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The Week Ahead – Misfit

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This week’s developments – public finances heading for a record bottom, media censorship, obfuscation and intransigence by the ruling elite, a landmark case gone up in smoke – gave the distinct impression that Nigeria is a land of misplaced, misaligned misfits, an attitude that has cost the country a slew of highly anticipated bye-elections. Cameroon is not faring much better.

Body of lies
The Nigerian Army says the Lagos state government invited it to intervene in the fallout of the #EndSARS protest. Young Nigerians protesting against police brutality had refused to stay off the roads despite a 24-hour curfew imposed by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu. Subsequently, soldiers went to the protest ground at Lekki toll plaza and opened fire on the protesters. The incident sparked outrage and Sanwo-Olu blamed the incident on “forces beyond my direct control”. Major Osoba Olaniyi, an army spokesman said soldiers stayed away from the #EndSARS protests until the Lagos government invited them to restore order. Olaniyi said while restoring order, soldiers did not shoot protesters, describing reports on the attack of the protesters by the military as fake. The military broke its silence a day after Mr Sanwo-Olu told CNN that footage of the shooting showed that the Nigerian Army was responsible for the incident.

The condemnable actions at the Lekki Toll Gate by the Nigerian Army have sparked global outrage that has put pressure on the actors to answer critical questions. Every key government stakeholder, from the army to the state government, have released contradictory statements as more facts have emerged. What these actors fail to realise is that the world of 2020 is very different from even a decade ago and the tools of disinformation and misinformation that worked in the past do not hold the same guarantees they once did. On the part of the army, it will not be the first time that its soldiers have been dogged with allegations of serious offences and cover-ups. The contradiction of an armed service called to serve, killing the people they are supposed to protect, continues to erode trust in that institution and undermine its effectiveness as a fighting force. Without diminishing the value of human life in various places where the army has killed Nigerians over the last two decades of civilian rule – Odi, Zaki Biam, Baga, Zaria, Abonema, Zuba and Nyanya, as but a few examples – Lekki will not easily be swept under the carpet because it occurred at a place that many consider to be at the heart of Nigeria’s commercial activities, and is a stone throw from Nigeria’s business elite, and the cream of the expatriate community. The truth will eventually emerge and when it does, justice will be served.

No longer at ease
The Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland, Gani Adams, on Saturday, said Nigeria was in perpetual conflict and the National Assembly must begin the process of returning the country to regionalism to tackle the rising unrest in the country. Adams stated this in a statement by his media aide, Mr Aderemi Kehinde, noting that the #EndSARS protests which had spread nationwide in the last two weeks was an opportunity for the youths to air their views on national matters. The Yoruba leader commiserated with the families of those that lost their loved ones, adding that those that were killed by the bullets of the Nigerian Army “would surely be remembered as heroes.” Adams said, “The right to protest is guaranteed by the Constitution of Nigeria and supported by various United Nations and African charters on peoples and human rights. Those in power today are products of protests by the people of this great country. This comes as the police say at least 800 people have been arrested for killings and incidents of arson and looting during mass protests against police brutality. According to media reports on Wednesday, more than 200 suspects were arrested in Abuja and a few more cities across the country. Some 520 more suspects have been arrested in different areas of Lagos according to the city’s police chief, Hakeem Odumosu. “All these are mop-up operations that we are carrying out. We have intelligence and we have sent out our men to all the places,” he said at a news conference on Tuesday. He said intelligence gathered showed the arrested suspects were not part of the widespread protests against the police’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), an infamous police unit accused of killings, rape, torture, and extortion.

The Aare said many of the right things here, something South Western political leaders, save for a few, have, so far, proved unwilling to do. What is clear is this – leaders whose path to political prominence today was laid by holding their predecessors accountable, have themselves become unaccountable leaders who call in the military, the police and even thugs to harass peaceful protesters. The hypocrisy of the swift arrests by authorities of those accused of arson while turning a blind eye to those who committed murder during the protests and thugs who disrupted the protests violently was also rightly called out. Only yesterday it emerged that people had been held by Lagos police for six days without charge for curfew violations. It shows a patent lack of integrity that this is going on while a panel of inquiry is sitting just minutes away from the police headquarters. This is the reason why the protesters did not believe the government, when it said it had agreed to their demands.

Fleeting freedoms
The National Broadcasting Commission has fined Channels Television, Arise Television and Africa Independent Television ₦3 million each for what it termed “unprofessional coverage” of the #EndSARS protests. The Acting Director-General of the NBC, Prof. Armstrong Idachaba, announced this at a press conference in Abuja on Monday. The NBC had last week warned all television and radio stations against reporting the #EndSARS protests in a manner that could embarrass the government or private individuals or cause disaffection, incite panic or rift in the society. The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has condemned the “unconstitutional and illegal” fines and threatened to sue the regulator over its action “if the unconstitutional fines are not rescinded within 48 hours.” Meanwhile, Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Information Minister, told parliament on Tuesday, that the only way to keep citizens in check is to replicate China’s clampdown on civil liberties. In comments made before the House of Representatives’ Information Committee to defend his ministry’s 2021 budget, he said,  “When we went to China, we could not get Google, Facebook, and Instagram. You could not even use your email in China because they made sure it is censored and well regulated.”  This is not the first time that the current administration has tried or committed to regulating free speech. Government associates in the National Assembly have failed to pass two different bills seeking to regulate social media.

With Lai Mohammed’s recent statements, the FG continues to show its willingness to restrict Nigerians’ freedom of expression The fines handed out by the NBC, almost certainly under the influence of the Ministry of Information which it answers to, is emblematic of the same attitude. The fines should not be construed as anything other than a restriction of the ability of Nigerians to say anything that is not to the liking of the government – a fundamental prerequisite of a vibrant democracy. It is important that these fines are challenged in court, or else this attitude will continue unchecked. It is also apparent that the Nigerian political class remains uncomfortable with social media largely because they cannot exert control over it. Mr Mohammed seems to forget that China, which he references, is not a democratic society and should not serve as a standard when it comes to free speech. While he has achieved success in muzzling the mainstream media on key issues, especially on reportage of the Boko Haram insurgency, social media remains an Achilles heel. It is instructive to also note that despite the continuous push for social media regulation, no one has exactly defined how such regulation will look like. Nevertheless, they will keep trying. Social media played a significant role, birthed, and brought attention to the #EndSARS protests, as well as kept pressure on the government to acknowledge that people died at the Lekki Toll Gate on 20 October. This pressure has not let up, and this explains the renewed urgency from the government to bring social media in the country to heel. These efforts should not be allowed to succeed.

In flames
A lawsuit instituted against All Progressives Congress chieftain, Bola Tinubu, and tax consultancy firm, Alpha Beta Consulting, by a former Managing Director of Alpha Beta, Dapo Apara, has suffered a setback due to the burning of the Lagos State High Court in Igbosere in the wake of the #EndSARS protests. Apara’s lawyer, Mr Tade Ipadeola, in a statement said, “Everything in Igbosere High Court got burnt including the registrar’s copy of our application. In fact, the whole building was burnt to ashes. So, we will have to file again. The registry has been moved to Ikeja. “We may have to file the case afresh at the Ikeja High Court but we have not yet been instructed to do so.” Apara had sued the company, Tinubu and the current Managing Director of the firm, Akin Doherty. Lagos State, which is the epicentre of the #EndSARS protests witnessed wanton destruction following the shooting of unarmed protesters at the Lekki toll plaza by soldiers on October 20, 2020. On October 21, hoodlums took to the streets, burning at least 10 police stations, two media houses, private business premises, courts and government facilities including the office of the Nigerian Ports Authority on Lagos Island.

While the events of the last three weeks started as a cry for the end of a rogue police unit, it is becoming clearer that Nigeria desperately needs not only police reforms but a broader overhaul of the justice system. As troubling as this story is because of the politics around the individual involved, this development speaks to a larger issue with many Nigerian institutions – the failure to digitise and store records. In a world where digital technology has opened incredible possibilities in the storage and analysis of big data, the burning of any single location should not result in the loss of such critical data as court records. If private institutions in the country have availed themselves of basic disaster recovery measures, it is both embarrassing and shameful that the Judiciary, a crucial arm of government, is yet to do so. It is why the spate of fires in this specific case and in other investigations from the past have such far reaching consequences; for one, these incidents prove that an incentive remains for the arsonists who carry them out.

Hanging ballot
The Independent National Electoral Commission has postponed 15 senatorial and state bye-elections earlier planned to hold in 11 states. INEC said the elections, slated for October 30, were postponed over the current security situation. This was contained in a statement by INEC’s spokesperson, Festus Okoye. Part of the statement read, Accordingly, the commission has decided to postpone the bye-elections in the six senatorial districts and nine state constituencies. “This decision is in compliance with Section 26 (2) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended), which gives the commission the power to postpone an election if there is reason to believe that a serious breach of the peace is likely to occur if the election is proceeded with on that date, or that it is impossible to conduct the election as a result of natural disaster or other emergencies. “The commission will continue to monitor the situation in all the states and constituencies, consult with relevant stakeholders, and meet again in two weeks to review the situation and decide on a feasible date for the election.” The by-elections were slated to take place in Bayelsa Central Senatorial District; Bayelsa West Senatorial District; Nganzai and Bayo Constituencies in Borno State; Cross River North Senatorial District and Obudu State Constituency in Cross River; Imo North Senatorial District; Lagos East Senatorial District; Kosofe II Constituency in Lagos State; Plateau South Senatorial District; Bakura Constituency in Zamfara and Ibaji Constituency in Kogi.

The INEC is justified in using the powers conferred on it under the Electoral Act to postpone these elections. The postponements represent another clear indication of how the #EndSARS protests on one hand, and the violence by hoodlums who took advantage of the protests on the other hand, have really rocked Nigeria. Holding elections in such a tense atmosphere could worsen the security situation as politicians easily hide under the cloak of the ballot to perpetrate electoral violence such as voter intimidation, ballot snatching and outright violent attacks on voters and election officials. This is one of those few moments where a government agency has handled an issue with dispatch and consideration. It is a shame it does not happen more often.

Spendthrift
An analysis of the highlights of 2020 budget performance presented by the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed, showed that between January and August 2020, the FG realised ₦2.5 trillion in revenue and spent about ₦6.25 trillion, creating a record budget deficit of ₦3.7 trillion. At this pace, the government may generate roughly about ₦4.3 trillion in revenue, spend ₦10.7 trillion in expenditure and end the year with a historic deficit of almost ₦6.4 trillion. To put this into perspective, Nigeria budgeted to spend just ₦6.06 trillion for FY2016. As recently as 2018, total government spending was just ₦6.94 trillion. The government is now creating debt at a record pace never seen in Nigeria’s history. This has now pushed the budget deficit to revenue to 174 percent as of August 2020. The debt service burden has worsened to ₦2.1 trillion or 85% of revenue as of August 2020. In H1 2020, the Debt Management Office reported that the national public debt had reached ₦31 trillion.

Nigeria is hurtling towards a fiscal crisis, the likes of which we have never seen before. Unsustainable debt coupled with economically stifling policies and a government that is unwilling to pull back on wasteful spending have created an untenable cycle of sub-par revenue collections and ballooning expenditure. The case for more debt financing was recently made for the Nigerian government by the IMF which expressly stated that governments should step up public investments to boost their economies after the massive shock from the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the IMF stated that increasing public investment by 1% of GDP could strengthen confidence in the recovery and boost GDP by more than 2%, “if investments are of high quality and if existing public and private debt burdens do not weaken the response of the private sector to the stimulus.” This brings us to the second point, debt burden. Rather than borrowing to spend on public infrastructure, the Nigerian government is borrowing to spend on recurrent expenditure – salaries, allowances and debt service. This is not sustainable and will not have any positive impact on Nigeria’s recovery. Recently the government took important steps in scrapping petrol subsidies but it must move forward with its proposal to scrap electricity subsidies and cut the size of the government by implementing the Oronsaye Report. Next will be to plug other leakages and broaden the tax base. In a world yet to recover from the global shocks caused by the pandemic and which may get worse depending on the outcomes of the US elections, Nigeria as it is is unable to withstand any further shocks. The good news is that the right government action can still halt the free fall. But we fear that even that window is closing.

Wrong side of the war
More than 35 human rights organisations have signed an open letter calling for a ceasefire in Cameroon after a massacre at a school on Saturday. At least eight pupils were killed and more than a dozen wounded when gunmen stormed the school in Kumba in the southwest of the country. Signatories to the letter include organisations from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as Africa-based rights groups.  The letter, published by Global Campaign for Peace and Justice in Cameroon, stresses that Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict needs a political, rather than a military, solution.  Two English-speaking regions of Cameroon, the Southwest and Northwest regions, have become the centre of a fight for secession from the French-speaking majority areas. The conflict has claimed more than 3,000 lives and forced over 700,000 people to flee their homes since it flared in 2017.  The letter, published on Tuesday, calls on the United Nations to obtain a ceasefire. It also asks diplomats and their countries to use all means possible, including sanctions, to encourage both Anglophone separatists and government forces to put down their weapons.  Cameroon’s government has blamed secessionists for carrying out the attack on the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy in Kumba. Separatists have often targeted schoolchildren for attending classes in spite of a school boycott promoted by the insurgents. But rights groups have documented abuses against civilians carried out by both Anglophone fighters and government forces.

The political atmosphere in Cameroon will likely continue to deteriorate as Biya’s opposition ramps up the pressure on his government. The call for secession of the Anglophone regions from a predominantly French Cameroon is likely to continue even if Biya leaves office. Following the attack on Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy in Kumba, the government is likely to increase its use of force to ensure that it retains control and forestall a revolution. However, it is not clear if they will succeed considering the security challenges in the country: Boko Haram in the Far North, near the border with Nigeria and Chad, and separatists in the English-speaking west fighting for an Ambazonian Republic. The use of deadly force could also cause the government to lose international support, especially from its main ally France. Following recent events, it is clear that aggressive tactics are not out of question for the Cameroonian government. In late 2017 through 2018, in a bid to squash dissents, the Biya-led government shut down internet access to both Anglophone regions, leaving the regions in a blackout for about 240 days. So far, it is evident that the security situation in Cameroon requires careful management as an escalation will have ripple effects will be felt across West and Central Africa, causing a refugee crisis and instability in these regions. A possible option could be to force Biya, who is Africa’s oldest leader (87) and mostly ensconced in a hotel suite in Switzerland to resign, two years into a 7-year presidential term. Such a move, which has precedents in Zimbabwean with the late president Robert Mugabe, Gambia with Yahya Jammeh, is perhaps the best hope to guarantee that some semblance of political stability can return to Cameroon ahead of elections in 2025, as well as offer more time for constructive discussions on peaceful coexistence between Francophone and Anglophone Cameroon.

SBM Intelligence

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