The ‘Understanding Nigeria’ Series By Tolu Ogunlesi
Nigeria is a supremely interesting place, and that’s me being understated. Today’s article outlines five things all Nigerians and lovers and watchers of Nigeria ought to keep in mind as they daily strive to understand the “Federal Republic of Imponderability.”
Headlines: Nigerian newspapers tend to go for the most outrageous headlines they can find. They know their country people very well; that people amass current affairs “expertise” wholly based on the headlines they encounter. Hence, the decisions to craft the most sensational, outlandish headlines possible. It probably started from the days of the Free Newspaper Readers Association of Nigeria, when all the FRAN members had to go by was the front page of the newspaper, from which they then had to infer or deduce – or invent – the rest of the story. It was not unusual, in the heyday of the association, for people to get into crazy brawls based on their differing perceptions of headlines and a handful of paragraphs.
Now, in the age of social media, we have carried those habits online. Nigerians read only the headlines – and of course the comments! – and then start to declaim knowledgeably. It’s all fun and games until you’re the victim, the person whose sensible or innocent comments have been cast into a misleading, or totally false headline.
The next time you read a Nigerian news headline, or have one read to you on one of those ubiquitous early morning radio reviews, pause for a moment before you switch to “fire-and-brimstone” mode. Make an effort to read the story first. In many cases, there will be nothing in the story to warrant the headline. In some cases, there will be nothing in the story to warrant the story.
Hype: This is an offshoot of the “Headlines” theory above. Learnt to discount most of what Nigerian big men and women say about their achievements. Because there’s no culture of fact-checking in these parts, politicians and business people get away with saying anything that catches their fancy. Everyone’s venture is the first, or the “first-to-accomplish-this-or-that”, or the biggest. It wasn’t until oil prices dropped and exposed many of our governors that we realised that some of them have been lying through their teeth about Internally Generated Revenues . For years, the Peoples Democratic Party called itself Africa’s largest party, not based on any hard-fact comparisons with any other party on the continent, but simply because it is in the Nigerian DNA to proclaim everything Nigerian the biggest in Africa.
A lot of what you’ll read in the news – whether it’s a government agency boasting about how much it has saved by adopting a particular technology, or a ministry talking about how many jobs its policies have helped create, or a governor saying he has tripled the IGR – is exaggerated or false. Unfortunately, the simple law of repetition – “A lie, repeated often enough, becomes the truth” – is a lot more potent than the law of “Just because someone boasts about it doesn’t mean it’s true.”
‘Anonymocracy’: Democracy is a government of the people by the people for the people. Replace “people” with “anonymous sources” and what you get is an “Anonymocracy”. Next time you read a news story in a print or online Nigerian newspaper, try to calculate the ratio of anonymous sources to that of named individuals. In this country, there are no newsroom qualms whatsoever regarding the use of unnamed sources. Get used to reading cover stories sourced entirely anonymously: “Our source disclosed.”
Now, everywhere around, the world newspapers sometimes have to use anonymous sources. Foreign newspapers like to use the phrase “persons familiar with the situation”. It took three decades for the public revelation that Mark Felt was the “Deep Throat” of the Watergate scandal. Where they differ from us is that they deem it necessary to regularly hold conversations about the responsible use of anonymity, and the inherent risks and possible safeguards. Jill Abramson, a former Executive Editor of the New York Times, in a 2008 interview, acknowledged that while some anonymous sources are “solid, reliable, high-minded”, some “leak information for self-serving reasons, to float a policy balloon or damage a rival. Anonymous sources can be misguided, wrong or even lie to reporters.”
We don’t seem to have any time for that level of concern about the integrity of sourcing in Nigeria. Which is why when you read many stories, you get the sense that a so-called “Presidency source” is actually no more than one of those well-fed peacocks endlessly roaming the Villa grounds.
Nigerian Time: The event invitation says 7pm; but you know you will not get there until 10pm. You get there at 10.30pm, and the Master of Ceremonies is just welcoming guests, or leading a rendition of the national anthem. But if you’re looking for the most substantial manifestations of Nigerian Time, look away from the event centres and instead at the project sites. The time-to-completion for infrastructure projects in Nigeria must be one of the least predictable anywhere in the world.
Take the example of the National Integrated Power Projects. Conceived as a “fast-track” intervention to build power plants across the Niger Delta, as well as expand transmission and distribution and gas supply capacity, the NIPP is 11 this year. It has been beset by problems. There was the militancy in the delta, which peaked shortly after the project kicked off. There was also a lengthy lull during the reign of Umaru Yar’Adua, when there was trouble in the regulator’s house (NERC), following a controversy around the cost of the electricity reform agenda under Olusegun Obasanjo. You remember the debate at that time: Was it $9bn, was it $16bn? In that time, fate placed a cellotape on the PAUSE button of the NIPP. Add to these the usual Nigerian problems – gas-powered plants built without anyone appearing to think about how to get gas to the plants; turbines imported without anyone thinking about how to move them from port to project site – and the end result is unsurprising: a project delayed by several years.
Going by the most recent version of the privatisation calendar, the 10 NIPP plants were supposed to have been sold a year ago. They haven’t, and I can bet they won’t be for another couple of years. Several other examples exist, from the power sector, and elsewhere. There’s the Geometric Power Plant in Aba, supposed to have been inaugurated two years ago; there are any number of solar or windfarm projects scattered across the north, all showing up on Google with the starting-block optimism that attends every project conception in Nigeria, and then a loud, long silence, or feeble declarations assuring that ‘in spite of the challenges the project is still on course.’ Nigeria has its own timing that no amount of project-planning or prayer-meeting will shift; preserve your sanity by accepting that fact.
‘Flauntstagram’: As I was writing this piece, I came across an interesting rule: “If you want to know how corrupt a politician is, follow his/her children on social media, postulated by an anonymous (forget everything I previously said against anonymity!) commentator called olu_kay, on the Sahara Reporters website.
The unwritten rule of social media use in Nigeria is “If you can’t flaunt it, you haven’t got it.” A politician’s real asset declaration form is the one his children submit to Facebook and Instagram. Politicians’ kids here are only too eager to show the world how well they live. Have you ever bothered to see what the children of your salary-owing governor are posting on social media? For the girls, the badges of honour are the designer bags and shoes and dresses; for the boys, the deal is posing with bundles of dollars, “coffins” of exotic champagne, and convoys of luxury cars. And then there are the private jet interiors, and the homes in London or Monaco. If the lifestyle doesn’t match daddy’s or mummy’s official salary and/or declared sources of income Daddy/Mummy is playing interesting games with public funds. No point pretending otherwise. (Take note EFCC, ICPC, and all citizens).
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