initial thoughts on Buhari’s inauguration speech

I don’t know about you but I was quite impressed. He did what he needed to do. He was gracious, set out the vision of his administration, reaffirmed his commitment to democracy and human rights, admitted that there were huge challenges ahead but stated that they were not insurmountable. He called on the spirit of the past, referring to the founding fathers of the nation and civilisations from the Kanem-Borno to the Oyo Empires that existed in the land that now makes up Nigeria.

Well done to his speech writers and well done to him. I do wish he had spoken about women’s rights though. Given the momentous signature of Jonathan of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Bill four days ago and the record low levels of women’s representation in the National Assembly (now a woeful 5.11%), it was an opportunity missed to show that he would govern for the best interests of women as well as men.

My top 5 highlights of the speech

1) Taking a holistic approach to peace and security

Where do I start? Moving the Command Centre to Maiduguri. Overhauling the rules of engagement to avoid human rights violations. Placing the security forces within the overall security architecture. Making sure to focus on all security issues in Nigeria, not just those in the North East. If he had added just a few more things (like transparency of funding for security, addressing the phenomenon of vigilante groups, prioritizing security needs and realities of women as well as men and building trust between security forces and communities), I feel like he might have been listening in to conversations that I have been having recently!

I assume his thanks to the forces of Cameron, Niger and Chad for their assistance is symptomatic of an increased willingness of this administration to cooperate than was present in the last? Given the increasingly regional dimension to the conflict and violence and the need for a joined up approach, I hope this is the case.

The move of the Command Centre to Maiduguri is a welcome one. It is as much important for perceptions that the government takes what is happening seriously and cares for the people of the North East as it is for any improvements in intelligence gathering or increased fighting capacity. I wonder though what this means for the rest of the country? Will this be accompanied by Command Centres being set up in other conflict affected parts of the country (such as the Niger Delta) too?

It was also important that he mentioned the girls from Chibok who were abducted, said that victory would not be achieved without their being rescued, and committed to trying to do so alive. I hope this extends to all the women and girls who have been abducted over the past two years – and is linked with proper health and psychosocial care and assistance to reintegrate into their communities.

The announcement that he intends to commission a sociological study to examine the origins, sponsors and international connections of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati Wal Jihad (JAS, commonly known as Boko Haram) to ensure something similar does not recur is welcome. He showed a more nuanced view of the origins of the sect than I was expecting, linking it to the extra-judicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf by the police and the sense of injustice this caused and talking of negligence, bungling and complacency. Those in Maiduguri that I talk to do speak of forces within government (both state and federal) who may directly or indirectly be supporting JAS. If true, I hope they feel right now that judgment will come one day.

However, he did only talk about the use of force in terms of dealing with the insurgency. Although better training and equipment for the armed forces, cooperation with neighbours and increased effectiveness of armed forces is necessary, I do hope that this ‘kinetic approach’ is not seen as all that is needed to ‘destroy Boko Haram.’ It needs to be married together with address the root causes of the conflict, including lack of trust in state institutions and perceptions of inequality and unfairness engendered by underdevelopment and human rights violations.

Focus and prioritisation of the situation in the North East should go hand in hand with addressing conflict that is either more latent or just does not make the headlines. Let us not take our eyes away from areas affected by violent conflict, such as the Middle Belt and Delta, and wait for things to flare up again before doing anything about conflict dynamics there. After starting from talking about the North East, Buhari said that this was not the only security issue in the country, talking about cattle rustling, the situation in the Delta and clashes between farmers and pastoralists. He committed to investing heavily in projects and programmes currently in place in the Delta, particularly in light of the amnesty due to end in December and called on people to cooperate with rehabilitation programmes. He did not have time to go into detail about what this means, but I’m looking forward to more details. And I’m just so happy that he didn’t buy into the (dangerous) narrative of ‘marauding Fulani herdsmen’ which seems to have infected national and international media and discourse, not only making things worse but criminalising ethnicity.

2) Showing commitment to democracy and human rights

In the election campaign, much was made of his past as a military dictator. Given this history, it was good to see him talk about democracy. He started by emphasising that today was an occasion to celebrate freedom and cherish democracy, giving credit to Nigerians, who had shown their commitment to entrenching the culture of democracy. He then went on to talk about the three arms of government, stating he was not seeking to encroach on legislative and judicial functions. He committed to reforming the public service and judicial system to ensure integrity and stability. In addition to looking at the breadth of government, he also looked at its depth, talking of the limits to the powers of each of the three tiers of government but that the federal government should not close its eyes to what is happening in the states and local government. Corruption at the local level was particularly picked up here as needing to be checked. He committed to doing this to ensure responsible and accountable governance, within the bounds of the constitution. With the fears of Buhari overstepping the boundaries of his authority as President that were present, it is good that he stated this so clearly in his inaugural address.

I think my favourite part of the whole speech was when he spoke of human rights violations committed by security forces. These are well documented in Nigeria but, as with most other countries, the government has not always been open to their possibility, let alone taking decisive action to prevent and punish. I am looking forward to the overhaul of the Rules of Engagement that he mentioned to avoid violations of human rights in operations. I also hope that this understanding of human rights violations includes sexual violence committed by security agents. This is something I hear about again and again when talking with civil society activists and women living in communities, but this is under-documented. Whenever this has been mentioned to security or government, the response has always been either to deny it happens or words to the effect of ‘What can you expect? They’re so far away from their wives.’ I’m looking forward to a Buhari administration instituting a zero tolerance policy towards all human rights violations, including sexual violence, starting a training programme to inculcate this at all levels and investigating allegations and punishing perpetrators (after a fair trial).

3) Planning for power and employment

He name-checked a lot of issues, from education and health to climate change, and from communicable diseases to cyber-crime and infrastructure, but the focus of his speech was, not surprisingly, on youth employment and the power sector. It is a shame he did not expand further on the others. Education and healthcare in particular are key sectors needing fundamental reform. I guess you only have a certain amount of time and you can’t talk about everything.

As someone who has (as have we all) suffered from lack of light, particularly in the last few days, I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the several studies he says are underway to bring light to the country safely, quickly and reliably. He, quite rightly, calls it a national shame.

His plans for increasing employment, particularly of young people, were described more fully than during much of his campaign. He talked about revival of agriculture and mining sectors, giving credits to small and medium size businesses, examining the best way to revive labour industries and accelerating the development of railways, roads and other infrastructure. I hope he does so in a way that is sensitive to both gender realities and conflict dynamics. After all, of the 6 million young women and men who enter the labour market in Nigeria every year, only 1/3 of the 10% of them who find jobs are women. Young women also experience sexual harassment and violence when at work, perhaps no more so than the girls who hawk products on the roadside. Research in Anambra showed that 93.1% of girl hawkers experienced some force of abuse, with 69.9% of them experiencing sexual abuse. Presently, youth employment and empowerment programmes in Nigeria not only do not work for young women, but they are seen as actually increasing conflict in communities. This is as selection procedures are not fair, so many people believe that spots go to those linked to politicians. It is because they have been designed with no market needs assessment in place so, there are no jobs in place once youth go through the programmes. And it is because not enough information is given about them, so young people do not know how or when to apply. Buhari’s administration needs to learn from the mistakes of its predecessor here.

4) Reaching out to different groups

He started his speech by thanking the outgoing President, Goodluck Jonathan, for setting a precedent that he said, made us ‘proud to be Nigerians wherever we are’ and for his support to the transition. Of course, this comes in the context of the APC complaining of lack of cooperation by the PDP and Jonathan to the Transition Committee two weeks ago – but it was important that Buhari rose above this.

The new President also made sure that, when he referred to the founding fathers (of course none of them were women) and great civilisations, he talked about those from all corners of the country. This is important, especially given the ways divisions between the North and South were drawn upon and exacerbated during the election campaign itself. Although elections were not as violent as we previously feared, tensions persist and have heightened, particularly in the South South and South East. My friends and colleagues in Port Harcourt talk about a state of ‘uneasy calm’ that has persisted weeks after the elections took place.

Buhari needs to be and be seen (perception as important as reality here) as a President for the entire nation. He needs to govern in a way that actively reaches out to and involves those in areas that did not vote for him. He needs to avoid the perception that these states are being punished.

Buhari also spoke about trade unions, the private sector, the media and civil society, as well as the importance of the legislature and judiciary performing their functions, including that to check government power. I am pleased he talked about both unions and the private sector – hopefully this means the approach taken towards stimulating the economy will be one that respects workers’ rights as well as supports employers.

He appealed to the media, including social media, to exercise its power with responsibility. This is particularly pertinent in the aftermath of the high levels of hate and dangerous speech that we saw in both traditional and social media before and during the elections. I do hope that this is not a coded message however, given initial worrying signs such as his decision (since reversed by his party) to bar AIT from covering his activities. Let us hope this was an aberration rather than a sign of things to come.

5) Quoting Shakespeare

This was a bit unexpected. He ended his speech by quoting Brutus in Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Here, Brutus urges his friends for quick and decisive action and to seize the opportunities that are being now available. Better Shakespearean scholars that I can analyse what this means in the context of Buhari’s speech and his presidency, but it does add to the general impression of needing to act and being at the cusp of something that could be great. As Buhari himself says, ‘the newly elected government is basking in a reservoir of good will and high expectations,’ seeing this as a ‘window of opportunity to fulfil these expectations.’

The expectations surrounding Buhari are (unrealistically) high. The day after Jonathan’s concession, when I arrived at work, I was met by a colleague from Maiduguri. The first thing she said to me, before even greeting me, was ‘Now we can go home.’ I spoke with young men who felt they had no alternative but to drive informal taxis who insisted that, once Buhari took office, that they would all have the meaningful careers of their dreams.

It is wonderful to have people so invested in a government and so certain that they will stand up and deliver on promises made in their elections. The lack of cynicism is both heartwarming and breathtaking. It is a welcome departure from the resignation and frustration that has been there until now. But, I worry that expectations are just too high. It is good to know that Buhari is aware of the weight of these expectations, of the burden of history upon his shoulders, and is determined to act quickly to keep the momentum of goodwill flowing.

As he himself said, ‘We have an opportunity. Let us take it.’

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inauguration is finally here – remembering #NigeriaDecides and post-election joy…

It’s Inauguration Day! And Democracy Day! Change is in the air and there’s almost too much excitement to bear.

When I think about where we were this time last year, or even this time two months ago, who would have ever thought we would get to this? During the days following the election, I felt I was living a dream – except I would never have dared to dream what actually took place. Despite all our worries and fears, although there were some irregularities and violence associated with the elections, these were much lower than thought almost certain to happen. Plus Jonathan conceded even before all the counts were in – who would ever have thought that would happen?

The night before the Presidential elections, I wrote this detailing 5 stages of emotions around the elections:

1) acute engagement: when you spend every second thinking about elections, politics and the personalities and relationships involved e.g. ’I’ve gone 10 minutes without checking Twitter – what’s happening with elections? 

2) anger: when you look too closely at what is happening and step back to think on what this all means e.g. How can human beings actively incite violence just to hold on to power even if it means people die? 

3) intense worry: when you become overwhelmed with worries: about your country, it’s future, what may happen or not happen e.g. If that happens, the South-South is going to burn/ there will be nothing left in the North. How many people will die? 

4) resignation: when you’re completely overwhelmed or you’ve just given up e.g. What will happen will happen. There’s no point being angry or worried. 

5) boredom: when you’ve just had enough e.g. They just need to happen already. I almost don’t care who wins as long as they hold and we can then get on with our lives.

You can read the whole post here.

And then, the night President Jonathan conceded defeat, I wrote a piece for The Guardian: What I saw at the Nigerian polling booths was inspirational. Brits could learn from it. It was published the following afternoon:

At 3am this morning, the official announcement came. Muhammadu Buhari, presidential candidate for the opposition All Progressive Congress (APC), had gained 15.4 million votes; the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic party (PDP), had won 12.9m. Jonathan had already made a telephone call to Buhari the night before, conceding defeat.

This is a landmark moment for Nigeria. It is the first time a sitting president has conceded defeat, and will lead to the democratic handover of power for the first time in the country’s history.

I was an elections observer and spent my weekend moving between polling units in Abuja. I have been inspired by democracy more in these past four days in Nigeria than in five years in London – and it is the people, not the politicians, who have been responsible.

The atmosphere at polling stations was a joy to witness. At 47%, the turnout might seem low, but that percentage is remarkable given the country’s insecurity, the number of people unable to collect voters’ cards, and the long queues. For most people, voting was an all-day event, and for some, an all-weekend one. In the UK, turnout is 65%. Imagine what it would be if people had to wait hours or even days to vote.

People waited patiently at polling stations in Nigeria from 6am on Saturday; the polls opened at 8am. By the time officials arrived, voters had organised themselves, signing up to a list of names in order of arrival or handing out numbered slips of papers to ensure there would be no rush when accreditation started.

In every single polling unit I visited, people waited for hours without food or water. Temperatures reached 38C. It was so hot that my phone shut off, warning me that it needed to cool down before I could use it. At one unit, I spoke with women who had been waiting for nine hours, and expected to hear their complaints and frustration. Instead, they spoke about how excited they were and how fun they were finding it all: “We are exercising our civic responsibility,” they said. “We don’t get the chance to do this every day.” This joy at being part of the democratic process was something I encountered everywhere I went.

At a small number of polling stations voting continued into Sunday. I spoke to some voters who, after waiting to vote from 7am to 9pm on Saturday, returned at 9am on Sunday. And many stayed at the polling units after they had voted. They were determined that their presence would stop potential rigging, saying, “I am waiting for the count because I want to see it with my own eyes.” When darkness fell, they brought their own generators or switched on car headlights. When officials counted ballots, voters gathered around and chanted the numbers alongside them. There were people who first went to vote at 7am on Saturday morning who were still there when counting finished at 11.15pm on Sunday night.

The nation was glued to the election for four full days. Attahiru Jega, the chair of the independent electoral commission, became a household name. Countless discussions were devoted to how he was bearing up under the pressure. Once results came in, people started to practice their arithmetic. They gathered in viewing centres with paper and pencil, subtracting six- or seven-figure numbers to determine the margin. In workplaces, people had one ear tuned to updates. Everyone was hooked to the drama and theatricality of it all. Who knew that watching a series of men (it was overwhelmingly men) reading out numbers could be so gripping?

The result of the Nigerian election coincides with the start of campaigning in the UK. I have always been against compulsory voting; casting your ballot is a right not an obligation. And I understand voter apathy. There are good reasons why people do not want to vote. But it’s difficult to spend two days watching people who are so excited about voting, regardless of the fact it has taken up their whole weekend, and not to start changing your views about democracy.

Every reason people in the UK might have not to vote, Nigerians also have, in spades.

Politicians are corrupt and only care about themselves? In Nigeria, an alleged $20bn of government funds have gone missing from one government agency alone.

I can’t bring myself to vote for any of them? As the Economist stated, the choice in Nigeria was between a former dictator and a failed president.

They’re all the same? Well, there is no ideological difference between the APC and PDP. In fact, given the number of defections and counter-defections, they are essentially the same group of people.

I don’t think my vote will matter? Nigeria is a country with a history of rigging elections.

Despite high levels of disillusionment in politics, people in Nigeria still voted. I wondered for days why this was the case, why the atmosphere felt so different to that in the UK, and then I realised. This election galvanised the country, with many becoming interested in politics for the first time, because Nigerians trusted in their power to effect change. The majority felt the president was not performing and needed to leave office to give someone else a chance to do a better job. They believed that although the candidates, the political establishment and the system were not perfect, that they, and by extension their votes, mattered.

People in the UK have lost this sense that they have the ability to change what happens among those in power. This is despite having a real political choice. Yes, there’s a rush to the centre ground in the UK, but parties do have different visions for the future of the country and concrete plans for how to get there. As voters, we need to make our opinions on this known.

In the hours following the Nigerian elections, commentators focused on what Nigeria can teach the rest of Africa about democracy – but the UK has a lot to learn too. Like Nigerians, we also have a stake in the future of our country, and the power to decide which direction it takes.

And now transition is actually happening. Happy Democracy Day everyone. May Buhari live up to at least some of the (very high) expectations surrounding him.

put away the scriptures and follow justice

I’ve not been very good at keeping this updated with articles I’ve written and had published elsewhere. Here is a piece that I wrote for openDemocracy back in February. I’ll be putting up others over the next few days.

During a visit to Bayelsa state in Southern Nigeria last year, I was taken aback to hear a male Christian leader quote Karl Marx to describe how trust in God reduces the potential for struggle and mobilisation: “religion is an opiate of the masses.” Belief in the divine can stop people from acting when those with power are seen as favoured, regardless of their corruption, crimes and human rights abuses. All too often, inequality is seen as God’s will.

When I began doing human rights and peace-building work in Nigeria in 2013, I struggled with the role religion should play. I worried about strengthening structures that continue to be patriarchal and homophobic, and which in some cases accentuate religious tensions that lead to violence. The conflict in the Middle Belt of the country is a good example. This recent sermon by David Oyedepo, one of the most influential pastors in Nigeria, is another:

God has anointed me to lead the revolution against Islamist jihadists… You catch anyone that looks like them. [Stamps foot] Kill him. There is no report to anybody. Kill him. Pull out his neck and spill his blood, I will spit it on the ground.”

When I talk about religion, I’m referring to religious institutions and ‘big men’ rather than to the personal beliefs that people hold. Many people of faith question the power of religious institutions and the ways in which they use it. When the Ebola virus came to Nigeria last year, for example, many pastors and faith healers invited those who were worried to come to them for a cure. Most people of faith I know denounced this act as highly irresponsible.

But faith-based organisations in countries with inadequate welfare states also serve the vulnerable and marginalised. They garner huge respect and influence by offsetting the failure of the state to provide basic services. They are filled with women and men who have a genuine passion for the work they do—setting up safe houses for women experiencing violence and abuse, bringing different religious communities together in inter-faith dialogue, providing food and shelter for the displaced and much more. My time spent with them has been among the most rewarding in my work.

So I’ve come to realise that I have to work with what’s already here—what has meaning for and influence over people’s lives—and that often does mean religion.

I was brought up a Hindu. I tried to see my way through the thicket of hetero-normativity and male domination by learning the history of alternative practices, but I couldn’t find a form of Hinduism that wasn’t shot through by Brahminical patriarchy, one without ingrained caste-based ablist discrimination.  I go to temples with my family and do puja (worship) with them, but I am guided by my own ethics rather than religious morals.

I doubt whether any revisionist Hinduism could uproot its oppressive nature: even the most reform minded believers come up against unambiguous words in religious texts and practices eventually. For example, most religions teach the superiority of men over women. The Buddha may have changed his mind about allowing women to join the Sangha (community) after protests from female followers, but the eight Garudhammas or “weighty rules” still entrench hierarchy between women and men regardless of their knowledge and experience.

Hetero-normative and patriarchal interpretations dominate. This is unsurprising given that most texts are written, interpreted and taught by men. It is vital to reinterpret these texts, to question what is presented as ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ and recover the lived experiences of different people in the past. This is particularly so in countries where there’s little room for manoeuvre outside of religious frameworks.

One of the most effective strategies in the toolbox of the activist can be their knowledge of culture and religion, whether this is the history of same sex love and desire in India or the role of women in Buddhism. Our ancestors can surprise us with what was permitted, accepted and even celebrated: so-called ‘unchanging’ traditions are never static since social mores alter over time.

Nevertheless, transforming religious structures isn’t easy. As a woman in Port Harcourt recently told me, “I am a Christian and we are taught we must be submissive wives. I now know that although I still must submit, there are some things that should not be tolerated.” She was talking about violence against women and girls, so there is progress of a sort in shifting consciousness. But the transformation I seek is not that women know that violence against them is wrong, but that they see themselves as equals—and so much else besides.

Perhaps these deeper changes won’t happen unless religion itself is fundamentally transformed. Given the power religion has already, do we risk strengthening the hands of reactionaries and patriarchs when working with religious institutions? Recently an Indian activist told me about an all-male gathering of religious leaders that was organized by an international aid agency to talk about the struggle against sex-selective abortion. On returning home, the men started speaking about all abortion as ‘sin.’

An over reliance on religion can also marginalise religious minorities that are already ostracised. It can strengthen narratives that declare that ‘religion’ and ‘nation’ are synonymous, such as the myth of “Hindutva” culture propagated by Hindu nationalists in India. The logical result is that all others are seen as ‘foreigners’ who dilute the ‘purity of the nation.’

This includes those who do not believe in any religion, whose numbers are often kept artificially low by social opprobrium and the danger that comes with questioning religious orthodoxy. Apostasy is a death sentence in many places. Most of my friends in Nigeria who see themselves as humanists are not ‘out’ to their colleagues, families and friends, which is understandable when the potential risks include being beaten by family members, committed to a psychiatric hospital for the medical diagnosis of “the personality disorder of atheism,” and receiving death threats.

In the UK, those wishing to leave religion have a safety net since there are structures in place to protect them. However, even here, the move from ‘multiculturalism’ to ‘multi-faithism’—where ethnic minorities are viewed through the lens of religion, often at the expense of any analysis of race—marginalises the diversity of voices and viewpoints. Relations with racialised communities have become mediated by religious leaders. Black people have become essentialised as inherently religious, casting those who are not as ‘inauthentic.’ Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion—everywhere and for everyone.

Yet fundamentalism is increasing in many parts of the world. Contemporary religious-political movements make use of the state machinery to consolidate power and impose their version of doctrine. The primary victims of fundamentalist action are those who come from the religion, community and society in question. There are many, like those in Women Against Fundamentalism, who are fighting these trends, and they need allies.

Nevertheless, in countries where religion is a major social force, there’s a real need to engage with religious leaders precisely because of the power they have. Not doing so minimises impact, and means that one can’t reach the majority of women and men for whom faith is a daily lived public and private reality, often mediated through religious structures.

In some cases, pushing for the implementation of religious doctrine may actually help to realise human rights, at least to some extent. For example, using the technicalities of Sharia jurisprudence saved Safiya Hussaini and Amina Lawal from death by stoning for adultery in Nigeria—a ‘crime’ supposedly ‘proven’ by their pregnancies. Safiya says she was repeatedly raped, but she was still judged guilty. In many communities, pushing for rights by using religious arguments is more likely to be listened to, heard and accepted, both by those who are marginalised and those in power.

Religion also offers its own possibilities for transformation. In Malawi for example, Anais Bertrand-Dansereau writes about how youth organisations that are faith based can have a more positive approach to sexuality by telling young people that “sex is a gift from God.”  They can raise and discuss issues that others shy away from for fear of being seen as ‘immoral.’ This teaching is restricted to sex within monogamous, heterosexual marriages, so it has its limits in terms of human rights, but still it is instructive.

However, the women and men everywhere who are trying to challenge oppression and discrimination need to be supported directly, not just through religious leaders. I recently heard a woman in the Niger Delta talking about violence against women and girls:

“I now have a platform to challenge our imams about what they say. Mostly our husbands don’t allow us to meet and attend gatherings. They choose which Islamic schools we attend… It’s our imams who are asked to represent us. Women don’t attend Friday prayer – but Muslim women organise too.”

The growing trend in the development industry to work with those in power—meaning men, religious leaders and traditional authorities—at the expense of strengthening the mobilisation of those oppressed is profoundly dangerous. Religion is power and it represents the status quo.

For these and many other reasons, we need to engage with religion, but to do so critically. We also need to fight for, maintain and strengthen secular spaces where people of all faiths and none can come together and organise, outside of the influence that established religion can exert elsewhere.

Do we see transformation in terms of negotiation and compromise or disruption and revolution? This has implications for the nature of the changes we’re working towards and the process of how to get there. Working with religion can be an important stepping stone along the way, but we should not be constrained in our vision or strategy by what is said by holy books or holy men.

After all, in the history of struggle, freedom is only gained when it is demanded. It is achieved when those who are oppressed and their allies rise up and force the hands of those in power. We should not be constrained by religion when we envision and strive for the transformation of society. As the Indian activist, intellectual and architect of the Constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar once said, “Put away the orthodox scriptures. Follow justice.”

the 5 stages of elections: what we (I) feel when thinking of #NigeriaDecides

It’s the night before elections and I’ve just returned from the supermarket and its snarl of cars outside. I’ve never seen the place so rammed, especially not on a Friday night. It was filled with people stocking up – on food, essential items, alcohol – and board games. In one basket, I counted no fewer than 5 different board games, ranging from Monopoly to Cluedo. With all movements restricted between 8am to 5pm when voting takes place (I don’t understand this decision, surely 1. You want to encourage not discourage people from going out to vote? and 2. I would imagine the risk of violence and insecurity would increase not decrease in the evening?), people are bunkering down at home, planning a weekend of movies, games, cooking up a storm and, for some of them, boozing too. I just hope they go out and vote at some point.

This week, I’ve been reflecting on my feelings and that of those around me about elections. For me, elections (and the situation in North East Nigeria) have been a constant presence in the back, if not right at the forefront, of my mind for the past three months. I *almost* cannot imagine what it will be like once elections hold and the inevitable post election drama is over.

Looking at myself and those I’ve been speaking with, I’ve seen at least five different stages or attitudes towards elections. These are not at linear or even cyclical. I’ve found myself passing from one to another, sometimes able to note the transitions when doing so, and at times being torn between two or three concurrently.

1) Acute engagement

This is when you spend every second thinking about elections, politics and the personalities and relationships involved. You scrutinise and analyse statements, statistics and facts, linking what you heard just five seconds ago with information stretching back weeks, months or even years. Your mind is full of the minutiae of the politics of the presidential race as well as contestations at the state level in at least 5-10 states. You spend 12 straight hours glued to AIT or Channels, with one eye on Twitter, in the hope of a statement from Jega (yes, this was me on 7th February). You look at five maps of the breakdown of APC/ PDP/ battleground states that all have widely different colour distributions until your head starts spinning and your eyes can’t focus anymore.

Common thoughts or statements at this point can be:  I’ve gone 10 minutes without checking Twitter – what’s happening with elections? Did you read Femi Fani-Kayode’s recent article? But Jega spoke and said…, what does this mean about whether INEC is going to be able to withstand political pressure? If you track Buhari’s statements over the last 6 weeks, you’ll find… The people of the Southern Senatorial Zone of x State won’t be happy if xx is the xx party pick because the current Governor has pre-determined the party primary – it’s completely against zoning! To what extent will the number of women in the National Assembly drop? 

2)  Anger

This comes when you look too closely at what is happening and step back to think on what this all means. You see politicians in retreat in the Abuja/ Lagos [insert locations relevant to your country here] bubble without any awareness of life for the majority of people in the country. You look at the venality, the corruption, the lying, the disregard for human suffering, the high levels of insecurity, the significant number of your fellow country people living in daily fear for their lives and those of their children, and you start to seethe. You might waver between rage, incomprehension and just plain trying to understand how people can be this way. This may be directed at politicians or at other influential people.

Common thoughts or statements at this point can be:  I just don’t understand. What is wrong with these politicians? How can human beings actively incite violence just to hold on to power even if it means people die?  How can they not act when they see what is happening? How can they say/ do that when they know what it means? Where is their humanity? Women and girls have been being abducted from the North East for years now – and still, nobody does anything.

3) Intense worry

This is when you become overwhelmed with worries: about your country, it’s future, what may happen or not happen. This can either take the form of worry about the outcome of elections, the conduct of elections or about the potential of violence

Common thoughts or statements at this point can be:  What’s going to happen? If PVCs don’t work, will there be riots? Remember what Buhari did back then, it will destroy the country if we go back to that. How will we survive 4 more years of Jonathan? What impact will the violent nature of political contestation have on women’s engagement? Will elections be rigged even with the card readers? How? How can they be free and fair given… If that happens, the South-South is going to burn/ there will be nothing left in the North. How many people will die? What do the high levels of hate speech mean? Is there any chance of averting violence at all? How do we do it? We should have started earlier. We haven’t done enough. What more can we do?

4) Resignation

At this point, you’re completely overwhelmed or you’ve just given up. You have been intensely caring for so long that you’re just burnt out right now. You might get back to a more active stage later on – or you may not. There are two aspects to this: complete and utter despair or thinking that *somehow* everything is going to be okay.

Common thoughts or statements at this point can be:  This is Nigeria and Nigeria somehow always comes through. What will happen will happen. There’s no point being angry or worried. Nothing I can do will make a difference. It’s in God’s hands. What can we do but pray?

5) Boredom

You’ve just had enough.

Common thoughts or statements at this point can be: Are we still talking about the elections? It’s been months now. They just need to happen already. I almost don’t care who wins as long as they hold and we can then get on with our lives.

Sometimes, you want to stay at a certain stage. You don’t want to leave the safe haven of resignation to go back to being angry or intensely worried. You’re so busy being engaged in the drama and the pageantry of elections and analysing everything that you don’t wan to stop to have time to feel anything else. But, inexorably, times passes and what you’re feeling and where you are at changes.

I’m very well aware that this is reflective of a very particular political class (or perhaps just me and my friends).

What do you think? Does any of this seem familiar to you? Could it be applied to other countries or contexts outside Nigeria in 2015?

Bob Geldof and yet another case of white saviourism

Around a month ago, I was one of a number of people who spoke with Barry Malone of Al Jazeera about our thoughts of the latest (sigh) Band Aid single. Given that it’s now mere hours to the announcement of the Christmas Number One (please tell me it’s not going to be this), I wanted to post what I wrote in response to the questions we were asked:

Do you know it’s Christmas?
Well, self-important celebrities are getting together to do a charity single latching on to the issue of the day to raise money for “those poor people over there” so I guess it must be. But given everyone I know is thinking and talking about politics and forthcoming elections in Nigeria, or the latest fight on Twitter, Christmas seems very far away.

What do you think of Western charity songs like this as a response to African emergencies? 
It’s yet another classic sign of white Western saviourism, in this case with celebrities swooping in to “save” the people of Africa. Not only does this take away the agency of people living in African countries who are the ones who actually lead and make change happen, but it perpetuates stereotypes of conflict, poverty and disease as the single story of the continent.

This is likely to exacerbate the discrimination of Africans as potential Ebola-carriers that we have already seen. It is also a manifestation of increasing celebritisation whereby every possible topic has a famous musician or actor attached who become “experts” listened to at the expense of the actual people whose lives are affected. Darfur has George Clooney. Ending poverty has Bono. Now Ebola has Bob Geldof. Research shows that it’s the celebrities and their image not the causes that benefit the most.

If the purpose of Bob Geldof and others is really to help the Ebola response rather than burnish their own profiles as modern day saints, they would donate money behind the scenes. The money that will be raised through this Ebola single could easily be raised by these rich musicians having a whip round among themselves and their friends.

You can read what the others thought here.

Ugh, I’m so fed up of celebrities and their extractive and self serving attempts to harness other people’s poverty and marginalisation for their own purposes. I am really disappointed in all those charities that have hitched themselves to the Band Aid bandwagon and supported the single.

when the ‘saviour’ abuses: Simon Harris, charities and sexual abuse

News media on Tuesday reported that Simon Harris had been found guilty of sexually abusing Kenyan boys in Gilgil while running an education charity. He was accused of luring the boys, who all lived on the street, into his home in Kenya by promising food, money and school education and threatening them with death if they told anyone what he had done to them. The jury convicted him of five cases of sexual assault, three indecent assaults and possession of four indecent images. One of the boys who survived this sexual violence was six years old. Another boy killed himself before the jury reached its verdict.

Police say this sexual abuse went on for more than a decade and that these children are likely to be only a few of potentially hundreds who were abused. According to Mary Coulson who heads a charity to support street children in Gilgil, ‘We learned the street kids, the vast majority, if not all of the boys, had been involved in some way with Simon Harris. This has been going on for 20 years.’

A former teacher, Harris started the charity VAE in the mid 1990s after organising school expedition trips to Kenya. Its aim, to give British young people opportunities to do gap years teaching Kenyan children, is hardly one I support given my view that these gap years benefit the usually privileged people who do them much more than those they are supposed to be helping – but that’s an issue for another post.

Harris started VAE shortly after he was barred from teaching in Britain – because of his history of sexual abuse against boys. In the 1980s, he pleaded guilty to six charges of indecent assault against three boys at boarding school Shebbear College at which he was teaching Latin. He spent 15 months in jail for possessing indecent images of children. The parents of the boys did not want to prosecute but the Secretary of State for Education was informed and Harris was banned from teaching in British state schools.

The sexual exploitation and abuse came to light due to a Channel 4 team making a documentary about Restart, a charity working with street children in Gilgil. Filmmaker Wael Dabbous and social worker Dan Nderitu started gathering evidence from street children who spoke of being sexually abused by Harris. Their testimonies was gathered and the West Mercia Police started investigating as a result.

All kudos to Wael Dabbous, Dan Nderitu, Cathy Newman and Channel 4 for investigating this when the possibility first occurred, going back to follow up and bringing this to light. Well done to those involved, including the West Mercia police, for their investigation and prosecution of what is landmark case: the first time a British man has been convicted for sexual offences that took place in Africa. Investigation, arrest and prosecution here are important signs that international borders (although serving as other kinds of barriers) are increasingly not preventing the pursuit of justice for crimes of sexual and gender based violence.

It is an incredible story, seemingly made for the Hollywood treatment – of course from the point of view of the suitably charismatic A-list actors (Nicole? Angelina? George?) who would be portrayed as swooping in and ‘saving’ Kenyan street children.

However, reading about this case raised serious concerns for me. I have four main sets of questions.

What mechanisms are in place to support the survivors of abuse? No matter how gentle the criminal justice process may have tried to make it for these children, the whole procedure – arriving at a hotel, the video link with a British courtroom, examination and cross-examination by foreign lawyers, cannot but have added to the trauma of the sexual abuse that they experienced. Indeed, many survivors talk of how they feel re-victimised and re-traumatised by the criminal justice process.

Beyond the court case, I hope the children concerned will be supported by those in Gilgil, in terms of pursuing livelihood options, combating stigma and shame for the sexual abuse and, importantly, in the provision of counselling and other psychosocial services. Given the unknown numbers of street children who may have been sexually abused by Harris, this needs not only to focus on the ones that testified, but also reach those that the police do not even know about.

Why did Simon Harris hold this post in the first place? It is noticeable that the charity for which he worked has not been much mentioned in the news coverage. I have no doubt that this is a deliberate so as to protect their name and reputation. This makes sense, providing they truly bear no responsibility for what happened.

However, reading that Simon Harris is listed on the sex offenders’ register rings major alarm bells. Organisations, when they hire people who will have any contact with children, require them to undertake a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), formerly referred to as a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), check. The aim of this is specifically to screen out those who are unsuitable for work that involves children or vulnerable adults. I have had to fill out a CRB form at least four times for different jobs and volunteering in my life. When I accepted the offer for my current job, one of the first things I had to do was fill in a CRB check. This was despite the fact that I was actually to have little contact with children in my work. Indeed, the most often way that I interact with children at work is when their parents (mothers) bring them to meetings or workshops.

When reading the story, I kept wondering why, given Simon Harris was appointed by a British charity, did they not require him to fill in a DBS/ CRB form? This would have straight away flagged his previous history of sexual abuse of children under his care. I believe in rehabilitation of offenders and that, once someone has served their time, they should not be penalised for their criminal history. However, someone who has a history of sexually abusing children should not be put in a position where he has power over children. His behaviour, not only amounted to sexual abuse and a crime, but was also an abuse of his position. In this case, the head of an education charity promised young, vulnerable street boys access to education in order to get them into his house.

What seemed to me like an appalling lack of due diligence by a nameless charity became clearer when I read that Simon Harris set up VAE, the organisation concerned. What kinds of regulation or standards are followed when the person in question is the one in charge?

Why did magistrates overturn a ban on him travelling to Kenya? He said he had notified Kenyan authorities of his conviction and that the police there would monitor his actions. It turns out he had doctored these documents, but even if this was true, what was the reasoning of magistrates that a man who had plead guilty to indecent assault against children and been barred from working in state schools in England should continue doing education work with children in Kenya? A serious case review has been launched into the case to see if authorities should have done anything differently. I hope they can learn from this to make sure that nothing similar happens again.

How much of all of this was influenced by the fact that it was Kenyan street children in question? Not only were they African children in a far off land, but also they were street children and therefore some of the most vulnerable and marginalised. Their realities were such that boys were willing to endure abuse to get food and shelter. According to Kelvin Lay, a National Crime Agency child abuse investigator, ‘One victim described it as the difference between heaven and hell. It was like they were suffering this sexual abuse to be in heaven rather than going back to hell.’

Considered ‘vermin’ by many, who would have listened to them? Even if they had tried to speak out before, they would have been highly likely to be dismissed. After all, who would believe the word of boys living on the street against that of a middle aged white British male charity head? Even if they had believed them, very few would have gone up against the hierarchies of whiteness, maleness and Britishness in power.

After all, like peacekeepers before them, charity workers, especially white ones from Europe, North America or Australian, are considered as ‘saviours’, selflessly working for those poorer and less fortunate than themselves. Makua Matua writes of the Saviours – Victims – Savages triad of international human rights discourse whereby (black/ brown) victims have to be rescued from (black/brown) savages by (white) saviours. It is difficult enough to persuade people to interrogate this white saviour complex, let alone think that these ‘saviours’ can be abusers. Sexual abuse and exploitation in peacekeeping forces was exposed many years ago but progress to prevent and adequately respond to this continues to be slow. Let us hope that this case, if nothing else, leads to scrutiny, oversight and accountability of charity and aid workers.

Spinning Stories: Competing Narratives about ‘Boko Haram’

Last week, I attended two events on Jama’atu Ahlu Sunna Li Da’awati wal Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, and the situation in North-East Nigeria.

As one of the speakers, Dr Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos himself said, in addition to the war between the government and JAS, there is also a war of words between conflicting narratives of what is taking place. This came out very strongly in the different positions taken by the speakers at the two events, especially concerning the ‘internationalisation’ of JAS.

I have my own thoughts about this. It’s clear the ‘internationalisation’ narrative fits very neatly into the interests of certain actors in growing militarisation and international presence in the region. I’m yet to be persuaded that the evidence backs this narrative. What is used in support seems too much like constructing theories on the basis of stringing together a number of assertions based on flimsy evidence interpreted in certain ways.

I am open to changing my mind if presented with the evidence.

There were many other issues discussed beyond the internationalisation debate. Can elections be held in the North-East given the state of insecurity? Who does it benefit to hold or not hold elections? From where does JAS get food, fuel and arms? Is there an incentive to have an amnesty process?

You can read the full discussions at the events at my Storify of the event.

And, of course, the end of the week saw the announcement of a ceasefire by the Chief of Defence Staff, followed closely by continued attacks over the weekend in the North-East.