VIEW FROM THE GALLERY BY MAHMUD JEGA
Thinking about some of the problems of the moment reminded me of an old American political character that I think our leaders need at this moment and in the future. There was this slim 1973 book called Watergate, written by Lewis Chester and three co-authors. There was this chapter in it about The Retribution List, the infamous “enemies list” drawn up by the Nixon White House in 1972. In that chapter there was the following passage.
“Before the mantle of sanctimony settled on the Nixon administration, Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel could be trusted to liven up proceedings. Back in 1938 he won the welterweight division of the Kansas Golden Gloves boxing championships, before going on to strong-arm his way to a fortune in the construction business and to political prominence as Governor of Alaska. Both as a businessman and politician he was a throwback to a more rugged, pre-Organisation Man era. Loud mouthed and shrewd, if he believed in something he made sure everyone knew it. In conference he would pound the table, laugh raucously and lace his points with lurid profanities. Generally he was not very demure. Washington did not change him.”
Who is there in the Federal Executive Council today, a pre-Organisation Man person, a former boxing champion, a wealthy businessman from a very tough sector like construction, who was Governor of an ice-covered [in our own case, sand or mangrove forest covered] state, who would pound the table at FEC meetings, laugh raucously, made sure that everyone knew what he believed in and laced his points with lurid profanities?
The trending joke in Nigeria since last week is, “Which of the queues are you going to join today? Is it the queue at the fuel station, the queue to collect your PVC, the queue to deposit your old notes at the bank, or the queue to withdraw new notes at the ATM?” Beginning with the most pressing issue, which is extending the deadline for the currency exchange. Although most economists and development planners spoke in support of CBN’s aims of moving Nigeria to a cashless [or at least, to a reduced-cash] society, there is serious contention about the timing. I said “cash reduced” because some years ago, Time magazine interviewed the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank, the American Emefiele. The daring reporter suddenly asked the Fed Chairman what was in his wallet. If it is in Nigeria, he would probably insult the reporter and throw him out, but the top American banker responded to the question by emptying his wallet on the table. It contained his driving license, credit cards, some business cards, a social security card and $84 in cash. So, even the world’s Number One banker carries around some cash; who are we to go cashless at this time?
CBN announced yesterday, in the middle of the weekend, that it has extended by ten days the legal tender status of the old notes. That was relief, but hardly a big one. Are ten days enough to end the chaos that we are seeing in the rural and many urban areas, will new notes be readily available to cover customers’ needs and, very pressing indeed, will traders resume accepting the old notes in the extended ten days, or will they still say they will not accept them out of fear that they may have difficulty depositing them in the bank? Yet another question: will CBN extend the deadline after those ten days when the prevailing conditions of chaos persist, just like NIN deadline was extended again and again until everyone lost count?
If there is a Walter Hickel in FEC, he would probably pound the table at a review meeting and say, “Damn it, Mr. President! Tell CBN to extend that deadline by six months! We need them damn cash and the f— banks don’t have enough of them, as is evident from the [expletive] queues at ATMs!” Another minister is likely to say, “Shut up, Walter! A six months extension will defeat the currency change purpose.” To which Hickel is likely to say, “Billions of blue blistering barnacles! Millions of people don’t have bank accounts and the damn banks insist you can only deposit old notes in your bank account! Which bank accounts, when 23 out of 27 Local Governments in Borno and 11 out of 16 Local Governments in Yobe don’t have a trifling bank branch?”
Not only the currency change. The long fuel queues also need a Walter Hickel to say something at the FEC meeting, preferably a live one, because the IT guys could shut him up in a virtual meeting and attribute it to network glitch. Hickel would say, “Those damn queues Mr. President! Seven years ago, you made the strategic mistake of appointing yourself as Minister of Petroleum! If you had appointed someone else, you could have blamed him now for the queues and fired him! Nigerians will applaud because they love to see spilling of political blood. That is why the newspapers predict a cabinet reshuffle every May 29 but none ever came under your leadership!”
Early last week, the President appointed a committee headed by himself to tackle the lingering scarcity of fuel at pump stations. It is made up of the top NNPNL and NMDPRA bosses as well as security chiefs. Again, a Walter Hickel in FEC will say, “Damn it, Mr. President, bloody Nigerians will say you are dodging the issue! The permanent solution to fuel scarcity is to end the regime of subsidy. You postponed the decision until after the election so that APC candidates will not come crashing down. Now they are accusing you of instigating currency change and withdrawal limits in order to sabotage APC candidates. Damn it, if you really want to sabotage APC, just remove fuel subsidy. That’s all!”
That still leaves the question of the committee unanswered. If you force Walter Hickel to return to that question after the digression, he might say, “[Expletive]! Why should President himself chair a committee apart from FEC, if it is not an ECOWAS, AU or UN committee? Every goddamn officer in this Federal Government is at his beck and call! Just call the f— security chiefs and tell them to go arrest any marketer who hoards fuel, if it is true that NNPCL has enough of it in stock! But damn the marketers, they have a point too. They have to move the damn product up and down the country in trucks, and cost of diesel is now N950 in most places. The N13 margin they are given per litre will not cover their costs. Either NNPCL slashes further its own take of N113 per litre and greatly increase the subsidy, or it allows the marketers to jerk up their pump prices by N15 or more while NMDPRA looks the other way! But don’t announce it; bloody NLC will jump at it and call a demonstration and say you increased petrol prices!”
A report is tendered at FEC that a bomb was dropped at Rukubi community in Nasarawa State on alleged terrorists, who turned out to be pastoralist leaders unloading their ransomed cattle from trucks for onward journey in the Nasarawa bushes. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has even been to the scene to see for himself and offer condolences. When the National Security Adviser finishes tendering his report and the Defence Minister tenders his [lame] assurance that a probe is on-going, Walter Hickel is likely to say, “You mean your goddamn pilots did not see from the air that cattle were being unloaded from trucks? Which cattle rustler or kidnapper ever used trucks to transport his cattle? The way your guys are going, they will one day drop bombs at Mile 12 cattle market!”
Warplanes and drones are guided to their targets; they don’t often get to choose the targets themselves. There was a hint in the early security reports of the Nasarawa incident that some control room guide, either deliberately or negligently, guided the attack craft to the wrong target. At that revelation Hickel is likely to pound the table and say, “Goddamn it! Fish the [expletive] out! Kick his [expletive] until you find out whether he did it deliberately or ignorantly! Either way, kick him out pronto from that control center before he does it again!”
There is also a report before FEC of the Edo train station attack and weekend’s Kubwa train derailment. Coming hot on the heels of last year’s terrorist attack and kidnap of train passengers in Kaduna, rail travel is beginning to acquire notoriety in Nigeria. Pray Walter Hickel is not there when the report is tabled. He is likely to say, “What’s the matter with this f— trains? You sit in one, they kidnap you! You are waiting for one at a train station, they kidnap you! Some Nigerians even commit suicide by sitting in a car on the rail, for a train to crush them! You are sitting pretty in one train; it derails and you have to walk the rest of the way! Get to the [expletive] root of all this!” The best news last week was that all the abducted Edo train passengers were rescued and many of the kidnappers have been arrested. Let us wish that all the other stories end this well.
Walter Hickel’s story did not however end well. At one point US President Richard Nixon, who had the instincts of a Nigerian politician, called in Hickel, told him he is an “adversary” within his government, and fired him. A year later Walter Hickel’s name turned up in the exposed “Enemies List” drawn up by the Nixon White House.