrupted if the people it serves go to sleep. At the core of that temple incident was money and its corruptive influences. In ‘The Challenge and Spirituality of Catholic Social Teaching’, Marvin L. Mich Krier quotes William Herzog, author of ‘Parables as Subversive Speech’ as arguing that “the Temple cleansing cannot be divorced from the role of the Temple as a bank.” Criminals used “the temple’s outer court to change impure foreign money to temple coins for purchasing sacrificial animals” (Jack Hartjes, 2022). Krier proceeds to further give a scholarly insight into the political economic significance of the Jewish Temple: “In the time of Jesus, the Temple amassed great wealth because of the half-shekel temple tax assessed on each male. Historical evidence supports the fact that large amounts of money were stored in the temple. The temple then was able to make loans on behalf of the wealthy elite to the poor. If the poor were not able to pay their loans, they would lose their land. ‘The temple was, therefore, at the very heart of the system of economic exploitation made possible by monetizing the economy and the concentration of wealth made possible by investing the temple and its leaders with the powers and rewards of a collaborating aristocracy.’ As evidence of this role of temple funds, Herzog notes, ‘it was no accident that one of the first acts of the First Jewish Revolt in 66 C.E. was the burning of debt records in the archives in Jerusalem’ ” (Marvin Krier: 2011).

Just like the Temple in Jerusalem, Nigeria, built with the sweat and blood of all, has become some people’s business empire. It has become a country of public debts for all and private wealth for a select few. The year 2023 is one of decision and desperation. And it is just one blurry week away. We have old presidential candidates, fading and very desperate – because it is their last battle. We have third-force candidates backed by a very desperate youth population, and hordes of the angry poor who talk about taking back their lives from a plundering political elite. What is going to happen? When I heard one of them, Peter Obi, speak in Akwa Ibom with a promise to destroy the structure that has made a fool of honesty in Nigeria, I asked how he was going to do it. Peter Obi told the Nigerian youths: “…you are the next structure. We want to build a better place for our children.” The man obviously has a heart of gold but that is where it ends. Even if he wins, his win will reinforce the pillars of the structure he spoke of destroying. He will be sucked in and initiated fully into the sacred grove of the principalities. So, I think the ultimate solution is the destruction of Nigeria’s faithless temple – using the law. Nigeria is too defective to work. We must employ the law to destroy the temple and create our own “three days” to rebuild it. We need a new temple of justice and fairness to live normal lives.

There are, of course, consequences; every act of cleansing has. Those who inherited the odious structure of Nigeria have a duty to keep it for their descendants even if the country’s 200 million people have to go down in the process. The noose is tightening as the darkness lengthens. The options are not pleasant and are not many. Protests and protestations will amount to nothing in the new year. One of the big presidential candidates told us last week. But good people everywhere must not keep quiet – and must resist being silenced by those who think they alone have a voice. At the same time, we should know that he who chooses to pray for the street madman must not close his eyes. And if you are moving against insanity, your footfall must wear shoes of silence at all times. The world has always been a dangerous place to practise iconoclasm. David Landry, a professor in Theology at the University of St. Thomas, United States, is quoted variously by other scholars as pointing out to us that “within a week” of Jesus fighting the principalities in the Temple, he was dead. Landry cites the disciples, Matthew, Mark, and Luke as agreeing that the Temple cleansing event “functioned as the ‘trigger’ for Jesus’s death.” Krier also tells of these consequences. He points at the book of Mark where Jesus accused the merchants of making the Temple a den of robbers: “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him.” Nigeria will not kill us.

Merry Christmas and a Happy 2023.

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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