Saturday, March 6, 2010

Where are This Generation’s Political Leaders?

Sometimes, when you look at the road ahead and realise you are lost, it makes sense to go back to where you are coming from. Looking at the political road Nigeria is on today compared to where we are coming from, one cannot help but ask these lingering questions: Have we lost our political way? Have we made substantive progress in our race to political maturity after almost fifty years of independence or have we been meandering in a vicious cycle of ‘motion with little progress’? Can our politics ever create the ideal of ‘one Nigeria, one nation’ or will that remain a fantastical notion? Which political leaders will inspire and lead our country into the future we aspire? Where are this generation’s political leaders?

Political leadership is central, if not critical, to the direction, maturity, failures and successes of a polity and the progress or regression of a society. Today, our politicians are in the driving seat of our political journey, but the dangerous, tortuous and convoluted journey many of them have carried us on, leave us questioning what political map they are following, if any, and more so the authenticity of their drivers’ licenses.

If I were to think of an appropriate soundtrack for our political sitcom in the past fifty odd years, it would be the Bongos Ikwe soundtrack for Cock Crow At Dawn: “Will we ever get there? Will we ever make it? Will we ever hear the sound of the cock crow at dawn?” Why? Because, today, when I look at the political path Nigeria is on, I cannot help but think that we have lost our way politically, so much so that an attempt to peer into the future could be like gaping into a nightmarish black hole that morphs into a mass grave of lost opportunities, dead dreams and an ominous foreboding of worse things to come.

As such, since clarity about the future has been obscured by the thick miasma of political smoke and the reflections and deflections of deceptive mirrors that seem to characterise contemporary political leadership in Nigeria today, I have had to go back to where we were coming from in an attempt to make some sense of how we evolved into today’s political bedlam.

My journey to this past has been by reading the biographies and speeches of some of Nigeria’s foremost founding political leaders, and I daresay, I am amazed by the quality of leadership and clarity of vision they had back then, in comparison to the confusion and lack of foresight that most of our politicians seem to have today. However, though I must protest the absence of women in the available material (as if men did it all by themselves), it has been a most enriching exercise that leaves me with mixed feelings, often vacillating between inspiration and fear. Why?

Well, on one hand, I was inspired as I realised how dynamic, courageous, visionary, eloquent, focused, dignified and comported some of these young but very mature leaders were. On the other hand, it is scary to think that if all that political talent and leadership skills did not translate into a Nigeria that is at par with the most developed countries in the world today, what will?

I have been reading the speeches and the life stories of Nnamdi Azikwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Abubaker Tafawa Balewa, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu and Yakubu Gowon - all who had become formidable leaders in their thirties and early forties. Anid listening to the interests and the life priorities of the young men and women of the same age band today in comparism- within and outside the political sphere- I am forced to question if we have either progressed or regressed as a polity, and more so, as a society.

Think about it. When these young leaders mentioned above were in the international political ring wrestling the British for our independence, leading hundreds of thousands to craft and build a ‘new’ Nigeria and struggling with the teething pains, groans, grumblings and tantrums of an infant nation in their thirties, today most thirty year-olds display no substantive interest in nation-building or visionary leadership. Not when there are Range Rovers to be bought, private jets to be owned and champagne to be popped. Like a ferociously intelligent friend of mine said, “they drink so much champagne they have bubbles in their brains”. How can they think of our country’s future when they are more concerned about making enough money to sustain pretentious movie star lifestyles? In this generation, greed, hedonism and personal survival have to larger degree trumped public service and political vision in the boxing ring of Nigerian priorities.

In 1998, I remember sitting in the salubrious Arcadia Park in Pretoria, South Africa on a quintessential summer’s day. I had just seen the Leaonardo De Vinci exhibition and was still overwhelmed by how one man could be so brilliant and contribute so much to modern art and science at the same time. I was pondering who I could compare as an African Leonardo de Vinci when two shiny BMWs sped up violating the erstwhile serene ambience with thumping Kwaito music.

They came out with a few bare-clad ladies, opened their car trunks and brought out coolers filled with beer. Over the next few hours, they drank themselves to stupor in between fits of dancing, fighting, groping and grabbing. They partied like there was no tomorrow. Today, was their tomorrow. It’s all that mattered. Now, I had no objections to them having a good time, but I could not help but wonder, is this what Mandela was in jail for 27 years for?

Back to Nigeria. Today I look around and wonder if there are any politicians that we could equate with the stature, vision and chutzpah of the founding fathers and mothers of the modern Nigerian state. I am yet to find one. And that is not because they may not exist, but because some of our society’s’ norms and the political trenches, fences and layers won’t allow them to arise, and shine. So I look for the young women and men who may possibly grow into these large ‘shoes of leadreship’ in years to come, and yet I find only a miserly few who demonstrate that potential or show interest in such, beyond the financial rewards. Its a worrisome state of affairs.

Leaders are not messiahs from heaven. They are products of our societies and often can only be as good as the values our societies hold dear. If today our young women and men - who make up our polity and will shape our society’ future - are too engrossed in the ‘chop life’ syndrome, or living the Jennifian ‘bigs girls’ and Yahooze ‘bigs boys’ lifestyles, where will our leaders come from? How can they have clear vision and foresight with eyes blinded by the lust for luxury, and intoxicated minds?

How can they possibly lead us into a progressive future when they have lost touch with the struggles of our past or the visions of our collective tomorrow? How can they take Nigerian to the next level of growth, development, opportunity and security? How can they inspire a new Nigerian state committed to excel and ascend into its rightful place on the global stage, while ably serving the wishes of its people? As I look ‘back into the future’, I can only shudder as I ask: Where are this generation’s political leaders? “Will we ever get there? Will we ever make it? Will we ever hear the sound of the cock crow at dawn?”

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Return of the Pundit

Picture I took at dawn. Abuja, Nigeria. May 2009

A Year Later: The Pundit Returns

How time flies, no matter who dies. Hard to believe it’s been over a year since I have written on this blog. And my, my, what a year it’s been!

If a fortune teller had told me all that would happen in my life in the past year, I would have either asked her for my money back or paid her extra to give up the job and take up fiction or screen writing instead. Nollywood needs writers, I would have said.

But seriously, come to think of it, some of the scenes, plots, characters and dialogue that have variegated my life in the past year, would make for a good Nollywood movie. Believe me, its been one helluva ‘sit on the edge of your chair, tear jerking, heart wrenching, adrenalin pumping, serotonin inducing and cat wheeling’ kinda year. Try doing all this at the same time and you would have an insight into my blockbuster 2009, …showing soon at a cinema near you.

Yes, I have been travelling. Travelling through countries, through Nigerian states, and most importantly, through life. It’s been a year of tough learning and unlearning, and of hard choices, forced maturity, stark realities and profound growth.

Yes, there has been adventure, epiphanic moments, love found, love lost, laughter had, tears shed, successes achieved and failures accepted, dreams buried, dreams birthed… need I continue? Am sure you get the picture.

Yes, I have been on the rollercoaster journey of life, love and living, in a year of many journeys. Journeys not just through places, but through the mind, and through the heart. For me, its been a year of one of the most important journeys of all: the journey into self.

Can I say I am older and wiser? Well, lets just say I am more experienced. But more importantly to you: Do I have new stories to tell? Yes, lots! I have many stories to tell and thoughts to share and this is a promise to all those wonderful people who have written to me, called me or pressured me verbally to get the blog going again, that I will resume my writing in 2010.

So here’s wishing you all a happy and fulfilling 2010. May all your travels lead you to the right destination, and the right destiny.

The Pundit Returns.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Reclaiming Nigeria’s Clout in the International Arena

Having spent most of last week in Washington attending meetings and functions at Capitol Hill, the US Supreme Court and the World Bank, I decided to top it up with what is soon to become the Obama White House. As I ogled its pristine white exterior and its impeccably manicured lawns, I could not help but think that in a few months time, the family in there would not have a full blooded indigenous American name like Lincoln, Washington, Clinton or Bush, as African a name as an African name can be: Obama. O-B-A-M-A. I had to spelt it out loud and then say it phonetically to myself just to be sure that what I was saying was real. I am still stupefied by the surrealism of this reality, especially as I see the sidewalks of Washington filled with street hawkers selling T-shirts and paraphernalia of an all black First Family set against a backdrop of an effervescent White House. It’s like watching a special edition of the Cosby Show when the Huxtables wake up in the White House as the First Family and towards the end of the show, we find out it was all a dream. But this is no dream. Its reality. It’s the sweetest reality ever tasted by the black race in centuries. I can’t help but salivate at this new promise of the possibility of greater global racial respect for the black race. I even walk the streets of America with a new nimble spring to my step.

However, as I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue on this rainy November day, my thoughts went to my own country, Nigeria. I thought of how the Americans could let me into their halls of power, their most prestigious institutions and I could meet their leaders and discuss a wide range of issues, simply by virtue of me being a seen as a Nigerian/African intellectual who had something valuable to say. Would this have happened to me at home? I remembered how as a Londoner (until I moved back to Lagos, Nigeria in 2007), I had been invited by the Queen and her Husband to Buckingham Palace and also by the erstwhile Prime Minister of the UK to Number 10 Downing Street. I thought of the Ministers I had dined with and the diverse high-level policy fora I had been invited to speak at including at the UK House of Parliament and at some of the country’s most prestigious think tanks and Universities. However having returned home to Nigeria, this kind of engagement with our own leaders and institutions at home has proven impossible thus far. To see the people you know is hard enough, not to mention those you do not know, especially if you are nothing but a mere intellectual, not a BIG man.

I wondered why doors and opportunities like those I mentioned above can open up to us in other people’s countries, while one has to scale a multitude of social, cultural, economic and political mountains at home just to be heard, not to mention being seen. Would I, and other young African thinkers, ever be granted such dignified access to our own leaders and institutions at our own versions of Capitol Hill, the US Supreme Court, the White House, Downing Street, Buckingham Palace or the UK House of Parliament, simply by virtue of just being thinkers with constructive ideas? Can we be deemed relevant if one is not a ‘big man / big madam’, ‘somebody who is the son/daughter of a big somebody’, or ‘somebody who knows a big somebody’? Would simply being just as a young woman or man with useful ideas about how our societies, our countries, our continent and our world should be governed ever be good enough? Soon the spring in my step faded with the realisation of how much we still needed to do at home for our democracies to become enablers of good and open leadership, to be accessible, to be inclusive, to reward merit, to empower competence and become the mid-wives of the many dreams which our talented, yet sidelined, youth are pregnant with. I wondered, when will our generation have our own Obama in Africa? The irony in that question dawned on me and I as walked on, I was unsure as to whether I should either be tickled, irritated or dejected.

As diverse siren blearing motorcades of Heads of State whizzed past me with their miniature national flags hoisted proudly on their bonnets and fluttering fervently in the wind, as if to pronounce the greatness of their nations and the eminence of their leaders, I realised it was an important weekend here in Washington. It was the meeting of the G-20 (20 countries from the developed world, economically buoyant developing countries - otherwise referred to as ‘emerging markets’ , and heads of international finance institutions). As I engaged in a personal game of trivia trying to mention the countries represented by the flags of the motorcades that sped past, I subconsciously waited to see my own national flag, the Nigerian flag. But my hope was dashed. Motorcade after motorcade, there was no glorious Green-white-Green flag waving proudly in the American wind. From the ‘developing’ world, we saw India, Brazil and wait for it, South Africa. That’s right. The only African country was South Africa -one of the youngest African countries in terms of independence, while countries like Ghana and Nigeria who gained their independence in 1957 and 1960 respectively, where nowhere to be seen on the world stage at a time of global crisis. What does this say? Well, it’s says that in the global economy, relevance comes from the depth of your pockets and not necessarily the length of your independence. South Africa’s economy (est. GDP $ 282.6 billion in 2007) trumps both that of Nigeria (est. GDP $166.8 billion in 2007) and Ghana (est. GDP $14.86 billion in 2007). It’s also more integrated into the international financial system than most African countries, thus on that basis, they end up representing Africa at the rich countries’ club.

Now, there is a new proposal that this group called the G-20 transforms into the L-20, being the Leaders of 20 most influential countries across the globe that will essentially deal with issues related to global economic governance, as well as other issues of global import. This new group, if it comes to fruition will possibly overshadow the anachronistic G-8, which mostly reflected yesterday’s post-cold war international order and power realignments, as opposed to today’s ‘post-September 11’, ‘post- US financial crises’, ‘post-China rising’ contemporary realities. The world has changed radically since the end of the cold war, thus it makes sense that the institutions of global governance, also change to reflect new realties, power bases and challenges. So clearly, it makes sense that if the G20 Economic Summit was about the economy, that the attendees are countries that significantly impact the global economy, and this is what leads to my question: Why is an African country that is almost half a century old; is the most population African nation; a regional hegemon in keeping peace and stability; one of the top ten producers of oil in the world and a key player in OPEC, not relevant enough as an economic player to be at such a meeting?

During the 2005 Gleneagles G8 meeting that instigated a global focus on Africa’s development, coinciding with the mid-term review of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGS), Nigeria played a most prominent role. During this period, Nigeria had returned to civilian rule and President Obasanjo of Nigeria had began a wave of domestic reforms –many on combating corruption- that won international confidence and also spearheaded the drive for a new Africa governance architecture characterised by the ideas embodied in the goals of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and a restructured and re-energised Africa Union. At these G8 summits and other high-level international fora on African development, President Obasanjo was often one of the only African Presidents invited to represent Africa and attend G8 meetings. He was often placed right next to the American president at photo shoots. This was international diplomatic speak for ‘you are a relevant country in the global scheme of things’. Nigeria was recognised as a key global player, even though its democracy was imperfect, and its economy comparatively low in the economic global pecking order. Nigeria’s international clout and respect reached new peaks, since its dark days of military rule, and it was thrust into the circle of the global power elite insofar as global governance and international diplomacy was concerned. Now, it’s nowhere to be seen and fading off the map of relevance in global governance and international diplomacy. Why?

Well, on the same day that the outcomes of the G20 meeting was being disseminated in the media – for example that developing countries would be given a larger role in decision-making in the structures of global governance - CNN America ran a special programme called ‘How To Rob A Bank’. The ‘award-winning’ characters in this investigative news programme were Nigerian fraudsters in the US. The evidence against these disgraceful Nigerians was overwhelming. Camera footage, fingerprints on forged documents, their diverse forged identities, their green passports and even the tricks they used to sneak themselves in out of America and defraud financial systems were broadcast across America and indeed across the world. A similar programme also aired on CNN earlier this year focussing on prostitution and trafficking in Europe. Again, it featured Nigerians prominently both as perpetrators and victims. So, while the world watched South Africa, India and Brazil making key decisions with global leaders about crucial issues that would affect the lives of their citizens, the lives of the developing world and the wider world, Nigeria was making headlines on a programme called ‘How To Rob A Bank’. A representative from the Nigerian Embassy in the US, who should have been at the G20 meeting was instead, like an embattled solider, valiantly defending Nigeria’s image on this programme. We must recollect, that this was also the week in which the video of the opprobrious beating and disrobing of a private Nigerian citizen Ms. Uzoma Okeke by members of the Nigerian Navy, made the rounds on the internet and international protests were organised in New Jersey and London. With these examples of the kind of information and ideas that members of the international community have about us, are we still surprised and asking why we are losing international clout and respect?

I wondered how the Nigerian President would have felt, that is if he had been invited to the G20 Economic Summit, and was sitting in a lounge with some of his esteemed counterparts when any of these stories was aired. Can you imagine the embarrassment, after spending long hours trying to solve the global financial crisis and then the country you are representing features an all star cast in a programme titled How To Rob A Bank? I can imagine the Italian Prime Minister, infamous for his dark humour induced gaffes, declaring that perhaps the world should learn from Nigeria how to solve the global financial crises, since its seems Nigerians have worked out how to solve their personal financial crisis by robbing banks! The joke would have been crude and undiplomatic and people who wanted to laugh would have contained themselves, coughed instead, and possibly excused themselves, sprinting to the restroom to laugh in private. But really, distasteful as it could be, the joke would have landed quite appropriately in our laps. We created the opportunity for it by not putting our own house in order and turning a great country that used to be called the Giant of Africa, into a dwarfed diplomatic laughing stock in the global village square.

So here lies our problem and one of the key causes of our diminished international clout and why we are fast becoming the punch-line of countless jokes – anyone who saw the Election Special of the Colbert Report on Comedy Central knows what I am talking about. The problem is that our house is not in order and if I may borrow a biblical phrase, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Through corruption and poor governance, we have squandered our economic wealth and lost international confidence in our fiscal competence. We have lost credibility as a catalyst of governance reform in Africa, after all our diplomatic posturing just a few years ago about leading the reform process across Africa. We have denied our best minds the opportunity to lead and today, people like our former Finance and then later Foreign Minister Ngonzi Nkonjo-Iweala; and former Solid Minerals Development and later Education Minister Obi Ezekwesili, are now tucked away in Washington DC at the World Bank doing what they could have done for us in Nigeria for others who appreciate them more and give them the opportunity to use their skills and knowledge. We have not provided educational, economic and leadership opportunities for our youth and as a result, they find other means, as illegal as they maybe, to shall I say, demonstrate their ingenuity, and express their intelligence by becoming leaders in ‘other’ fields. As I thought about this, it began to rain. Perhaps the heavens wept at what a mess we had made of our national blessings.

Later that weekend at Grand Central Station, on my way back to Yale in Connecticut, I walked into Hudson News - the mini stores at most US train stations- and Barack Obama was smiling at me from the pages of almost all the leading magazines, as well as the tabloids. I wondered when our political system will empower a young Nigerian to reach for the greatest heights, achieve great feats and in doing so, inspire the world. We have what it takes I thought, but the environment is what need to change. There is no doubt, that if Nigeria is to regain its lost glory in the diplomatic sphere and on the global stage, first we need to put our house in order. Our economy needs to be revamped and that is impossible without tackling corruption, reducing bureaucracy, building necessary infrastructure, addressing the challenges of security and providing regular power supply. The crucial necessity for competent governance and management goes without saying. Tackling fraudsters and criminal networks must be at the peak of our national security, economic and foreign policy agendas and we must more actively and visibly cooperate with INTERPOL and other international police agencies to end this criminal scourge of international financial fraud which now seems to have Nigeria as its poster child. Agencies like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commissions (EFCC) should be further empowered within the framework of the constitution and not beyond the law, but with a level of independence and autonomy that insulates it from politicisation and allows it to maintain organisational integrity and effectiveness.

Secondly, we urgently need to create a more enabling environment for our youth to excel in diverse fields of enterprise, be it social, economic or political. If we do not, they will find alternative routes for themselves and this may just result in more crimes that will further undermine our international reputation. We also need to bring government to the people instead of the people always having to go government, and to make government more transparent, inclusive and accessible. For example, how many Nigerians have seen Aso Rock? Do we know what it looks like inside? If we wanted to could we? People have a right to know and see where they leaders live and work since it’s built with taxpayer’s money. What we have now are dark caves of power that only a chosen few can access. This needs to change. Government is for all the people, not just some. Also, the days of ageism, Bigmanism and nepotism have to come to an end. Meritocracy is the only way to let the people that can lead, to lead and lead well. And at this point, this is exactly what we need to move forward. We must promote technical competence in leadership by putting the right people in the right positions.

Thirdly, we need to increase our diplomatic efforts to change our international image and this has to go beyond the slogans of Nigeria being the ‘Heartbeat of Africa’, when the joke on us is that we are the ‘Fraud Capital of Africa’. By ensuring that we have capable, polished and articulate diplomats who are nuanced in engaging in the subtleties of political discourse, handling the international media and mastering the art of diplomatic banter in the international sphere. We must reclaim ownership of the Nigerian story and let the world know much more about the successes, strengths and opportunities in our country, as well as the efforts we are making to address our challenges. A diplomatic charm offensive complimented by an authentic internal reform process and our own economic stimulus process will be needed if Nigeria is to rebound from its economic doldrums and diplomatic demotion in global affairs.

Finally, it’s not enough for us to swagger around in our agbadas demanding to be respected because of our over-flogged credentials of high oil production and population statistics. Thus far these have not yielded respectable outcomes. We will have to earn our right to pride by doing that which is right domestically and internationally. We will need to focus more on economic growth, infrastructure development and wealth distribution. We must strengthen our democratic institutions and processes while tackling both domestic and international crime more aggressively and more effectively. We also have to increase our value in the global arena by contributing more to processes to foster global security, political stability and economic development. All the above must be complimented by sleek, strategic and sophisticated diplomacy built on the confidence that we have put our house in order and we have something valuable to offer the world, beyond oil. If we are to reclaim Nigeria’s clout in the international arena and become the key global player that we have the potential to be, Nigeria will have to eat humble pie, start re-building its foundations and reposition itself internationally with a recognition that success at home, begats success abroad.

Friday, November 7, 2008

President-Elect Barack Obama: Expanding the Boundaries of Possibility

President-Elect Barack Obama: Expanding the Boundaries of Possibility

Fourth November 2008 could mark the end of one history and signal the beginning of another future. A new future for America, a new future for Africa, and possibly a new future for the world. As we witness this epic event in American politics and watch as the future unfolds before our eyes, one cannot help but think the world as we knew it may never be the same again. These are great times to live in and we are privileged to bear witness to this seismic evolution in human society, in global politics and in race relations. These are times that have challenged our assumptions about what is either possible or impossible, and perhaps have revealed new lessons on how much can be achieved through the extraordinary powers of courage, clarity, conviction and competence.

Towards the end of the last millennium, we witnessed one gentleman -whom until this year the United States still listed as a "terrorist" - being sworn in as the first black President of a truly democratic South Africa. This man, Nelson Mandela, who is now celebrated as a beacon of hope, integrity and great leadership across the world, had been in jail for 27 years. Upon his eventual release, he led his party the African National Congress (ANC) to a landslide victory that ended one era of South Africa's history and changed the country's future forever.

This was a feat that even the most passionate optimists and committed cynics alike thought impossible. Margaret Thatcher, a pioneer in her own right who also expanded the realms of possibility when she became the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of her party, unfortunately fell into the category of the cynics when she reportedly said that anyone who believed the ANC would ever rule South Africa was "living in cloud cuckoo land". Four years later, Mandela led the ANC into a landslide victory and the ANC has ruled South Africa ever since. 'Cloud cuckoo land' became a reality on planet earth. The boundaries of possibility had been expanded by the conviction of one man standing against the cynicism and pessimism of many others more powerful than he.

Now less than fifteen years after Nelson Mandela made history, another seemingly impossible feat has been achieved. A young man who seemed to have all the odds against him: age, inexperience, race, funds, family background, cultural heritage and even his name, overcame all these gargantuan obstacles to become the first African-American President in US history. This achievement exceeded even the renowned 'dream' of Reverend Martin Luther King of an America without racism. Though Obama's vision was partly inspired, crystallised and catalysed by Reverend King's dream, Obama pushed the boundaries of possibility further. His vision saw far beyond the good Reverend's dream and he pursued it with sagacious clarity, convincing sincerity, intellectual rigour and relentless vigour that inspired our world like nothing else we have seen in recent times. Even the most committed cynics were left speechless. The boundaries of possibility were tested and the unexpected and seemingly impossible emerged. Perhaps the human race is not as bad we often think. Perhaps the fences between us are not as entrenched as we assume. Perhaps the boundaries of possibility are more expandable than we dare to dream.

This is a euphoric and inspirational moment in world history, and it is one that has sparked a new light of hope in a troubled and conflicted world. However, what happens next and how we all react to this event as individuals, groups or nations is what would be most crucial in consolidating and spreading the gains of Obama's victory. Perhaps a good place to start may be in looking at some of the lessons that could be learnt.

For the US, it may be worthy to note that based on how much attention the whole world paid to this election, it is clear that the world has not turned its back against America. If anything at all, many across the world still need and look to the US for leadership. Leadership, not through aggression or unilateralism but through diplomacy and multilateralism; leadership, not through instruction but through inspiration; leadership not just for America's interests but leadership for shared global interests. It is thus encouraging that President-elect Obama stated in his victory speech that "our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, a new dawn of American leadership is at hand" and he acknowledged that there were "alliances to repair." He seemed to understand in his campaign and at his moment of victory, that he was not about to become just the leader of the United States but possibly the leader of a world where majority want to be united in peace and live in dignity.

Now, if America can keep this promise of a new dawn of American leadership and build on the global goodwill that the Obama presidency has attracted from across the world, very much like after September 11, then it just may regain it respect and its crown of global leadership, and find more real 'friends and allies' across the world – both in nation-states and amongst world citizens. If America can respect and protect the lives, rights and dignity of peoples and nations across the world, then it is more likely that these same nations and peoples will respect and protect America and Americans in return. It's now time to invest more in 'hearts and minds', 'notebooks and pencils', 'bread and butter', 'vaccines and medicines' , 'roofs and wells' and less in bullets and bombs.

For Africa and its leadership, we need to ask ourselves serious questions. First, if the President-elect of the world's most powerful and wealthiest nation is a direct descendant of an African and bears an African name, then what excuse do we have today as to why we cannot produce the same calibre leaders within Africa, who can lead our own countries into greater, faster and more sustainable growth, stability and development? Secondly, we need to ask, if Barack Obama with all his education, knowledge, skills and passion had been a 'young' forty-seven year old from a modest background and a minority ethnic group in an African country, would he have been given a chance to become President, as he was in America? What was the fate of Raila Odinga in Kenya or Morgan Tsvangrai in Zimbabwe in the last two hotly contested African elections which could have facilitated a generational shift in the leadership of these countries? If Obama had been an Africa-based politician liked Odinga or Tsvangrai would he have been given a chance? Would he have been elected an African President?

Perhaps those who deprive Africa's young emerging leaders from opportunities to lead through service, need to see that the political, economic and cultural fences that we place in the path of our youngest and brightest, only stop us from harnessing the energy, the vitality and the freshness of ideas that younger leaders can bring to the leadership table. For as long as we fence, intimidate, antagonise and hound our young stars out of the political sphere, seeing them as threats and not as opportunities, and continue to relegate them to the hidden corners of society, disempowered and unable to contribute to the leadership and the development of their countries, then we will continue to be trapped in the same vicious cycle of poor governance, instability, underdevelopment and conflict, even though we have all it takes to live in prosperity, peace and development. Unless we reverse this trend and create a more equitable political playing field for all Africans old and young, female and male, irrespective of ethnicity, creed or socio-economic background, we will continue to lose our best and our brightest to other regions of the world who appreciate them more and give them more opportunities to be the very best they can be, and to soar to the highest peaks they can reach. Sometimes new ideas and good leadership comes from change. Africa needs this kind of change. Change we can grow with. Change for development.

For the world, we may want to realise that the foreign policies of the outgoing US government do not wholly reflect the aspirations, the nature or the character of the vast majority of American people. How America voted in this election has told us this in no uncertain terms. These votes were not just votes for Barack Obama, they were also votes against George W. Bush's policies and votes for the rest of the world. Like a political Council of Bishops, the Americans have elected a political Pope for the world and several polls confirm that the world agrees with America's choice. And if the agencies and arms of the American government under President-elect Obama embody the same spirit of change, of dialogue, of responsibility and of global partnerships that Obama espouses, then there is no reason why the world should not give America a chance and support it in this change process. The same way we all need support to get things right, having realised where we went wrong, America will also need the world's support to actualise Obama's change process.

The bottom-line is that all of us from diverse countries, cultures, races and creeds want to live in a world where our dreams can become realties. After all is said and done, and irrespective of America's challenges, America remains the only country where Obama's extraordinary dreams could have become possible. By voting-in Barack Obama in this election, America has chosen to lead once again by showing the world that irrespective of its wealth and its military might that it is still a country that believes in the power of hopes and dreams and of giving ordinary people extraordinary opportunities. Its democracy has worked and it has delivered a new era of hope to the American people. If a 'new' America can afford and support other countries to actualise the kind of hopes, dreams and opportunities it has just allowed itself, then it would have proven itself a credible leader of the 'free world' and its democracy one worthy of emulation. Then it can lead, with less resistance and more global support.

The election of Barack Obama is one of those transformative experiences that will become one of the key milestones of the evolution of human society. Depending on how we all respond, it could also signal a new direction in international relations and global politics. Its ramifications and impacts are multifarious. On an individual level, it expands the boundaries of imagination, broadens the scope of possibilities of human endeavour and inspires one to overcome the most towering of obstacles. On a societal level, it restores a broken faith in our shared humanity and inspires the belief that we can rise above the physical, economic, political and social boundaries that have kept us apart when in actuality, deep within, we are all the same. On a global level, if offers a new ray of hope and the inspiration to believe that perhaps, a new world order is possible.

Barack Obama's story is one that will inspire several generations to come. This man has not just made history, he has made the future. Through his courage, clarity, competence and conviction, Obama has opened new doors not just for African-Americans, wider America or even Africa. He has opened new doors for the future of human society, simply by expanding the boundaries of possibility. The question now is what we do on the individual, societal and global levels with our new found possibilities.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Whats Wrong with Being Over Thirty, Female and Unmarried in Africa?

One of the luxuries I had been afforded of late, is that of having a routine. I wake up to steaming hot black coffee, hot news and as many sits ups and press ups as I can manage that morning before starting my day. But since CNN and all the other media outlets here are VERY locally focussed, I now tune into BBC World Service on the internet to catch up with the rest of the world.

In my student days in South Africa, I would tune into Network Africa or Focus on Africa while getting ready for the day. But after relocating, the hectic pace of life in London and the weak broadband in Lagos made it t impossible for me to continue this enriching ritual. Well, since I got to New Haven, CT, I have gone back to that routine and today listened to a programme I was once a studio guest on called ‘ Africa Have Your Say’.

The format of the programme is that a topic is chosen and the rest of Africa and its Diaspora share views by phone, text and e-mail. Fascinating stuff. The wide array of views and cultural/intellectual lenses through which we Africans see things are amazing. Anyway, so today’s topic was wait for it: Female, Over Thirty, Unmarried and Successful in Africa! I can feel the temperature rising already....

It was a fascinating discussion and the views shared by men and older women ranged from frightening, humorous, militant, liberal, traditional, rational to completely irrational! However, while there were divergent views in favour of the notion, the majority believed that being ‘ female, over thirty and unmarried’ is a social / religious anomaly, a curse, a taboo, a social ill which either indicated something was very wrong with the lady in question or that she was a wanton lady of the night with lascivious desires which made it impossible for her to settle down with one man. I lie not. There was more, this a short summary. You should have heard the rest! One older lady said something like ‘women like that are not respectable in their communities and are like prostitutes’, while one chap sent a text from Eastern Nigeria saying ( I paraphrase again ) that ‘it was like a curse from hell’. Haba!

So, as you can imagine, I was quite perturbed when I heard all this. I thought really? People think like this? I have heard the ‘biological clock ‘ argument before, but had never really thought of the, sometimes vicious social stigma and ego-denting overt and covert insults that ladies who live this lifestyle are subjected to! However, the young ladies on the programme did not take it lying down and fought back.

Some of the ladies spoke for themselves ( not all single though) and for the sisters. Amongst them was our own Nigerian Modupe Ozolua who made the point, amongst other salient points, that if she had not walked out of a failing marriage, her business would not have been so successful and she is proud to be the mummy and daddy of her own home.

Another very eloquent speaker and writer Shola Dada also spoke about the traditional roles that have been carved by history for Nigerian women and how today’s women are struggling to crawl out of this social pigeon-hole to achieve their dreams and optimally utilise their skills. Her article “ Wanted in Nigeria: Super Women” is an engaging read.

A very cerebral lady a gender researcher from a South African university took the argument to the guys in quite an eloquent academic debating style. Interestingly, she also said that when she was bagging degrees, very few in her family celebrated with her, but when she got married all the family came to rejoice with her, ‘as if all else she had achieved was worthless.’ It was a stimulating debate and a pity that BCC does not archive this programme for later public access or else you could have heard it your selves (I will write to them and politely request that they make such available or this forum).

The truth folks, is that something is happening in our generation that we are not talking about. Roles and expectations are changing in so as far as male-female power, social, economic and emotional relations are concerned, both at home and in the workplace. For we ,the MTV/CNN/INTERNET generation, dynamics of the age-old gender wars are changing and while many of us want to pretend/believe/insist that things should be as they have always been, deep within we know that’s not the case and may never be again – at least in the modern/urban world.

Too much has changed in our societies, economies and the world in general, and if we don’t adapt to these changes, something somewhere will have to give: our hearts, our minds, our wallets ( or all three) or the institution of marriage/ family as we knew it! But is that necessary? Can’t we negotiate, compromise and find a balance somewhere?

So here’s the question: Whats Wrong with Being Over Thirty, Female and Unmarried in Africa? Whose Business Is It Any Way?There are more women over thirty today who choose to stay single and see no reason why there should even be a whimper about it. It’s their life, their choice! It does not mean there is something wrong with them, ....may be its the opposite, who is to say?

Divorce rates are sky-rocketing and as a victim of same myself, I know only too well the excruciating silent sorrow and emotional prison of being in an unhappy/unfulfilling marriage – something many live in but can never admit because of the social stigma. So why can’t a thirty-something year old woman take her time to be sure of Mr Right? Does it have to be because she is Ms Wrong? What do you think? Is there something ‘wrong’ with being female, unmarried and ( God-help her) successful while over age thirty?

Why are African societies so judgemental on this issue? Should we adapt to the changing dynamics and evolving roles and power relations between men and women? Are we men being unfair or are the women trying to have their cakes and eat it ( like we guys have being for centuries)?

Should women just chill out and strike a balance between family life and career? Should guys just calm down and be ready to wear the apron instead of the pants in ‘the house’? Are we witnessing the extinction of the Alpha Male and the rise of the Alpha Female?

Ladies, what do you think and what do you think the guys need to know? Guys, what do you think and what do you think the ladies need to know? Folks , can we talk?

Connecticut, September 08

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Heaven in New Haven

Ever felt like you died and woke up in your own kind of heaven? Well that’s what happened to me in New Haven. After close to a decade of a love-hate relationship as a Londoner, I returned to my ‘roots’ in Lagos Nigeria to ‘re-connect’ and explore options and possibilities. It was the wisest thing I have done in a long time and I could not have done it at a more perfect time. It was my first time living in Lagos as a mature adult with earning and spending power and it opened up a Lagos, and indeed a Nigeria, that I never saw in my younger years there.

I had one helluva a time, got re-baptised as a Lagosian and found a precious gem while at it. But, as I have written before in my blog, Lagos is a busy, buzzing, bustling city where something is always happening and there is a constant frenetic charge in the air. It’s hard to focus on just one thing there because competing priorities are always tugging at your financial, emotional, social and intellectual sleeves. Its also a commercial city, not an arty nor collegial one either, so it’s mostly tailored to meet the needs of the commercial private sector, not necessarily the bohemians or the intelligentsia.

Now, you can find your spots in Lagos, some which I have written about before: Terra Kulture, Roberts (on a good day) & Salamander Cafe in Abuja etc, but they are few and far between and to a degree they still haven’t quite got the art of creating an enabling social-cum-intellectual space right yet. Some of their customers can’t tell the difference between a cafe and a beer parlour and proceed to speak in high decibels, ogle and taunt female customers and guffaw loudly. Am surprised some of them don’t belch and fart for good measure. Ok, perhaps I exaggerate, but I have witnessed similar scenarios before.

After a year in Lagos, I began to feel intellectually stifled, mentally lethargic, socially claustrophobic, physically drained and emotionally spent. I could feel my cerebrum slowly corroding, I expected it to start seeping down my ears in the Lagos heat. Soon I was reacting more than I was ‘pro-acting’; lamenting more than thinking; purchasing more than producing; fixing more than creating. I felt I was becoming more of a lacklustre social commentator instead of a coruscating policy pundit. I was losing my intellectual groove and needed to get it back.

As each day went by I was burning more and more energy containing, controlling and managing my frustrations and dowsing my intellectual withdrawal symptoms with copious amounts of red wine, champagne and cognac which was always in abundance in our social circles in Lagos. However, inside, I could feel the inner me, like a little alien, starving and begging to be fed. But I prevailed to the end, earned back my Lagos street smarts and acclimatized to constant jollification as a way to make us forget our real frustrations and the conditioned aggression that makes we Nigerians bulldoze our way through obstacles in life. I love Lagos, its in my blood, but there is a part of me it still has not been able to cater for.

So the nomadic itch returned. That itch to saddle up and gallop into new terrains and adventure new worlds was gnawing under my skin. And once that happens, it never goes away until I hop on my horse, take the reins and sprint into the mysterious plains in the beckoning horizon. Call me an intellectual cowboy, a musing nomad or a pontificating troubadour but I new it was time for the journey to continue.

Usually my itch comes in five year circles ( with much travel in between of course), but this time it took only one year. Well, that makes sense ,as one year in Lagos believe me can be like five years elsewhere – each day is fraught with so much drama and happenstance! My itch also seems to be tied to my destiny and as things would have it just as I almost scratched myself thin (or rammed an Okada driver into the river with my SUV), the opportunity to do a stint at Yale and relocate to the collegial city of New Haven, Connecticut emerged.

Now last year I had considered Princeton and Colombia but was not too crazy about the ambience. Princeton was too sterile and Columbia was too busy. Strangely, I never really thought of Yale, though Harvard was a consideration. But as destiny would have, I found myself on plane heading to the quaint city called New Haven which essentially should be called Yale City!

New Haven is my ideal western city, its temperament is just as I like it. The city it variegated with intellectual stimulus and has an enabling ‘smart’ environment that caters for the sophisticated intellectual, the bohemian tree-hugger, the cross-eyed geek and mad professor all at the same time. It has the perfect blend between being a vibey place with lovely little restaurants, cafes, galleries, shops and endless books stores (oh, sorry am salivating) with a vibrant nightlife and a beautiful well kept city with greens, parks , a proud sense of history, and a calming pulse to its social beat. Everyone here seems to be purposeful and focused. Like they are always going somewhere but at a measured and calculated pace. New Haveners are not only nice and hospitable, they all seem so intelligent one can’t help feeling that one is being showered with beams of brilliance as one walks down the street.

So did I die and wake up in heaven? Well, no need to be dramatic, I came on a Virgin Atlantic flight. Nonetheless, so far so good, in New Haven, I am finding my intellectual balance and rhythm again in an environment that could be no more suited and designed to meet my taste and my needs. In a way, it is a kind of heaven, a New Haven, my kind of Heaven.

New Haven, Connecticut, August 2008

In the next few months, I will be sharing with you little tit-bits, experiences and observations about my time here in New Haven. I don’t know what this city will yield, but from the looks of it, it will be an awful lot. So, well, come with me as I start another journey as the Travelling Pundit.