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

Friday, April 20, 2007

Defending Democracy against Riggery, Thuggery and Skullduggery

(Nat and Zack are sitting at their usual in the Junction table with their heads bowed down in silent gloom. Every now and then, a head is raised, a sigh breaks forth and the head returns to bowed despondency. As they are sitting in this pose, Max enters the Junction whistling cheerfully, but he stops short when he sees the other two.)

Max: My friends! What is going on? I hope nobody has died o!

Nat (with his head still bowed): Actually, we are mourning a death.

Zack (raising his head): Yes - we are mourning the death of Nigerian Democracy, which was abducted at machine-gun point, then beaten up, repeatedly raped, tortured and then cruelly hacked to death at the last gubernatorial elections.

Nat: And to add insult to injury, the corpse was disembowelled, flung on to an open refuse tip and left to provide a feast for flies, vultures and other scavengers.

Max (cheerily): Is that why you guys are wearing such long faces? Come on - cheer up. Nigerian democracy hasn't even been born yet. What you saw was just its bastard brother.

Zack (in a low voice full of anger): Please Max, if you have nothing meaningful to say, don't say anything. We're not in the mood for your jokes.

(Max looks silently at his friends for a while.)

All right, Nat, Zack - I'm sorry. I can see that you guys are really upset about last Saturday. But really, what did you expect? That a government that rigged elections in 1999 and 2003 would all of a sudden realise the error of its ways and do the right thing? That an electoral commission that couldn't handle a registration exercise would become a paragon of efficiency?

Nat (wearily): Yes, we saw. But we hoped - we hoped that even in the face of all that, the government would see the determination of the people not to have their votes stolen from them.

Zack: Yes, we hoped that they would see us trooping out en-masse to go and vote and take that as a sign that we were prepared to defend our democracy as we defended it during the 'third term' saga.

Max: Nigerians defended democracy during the third term saga? (barks out a laugh) Please get real and stop deluding yourself. Nigerians don't defend democracy. Instead, they sit in their houses and make a lot of noise about how things should change. They devise all kinds of crazy impractical ideas from splitting Nigeria into one thousand different states to calling down God to set up a Holy Dictatorship. But what - they - definitely - do - not - do - is to go out on the streets demonstrating against plans to subvert democracy. That third term defeat? It had more to do with politicians who were trying to preserve their power and less to do with citizens preserving democracy.

Zack (defensively): Well, you can say what you want, but if people hadn't made such a loud noise about it, I doubt that the politicians would have had the courage to vote against the attempt to extend Obasanjo's stay.

Nat: Well Zack, from the evidence of what we heard over the weekend, it looks like the government really doesn't care about the loud noises that the people make.

Max: Was your experience really that bad, Nat?

Nat: Actually, my own story wasn't a case of vote stealing - it was more a case of vote losing. I got up early in the morning, because I wanted to cast my vote and go about some other business that I had lined up for the weekend. I got to the polling station just when voting was supposed to be starting, but I found that the INEC officials hadn't yet turned up. No problem - I assumed that they were just observing 'Nigerian Time'. However, when they still hadn't shown up after four hours, I decided that this was stretching the 'Nigerian Time' concept just a little too far. I was about to abandon the whole idea when they showed up, claiming that they had had problems getting the materials they needed.

Anyway, the voting exercise started, but when it got to my turn to vote, I found that I had been assigned to vote at a station at least three kilometres away. I was determined to vote, so I trekked the distance to the other station. However, when I got there, their records said that I was supposed to vote at the original station. I protested that I had just come from there and demanded to be allowed to vote, but they refused. I was so disgusted that I trekked back home straight away.

Max: That looks like plain incompetence, but you never know. Perhaps someone looked at the details that you submitted during registration and decided that you fitted the profile of the kind of person who was likely to vote against the government - so your details were 'accidentally' mixed up.

Zack: At least Nat can claim that there is a possibility that his vote got lost. My own case was worse.

Max (smiling): Of course, Zack. The world would not be complete if your own case wasn't worse.

Nat: Don't mind him, Zack - tell him your ordeal, as you told me.

Zack: Well, unlike Nat, I decided to take my time in getting to the polling station, because I know how Nigerians are with our timekeeping. I got there about an hour late, and to my pleasant surprise, voting had already started. I joined the queue, and everything seem to be going all right - people were being orderly, the officials were efficiently locating names and handing ballot papers... it was like a dream.

Max: And I'm sure you're about to tell the part where the dream turns into a nightmare.

Zack (sighing): Of course, it was too good to be true. After an hour of voting, from nowhere, some rough-looking, wild-eyed hoodlums descended on the polling station wielding machetes and demanding to have the ballot box. Everyone took to their heels - the first law of survival in these situations is "Never argue with a man wielding a machete, especially if he looks like he would really like to use it".

Max (incredulously): Everyone? Didn't you have a policeman attached to your station?

Zack: He took to his heels too. After all, a machete will cut through a policeman's neck as cleanly as a 'bloody civilian's'.

Max: Didn't he have a gun or something? What is the point of attaching a policeman to a polling station if he can't defend the ballot box?

Nat: Come on, Max - you know how chronically under-resourced the police is. They likely had to ration out guns and ammo, and maybe Zack's 'policeman' was one of the unlucky ones.

Max: So everyone just ran like that. (Turns to Zack in mock incredulity, eyes popping open.) Even YOU???

Zack (defensively): Stop looking at me like that. Of course I ran - I have a wife and two children, you know.

Max (shaking his head in mock disbelief): I can't believe it. (Rubs his eyes theatrically and pops them open, craning his head directly into Zack's face.) You of all people??? You that swore to defend democracy with the last drop of your blood???

Zack (irritated): All right, I'm a coward! Is that what you want to hear? What would you have done, O Protector of the Universe?

Max (amused): Me? I would have rendered my services in helping them arrive at suitably credible figures. These thugs have no idea about how to concoct believable election results - did you hear about how they declared that there was a 90% turnout in Rivers State, with 90% of the votes cast going to the PDP? (Catches Zack's glowering expression and backtracks.) No, I'm just joking. You know
what I feel about party politics already, so you wouldn't catch me within a kilometre's radius of a polling booth.

Nat (despairingly): So is that what elections are all about? Whoever has the largest amount of money to pay the most violent thugs wins?

Zack: Not necessarily. Even if thugs visit a place, the elections there can be declared null and void if enough evidence is gathered to prove that this was the case. And this is how people can defend democracy - by acting as witnesses to any attempt to wreck it. After several rounds of election annulments, one of two things will happen. The politicians will get fed up of paying thugs to steal ballot boxes when doing so doesn't result in victory for them. Or since the elections in the polling stations that don't have thuggery problems will have been successfully concluded, this will free up the police to concentrate on the problem areas and deter the thugs.

Max: Ah. But you're assuming that the government will respect the evidence of the voters and annul the elections. What if they just tough it out and say "to hell with the voters - we're going to install our people!"?

Zack: Then the people will take to the streets in protest. No serious government will ignore that.

Max: Of course not. How could the government ignore a heaven-sent opportunity for its soldiers to test their whips, teargas and ammunition, especially when it knows that the sight of a mere machete (grins and winks at Zack) is enough to send even the boldest of Nigerians scurrying for cover?

Nat: Anyway, no sensible Nigerian will go out and protest. Who wants to die when they know that their death will be in vain?

Zack: Both of you are talking nonsense. Do you think that if we came out in numbers of up to a million, soldiers would dare shoot us? If we came out in those numbers, the protest would be assured of victory, so the issue of dying in vain wouldn't arise.

Nat: Zack, please be realistic. Do you think it's a simple matter to click your fingers and order one million Nigerians on to the street?

Zack: Hmm... I think Nigerians would come out onto the streets if they found something worth getting angry over. Like an attempt to steal their hard-earned votes.

Max: You're deluding yourself again, Zack. Votes aren't like money whose benefits are immediately evident. You steal one thousand naira from someone, you see murder in his eyes. But you steal his vote - and he complains a bit, then shrugs and says "God dey". This is why I was advocating
hooking up money with democracy the other day...

Nat: And people aren't that passionate about democracy - it's still seen as something that big men do. Perhaps the solution is to give people another reason to be so angry at the government that they'll come from all corners of the country - from Uyo, from Zuru, from Lagos, from Maiduguri - and descend on Aso Rock to throw out Obasanjo.

Zack: There are enough reasons already - we're talking about a man under whose watch Nigerians have suffered terribly, a man who has conducted a shameless feud with his deputy and put the stability of the country at risk, a man who...

Max (yawning): Oh Zack, please spare me the lecture. None of what you're saying will have any effect - if people already know this, why has no riot happened yet? No - the solution is to tap into those twin issues that set off the most primordial feelings in the heart of all Nigerians - ethnicity and religion.

What you do is that you start a rumour amongst the Yoruba that Obasanjo regards them as sheep who will blindly follow him in whatever he tells them to do, so he doesn't need to worry about them disturbing his plans for a future government. Then you spread a rumour amongst the Igbo that Obasanjo has said that while he lives, they shall never taste power because they have not finished paying for their sins of the civil war. Then you spread yet another rumour amongst the Hausa that Obasanjo said that they are deluded if they think they will ever hold power, because he plans to manoeuvre Yar'Adua out of power after only a few months so that a southerner can take over. Oh, and put it about in the Niger Delta that Obasanjo is planning to invite the Americans to launch a full scale invasion and level the entire Delta so that Nigeria can enjoy its God-given natural resource.

Then for a finishing touch, spread the story that Obasanjo plans to abolish Sharia completely amongst Muslims, and the story that he plans to allow even states like Lagos to adopt Sharia amongst Christians, and you will finally have set the stage for a full-scale civilian invasion of Aso Rock which will result in the utter obliteration of Obasanjo from the face of the earth.

Nat (aghast): I can't believe that you're even seriously considering that. Have you stopped to think about the possible cross-conflicts that your irresponsible rumour-mongering would cause? How it would cause Christians and Muslims to be at each others throats, for example?

Max: Well, at least it would get rid of Obasanjo, which is what you guys want.

Nat: Not at that price - that's like firebombing your house to get rid of cockroaches.

Max: Of course, there's always the possibility that we get through all this in one pie
ce, and some of the economic reforms that have been pushed by Obasanjo begin to take root. Then these will create more jobs and more wealth so that people feel more empowered to stand up and protest when democracy is under threat, so that thugs no longer feel obliged to go down the route of thuggery to make a living.

Zack (gloomily): I'm not as sanguine as you about this. I see more hardship for the common man if this kind of rigging continues.

Max: Cheer up! For all you know, what you experienced last weekend might not even be rigging. Perhaps they were those men who go round collecting waste paper for recycling and they were just a bit desperate to meet their targets?

Monday, April 02, 2007

My Coconut or Your Coconut?

(Max and Zack are chatting in the Junction when Nat enters with a smile on his face and something under his arm.)

Zack (turning round): What's making you so happy? And what's that under your arm?

(Nat holds out the object out for them to see.) See! A round, juicy coconut!

Max: How do you know it's juicy? You can't tell that kind of thing from looking at the outside of a coconut. For all you know, it might be shrivelled up and full of maggots.

Nat (still smiling): Well, my philosophy in life is - when I have two equally valid and probable interpretations of the same event, I always choose the one that makes me happy. Therefore, I declare this coconut juicy and succulent!

Zack: What's so special about this coconut that's making you so happy anyway? It's not like coconuts are that hard to come by - you can get one for a hundred and fifty naira.

Nat: Well, the manner in which I got this coconut almost makes me believe it was a gift from God. I was rushing to get here today after a meeting at work that overran, and I hadn't had enough time to eat lunch so I was seriously hungry! I was hoping that I would meet one of those hawkers who sell stuff on the way while taking the bus down here, but it seemed to be my unlucky day. Then just as I was about to enter the Junction, I was passing the coconut tree just outside when... gbam! this coconut drops right in front of me! Is that cool or what?

(Just them, a loud clearing of the throat is heard from behind the bar. The sound is loud and distinct enough for our three friends to know that it isn't accidental, but is designed to draw their attention to the throat clearer - who is none other than Philo, the proprietor of the Junction.)

Philo: Nat, did I hear you say that you got that coconut from the tree outside the Junction?

Max: Correction, Philo - if you were eavesdropping intently instead of minding your business at the bar as you should be doing, you would have heard him say that the coconut delivered itself to him - possibly on the orders of the Almighty Himself.

Philo: My friend, don't talk nonsense. Anything I hear inside this bar is my business. And what I definitely heard was that Nat picked up a coconut that dropped from my tree.

Max: Hold on o - Nat never said that it dropped from your tree. All he said was that he was passing your tree and the coconut dropped in front of him. For all we know, it could have flown in from a tree on the other side of town. Remember, we are talking about the possibility of divine intervention here.

Philo: Did you not hear me earlier when I told you not to talk nonsense? Who ever heard of a flying coconut? (turns to Nat) You know fully well that that coconut is rightfully mine, so please let me have it right away!

(At this, Max, Nat and Zack chorus in dismay, uttering statements such as "Come on, Philo - it's just a coconut!", "Why are you behaving like a dictator, now?" and "How do you think God will feel if Nat throws His gift back in His face?". But Philo is unmoved, and he raises his voice threateningly.)

If you guys don't surrender that coconut, then I will have to consider whether I want my bar frequented by people who steal coconuts from me, as well as people who move with such people!

(Grumbling, Nat gets up and reluctantly drops the coconut on the bar worktop, then returns to his seat. Philo nods his head and retires to a room at the back, presumably to store the coconut away.)

Zack (annoyed): You should have dropped that coconut with enough force to 'accidentally' crack it open. This is one of those times that I'm tempted to look for a better place to go and relax after hours. I mean, is there a law that says that any tree within a particular distance of your house is your own?

Nat: Hmm... I don't think that Philo was operating under written-down laws... I think he basically decided one day that this was his coconut tree, and since there was nobody there to challenge him, he began acting like it was his tree. Obviously, everyone else who has come by since has seen him acting like it's his tree, so they've assumed that he must have some backing from some 'higher authority' and they've gone along with the idea that it's his tree.

Max (musing): So... if we now challenge him, everyone else will come to his defence saying that he owns the tree, even though the only reason they say so is because he's always acted like he owns the tree. Interesting... so I could ask Zack to lend me his mobile phone for a few days, then go round town posing like it's mine. Then when he comes to collect it back, I turn round to everyone and exclaim in indignation that he wants to relieve me of the phone that they all know is really mine. Cool!

Zack: And yet again, you reveal your criminally psychopathic tendencies. But it doesn't matter - your plan would fail, because as Nat failed to mention, it would only work if there isn't an equally powerful counter-claim - and unfortunately for you, there are large numbers of people who would be able to vouch that I have owned the phone for a longer period than you.

Max: But I'd pose with the phone in front of many more people, so the number of people supporting me would be bigger than those supporting you! Hah!

Nat: But it's not just about getting a bigger army of supporters behind you - I think the quality of your supporters matter as well. The people you would get to vouch for you wouldn't be as passionate about your cause as those backing Zack. This is because his supporters would include friends, family and co-workers who know him very well and who would be passionate about his case - whereas your 'supporters' - the people who you would supposedly be relying on to come to your defence on the basis that they had seen you with the phone - would just be strangers who you'd passed in the street, posing with the phone. So they would just melt away rather than confront Zack's army - after all, why should they care about you?

Zack: Anyway, I think this 'my-army-is-bigger-than-your-army' approach to defining ownership is not only confusing but it is also very unfair! Imagine a situation where I buy a house and then shortly after, I go away for a few years. Imagine that a squatter then takes over the house and pretends it's his own. So when I come back, I find that the squatter has set himself up as the landlord, and nobody in the neighbourhood believes me because he has done a good job of convincing everyone else that he's the real owner.

Max: Well, it would be your fault for not visibly staking your claim in such a way that everyone knew you were the landlord.

Nat: Don't mind Max. Despite what he says, you have a force backing you that is bigger than all of the people in the neighbourhood - and that's the government's law enforcement agencies. If you really did buy the house, then a record of the transaction should be in the land registry's office, right? You'd have the deeds to the house to prove your ownership, not so? And with those, you can take your case to court and have a good chance of winning.

Max (snorting in contempt): Court? Abeg, don't make me laugh! The case will drag on for so long that either you'll end up being pauperised by legal fees or when it's finished, you'll find that the squatter has defaced your house so badly that you might as well level it and start all over again.

Zack: Come on, Max - you know that Nat is right. We need the government to properly protect what we own so that we don't have anarchy in the land.

Max: Oh, I don't have a problem with government protecting what we own. The problems are - one - the government doesn't seem to be interested in doing that, and - two - the government doesn't seem to be able to do that. In fact, I doubt if the government is really sure what exactly we do and we don't own. The stories I could tell you about what happens when people go to buy land... (sighs)

Nat: What stories?

Max (still sighing): Stories about what happens when the government issues you a certificate of occupancy document that's supposed to give you the right to occupy the land - well, I say "right to occupy the land", but really the government is going to seize back with one hand what it is 'giving' you with the other...

Nat (confused): What on earth are you talking about?

Max (wearily): Don't you know? I'm talking about the Land Use Decree which declares that as of 1978 - when the bloody decree was passed - the government has the ultimate right to determine who occupies and who uses land. When people say they own a plot of land, what they really own is a leasehold on the plot till 2077 - that's ninety nine years after the decree was passed. After that, the government has the right to reclaim your land.

Zack: I think there's a good side to this... for example, if the government decides that railways or roads should be built to connect one part of the country to another, then it's a good idea for it to be able to easily acquire the land that it needs to do this without some enemy of progress blocking the plan because his plot of land happens to be in the path of the railway.

Nat: Hm! You can talk, Zack... until it's your plot of land that happens to be in the path of the railway.

Zack: So are you saying that the government's plans for the majority of people should be held hostage because some selfish so-and-so refuses to give up his land?

Nat: Well, if the government wants it, the government should buy it at a reasonable price - not use the excuse of the Land Use Decree to seize it.

Max: It's funny that Zack should bring that up, because the decree talks about the government exercising it's power to acquire land "in the public interest". (Smiles wryly) I always shake my head whenever I see that phrase "in the public interest", because it is the backdoor that government officials use to smuggle all sorts of unsavoury practices on board. For example, it's not uncommon to hear of a governor deciding that some land with a potentially high value should be acquired "in the public interest". Of course, in this case, "the public interest" means issuing certificates of occupancy to his friends and relatives left, right, up, down, back and forth!

Anyway, you can see that having one of these certificates of occupancy means that you have the government's 'blessing', so to speak, to do what you want with the land. And so you can also see why any prospective landowner will want to have one of these certificates. So it's not difficult to imagine that a 'smart' government official will quickly realise that the more of these certificates he issues, the more 'settlement' he can receive - even if the certificates are for the same property.

Nat: But surely there's some sort of register which tells who owns what property?

Max: Yeah, there's a land register - and in the ideal world, the official issuing the certificates should use this to confirm the status of the property he is issuing a certificate for. But why let an irritant like that stand in the way of egunje? Anyway, the official will probably convince himself that the register is highly unreliable.

Zack: You know... now you mention this, I'm not even sure if the certificate of occupancy is enough to give the landowner peace of mind. I'm reminded of a story where this person I knew had bought some land that had been acquired and allocated by the government. He was quite relieved after obtaining his certificate of occupancy because he believed that this was the most problematic part of the process, but when he started to erect a fence round his property, some people came calling.

Nat: Who were they?

Zack: Well, they said that they were the traditional owners of the land, and as far as they were concerned, they knew nothing of any government acquisition of their land, and this man should make payment for their land, or else... (makes threatening gesture)

Max (smiling wryly): I guess that's an example of the natural law where you assert your right because you have a large army of supporters.

Nat: So what did he do?

Zack (shrugging): What could he do? In a civilised society, he would have waved his C of O at them and that would have sent them scurrying with their tails between their legs. But this is Nigeria, where even the government officials will encourage you to settle with the traditional owners instead of giving you the backing that the document promises you.

Max: So Zack, it would be nice to have a formal structure where we just rely on the government - but when the government is so incompetent, what else can you do?

Nat: I get the feeling that a lot of the problems are due to poor record keeping and restriction of access to this information. It's like the government officials in the land registry benefit from having this information locked away so that people have to go and beg them with money.

So I think that what would be a good idea is to computerise all this information. The government could have a central database which would hold information such as the address of a property, the co-ordinates of that property, a detailed survey plan of the property, a map showing where the property was located and the name and details of the person or organisation that held the title to that property. This database could be the single reliable authority so that people could cross check the authenticity of a certificate of occupancy against it. And it could be available on the Internet so that people wouldn't need to make expensive trips to their local government office to verify the status of land they were thinking of buying.

Max: Very laudable, Nat - but there's still the gargantuan problem of trying to decide who owns what in the first place. Remember that there are loads of duplicate C of O's flying around pointing to the same property... not to mention those traditional communities who haven't even registered their land in the first place.

Nat: The problem may be huge - but it's still possible to resolve. For cases where there is land in dispute, the government can set up specialist courts to resolve land cases speedily. The courts can dispense with much of the formalities that you see in everyday courts, and they can make all people coming to settle disputes that they should bring all their evidence ahead of time or risk having their case struck out. As for people who haven't registered their land, the government can impose a generous time limit beyond which if people haven't registered their land, it could potentially be forfeit.

Zack: And just to back Nat up, I believe that the Federal Capital Territory Minister, Nasir el-Rufai is trying to do something like this. He's asked all owners of land to re-register their properties, and he's even getting all that information computerised - there's this system called the
Abuja Geographic Information System where not only the information about certificates of occupancy of property are recorded in the system, but also the geographical coordinates of the property on the ground are recorded as well.

Nat: So it is doable, Max. Hopefully, when other indigenes of other states see what is happening in Abuja, they will press for their own governments to institute similar policies.

Max: That would be wonderful... then we wouldn't have greedy bar owners telling us that they own coconuts which are quite clearly not theirs.

Zack: Why are you going on and on about this coconut? It's not like it was even your coconut. Talk about a case of the outsider weeping louder than the bereaved!

Max: It's a matter of principle... but I don't think you would understand. (Gets up.)

Nat: Where are you going?

Max: It just occurred to me that if a coconut could fall down from the tree when you were passing by, then the same thing could happen to me as well.

Zack: You're forgetting that divine intervention may have been involved... and the last time I checked,
you proclaimed yourself not to be a believer in such matters.

Max (chuckling): Oh, don't worry. The coconuts will fall when I pass by that tree all right. It may take some shaking, some stick throwing and possibly even some climbing... but trust me - they'll fall...