Nigeria election blog II – Dowden in Africa
I am woken by a frantic voice blaring from a coarse loudspeaker, demanding, pleading, insisting. The voice rises to a hysterical shriek, then breaks into slow mournful song backed by a wailing choir. The hymns rise and fall then the ranting begins again. I can hear others more distant.
In the hotel there is one topic of conversation, Man U’s amazing turnaround against West Ham. Nigerians follow the premiership as closely and passionately as anyone in the UK.
I call a Nigerian friend and we agree to meet at the Hilton. The taxi driver in an old but clean and well maintained car is not allowed past the gate to the Hilton. He is a grey haired old man. As I pay him £1.50 for a 15 minute ride he says venomously: “This is my country, Nigeria. It has been stolen. I hate it.”
The bar at the Hilton is the market place of Nigeria’s vibrant political, business social life and the Centre for the Creation of Nigerian Conspiracy Theories. Sure enough before long we meet Kayode, a young lawyer and candidate for the governorship of the Federal Capital Territory, He has a bevy of young women helpers around him. “They are much more reliable and hardworking than men,” he says. We discuss the postponement of the election. At first everyone seems to think it is no big deal. “That’s Nigeria”. But this turns into speculation for the “real” reasons and the conspiracy theories tumble out. The electoral commission has been paid by the ruling party, the other parties, the western governments. The electoral commissioner’s own excuses seem feeble. Professor Attahiru Jege says that the ballot papers could not be delivered in time But there is no detailed explanation. On television various politicians praise Professor Jege’s courage in postponing the elections and say it is “unfortunate”. No one is to be held to account.
Then it leaks out that the election will not be held on Monday but the whole process, the three Saturdays for the parliamentary elections, the Presidential elections and the governorships, will be shunted forward, pushing the last into Easter week. This makes my life difficult as I am here to cover the Presidential election but will now be in the UK before it happens.
We wander round the foyer where there is a Porsche on display for 29 million Naira – that’s about £117,000. Then we find a watch shop and get chatting to the assistant. “What’s the most expensive watch here?” He shows us a Parmigiani which is selling at £174,000. And do people here buy them? “Oh yes” he says, “we sell quite a few”. There is another watch shop at the other end of the foyer which is also doing a brisk trade. And my taxes are spent on aid to this country?!
At last. Off to the headquarters of MTN to register my new sim card. What on earth do people who live outside the capital do to register? And registration is shocking. Not only do they want name, address, passport number, place of residence in Nigeria, I am fingerprinted – both hands – and photographed. I leave feeling like I a criminal. I ask if there is a guarantee that these details and information will not be passed on to anyone else. The pleasant and helpful assistant in charge of registration, giggles.
But five minutes later she calls to say I can now make calls from the phone. I am connected to Nigeria. I spend the evening with western diplomats trying to puzzle out who has benefitted from the postponement of the election. Attahiru Jege, the head of the electoral commission, has accepted responsibility for it, and the ruling elite has defended him, but his credibility is badly damaged. We can reach no clear conclusion about who has benefitted from all of this, so it may be just a cock-up.
This runs contrary to my theory that Nigeria is not entirely a failed state. It works well for those who own it and control it. Chaos in Nigeria is created, organised to ensure that nothing works because that benefits the ruling elite who control the economic choke points. The best example is the three oil refineries. None of them have worked for years, despite pledges from successive governments and billions of dollars promised. Why? Because the fuel importers have more power than the reformers, and they buy off anyone who tries to fix the refineries. One of the diplomats tells me that Nigeria spends more on importing petroleum products, largely for personal generators, than the whole government budget.
How much of Britain’s national budget goes on parliament? In Nigeria 25 percent of the budget is spent on MPs, the workings of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The members have voted themselves $1 million a year each in salaries and allowances, and on top of that almost all of them use their positions to make money by taking backhanders to fix contracts or block reforms. In the last three years the senate has passed only seven bills, three of them finances bills, which are necessary to pay their grotesque salaries and perks. It makes the British parliament’s recent expenses scandal look like children’s pocket money.
I repeat my thought from last night: And my taxes are spent on aid to this country?!
Read earlier blogs…
Sat 2nd – The Arrival