Initial election returns seemed to be going Donald Trump’s way until absentee ballots were being counted. And nobody was sure how he would respond to the change of fortune that put his vote tally behind that of former Vice President Joe Biden in key battleground states. So, when the president scheduled a press conference for prime time last Thursday evening, Americans were glued to their television sets. A few seconds into his rant, the anchor of MSNBC interrupted the broadcast. Other major networks except CNN and Fox News did the same. Nicole Carrol, USA TODAY editor-in-chief would later explain: “President Trump, without evidence, claimed the presidential election was corrupt and fraudulent. We stopped the live stream of his remarks early and have removed the video from all our platforms. Our job is to spread truth—not unfounded conspiracies.”
For CNBC, another major network that similarly cut off the US president midstream, it was former Fox News anchor and Trump supporter, Shepard Smith who took the decision.
“Never in my 30-year career have I ever interrupted a president of the United States”, said Shepard, “We’ve held back from doing so over and over and over while others have.
But if any other human being were using our platform of influence to lie to our viewers, we would stop them. And frankly, enough’s enough.”
The clear message from that episode is the responsibility the media has not only to hold people in power accountable but also to serve as a check on their excesses. But were such to happen in Nigeria under the present circumstances, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) that could penalize media houses for covering street protests would likely contemplate their permanent closure for “unprofessional coverage” of a presidential broadcast. That is the only way to explain the unfortunate actions already taken by the federal government and others being considered in the wake of the EndSARS protests that was hijacked by hoodlums.
I understand where the federal government is coming from. The 51-page pictorial report of the destruction in Lagos is frightening. It will take the state several years to recover from the devastation that must run into hundreds of billions of Naira. Many other states have also been counting human and material losses. This level of criminality and choice of targets could only have been premeditated and well planned. That is why the security agencies should be meticulous in their investigations. If the attempt is to seek justice, they will get to the root of that violence. But it would seem that what some seek is to exact vengeance, evidenced by the ongoing clampdown on EndSARS protesters.
It is unfortunate that a protest over genuine grievances not dealt with for years ended the way it did. But that is not enough to scapegoat or trample on the rights of innocent citizens. I am even more disturbed that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) would be dabbling into an arena of politics by freezing bank accounts of protesters. Let’s be clear.
The Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) can raise a suspicious transaction report (STR) on inflow into any bank account if there are grounds that the money is tainted.
From my understanding, a post no debit (PND) can even be placed on such account for 72 hours by the NFIU without a court order. But in all these, I am yet to see the role assigned to a regulator which the CBN is to the banking sector.
To protest in a democracy cannot be a crime. It is indeed a measure of how tolerant Nigerians are that the EndSARS protests took so many years in coming. Testimonies from state judicial panels are heart rending. A woman had her three sons killed by SARS operatives. A man had his tooth brutally removed with scissors. Another woman had the nozzle of a gun inserted into her private parts. It is obvious that many of the personnel in this notorious unit learnt their tricks from Luca Brasi, personal enforcer of Vito Corleone, the central character in Mario Puzo’s classic, ‘The Godfather’. But now you hear of passports of young Nigerians who protested against these brutalities being seized and denied their rights to travel while others are being arrested. On top of all this is the crude attempt to gag the media.
The move against the media is of course not a new gambit. But fallout from the EndSARS protests has provided a perfect excuse for such an anti-democratic stance. Since 2017, Information and Culture Minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed has been obsessed with the idea of regulating or banning social media from the Nigerian landscape. He has only just added television stations to the brief with his NBC henchman running an embarrassing campaign of calumny and teaching journalists how to do their job. “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,” Mohammed said last week while rationalizing the federal government decision to ‘regulate’ social media.
Before I deal with the substantive issue, here are facts about the strict internet restrictions in China that the minister may not be aware of. In China, there are indigenous companies such as Alibaba for e-commerce (i.e. Amazon), Baidu for search engine (i.e. Google), Weibo for microblogging (i.e.Twitter) while WeChat is their own response to WhatsApp. To counter YouTube, China has Tudou and Youku. And in case the Information Minister does not know, TikTok with which young people all over the world send short-form videos originates from Beijing. So, beyond the issue of ‘national security’, there are hundreds of billions of dollars in financial gains and millions of local jobs accruing to China for its decision on Western social media. China knows what it is doing. On the contrary, to shut out these apps in Nigeria (assuming we have the capacity) will send hundreds of thousands of our young people out of jobs and deny them the creativity that sets our country apart on the continent. And to contemplate that in a post-covid world will be suicidal.
Beginning from October 2000 when I covered the first Sino-African conference in Beijing, I have been to China eight times and on no occasion was I unable to access emails. Besides, while China may have ‘banned’ Western social media platforms, they are not inaccessible in the country. So, if the idea is to spend billions of Naira to acquire obsolete gadgets to jam social media in Nigeria, it will be a waste of time and money. The generation of Nigerians that the Information Minister is dealing with are decades ahead of him. Perhaps the country he has in mind is North Korea which by the way I also had the privilege of once visiting. But since he is focused on China, let me break that down: Through the use of a virtual private network (VPN) that is available for free download, anyone can bypass the Chinese ‘Great Firewall’ and the same will happen in Nigeria. VPN not only masks internet protocol (IP) address making online actions virtually untraceable, it configures phones to show a different location. It is therefore an open secret (and the authorities in the country are quite aware) that Twitter, WhatsApp and the likes are easily accessible and are accessed by smart people, even in China! Next time the Honourable Minister is going to Beijing he should consult me.
I have already written about my disappointment and sadness over the violence that followed the highjacked EndSARS protests. I also made my position clear regarding mistakes made by our young people for which abuse and name calling came in torrents. But while we should deplore polarizing rhetoric which pushes our plural society towards its delicate fault-lines, we must also come to terms with the fact that the youths of Nigeria have not had a fair deal. Though I must add that this predates the current administration and is a problem that has always been with us.
In 2009, there was a report on Nigeria that the authorities never paid attention to and is now coming back to bite us. Sponsored by the British Council and coordinated by David Bloom, Harvard Professor of Economics and Demography, the report predicted that by 2030 Nigeria would be one of the few countries in the world with an abundance of young people at a period most others would be left with aging populations. With the right policies, the report concludes, Nigeria could easily become one of the world’s leading economies; and with wrong choices, our young citizens would “become an increasingly disruptive force”.
The signs that we are not prepared to reap this demographic dividend are staring us in the face. Our public universities have been closed for eight months. We make no investment in education or health. The population of jobless graduates keeps growing. Out-of-school children in Nigeria are almost twice the entire population of Togo. It is therefore not too difficult to understand the pressures that fuel unrest at a time the economy is in a mess and we borrow to stay afloat. These are challenges we must grapple with and should be the priority of those in government. But I understand the frustration of the Information Minister. Just six years ago as spokesman for the then opposition party, he effectively deployed these same social media tools to assail then President Goodluck Jonathan almost on a daily basis. “Now that the ‘Change’ exponents have moved from the passenger’s side to the driver’s seat of government and their ammunition of ‘blame Jonathan’ propaganda is exhausted as an excuse for every challenge, Alhaji Lai Mohammed contends that social media is the problem. He may need to look at himself in the mirror”, I wrote last year.
What the current situation in our country demands is not draconian policies. This is the time to rally everybody in the task of rebuilding our country. What we see on social media is a reflection of what Nigeria has become. When a nation under enormous economic pressures is divided along partisan, sectarian, geo-political and ethnic lines as we are and frustrations by its young citizens grow by the day, social media only makes it easier for a thousand lies to multiply. Arresting young people and freezing their accounts for participating in protests while gagging the media is not the right way to go.
I hope it is not too late for the federal government to change course and embrace a more productive approach to tackling a problem that will not easily go away.
How Abacha, Abiola Died, By Susan Rice
‘To this day, many people in Nigeria think I killed him.’
That was the opening line in the riveting account of the last hour of the late Bashorun Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola as told by Ambassador Susan Rice. She was one of the visiting American diplomats in whose presence the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential election died on 7th July 1998. More significantly, Rice was the one who served Abiola the famous last tea. For the past 22 years, the former National Security Adviser to President Barack Obama has refrained from speaking on what exactly happened that day. But in her memoir, “TOUGH LOVE: My story of the things worth fighting for”, Rice recounts not only how Abiola died but also confirmed the street gossip about the last hour of the late General Sani Abacha.
In the memoir, Rice also recounts how she was conceived in Lagos during the two years her parents spent in Nigeria at a time her father was helping in the establishment of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) after independence. As the American diplomat with Africa as her brief, Rice also recalls many of the crises on the continent, especially the one that eventually led to the death of Col Muammar Ghadafi in Libya and the encounters she had at different times with African leaders, including former President Olusegun Obasanjo who on one occasion was “nonchalantly hurling well-picked chicken bones—much to our amusement—backward over his shoulders across the presidential suite.” Now, let’s begin with the story of one of the most momentous periods in Nigeria’s political history from Rice, a former US Ambassador to the United Nations: The death of Abacha and Abiola.
In early July 1998, I traveled to Nigeria with Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Pickering, who was then among the most senior career Foreign Service Officers. As assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, I had gotten to know Pickering, my immediate boss, as a wise, fast-talking, and deeply knowledgeable diplomat. Having served as ambassador to six major countries and the United Nations, Pickering had seen and heard almost everything. The purpose of our trip to Nigeria was to encourage a responsible political transition. The nasty former dictator, Sani Abacha, had died a month earlier in the company of prostitutes. Viagra was reportedly involved. His interim successor was a moderate leader, Abdulsalami Abubakar, who hoped to shepherd Nigeria through a democratic election to select its new leader.
A primary objective of our visit was to meet the wrongfully imprisoned opposition leader, Moshood Abiola. He was the presumed winner of Nigeria’s 1993 election, but the results were annulled, and he was later arrested. We hoped to negotiate his freedom so that he could participate in the upcoming election.
Along with Pickering and U.S ambassador to Nigeria Bill Twadell, I met Mr. Abiola in an austere government guesthouse on the vast presidential complex in the capital, Abuja. A large and imposing man, Abiola came with his minder shortly after we arrived. Pickering, a former ambassador to Nigeria, knew Abiola from years past and greeted him warmly. Abiola, robust and happy to see us, sat on the couch and began to tell us how poorly he had been treated during his four years in prison. He was wearing sandals and multilayered traditional Nigerian dress. I noted that his ankles were swollen.
About five minutes into the conversation, Abiola started to cough, at first mildly and intermittently, and then wrackingly with consistency. He said he was hot, so I asked his dutiful minder, “Please turn up the air-conditioning.” Noticing a tea service on the table between us, I offered Abiola, “Would you like some tea to help calm your cough?”
“Yes,” he said, with appreciation, and I poured him a cup. He sipped it, but continued coughing. Increasingly uncomfortable, Abiola removed his outer layer, leaving one layer on top. I shot Pickering a worried glance.
The coughing became dramatic. I told the assembled men, “I think we better call for a doctor.” No one argued. The minder immediately placed the call. Abiola asked to be excused and went into the bathroom of our meeting room. When he emerged, he was bare-chested and sweating profusely, barely able to talk. He lay down on the couch writhing and then rolled facedown onto the floor. The doctor arrived promptly, took a quick look at him, and declared that Abiola was having a heart attack and must be transported to the hospital immediately. The men labored to lift the heavy Abiola into a small car, and we rushed to the nearby, rudimentary presidential hospital. I grabbed his eye-glasses off of a side table where he left them, his only belonging, thinking of his daughter Hafsat in the U.S whom I’d met before we left. The doctors worked on him, furiously, but within an hour they pronounced him dead.
We braced for violence. Abiola’s sudden and mysterious death would hit like a bombshell in Nigeria’s political tinderbox. Conspiracy theories would spread like metastatic cancer. Serious unrest throughout Nigeria was possible. Washington would hyperventilate, since it’s not every day a major figure drops dead with senior U.S officials. His family would need to be told. And, urgently, Nigeria’s acting president would have to hear directly from us, even though his minister was present at the hospital and knew how it went down.
Ambassador Twadell panicked and urged me and Pickering to rush to the airport and leave the country immediately. “Hell no,” we said. This delicate situation required deft management, not a hurried exit in a cloud of suspicion.
Right away, I called National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, my former boss, briefed him, and dictated a White House press release. Then we went to the Nigerian presidential palace to relay the entire drama to the acting president. We urged him to issue a careful statement to announce the establishment of an autopsy by international experts, in order to quell rife speculation and limit the potential violence. The acting president did both.
Next, Pickering, Twadell, and I went with former Nigerian Foreign Minister Baba Kingibe to see Abiola’s wives and daughters. All of us walked in together, but soon I realized that I was effectively alone in the room with these distraught women. The men had hung far back and left the job to me—just like the pouring of the tea. I proceeded to explain that their husband/father was dead. He had died of an apparent heart attack that began in our meeting. The doctors did all they could to save him but could not. The ladies’ wailing was so intense, it haunts me to this day.
We briefed the press, and I returned to the U.S embassy to write the official cable to report what had happened. As a senior official, I almost never wrote up cables summarizing meetings but in this case there was no more efficient way to ensure we got this very important history straight.
As I was typing, I heard in the distance on the CNN a familiar voice of indignation. It was none other than the Reverend Jesse Jackson, then serving as President Clinton’s special envoy for the promotion of democracy in Africa. Reverend Jackson served capably in this role, and with good intentions, but on this occasion, I could have throttled him. He was riffling about how Abiola died under suspicious circumstances in a meeting with U.S. officials. I could not believe my ears—our own guy implying we were killers! Immediately, I placed a call to his longtime aide Yuri and asked them to shut the Reverend down. “Please, just get him off the set.” That happened, even as I was still watching the segment.
We stayed overnight in Nigeria to try to calm things, offer any needed assistance to the government, and make an orderly departure. Fortunately, despite deep public upset, no significant violence occurred. The autopsy eventually confirmed the cause of death as a heart attack. Nonetheless, it was Nigeria where conspiracy theories abound. The most popular, which still has currency over twenty years later, is that I killed Abiola by pouring him poisoned tea.
From that experience, I found that being a woman policymaker comes with unique hazards. The men would not have offered, much less thought, to pour the tea. They may have swiftly called for a doctor. They may not have been able to break the bad news to the wives. Not for the first time, it was I, not they, who took the public fall for a crime nobody committed.
NOTE: Rice also wrote a brief on her Nigerian connection:
Almost immediately after their wedding, my parents moved to Lagos, Nigeria, where Dad had been sent by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as a research advisor to help establish the Central Bank of Nigeria in the wake of the country’s independence. Mom took leave from the College Board and worked for the Ford Foundation as an educational specialist for West Africa. Their two years in Nigeria, punctuated by travel around West Africa and Europe, were, by all accounts, enjoyable. They amassed an impressive collection of Nigerian art, including valuable sculptures that were a visual fixture of my upbringing.
I was conceived in Nigeria. Toward the end of their stay, Mom became pregnant with me, and I have long amused myself with the hypothesis that my origins in Nigeria, combined with my Irish and Jamaican ancestors, explain a lot both about my temperament and attraction to all things international.
Still on ‘Sex for Grades’!
“Olusegun Adeniyi’s audacious and honest book has accomplished the most important response to a national social crisis in our educational tertiary institutions, which is sexual harassment, particularly of female students. By so doing, he has provided an opportunity for a national debate on the depth of this problem and how best to tackle it. By also expanding its focus to cover other African countries, Adeniyi has demonstrated that this is a challenge that is pervasive and global. Written with compelling urgency, it is clear from NAKED ABUSE that putting teeth in the ethics code of zero tolerance for sexual harassment on university campuses remains a daunting and herculean task for African countries” —Jacob K. Olupona, Professor of African Religious Traditions, Divinity School and Professor of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University.