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Tolu Ogunlesi: In These Best And Worst Of Times



Today, I’d like to reflect on what I consider the biggest issues currently facing the country, and on how they might possibly play out in the critical election season months ahead. I’ve got five things on my list: Boko Haram, Ebola, 2015 elections, national infrastructure, and foreign affairs.

But just before I launch into them, I’d like to preface today’s article with a paraphrasing of Dickens, which I think nicely sums up the contemporary Nigerian condition:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times; it was the age of potential; it was the age of squandered opportunity; it was the season of Ebola and Boko Haram, it was the season of economic triumph; it was the epoch of citizen-empowering social media; it was the epoch of official nonchalance; it was the spring of oil prices; it was the winter of corruption.

Even as it appears Ebola is succeeding in hounding Boko Haram off the headlines, it is imperative that we do not allow the insurgency to slip into a contrived obscurity.

Earlier this year, the National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress, Lai Mohammed, interestingly described the state of affairs in the North-East as a “strategic stalemate”. Not much appears to have changed. The pattern now is that Boko Haram and the Nigerian military appear to be exchanging villages. Boko Haram seizes, the military regains. Repeat.

Properly motivating and leading the military to rout Boko Haram and to earn the trust of local communities will be the biggest challenge facing the government in the months ahead.

Like Boko Haram, like Ebola. During the week, a doctor at the Lagos Mainland Hospital (site of Nigeria’s first Ebola isolation facility) told me, regarding the prospects of being summoned to fight Ebola without adequate preparation or compensation: “Now, I understand how the soldiers in Sambisa Forest feel.”

The biggest lesson to be learnt from the ongoing crisis is the importance of preparation. Doctors at the Mainland Hospital speak of a facility long neglected by the government, a Siberia of sorts for doctors. One told me if you’re posted to the hospital, you generally get people asking: ‘who did you offend?’

I decided to see for myself, and paid a quick visit there last Thursday. I met a hospital almost in ruins. Dilapidated, forgotten, depressing. Governor Babatunde Fashola visited Friday morning, to see the Ebola isolation facility under construction. That’s good news. I hope that he will urgently kick-start the resurrection of that facility.

And for all other state governors, now is the time to start preparing for the possible onslaught of Ebola in their states. God forbid, of course, but no preparation is too much. I expect that every state in Nigeria should at this moment be building modern Ebola containment facilities, and generally boosting their infectious disease control capabilities.

The Independent National Electoral Commission appears to be learning fast from its mistakes. The Anambra State governorship election fiasco, coming just a little over a year to national elections, raised serious fears about INEC’s capacity to deliver a credible transition.

With the Ekiti and Osun elections, imperfect as they have been, many are feeling a bit more hopeful that INEC is bolstering its capacity. However, it’s important to note that these have been one-state elections. In February 2015, the elections INEC will have to deal with will be nationwide.

In October, the political parties will choose their candidates. All eyes will be on the presidential candidates of the two leading parties, and on the governorship candidates in states where the governors are coming to the end of their constitutionally allotted terms.

The most important states in my opinion will be Kano, Lagos and Rivers – the three biggest state economies – all now controlled by the APC, but which the Peoples Democratic Party will be keenly eyeing.

Things appear pretty well set out for the PDP at the presidential level. The main “troublemakers” are all out of the party, leaving the coast clear for President Goodluck Jonathan to pick the ticket that will make him the man to beat in February 2015.

For the APC however, nothing seems certain. The road to 2015 is mined, and it will take a lot of work (with a topping of good luck) to make it to the elections intact.

The party has so far scaled a number of big hurdles – transiting from an interim Executive to a substantive one, rallying from a humiliating loss in Ekiti to a win in Osun. But arguably the biggest hurdle will be the selection of its presidential and Lagos governorship candidates in October.

Will it – a party not exactly known for its love of open primaries, or, in the words of its opponents, “internal democracy” – be able to give equal opportunity to all contenders? Will the losers in those grand battles wholeheartedly rally behind the winner? Will the party be able to present a united front going into battle? If the past is anything to go by, it doesn’t seem likely. But surprises are possible – and welcome.

Remarkably, infrastructure is going to be one of the key factors around which the 2015 presidential elections will turn. Electricity will be at the top of this list. It’s a shame that the impressive reform work in that sector (and for which the Jonathan government deserves commendation) has not translated into any improvement at the consumer end. Current generation is at dismal levels, in spite of all assurances and promises from various government officials in the last one year.

If, last November, during the handover of the successor companies to their new owners, anyone had said that in August 2014 Nigeria would still be struggling to top 3,000MW, no one would have believed. The Federal Government doesn’t seem to have realised that fixing power is the one thing that could make the 2015 elections a walkover for it.

Roads and transport would in my opinion come a close second to power, and it is expected that efforts to complete the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway (and other major ongoing road projects) would intensify as the year rolls to an end.

However, at first glance, foreign policy may seem rather abstract. But it is not. Ebola and Boko Haram, two of the biggest challenges facing Nigeria at the moment have shown that they are at heart far more regional than national issues.

Nigeria should stop thinking of herself just as a stand-alone country, but as an important part of an international superstructure (‘West Africa’) whose components significantly impact one another in everything from health to security to economic progress, and, very importantly, reputation and perception. That context is very important.

If we cannot at this time assert ourselves as Giant of Africa, then at least we should focus on being Giants of West Africa, with every responsibility that entails. More than half of the population and economic potential of the region are to be found in Nigeria. If we had taken a greater leadership role when the Ebola crisis started in Guinea in March, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.

Looking back, it now seems like it was only a matter of time before the virus made its way to us. It should have been our duty to summon a regional strategy months ago. It should have been our duty to red-flag every regional flight coming into Nigeria.

In the months ahead, our foreign policy should reflect our clear understanding of these emerging dynamics.


Article written by Tolu Ogunlesi, On twitter @toluogunlesi and Culled from his PUNCH Newspaper.


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