When I woke up yesterday to news of a military coup in Gabon, I concluded there must be a better way to earn a living than peddling opinions on the pages of newspapers. We were still coming to terms with developments in Niger Republic where military adventurers are digging in when we learned of the overthrow of President Ali Bongo Ondimba. While circumstances of the two countries might be different, we are dealing with the same institutional challenge. This prompts me to ask, what else is there to write about this epidemic of coups on the continent? Bongo, by the way, first came to power in 2009, following the death of his father, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, who ruled the country for 42 years. Last Saturday, he was declared elected for a third term after a controversial presidential election now annulled by the coupists who have also dissolved “all the institutions of the republic.”
Rich in natural resources such as diamonds, gold, petroleum, natural gas, niobium, cement, phosphate rock, manganese, uranium, and iron ore, Gabon has a GDP per capita of $12,800 (that of Nigeria is $2,184). But that doesn’t tell the complete story of a country whose wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. In October 2018, President Bongo suffered a stroke while in Saudi Arabia on official duty. Although he had a prolonged medical treatment in the United Kingdom before another long session of recuperation in Morocco, Bongo’s poor health has left him and Gabon at the mercy of power mongers Nigerians would describe as a ‘cabal’. In February last year when Bongo attended the African Union – European Union summit in Brussels, he was supported by two aides as he struggled to move from his car to the conference hall, even with the aid of a walking stick.
Yesterday, as I watched the pathetic video of Bongo on wheelchair, pleading “with friends all over the world to make noise” on his behalf, because he didn’t know what was going on in his country, I could not but reflect on the transient nature of power. Sadly, that reality is lost on African leaders who hardly learn from the experience of others. When President Umaro Cissoko Embaló of Guinea Bissau survived what he described as a ‘failed attack against democracy’ last year, I wrote ‘Nigeria and the Coup Epidemics’ to highlight what should concern authorities in Nigeria. Before then, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Sudan, and Chad had fallen into the hands of military usurpers, confirming the long-held proposition that democracy may be too frail a plant to survive the harsh climate in a continent where the opulence of politicians, economic deprivation of citizens and worsening insecurity now combine to present clear warning signals.
President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, we were told yesterday, is already in consultation with other African leaders on the appropriate response “to contagious autocracy we have seen spread across the continent.” That is welcome, given that we are dealing with the same problems in many of the African countries: Weak institutions, distrust of politicians, growing insecurity aided by insurgency and a worsening economic condition for most of the people. But is the military a solution to these problems? I don’t think so, even when we cannot blame the Gabonese who trooped out in celebration after enduring the rule of one family for 55 years. Following incessant coups in Bangladesh, The Economist wrote in December 2005 what I found most instructive. “Like all human follies, military coups sound good at the time; and always fail,” according to the respected British weekly magazine. “They sound good because what they replace is usually bad: riotous civilian leaders, corrupted institutions, stolen elections. They fail because beneath the chaos are political problems that soldiers cannot unpick…”
After the initial euphoria, the reality usually sinks in, as it is already happening in Niger Republic (as well as in Mali and Burkina Faso), that soldiers have no magic wand for dealing with complex socio-economic problems. But lest I get ahead of myself, this is no time to talk about military coups. In any case, we have too many problems at home to worry about what is happening outside our shores. On Monday, I read the familiar lamentation from the National Security Adviser (NSA), Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, that Nigeria is still losing about 400,000 barrels of oil daily to oil theft.
In the past two decades, I have written dozens of columns about oil theft in Nigeria, and I don’t know what new thing to say about this vexatious organised crime. What I have found most interesting is that for more than 20 years the same figure of 400,000 barrels per day is being parroted by government officials as being stolen in Nigeria. That is perhaps because it is all guesswork, which is also understandable. “Information about Africa’s biggest oil industry is an opaque myriad of numbers. No one knows which ones are accurate; no one knows how much oil Nigeria actually produces,” according to The Economist in its 10th October 2013 report on the mismanagement of the oil and gas sector in Nigeria. “If there were an authoritative figure, the truly horrifying scope of corruption would be exposed.”
We are dealing with cartels that have tentacles and networks in all the critical institutions that matter. In August 2014, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the United States government had launched investigation into crude oil shipments from Saltpond platform, an oil facility off the coast of Ghana, that was shipping large quantities of crude from unknown sources to Europe and was uncovered during a broader enquiry into how stolen oil from Nigeria was being sold to some international cartels. According to the WSJ report, a Saltpond official reportedly testified that huge volumes of stolen crude were procured from some Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) officials. The defence from the EFCC at the time was that it “is not an oil marketing company and could not have issued any invoice to any oil trader to lift confiscated crude oil from Nigeria.”
Five years later in a 5th June 2019 report titled, ‘Nigeria’s Oil Thieves Roar Back as Militants Kept in Check’, Bloomberg stated that “Oil theft is now an industry employing thousands in Nigeria.” What Bloomberg perhaps forgot to add is that the Nigerian oil thieves have also learnt the tricks from the ubiquitous ‘ghost workers’ who take a huge chunk of our annual wealth without ever being caught. Incidentally, just a month after that report, the Nigeria Natural Resource Charter (NNRC) revealed that our country lost a whopping N1.6 trillion to oil theft in 2016 and N995 billion in 2017.
I don’t think we are ready to tackle the challenge of oil theft in Nigeria if all that every administration does is to lament and tout figures of what we lose. But since I am already beginning to sound like a broken gramophone on this issue, let me look for something else to write about today. Okay, there is a controversy about whether someone can be a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) member and that of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) at the same time. I am aware that Nigerians are very good at ‘multi-tasking’ but even at that, it is novel combining being ‘Ajuwaya’ and a minister of the federal republic with an important portfolio. Unfortunately, we have also been on this road before. Under the last administration of President Buhari, we had cases of two NYSC dodgers in his cabinet, although they eventually lost their jobs. As I wrote at the time, when a government bend rules to excuse those who ordinarily should be held to the highest standards, it is society that suffers.
The subversion of the NYSC ideals has been gradual for years. Established in 1973 by General Yakubu Gowon as a vehicle for national integration after the civil war, it is shocking that only 5.7 million Nigerians have been mobilised in 50 years for a scheme that accommodates all graduates of Universities, Polytechnics and Colleges of Education. The only plausible explanation for such a figure is that many evade the scheme. But there are positive stories too. A prominent Nigerian decided to be mobilized for the NYSC scheme, even though older than 30 at the time. He was posted to Yobe and eventually completed his service in Abuja. After his NYSC primary assignment, he contested for senate and won. In 2015, Gerard Igyor, a respected Professor of Communication and Theatre (then at the University of Wisconsin but now at Millersville University, Pennsylvania, United States) took a one-year sabbatical to come home (Benue State) for his NYSC primary assignment, teaching at the state-owned university. That was because he had his first degree before the age of 30. He returned to the United States after completing the NYSC primary assignment.
In contrast, many politicians now believe they can hide behind technicalities to cover what is clearly a crime. Some of the people who had in the past paraded all manner of degrees are reportedly limiting themselves to presenting only their West African School Certificate (WASC) or equivalent in the forms submitted to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). For ministerial clearance, some adopt the same trick because they did not serve their fatherland ‘under the sun or in the rain’ like the rest of us, as stipulated by law. And they believe they can eat their cake and still have it.
Meanwhile, as it was in the past, the question being raised by the current NYSC saga is the credibility of the so-called pre-appointment screening by security agencies. The bigger issue is the reckless manner by which the Senate conducts the confirmation hearing that has become another hollow ritual. But then, having decided I would not be repeating myself today, let me leave the NYSC matter alone and look for something else to write on. In the next four days, according to the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Betta Edu, we should expect a deluge from Cameroon where the Lagdo dam has been opened to discharge water downstream. This is also not a new issue.
Last October, I wrote ‘200 Billion Cubic Metres of Disaster’ following the deluge that claimed 612 lives with 2,776 persons injured and 305,407 houses destroyed. In that tragedy from which many have not recovered, 392,399 hectares of farmland were decimated and an additional 176,852 hectares partially damaged. To write my column, I spoke to the Director General of the Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency (NIHSA), Clement Eze who told me that Nigeria has one of the best natural drainage systems in the world due to our topography, land and location within the Niger Basin that traverses nine countries in West and Central Africa. On an annual basis, according to Nze, a total volume of over 200 billion cubic metres of fresh water drains into the Atlantic Ocean—huge resource from nature that we practically allow to waste.
I also spoke with Dr Matthew Offodile, a consultant exploration hydrogeologist and Managing Director of Mecon Geology and Engineering Services, Jos who is regarded as one of the foremost experts on the issue of flooding in Nigeria. He shared insights on the huge amount of water from the Lagdo Dam that has become a menace to Nigeria. To Offodile, the Cameroonian authorities are doing what they are supposed to do to avoid an even greater catastrophe. “But on our part, we do nothing to mitigate the downriver effect. We have suggested that a practical solution would be to create a dam on the upper arm of the Benue River around Yola (Adamawa State capital) to divert part of the surplus water northwards into the large area of the Chad Basin through River Yedsaram”, he said. “The large excess volume of water would serve the dual purpose of not only irrigating the large expanse of the Chad basin land but possibly refill the Lake Alo and may be extend to Lake Chad itself. This will be a purely Nigerian project which unlike the transfer from the Congo basin being suggested in some quarters, is devoid of all international encumbrances of the neighbouring countries.”
In the column under reference, I highlighted the suggestions by Offodile on what we need to do to turn the water from Lagdo Dam into opportunities. But who pays attention to these things? “Unless Nigeria embarks on these major structural developments, all efforts at our annual rituals at river gauge measurements and forecasts will be postponing the evil day and in vain,” the octogenarian told me last October. Since I don’t know what I can possibly add to that, its better I join the prayers that God should have mercy on us as the water from Lagdo Dam in Cameroon begins to flow in.
Although I have elected not to write today, it may be important for the African Union (AU) leadership to pay closer attention to Cameroon, given what just happened in Gabon. Paul Biya, who clocked 90 in February this year, was Prime Minister from 1975 to 1982 when he became President and has been in power ever since. Although Biya spends most of the time in the luxurious Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland and is almost always out of circulation when in Cameroon due to ill-health combined with old age, he still calls all the shots through surrogates. That explains why his supporters are already preparing for the 2025 presidential election when Biya is expected to be on the ballot again!
Still on Gabon, let me rehash the conclusion of my column ten years ago after the coup that brought General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to power in Egypt: “…All said, what happened in Cairo is a good warning to the powers-that-be at home that we cannot assume indefinite immunity against the things that provoke outrage in other countries. Tahrir Square is perhaps nearer than we may be ready to concede as our people can see around them the combination of factors that are fuelling protests from Rio to Cairo. Worse still, our population distribution in favour of young people makes us prone to impatient revolt. Nobody should therefore be under any illusion that the tide of violent rejection of substandard governance blowing across the world will elude us simply because ‘this is Nigeria’. Those who have ears…”
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