Nigeria Matters

Nigeria’s September of Shipwrecks

This September, I was determined to scour for signs that Nigeria was moving in a good direction. I was able to count one solid, uplifting sign: the country’s apparent arrest of the Ebola virus. Given the devastation the virus continues to wreak in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, the Nigerian feat is impressive. There was also minor heartening news. After months of being humiliated by Boko Haram fighters, Nigerian soldiers seemed to have discovered how to stand and fight. In a series of recent battles, they were able to put the Islamist fighters on the run.

In several other areas, sadly, Nigeria continued to excel in infamy.

First entry: On Friday, September 12, a building at T.B. Joshua’s Synagogue Church of all Nations (SCOAN) in Ikotun, Lagos buckled and collapsed. At the last count, 115 people had perished, most of them South African habitués of the church.

Buildings collapse in other parts of the world, and often claim a spectacular number of lives. You’d think that the high casualty count at SCOAN would be the most significant part of the tragedy. Think again. Within days, the tragedy had developed macabre, even farcical, limbs.

The first grotesque limb had to do with the trigger for the collapse of the building that served as guest rooms for (mostly) international visitors to Mr. Joshua’s “miracle” factory. The media reported that the building’s foundation was originally designed for three stories. However, as Mr. Joshua’s spiritual business continued to boom—bringing an ever-increasing traffic his way—he decided to pile an additional two floors on top of the structure. According to reporters, the self-styled prophet did not let the matter of obtaining an official permit for this major structural alteration to detain him. Lucky to operate in a country where laws are hardly sacrosanct, he simply did as he wished.

By this account, Mr. Joshua is culpable for the collapse of the building and the deaths of its occupants. Except that the man hastened to offer his own account of what—or who—brought his building down.

In the gospel according to Joshua, the whole gruesome event was both a form of spiritual warfare as well as the malicious act of a terrorist organization, most likely Boko Haram, the insurgent group that has made much of Nigeria’s northeast sector a turf of carnage. In fact, said the prophet, he was the real target of those who destroyed the guesthouse. To buttress his theory, the prophet’s people released video clips of an aircraft or several aircraft seen flying near the building shortly before it was doomed.

Joshua’s allegation is astonishing. If it is true, then the implications are dreadful indeed. It would suggest that Boko Haram has achieved a reach and level of sophistication that should cause Nigerians—and the world—sleepless nights. If Joshua’s account was remotely credible, it should have invited an urgent and thorough investigation by Nigeria’s security agencies. If it was a desperate fib, then the government should have come out quickly to debunk it.

At any rate, an investigation—if one were warranted—would have revealed the identity of the plane(s) that overflew the now crumbled guesthouse. It would have explained whether the plane was unidentified, its mission ominous. The Nigerian government should have been anxious to reassure both citizens and the world that Boko Haram had not taken to strafing buildings from aircraft. For if the SCOAN building had been bombed from the air, then what would stop the same perpetrators from targeting other establishments in Lagos and other Nigerian locations?

Yet, where speech was imperative, the Nigerian government remained mum. In the face of official silence, Mr. Joshua’s bizarre, conspiratorial whodunit was allowed to roam free, jostling for space with the narrative of his grave violation of building codes.

In the days after the tragedy, the drama got even weirder. Officials of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) told reporters that, for 48 hours after the building collapsed, SCOAN officials barred them from entering the church premises. That means that rescue work, which could have saved many, was criminally delayed.

In many countries, Mr. Joshua would have been detained and questioned. Instead, Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos and President Goodluck Jonathan took turns visiting him to commiserate, inadvertently lending credibility to his claim of being a victim of spiritual and aerial bombardment.

Meanwhile, an intrepid reporter, Nicholas Ibekwe, posted an audio recording of an embarrassing meeting between a group of Nigerian reporters and the SCOAN “prophet.” The atmosphere of the meeting is shockingly lighthearted, filled with a gaggle of voices, laughter and banter that would have been appropriate in a comedy show, not an interview over a somber subject. Early in the taped conversation, Mr. Joshua is heard offering the reporters N50,000 each “for fuel in their cars.” He declines the reporters’ invitation to express any regrets about the lost lives. Ever obsessed with his reputation as a “miracle” man, he redirects the salivating reporters to focus on the people who were miraculously rescued from the wreckage.

Second entry: South African authorities seized cash of $9.3 million ferried into their country in a private jet owned by Ayo Oritsejafor, a high-profile pastor. Apparently, the cash was meant for the purchase weapons.

Two years ago, on receiving the jet as a birthday gift from his congregants, the flamboyant pastor had defended such an obscenely expensive acquisition by saying the jet would facilitate his global evangelizing mission. Now, with the jet caught in a questionable cash-for-arms deal, the pastor washed his hands off the scandal. He had placed the jet with an aircraft leasing company, he said. He had no way of knowing who leased it, and for what purpose.

Let’s forget for now the question of how the pastor has been faring in doing “God’s” work without his cherished jet. For me, there was a far more curious development. The Nigerian government reportedly claimed that the seized cash belonged to it. And it tried to justify this unusual arms buying mission. Which other country smuggles cash into another country in a private jet for the purpose of buying weapons? Why would the Nigerian government seek to procure weapons the same way gangsters and mob groups do, with hoards of cash? How much of the country’s business is transacted in raw cash? And who’s accounting for all that cash slushing about? Did Nigeria slip back to the Stone Age when bank transfers were impossible?

Third entry: Last week, Nigeria witnessed a new low in the desecration of the country’s judiciary. The Chief Judge of Ekiti State, Justice A.S. Daramola, ordered all state courts closed. This after hundreds of thugs stormed a high court where a governorship election petition was being heard. The hoodlums manhandled the presiding judge, J. O. Adeyeye, and tore his suit to shreds. A statement authorized by the Chief Judge accused police officers at the scene of looking on “unconcerned and uninterested as judges, magistrates and other members of staff had to run for dear lives.”

As I write, not one person has been arrested for this impunity. Instead, arsonists swept through the state capital, Ado Ekiti, making a bonfire of vehicles and buildings belonging to the party of the outgoing governor, Kayode Fayemi. Nobody has cared to explain how the spree of arson is designed to “move Ekiti State forward,” to invoke the favorite mantra of Nigerian politicians.

Fourth entry: The ironically named All Progressives Congress (APC) showed once again why it is the best campaign gift to the (mis)ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Last week, the APC announced the price of its presidential election form: N27 million naira!

This tone-deaf move exposes the ideological hollowness of the omnibus contraption called the APC. To put such a scandalous, non-refundable price tag merely on the form that enables party members to contest for the presidential ticket is to imply that the party regards the Nigerian Presidency as a looters’ bazaar. This singular stipulation is guaranteed to exclude any candidate with a modicum of vision and personal integrity.

The APC’s N27 million fee for a presidential form is, I suggest, 27 million reasons to hold all buyers of the ticket in deep suspicion. There are lots of wealthy Nigerians who can afford the fee, but that’s not the point. A wealthy presidential aspirant should be driven by a passion for providing stellar leadership to a country that’s been done in by lucre-obsessed mediocrities. Show me a person willing to pay N27 million for a chance to represent his party in a presidential election and I will show you a man or woman whose first order of business will be to serve his depleted bank account.

It’s not enough to point to the fact that the PDP does the same thing. The APC covets the crown of “main opposition party.” True identity as an opposition party should entail a willingness to repudiate the PDP’s MO and mores.

It’s bad enough that the APC has failed to articulate an identity beyond slavish mimicry of the PDP. I have said it before, and it bears repeating: the wielding of a broom does not a program make.

Unless the APC rescinds its outrageous decision, Nigerians should count 27 million reasons to say to the party’s eventual presidential candidate, “We’re not going to entrust Nigeria in the hands of somebody quite so desperate.”

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