Fantastically Naïve Gamble


In a historic referendum with far-reaching implications beyond her shores, the United Kingdom last Thursday voted to leave the European Union. The decision, in favour of Brexit, came after several weeks of acrimonious campaigns, in the course of which a member of parliament was brutally assassinated. “We should be proud of the fact that in these islands we trust the people for these big decisions”, said the Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron, as he fought back tears in the course of his resignation speech last Friday.

I feel sorry for the British Prime Minister who has failed to learn that while leaders can get away with calculated risks, they may for the rest of their lives rue the consequences of a gamble. What Cameron imagined would be a routine exercise to reaffirm British membership of EU was hijacked by bigots, hate-mongers and xenophobes. And as things stand today, if the decision to leave Europe eventually turns out to be good for Britain, it is Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and fellow travelers that will take the credit. And if it turns out to be catastrophic, the blame will go to Cameron. So, either way, he is a loser.

As I once wrote on this page, Robert Greene borrowed the idea of the great German General Erwin Rommel, in his book, “The 33 Strategies of War”, to make a distinction between a gamble and a risk. According to Greene, “the difference is that with risk, if you lose, you can recover” while with a gamble, “defeat can lead to a slew of problems that are likely to spiral out of control”. Yet, as Greene also explained, “people are drawn into gambles by their emotions: they see only the glittering prospects if they win and ignore the ominous consequences if they lose. Taking risks is essential, gambling is foolhardy. It can be years before you recover from a gamble, if you ever recover at all…”

By the time Cameron was promising a referendum on EU membership in January 2013 as a way of checkmating the rising profile of UKIP leader (who was latching onto the immigration crisis within Europe) there was only one likely outcome given the British public mood at the time. So, it was a convenient gamble until other variables over which he had no control took the matter out of his hands. That was how some politicians, including within his own party, began to manipulate ignorant voters into believing the EXIT their ballots would trigger were for immigrants rather than Britain leaving EU.

How the outgoing British Prime Minister will recover from this devastating blow remains to be seen but I wonder whether Cameron ever bothered to read the speech of the 18th century parliamentarian and philosopher, Edmund Burke to the electors of Britsol. Delivered on 3rd November, 1774 and published in “The Founders’ Constitution”, Burke had argued that the wishes of the people “ought to have great weight” with a leader while their opinion deserves to be treated with “high respect”.

However, Burke also added that a leader should never surrender “his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience” to public opinion. “If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours (that is, the people), without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?” asked Burke.

Hours after the votes came in last Friday morning, there was a wave of hate crimes and racial abuse across Britain which made the Conservative Party Chairwoman, Baroness Sayeeda Hussein Warsi, to conclude that the campaign had left behind hostility and intolerance in the country. “I’ve spent most of the weekend talking to organisations, individuals and activists who work in the area of race hate crime, and they have shown some really disturbing early results from people being stopped in the street and saying ‘look, we voted Leave, it’s time for you to leave’. And they are saying this to individuals and families who have been here for three, four, five generations. The atmosphere on the street is not good,” Waris said.

For sure, the outcome of the referendum signposts several things for the United Kingdom and other countries though the first challenge is within its own borders. For instance, Scotland, which voted Remain, is already showing indication it does not want to be dragged out of the EU by English voters. With a vote of 62 percent to 38 percent by the Scots to remain in the EU, First Minister and Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, Ms Nicola Sturgeon, said at the weekend that officials would plan for a “highly likely” vote on separation from the rest of the U.K.

What is particularly troubling about the result of the British referendum is that it will embolden right wing politicians who are spreading hate and intolerance around the world. Indeed, the result may echo significantly in the United States where Mr. Donald Trump, the erratic Republican candidate for the November presidential election, was one of the first to congratulate Britain for “taking back their country”, in apparent reference to the anti-immigration sentiment that fuelled the Leave campaign and is driving his own aspiration for the Oval Office.

Yet, amid all these, it is important for the Nigerian authorities to assemble a group of scenario experts for strategic thinking, especially with regards to the interest of our country in trade and diplomatic engagements in the aftermath of Brexit. Such discussions should not only be about the stand-alone UK but also on the nature of our relationship with a fragmented Europe. And we have to examine all the implications both at the bilateral and multilateral levels.

Essentially because of our colonial history and common language, the UK is a traditional trading partner and a destination of choice for many Nigerian travelers and migrants. But given the slant of the campaigns of the proponents of Brexit, there will most certainly be shrinking job opportunities for the Diaspora Nigerians living in the UK aside other immigration issues that are likely to come up, including the number of Nigerians who attend British schools. These are critical issues we must be prepared to deal with.

Nevertheless, whatever may be our misgivings, the British people have made their choice and they have both the capacity and the national character to deal with the consequences so ultimately they will be fine. The Pound Sterling may be going down today almost as theatrically as Raheem Sterling did on Monday night against Iceland, before he and fellow overrated players eventually “voted Leave” at Euro 2016, but I will not bet against England rising to take its place in the world after this phase is over. The main concern should be about our country, Nigeria.

A hitherto uncharted territory like this would also come with its own opportunities and that is why those who manage our economic and foreign policies have to put on their thinking caps. How does Nigeria benefit from its relationship with a UK that is not shackled by policies decided at Brussels? This is an area we should explore because that is what most countries are doing right now. It is even more important for us because aside immigration, another contentious difference between England and EU that impacted significantly on the outcome of the referendum is in agricultural policies.

On the political front, there are greater challenges ahead. Without the benefit of any reflection about the issues that drove the British referendum, some Nigerians are already calling for a “referendum” of their own and if you ask for the question to be posed, the ideas are as diverse as the number of proponents. But what is not in doubt is that we are back to the situation preceding the referendum, two years ago, in Scotland on the question of whether they should remain part of the UK—an issue that was settled at that time but now reopened in the light of the current situation regarding EU.

In my column of 17th September 2014, I argued that by their desperation and obsession for power, our politicians have created a climate that encourages ethnic and religious differences and have thus polarized our society. Yet, as we have learnt from the example of many failed states, when violent ethno-religious groups become strong, the task of managing – let alone resolving – differences will become complicated. So, it is quite clear that, even if the issues were the same (and they are not), the Brexit option will not serve our country.

In the light of the ongoing debate, and against the background of the resumed agitation in Scotland, I want to repeat what I wrote two years ago:

“…those who would be advocating the Scotland option for Nigeria should the Yes vote carry the day would be drawing a wrong parallel. For the people of Scotland, this is not about some mundane issues like how many polling units are created in their country, it is about the possibilities, founded more on hope, that their economic situation could be better if they were a separate country. And because such prospects are not even guaranteed, many Scots are hedging their bets, and going by the latest opinion polls, may have decided to err on the side of caution. So those who have been canvassing the idea of a divided Nigeria and may want to use Scotland as their template, should do their homework properly.

“For sure, there are sentiments being expressed by the Scots about their union to which many Nigerians can relate within the context of our country. But most of the challenges we face today are the results of the bad choices made by our leaders at different epochs and at all levels. Unfortunately, having failed to forge a nation out of our diversity, and with a penchant for mismanaging our enormous human and material resources, many of the political gladiators (including those who helped to bring us to the current sorry pass), may have no qualms about dividing Nigeria. But such an eventuality neither addresses our problem nor does it point to the way forward.

“At this point, I need to stress that I am not unaware of the challenges we face or that we could not do with some restructuring. There are certainly things that we can, and indeed should, do if we must reposition our country for peace and prosperity. However, what I find objectionable is that having created the problems, our political leaders (many of them with notorious public service records) also see themselves as the solution by selling us the fraud that once Nigeria is divided along their preconceived notions, then things would automatically change for the better.

“In their paper on ‘Ethnic Conflict and Economic Development’, John Richardson and Shinjinee Sen dissected societies like ours where more often, political and religious leaders play divisive roles, appealing to primordial sentiments and scape-goating rival groups in order to enhance personal political power. This predisposition, according to the writers, bind group members to each other by emphasizing the differences that distinguish the group as a whole and its individual members from other groups and their members. It is a clever ploy that works for many politicians around the world but if we must tell ourselves the home truth, what our leaders emphasise today is a struggle between ethnic groups seeking to maintain or gain control of state power which is not necessarily in promotion of the public good.

“The danger, however, is that in societies where leaders promote these retrogressive ideologies, feelings of relative deprivation intensify, not only when benefits (including political as well as economic well being) decline, but also when expectations increase. And this is usually exploited by ethnic and religious entrepreneurs in promotion of personal interests often masqueraded as group interest or even national interest. Yet through good governance, dialogue, and participation, all the citizens of a diverse society like ours can form a greater understanding of one another’s concerns and move towards a common destiny…”

While I wrote the foregoing two years ago, in the months preceding the 2015 general elections, I see nothing in the landscape today that could make me change my position, regardless of how the British voters exercised their franchise at the EU referendum. In fact, I believe that the outcome has actually reinforced my thesis that we have more pressing issues to deal with at a most difficult period in the life of many Nigerians when, as a result of hunger and deprivation, theft of cooked food on fire is fast becoming a national epidemic.

Last Sunday, a man, identified as Mallam Yusuf Bala, bought a 50 kg bag of rice for N14,000 at Singer Market, Fagge Local Government Area of Kano State. He, however, left his son behind with the rice dealer as collateral, with a promise to rush home to bring the money for the foodstuff. When he didn’t return after several hours, the boy led the rice dealer to their home, where his father had to confess that he had no money to ransom his son whom he admitted leaving behind out of desperation.

What the foregoing says very clearly is that a referendum, which, in any case, will be rigged like we rig our elections, is not a panacea to what ails us as a nation today. Besides, under the current atmosphere poisoned by mutual ethnic suspicions and recriminations, such an idea can only compound the woes of the ordinary Nigerians who have nowhere to run in the event of a crisis.

Let those in charge of our affairs, at all levels, apply themselves to the task of reviving our economy, providing jobs and lifting majority of our people from poverty, misery and want. What has been lacking, and we need very badly today, is credible leadership that is anchored on equity, fairness, transparency and accountability to the people of Nigeria. No referendum can ever guarantee that.

Waiting for Arase’s Memoir

Last Friday evening, I was at the residence of Mr. Mohammed Sanusi Barkindo (who resumes in Vienna as OPEC Secretary General in August) to join him for Iftah (the Muslim breaking of fast) when I met Mr. Solomon Ehigiator Arase, former Inspector General of Police. As it would happen, Barkindo and Arase not only studied the same course at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, they were also classmates and friends who graduated the same year.

It was a most enjoyable evening as Arase provided interesting insights into policing in Nigeria, with rich anecdotes and an incredible sense of humour you would never associate with a policeman. He was also full of praise for President Muhammadu Buhari who hosted him to a reception and allowed him to retire with dignity. However, shortly before we all departed, asked by Barkindo whether he would write a memoir, Arase replied in the affirmative, adding that he had already started putting his thoughts down.

I have no doubt in my mind that if he chooses to do a serious book, such an effort will provide invaluable contributions to public discourse, especially about the delicate relationship between the police and the political authorities (both at the centre and in the states) in Nigeria. And just in case the former IG has not decided on a title for his book, I can easily suggest one to him: “Mr. President, You Don’t Have an IG”.
I am sure Mr. Arase knows what I am talking about. I wish him all the best in the years ahead as we await his memoir.

So, Ojo is Gone!

It was too hard for me to accept last night that Chief Ojo Maduekwe was dead, especially when I called his mobile phone and it was still ringing. And to imagine that it was just a few hours earlier (yesterday afternoon) that we were talking about him at THISDAY Editorial Board meeting as I explained a critical intervention he once made on my behalf.

In my contribution to the special publication for his 70th birthday celebration last August, I wrote that Maduekwe was often criticized, sometimes even lambasted, in certain quarters for participating in every government, especially since 1999. “But contrary to what some of his implacable political foes would want people to believe, Ojo (as he is popularly called) does not belong to the category of Nigerians derogatorily described as AGIP (Any Government in Power) for the simple reason that he never lobbied for all the positions he has occupied. At every point, and under three succeeding Presidents, it is Ojo’s talent that has earned him those crucial positions and at all times, he distinguished himself.”

I added: “With his rare intellect and that uncanny ability to explain some of the most complex issues in simple but never simplistic terms, Ojo was not the kind of man who would easily adapt to the role of backbencher in any environment. While this ordinarily should be an asset for succeeding administrations, in a milieu where mediocrity seems to be the order of the day, it is difficult for people like him to maximize their potentials…”
For sure, there will be a day for me to properly remember Ojo but his death, at 71, is rather painful. May God grant his wife and children the fortitude that this most difficult period demands.

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