Monday, January 30, 2006

It's been a few days...

My last post was on the 26th of January, a whole four days ago. Did you worry that I had been kidnapped by a militant Islamist group? Had I swam across the Red Sea, when it refused to part for me, Moses-style, after prodding it with a random stick I found in the desert? Had I run off to the Egyptian Gretna Green (if one exists) and married a local woman, my very own Fathia Nkrumah? The excitement was on par with all these, adrenalin hasn't been in short supply in the past few days.

27/01 - Guerilla Commentary
I've met some characters on this trip, but one of the most colourful is a twenty-two year old fella from Ghana. We've nicknamed him "Small Man, Big Brain", sometimes I also add "Big Belly". The reasons are obvious, imagine a tiny man whose brain power is a combination of Shylock and Iago, but for better ends. He is good people. As media men, we have access to all spectator parts of the stadium, but most journalists like to sit in the press box. I knew Small Man was here representing Kyzz FM in Takoradi, Ghana, but I only knew he did daily reports about the progress of the team. For some reason Small Man insisted that I watch the Ghana v Senegal game with him along with the Ghanaian supporters. I obliged.

When we got there, he said his station was going to flash his mobile phone five minutes before kick-off. And then they'd call for real just before kick off so that he could start his commentary of the match. Kyzz FM doesn't have broadcasting rights, but the people of Takoradi want to have a local feel to the tournament. This was risqué, but exciting. Small Man (above) started his commentary in Twi, the local language spoken in his part of Ghana. He read out the names of the Ghanaian team, and then the names of the Senegalese team, even telling the radio listeners what colour the players' jerseys were. (Reminded me of the famous John Motson quote, "for those of you watching in black and white, Spurs are in the all yellow strip.")

Then about five minutes into the game, I heard the words, Nkem, Nigeria, and London, after which Small Man thrust the mobile phone into my face, "so Nkem, what do you think about the game so far?" I think I spouted some football cliché about Ghana having started out strongly, maintain the performance for 90 minutes, etcetera etcetera. Then I heard the words again, Nkem, Nigeria, London.

Amidst the din of the Ghanaian supporters, I soon realised there were a couple of other "guerilla commentators" broadcasting live and direct to their hometowns in Ghana. One of the other commentators soon asked for my name and where I was from, and then I did my duty, and gave a thoroughly unbiased journalist's view of the game. It seems I was pundit du jour on the Ghanaian airwaves. In some cities in Ghana on the 27th of January, 2006, bemused listeners heard their Twi and Ga Nations Cup commentary interspersed with a British Nigerian take on how their beloved Black Stars were faring. My Ghanaian radio debut was... the words escape me.

Nigeria played against Zimbabwe after the Ghana v Senegal game, which unless you've been on the Moon (or don't care about football), Nigeria won. John Mikel Obi, who scored and made an assist, is a genuine wunderkind. I've seen him in training with the Nigerian team, and he has the potential to dominate the Nigerian game for the next ten years. He's the only one on the Nigerian team that isn't talking to any media whatsoever, because of his transfer saga. I'm here till the 11th, a scoop would be nice. Mikel, if you're reading... Holler!

28/01 - Sahaafi!
The plan for Saturday morning was to go to the Nigeria press conference, and then head to Cairo for the Egypt v Cote d'Ivoire game. The format of the press conference was: first ten minutes, questions to the manager, Eguavoen, and then mingle with the players. From the press conference I can see why relationships between national teams and the press can be fraught, especially in Nigeria's case. The bulk of the questions were centred around Obafemi Martins not scoring. Was the manager worried? Shouldn't he drop Martins? And more annoying questions. All the players except Obi were there, and they looked sullen faced. I can imagine that if they were fortunate enough to catch some of the journalists in a dark alley, teeth might go missing, and bones might get crushed. The most annoying question was one about "rumours" that players had to have Nigerian food sneaked into the hotel because they didn't enjoy the food. "Do they eat eba and egusi in Bolton, Milan and Kiev", I hear you shout. This man obviously didn't consider this before opening his gob.

I felt sorry for poor Obafemi, he tried to run away after the first part of the press conference, but didn't make it even far as the lifts. I liken journalists interviewing footballers to rape. It seems like a frivolous analogy, but consider this. The players are chased after by men desperate for a story, they're assaulted with camera lights, mics, and recorders thrust in their faces. Their backs are always to the wall, with little room for escape. The questions aren't always well meaning either. The interactions between players and journalists are hardly ever pleasant. It's a shame to use such an analogy, but I can't think of any other with which to express it.

Small Man and I got to the bus station just after 3pm. We had just missed the 3 o'clock bus to Cairo, and the next one was at 4pm. We'd never have made it in time for the Egypt v Cote d'Ivoire game, so it was pointless to go to Cairo. So we hopped into a taxi to take us back to the hotel, and while explaining the situation the taxi driver, he told us that we could get a minibus-taxi to Cairo instead. We got to the stadium at 5.30pm, kick-off was at 7pm, and figured we could eat something before the match. Bad idea.

We got to the stadium gates at 6.30pm and met with fully geared up riot police (above) to stop people from going in. The gates had apparently been shut at 6pm to prevent overcrowding. Even we journalists weren't being allowed to go through, so I started shouting "sahaafi, sahaafi!" "Sahaafi" is Arabic for journalist. This didn't work. There were rumours that the main gates were open and that we might be able to go through those gates, the stadium press centre was on that side. Just as we were told this, everyone started to run. This wasn't the time for me and Small Man to slack, so we started running as well. Never run immediately after a meal. Seriously.

There was even more riot police at the other end. People with tickets were gesticulating and shouting furiously, police dogs were barking, the riot police wouldn't budge. The people realised that if they put enough pressure one part of the police's human shield, it would give way. It did give way. The chain was broken and people rushed past unobstructed. Small Man wanted to be civilised about the whole thing and wait for an "official" to take us through. I felt I knew better, this was Africa still, proximity of skin colour and geography to Europe doesn't make this Europe. So we ran like ordinary Egyptian citizens. If only we could get to the final barrier, then we might be accorded some dignity and let through.

I went to all possible entry points shouting, "sahaafi, sahaafi" threatening to print a scathing attack on the organisation of the tournament on Africanshirts the next morning. Nothing. (I wonder what that says about Africanshirts as a blog of great repute). Just at the very last barrier there some people looking like tourists, separate from the chaos around them. Lo and behold, it was "the Trooper", and some new friends he'd just made. I first met him in 2004 in Tunisia at the African Cup of Nations. We call him the Trooper because he's always travelling to football tournaments - Euro 2000, France '98, Euro 2004, Tunisia '04. We had lost touch since Tunisia, but we were reunited after the Nigeria v Ghana game. It was like seeing an old friend, and the fact that in 2004 when we first met, we both lived in East London was a bonus. The Trooper had come to watch Nigeria and Ghana's games of the 27th, but had gone back to Cairo the next morning. We were supposed to meet in Cairo, but hadn't made any arrangements. Small Man and I assumed he was in the stadium watching the game. Fancy see you here!

He was with people I assumed to be American tourists itching to see what this "soccer" business was all about. They turned out to be students at the American University in Cairo, studying Middle Eastern politics, Arabic, and most curiously, Egyptology. Naturally we gravitated towards the Trooper and his entourage. I had been a little hooligan, and now I was being tempered by a Ghanaian East Londoner and some Americans. It didn't seem as if we were going to get in, so did what any normal person would do after such an ordeal. We went in search of alcohol in the largest Islamic capital in the world. I don't drink, so jus d'orange was good enough for me.

The evening finished off on enough of a high to compensate for missing the game. Good conversation, good food, good music, good city. To be continued...

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Angle

As a starving artist, I pick up my guitar or my harmonica, and I walk the railroads of the world. I'm not being held down by a 9-to-5, bills, or any other responsibilities. My demeanour is zen calm, my pockets are empty, but I'm free. This is what I wish life was like. The problem is that there's a thin line between starvation, and an involuntary hunger strike. I chose not to let hunger strike me, so I try to be slightly above the level of starving artist. Self-referential claptrap, I know. But it is true claptrap.

So as not to starve, I have to sell stories, ideas, concepts. I see stories everywhere, I have to. The difficult bit is convincing commissioning editors and producers that there actually is a story. Here I am in Egypt, hoping to sell some stories. I have found "angles" where I wouldn't have dreamt there was one. In the Port Said where I am, there is a Russian angle, an American angle, a Society Guardian angle.

The Russian angle.
Why should Moscovites care about the African Cup of Nations?. Perhaps they shouldn't, but it might interest them to know that apart from having players from the Russian leagues here, one of their sons is representing Nigeria. Peter Osaze Odemwingie has a Russian mother, and a Nigerian father, was born in Tashkent. Is he a symbol of the new cosmopolitan Russia? Including the one that murders Africans... It might seem like a tentative link somehow, but there's an angle in there somewhere. One for English language Russian dailies, Moscow Times, and St. Petersburg Times perhaps?

The American angle.
The US angle should be an easier one. Ghana plays USA in the last group game of the World Cup, thus, the US media should be interested in the competition. Oh, it's a soccer tournament in a faraway land, so who cares? Fair enough. But any newspaper worth its sporting salt should be out here. The USA team's new beau du jour is Freddy Adu, born in Ghana, but moved to the US after winning the American visa lottery. He made his debut this month for USA national team at age 16 years and 234 days, the youngest ever.

The Society Guardian angle.
Some of the football players here are heavily involved in charitable foundations. Nigeria's Nwankwo Kanu, has his heart foundation, DR Congo's Lomana Lua Lua has a charitable foundation which has built a sports and education drop-in centre in Kinshasa. I already have an interview with Kanu, another with Lua Lua would a story make. Football players being heavily involved in charities, when they're so often portrayed as greedy and overpaid. I'm offering them free PR!!

There are more angles. They're simmering, they are.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Today was the day of the groupie. My hotel room was stormed by hundreds of fully clad Egyptian woman asking me to sign their hijabs. Okay, I lie, it didn't really happen. I was sitting down and stealing some wireless internet from the hotel lobby, when Sammy Kuffour (his father's Nigerian, he tells me), asked if he could check his email on my laptop. I turned him down with some excuse about me being a serious journalist and him being a frivolous overpaid (they all are) footballer, and that I wouldn't share my tools with him. I thought I had said those words, but it seems no sound came out of my mouth. So maybe I didn't say them. However, I do recollect telling him he could check his email, and I think I asked if I could lick his toes while he surfed. Again, I don't remember if I said that last bit, cos all my teeth are still intact.

Anyhoo, he gave me the log in details, and up popped some relatively suggestive pictures. It wasn't like late night Channel Five softcore, but by African standards, it was fairly escandaloso. Mr Kuffour claims he's never met this woman before, and that his number was given to her by someone he knows in Ghana. She's proceeded to send him racy text messages and email him pictures, the kind that cause African mothers to disown their children. So even though I didn't have to escape my hotel via the back door in a blacked out limo, I experienced groupieness vicariously through Sammy Kuffour.

The press pack are invited to watch most training sessions, just like this evening's. The players are such a joy to watch. Seeing Nigerians playing two-touch football is as rare as fried dodo's eggs. Maye because the injured Jay-jay wasn't there to hog the ball - he was the referee. After the training session, the coach, Eguavoen, asked us to mingle and get our soundbites. There were no restrictions whatsoever, and this was when I felt like a groupie. I pranced around the players, grinning, fluttering my eyes, and flicking my hair from my face. Then suddenly it hit me! I'm a serious journalist, what the hell was I doing? So I tried to get an interview with someone, anyone, but they'd all run away from me back onto the coach. Like the quick thinking south Londoner/Nigerian that I am, I hitched a ride on the team ambulance. I'd never been in the back of an ambulance before, and believe me, I was pleased with the circumstances. Because quite frankly, I wasn't sure if I even had any underwear on. Got to the hotel and managed to secure an interview with Kanu about his heart foundation. Whew...

ps. many thanks to all the kind comments. Much much appreciated.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Battles of old

Nigeria vs Ghana is one of the premier grudge matches of world football. The games always promise fireworks whenever they play, like Nigeria’s 3-0 humiliation if Ghana the last time the met at this competition. Ghana, the past masters of the 50s and 60s trying to reassert their authority over the new princes of the modern era, Nigeria. So it was a wonder when both West African teams succumbed to a most European of diseases, assertive defences. The Ghanaian defence wouldn't budge and at a point in time, all the players except the Nigerian goalie were in Ghana's half. Chances mainly came from long distance shots, and the only clear cut chance was saved by Enyeama. Taiye Taiwo, Taiye Taiwo - I say it twice, just in case you deign to forget it.

We interrupt this announcement for an important newsreel. As I was writing the Taiwo sentence, two men from the local organising committee told a South African journalist beside me to cover up his builder's bum! There are corruptible young women in hijabs in the press centre, and the last thing the need some white South African man's bum crack staring at them. I suppose the men represent some kind of CVPVP of the Egyptian government. To be honest I'm not a big fan of builder's bums, but having the exposure of buttocks policed? If people in Egypt want to see a builder's bum and all the Egyptian builders' bums are strapped in chasitty belts, they can go online and visit Africanshirts. I hope I don't get kicked out of the ocuntry for this... So what right am I fighting for exactly? I dunno, you guys should suggest some.

Back to the game. I'm distracted now, and can't be bothered to talk about the game. I'll say this though, Nigeria deserved to win, just. I was chatting with Efan Ekoku, who's here with the Beeb. Funny thing is, as I was talking to him, I was reading a report on Footballunlimited which said he was a rubbish pundit (in jest, I think). I was very tempted to show it to him and say, "look, they say you're rubbish. Ha ha!" But I wasn't sure if he'd have seen the funny side of it.

Accreditation & sundry

Whenever I go to an African country, it’s inevitable that I make comparisons with Nigeria. In Egypt though, I’m comparing it to Nigeria and Tunisia, where I was a couple of years ago. The similarities between Tunisia and Egypt are obvious, architecture of residential buildings, the boulevards. What Egypt doesn’t seem to do is straddle various worlds as Tunisia does. Tunisia was a place that balanced on a point where Europe, Arabia, and Africa converge. Egypt is more Arab than anything else, and this might perhaps be rooted in its history in Middle East politics. More on Egypt later.

Black people here are a bit of novelty, so the black African press corps walk around waving their hands like they would on the red carpet in Leicester Square. As usual, I arrived without a proper plan, because these things are best done spontaneously. I knew I needed to go to Port Said, since Nigeria is based there, and all the initial groups games will played here. When I landed, I was a approached by a man who turned out to be a friend of Obafemi Martins, and was going in the same direction. So we saddle up together and got a taxi to Port Said. Two hours on the road. Not one pothole, abrasions every once in a while, but nothing a modern car suspension couldn’t handle.

Martins paid for the taxi (he’s apparently very generous), and we pitched up in the hotel – Helnan Port Said Hotel. Since being here, I’ve seen Martins, Jay-jay, and Samson Siasia. The boys have been cocooned, and access to them isn’t easy. Nigerians teams in the past have self-destructed when there’s been a lack of discipline. My first impressions are good.

I’m posting this from the press centre which is packed, but they’ve got wireless internet and sockets for me to power my laptop. I’m ready to rumble.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Port Said

I'm in Port Said right now. I don't have nearly enough time to type my thoughts - internet cafe clock ticking. I'm in a hotel called Helnan Port Said Hotel, which is where I think all the group D teams are staying (at least Nigerian and Ghana are). I've met some people from Gazzetta dello Sport and French Eurosport. The Eurosport people were kind enough to give me a lift to the stadium to get my media accrediation. I have it now, but the picture on it is ridiculous. The girl taking the picture said my hair was "sticky-uppy" or something like that. Except that she contradicted nearly everyone I know by saying it was cool. But what does a muslim girl from an Egyptian Mediterranean coastal town know about afro hair. Given her comment, lots.

The place is teeming with security and we even had to have our baggage x-rayed before checking into the hotel. I don't know if this is standard practice at such events, but it opened my eyes to the potential terrorist threat events like this face. The Nigerian camp appears to be calm, I haven't seen any of the players yet. I'm looking forward to tomorrow's grudge match against Ghana. I'm sure we'll cane them like little babies - we always do.

الحمد لله

الحمد لله is an Arabic word that transliterates into "Alhamdulillah", which means "praise be to God", kind of like "Halel luyah" in Hebrew. This will come in handy as I jet off to Egypt in a few hours for the African Cup of Nations. I was in Tunisia a couple of years ago for the same tournament, and this was the phrase I heard (and began to use) the most. This will be my second trip to Egypt, I went with my mum when I was a mere sapling at eleven years old. The pyramids were the most terrific things I'd ever seen, and I haven't seen anything as wonderous since. Despite the fun I had, one of my most enduring memories was of the camels smelling of wee. There's something about certain smells that never leave you, sometimes nostalgia kicks in, and other times it's just nausea.

It'll be a working holiday, so lots of lazing around and doing nothing, followed by a frenzy of activity to meet deadlines. It'll also be a chance to chase some stories I've been thinking about recently. If I get enough remuneration to cover the costs of my trip, I'd have done very well. I'm not sure how often I'll be able to update my blog, but any chance I get, I will holla. If anybody has any sense at all, they'll put £100 on Nigeria to win. It's a sure banker. I know I say this everytime, and I'm wrong everytime. But this time, I'm convinced I'm right. Trust me on this one.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

It wasn't me

I know I claimed credit for Mark Oaten's withdrawal from the Lib Dem leadership race. However, I can categorically state that I am NOT responsible for him stepping down from the frontbench. The News of the Screws took care of that. It appears that Mr Oaten was cavorting (and then some) with a twenty-three year old rent boy. He talked about an "error of judgement", a phrase which is strewn over any apology for illicit gay sex since Ron Davies's moment of madness in Clapham Common in 1998. I almost feel sorry for the man, but, that's the risk politicians take when they put themselves up for public office. The scrutiny of people in public office in this country is extreme. If you have so much as passed wind as a toddler in the playpen, you can be sure that when you become MP for Obscure Town East, the country will know. There are certain things that politicians can leave in their past, but sexual deviance is not one of them. The scandal sheets like the Screws will either dig them up, or an ancient encounter who's fallen on hard times will sell the story. Twenty-three year old rent boy. He's either lovesick that Oaty's rejected him for a wife and 2.4 children, or he just needs to pay off his student loan. Hell hath no fury like a rent boy spurned.

ps Hope you like the picture.

Friday, January 20, 2006


Yesterday, Mark Oaten dropped out of the Lib Dem leadership race. I like to think I had something to do with it. When I was on Question Time last week (January 12) I said these words, "Mark Oaten for Prime Minister? I don't think so." Obviously, the Lib Dems won't form a government, but that's the premise on which they have any argument these days - they want to be the party of government, which means having a PM. By saying what I did, I sounded the death knell for Mark Oaten. So I expect a cheque in the post from Lib Dem MPs and supporters for pointing out to them that their Orange Book Oaten wouldn't make a good PM, or good leader.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Youth Service

The Chancellor’s Fabian Society speech at the weekend echoed a similar speech David Cameron gave in August. Since July 7, the idea of how to give young people a sense of belonging and civic duty has been high on the national agenda. Muslims from Beeston who feel British will not blow up tube trains, so goes the argument. Feral youth from Brixton, Toxteth, and Moss Side who have a sense of civic duty will not happy slap the bus driver, is the thinking.

Community service is seen as one way to foster national cohesion. Such schemes are used in various countries, which include both voluntary and involuntary participation. The unifying factor, however, is that community service is introduced in times of great national upheaval. The US Peace Corps, which Gordon Brown mentioned, was a Cold War creation of President Kennedy to evangelise for democracy against the communist missionaries from China and the Soviet Union. The Third World was the ideological battleground, and the volunteers were the foot soldiers.

In Germany, where military conscription still exists for men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three, “civilian service” is used as an alternative to military training. Instead of running around the Black Forest wielding weapons of war, young Germans can opt to drive ambulances or read bedtime stories in old people’s homes. The German army has relied on conscription since the Allies allowed the newly sovereign country to have an army in 1955. As the country seeks to end conscription, community service is also under threat. Charitable organisations fear the loss of up to 90,000 men, which civilian service has provided since the Cold War.

The Nigerian youth service corps was introduced after an ethnicity charged civil war had killed more than one million people. The military president at the time said it was established “with a view to the proper encouragement and development of common ties among the youths of Nigeria and the promotion of national unity.”

Young people from the mainly Christian urban south are thrust into village life in rural Muslim north, vice versa, and everything in between. It is the Atticus Finch philosophy of walking a mile in another’s shoes writ on a national scale. A northern “youth corper” on being sent south said, “I thought they were cannibals in that part of the country, and they thought we were cannibals in my part of the country. It turns out none of us eat people.” This might appear as a piece of trivia among noble savages, but breaking myths is an important way of nurturing understanding between estranged people.

David Cameron and Gordon Brown must believe that British society is facing an identity crisis similar to a country recovering from war. And perhaps the bombings on July 7 was the tipping point. Where both men might learn from Nigeria is the relationship between youth service and political office. One is barred from political office if they haven’t done youth service. Where would that leave both men?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Money laundering in Nigeria

Michael Buchanan goes to Nigeria for the BBC World Service in Dirty Money. He talks money laundering to Finance Minister Ngozi Okonji-Iweala, Nuhu Ribadu, and briefly to Alamieyeseigha. Nigeria's go to intellectual, Pat Utomi (taking a break from his drab television show) is also there.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


I listened to Tony Blair’s speech on Respect, with a grin on my face and laughter in my belly. It was funny, not because most of the measures are amusingly unworkable (which they are), but because it has parallels to the Nigerian military regime of the early 1980s. The Prime Minister has been accused of being many things, being presidential, and even being a Tory, but one suspects he’s never been likened to a military dictator.

When Generals Buhari and Idiagbon seized power in a coup d’etat in 1983, they set to rooting out corruption and indiscipline from Nigerian civil society. Civil servants were lazy, members of the public were disorderly, and so the military government thought up a military solution to the problem. In similar rhetoric and fervour to the war on terror, and the war on drugs, they coined the phrase War Against Indiscipline (WAI).

During the days of WAI, mobile courts dispensed summary justice on the streets of Nigeria. Commuters who’d ordinarily rush for the few buses available had to mimic their former colonial masters, the British, and queue. If you didn’t queue, there was a policeman toting a whip itching for the chance to use it. If you dropped litter on the streets, you were pulled aside, and given a lot more than just a fine. Civil servants who turned up late for work (a very Nigerian disease), were forced to do frog-jumps. For those not public school educated, Sandhurst trained, or bullied by the PE teacher, frog-jumps entail grabbing your ears, squatting, and jumping repeatedly. Painful. Imagine Whitehall mandarins frog-jumping down the Mall for being delayed by the Northern line tube.

In a country where “reasonable chastisement”, and the “spare the rod” mentality is not just legal but encouraged, WAI was essentially corporal punishment for errant adults. People are born naughty and rude, and politeness and courtesy have to be beaten into them was the mantra. People died of heart attacks when made to do frog-jumps, and the well meaning discipline agenda eventually descended into detaining journalists and the serious curtailing of civil rights. Despite this, some Nigerians today look upon those days as the golden age of discipline in their society, much like Blair looks to Victorian England for his cue on etiquette and manners. In fact, some measures enacted then still exist.

Flogging people and making them do frog jumps would never be allowed here. This is a civilised liberal democracy, apparently, but something tells me the Prime Minister hankers after the kind of power military men have. A few years ago, President Obasanjo (former general, but now in civvies and democratically elected) took a cane from a policeman and began to whip him with it. The policeman’s offence? Caning members of the public while trying to restore order, after the president’s arrival had caused chaos. What wouldn’t Blair give to be able to do that? If only he could avoid getting an ASBO…

Friday, January 06, 2006

Prison works

One of my most enduring memories of the former Tory leader Michael Howard when he was Home Secretary in John Major's government. His mantra was "prison works." It's an understandably right-wing position to take. If criminals encroach on a citizen's right to peaceful existence, the state secludes those criminals from society using punitive measures. The commission of the crime means that the criminal forfeits the right to be in civilised society and is held responsible for their actions. None of that lefty pinko liberal "blame it on society" claptrap.

Interesting then that Nigeria apparently has a smaller prison population than those incarcerated at Her Majesty's pleasure. The Nigerian government is set to release more than half of its prison population. The report says that Nigeria has 40,444 inmates in 227 prisons. This tallies closely with Home Office's World Prison figures of 2003 which put it at 39,368. The Home Office report of July 2005 put the UK's prison population at 76,266. This works out at 34 inmates per 100,000 of national population, with the UK on a whopping 139 per 100,000.

Call me biased against Nigeria, but I'd never have expected this to be the case. I still think of Nigeria as a country where people get arrested and subsequently disappear forever, like Houdini gone wrong. The figures also allude that Nigerians are more law abiding and less prone to commit crimes for which one can be imprisoned. This is rubbish. Lagos is probably the most crime-ridden and unsafe place in the world, except for Baghdad (which is in a war zone, so it doesn't count). Given the amount of crime in Lagos, its prison population alone should be 40,000. I suspect that Nigeria ranks lower than the UK because the Nigerian justice system grinds slowly, if at all.

People can bribe their way out of jail sentences, law enforcement are reluctant to do their jobs, and the courts don't have the desire to rule on cases where they won't earn much money. I'm encouraged by the move as most of the inmates appear to have been held in violation of the number one right of the imprisoned - habeas corpus. This shows that the Nigerian government is, shock horror, interested in the rights of its citizens. When OBJ came into power, I remember there was a suspension of the death sentence pending review. They planned to have a national consultation about it, presumably with the government leaning towards abolition. The government should not consult the people on this issue. It will be the one thing along with football that Nigerians will unite for.

The prison population in the UK has risen under Labour, not what one would expect of a centre-left party. I'm sure David Cameron's policy wonks are thinking of a novel addition to their list of new voter-friendly policies. "Prison works, in the Scilly Isles. Holiday with your fellow purse borrowers (bag snatchers), life deprivers (murderers), and unwanted inseminators (rapists). A compassionately conseravtive Euro Disney/Butlins fusion island. Voyagers should voluntarily report to their local police station. No handcuffs will be used."

ps. The Guardian has a special report on prisons.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Nigeria in 2006

It would be downright stupid to say that this is going to be an interesting year for Nigeria. Every year in a country's life is interesting on some level. Besides, as former British PM Harold Macmillan said when asked about the most difficult thing in politics, "events dear boy, events". Events govern everything. Events such as the Nigerian Congress introducing same-sex civil partnerships, or Babangida explicitly saying he isn't running for president. These are events which would render any possible predictions obsolete. If any country had three tragic plane crashes and the death of a first lady in one year, it would be their annus horribilis, but not in Nigeria. The potential for dramatic events never dissipates.

Some things to look out for:

This could be a wonderful year for Nigerian politics. Since elections at all tiers of government are due in April 2007, politicians will set out their stalls early. The overarching question is if OBJ will run for a third term. The constitution doesn't allow it - unless two-thirds of Congress vote to change it. One never knows how the lawmakers are thinking. their position on the matter sways as the wind blows. One thing is for certain, there are enough people against it to cause the PDP to split. This would be a wonderful thing, not because I have something against the PDP, but because they have too much power.

When one party in a "nascent democracy" (I couldn't resist) like Nigeria has so much power, it ends up consolidating its power, and the country sleepwalks into a de facto one-party state and president-for-life ethos. It's happened all over Africa before, Kenya being the most recent country to break out of it with Mwai Kibaki, and Yoweri Museveni is hoping to sustain it in Uganda's March elections. If the party has too much power, it can afford not to deliver reforms for the electorate because there's little threat of being swept from power.

If OBJ doesn't want to become a president for life but wants to see his work continued, then he should endorse a successor á la Clinton/Gore (which succeeded if you really count the votes), or Arap Moi/Kenyatta (which failed) in Kenya. The successor will most likely be judged on the performance of the predecessor, and if the people like what OBJ has done, they will trust his judgement as to who should continue his good work.

There is a slight threat that if the PDP breaks up, it will fractionalise into tribal groups. Most of OBJ's opponents want him to stand down because they want the presidency to go to their geopolitical zones - North North, South South, South West etc. This may well be true but the nature of the constitution means that any party that wins the election has to be truly national on some level. To win, the president must have, and I quote from the constitution "not less than one-quarter of the votes cast at the election each of at least two-thirds of all the States in the Federation,"* in addition to having the most votes cast for them. Any party that wants to put forward a winning president has to be fairly national, as former secessionist warlord Ojukwu and his APGA found to their cost, in 2003. Any party with serious aspirations has to be national.

A weakened PDP will mean government by coalition which might seem like diluted government to some, but will definitely mean a better spread of power.

Security and Unity
How will Nigeria treat its militants? MASSOB's Ralph Uwazurike is to stand trial for treason, and so is Mujahid Dokubo Asari of the IYC. Secession/militancy is not just an eastern or South South region preoccupation, Frederick Fasehun and Gani Adams of OPC are in court as well. While there is some evidence that some of these people have committed treasonable offences, their grievances are genuinely held.

Talk of Biafra is laughed at outside the east, but the last time I went to Nigeria (Christmas 2004) there were Biafra flags flying all over Awka, capital of Anambra state. Within a few minutes of talking to a young Igbo man, he said to me, "the youth are agitating for a Biafran state". People feel genuinely let down by the Nigerian government and feel that only self-determination will solve their various problems. What becomes of these groups depends on how their leaders' trials go, and crucially what the government does to address their grievances. The powder keg is there, all it needs is for a bumbling politican to light it.

The December announcement that the government is to offer free treatment a boon to Nigeria's four milion AIDS sufferers. Add the revitalsed polio eradication drive and you have a government showing a genuine desire to improve healthcare in Nigeria.

Nigeria is set to join the world's pantheon of voyeurs as Endemol Nigeria produces Big Brother Nigeria. I wonder what the house will say about modern Nigeria. Will the contestants spend their days in the house praying and fasting? Or will they just use dodgy slang like "bons" and "sturves".

MTV Europe Award winner Tuface Idibia has signed with big four record label EMI in South Africa. How far will his star rise?

Another multiplex cinema is set to open in Lekki. What impact will this have on Nollywood?

*Nigerian 1999 Constitution Chapter VI, Part 1A.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Only in South London

The 453 bus between Deptford and Marylebone has got to be the most eventful bus route in London. The last time I was on it, a woman had her mobile phone snatched as she was sending a text message, or playing snake, who knows. The hooded fellow grabbed the phone and ran out, just when the bus was at a stop and had its doors open. In a true display of London community spirit, nobody as much as yelled, "stop, thief", or gave chase, or gave succour to the damsel in distress. Everyone kept listening to their ipods, playing Su Doku, or just plain staring blankly at the poor woman. I was tempted to get up and go after him, and recreate Clint Eastwood's "Do I feel lucky, punk"* scene. Alas, I don't own a gun, and the damsel in so-called distress chuckled at the fact that someone had just robbed her. Somehow I didn't see the need to chase down a mugger who was brave enough to mug someone on a crowded bus, especially if the victim herself thought the event was funny. Besides, I was too chicken.

Today on the 453, a man walked onto the bus shouting and spewing forth obscenities. I'll show you a smidgen of what he said. The language is not for the faint of heart, and I merely paraphrase - "What's up to all my niggas, fuck all white people. White people tried to kill me. They put me in jail. I've been to New York, white people put me in jail in Rikers Island. I don't give a fuck. I'm a Christian, but fuck it I know I'm swearing. But God will forgive me. I'm not a church nigga. Fuck white people, I hate white people. I'm gonna be rich." I'm sure you get the message. This went on for the duration of the fifteen minute bus journey. In any other part of London, or civilised British society, passengers would have gotten off the bus with discomfiture and waited for another. Not in south London. Encouragingly or alarmingly (depending on your viewpoint) the people on the bus began to talk to him and engage with him. They were obviously laughing at him rather than with him, but nonetheless they were talking to the man, and probably helping him loosen a few more screws.

Another south London incident. I was waiting in the queue at a petrol station in Peckham, when a man suddenly ran out carrying three crates of Coca Cola. He didn't get very far, dropping it just outside the sliding doors. The attendant looked up and told us that he had seen him hanging around the station all morning and had been a bit suspicious. What got me though, was his motives for stealing. Was he hungry? Thirsty perhaps? What kind of thief who steals out of necessity steals Coca Cola? He didn't steal the sandwiches (which he'd have gotten away with), or the loose bottles of drinks in the fridge. Maybe he wasn't particularly hungry but had invited a few too many people to a dinner party at his house that evening, and thought he'd pop out for emergency supplies.

The petrol station incident reminds me of a joke by east London (via Ghana) comedian Kojo. Whenever a beggar says to him, "I haven't eaten all day, bruv. I need 50p to get some food." Kojo tells them, "What? You know a place where you can eat for 50p? I'm coming with you, bruv. You've got to take me there!"

*In Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood plays cop Harry Callahan. He's pointing a gun at a baddie after a shoot out, not sure if he's run out of bullets, or if there's one more left:
I know what you're thinking. "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Predictions for Her Majesty's Realm in 2006

I shall gaze into my crystal ball, and give free advice to those who want to make a killing at Ladbrokes, or some illegal betting ring. These are the tips for 2006:

1. Tony Blair steps down as PM, but Labour skip a generation, leaving Brown as the greatest nearly man since Roy Jenkins. Douglas Alexander is crowned leader.

2. Tony Blair confesses to really being a Tory and crosses the floor.

3. Heterosexual partnerships are made illegal. All people must find same sex partners or face being forced to use the Northern Line for all their travels. Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow are the first to pair up.

4. The Queen abdicates, but Charles and William are passed over. Harry becomes king. The coronation takes place in a Walkabout pub, and the new King's Guards wear Nazi Stormtrooper uniforms.

5. Lord Lucan is revealed to be alive. His true identity is revealed to be _____ (fill in the blank)

6. Beagle 2 is found in a Tesco trolley in a rubbish tip outside Slough. It apparently never left the Earth's atmosphere.

7. Super reality show is invented - Celebrity wife swapping with pop idols faking it who want to be the weakest millionaire in the Big Brother house invaders.

8. Nobody watches super reality show. Sold to North Korea, where the show pacifies Kim Jong-il. The maximum leader allows Mcdonalds and Starbucks into Pyongyang. "Make chicken nuggets, not war", is his message to mankind.

9. England win the World Cup. They play Germany in the final, and the fans don't riot. Or mention the War. Or mention 1966. Or sing the theme tune from the Great Escape.

10. Following the events mentioned in 9, hell starts to freeze as pigs are seen flying over Loch Ness.

Go forth and conquer. You have no excuse not to bet your house on all these things happening. If they happen and you haven't bet your soon-to-disappear pension on it, you'll be kicking yourself.