Lazy Rainy Day

29 April 2007

Location: My home, Benin City

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The rainy season has begun. I love the smell of oncoming rain, especially when the water meets the air and the thirsty, dry earth. It is a charged smell, almost electric. I ache for the fresh coolness…relief. The rains have come a bit late this year. I look forward to the lushness of green foliage, and the sweetness of fat mangos, my favorite fruit of the season.

I was supposed to begin my interviews this month. I returned to Benin partly to avoid any madness associated with the elections, and partly because I had planned to start talking to people. If I knew better, I would have just stayed in Ibadan, in the sheltered environment of campus. I would have gotten quite far with my documentary research; I left so much undone. I struggle with self-criticism daily. As it is now, I have spent the better part of this month waiting. Uncle Newman and cousin Otite, who are to help me make connections for interviews, had cautioned me to wait until after the elections to start. It is now time to begin.

I have been in contact with a lawyer who has worked with the Delta State government these past few years as the Speaker of the House. He has some experience carrying out oral history for a couple of projects, one of which was led by a well-known Niger Delta historian, E. J. Alagoa. It may be better to work through this man than with my family connections, since he has some experience, and he is not kin. I may be more efficient working with him. He has already drawn up a list of people to speak with, and I have created an introductory letter and questionnaire.

Let’s hope I can get started, regardless of the swearing-ins, and political transitions going on in Abuja. The elections have come and gone, and now people are saying they really won’t be available until after the swearing-in of office, and after the electoral disputes have been settled. So many government positions are under dispute at the moment. It is unclear how they will be resolved. The courts seem to be struggling to stay independent of the politics, and some of the state government positions are under scrutiny. I hope we can start to have a wee bit of faith in at least our judiciary. I might be too optimistic.

I am not sure whether to qualify my stasis as boredom or depression. I have more and more days where I do not feel like getting out of bed, and sometimes I don’t. Part of it has to do with avoiding my hypervisibility when I step out of my front door. I just don’t want to be seen, and therefore targeted for the various kinds of attention and extortion that being “white” carries here. Another part of it has to do with not having the energy to go out there and hustle, as we all must do, everyday. We exert so much energy just to physically get around on these mad streets and through these rotten institutions.

Sorry for the pessimism. I can’t push myself through it right now, and I don’t like myself like this… So, I’m sitting with it until it subsides.

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Democracy, Naija Style

15 April 2007

Location: Home, Benin City

Democracy Naija Style…or the “N” Factor

Today is tax day in the U.S. How smoothly that system seems to work, at least from this vantage point. I know that I have to pay taxes every year, and I have a general idea of how those taxes are used. Of course, there are certain things that I wish more of my tax dollars could be applied to: for instance, education and health care instead of increased militarization and the prison industrial complex. There are also those things my taxes pay for that I don’t think too much about in my day-to-day life in America, things that I take for granted: functioning roads, park maintenance, infrastructural upkeep of electricity and water supplies. Here in Nigeria, the only people who pay taxes are civil servants, and even in that sector, it is not consistent nor can it be tracked well by government due to disorganization, incompetence, and corruption (it is hard to enforce regular taxation when most civil servants don’t even get paid regularly).

Nigerians buy plots of land and put up houses without a thought of property tax. Driving through GRA (this acronym, a colonial hold-over meaning “Government Reserved Area,” when colonial officials segregated themselves from the African population), I often wonder at the incongruence of palatial homes lined up on unpaved pot-holed streets, littered with refuse because there is no such thing as a municipal waste management system. There is no property tax to regularly pay for these basic public needs.

The more fundamental question remains: who are the real tax-payers in Nigeria? The answer is quite simple: the multi-national oil companies. Shell, British Petroleum, Chevron, Texaco, and Agip are responsible for more than 80 percent of the national revenues. In exchange, the government supports and preserves their interests. These multinational companies can make claims on land, on military resources (for protection and for punishment, in the case of resistant communities…just think of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni situation), and on special access to government contracts. These are the real taxpayers. If we regular citizens are not responsible for government revenue, we cannot expect that this government be accountable to us. It is that simple.

Today is the day after our federal elections here in Nigeria. Thankfully, there wasn’t too much violence, and things were relatively quiet here in Benin City. In fact, the streets were mostly deserted; most people stayed home, including me. As we watched the local news, we found that many voting centers opened very late, if they opened at all. Election workers had not shown up or the voters didn’t come. Some centers did not even have ballots. There are rumors circulating that over 60,000 ballots were still sitting in South Africa, the printers of our ballots. Supposedly the federal government paid for them, but requested they stay in South Africa. I hope this is just a rumor. A very small percentage of people turned out to vote. It would be a high guess if even 15% of the eligible voting public actually voted.

Days before the election, the government mobilized the army, posting them at all the major thoroughfares in the big cities. It felt very much like the military days of past years, in the 1980s. The tension has been high for the past couple of weeks, as many people scrambled to get to their hometowns to prepare for staying indoors. Aside from possible violence there was fear of a fuel hike, as well as soaring food prices. Thankfully things have remained fairly stable.

This whole election process has been surreal. It was only in December that the President- and Vice President-elect were even announced as candidates (very late in the game), and since then most of the other opponents have fallen away like ants on Raid. The governors’ races went the same route. They are going to announce Yar’Adua as our new president and Emmanuel Uduaghan as Delta State’s new Governor. For Edo State, even though the Labor Party’s candidate, Mr. Oshiomole is more popular, the PDP (People’s Democratic Party) candidate, Mr. Osunbor, will take the seat of Governor. The PDP has this thing wrapped up in most, if not all states, and even within the PDP there is a select hierarchy. There is no viable alternative party.

This was not a free election. People are afraid. And most of the people who ran for office have been recycled from past gluttonous, authoritarian regimes. It is a tragic comedy, the images of people queuing up to cast their votes, knowing that it really doesn’t matter.

 

April 20th

They’ve announced our president. As we’ve all known, the ruling PDP party took most governmental seats. Only Lagos and a couple of other states voted in other candidates (voter turn-out must have been higher in these states, or at least the resistance to the ruling Party was strong enough). In Benin, the women have been protesting for the past couple of days. They stormed the streets wearing black, protesting the PDP candidate, Mr. Oshiomole. The Labor Party candidate did not win the election, even though he was the favorite here in Benin. Today, more women will come out and expose themselves. This is a longstanding practice of protest among women in this part of the country. If a woman exposes herself (her privates) in protest, especially an old woman, it is considered a strong curse. In the midst of their protest, they also condemned the former governor, Lucky Igbinedion, one of the most corrupt governors of the former regime.

Former Governor Lucky Igbinedion of Edo State, Nigeria

Former Governor Lucky Igbinedion of Edo State, Nigeria

Lucky Igbinedion became governor of Edo State in 1999 under the newly formed PDP and new elected President (and former military dictator) Olusegun Obasanjo. Under Igbinedion’s watch, Benin became notorious for its contribution to the global sex trade, especially to Europe; the city’s infrastructure further deteriorated, and Benin continued to roil in an epidemic of armed robbery and thug violence. The people of Benin view him with absolute contempt and vitriol.

People are sick and tired of the political process, but I am always amazed at how much Nigerians can stretch themselves to accommodate this abuse of power. It is so excessive, and so obvious that it is almost a farce.

Postscript: In 2008 the Economic Financial Crimes Commission of Nigeria charged him with 142 counts of fraud and embezzlement, claiming he embezzled over $24 million of government funds. He was convicted of these crimes, but he never served any time, nor has this money been restored to the public coffers.

HOUSE 2

Igbinedion’s mansion in Abuja (courtesy of Jide-Salu.com), 2011