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.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

One for Niyo and a note on Cyber Mourning....

I lost another friend last week. A classic case of a candle in the wind, another young one gone too soon. Niyi Williams, the most easy going, happy-go-lucky chap you could meet. I have not known Niyi for long but when I moved back to Nigeria, he was always with my cousin Deoye when we hung out. So we also ended becoming friends and ,in our own way, we bonded.

The thing about this chap, just like the other friends I have lost in about ten years, is that they never took themselves too seriously. While all of us where running around in our orgy of vanity, they seemed to look at us like wise old bards observing the futility of the frenetic commotion we call life. Its almost like they knew something we didn’t. Also, they were extremely nice people. They had this generosity of spirit that was difficult to comprehend. A strange humility that made them extend unusual kindnesses to the most undeserving of us. These types, oddly, are the ones that go first. They are the good ones, in some cases, the very best.

Second to the last time I saw Niyi, he had come to my surprise birthday dinner - masterfully orchestrated by SM. From there we all went for a shake and a swig at Caliente in Victoria, Island. Then, a situation arose with Deoye and some other bloke and I wondered why Niyi did not rise to his defence. He just stood there and watched and I had to jump in and intervene. In retrospect, its like he could see that nothing bad was going to happen and he did not need to intervene and secondly, its like he could tell that his intervention could lead to worse things. When we were back in the car, I furiously read him the riot act on how friends must always look out for each other and stand up for each other. He listened to me with little protest and apologised very calmly . Later that night we made up and I apologised for going off at him, he said “no worries”. It was only later that I heard from Deoye that he had a heart condition and that he could not get too excited, hence why he did not intervene. I felt stupid, but was glad that we had made up and I had apologised to him as well. I learnt a lesson: be slow to castigate, try more to understand.

The very last time I saw Niyi. It was at Bacchus a busy buzzing bar on Awolowo Road, Lagos. We had gone to Number 10 ( Jay Jay Okocha’s bar) and then decided to wind down in the wee early hours of the morning at Bacchus. Bacchus was unusually empty. Few people that day. We mostly had the bar to ourselves. We chatted, we laughed and did some guy bonding stuff and then Deoye and I, who had begun our night much earlier at Boat Club decided to head on home. I needed one last drink and Niyi insisted on buying. Strangely enough it was the first time, he ever bought me a drink. I had a quick swig and hopped off the bar stool. Deoye shook his hand and said ‘later’. I shook his hand and strangely gave him a warm hug. “Later man and thanks for the drink”, I said. “No worries Dapo, later”, he said. I walked out with a temperate alcoholic buzz, but when I got to the door, I paused and looked back. He was sitting on the barstool, just him and his drink at his side of the bar. Anyone who frequents Bacchus knows that never happens, the bar was always overcrowded, but not tonight. Usually we all leave together and I thought to myself, strange that this time he stayed behind. Maybe he had an ‘agenda’ I thought, better leave the man to his wiles. I smiled and headed on home and that was the last time I saw or spoke to him.

A few weeks later I am having a lazy day in Fulham, London, doing my bookshop and cafe thing, when I got online and for some reason went to his page. Then I started seeing strange things. No, no, no, not little funny people, but postings on his wall saying “RIP”, “will miss you” and “nooooo...”, amongst other deep expressions of love and loss. There were pages and pages of eulogies to Niyi by people who knew him in the US and Nigeria where he had both lived. I was in shock. My hands literally began to tremble as I confirmed what I read. Niyi was dead. I wept.

I would like to make two key points from this blog entry. First is how transient life is and how we relate with people thinking we have a whole life time to understand each other, to appreciate one another, to apologise to each other, to make each other happy, to show each we care about one another or simply to show kindness to each other. That is all vanity. Who told us we have tomorrow? All we have is now, today. On Niyi’s Facebook status on 9th July he wrote “yesterday is history..tomorrow is a mystery..today is a gift thats why its called "present", enjoy today like there’s no tomorrow”. How true his words were and still are. Now I sit here and think of how much I need to say to so many people that I have not said, and that perhaps I should. Nothing tells me they will be there forever, nothing tells me I will be here forever. What about you? How much time do you think you have?
The second point really is how Facebook has changed everything even mourning! We can now ‘cyber mourn’ through Facebook. And we can do it en masse from everywhere in the world. Hope this is not the end of funerals. Hope we don’t end up having Facbook funerals! Today people are saying all they wanted to say to Niyi by posting their feelings and thoughts towards him on his Facebook page. They could not mourn him in person nor in spirit, so they 'cyber mourn' him. Me included. I see how therapeutic and cathartic cyber mourning can be but its also slightly strange to see his page and see things he wrote to people just a week ago. I wonder if he will log in from where he is. I wonder if there are Facebook pals in the other life. I wonder if his Facebook page will grow feathers. I wonder how you bury a Facebook page, when its owner passes on. I wonder what Niyi would have thought about all this. I wonder, I wonder, I wonder.

Adieu Niyi, thanks for the friendship, for that last drink and for the last lesson on the value of the 'present'. Your heart may have failed you on earth, but it never failed us. Check your Facebook and you'll know what I mean. You were so loved, because you loved life and you loved others: all in the 'present'. See you tomorrow, when ever that is...

Fleet Street, London, July 08

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

All The Presidents' Women & A Tribute to the ‘Unknown Woman’

If we look at some of the youngest and most dynamic western leaders we have had in recent times, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama, they have had partners that were formidable in their own right. Blair’s wife, Cherie Booth is an accomplished lawyer - a Queen’s Counsel, who trumped her husband's grades in college. Hilary Rodham was a ferociously intelligent Yale graduate, a lawyer too, who made a mark for herself in diverse levels of politics but also grounded and guided the free-spirited but charismatic Bill Clinton. Michelle Obama (another lawyer, interestingly), had graduated from Princeton and Harvard and was even her husband's assigned mentor when he began practicing law.

Though we know a lot today about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, I believe we should know more about Coretta King, Betty Shabaz and Winnie Mandela as well. Surely, these women were instrumental to the making of these men and sacrificed so much for these men to be known as the great men they are today. In essence, as we sing the praises of these ‘great’ men and mark their place in history, surely we need to do the same for their wives who have been instrumental in making them who they are today. Furthermore, as we have copious studies on these men, I think we also need to study these women. Until we do, we will never have the full picture of their character, their strengths and their own contributions to the legacies they built with their husbands.

Michelle Obama said in an interview "the way I see it, we are both running for President of the United States”. Meaning it was a joint effort, a joint sacrifice and a joint struggle even though only the husband would be sworn in as President. Only he will have a Presidential Library and his face on a postal stamp, though they did it togther. So again I am saying that as these great women stood by their man to make history, we must not forget they also are a key part of the making of that history. I also think as we often commemorate the ‘Unknown Soldier’, we also need to recognise the sacrifices of the ‘The Unknown Woman’ - many of them who are out there and may not be so visible but have made countless sacrifices for their men (to be who they are today) and their societies (for what they have become today).

Now, there is another issue here though and I am just musing not pontificating: Many men do admire these great women above, but mostly from a distance -not as wives or spouses. Could it be because some men are afraid to marry strong accomplished women supposedly for fear of being overshadowed or 'dethroned' as the 'man' of the house? I think the real fear is that when you are married to women as accomplished as those mentioned above, there is little to impress them with! Your sense of ‘manhood’ (whatever you take that to be) is stretched and challenged and you have no choice but to raise your game! You only have to watch Commander-in-Chief ( drama series where Genna Davis plays the first woman president of the US) to see the internal ego and public identity battles the ‘First Gentleman’ had to fight before settling into the position. Loving and supportive as he was, the guy struggled!
There is no doubt that the performance and delivery bar is set so far higher when you have a high performing and high delivering partner (who also sleeps with you – no pressure!). But if you really look at it, this could be a major driver for success! Perhaps this may have something to do with these men going for the highest office in the land? I want to be President so that I can impress my wife?!

More seriously, the sheer weight of great women’s achievements don’t have to debilitate and emasculate men, but can challenge men to be better men, to achieve more, to stand for more, to be more. Not in a competitive kind of way but in a complimentary one. But some men see this as a lot of (fear induced) pressure! They think: 'what if I fall a few Kobos short of a Naira, will I still be valuable legal tender in my wife’s eyes?' Will I live in the shadow of my wife as a ‘Mr Her’? Will my son look up to me, will my in-laws snidely poke me with the prickly stick of mockery? Will society think of me as a ‘woose’, a frail failed fellow?
These fears can exist ( whether they are legitimate or not is another topic for discussion), but they can be converted into the energy that can transform crippling fears into enabling energy for success. For all you know Blair, Clinton and Obama had to struggle with these issues and they converted their fears into constructive energy and ‘Ajani is you uncle’, they get to the top! Can all men do this?

The thing is that the average alpha male wants to proudly lead the pack. We men want to impress our women and want to feel we are the greatest men and the inspirational centre of their lives. So we jostle for this position as it often affirms our sense of manhood. This can be seen as a chivalrous gesture of a man wanting to be everything to his woman. But the problem often is that the emotionally deficient alpha male tries to lead by primal aggression, while the wise ones seek to lead, not only by example, but by earning the love and respect of their partners. This can be hard work, but better to win the kingdom of the wife’s heart and respect than the fleeting adulation of a fickle world and flawed cultural values.

So what am I saying here? I am saying that the world celebrates all these male leaders, they should also celebrate their wives who in countless ways got them there. Why? You ask. Well, because it takes a greater woman to make a great man. I am saying we need to notice and celebrate the many other ‘unknown women’ that in their own way -often more private than public- make their men who they are today. I am saying that the truly great ones are not just these very visible women that we admire on our TV screens today, often they are those women behind the scenes whom we sometimes forget to notice, forget to praise and forget to admire. I am saying we need to appreciate our women more.

But how do we men then show our appreciation? Is it through nice articles, great speeches, cooking dinner or buying expensive handbags? Perhaps, these are some ways that may work for different folks, but truly, the best way is for us to be able to make the kind of sacrifices that they make for us; to carry the burdens that they carry with us; to endure with them as they do for us even when its tough; to stand by them in achieving their dreams: so that they too can be the best they can be.

Dakar, Senegal, June 08

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Finding Me-More

Do you ever find yourself feeling lost? You are surrounded by people but you feel alone? You are amongst the people you think you know but you realise that you actually don’t know them as well as you thought you did and no one knows you as much as you would like them to? You feel lost and alone and desperately need to find yourself, but how do we find ourselves in an ever more complicated and super-fast changing world? Nothing stays the same and the same has become nothing. For example, traditional roles and responsibilities of men and women are changing, interfacing, interlocking and conflicting all at the same time to the point that one is not sure what it is to be a man or a woman anymore - beyond the biological differences and even that is changing and being exchanged too! What a ball of confusion.

Global interaction has heightened to unprecedented levels. With technology, we now have easier and faster travel, text messages, Instant Messenger, cable satellite TV and the internet. With all these we are more opened to an influx of cultural diffusion, intellectual osmosis and value exchange than any other generation in world history. We have so much information at our finger tips, door steps and even through holograms that call your name that it’s sometimes hard to decipher which is noise and which is not. Whichever way they all sink into your psyche someway somehow and when you need to dip into your chest of wisdom to address a problem, you are spoilt for choice. Which do you pick? Osama’s wisdom, Obama’s wisdom, Oprah’s wisdom, Dr Phill’s wisdom, the Dillai Lama’s Wisdom, Chopra’s wisdom, grandma’s wisdom, Socrates’ wisdom or the good ol’ biblical wisdom, amongst others.

Our options and choices on everything have increased phenomenally to the point there is almost no right choice or wrong choice anymore. No right view or wrong view anymore. No right or wrong response anymore. “Whatever makes you happy darling” is what Agony Aunt now recommends.

We now live in the age of relativism: there is no good, no bad, no ugly anymore. Everything is relative. Our social norms and values have become social plastercine we can mould to suit our predilections and with the unsexiness of traditional values, what we used to know as our social templates are fading and our world is becoming this 'free for all', 'anything goes' society operating on the mantra of: 'do what you like, get what you can, as long as you can get away with it' or 'what ever floats your boat mate, as long as it don't sink mine'. Now these are rights of free humans living in free societies and are signs of a progressive and fast integrating society. But my question is how do you find or define yourself in this amorphous social miasma?

How do you find yourself, where do you find yourself? Do you see and assess yourself against the mirror of the majority or through your courage to be part of the minority? Who’s right and who’s wrong, the minority or the majority and which camp should you join? Perhaps you should sit on the fence or just go ahead and blaze your own trail. The fact is that you can do one or all the above and still be right and wrong at the same time. So how do you know what the right thing to do is when there is almost no right or wrong anymore?

So where do we find answers? Schools nowadays teach almost everything. You can possibly get a PhD in Culinary Arts with a Specialisation in Sushi Making, if that's what takes your fancy. We go to school to learn answers to questions and to develop the techniques of finding those answers. Why does the sun come up at dawn? Why does it snow? How are children born? Why do people die? We even ask often in jocular parlance: why did the chicken cross the road? Like the chicken gives a toss why you crossed the road. In school, we are taught answers to many questions about the world, its inhabitants, its history and its future but hardly are we taught about finding answers about ourselves as individuals.

Often, many of us just go through life often repeating patterns and wondering why we find ourselves in the same position. We hardly step back and examine ourselves to find out how we got ourselves in those positions in the first place.Why do I think the way I do? Why do I feel the way I feel? Why do I react to things the way I react? Why am I afraid of this or that? Why am I the way I am? Why do I have the life I have? Often many of us go through life just acting, responding and reacting to things, people and issues without asking ourselves 'why?' We often judge ourselves base on the feedback we get, but even that we can ignore saying 'what the hell do they know about me, its my life anyway', but with all due respect, what the heck do you know about yourself - considering the reality that even you are subject to continous change?

I don't know about you but the more I travel, the more I read, the more I take in the avalanche of diverse views, news and information out there about who one should be, how one should be and how one should relate to the world and others, the more I get confused. Am I right or am I wrong? Are these views too old fashioned or are they too modern? Is it best to do this or to do that? Am I being a man or am I being weasel and what is the difference? What is a good man and what is a bad man? Who evaluates and who determines? Who am I and who does the world want me to be, and should I care?
Right and wrong is often a socially determined issue. We often assess our selves through the eyes of others. Our sense of self is often determined more by external factors than internal ones. It’s how we were taught. We seek happiness through our lives with others; we seek love in others hearts and we seek value in others minds. So where are you in the mix?

After years of studying sociology, politics and communications augmented by ardent people watching and character studying across the globe, plus reading everything in print I stumble on, I find I actually have more questions now than answers. But I realise now that it’s fine to study all the externalities but at the end of the day most answers lie within yourself -but that is if you can find yourself.

I realise now more than ever that before I become a family man, a husband to some kind lady who takes me in and a father to some choiceless kid who will end up needing me, that if I am to do the best for them, the world around me and myself, there is something I need to learn more and it’s not astrology, philosophy or physics, its me. I need to study myself more, understand myself more and learn me more if I am ever going to find me more.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Well Done Michelle

I proudly count myself amongst the group of people who have caught this blessed disease called 'Obamamania'. From the day I heard his first speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004, I knew this was no ordinary man. I remember jailing myself in a hotel room in Manhattan for two days as I tried to finish up a report and the only thing that earned my distraction was a glimpse of this young lean black man on the muted television prancing onto the stage like a prize stallion.

No, I was not watching ‘Roots’ and he was not a slave on auction, it was CNN and this charismatic black man was auditioning to be the leader of the 'free world'. I stopped my work for the first time in hours and listened to his speech. I had to. It was hynpotising. There was something in his eyes and the animation of his face, the sincerity and profundity of his words and the sheer power of his eloquence and comportment that told me this guy was no ordinary man.

I knew right there and then that this man would make an indelible mark on our world. He was focused, fluid, empathetic and visionary – qualities several politicians today lack in this era of predatory, kleptocratic and hypocritical politics dominated by grey haired cynics who have empty treasure chests to fill, after-life retirement plans to secure, age-old scores to settle, messianic crusades to wage and enormous egos to boost.

Though he reminded me of a pre-Monica Bill Clinton and an un-Bushed Tony Blair, watching Obama was the first time that I saw a politician that was like us. One that spoke for us, dressed like us, walked like us, talked like us and dreamt like us. This man spoke for the young and the old; the poor and the rich, the west and the east; the north and the south; the black, the white and all else in between. This man understood. He got us. He embodied the human bridge we need in a fractured and conflicted world and the role model a 'lost MTV generation' so badly needs– sure beats 50 Cents. He expressed the thoughts, the aspirations and the hopes of our generation. He was pregnant with the promise of the change which we all so desperately desire. If ‘he can’, then we all can, I thought.

Since this epiphany, I have followed his meteoric rise to the top. Well actually, been 'transfixed' is the right word. I have bought every book by and about this man, trying to see how he got to where he is today and what makes him tick, think and talk the way he does. Why? Because this guy is the first person, that made me realise that all the thoughts in my head, and all the desires in my heart, all the hopes I have for our generation and the convictions I hold dear are not totally hogwash or idealistic delusions that are impossible in our era of chronic individualism, pathological cynism and wanton consumerism.

My Cameroonian friend Johnny and I shunned the call of the sublime beaches of Dakar, Senegal on a beautiful Saturday afternoon as we stayed glued to CNN watching the drama of the final dying kicks of Clinton’s campaign and Obama's ‘coronation’ as the democratic party presidential candidate.

As I watched this young man and his graceful wife ( in that unforgettable chic purple dress) walk onto the stage to accept the nomination, I felt goose bumps. I knew this was the third greatest moment in black/ world history I had witnessed in my generation. The first was the release from prison and inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of South Africa and the second was the appointment of Koffi Annan as the first black African Secretary General of the United Nations. However, as bowled over and inspired by Obama as myself and many others are, my attention and thoughts shifted to someone else: Michelle Obama.

Now, it’s not rocket science to know that when you see a successful woman or man, their partners (in most cases), have something to do with it. I know only too well from a previous, and dare I say an adventurous and disastrous experience that our partners can make or break us. However, as I watched Michelle Obama walk up proudly with her husband and give him that 'homie knuckle to knuckle' punch on stage (with a side kiss delivered with the sensibility that ensured that the first black man to ever win the presidential nomination of a major political party did not deliver his acceptance speech with gloss-smeared lips) that in the case of Barack Obama, Michelle did not break him, a to a large extent, she made him!

I wondered what price she had to pay and what burden she had to bear to hold her marriage together and at the same time support her husband’s political career. What did she do to help him build enough confidence to do what had never been done before? How did she make sure the things did not fall apart and the centre held? In some interviews she was open enough to admit their marriage had not been perfect and that his many travels away from home and the busyness that politics often demands, had strained their marriage and family life. But she did not pack up and ship out, she stood by him ( I remember that in Koffi Annan's biography, it was stated that his first wife could not handle the same type of pressures and she jumped ship only for him to later become one of the most popular and respected men in the world).

So despite the pulls and pushes of the pulsating and sometime destabilising and confusing tides of destiny, Michelle saw something in this man, who had been as wayward and adventurous as many young men in their molding years had been. She saw something that was greater than his weaknesses, frailties and faults. After he lost his first attempt to win a political seat and emerged beaten, bruised and broke, she was there holding the fort and staying the course till he got back on his feet. Am sure there must have been times she wanted to jump ship, but instead she endured, she and her ‘buddy’ would endure till they achieved their dream. Now would Obama be the great man he is today if Michelle had not been the great woman that she was? I doubt it.

The truth is that when our women believe in us and standby us, we can do the incredible and achieve the impossible. When they stop believing in us and start doubting or undermining our dreams and aspirations, we men break inside. Our women mean more to us than we let on. We are not as tough as we like to pretend. Michelle Obama, in my view, was the rock beneath Barack Obama's feet. She gave him the stable ground on which he could build his confidence, hopes and dreams, and from which he could be catapulted into the prominence we all see today.

Did he deserve it? I don't know, but she was great enough a woman to stay faithful to her man and his dreams for him to grow into the fullness of his destiny - despite his blunders and failures along the way. She did not only see who he was at his worst times, she saw who he could be at his best times. And she stayed with him, toiled with him, endured with him and helped to make and shape this man into the best he could be. Now, thats no ordinary woman. Do I hear a roaring applause for this lady? I am giving her a standing ovation.

To all the women out there who stand by we men through the good, the bad and the ugly, just because you love and believe in us, I say thank you. Perhaps we men need to ask ourselves if we can be as great as our women, for example, would we make the same sacrifices for them? Just a thought. And to the amazing Michelle Obama, I say “Well done, Madam Presidential Candidate!”

PS: ...and um, feel free to use your veto to pimp up the White house. Pardon the pun, but it’s the first time we had black folks in the White House. Make ’em 'recognise’!

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Great Forgetting : "In the era of an aging population, memory is the new sex...."

Apologies to all for being silent....I have been travelling - as usual- and well, the laptop crashed with my last entry so, its taken sometime for me to fire up the old inspiration machine. I need a constant muse. Any applicants? But don't worry, it's coming...it's coming....and it'll be worth it. In the meantime, I stumbled on this excellent piece I wanted to share. It assures me that I don't have jet-lag induced alzheimers afterall and apparently my private concern is an endemic social phenomenon! Enjoy.
The Great Forgetting :


Published: April 11, 2008

They say the 21st century is going to be the Asian Century, but, of course, it’s going to be the Bad Memory Century. Already, you go to dinner parties and the middle-aged high achievers talk more about how bad their memories are than about real estate. Already, the information acceleration syndrome means that more data is coursing through everybody’s brains, but less of it actually sticks. It’s become like a badge of a frenetic, stressful life — to have forgotten what you did last Saturday night, and through all of junior high.

In the era of an aging population, memory is the new sex. Society is now riven between the memory haves and the memory have-nots. On the one side are these colossal Proustian memory bullies who get 1,800 pages of recollection out of a mere cookie-bite. They traipse around broadcasting their conspicuous displays of recall as if quoting Auden were the Hummer of conversational one-upmanship. On the other side are those of us suffering the normal effects of time, living in the hippocampically challenged community that is one step away from leaving the stove on all day.

This divide produces moments of social combat. Some vaguely familiar person will come up to you in the supermarket. “Stan, it’s so nice to see you!” The smug memory dropper can smell your nominal aphasia and is going to keep first-naming you until you are crushed into submission. Your response here is critical. You want to open up with an effusive burst of insincere emotional warmth: “Hey!” You’re practically exploding with feigned ecstasy. “Wonderful to see you too! How is everything?” All the while, you are frantically whirring through your memory banks trying to anchor this person in some time and context.

A decent human being would sense your distress and give you some lagniappe of information — a mention of the church picnic you both attended, the parents’ association at school, the fact that the two of you were formerly married. But the Proustian bully will give you nothing. “I’m good. And you?” It’s like trying to get an arms control concession out of Leonid Brezhnev.

Your only strategy is evasive vagueness, conversational rope-a-dope until you can figure out who this person is. You start talking in the tone of over-generalized blandness that suggests you have recently emerged from a coma.
Sensing your pain, your enemy pours it on mercilessly. “And how is Mary, and little Steven and Rob?” People who needlessly display their knowledge of your kids’ names are the lowest scum of the earth.You’re in agony now, praying for an episode of spontaneous combustion. But still she drives the blade in deeper, “That was some party the other night wasn’t it?”You lose vision. What party? Did you see this person at a party? By now, articulation is impossible. You are a puddle of gurgling noises and awkward silences. After the longest of these pauses, she goes for the coup de grâce: “You have no idea who I am, do you?” You can’t tell the truth. That would be an admission of social defeat. The only possible response is: “Of course, I know who you are. You’re the hooker who hangs around on 14th Street most Saturday nights.”

The dawning of the Bad Memory Century will have vast consequences for the social fabric and the international balance of power. International relations experts will notice that great powers can be defined by their national forgetting styles. Americans forget their sins. Russians forget their weaknesses. The French forget that they’ve forgotten God. And, in the Middle East, they forget everything but their resentments.
There will be new social movements and causes. The supermarket parking lots will be filled with cranky criminal gangs composed of middle-aged shoppers looking for their cars. As it becomes clear that a constant stream of blog posts and e-mails decimates the capacity for recall, people will be confronted with the modern Sophie’s choice — your BlackBerry or your mind.

Neural environmentalists will emerge from the slow foods movement, urging people to accept memory loss as a way to reduce their mental footprint. Meanwhile, mnemonic gurus will emerge offering to sell neural Viagra, but the only old memories the pills really bring back will involve trigonometry.

As in most great historical transformations, the members of the highly educated upper-middle class will express their suffering most loudly. It is especially painful when narcissists suffer memory loss because they are losing parts of the person they love most. First they lose the subjects they’ve only been pretending to understand — chaos theory, monetary policy, Don Delillo — and pretty soon their conversation is reduced to the core stories of self-heroism.

Their affection for themselves will endure through this Bad Memory Century, but their failure to retrieve will produce one of the epoch’s most notable features: shorter memoirs.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heartbreak Kenya

I am heartbroken. Yes, a full grown worldly man as myself feels like going into foetal position and wailing into the night. Yes, that’s right, big boys, even African ones, cry. Where are you from the Stone Age? Of course we cry, we are now in touch with our inner selves after decades of being Oprahted on and McGrawed into submission to our emotional chakras. Honestly, we are now in touch with our feminine side and have profound heart-to-hearts with our inner child over a glass of Cerelac and Jack Daniels. And boy, that inner child sure can talk… and drink! No wonder they are called toddlers. But I digress…, as we were saying, I am broken hearted. No, no, no it has nothing to do with Alicia Keys, we are still going strong – as my delusional Avatar in AfterLife likes to think. By the way will you stop interrupting? You are diffusing my emotional energy and distorting the frequency of my chakra! So as I was saying, it was not a woman. It was a country. It was Kenya. That’s right, Kenya broke my heart.

So as you can already detect, depending on your emotional intelligence level or EQ as Daniel Goleman calls it, this is more of a “Dear Jane” love letter to Kenya than a serious political exegesis of its current political imbroglio. Am trying to curtail the serious policy side of me in this blog, less I blog you to death with highfaluting policy talk, but pardon me should I slip every now and then, sometimes the day job creeps into the night talk…you know what I mean? Yes, so, lets get that clear, this is personal not political. And yes, love affairs do evolve between humans and countries. How, you ask? Well, let me tell you a tale by moonlight: ....“once upon a time”, “…time, time”:

There I was going about my business, writing my report at the top floor of the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi. It was mid-November 2007, I had arrived in Nairobi late that evening and went straight to bed only to wake up early the next morning, open my curtains and before me were the bounteous bosoms of Nairobi. And wasn’t she something? Oh, how ever so curvaceous was her city centre! I could not take my eyes off her, she was the most engaging and intriguing of views. One look at her that morning and that was it. I was hooked. Something in her called my name and I answered and hence began our love affair. From that moment, I woke early each morning with my steaming coffee to watch the sunrise as the streets of Nairobi came alive with swarms of people and cars. It was like watching a lover wake up beside you each morning: the soft flutter of her eyelids, the pursing and subtle quiver of her lips, the gentle opening of her eyes, the half tired, but joyful smile she gives you when she sees you lying next to her and that warm embrace that says “ good morning darling, thank God you are here with me”. Kenya did that to me each morning and it became my morning routine for about two weeks. How could I help falling in love with her? She loved me so well, falling for her was the most natural thing to do. After my break-up with London, for her coldness, moodiness and emotional austerity, I needed a city to love. A city that was colourful, warm and adventurous and Nairobi, Kenya seemed to be it.

You see, Kenya drew me in with her charm, caressed my face and wrapped me up in her soft sunshine, pacifying my fears with her “pole, pole” easygoing attitude and soothing me with her blue skies. She reduced all my defences as her subtle winds constantly whispered sweet things in my ear and even sprung a giraffe to welcome me at the airport – how romantic and it was not even valentine’s day! Oh, that baby thrilled me, she won me over with her up-market cosmopolitan bars, lounges and clubs; her cosy wi-fi enabled cafes, arty bookshops, vibrant shopping malls; her outdoor arts and crafts markets, lovely restaurants tucked in hidden back roads; her jamming night clubs, tapping private parties, fantastic radio stations, engaging intelligentsia made-up of thriving young middle class and the colourful and hospitable folks who seemed to love to “chop life” as much as Lagosians. Being in Nairobi was like being in Lagos with less traffic, less people, more racial diversity, better infrastructure and regular electricity. It was the best of all my worlds merged into one. Lady Kenya had won my heart and though when I left, I had not seen all of her, I knew that I had to return and get to know her better, taking my time to tour the whole country.Now, to be honest, I should tell you that Kenya and I have been flirting for quite a while before all this happened. I have always had a connection with the country and its people right from my days as an undergrad studying African Politics in South Africa. I was inspired by the visionary leadership of Jomo Kenyatta- her father- who led his people to independence and who tried to create what we Africans have not quite got right till date: African unity. Kenyatta, Nkrumah of Ghana and Azikiwe of Nigeria had all tried to unite the continent as they felt that our power as African people was nested in our numbers and the wealth of our shared resources. But as recent events have proven, we cannot unite a continent if we cannot unite a country.

Another reason I connected with Kenya, was because of the pulse of its people. Perhaps it may be the shared British colonial experience, but Kenyans and Nigerians have a similar sense of humour, personal pride and confidence and a keen zest for life and its better things. Put us around a table – with enough music and booze - and the party is on. Like Nigerians, they are very at ease with foreigners and are ready for a good party. I also find that Kenyans are vey cerebral and socially conscious people with very broad minded liberal views- perhaps more broadminded than Nigerians. I remember, that when I lived in South Africa and many Africans there from across the Limpopo river where subjected to xenophobia within South Africa, Nigerians and Kenyans came together to form our own African expats crew and we would hold dinner parties, poolside soirées and paint the town in all kinds of colours of our national flags. Kenyatta and Azikiwe would have been happy, we united after all, ….well may be not in the way they expected, but hey, we did it anyway. Anywho, though I had lots of friends from several other African countries, my strongest link was always with Kenyans. We just clicked and never stopped clicking. It however took a while for me to really get to taste Kenya in her true beauty and depth. We had brushed shoulders several times on my way to Addis Abba, Ethiopia or Kinshasa, Congo but I never got to say hello or stay longer than a few hours. But as you can see, all I needed was one night with Kenya and she had me. I melted in her embrace and letting go was a struggle.

In this first real trip, I found myself changing my ticket often to travel later than initially planned and staying longer and longer until I never wanted to leave. Thanks to my soul peeps Musonda ( check out her blog-http://musbaibe.blogspot.com), Thomas, Eve, Carole, Brenda, Gladys, Dannie and all those fantastic people I met and hung out with, I felt like I could live in that lovely country. No, actually, I felt like I actually lived there already. Kenya healed the scars of London and made me so happy, I started getting ideas, should I come back and stay? When I returned to London which had been my base for several years, I fell straight into depression – as usual ( after living there for so long I had had it with London’s sterility and cold distance). I missed Kenya like a lover misses the beloved. I could not wait to get back into her arms. So, on my way to Lagos from London a few days later, I routed my trip through Nairobi and stayed for one day that seemed like a week. Being with her again was magical. All in me came alive again and I knew it then. I was in love. I had to come back. When I left this time around, I had made up my mind. I would go to Lagos, pack up and move to Kenya for at least a year. She and I would be together and see if we could make a life together. Our romance had officially become a relationship and everything was going to be beautiful!

But alas, we all know what happens to ‘the best made plans’: First in Lagos, I found out the embassy was shut. The Consul had gone off to Kenya for the elections and no one could issue me a visa to go back. Though I wanted to travel on 31st of December to start the New Year there, I had to wait till the first week in January when the embassy re-opened. I was frustrated and dejected, I wanted Kenya, to touch her, to breathe her, to feel her, to feel the warmth of her embrace once more, to be in her. You see, she gave me butterflies and for an old travelling dawg who has said too many sad goodbyes like me, this was an anomaly. I needed to be with her again. In my forlorn state, as I longed for her, Lagos also made a bid for my heart and unrelentingly courted and seduced me. Okay, fine… I admit, in my weakness I fell for Lagos, but even then, I was still bent on returning to Kenya. But alas, fate would keep us apart. In retrospect, I realise that fate was watching out for me because not long after the elections on 27th December unprecedented violence broke out in Africa’s oasis of peace. The rest is on CNN and Al Jeezera. If I had gone, I would have been right in the centre of it.

Today, as I sit in Lagos and watch the carnage in Kenya, especially Nairobi, in such turmoil, I feel sad and betrayed. Here was this lovely lady who made me feel like she was peaceful, loving and caring. I turn my back and she becomes a warring, fractious and harmful entity. I knew Lagos was a philandering lover, so what happened between us could have happened to anyone, but Kenya, Kenya seemed faithful. Now I look back and wonder if it was all an illusion. Watching CNN and seeing Zane Verjie the CNN reporter shot with a tear gas canister or Eve telling me by text that the protesters where just near her house - which was a quiet and peaceful suburb, or seeing all the places I wanted to go to next Kisumu, Kibera and even Mombasa erupt in violence and destruction made my stomach churn. Did Kenya deceive me?

There I was doing my own thing and she came with her emotionally sweet and socially voluptuous self. And just as I succumbed to her enthralling charms, she changed on me. That’s right, my angel grew horns and a tail and lost her wings. Am left here wondering what went wrong; if there was something I could have done but didn’t do? If I could have loved her more, if I should have stayed, if, if, if,….. “Bar tender, bar tender, another round of CJD!...hic.” Ok, more seriously, my sweet babe Kenya had turned vicious in less than two weeks, just as I was about to commit. Now I find that I have to review our relationship and that we can’t be as intimate as we had planned. Now I know we can’t live together anymore. I am hoping we can stay friends but I know it will take sometime to rebuild the trust. It’s a shame that all this happened just as we were getting to know each other, but as Janet Jackson ( with bra intact) said, “that’s the way love goes”.

I sympathise with all the innocent people who lost their lives, loved ones, limbs or livelihoods in Kenya because their leaders failed to lead aright. I sympathise with all those whose hopes and dreams have been dashed by Kenya’s fall. I say sorry to all those who were waiting for me to return into Kenya’s arms if they feel I have disserted them. To Kenya: I know you are hurt and bleeding too darling and I share your pain, I wish there was more I could do from here. But baby I don’t think this can work anymore. I am sorry. You broke my heart when you changed and I had an affair with Lagos in between. Perhaps we didn’t know each other as well as we thought we did. We can’t make that kind of long-term commitment anymore. The trust has been broken, the foundations have been shaken, we can’t build a castle on shaky ground. Do know I will always think fondly of you and remember the great times and dreams we shared. Asante Sanna for those lovely times Kenya. Besides we never know what the future holds for star-crossed lovers. Pole Kenya, Kwa Heri. Sawa sawa, its just another sad love song, this one I entitle: "Heartbreak Kenya".