Pangolo Junction
Life, arguments, and kunu... with Max, Nat and Zack

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

'Old Major', last minute planning and demonstrocracy

Hello again. You join me for another encounter with our three social commentators who have decided that the ambience of Pangolo Junction's interior is not for them this evening, and instead they are enjoying their kunu on the veranda outside the bar.

(Max, Nat and Zack are watching with interest the progress of a tarpaulin-covered lorry as it tries to negotiate round a treacherous looking pothole in the muddy road outside.)

Nat: Just look at that... do you think it will make it?

Max: No way! 'Old Major' has claimed smaller vehicles as 'sacrifice' in the past... why should this one be exempt?

Zack: Well it's already managed to negotiate its way round half 'Old Major' already. Who would have thought that this heap of junk would have made it this far?

Nat: It just goes to show how superior Nigerian technology is. The vehicles may look dilapidated, but there's a ruggedness beneath that rusty exterior that gives them the ability to handle all kinds of terrain.

(Just then, the lorry lurches sideways and totters over the edge of 'Old Major'. It pauses for an instant, as though contemplating its fate in the world, then slowly topples into the pothole with a resounding crash.)

Max: And 'Old Major' claims its seventeenth victim this week. Now that just goes to show how even more superior Nigerian potholes are!

(As soon as the lorry comes to rest in the mud, the tarpaulin cover is whisked off and scores of men jump from the lorry and scurry around trying to turn the lorry the right side up. Their efforts do not seem to be yielding much fruit, and they are not helped by the lorry driver who curses and yells at them all the while.)

Nat: What's his problem? All the cursing in the world won't put the lorry back up. And it's not like those men put the pothole there.

Zack: Oh? If I was the guy, I would be at them with whips and koboko. In fact, that lorry's crash is a true metaphor for the Nigerian situation.

Nat: Huh? What do you mean?

Zack: Look at those guys! All the while when the lorry was creeping its way round the pothole, those people in the back were saying 'I dey kampe'. It's only now that the worst has happened that they are running around like headless chickens trying to fix the problem. That's how things are always done here – left till the last minute until it's too late!

Nat: But then don't you think that the driver is at least as guilty of Kampeism as the passengers? I'm sure he must have thought that he would have no problems negotiating 'Old Major', when the wiser thing to do would have been to stop and call his passengers to help him gently manoeuvre the lorry round?

But you're right about it being a metaphor for Nigeria. We have leaders who we gladly and blindly follow until they lead us into the nearest pothole of disaster. Only then do we launch into full fire brigade mode to try and rescue the situation.

Max: Nonsense! I think you guys are looking at the situation in a distorted manner.

Nat: What do you mean?

Zack: Yes, how can leaving things till the last minute be a good idea?

Max: Well, look at it this way. Let's say you need to have to prepare for an event. You have two options. You can choose to spend a month planning and endure the stress that comes with this planning for all that period. Or you can simply relax and take it easy until one day before the event so that you only have one day of stress while you go into high level emergency mode to save the day. Of course, any sane person would choose one day of stress to a month of stress!

Zack: As usual, your argument has so many holes that it is more hole than substance. First of all, what is the guarantee that you will even be able to plan the event with such little time left? Secondly, even if you are able to plan the event, what is the guarantee that it will be to the standard that it would have been if you had left enough time?

Nat: And what makes you think there will only be one day of stress? What of the stress that will linger for long after the event, when you have to deal with angry participants who have had to endure a substandard event? And this single day of stress – for all you know, it might be so much to deal with that you'll end up in hospital with a nervous breakdown!

Max: Chill, my friends. First of all, time is not an issue. If there's not enough time, then you can always postpone the event. (Zack starts to protest, but Max raises a hand to silence him.) No, no Zack – don't talk to me about hard deadlines. No deadline is so hard that it cannot be shifted with a goodly wedge of cash.

Secondly, so what if the standard isn't up to the standard you would have achieved if you had more time? Do you want to plan the event to 100% perfection? Is this even possible? The important thing is you're able to get the very barest essentials ready for the event to hold.

As for stress after the event, I have the universal solution – cash to pacify the irate participants. And since I also use this universal solution to shift the deadline, there's no chance of me having a nervous breakdown.

(While the friends are talking, the traffic begins to build up round the overturned lorry which the men are still straining to get upright. There is an angry honking of horns as cars find their way blocked.)

Zack (disgustedly): So what you're saying really is that your disorganised approach is better because it will give you less stress, even though it will still give you more stress when you look at your bank balance?

Max: Come on, Zack. It's impossible to plan for everything. Who knows what could happen to us next? A meteor from outer space could strike us all dead! The ground could open up and swallow us all! A pestilence more virulent and deadly than Ebola could break out and kill us all! What would all your meticulous planning do then? I say it's better to develop the skills to deal with unpredictable situations rather than trying to plan for all of them in advance.

Zack: And please tell us how you would deal with the unpredictable and impossible situation of the killer meteor. Perhaps you would offer it cash not to strike you dead?

Max (grinning): Well, I can't tell you, I'm afraid. Remember, I don't waste my time with all that 'planning ahead' stuff – I deal with situations as they happen. So go and use your organisational skills to arrange for a meteor strike if you really want to know what I'd do!

Nat: I still find your argument dubious. If everyone only reacted to things at the last minute instead of being proactive and planning ahead, nothing would ever get done, because we'd all be waiting for something to react to.

Max: Ah, but you see, the world is one giant chain reaction! There's always stuff happening to us – a scientific type like you would call all that stuff 'stimuli'. So there's always stuff for us to react to. Even all that planning ahead that you and Zachariah are preaching about, you only do it because you're reacting to some information that you've obtained.

And the beauty of reacting to stimuli instead of planning ahead is that you only react to what's necessary! You only scratch yourself when you itch. Zachariah only joins the mad craze for technology and picks his phone up when he hears its Nigerian national anthem ringtone. And the government only repairs roads when enough irate lorry drivers crowd round the State Secretariat threatening to burn it down unless the government retires 'Old Major' once and for all!

Zack: I can't believe you're suggesting that the government should abdicate its responsibility of repairing the roads until it is reminded to do so by its citizens! Do you have any idea of how much damage unrepaired roads cause to cars? How much time is lost in traffic jams due to potholes on the road?

Max: OK, Zachariah. Let's say you are Supreme Life Dictator of Nigeria. You have all these potholed roads to fix. How will you decide which one to fix first?

Zack: I'll carry out a survey of all the potholed roads to determine their usage and how badly damaged they are. The more heavily used a road is and the more damaged it is, the higher a priority it will get in my schedule of repairs.

Max: That's actually the worst possible way you could decide which the most important road to fix is!

Nat: Why? Sounds reasonable enough.

Max: The assumption that Zack is making is the more people that use a road, the more they will benefit if that road is fixed. What if the many people using the road aren't necessarily inconvenienced by the potholes? They might be people who have all the time in the world, and don't mind the time it takes to get to their destination! Or they might be people who drive 4x4 SUVs.

No, the better method is to employ the time and tested way of demonstrocracy and let the people provide the stimulus to the government to let it know what needs to be done. The reality is that the people who are really most badly affected by the bad roads will be the people who will be prepared to spend the most time, energy and money to move heaven and earth to get them fixed. They will send letters to newspapers; they will pray and fast; they will petition their representatives; and if all that fails, they will organise a demonstration around the State Secretariat threatening blood and thunder if their road is not fixed. Such people should have their dedication and zeal rewarded with repaired roads.

Zack: Yeah, that's right... let the people with the loudest voices, the most violent hoodlums and the fattest wallets get the best roads. Demonstrocracy? More like bribocracy... or thuggocracy!

Nat: You'll never be able to plan anything with that style of government. The competition to get the government's attention will turn ugly, with competing groups of thuggocrats and bribocrats spoiling each other's efforts so that it becomes more difficult for a group to present its case for a repaired road.

Zack: And when these groups realise they have the power to force the government to do what they want, where will they stop? Today, repaired roads... tomorrow, the keys to the vaults of the Central Bank!

Max: Zachariah, you're going into hyperbolic overdrive again. I never said anything about them forcing the government to do what they want... the whole point is for them to persuade the government that they are the most deserving lot of the groups who want their roads fixed. What's so wrong about that?

(The situation outside has worsened. Under the cover of darkness, the lorry driver and his passengers have sneaked away and abandoned the lorry in the middle of the road where the traffic jam they caused has swollen to truly disruptive proportions. There is much swearing and shouting by irate and frustrated drivers who have been caught up in the jam.)

Nat: Well, if ever you decide you want to be a demonstrocrat, you'll never need a more convincing scenario than that chaos outside to convince the government to fix 'Old Major'.

Zack (gleefully): What I'm more interested in is how Mr. Deal-With-The-Problem-As-It-Happens is going to manage to pull off an escape trick in his Lexus.

And we'll take our leave with Nat and Zack revelling in Max's discomfort as he tries to decide whether to brave public transport or to wait until the jam has dissipated. Join me next time for another instalment of goings-on at the Junction.

Friday, June 23, 2006

State radio, community newspapers and entrepreneurial rumour-mongering

Oh... hello there. You surprised me in the middle of poking my head through the broken window of Pangolo Junction, where I have once more come to eavesdrop on the goings on between our three friends. Well, since you're here, you might as well join in...

(Max, Nat and Zack are seated at a table. Max and Nat are engaged in a discussion, while Zack is abstractedly listening to something on his headphones.)

Max: ...and quite frankly, that's why I think that children as young as six should be sent out to work right away. It's a sheer waste of energy, creativity and ingenuity to keep them in school at that time. Or what do you say, brother Zachariah?

(Zack continues to stare into space listening on his headphones.)

Nat: Hm, it's very unusual for Zack not to have risen to your bait.

Max: Abeg, are we safe? What on earth can he be listening to? Let's find out. (Reaches forward and yanks the headphones from Zack ears. He is rewarded with a howl of rage as Zack jumps up and seizes Max's hands in a bid to retrieve the headphones. After a brief struggle, he wrests the 'phones from Max.)

Zack (angrily): Idiot! What is the matter with you? Why can't you behave like a mature adult for once in your life?

Max: I find behaving irresponsibly much more fun. You should try it sometime. Anyway, why are you behaving so anti-socially today? Don't you know that it's bad manners to be listening to your personal stereo in the middle of stimulating company?

Zack: If you must know, I was listening to the news.

Nat: The news? On state radio?

Zack: No, the news on alien frequencies. Or do you know any other means through which it usually broadcast?

Nat: No need to get worked up. It's just that you usually avoid state radio news. I seem to recall you calling it "a glorified audio diary of the state governor's daily itinerary inflicted upon us by a bunch of brown-nosing bootlickers".

Max: Yes, and I think that was one of your more polite descriptions. So what's up with the sudden interest? Have you been made a commissioner?

Zack: Don't be silly. I heard a rumour about the retrenchment of some workers in some of the state ministries, and I wanted to confirm whether this was true by listening to the news.

Max: Come on! You're more likely to hear confirmation from the story if you listen to the gossip here. In fact, I think if you listen well, you can hear them discussing it at the table in the corner over there. (Zack strains to hear and Max bursts out laughing.)

Zack: You should be ashamed of yourself, really. A child has more self-respect than you.

Nat: But really, even I am amused that you'd look to confirm this by listening to the news. Why didn't you ask the source of the rumour?

Zack: I wouldn't ordinarily waste valuable minutes of my life listening to reporters drone on about the governor, but nobody else seemed to be able to confirm the story. I did ask my source where he'd heard the story, and he said that he had heard from 'someone high up'.

Max: Which, when translated, means that he heard it from someone who heard it from 'someone high up'. But of course, he couldn't tell you that – because it would diminish his importance in the rumour spreading role. So he must have cut out the middleman.

Nat: And of course, it is possible that the person he heard it from also did some middleman- removal too...

Max: ...or even invented the story sef! I have been known to invent and spread one or two rumours that were even reported back to me. Interestingly enough, the person who 'informed' me about the rumour told me that he had personally heard it from 'someone high up'.

Zack: I don't get it. What is the point in spreading these stories? Don't we have enough to worry about as it is? Why make someone sweat over whether he will be retrenched, or whether there's going to be a petrol shortage, or some other looming disaster?

Nat: Don't be too harsh on them. People wouldn't spread rumours if the government always told the truth and did so in a prompt and consistent manner. When people believe the government, then any person that spreads a rumour is wasting their time, because people will always look to the government as their primary source of news.

Max: You're being quite naive o, Nat!

Nat: Why? What did I say?

Max: Even if the government was as trustworthy as you say it should be, people would still spread rumours! It's not just about the lack of credibility of the government... people just want some stories to be true so badly they'll make them up and spread them. Government- issued stories are simply not exciting enough!

Nat: Well, excitement and truthfulness aren't mutually exclusive. There's no reason why an intrepid reporter can't rove around picking up interesting stories that happen around the country.

Zack: Didn't Newsline – the magazine programme fronted by Patrick Oke, Yinka Craig and later on by Frank Olize on NTA use to do that?

Nat: Yes, they did – but I think it's degraded to... how was it that you described the state radio news again?

Max: "An orgy of slavish fawning and praise-singing dedicated extolling the alleged virtues of our corrupt leadership" I think were the words you once used.

Zack: It's become that bad? That's a real shame.

Nat: Perhaps the solution is for people to take news reporting back into their own hands – to become 'citizen' journalists. Thankfully, there are lots of websites out there where people can post their stories for people to read. There are even sites now like YouTube where you can post any videos that you have filmed.

Zack: That sounds like a good idea, except that not everyone is computer-literate, and not everyone has ready access to a computer. To reach people with your story, you're going to have to set up your own newspaper or radio.

Nat: OK, how about someone establishes a newspaper dedicated to airing the 'voice of the common man'? Anyone who has a news story can have it submitted and printed. And because the stories will be unusual and fresh instead of the usual press releases and stale commentary we get in the regular newspapers, the paper will sell!

Max: You do realise that the newspaper will be full of stories like 'WAEC, release my result', 'JAMB, please release my result', 'PHCN, please give the residents of Ajaniko village light' and 'Governor, please tar our roads'. What might be of interest to your citizen journalists will probably make very booooooring reading for the rest of us.

Zack: You'll probably make more money if you charge people to put their stories in the newspaper.

Max: No hope there, either – who will want to buy a newspaper full of stories of tales of woe? And if the newspaper doesn't shift, who will want to place their story in it?

Nat: Why must you be so relentlessly negative? You've not said one positive word about my idea since I suggested it.

Zack: Look out, Nat – I bet this vulture really thinks it's a good idea, and as soon as he's discouraged you into discarding it, he's going to run with it and make even more money than he already has.

Max: Well, can you counter any of the arguments I've made? If citizen journalism was such a good idea, don't you think that we'd be overrun with citizen journalists by now?

Nat: So are you saying that we are condemned to listen to the stale outpourings from the government controlled news media?

Max: I didn’t say that. There is, of course, another way.

Nat: What's that?

Max: The first law in business is: give the people what they want. And what do they want? Rumour! Lots of exciting, titillating, tantalising rumour!

Zack (aghast): You're surely not going to set up a newspaper with the aim of spreading rumour?

Max: Oh God no, nothing like that. I'll call the newspaper The Daily Speculator. We won't actually spread the rumour – we'll just speculate instead. So we won't run a story like 'The Story Behind Babangida's 25 Billion Naira Mansion' – we'll run something like 'Could Babangida's Mansion Be Worth 25 Billion Naira?'

Nat: It won't work. What you gain in sales you'll lose in lawsuits.

Max: Ah see, who's being negative now? Of course they can't touch me – is it a crime to speculate about someone's wealth?

Zack: And it won't even just stop at lawsuits. You'll find yourself speculating in hospital with broken bones if you go ahead with your plans.

Max: Of course I'll choose my targets carefully. I'll probably run a story like 'Zachariah Kwashi – Could He Be A Homicidal Maniac?' and I'll accompany it with a picture of you in wild-eyed rage. And of course, you dare not touch me, because then you'll just be giving the rumour teeth.

Zack (laughs): You're not serious. But I don't think you should dismiss Nat's citizen journalism idea out of hand altogether. There may be a case for community radio and community news for local affairs. I think there's a newspaper in Ikorodu – the Oriwu Sun – which has been in publication since 1985, although I'm not sure if it is still publishing.

It probably wouldn’t cost that much to set up a news media organisation with limited circulation. It would be easier to travel round and get news stories just for the area. And for the money minded like you, because it is local, it will find it easy to source for advertisements from local businesses because they know that the paper will be distributed to people who live in the area and are therefore likely to patronise their businesses.

Max: Hm, Zack... you've given me a better idea! I'll set up The Community Speculator – "Your Reliable Purveyor of Local Rumour" and run headlines like "Could Mama Bomboy be having an affair with Papa James?" and "Was The Black Goat Of Mr. Uwio Killed For Ritual Sacrifice?"

Zack (shaking his head wryly): Max, this your relentless quest for money will cause you trouble one day o!

And so we leave them debating animatedly about Max's latest money making venture. I'll be back with some more tantalising rumour and gossip from the Junction soon.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Daily Amebo - Voters To Vote On Voting

(Good day. You join me, Atala Wala Wala as I am about to peer into the world of Pangolo Junction, where our three philosophers are crowded around a newspaper that Nat has just brought in. So without further ado, let us observe the drama...)

Zack (with contempt): So what rumours does your scurrilous ragazine have to broadcast this time?

Max: That's no way to talk about the Daily Amebo – the newspaper that enlightens the parts that other publications simply can't reach. Was it not them that broke the story about the EFCC investigating the EFCC on behalf of the EFCC? Or what about that groundbreaking story on the launch of Kampeism?

Nat: Anyway, this time, they're reporting on the voting system to be used in the 2007 elections. I'll read:

Voters to Vote on Voting

By Basketmouth Jagbajantis, Senior Reporter

Following the declaration by the Chairman of INEC, Professor Maurice Iwu that the electorate will vote on which voting system they will be using in the forthcoming 2007 elections, campaigning is already underway by various movements, groups and associations to sway the public to vote for their preferred voting method.

Prof. Iwu had previously announced at a press conference his decision to throw open the decision on choosing a voting system to the electorate. He explained his decision thus: "Honestly, I could not make head or tail of all the options available to me. Some people were saying we should use the 'Open Secret Ballot' system and others were saying we should use the 'Modified Secret Open Ballot' system. One fellow was even talking about A4. I wondered whether he was saying that the ballot papers should be A4 size. Anyway, I decided that 140 million heads are better than one, and it would be better to let Nigerians themselves pick out the option that they want."

It appears that the announcement by Prof. Iwu has given birth to a staggering array of voting systems being advocated by the various groups. At the last count, the Daily Amebo had counted no less than 637 different voting systems being proposed. Prominent amongst the groups is the Open-Open-Open ballot group, who are campaigning for total openness in the voting system. The spokesman for this group, Mr. Jerry Edoseghe said "For too long, things have been done in secret. This is why politicians have been allowed to get away with rigging on a massive scale. As our name implies, we are advocating that everything be laid bare during voting. And we mean everything!"

According to Mr. Edoseghe, the Open-Open-Open system would involve setting up a massive operation to monitor everyone involved in the election – voters, candidates, officials – using video cameras. The monitoring would take place for 24 hours a day continuously for up to four weeks before the election and four weeks after, and the video feed would be broadcast on the internet to completely eliminate all possibility of fraud being perpetrated in dark corners. "We will shine the light of surveillance everywhere to expose them!" he exclaimed. On the day of the election, there would be speakers set up at polling booths hooked up to internet-linked computers so that people all over the world watching on the internet could loudly condemn any attempt at rigging. Needless to say, all voters would declare publicly who they were voting for, and the total votes would be cumulatively added up as voting progressed so that everyone around the world would be able to watch the result of the election unfold in real time.

When asked by the Daily Amebo about the sheer logistical nightmare of carrying out this exercise due to the number of video cameras and camera operators needed and the possibility of people being upset by being videoed when taking a bath, Mr. Edoseghe replied "Eternal vigilance is the price of democracy. Fraud has been known to be perpetrated in showers, toilets and bedrooms. I even know of a case where an entire rigging operation took place from conception to completion inside a locked wardrobe, so no place can be safe from our cameras. As for the number of camera operators, we will install CCTV in every building and on every street corner in every village, town and city in Nigeria. Each CCTV camera will be remotely controlled by volunteers throughout the world. I am positive that we will have many people willing to do this, as we can see by the number of people who watch Big Brother throughout the world. Of course, we have 200 billion dollars in our foreign reserves, so that should be enough to pay for everything."

The Daily Amebo also sought the views of Ms. Janet Ekpenyong, the spokesperson of the Secret-Secret-Secret ballot group, another group campaigning for its own voting system to be used. "I am aware that there is a group which is campaigning for total openness in the system", she said. "It saddens me that there are people who want to take us back to the dark days of dictatorship when our every nose-pick and bum-scratch was shadowed by men in dark glasses. What we are advocating is a system that enshrines our freedom to choose who we want without having our landord, employer, parents, pastor or imam castigating us for our choice."

"What we propose", she went on "is to have a system that completely safeguards the privacy of the voter. First of all, it is only on the day before the election that he will be informed of where he is going to vote. This is to prevent prying eyes from tracking him down and possibly finding out who he might vote for. Then on the day of the election, he will be conducted by heavily armed secret agents to an underground soundproof bombproof bunker. When he enters, he will find a shuttle that will take him through a tunnel to an undisclosed underground location. He will emerge to find a heavily locked 20 inch thick door that can only be opened by him using a 128 digit secret code that he will have been given the day before. Once he opens the door, he will find himself in the polling booth where he may cast his vote in total secrecy using a digital ballot, which will completely electronically anonymise the origin of the ballot.

"When the voter has cast his vote, he will exit through another door which he will need another 128 digit key to unlock. After he has left, an automatic process will scrub the polling booth completely clean of all traces of fingerprints and DNA of the voter. The voter will return to the surface through a completely different route at a completely different location. Once he has reached the surface, he will meet a team of expert surgeons who will whisk him away for an operation to reconfigure his brain so that he has no recollection of who he voted for. This way, nobody will be able to coerce this information out of him."

The Daily Amebo questioned Ms. Ekpenyong on how costly it would be to implement this voting system, and she replied "This is not a question of naira and kobo. This is a question of life and death. Do we want to live in a country where there is the risk – no matter how small - of being persecuted simply because of our beliefs? This is how Nazi Germany started out... and see what that turned into! Besides, we have 500 billion dollars in our foreign reserves, so that should be enough to pay for everything."

Another voting system that has been gaining in popularity amongst Nigerians is the Open Bullet group. The spokesperson for the group supporting it, Mallam Haruna Dakwol said: "People always talk of voting for Alhaji A or Doctor B as though those persons are the best people available. Personally, I believe that is more appropriate to unvote for the worst people since all politicians are worthless scum."

Explaining in more detail, Mallam Dakwol said: "Each voter will be given a gun with blanks on arrival at the polling booth. Once entering the booth, the voter will see a small board with pictures of the candidates contesting for a post. The candidate will be required to point the gun at the picture of any candidate he feels is unsuitable for the post and shoot at that picture at point blank range. This process is what I refer to as unvoting for the candidate, and it is what gives the voting system its name. Any candidate whose picture is left untouched will be credited with a vote. When all the votes are added up, the person with the most votes wins the election."

When asked by the Daily Amebo why it was necessary to shoot at the pictures of the candidates instead of simply marking them with an 'X', Mallam Dakwol said "Come on, my friend! If you have a politician who has been messing you around for four years and you want to punish him by voting him out, will it not give you more satisfaction to pull the trigger and shoot his picture? Besides, it's good practice for when the revolution finally comes – it will be easier to identify the thieving wretches so that they can all be exterminated as quickly as possible! Of course, since we have 900 billion dollars in our foreign reserves, the total cost of all the guns and bullets should be chicken change."

Another group that has assumed a high profile is the Quality Voting group. This group, whose spokesman is Air-Commodore (Apostle) (Chief (Dr.)) Kanganka O. Kanganka (Rtd.) Esq., believes that suffrage should be restricted to those who are wealthy enough to obtain the education needed to vote.

"The problem with Nigeria", said Major-General (Barrister) Kanganka "is that the wrong people get into power because too many people are making ill-informed choices. And they are making these choices because they are illiterate, stupid and ignorant. And they are illiterate, stupid and ignorant because they are too poor to buy education, wisdom and knowledge. The Quality Voting group believes that until such time as these people have amassed enough wealth to obtain the necessary wisdom and knowledge to make the right choice, they should not be allowed within a hundred metres of a polling booth."

"Instead", he went on "only those people whose fortunes are in excess of 500 million naira should be included in the group of Quality Voters who should be allowed to vote. And instead of the low-rent voting affairs that involve the inconvenience of standing in line for a considerable period of time in the hot sun to vote in a rickety polling booth, each Quality Voter would have an entire high class hotel rented for him for the evening for the purpose. He and his family and friends would be entertained by dancers, singers and comedians for about an hour to put him in a relaxed mood. Good food and good wine would flow; the subtle lighting and sophisticated furnishing would create the perfect ambience for casting a vote. And when the moment of decision came, there would be a professional MC announcing the climactic moment of the evening – the Casting of the Quality Vote, where the Quality Voter uses a gold plated fountain pen to mark a richly embossed ballot paper with his choice."

Air Vice-Marshal (Alhaji (Otunba)) Kanganka explained further: "There will be those narrow-minded short-sighted people who will complain and say things like 'Why should so much money be spent on entertaining these big men?' Such people are incapable of understanding that the choices that the Quality Voters make can have major repercussions for the direction that Nigeria takes over the next decades. So it is vitally important that no expense be spared in putting these Very Important People in the Right Frame of Mind to cast their vote. And anyway, the money issue is academic – after all, it is well known that we have 1.5 trillion dollars in our foreign reserves."

But some have expressed doubts about the entire venture. A source (who did not wish to be named) said that Prof. Iwu may only have compounded his work. "It's all well and good passing the responsibility for voting on to Nigerians", he said in between gulps from a bottle of kunu "but what method are Nigerians going to use to vote for the voting system they will use to vote for candidates? Are we going to need another vote to determine this too?"

Another dissenting voice is Senator Ahmadu Ali, chairman of the PDP. "All this talk of voting systems is just creating unnecessary confusion", he said. "Everyone should stop worrying their heads about how to use their votes and just give them to the PDP. We have a proven track record in handling large quantities of votes, so any person who gives us their votes can be sure that they will be properly allocated."

Zack: If it were possible, I would definitely choose the Open Bullet method – except that I would employ real bullets and use the real candidate instead of just a picture!

Max: I was thinking that it would be better to have a 'Money for Vote' system. You make a financial contribution towards the person who you want to be elected, and the person who has the largest amount of cash at the end of the day wins the election. All the money would go towards fulfilling electoral promises, so it would double as a kind of tax collection system.

Nat: That's crazy! Nobody would vote!

Max: Oh? Did I forget to mention that only the people that voted for the elected candidate would get priority in fulfilling the electoral promises, and in proportion to what contribution they made?

Zack: As usual, your system is weighted against the common man. Sometimes, I think you won't be happy until all poor people are dead in Nigeria.

Max: Come on Zack, you know that's not true. We still need poor people to wash our clothes, cook our food and drive our cars...

Nat: Watch out, Zack – he's about to yank your chain.

And so we leave our three protagonists squabbling over that most wonderful aspect of democracy, the right to elect and be elected. Join me again some other time.

Atala Wala Wala

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Henpecked husbands, bus breakdowns and manic motorcyclists

Good day once more. You know the time, place and event... so without further ado, let us observe our three friends... or rather I should say, our two friends...

(Max and Nat are sitting at a table in silence in the Junction. Every now and then, one of them either looks towards the door or looks at their watch.)

Nat: He said he'd be here by now. It's not like him to be late.

Max: Perhaps his wife has become fed up of his evenings out and has decided to lay down the law.

Nat: What are you talking about? How can someone like Lizzy order someone like Zack about? The very idea is just ludicrous!

Max: That's what you think. But then again, you don't know the full story. (Gives Nat a conspiratorial look.)

Nat: What story? Come on - you're talking like I don't know Zack and Lizzy. You know I've visited them on several occasions, and Zack has always firmly been in charge!

Max: Ah, but they've always known when exactly you're coming and have always had time to prepare the drama performance of strong man and dutiful wife for you. However, I once happened to stop by when Zack wasn't expecting me, and I was let in by Zack's son, Junior. While I was sitting in the living room waiting for Zack to come down, I heard some very interesting conversation. (Smiles evilly.)

Nat: What did you hear?

Max: I heard Lizzy say "Max, you have not polished my toenails to my satisfaction". I was stunned to hear that – but I was even more astonished to hear Zack reply. He was stammering and stuttering all over the place saying (imitates Zack's voice) "S-s-s-sorry my dear, I'm s-s-s-so sorry... p-p-p-please let me have another attempt... please don't be angry with me, I beg..." (He bursts out laughing, and in between gales of laughter he says "I... I... could actually feel the fear from Zack's voice from where I was sitting - it was that intense!" Nat stares at him without saying anything.)

Max: What? You don't believe me?

Nat (flatly): No, I don't. I think that if your story was true, I would have noticed it in Junior's behaviour towards his dad.

Max: I swear to you on the grave of my departed grandfather that everything I have said is true!

Nat (innocently): So you won't mind if I ask Zack, since he's finally turned up? (They both look towards the door and see a very, very angry Zack storming in.)

Max (turns to Nat hastily): This conversation never happened, you got that? You heard nothing... saw nothing... know nothing! (Turns back to Zack.) Wow, you look like you just heard that Babangida had proudly and publicly admitted stealing 50 billion dollars of Nigerian money and had added that he planned to steal some more after rigging his way back to power and there was nothing anyone could do about it! Or what else could put you in a fouler mood than we're used to seeing you in?

Zack (turns on Max in fury): Are you saying that I'm always in a foul mood? Eh? Is that the kind of idle rumour you spread about me when I'm not around?

Nat: Actually that's not quite true. You see, the kind of rumour he spreads is...

Max (hurriedly interrupting): Nononononono, Zack, that's not what I meant at all. I mean, what I meant was that you were usually rightfully indignant about the many wickednesses that plague our dear nation. Obviously, it is one of these wickednesses that has put you in the mood you're in right now. How about having a cool glass of kunu to cool you down, and then you can tell us all about it?

Zack (accepts a glass from Max and gulps deeply): Ah, that's better. I cannot believe just how abysmally bad the transport system in this city is! It's absolutely atrocious!

Nat: Ah, I take it that's why you were delayed, then.

Zack: Yes o! I'm really fed up of having to deal with this anarchy on a daily basis. I honestly wish that damn mechanic would hurry up and finish fixing my car!

Nat: I think what happened today must have been extra special. We don't usually hear you complain about public transport as vocally as you are doing today.

Zack: Well, I boarded the bus takes me to this place from work. I usually pay about forty naira for the journey, but for some unknown reason, the bus conductor said he was going to collect sixty naira from us that evening.

Needless to say, everyone protested, but the conductor was adamant that he was going to collect his sixty naira, and if we didn't like it we should go and find another bus. That shut most of us up, but there was one fellow who said that he was going to pay not a kobo more than forty naira.

Of course you can figure out what happened next. When the conductor started to collect his fares, the rebel handed him two twenty naira notes and gave him a look of defiance as if to say "do your worst". Predictably enough, a war of words started up with the conductor saying "Sebi I don already tell you say na sixty naira I go collect!", the rebel saying "How can you charge me sixty naira for a forty naira journey... I'm not paying!" and the rest of the passengers murmuring their support for the rebel.

Eventually the driver stopped the bus and said he was going nowhere until the rebellious passenger paid the remaining amount. There was yet more shouting for another fifteen minutes, and it was looking like the argument might turn physical at any moment. I was thoroughly fed up of it all, so I decided to play the peacemaker by offering the conductor the extra twenty naira.

Nat: An excellent win-win-win solution! The conductor gets his money, the rebel doesn't pay more than forty naira and everyone else avoids further delay to their destination!

Max: Actually, I think it's more of a lose-lose-lose situation – the conductor's exploitation is validated so he will try to exploit again the next time, the rebel's response is also validated so he will pull his rebellious stunt next time thus delaying the rest of the passengers, and needless to say, poor Zachariah has had to part with a whole twenty naira.

Nat: Ah, so that's what delayed you. Well, at least you got here in the end.

Zack: No-o, that's not all that happened.

Nat: What?

Zack: We had been travelling for another fifteen minutes after resuming our journey when for no reason, the bus broke down on a stretch of expressway. The passengers then proceeded to vent their collective anger and frustration upon the heads of the driver and conductor, especially because they had been forced to pay more than usual.

Max: Let me guess – the loudest voice was that of the rebel, right? Even though he hadn't had to pay any extra?

Zack (in a surprised tone): Actually, yes, you're right. To hear him shout, you'd have thought that he regarded the bus breakdown as a personal affront.

Nat: I'm sure he's one of those people who just thrive on aggression, disharmony and controversy. I foresee him dying of a high blood pressure related illness at the age of 46.

Zack: Such people have their uses, but I got the sense that he was merely desperately seeking attention. Anyway, the conductor brazenly announced that the passengers had two options – they could either wait for the bus to be fixed, or they could hit the road. Of course the clamour redoubled, but by this time I had decided that enough was enough and I was going to make my way through some other means. Two incidents in the same journey is very suspicious – perhaps God was trying to tell me something.

Max: Didn't the other passengers frown at you for your lack of solidarity as you walked away, then?

Zack: Soli-wetin! Are you serious? As soon as I started to walk away, most of the rest of the passengers else followed. I tell you, we're a spineless lot, we Nigerians!

Nat: I think you're being too harsh. Perhaps they were as completely fed up as you were of the situation, or like you they viewed it as a sign from God. Did the rebel follow the rest of you?

Zack: At first he was going to do his rebel act, but when he noticed that he would be performing for a substantially diminished audience, he too slunk away.

Nat: So you finally got another bus and made it here, right?

Zack: No-o, that's not all that happened.

Nat and Max: You're joking!

Max: Did you get held up by the state governor's convoy?

Nat: Were you involved in a motor vehicle accident?

Max: Were you accosted by area boys, armed robbers or (worse still) policemen?

Nat: Did the driver of the bus you boarded take you to a wrong destination?

Max: Did you sleep off on the bus and wake up in the bus garage?

Nat: Or were you abducted by terrorists who recruited you into their cell and got you to launch high profile attacks against several Western governments? (Zack and Nat stare at him.) No need to look at me like that - I'm just considering all the possible options here.

Zack: None of these happened. You see, all the buses that passed by where I was standing were filled up, so they weren't stopping. In the end, I decided to take an okada.

Nat: An okada on an expressway! What were you thinking?

Zack: With hindsight, I don't think I was thinking at all! I should have taken a hint when I saw the rider swerve across three lanes of the expressway to pull over. But I was really tired by then.

As soon as the guy took off, I knew I had made a mistake. My brothers, during that ride, I saw my whole life flash in front of me several times. The man was reckless – absolutely reckless! I lost count of the number of times he would swerve in and out of traffic with inches to spare. After seeing that screaming, cursing, begging and pleading for him to stop his daredevil antics had no effect, I resigned myself to God's protection.

Nat: I don't understand – why didn't you ask him to stop so you could get off?

Zack: Of course I ordered him to stop several times – but I don't think he could hear me over the noise of his motorcycle revs. Besides, I dreaded to think what kind of manoeuvre he would have pulled off to try and stop – assuming he would have wanted to stop. I think he was actually enjoying himself – throughout the ride, his mouth was permanently set in a manic grin. Every now and then, he would make a whooping noise that sounded like "Shakarakama!"

Max: I think the Holy Spirit of Motorcycling must have descended on him.

Nat: Anyway, please tell me you had no further adventures and you got here safely.

Zack: Thankfully, yes. The foolish rider was expecting me to pay him, but when he saw that the anger in the look I gave him was anger borne of a thousand wrongs, he knew that he would be foolish to be the only one to receive its full force.

Max: OK, so you obviously had a bad day. But why does the city's transport system come in for harsh criticism?

Zack: Can't you see? There is a complete lack of absence of regulation of the public transport in this place! You have buses that are one breakdown away from the scrapheap driven by drivers who shouldn't be allowed within a hundred metres of a steering wheel and managed by conductors who charge arbitrarily high fares.

Max: So you'd introduce more regulation, right?

Zack: Yes! I'd ensure that the bus owners took them to garages for regular checks to ensure they were roadworthy. I'd ensure that the drivers were certified as fit to drive by making them sit special tests. And I'd set strict guidelines as to how much the drivers could charge so everyone knew what to expect.

Nat: Sounds good, Zack.

Max: Except...

Zack: Except what?

Max: Look at all this regulation... regular checkups cost money... fixing faults found during checkups costs more money... certification costs even more money. I wonder how the bus owners are going to find this extra money... Hmm... let me see... oh yes! The passengers! They can pay more! Why didn't I think of that before?

Zack: Why do you always have to measure everything in terms of naira and kobo? Can you put a price on a life saved by preventing accidents due to poorly maintained vehicles?

Max: Oh, don't mind me, Zack. I mean, I have my Lexus – I'm not going to have to pay anything extra. I just feel that Mr. Rebel-of-the-bus will have many more people joining his army when they see their bus fares have been hiked.

Zack (nastily): Perhaps they won't have to pay extra. Perhaps I'll just introduce a Luxury Car tax levied on expensive cars to pay for it.

Max: You wouldn't dare!

Zack: Of course I would!

Max: We luxury car owners are powerful people... we'll mobilise to have you voted out of office if you tried to pull such a stunt!

(Max and Zack continue to bicker while Nat (after initially half-heartedly trying to make the peace) settles back and enjoys the fireworks with a grin on his face.)

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Mixing business with pleasure, mobile phone features and the moral fibre of society

Good day, once more. You join me, Atala Wala Wala, as I am about to take another peek into the world of Max, Nat and Zack as they discuss… oh, whatever it is they'll be discussing this evening...

(It is early evening. Max, Nat and Zack are seated round a table in the bar, with the usual bottle of kunu. Max is excitedly jabbering instructions into a mobile phone, while Nat and Zack are looking at him with expressions of resignation and impatience respectively.)

Max: ...nononononono, don't tell him that! All we need to do is to find a credible supplier... of course we can! It's just a matter of hooking up with our connection in Singapore, not so? (Long pause, as Max listens intently to the phone with expressions that rapidly alternate between disgust, irriation, anger, relief and finally ecstasy.) You mean it? You really, really mean it? Jean-Baptiste, you are a saviour! I will definitely remember you when I get to heaven. (Glances at the expressions on the faces of his friends.) OK, J-B, I've gotta go. I'm holding up the party here. I'll speak to you later. Bye!

Zack: And not before time too. 45 minutes of my life wasted forever and ever.

Nat: What on earth was that about?

Max: Guys, I am so sorry about that. You know how it is... business finds you at the most inconvenient places. There was a time I was with this hot babe I'd been chasing for weeks... I'd made the right moves, spun the right lines and had finally got her to come down to my flat for some serious action...

Zack: Spare us the sordid details please, and get on with your story.

Max: OK, anyway we were just about to get down to business when my GSM rang. It was my main man, Jean-Baptiste Anugileme with a lead about a deal that could make me millions! What's more, he said that what he wanted to discuss couldn't be postponed – he needed to talk about it now!

Nat: So which did you choose – love or money?

Zack: Actually Nat, you meant to say "lust or the remote prospect of money".

Max: Zachariah, your jealousy has been duly noted. Anyway Nat, this is Maximillian M. Ugwi that you're talking to here – the past master of the art of wheeling and dealing while wining and dining. Of course I didn't have to choose.

I took the girl in my arms and explained that under any other circumstances I would have shown my disdain for anyone trying to come between us on this most special of evenings by hurling my GSM through the window. But sadly, this was not a normal circumstance. I painted in vivid pictures how absolutely crucial this deal was, how rare an opportunity it was and how its success would change my life – our lives – for the better. By the time I had finished, she was begging me to take that call. And of course, when I was done with J-B and turned my attention back to her...

Nat (hurriedly interrupting): OK, I think we get the picture. Of course I don't think I would have been able to handle the situation as well as you did, Max. It would have been too much of a context switch for me to move from whispering sweet nothings to talking hard business. I'd probably have switched my GSM off right away.

Max: You're funny o! Anyone hearing you talk would think that you regularly had to fight off girls begging you to whisper sweet nothings into their ears or that you clinched deals left, right and centre.

Nat: Em... Er... (He falls silent.)

Zack: Don't you think you should be ashamed of yourself for mocking your friend's lack of success in the areas that you happen to have done well in?

Max: I'm sorry Nat, I didn't mean it to come out like that. But really, I don't have a problem with dealing with GSM phone calls in any situation. In fact, I sometimes wonder how we ever survived without GSMs.

Zack: We survived by getting off our butts and actually going to meet people – but of course, we're now too lazy to do that, and we think that a GSM call is sufficient instead.

Max: You cannot be serious! You're trying to tell me that instead of staying in the comfort of my home and discussing a deal with someone, I should brave hours of madness on the road going to meet the same person... when I don't even know if that person will be in? You're talking rubbish!

Zack: No, it's you that's talking rubbish! You think if you want to clinch an important deal, you'll do it over the phone? You think that you can sustain an entire relationship on the phone without seeing or interacting physically with the other person in the relationship?

Nat: Guys, guys, I think you're both right. I think that the GSM saves a lot of the bother that Max has just spoken about, but it won't completely replace the kind of contact that Zack has just spoken of, well not right away at least.

Zack (in a suspicious tone): What do you mean, not right away?

Nat: Well, you can see the way things are going right now. In the beginning, there were just GSM phones which you could talk and text with. Then came phones that allowed you to send picture messages and surf the net. Now there are phones that let you play videos, so I think it's only a matter of time before you have phones that allow you to see a three dimensional representation of the person you are speaking to...

Max: I'd settle for a GSM phone that allowed me to transport the person who I was speaking to so that they were physically present before me. Do you think that we'll have that soon?

Nat: Uh... well, I don't really know, but...

Zack: How about a phone which not only does all you have mentioned plus what Max mentioned, but also allows me to transport myself to wherever I want?

Nat: Er... I'm not sure...

Max (smirking) : Or a phone which not only does all of the above but is also able to produce endless amounts of money on demand?

Nat: Oh, OK, I get it. This is another feeble attempt by both of you to mock my predictions. Well it doesn't matter whether you believe me or not – it's going to happen anyway.

Zack: I'd place a moratorium on the developments of further additions to GSM phone features if I were able. I'm really concerned about the effect they're having on the moral fibre of society.

Max (sotto voce): And once again, Pastor Zachariah ascends the pulpit to preach death and damnation.

Zack: I know why you're sniping Max, because you'd be one of the first people to be affected if my ban went into effect!

Nat: But how exactly can a GSM phone affect society negatively?

Zack: Well for one, it makes it easier for you to lie to your spouse about where exactly you are, and it also allows you to carry on affairs without your spouse knowing about them – that is, if you are able to buy a second GSM handset.

Max: Pastor Zachariah, even if you ban technology all the way back to the Stone Age, I assure you that people will still find a way to lie and cheat – so you're wasting your time.

Nat: And what about the vast majority of non-lying and non-cheating people who do use GSM phones productively? Why should they be made to suffer for the sins of the lying, cheating minority?

Zack: I'm not talking about banning anything that is currently being used – I'm just saying that there are these negative effects that they're already causing that we need to be aware of before adding new features to these phones.

Nat: It would be possible to address your concerns if we knew what new so-called negative effects you were worried about the new features introducing. But really, we can't always predict to what use people will put the new features!

For example, the way a camera phone was probably originally intended to be used was to take photos of scenes and people. But these days, people can use it to capture information (like some text in a notice on a notice board). Or they can use it to send additional information to someone (for example if you want to show someone what a particular product is like and can't describe it in words). Even when text messaging came out, nobody predicted that it would be as wildly popular as it is today!

Zack: I just think that before GSM phone manufacturers add any new features, they should do some proper research and piloting amongst a small group of people to determine what possible uses the new features could be put towards so that they can redesign the phone accordingly.

Max: Come off it, Zack – you're just being unrealistic! There is absolutely no new technology on this earth that doesn't have its bad side as well as its good. Cars kill people in accidents, but would you suggest banning all cars? The most important thing is to ensure that the good that comes out of the technology outweighs the bad.

Zack (heatedly): Of course you don't care about whether people are dying or suffering from the 'bad' as long as you're making money out of it!

Max (raising his voice): And you don't care whether people are dying or suffering from lack of technology as long as your moral paradise is preserved intact!

Zack: Well you can say what you like – I personally refuse to join the mad craze for the latest technology for technology's sake. (Just then, Zack's phone rings. He takes it out of his pocket to answer it, but it is snatched away by Max, who jumps up and sprints for the exit, only pausing to turn back to Zack and say "Just trying to save you from joining the mad craze for the latest technology!" before finally sprinting out of the bar. An enraged Zack roars, jumps out of his chair and dashes after him in hot pursuit.)

Nat: Oh well, at least they left me the rest of the bottle of kunu. (He smiles to himself and carries on drinking.)

And there we must leave it for another evening. I hope to see you soon.