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Hurray! It’s Naija Times’ First Anniversary

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EHI BRAIMAH

By Ehi Braimah


It was on September 15 last year that we invited family, friends and associates to the launch of Naija Times. It was a hybrid event. All too soon, Naija Times has completed one full circle of 365 days – it’s our first anniversary.

We thank God for keeping us alive because Covid-19 is today’s grim reaper. So many lives have been lost to the deadly virus. It is indeed an irony that it was at the height of the lockdown last year that we decided it was time to launch Naija Times.

The clock keeps ticking – a constant reminder that time waits for no one.
The idea of floating an online newspaper had always been on my mind but I kept it in the can. When I informed Jahman Anikulapo, art enthusiast and former Editor of The Guardian on Sunday, that it was time to launch the newspaper, he told me he was in retirement.

Somehow, I managed to pull him out of his self-imposed retirement from journalism practice and he agreed to work part-time as Editorial Director. But Jahman has been doing more than our part-time agreement because he wanted us to produce a “complete” digital newspaper – no newsprint, printing press, circulation vans or vendors. Technology has enabled us to operate a virtual suite for Naija Times.

I’m happy to report that Jahman’s commanding influence in the newsroom and rock-solid commitment to the project has been beneficial to Naija Times and the team of reporters, writers, researchers and contributors. Jahman has been doing a yeoman’s job – he’s a workaholic and newshound of the first rank. I still do not know how he manages to juggle his role at Naija Times with his other numerous engagements.

In order to achieve our goal of producing a “complete newspaper”, I contacted Akpandem James, another senior and experienced journalist who lives and works in Abuja, to join the team and he gladly accepted. Like most Nigerians, Akpandem and I are passionate about a Nigeria that works for everyone but we also believe Nigerians must learn to take responsibility for their individual roles.

Although leaders are the conscience of society, a country can only get the leader it deserves and we must understand that the leaders are not going to drop from the moon. They live amongst us. This was why we decided to work together on another “Proudly Nigerian” project.

Previously, Akpandem was Editor and later CEO of Daily Independent before his appointment as Assistant Secretary, Media and Communications of the 2014 National Conference inaugurated by former President Goodluck Jonathan, and subsequently as Special Adviser (Media) to Senator Udoma Udo Udoma, former Minister of Budget and National Planning.

With Jahman and Akpandem agreeing to support the dream, I knew I was the luckiest guy in the world. This was even more so because I have enduring relationships spanning several seasons with both of them.

In any event, I was not going to do the job alone; Jahman and Akpandem made it possible for us to build a great team from Day One – and we are having plenty of fun working together. I’m grateful for their friendship and goodwill.

To kick-start the project, I created a WhatsApp forum on July 25, 2020 for seamless sharing of information. After welcoming them to the forum, I wrote this: “Naija Times is planned to be an online newspaper and the vision is for the paper to become an easily recognisable brand in Nigeria within 24 months. I welcome ideas on how we can build a strong Naija Times brand that can be trusted.”

That goal looked like a tall order but our Zoom meetings commenced immediately. We discussed the editorial policy and direction of Naija Times bearing in mind the overarching objective of publishing stories that are “factual, balanced and credible to achieve the highest standards of ethical journalism.”

Even choosing the name Naija Times was deliberate. It went through a thoughtful and iterative process to enable successful branding. What we had in mind 12 months ago was to position Naija Times as Nigeria’s voice for news around the world and it explains the choice of colours and dot ng domain.

No newspaper is complete without well researched and interesting contents. We went ahead to create multiple and diverse sections because of our vision for a “complete” newspaper. We also publish weekly editorials and the Editorial Advisory Board, chaired by Akpandem, holds two virtual meetings monthly.

Let me confess that we are truly blessed with a great team of distinguished professionals in different fields serving voluntarily on the Board. They include business persons, university dons, media practitioners and public policy analysts in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Jos, Ottawa (Canada), Austin, Texas (USA) and Boston, Massachusetts (USA).

At the last Editorial meeting, the Board members unanimously agreed to write articles on key Nigerian issues from different perspectives to mark our first anniversary. It turned out to be the icing on the cake and they are highly appreciated.

In addition to being Chair of the Editorial Advisory Board, Akpandem uses his network of high profile contacts to source and send materials regularly to the newsroom from the presidency, state governments, political parties, MDAs and development agencies. He also interfaces with opinion writers and contributors to Naija Times – including the ones he invited to write for us.

I must especially commend the contributions of Dan Amor, lead editorial writer; Bankole Wright, assistant lead writer and our founding staff, Kolawole Ojebisi (News Editor), Paul Otaigbe (Copy Editor) – they have moved on to other assignments – and Prince Toby Udo, our Assistant Editor who works round the clock. He is a rare gem and he is ably supported by Hollins Esegba, our Assistant Content Manager who doubles as a reporter.

Kanayo Ume is one of the best graphic designers in town taking charge of our Creatives and projecting the right visual image for Naija Times. I salute Frederick Agbi who produced our Naija Times branded T-shirts and shipped them from the United Kingdom.

I’m thankful to an amazing team comprising of Manuella Igori, Vincent Braimah, Bola Okoromadu, Mary Soremekun, Ifeoluwa Odunlade, Blessing Obi and Nkechi Njoku who provide back office support.

We also have a long list of regular contributors, opinion writers and columnists, wonderful people who are supportive of the Naija Times dream. They include Armsfree Ajanaku (who is also on the Editorial Advisory Board), Joseph Afamhe, Nurudeen Obalola, Oyindamola Lawal, Jane Peters, Ubongabasi James, Moses Ebong, Samuel Benjamin, EnemonaAtamodu, MajaFawole, OlayinkaOyegbile, Benson Idonije, Femi Odugbemi and others.

My wife, Oluwakemi, a first class care-giver, has been managing the last line of defence, ensuring that we did not score “own goals”. We have received tonnes of constant encouragement and we remain grateful to her.

We also thank our advertisers who have been there for us. They include, UBA, Access Bank, First Bank, Fidelity Bank, Nigerian Breweries Plc and NASCO Group. But like Oliver Twist, we want them to do more.

In our first year, we set out to create rich and interesting content that would be supported by a user-friendly website. In today’s digital world with millions of websites, a robust digital marketing strategy that can enable a meaningful global ranking is inevitable.

That was how Ayo Banjo, a website architectural professional, joined the team and he initially supervised MacDonald Chigozie and Deji Oluwadare – two creative and hardworking web designers.

Ayo who studied Computer Science at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa practiced journalism in the 90s. He brought to the table his wealth of experience in robust website security architecture and outstanding user-interface experience for our readers.

His role is basically to oversee the functionality of Naija Times website, evaluate and manage its performance, facilitate hosting and server management. In addition, he develops, maintains and updates Naija Times website content with critical oversight responsibility for internal and external security against malware and any other infection.

Ayo and I, by the way, have also come a long way together as friends, brothers and associates. We are both Rotarians and we belong to the same Club – the Rotary Club of Lagos, the oldest Club in Rotary International, District 9110, and the second oldest Club in Nigeria (after the Rotary Club of Kano, District 9125), having been chartered on May 30, 1961.

As a deliberate policy, we targeted Nigerians in the diaspora. They are a key audience. Apart from having a “Diaspora News” section and “Diaspora Files” (from contributors around the world), we also launched “Naija Times Diaspora Conversations”, a virtual colloquium, on April 17, 2021 with the following objectives:

 Engage our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora and give them a voice on issues that affect us;
 Find a common ground from the discussions and make recommendations to the government;
 Promote patriotism amongst this demography — we do not have any other country to call our own, and
 Publish summary of the conversations on Naija Times website for the benefit of our readers.

As we look ahead to the next cycle of elections, our 3rd Naija Times Diaspora Conversations will discuss the leaders we want in 2023. We have in mind visionary and competent leaders that can be trusted. Who are they? I’m using this opportunity to appreciate all our previous discussants and participants for their various contributions to the task of nation building.

Part of our strategic positioning is to tell the Nigerian story as it is without fear or favour and promote a developmental agenda. All Nigerians, regardless of where we come from, must take on the patriotic duty of selling the positive attributes of our great country to the rest of the world, no matter our circumstance.

It is true that Nigeria is blessed with abundant human and natural resources which confer unique advantages on the largest black nation in the world. Apart from being the most populous country in Africa (208 million people), Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa.

It is being projected that by 2050, Nigeria’s rapidly growing population will be about 400 million, making it the third most populous country in the world after China and India. However, our burgeoning population will also become our albatross because of poor local productive capacity.

If there’s no incentive to produce locally, our appetite for imported goods will continue to grow. The downside will be further devaluation of our currency thereby reducing the purchasing power of the Naira which is already in a free fall.

Due to current economic hardship and uncertainties (it is difficult to plan and the security challenges are unhelpful), there is an exodus of our best and brightest out of the country but the trend can be reversed, and we cannot give up because Nigeria is too big to fail.

History has shown that nations rise out of the ashes of difficult periods; all stakeholders – including journalists – must come together to fast-track the renaissance process for a “New Nigeria”.

In reporting the news, Naija Times will continue to expand the frontiers of development journalism by using such reports to shape public policy to build strong institutions for a better society. This explains why we adopted the slogan: Journalism in the service of society.
As stated in our Vision Statement, “Naija Times is committed to building an egalitarian society that is founded on equity, justice and respect for fundamental human rights”. To achieve these noble objectives, Naija Times needs to be strong and independent.
As we begin another circle of 365 days, what do we want to achieve? Ultimately, we want our footprints to be on a solid ground. We intend to use the platform for advocacy to control our birth rate because population explosion is a time bomb waiting to go off. The federal government should begin to articulate and implement policies on birth control as a matter of national emergency.

Secondly, we shall promote transparency in the implementation of government policies and spending — it is the only way we can win back people’s trust. Our reports will therefore highlight the essence of building social capital and its numerous benefits; good governance mechanisms, gender equity and social inclusion.

Another area of interest will be reviewing the impact of yearly appropriations on the development of healthcare and education. The measurement of human development index in any society cannot ignore the well-being and literacy rate of its people.

Finally, we cannot run away from reporting the devastating impact of climate change in all its ramifications – a clear and present danger threatening our common humanity.

In Nigeria, for instance, we have seen how increased flooding from heavy downpours is wreaking havoc across the land. The story is not different in Europe and the United States with ravaging tornadoes, extremely high summer temperatures, horrific storms, wild fires, record rainfall and floods.

The Naija Times project has not been a bed of roses — we had our challenges and disappointments but we summoned the courage to forge ahead. Getting to the first anniversary finish line and crossing it is like winning a gold medal but Naija Times is still work-in-progress and the future is bright.

We definitely hope to do more in our second year by God’s grace and with the support of our readers, advertisers, well-wishers and other stakeholders. God bless you!

Braimah is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Naija Times (https://naijatimes.ng)

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A Re-Union Weekend In Benin City

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By Ehi Braimah

It was time to head back to the ancient city of Benin recently – that was from September 23 to 26, 2021 – for the re-union of my classmates. We attended Government College, Ughelli (GCU), now in Delta State, previously in Bendel State. Edo and Delta States were created from the old Bendel State.

Such gatherings bring back old memories for “boys” who have now become “men”. It was truly a priviledge to have attended GCU – a public secondary school for male students only. When my set gained admission into the school, J.E. Jones, an Englishman, was the Principal.

I was quite young at the time and we grouped into two arms – A and B – of not more than 20 students each. My class teacher who also doubled as Art teacher was M.D .Asoro. He was tall and lanky. I completed my primary education at Eserophe Primary School, Ughelli, which reverted to its former name: Nigerian Baptist Convention (NBC) Primary School, Ughelli. I was at Payne Primary School, Upper Mission Road, Benin City before we shifted base to Ughelli where I ended up spending 10 years.

After scaling the entrance examination successfully into three secondary schools, I chose GCU for its reputation. We were required to sit for another test and interview in the hallowed premises of GCU. Only those who made the final shortlist were given letters of admission.

To the best of my knowledge, no one was bribed to facilitate the admission of students into GCU, one of the best public secondary schools in Nigeria in those halcyon days. Admission was purely on merit and the experience in a productive learning environment was awesome. Nothing compares to that anymore except in the elite schools funded by the rich and affluent amongst us.

Today, you’re forced to weep at what public schools in Nigeria have become. They are not different from the general decay that is prevalent in every segment of society and it explains why parents and guardians who can afford the fees send their children to private schools. But paying school fees is no longer a stroll in the park due to our current economic circumstances.

From poor sanitary conditions to lack of desks and chairs, broken doors and windows, suffocating classrooms that are overcrowded without ceilings and electricity, the conditions in public schools (primary and secondary) are pathetic. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what happens to the yearly appropriations for education – both at the national and subnational levels?

We are not exactly strangers to the games people with access to opportunities and power play. Funds that are meant for the development of educational infrastructure are stolen and diverted. When contracts are awarded, there are no performance bonds to hold the vendors accountable. Even where such bonds exist, they are bloody pieces of paper that are thrashed for profit by all the parties involved in an egregious display of greed because there are usually no consequences.

The interventions by philanthropists and humanitarian service organisations as well as alumni groups have helped to mitigate the rate of decay in public schools. Rotary clubs in 532 Districts all over the world have continued to make strong interventions in Basic Education and Literacy – one of Rotary International’s seven areas of focus.

The late sage, Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013), said education is the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world. He was right. According to information available at Rotary International website, over 775 million people over the age of 15 are illiterate – that’s 17% of the world’s adult population.

There’s even a far more sobering statistic based on UNICEF data: over 40% of the world’s children are not accessing basic education and Nigeria occupies the unenviable 6th position out of 10 countries in the world with the highest rates of out-of-school children. We are grouped with Liberia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Sudan and Niger in the Hall of Shame.

When we gathered in Benin City to reflect on the days we spent together in GCU, we counted ourselves lucky. There was regular electricity and pipe borne water flowed non-stop. The laundry took care of our school uniforms and bed sheets, while the sick bay attended to the sick. GCU was not a military school but there was orderliness and everywhere was clean. Sometimes, I wonder whether those days in GCU will ever return.
GCU was a training ground for future leaders. In addition to our studies, we had extra-curricular activities aimed at developing our talents in different areas. Students were encouraged to develop interest in at least one sport and take part in it in order to avoid being called a “waste pipe”. We had the Literary and Debating Society, Drama Society, Cadet (the para-military group), Scout, Boys’ Brigade, Red Cross, Mariners’ Dance Band and so on.
Speaking vernacular was completely forbidden and siesta was compulsory. However, it wasn’t all work and no play. We also danced to soulful music on Saturday nights and generally enjoyed ourselves.

There were friendship and cultural exchange programmes between GCU and two female schools in Ughelli: Anglican Girls Grammar School and St Theresa Girls Grammar School. It was an experience that helped us to grow as young men and it sharpened our worldview on relationships with the opposite sex.

Lights out was compulsory at 9.30 pm; it meant you must return to your bed and sleep. From your first day in class until you wrote the final exams, everyone was groomed to be strong, focused and independent.

GCU also had the Higher School Certificate (HSC) programme which lasted for two years but it was not compulsory. It was an Advanced Level course where only three subjects are taken before proceeding to the university.

We were also trained to develop a winning mindset. GCU gave us a wide canvass where you could splash your own colours with the brush of your choice. We were allowed to make our mistakes and learn from those mistakes.

Whether it was a Treasure Hunt game that required all participants to think on their feet by decoding clues or General Inspection which was a contest for the cleanest House (hostel), the competitive spirit was alive and well in GCU, preparing us for a world of competition in the years ahead.

In sports, GCU was ahead of its peers because the facilities were available and maintained regularly. Football, cricket, athletics, table tennis, lawn tennis, badminton, handball, volleyball and basketball were the dominant sports.

Over large swathes of land, we had the administrative and classroom blocks, dining hall, hostels, well-manicured lawns and shrubs, parks and gardens, junior and senior staff quarters, sick bay, sports complex, assembly hall, metal and woodwork sections, laundry and tarred roads that left a memorable and charming picturesque on our minds.

No one can foretell the future but the bonds of friendship and fellowship that we shared as young students back in the day are celebrated each time we meet in a convivial atmosphere – we generally exude good humour and bonhomie. The Benin re-union ticked all the boxes. There’s also plenty of yabis time but the cheerful friendliness displayed anywhere old boys meet has created an enduring vibrant fraternity.

With a new EXCO in place after our AGM/Elections, our next re-union will hold in Abuja in 2023. Fidel Oke, our classmate and senior executive of FBN Insurance, chairs the Abuja Branch. He told us he was returning to Abuja to swing into action for a befitting Abuja re-union.

Two classmates (Osaguona Ogie and Amos Agadaigho) celebrated their birthday on Friday September 24. There was cake and wine to the delight of the palate. Osaguona, by the way, is the twin brother of Osarodion Ogie, Secretary to the Edo State government (SSG).
It was the weekend of our re-union that the long awaited list of Edo State commissioner-nominees including two special advisers was released by Governor Godwin Obaseki. A classmate joked that Obaseki knew GCU old boys were in town for their re-union and he decided to honour their presence with the announcement.

Osaguona returned to Nigeria after about 18 years sojourn in the United Kingdom and he has adjusted well. He was a member of the Local Organising Committee (LOC) of the Benin re-union which was chaired by Godfrey Okobaroh. They did an excellent job hosting the class. Initially, some classmates expressed security concerns and the spread of COVID-19 infections. They wanted the re-union cancelled but that was not to be. It turned out to be a glorious get together.
The diaspora arm of our class is very active and they support the welfare package of the class with generous donations. They are able to join our meetings from time to time using the Zoom app. With greying hair as our everyday companion, it means we are growing older by the day. That explains why the rank of retirees is swelling, even though they may not be tired.

Apart from the standard welfare package for classmates through voluntary donations, we also have a Group Life Insurance policy for the class – for both permanent disability and death. Indeed, we have lost some classmates to the cold hands of death, most of them not yet 60 years old. May their souls rest in peace!

Besides our class, we also have the broader alumni group: Government College, Ughelli Old Boys Association (GCUOBA) with different branches – both at home and in the diaspora. For a term of two years (2019 -2021), Sam Omatseye, my classmate, essayist, poet, journalist and chairman of the Editorial Board of Nation newspaper, was the president of the Lagos Branch of GCUOBA while I served as the vice president.

Being an old boy of GCU in general and my class in particular is a thing of joy and pride. The experience gave us the kind of confidence we needed to move ahead in life. The discipline and orderliness in GCU were unmistakable, making it possible for us to establish our credentials and competencies with authority at every station of life that we found ourselves.

When it was time for the election of officers, there was no rigging or ballot snatching – it was smooth and orderly. It was a mark of GCU excellence. The previous EXCO led by Omatsola Vincent as chairman was largely returned for another term of two years due to their excellent performance. Vincent led by personal example and I’m not surprised that he, alongside members of his team, recorded a huge success to the admiration of his classmates.

The class chair always acted with courage and that is what leaders need to make the right decisions without fear or favour. Nigeria needs that tribe of leaders who can lead from the front as we prepare for another election cycle in 2023.

Braimah is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Naija Times (https://naijatimes.ng)

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Fani-Kayode On A Familiar Road

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Only a casual observer of the unpredictable Nigerian political space will be surprised when the picture of President Muhammadu Buhari, governors Mai Buni of Yobe State, his Zamfara counterpart, Bello Matawalle and Mr. Femi Fani-Kayode, flooded the social media on Thursday evening.

The news of the meeting, in a follow up to quench the curiosity of Nigerians, was that Fani-Kayode has defected or should we say, has returned to the ruling All Progressive Congress, (APC). The former spokesman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Presidential Campaign Council was introduced to the president formally at the Villa as APC member by the Yobe Governor, who is also the Chairman of the APC national caretaker committee, who was accompanied by the Zamfara state helmsman, Matawalle.

The loquacious former minister, said he worked behind the scene to facilitate the defection of three Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governors to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Addressing State House reporters Fani-Kayode, who explained that he had been a founding member of the APC, said he returned to the APC for the unity and togetherness of the country.

He further characteristically hinted that he was also working behind the scene to woo the governors of Oyo, Bauchi and Enugu states, Seyi Makinde, Bala Mohammed and Ifeanyi Uguanyi respectively, to also relinquish their current parties and join the ruling APC. The veracity of this revelation will be known in the next few days or weeks.

But it was vintage FFK in front of the cameras in Aso Rock, flanked by the two Northern governors, telling the unwary why he decided to leave the PDP at this point in time. Trying, albeit unconvincingly, to tell Nigerians that President Buhari, who he had hitherto called unprinted names; who he incessantly used every opportunity to abuse; is the best thing that ever happened to Nigeria.

This was a man who said in December 2019, when there was speculation that he was considering joining the APC who described it as a sinking party and a party in darkness. “I will rather die than join APC”, he famously said. And even though men of honour are becoming increasingly elusive in our political terrain, a decent party full of honourable members would find it difficult to reconcile FFK’s latest outbursts to what he said about the party barely three years ago.

I don’t think most Nigerians would give FFK latest indiscretion or political summersault the benefit of the doubt, because the man simply does not deserve it. This is a man whose main preoccupation is that of a rabble-rouser. Apart from being unprincipled, covetous and unpragmatic, he had shown over the years that he can be unreliable and cannot be trusted. Yes, even though we all knew that he has little regard for integrity and decency, his latest move is way too low and pathetic.

What political value is he even bringing to the table? FFK has never won an election since he became a prominent political figure in this country. He had always been a paperweight who finds solace in making a lot of noise. Unlike Patrick Buchanan, the vivacious American journalist and politician, who, apart from being an intellectual and a polemist, won election to the House of Representatives, FFK has never been on a major ballot for elections. Even in his native Osun State, he is not known to be a political heavyweight. Rather, many see him as someone who just wants to be noticed and not someone who wants to contribute to the well-being of the people.

It therefore amuses me that the APC leadership and the presidency gave him a red carpet and a presidential treat. There was no sign that the ruling party was in serious crisis and needed an FFK as a catalyst or a major asset to fill the void. Perhaps the APC leaders knew what they are doing that we don’t know and wanted to score a cheap political point that the vocal and opportunistically ranting fellow will be useful inside than outside their fold.

For goodness sake FFK is not the Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, whose defection to the ruling party will be a masterstroke and will shake the nation’s politics to its foundation and even change the political dynamics of the country; and he does have the weight of the governor of Delta or even Sokoto States, whose exit from the opposition party would badly damage their political fortunes. Why then would Buhari undignified his office by giving FFK and company a photo-op and red carpet that he badly needed to redeem his unenviable and battered image?

Are the handlers of PMB mindful of the damage such an itinerant hustler will do to the image of the presidency? Must the president give FFK such an important audience when the reception can always be done by another senior government official? Or was it a set up to embarrass the president? These are some salient questions that need to be answered so that the issue can be given proper perspective.

For sure, his return to the fold of the ruling party cannot be a plus, it would indeed, be a big minus to its electoral fortunes. FFK will ultimately be judged by what he said in the past and if what he said is anything to go by, then, it is easy to conclude that his inconsistencies would have a negative impact on both himself and his new party going forward.

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Tale Of VAT, The Lazy Grasshopper And The Ant

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By Festus Adedayo 

There is this ancient fable of the ant and grasshopper that best explains the Nigerian fiscal federalism duel. Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, amplified it recently. Ants, you know, are one of the most hardworking, organized and purposeful animals on earth. Extremely hardworking and industrious, myths that have existed for ages about these insects talk about their tireless industry and empathy for one another. Ants are also seen as the closest neighbor of man. In them is a unique prowess and organizational power that have survived centuries. 

The pervasive presence of the ant makes the world to believe that it has turned the globe into one huge colony. This is reinforced by the fact that ants exist in almost every landmass on earth, except in the cold Antarctica and some other few islands whose weathers are inhospitable to the ant’s existence.

So, there was this epicurean Grasshopper who was also a musician. Given to a life of pleasure, liquour and women, he spent every time of his life guzzling alcohol and hosting the best women in the neighbourhood. In the perception of the world of his time, musicians and entertainers belonged to the rung of the ladder of society. They were seen as unserious and lazy roam-about. While hardworking persons in the village were farmers like ants who left for their farms at cockcrow, the morning was time for entertainers to snore. Having spent night times at shindigs, they spent the morning sleeping. By evening time, Grasshopper and his ilk would then take their baths, comb their hairs, apply pancake, spray perfumes that natives called lofinda on their bodies and get set for their entertaining activities.

Working together in unity and non-aggressively as a group, ant societies exploit resources for the common good and come to the rescue of one another in trouble. In their colonies, they take decisions collectively, communicate these within individuals, allocate and divide responsibilities according to individual strength, move out cohesively to achieve these decisions, thereby solving otherwise complex problems. One of the manifestations of this cooperation is the building of their habitats, the anthills.

Now, to the fable: It was now farming season. Though he had a farmland inherited from his late father, Grasshopper spent the season singing, chirping and swabbing liquor every evening, Conversely, Ant worked tirelessly on his farm, gathering and storing up foods in his barns, in anticipation of the dearth of the dry season. By autumn, it was time of plenty and relaxation for the Ant and other hardworking farmers. However, for the Grasshopper, it was a season of hunger. Unable to contain the hunger, Grasshopper gathered his wife and children to the home of the Ant, begging and prostrating to be given food for the family’s survival. Ant mocked the Grasshopper’s idleness and lazy disposition and asked that Grasshopper should eat his hair comb, perfume and dancing steps. Denied food, Grasshopper and his household eventually died of famish.

The moral the story is the virtue of hard work and the perils hidden in improvidence. The bible gives this teaching its notoriety through its rebuke of laziness in the Book of Proverbs, to wit, “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest.” Morals like working today to avert hunger tomorrow, hunger waits at the end of the tunnel for the idle soul and sundry others lace that fable.

In a Nigeria where the general perception of political office holders is that of bullies with inflated ego like that of a peacock, it is very difficult to like Nyesom Wike. The logic of his arguments, often times muddled by his exceptionally gruffy voice, the inkling one gets is that he romances despotism. This makes Wike’s bully picture perhaps the strongest of his public impressions. If you add these to another perception that he battles to manage a short fuse and high-pitched temperament, essences and morals of most of his public interventions are oftentimes drowned. Last week, however, rather than these impressions, Wike’s message that the Ant cannot continue to feed the fancy of the Grasshopper loomed larger, its essence and the moral of his arguments escaping out of the loop. It jolted Nigeria and became the most dominant discourse in debates about Nigerian fiscal federalism, which I have chosen to liken to the ant and grasshopper fable above.

Debates on the fiscal relationship between Nigeria’s central and state governments have endured since the amalgamation of Nigeria’s southern and northern protectorates. Indeed, the amalgamation idea by Major Fredrick Lugard was said to have been borne out of Britain’s quest to take off its shoulders the burden of bearing the financial task of administering the Northern protectorate from its taxpayers’ money. With a buoyant southern protectorate which had a robust economy, amalgamation was the most logical step to take by imperial Britain.

Since then, back and forth arguments on the relationship between the central and state governments have continued. In 1914, Lugard enacted the Mineral Ordinance of 1914 which vested all minerals in Nigeria on the Crown, a move which the Tafawa Balewa government which took over from the colonialists read to mean that at their exit, control of minerals was sine qua non under the purview of the central government. With self-government granted to them in 1957, power of exploitation and control of minerals in their jurisdictions was never granted to these regions in the constitution. Earnings from tin and columbine, which were excavated from Jos- Plateau area (North) as well as coal in Enugu (East) demanded licenses for exploitation from the federal government. Royalties from these resources only went to the regional governments. The governments however got foreign exchange earnings each from groundnuts, hides and skin and palm oil respectively, no thanks to the 1951 Macpherson and 1963 constitutions.

The recent judgment of the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt, which ruled that states and not the Federal Government had the right to the collection of the Value Added Tax (VAT) has rekindled the fiscal debates in Nigeria which began since the time of amalgamation. Beside VAT, the court also ruled that states and not the central government had the authority of the Nigerian Constitution to collect personal income tax. These pronouncements have also revved up narratives of fiscal injustice that has been the story of Nigeria from inception. Spearheaded by the Rivers State governor, Wike, last Thursday, Wike also instantly went ahead to sign into law a bill that was meant to action this disgust with the generally perceived inequity of the unitarized federal government system being practiced by Nigeria. In the bill, Rivers State government was given a force of law to thenceforth collect VAT in the state. Lagos State also followed suit with the signing into law of a bill with same texture.

Wike roused up the anger of the centrifugal advocates against the current equation in Nigeria. While signing the bill into law, he had said: “States have been turned to beggars. Hardly will any day pass that you won’t see one state or the other going to Abuja to beg for one fund or the other. In this (Rivers) state, we awarded contracts to companies and within the last month we paid over N30 billion to the contractors and 7.5% will now be deducted from that and to be given to FIRS. Now, look at 7.5% of N30 billion of contracts we awarded to companies in Rivers State, you will be talking about almost N3 billion only from that source. Now, at the end of the month, (the) Rivers State government has never received more than N2 billion from VAT. So, I have contributed more through the award of contract and you are giving me less. What’s the justification for it?”

Rolled into one in this tale told by Wike is the indolence and laziness of Nigerian states due mainly to the doll-outs they collect from the center monthly and the palpable injustice, akin to the ancient saying of a Big Brother who robs Peter to pay Paul, in the Nigerian mis-federal fiscal arrangement. The moment a truly federal comb is run through this iniquitous system and states start to get what they strictly deserve and truly work for, governors will then realize that gubernatorial administration is not a tea party; and that they are elected to think out of the box.

The current fiscal battle over VAT is one between forces I call centripetal and centrifugal – those who believe that Nigeria’s federalism should revolve around the center and those who hold that the states ought to control the levers of the Nigerian economy as it operated in the 1963 constitution. It is also a battle for the soul of and proper definition of what should constitute Nigeria’s federalism. For antagonists of the centripetal argument, they claim that majority of the problems of existence being faced by the country emanate from the excessive powers of the central government. Runners of the central government are exposed to humongous funds which make their offices attract a rat race to occupy by all and sundry, regardless of their competence.

The news of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) acting like a desperate little urchin by running to the National Assembly to have the federal collection of VAT pushed on the exclusive list is one of the sickening fallouts from this whole VAT mess. It gave the impression that the central government, through the FIRS, was under pressure to perpetuate an unjust status quo.

More fundamental among the criticisms is that because the funds that FG superintends over are actually not its money, though the money is for all, it actually belongs to nobody, thereby legitimizing the ease and the rapaciousness with which it is filched. Opponents of fiscal centrifugal forces also claim that, with the high level of irresponsible governance and theft of public money in the states, FG should be left to play some Big Brother, patrimonial role over national assets and wealth. Again, for an adequate protection of weak states which do not have the huge resources of the “big” states, they argue, the FG should warehouse the wealth of the state and dispense to all according to its equitable wisdom.

This last argument was canvassed last week by the Kogi State governor, Yahaya Bello, represented by Kingsley Fanwo, his Commissioner for Information, on an Arise TV programme, as well as Muhammad Magaji, Gombe State Commissioner for Finance. They both represented the centrifugal voices in favour of a federal paternalism on the wealth of the country. Magaji, at the Technical Workshop on the development of the Gombe State’s Medium-Term Sector Strategy, (MTSS) appealed to Southern State governments to step down their push against the VAT proceeds regime.

“The VAT issue will have adverse effects not only on Gombe State but almost all the states of the federation. I was part of the discussion few weeks ago by all commissioners of finance across the country. The realisation was that only Lagos, Rivers and probably Delta states would be able to pull through without this VAT being administered centrally, and it is our appeal that we all put sentiments behind and work towards a federation that is one, by being our brothers’ keepers and ensuring that what is pulled together at the center is distributed to be able to balance resources across the country,” he said. To the Kogi state government, “We are not created equally, and God that created us did not give us equal potential, and we have to support one another.”

The VAT proceeds debate goes beyond the issue of tax and strikes at the core of the Nigerian situation and existence. Those who try to explain it as the complication of federalism or a tax procedure facing a lacuna just don’t get it. The debate is reminiscent of the Grasshopper and Ant fable above. A lot has been said on the ignominious situation where northern states who contribute very little to the central purse have the temerity to destroy alcoholic drinks sent to their jurisdiction, in the name of Sharia. They should have acted like the Afghan governments now and before now who, in the bid to follow the tenets of Islam on borrowing that frown at paying interests, refused to accept IMF loans and are likely to be opening their fiscal doors to China which probably will borrow them money without interests.

The VAT issue is the question of how Nigeria should be run in a proper federalism and who runs it – the states or the federal government? Though arguments subsist that huge heists will be perpetrated by the states if they lay their hands on such huge sums, it is defeated by the fact that huger heists are going on at the federal level now, concealed from view and anger of the law by region, religion and godfatherism. Since the military hijack of power in 1966, Nigeria has sought a resolution of this volcanic and complex issue, to no avail. Perhaps the Supreme Court would help Nigeria answer it once and for all.

The issue goes beyond Magaji’s pleading with the “wealthy states” to support the “weak” states. It is a question of justice which will also force states to think outside the box on methods of their economic survival so that they could wake up from being the sybaritic Grasshopper. It asks the equity question: Should the hardworking Ant subsidize the slovenly Grasshopper? At the core of the question is also the umbrella question of restructuring. Once the judiciary helps Nigeria to answer the question federally, other questions on Nigeria’s federalism would need answers as well. Then, Nigeria will be on the road to proper restructuring.

 


(Published by The Cable on September 12, 2021)

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