Home Features The Week Ahead – Moonwalk

The Week Ahead – Moonwalk

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Nigeria thinks now is a great time to reprise throwbacks of the worst kind. How else does a week where the police chief resigned from doing his job, a senseless fine with important media implications, tasteless drama over the Lekki shooting, more debt, the rebirth of the no-fly list and solving violence with more violence make sense? Liberia, on the cue of big brother, is dancing to a similar beat. The VCR might be getting a relaunch at this rate.

Underwater
The Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed, has said the total public debts of Nigeria would hit ₦38 trillion by December 2021. The Minister stated this in her presentation to the Senate Committee on Local and Foreign Debts. The Minister said, ” The total public debt stock comprising the External and Homes debts of the Federal and state governments and the Federal Capital Territory stood at  ₦31.01 trillion ($85.90 billion) as at June 30, 2020. “It is projected, based on existing approval, to rise to ₦32.51 trillion by December 31, 2020, and ₦38.68 trillion by December 31, 2021.” On the revenue side, the FG received N1.08 trillion as Value Added Tax (VAT) in the first nine months of this year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). In a report released on 2 November, ₦550.49 billion was raked in as “non-import VAT locally”, while ₦277.081 billion was made from “non-import VAT for foreign.” The balance of ₦248.91 billion came from the Nigeria Customs Service’s (NCS) import VAT. The figure was 23 per cent higher than the ₦876.097 billion figure posted for the same period last year and 33 per cent higher than the ₦810.03 billion realised from quarters one to three of 2018.

A review of Nigeria’s debt indicators shows that debt-to-GDP ratio estimated at 19% is quite good compared to those of its peers including Ghana (63%), Kenya (63%) and South Africa (70%). The critical issue is on the revenue side where the alarm bells flare up. Nigeria’s debt service to revenue ratio is estimated at 99%, that is for every ₦100 earned by the government, ₦99 is used to service debt. The main reason for this is the current fiscal structure where money (largely revenue from oil extraction) is shared from the centre to the federating units, rather than the reverse which is the norm in most countries. This system incentivises patronage over innovation and has left the country in the current financial mess. One of the measures aimed at tackling this problem is growing other sources of income, including VAT. The Finance Act 2019 prescribed a VAT rate of 7.5%, a 50% increase from the previous 5% mark. This guarantees that VAT inflows for 2020 would outpace returns from previous years. Despite this upward review, Nigeria’s VAT rate is still much lower than its peers including Ghana (12.5%), Kenya (16%) and South Africa (15%). As the overall fiscal picture is not expected to improve for some time to come, a further upward review should not be discounted.

See, hear and tell no evil
The Lekki Concession Company, operators of the Lekki Toll Gate, has submitted video footage recorded by its surveillance cameras on the night of 20 October when soldiers opened fire on #EndSARS protesters. The LCC’s Managing Director, Abayomi Omomuwa, submitted the video footage on Tuesday to the judicial panel of inquiry set up by the Lagos State Government to probe the Lekki shootings as well as complaints of human rights abuses against members of the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad. Tendering the video footage to the panel, Omomuwa said, “I can confirm that inside here is the video footage that our surveillance camera was able to record for the 20th of October.” Explaining why the camera stopped working, Omomuwa said, “The major cause is because of the network. I can confirm categorically we never, ever, tampered with the surveillance camera. That is why we can get the footage. It remained there until about 8 pm when it was tampered with, and we couldn’t get anything.”

While a lot of the documentary evidence for the sequence of events of 20 October will be strengthened by CCTV footage, we must state that there is already overwhelmingly independent corroboration establishing the key facts of the night. We must express our reservations about the LCC MD’s story as a perhaps too convenient occurrence. Going by the currently accepted timeline, the cameras worked while the army shot protesters at the location – triangulated approximated to be at between 7:15 PM and 8 PM – and stopped working right after missing both the times when eyewitnesses said the DPO of the Maroko Police Station returned and shot protesters, as well as a visit to the site on the night by Governor Babajide Sanwoolu. The panel must, as a matter of justice, seek to get second opinions from independent experts on the camera footage and make the findings of such an investigation public. We owe both the dead, living survivors and shellshocked Nigerians that much clarity.

Flashback
The FG has denied generating a ‘no-fly’ list of youths and persons who participated in the recent #EndSARS protests against police brutality. The Federal Ministry of Interior made this known in a tweet on Tuesday in reaction to media reports. The publication alleged that the Nigerian authorities have started collating a no-fly list of Nigerians that helped organise the #EndSARS protest last month. Reacting on the ministry’s Twitter account, the statement said, “The Ministry of Interior did not, has not and will not generate any no-fly list. Ignore fake news, please!” This denial comes on the heels of news that the Nigeria Immigration Service on Monday prevented a prominent #EndSARS facilitator, Modupe Odele, from leaving the country. Although the officers did not disclose the reason for their action, there is wide suspicion that the action was taken because of her alleged role in the protests. She had offered free legal aid services to persons who were arrested during the demonstrations. This comes as northern governs have unequivocally backed the FG’s commitment to regulating social media. At a meeting in Kaduna on Monday, the governors said the effect of uncontrolled social media is devastating. They also condemned the “subversive” actions of some #EndSARS protesters, saying some people took advantage of peaceful protest to push their “separative agenda”. The governors also asked security agencies to keep “strict watch” on Abuja to guide against “unwarranted and destructive protests” and to safeguard critical assets of the country.

It is disappointing that after 21 years of democracy, Nigeria’s government continues to employ tools reminiscent of the dark periods of military rule. The government seized passports in 2014 during the Bring Back Our Girls protests, and President Buhari’s government has continued in this shameful tradition with the EndSARS protests. This is in spite of existing Supreme Court rulings to the effect that seizures of this nature are illegal except ordered by a court of law. It is nothing other than an effort to intimidate by abusing state power, and it must be condemned. The coordinated onslaught on social media speech feeds into this obsession with silencing an engaged citizenry. Nigeria’s government already exerts stifling control over the traditional print and broadcast media and its inability to do the same with social media frustrates it, hence these repeated attempts. There are existing laws, the most recent being the Cybercrime Act, that aim to make an effort at regulating social media. In light of the mixed record of these efforts, good old fashioned travel restrictions are back in vogue. The government should face the real issues that have a real potential to tear the country apart – rampant unemployment, debilitating poverty, insecurity and a lack of justice in the land. We think the government would be more than occupied with addressing these concerns.

In a survey that SBM Intelligence conducted on some businesses in Lagos, an overwhelming majority of our respondents were very optimistic about the outcome of the  EndSARS protests, stating that the protests are a starting point for rebuilding the country. They believe that the youth are taking a stand on an important issue and the government should agree with all the demands that were made by the protesters.

Suits and more suits
Two separate lawsuits have been filed against the National Broadcasting Commission over the ₦3 million fine imposed by the commission on three television stations in relation to their coverage of the #EndSARS protests. One of the two suits was filed by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), while the second one was filed by a group of lawyers called the Digital Rights Lawyers Initiative (DRLI). Both suits are before the Federal High Court in Abuja. SERAP is urging the court to declare that the ₦3 million fine imposed by NBC on each of Channels TV, Africa Independent Television and Arise TV over their coverage of the #EndSARS protests is “arbitrary, illegal and unconstitutional.” It wants the court to stop NBC from enforcing the fine. Similarly, DRLI, in the suit filed by its lawyers, Messrs Solomon Okedara and Olumide Babalola, contended that “the sanction and fine imposed on the television stations creates a chilling effect on freedom of expression and constitutes an unjustifiable interference of its members’ right to freedom of expression particularly, their right to receive ideas and information from the sanctioned television stations.” DRLI is praying the court to set aside the ₦3 million fine and to award ₦1 million in damages against the NBC.

The NBC has, since the onset of President Muhammadu Buhari’s first term, been very aggressive in censoring broadcasts it finds politically unacceptable through the imposition of fines. Up until now, none of these fines has been the subject of a legal challenge. It is telling that in this present case, these fines have not been challenged by the media organisations themselves but by third parties. This is clearly because the broadcasters do not want to run the risk of offending both the regulator and the government. These cases will be very important in defining the limits of regulatory power and how it squares with our democracy’s mandate to protect the constitutional right to freedom of expression that these stations embody. Without such push back, the NBC will continue to shrink the space for critical reporting and commentary on the most important issues of our day. That should be vigorously resisted.

Open defiance
The Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Mohammed Adamu, has begged personnel of the force to return to their duty posts. The IGP made the appeal while addressing his men at the Federal Capital Territory command in Abuja immediately after he returned from an assessment tour to various police facilities destroyed by the hoodlums. He also charged them to protect themselves against any assault at their respective duty posts. He said his move to embark upon the tour was to boost the morale of officers who have abandoned the streets for the past few days sequel to various attacks suffered by the security operatives in various states. Shortly after he returned to force headquarters, the IGP inaugurated a 9-man committee to assess losses suffered by the force and pay a condolence visit to all families of deceased police officers and the injured ones. The committee, which has a Commissioner of Police, Abutu Yaro, as its chairman, is expected to submit its report within three weeks.

The comments by the IGP come as reports of policemen being absent from duty posts and rumours of officers threatening to be absent from their duty posts during the Christmas holidays intensify. Added to that, morale in the force is said to be down as a result of the EndSARS protests, with public perception and trust sinking even further from already abysmal levels. While the IGP is right to make efforts to shore up morale, his actions and statements (such as claiming that the police acted professionally throughout the protests, contrary to well-documented evidence of violence, killings and brutality) point to a systemic problem where protecting and cover-ups take priority over the interests of people; thus allowing those who have done wrong to escape unpunished. His charge for policemen to protect themselves is likely to be taken as a license to use disproportionate force against citizens at a time when they should be making a concerted effort to rebuild public trust. This might sound cavalier to say but more, not less police brutality may be on the horizon.

Fighting temptations
Rivers Governor Nyesom Wike has described the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) as a terrorist group and signed an executive order to reinforce the ban on IPOB’s activities in the state. According to Mr Wike’s spokesman, Kelvin Ebiri, the state government will neither accept nor allow any individual or group from within and outside to violate the peace, endanger lives and property under any guise. Mr Ebiri said, “the state government is opposed to the presence and activities of the legally-proscribed and anarchic IPOB and whatever it stands for in Rivers State. And so, let it be understood that we have nothing against all or any specific tribe and will continue to live in peace with people of all other tribal extractions residing or doing business in Rivers State. But we have everything against the presence and activities of the legally-proscribed IPOB and whatever that group stands for in Rivers State. This is clearly a terrorist group whose existence, creed, mission and activities are strongly denounced even by the governments and peoples of the South-Eastern states of the country.’’ Governor Wike also “directed security agencies and the chairmen of local government areas to fish out and resolutely deal with any member of IPOB found in any community following the executive order and other legal instruments’’.

Mr Wike’s position is backed by law (IPOB was proscribed as a terrorist organisation in September 2017, a decision which was upheld by a court in January 2018) and it is a response to violent clashes between security agents and the group’s members. However, being backed by law does not support the use of hard force that has been brought to bear, especially when it is applied extrajudicially as has been done in Oyigbo. A heavy-handed approach only serves to push the group further into militant behaviour, and the group’s response is an indication of how it has gradually become more militant over the past five years. Nigeria needs to learn that force alone is not the solution to every problem. The problem of IPOB is a problem of ideas and can be won with persuasion, precise and targeted social interventions and better governance in general. It is unlikely that Mr Wike’s statement is going to stop IPOB from remaining active in Rivers State; instead, his actions, along with that of the Army, have set the stage for more violence.

Liberia’s dark slow dance
A Liberian government worker immolated himself in the capital Monrovia on Monday, two witnesses and local media said, in an apparent protest over an unpaid salary. Leroy Ponpon – who works at Liberia’s Temple of Justice, which houses the Supreme Court – set himself on fire outside his workplace after weeks of protesting at delayed pay. “Since last October, we have not received a salary from the office. So we are talking about one year,” said Ponpon’s colleague, who declined to be named. The colleague added that protests began in September and that Ponpon was part of a group of about 30 employees who staged a sit-in, all of whom were subsequently suspended. Liberia’s justice ministry did not respond to requests for comment. Amadou Seedebe, 34, a bystander who also witnessed the immolation, said that Ponpon had been taken to hospital but that his condition was serious. Local press also reported that he is currently receiving treatment. Liberia is a poor nation decimated by back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 2003 and West Africa’s 2014-16 Ebola crisis. Continuing economic woes including rampant inflation and fuel shortages have led to protests against former international footballer and current president George Weah.

The self-immolation of Leroy Ponpon in protestation at unpaid wages is emblematic of an apparent economic crisis confronting Liberia. Civil servants in the small West African country have been protesting unpaid wages since last year. In 2019, six public sector groupings including the National Teachers Association of Liberia, the National Health Workers Union of Liberia, the Monrovia Consolidated Schools System Teachers’ Association, the Supplementary Teachers’ Association of Liberia, the Civil Servants Union of Liberia and the Liberia Labor Congress gave the George Weak government an ultimatum to pay delayed salaries and benefits. Liberia’s economy has been on a downward spiral following a slow recovery from the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak and according to its finance and development planning ministry, its revenue authority fell short of projected revenue collection by about US$60 million last year. This pressure has now been exacerbated by a COVID-19 induced-lockdown that has seen GDP decline from $3.22 billion in 2019 to a projected $3 billion in 2020 according to the World Economic Outlook Database. The current crisis facing Liberia has been seen by many as an indictment of Weah’s leadership of a country still heavily dependent on forestry (particularly rubber and timber) and mining (gold, diamonds, and iron ore) as major income sources. Liberia has a less than rosy outlook: the continuation of this economic downturn which is deepening its inability to meet recurrent obligations, coupled with rising inflation and fuel shortages, presents the perfect soup for a political crisis for a country still grappling with the after chills of almost two decades of civil war. 

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