Nigeria is full of energy, enterprise and dynamism. Like most big states it struggles to create national unity from a plethora of cultures and languages. With a total population of 206 million – rising fast - it will soon have the third largest population of English speakers and Christians in the world. At 100 million, roughly the same number as Nigerian Christians, it already has the third largest Muslim population. If Muslims and Christians can’t live together in amity in Nigeria Africa is in even deeper trouble than the troubled Middle East.
When Nigeria became independent in 1960 the population of the British Empire was reduced by more than 50%. Under British rule none of its weaknesses as a political entity had been resolved. Arguably some of the worst had been intensified or created by the British. Nigeria today is fixed in British minds as the land of scams, corruption, and, for my generation, military coups and starving Biafran children. Kidnapping is one the few features to gain international attention, a dark market economy with ransom tariffs set according to the profession of the victims. A professor is worth more than a priest. Big gangs raid schools and charge bulk prices for returns. Banditry and armed robberies afflict several areas. Pastoralists, fighting over land-use, kill agriculturalists and vice-versa. Da’esh-linked terrorists still cause havoc in the North-East and around the northern borders. Inter-ethnic killings are increasing. Nigeria is a fragile state.
You might imagine that the recent amalgamation of Britain’s Foreign Office and Department for International Development would be justified by a coordinated response to Nigeria’s mix of security and developmental problems. You’d be wrong. Discounting its own expertise in humanitarian aid and the training of police and security forces, the British government plans to cut development aid to Nigeria by 58%. This despite thousands of displaced people fleeing violence in Borno State, a Federal army too underequipped and unmotivated to fight terrorism successfully, as well as a police force that needs intensive training. But British support is receding.
Max Siollun, in his recent What Britain did to Nigeria, traces the origin of Nigeria’s ills to the early colonial period, the century of British engagement from the 1820s to the 1920s. Siollun’s treatment is balanced and illuminating but his book will provide fodder for fashionable arguments between academics of the colonialism-bad and the colonialism-good schools - though lack of relevant statues will limit conflict to the seminar room.
Siollun shatters the comfortable assumption that the transition from pre-colonial to colonial government in what became Nigeria avoided the monstrous bloodshed in, say, the Congo under Leopold II of Belgium. In my own online Emirs, Evangelicals & Empire I underestimated the violence of the British takeover. Siollun tells of the racism, brutality and arrogance of many local British ‘Residents’, colonial officers – both civil and military - from the early Royal Niger Company to Lord Lugard’s West African Frontier Force. But because most of the fighting fell on mercenary troops, mainly Hausa, with longstanding inter-ethnic and local animosities, the burnt villages and piles of corpses, after crushed uprisings and punitive raids, belonged to Africans.
The culturally very different North and South of Nigeria were amalgamated in 1914, not in some grand imperial vision, but, as Siollun suggests, to save on administrative costs. Indirect Rule was not a British strategic plan - though it divided and ruled with near impunity. Britain just could not afford enough colonial officers. The Colonial Office budget determined governance. And there was the bonus that someone else did dirty work like tax collection and recruitment of forced labour. Punishment of those who saw little difference between this and former enslavement was severe.
Unsurprisingly there was considerable resistance to British rule, much of it caused by repression and extortion but used to justify severe and often disproportionate military response. The Fulani of Sokoto Caliphate in the North-West suffered the most because their structured military force and cavalry encouraged set-piece battles against the British ‘square’ and the unforgiving Maxim gun. The South-East lacked regular fighting forces and local guerrilla warfare was far more effective against British-led troops, especially along its narrow densely forested paths.
‘Dash’ given to chiefs who provided the Royal Niger Company with exclusive rights of trade in palm oil was the prototype of today’s endemic bribery. Treaties that few chiefs could read and understand gave coercion and fraud a veneer of lawfulness. The earliest colonial era scam was to imitate messengers from British-appointed ‘warrant chiefs’ imposed on, for example, Igbo societies. The scammer donned a red fez and insisted on payments of different kinds with the spurious threat that failure to pay would involve heavy punishments from the chief with British support.
There were also mitigating development and reforms. Slavery, twin infanticide, and the burial of servants/slaves with their chief in some South-Eastern societies were gradually eliminated. Colonial provision of roads, railways and education was transformative. Christian missions followed by government schools brought educational change to the South. Today most southern states have high rates of adult literacy. The contrast with some Northern states is striking. According to EduCeleb, a Nigerian educational news agency, in Sokoto 80% of women aged 18-24 are illiterate but only 1.8% in the South East’s Imo state. Nationally the adult literacy rate was 22% at Independence in 1960.
Sixty years on, years when Nigeria stumbled from one disaster to another somehow surviving, somehow holding together, that heritage wears thin as an excuse. The latest crisis looks particularly dangerous. Nigeria’s Catholic Bishops informed by detailed information from their parishes around the country published a formal statement this February. They are not in the habit of crying wolf.
“The very survival of the nation is at stake. The nation is pulling apart. Widespread serious insecurity for long unaddressed has left the sad and dangerous impression that those who have assumed the duty and authority to secure the nation are either unable – or worse still unwilling – to take up the responsibilities of their office. Patience is running out.
The call for self-defense is fast gaining ground. Many ethnic champions are beating loudly the drums of war, calling not only for greater autonomy but even for outright opting out of a nation in which they have lost all trust and sense of belonging. The calls for secession on an ethnic basis from many quarters should not be ignored or taken lightly. Many have given up on the viability and even on the desirability of the Nigeria project as one united country. No wonder many non-state actors are filling the vacuum created by an apparent absence of government. The Federal Government under President Muhammadu Buhari can no longer delay rising to its obligation to govern the nation; not according to ethnic and religious biases but along the lines of objective and positive principles of fairness, equity and, above all, justice. It is not too much for Nigerians to demand from Mr. President sincerity both in the public and private domain. There are no more excuses”.
Sadly the British Government has plenty of excuses for finding something better to do than worry about the future of what is arguably the most important country on the African continent.
See TheArticle 21/03/2021
If impunity is the handmaid of corruption, scrutiny is corruption’s enemy. Governments shrink from critical examination. The last thing they want is transparency. Getting things done becomes more complicated. When it comes to naming their most disliked piece of legislation, Ministers most likely would plump for Labour’s Freedom of Information Act (FOI) 2000, rued by many who voted for it. That sinking feeling, trying to remember what was said in incautious emails, meetings, or printed within departmental reports, is vice’s compliment to scrutiny. And it was, of course, a 2008 FOI request to the House of Commons, unsuccessfully challenged in the High Court, which revealed the British parliamentary expenses scandal.
The resilience and effectiveness of official procedures and bodies designed to scrutinise the conduct of the Executive and ensure its integrity are a measure of the health of a democracy. A truth-telling Press is vital. Journalists around the world investigate behind the lies, spin and obfuscation that obscure the reality of their governments’ motives and behaviour even if they can’t directly control it. Sometimes it can cost them their lives or imprisonment.
In the USA, Trump’s strategy was to get the highly politicised mass media to convince his supporters that any critical examination of his behaviour and lies was ‘fake-news’ - quite a good translation of the Nazis’ word ‘lügenpresse’ (lying Press) as Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder has pointed out. We saw the ultimate consequences on 6 January in the Capitol. Right-wing bias in newspapers and mass media, as well as social media silos now the sole source of information for many, is a pressing problem for democracies such as our own. Scrutiny of the sensational and the personal cannot replace serious investigation of policy and malfeasance.
Our Parliament has hands-on responsibility for scrutinising the use of Executive power and calling it to account with, in well-defined circumstances, the judiciary as final arbiter. So when the Executive makes efforts to elude parliamentary scrutiny of its integrity and performance, its policies and legislation, and the Right-wing Press attacks the judiciary, alarm bells should start ringing. Parliament, and within its limits the judiciary, are the two institutions that can stop government meandering down the road to corruption with the resultant erosion of democracy and its premise and promise of representation of the people.
There are more ways than one to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. The phrase ‘Henry VIII’s clauses’ recalls Henry’s rule by proclamation referring today to amendments to parliamentary Bills which by means of secondary legislation, that is by Ministerial fiat; such government statutes are intended to expedite implementation of policy but enable parliamentary scrutiny to be bypassed. Parliamentary Select Committees focussed on the work of particular government departments, or on wider issues, can step in here. Since the 1980s, they have become a major vehicle of democratic scrutiny. In recent years the sittings of the Audit Select Committee, overseeing government’s financial reporting and disclosure procedures and performance, have proved particularly revealing.
The Liaison Committee whose members are chairs of Select Committees holds an annual stock-take with whoever is Prime Minister. In August 2019, Boris Johnson highlighted his attitude to accountability by proroguing Parliament to forestall further debate about BREXIT, an act the Supreme Court unanimously found unlawful, a textbook example of the judiciary safeguarding democracy. Johnson also found on three consecutive occasions that he was unable to attend the Liaison Committee, once allegedly because he was kept too busy by BREXIT. Since BREXIT was what the Committee expected to hear about, Dr. Sarah Wollaston accused him from the chair of avoiding accountability. His perfunctory performance in May 2020 when he did appear suggested that perhaps he was too lazy to master his brief on topics the Liaison Committee would examine. The pandemic had made hiding from the public no longer an option.
The Hansard Society, an NGO specialising in research on Westminster and parliamentary democracy, has described ways how Parliament can be marginalised that are difficult to challenge legally. No piece of parliamentary business has been more complex and subject to avoidance of scrutiny than the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Act (TCA). Run the negotiation right up to an internationally agreed deadline and, ‘oh, sorry’, tell Members of Parliament they have only four days over Christmas to read a 1,246 page Treaty. Then, after its publication, allow 24 hours to discuss and pass its Implementation Bill. As the consequences of Johnson’s BREXIT are emerging with minimalist scrutiny, have Mr. Rees-Mogg refuse to extend the life of the ‘BREXIT Select Committee’ beyond 16 January 2021.
Small matter that the TCA agreement, the most important document affecting the future of our country since the declaration of war on Nazi Germany, defines our relationship with our largest trading partner, involving 27 European countries, for years to come. Not that the EU treated its own Parliament any better allowing provisional implementation before the TCA went to the EU Parliament for ratification. But then the EU’s Parliament is in reality often a fig-leaf for rule by summitry, heads of State and the Council of Ministers, with the Commission acting as political and technical Sherpas. In short, our government has taken back control of our own democratic deficit - with great benefit to its donors and friends.
The pandemic has meant urgency has become more plausible as an excuse for short-circuiting Parliament. Everything is urgent or, at least, becomes urgent when indecision, the hallmark of the Prime Minister, repeatedly creates crises requiring immediate action. Parliament and Opposition are required to rubber-stamp legislation and guidance with far-reaching implications for the economy and daily life.
But why not hear from and consult with Parliament upstream when broad strategy ought to be debated? Johnson’s repeated - faux Churchillian - martial language ignores the fact that we faced the enemy with a government of National Unity. Johnson cannot be accused of leadership in uniting the nation: he sees the Opposition as no less his enemy than the EU. For political effect, timely suggestions from Keir Starmer are publically ridiculed only to be implemented days later.
Government pandemic projects have been a pretext for massive misspending of taxpayers’ money. Details of PPE contracts, sometimes redacted, have been withheld until forced into the public domain by intense legal pressure. In a normal government in normal times, Dido Harding’s stewardship of taxpayers’ money would result in resignation. Meg Hiller M.P., chair of the Public Accounts Committee, concluded recently that “despite the unimaginable resources thrown at this project Test and Trace cannot point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic, and the promise on which this huge expense was justified - avoiding another lockdown – has been broken, twice”. In the words of Sir Nicholas Macpherson, a Cross-Bench peer and former Treasury Permanent Secretary to three Chancellors (under Blair, Brown & Cameron), this was “the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time”. But as he tellingly remarked last week, “the extraordinary thing is that nobody in the government seems surprised or shocked”.
Meanwhile government ‘levels up’ in the North with ‘bungs’ to Conservative constituencies such as Richmond, Yorkshire, the Chancellor’s seat’; 40 out of the 45 areas getting regeneration funding have a Conservative member of Parliament. Government contracts generated by the pandemic disproportionately went to the companies that just happen to be linked to Tory donors and friends. 30,000 laptops for poorer children known to be least equipped for online learning short of their delivery target? A free school meals scandal involving a private company? Cherchez le Tory donor.
To date the slide into unaccountability has been held in check by the strength of our institutions dedicated to the scrutiny of government conduct. This includes NGOs such as the Good Law Project; the High Court recently found that: “the Secretary of State [Health] acted unlawfully by failing to comply with the Transparency Policy” in a case involving COVID contracts. Efforts to avoid such scrutiny have been deliberately, sometimes accidentally, multiplied in the last few years. The consequences are becoming visible.
As Thomas Paine said of the Paris aristocrats prior to the French Revolution: “A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody”. Not an ideal state of affairs in a pandemic. Not a good time for Global Britain to challenge China and Russia. Not an ideal state of affairs in a democracy anytime.
Rishi Sunak’s performance last week was dazzling. But a week is a long time in the assessment of a Budget. Not all stay dazzled. Accolades one day after are risky. On the whole the public agreed with commentators' praise . One opinion poll gave the Conservative Party a 13 point lead, a budget boost on top of the vaccination bounce.
Rishi Sunak speaks well, reminiscent of Tony Blair in full flow: verb-less sentences to accentuate his achievements, repeated use of the well-known triple formula from classical rhetoric. Mr. Google says it’s called epizeuxis. Scrabble players please note. Our video star Chancellor’s carefully crafted speech illustrated, if any further illustration were needed, that he intends to be his Party’s choice as leader when Boris Johnson has ceased to be of use to the Conservative Party.
Those of sound mind and lesser aspirations do not delve into Budgets’ small print. The headlines sounded balanced, the tone honest, the measures necessary and, in one instance, incentivising investment, cleverly innovative. On a heavy news day, competing with bloodletting in the SNP, Sir Keir Starmer’s gainsaying got minimal coverage. But when we were allowed to hear from the Leader of the Opposition, he showed that the much admired balance of the Sunak speech was only achieved within a very narrow vision of society and economic recovery.
The great theme of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, now hallowed as immutable tradition, was choice. As we are so often told political leadership means making difficult choices. But you begin to ask ‘difficult for whom’ when the choices made by a particular Party, on close inspection, most often turn out to the detriment of those on low incomes. Particularly after a decade of austerity and static wages with rising numbers of food-banks and shortage of decent housing. The answer to ‘difficult to whom’ should be obvious.
When the difficult choices mean withholding a £20-a-week supplement to Universal Credit benefit just as other pandemic benefits cease in September, when government is offering nurses a 1% ‘pay increase’ knowing next year’s inflation will make it a wage-cut, or proposing savage cuts to aid for countries in desperate need, starving Yemen amongst several examples, you get a clue to the Conservative Party’s vision of economic recovery. When after a pandemic which has shone a spotlight on inequality, the public are told anti-poverty policy is about getting people into work at a time when BREXIT and lock-downs guarantee rising unemployment, you begin to get the picture. And when young people, writing countless job applications are left high and dry, a consistent pattern emerges. Let’s call it ‘a preferential option against the Poor’.
The kind of society found in no political Party’s manifesto is being stealthily created by the triumphant Tory Right. Their preferred option even defeats the purpose of measures designed to stop the economy imploding during the pandemic. Why? Because for months an important reason for infection rates staying dangerously high, and requiring lockdowns, has been that people on low incomes simply cannot afford to quarantine. Infected or not, workers in poorly paid jobs and in the gig economy live with permanent anxiety about making ends meet, and can feel they have no alternative but to go to work. Thanks to the decline in trades union membership there are many unprotected people working under these conditions. Not that quarantine in cramped accommodation housing three generations is likely to be very effective. And not to mention the disgraceful conditions imposed on some asylum seekers, the virus’ soft targets, off the government’s keep-safe radar. Another option taken against the most vulnerable.
The trouble with the ‘we-can’t- afford- it’ defence is that it sounds like common-sense. The retort should be ‘look at the hundreds of billions you could afford? And weren’t billions of it misspent?’ Why is it common sense to declare expenditure unaffordable for public goods supporting the most vulnerable when government can afford to squander £10 billion – and counting - of taxpayers’ money on one tranche of outsourcing to the private sector, on the notorious centralised Track & Trace scheme? It failed. (Without acknowledging such waste bypassing existing local public health networks, responsibility for vaccination services has thank heavens been placed in the hands of the NHS). We are dealing with an ideological problem; the overall aim is to shrink the state. Government will return to this once the pandemic is over.
Current strategy is to keep public scrutiny to a minimum, pursuing policy by stealth, conveniently forgetting, or treating as invisible, for example, social care and the wages of care workers including home care. Vital low paid cleaners and hospital porters also put their lives on the line. Government’s intention to shape or distract public perceptions is demonstrated by spending £2.5 million on a new Press room in Downing Street. This comes with a new White House style Press Secretary who brought us “Eat Out to Help Out” when she worked for the Chancellor.
The BBC has begun timorously questioning ‘government priorities’ - as if, once the North-Eastern Conservative constituencies have had their bungs, it might be time to consider the needs of the many who don’t live in, say, Richmond, Yorkshire the Chancellor’s seat. But when priorities are, as they say, ‘hard-baked’ in ideology and self-interest, those priorities are not going to change – though government may be forced to do something for the nurses because of the public outcry.
The British public now have a fundamental choice to make. The problem is much bigger than the wages of one profession. It is to decide what sort of society we wish our children to live in after the pandemic. If the choice is business as usual, two-nation Toryism, more of the option against the poor, we will get the country we deserve. Save us the shame. It is the responsibility of HM Opposition to offer an alternative.
See TheArticle 09/03/2021
It was a large room, dimly lit, more a shrine than a small museum. You couldn’t help but notice that one or two visitors were crying gently. Your eyes went automatically to the window in the corner. Once a book depository window overlooking a non-descript Dallas highway, now a window onto the lost dreams and hopes of many Americans.
It’s remarkable how the Camelot myth has persisted. Yes, it all happened in the 1960s when celebrities and heroes weren’t ten a penny, the result of many thousands of clicks on a short video, or a hundred circuits of an old soldier’s garden. But today we know so much more about John F. Kennedy. He was no knight in shining armour and the White House no Arthurian castle. But he still retains his fascination.
Believing in your own myth is at the heart of political charisma. And people so seek myths and charisma when it comes to political leadership. Jack Kennedy had that gift.
In Autumn last year, nicely timed for Christmas presents and for lockdown reading, Harvard Professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Fredrik Logevall published Volume One of his JFK to rave reviews. At almost 800 pages, this Kennedy biography covers his life from 1917 to 1956. It tells the story of the Kennedy family’s influence on JFK’s precocious rise to political fame knitted elegantly into the wider context of internal US history and the external global events of the period. This volume ends with JFK’s decision to run for the Presidency. The book deserves its plaudits.
That JFK was a scion of a supercharged, go-getter Boston-Irish Catholic family - with a clever, pious and politically adept Catholic mother and with a larger than life philandering, very rich and well-connected father, the isolationist wartime US ambassador to London – provides Logevall with his leitmotif. The family mattered a great deal politically. It supplied JFK’s core staff for both mission control and as launch pad into politics: naval war-hero turned bored congressman, widely travelled successful author, sparkling young Senator, failed Vice-Presidential candidate, all oiled by his own charm, astute political judgement, prodigious appeal to women, father Joe’s money, contacts, and burning ambition for his oldest two sons, Ted Sorensen’s draft speeches. And great courage in the face of pain and peril.
Apart from cultivating an Irish-American vote and suffering tragic deaths in the family, how very different from Jo Biden, America’s second Catholic President. Kennedy made it very clear in his pursuit of the Presidency that his Catholicism, like his ethnic background, would be entirely marginal to his conduct as President. You could not say that of Joe Biden. Yet the same universal dilemma in climbing the greasy pole, how to balance a strong sense of right and wrong with the moral compromises necessary for power at a state and national level, faced them both.
JFK had an advantage that Biden missed. Catholicism in the 1950s was strongly and positively associated in the public mind with a major political theme, not the divisive culture wars but the Cold War and anti-communism. This was not unalloyed good luck. Kennedy faced the problem of handling another Irish Catholic politician, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican who weaponised anti-communism. The Wisconsin senator was a close friend of JFK’s father, much liked by brother Bobby and dated two of the Kennedy daughters. He was an early version of Trump able to make big lies stick and manipulate popular fears and hatreds destroying lives and careers. JFK, while privately deploring McCarthy’s tactics, never clearly denounced him even when Eisenhower, a much loved Republican President, openly criticised his methods and conduct.
JFK’s shabby compromise obviously bothered him. During his worst of many illnesses, he gathered together the stories of eight senators who had taken a lonely stand on principle or conscience and isolated themselves politically, precisely what JFK himself had declined to do. The result was a 266 page book Profiles of Courage. Though hurriedly researched, it did Kennedy no harm in the Senate. “Politics is a jungle, torn between doing the right thing and staying in office”, he wrote in his notes “– between the local interest & the national interest – between the private good of the politician and the public good”.
How will Biden react if and when his McCarthy moment comes? Perhaps it already has in the abortion issue. That said it would be preferable if Biden’s Catholic episcopal detractors understood that such moral dilemmas went with the job, and did not encourage single issue voting.
Logevall who is generally non-judgemental allows his overriding respect for JFK to show through here. “Profiles in Courage”, he tells us, “is an ode to the art of politics, to the hard and vital work of governing in a system of conflicting pressures and visions”. And so it is, an antidote to the dismissive clichés ‘all politicians are the same’ and ‘in it for themselves’. But in Profiles JFK tries to make amends for putting his family’s friendship with McCarthy and his Irish Catholic vote in Boston before his conscience. The book is also an ode to a different sort of courage and, in this sense, is a self-affirmation. JFK suffered from acute back pain and Addison’s disease. He nearly died twice, once as a result of a surgical procedure on his back that he was warned would be dangerous. It was. In a coma in 1954 he was given the last sacraments but pulled through and was nursed back to health by Jackie. He compiled and topped and tailed Profiles while convalescing.
Times were different back then. Kennedy could and did use crutches without a telephoto lens capturing his condition and calling in question his health and career. His phenomenal philandering, which he seems to have inherited from his father, was discreetly ignored and kept out of the public eye. Impossible to imagine this happening today.
JFK is a great read. Not salacious, not Camelot with condoms, not an apologia, but a deeply researched and sensitive portrayal of a very complex and courageous man, a book that is itself an ‘ode to the art of politics’ and a profile of courage.
See TheArticle 03/03/2021