03 Mar

The week ahead – Questions, answers, then more questions

The newly confirmed Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, has condemned a disregard for court rulings, saying it is an act of impunity that is threatening the independence of the judiciary. Mr. Onnoghen made this point on March 1 at the Senate during his screening for confirmation as the substantive CJN, having been so recommended by the National Judicial Council, NJC, and nominated for the position by Acting President Yemi Osinbajo. Fielding questions from the lawmakers, Mr. Onnoghen said the challenge of disobedience to court orders “is for the legislature and the executive to handle.” The Senate unanimously confirmed him as Nigeria’s 20th Chief Justice. He is scheduled to retire in 2021.

Nigeria’s economy contracted 1.5 percent in 2016 due to lower oil revenues and a shortage of hard currency, according to the NBS. This is Nigeria’s first annual contraction in a quarter of a century following an expected slide recession in the second quarter of 2016 “This contraction reflects a difficult year for Nigeria, which included weaker inflation-induced consumption demand, an increase in pipeline vandalism, significantly reduced foreign reserves and a concomitantly weaker currency,” the statistics office stated in a report. Fourth-quarter national output shrunk by 1.3 percent, ensuring the country finished the year with negative growth. The good news was that in the non-oil sector, production fell by only 0.33 percent in the fourth quarter. A decline in real estate, manufacturing, construction and trade weighed most on the non-oil sector, according to the agency. Oil production – Nigeria’s economic mainstay – fell to 1.833 million barrels a day last year after 2.13 mbpd in 2015.

The Delta state police commissioner, Mr Zannah Ibrahim, on February 28 blamed the rising cases of kidnappings and abduction in the state on the activities of herdsmen, saying some of the herdsmen collaborate with indigenes to carry out the crimes. Ibrahim reiterated the command’s desire to end the frequent clashes between herdsmen and local farmers in the state by partnering with all stakeholders to maintain peace at a security summit in Ughelli. Ibrahim said, “Herdsmen are actively involved in kidnap and abduction cases. It is an issue that needs to be addressed in a round-table, but the police are doing all they can to ensure such crimes [are] stopped. We are allowing the local community to have a say in the decision making of the police and this promotes the spirit of promptness of the police in responding to distress calls.”

A Federal High Court in Abuja dismissed six of the 11 charges brought against Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), by the federal government of Nigeria on March 1. The charges dismissed bordered on “ownership of unlawful society, illegal importation of radio transmitters and researching on how to make improvised explosive devices”. Presiding judge Binta Nyako said she took the decision to dismiss the six charges because the prosecutor did not present any evidence. This ruling came as some Igbo leaders called for the unconditional release of the leader of Mr Kanu. Addressing journalists on Kanu’s continued detention, Charles Soludo, a former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria described it as unacceptable and an abuse of Mr Kanu’s right to ‘legitimate agitation”. Mr. Soludo was in the company of other Igbo leaders including a former presidential aide and notable academic, Pat Utomi,as well as the former head of Nigeria’s electricity regulator, Sam Amadi. The former bank chief said Nigeria cannot thrive in an atmosphere devoid of the “democratic freedom of speech”. Mr Kanu, whose group is calling for an independent Biafra, is being prosecuted for treason by the Nigerian government.

Suggestions

  • Firstly, the Senate must be commended for speedily doing in March what it ought to have been given the opportunity to do in November. For all intents and purposes, the continuity of judicial succession while preserved had been toyed with by President Muhammadu Buhari and has set a precedent that may encourage a Nigerian executive branch in the future to essentially stall the nomination of a Chief Justice he or she is not favourably disposed to. Secondly and more importantly, CJ Onnoghen has to lead a bold effort to institute reform in a judiciary which is suffering from its worst crisis of public confidence since the return to democratic rule. He made a public commitment to senators, to the establishment of special courts to try corruption cases but did emphasise that effective criminal trials involves three parts: thorough investigations; proper prosecutions; and a forthright judge. He seems committed to ensuring the third ambit of that triad is guaranteed. For the other two, the ball is in the executive branch’s court.
  • The Nigerian government has tried to put a positive spin on the result by making the case that since the IMF had predicted Nigeria’s economy would probably shrink by 1.8 percent in 2016, this is actually proof that the recession has bottomed out. GDP results for Q1, 2017 will reveal if the government’s position is the case, but the government needs to use this opportunity of slow growth to reset its economic strategy. A major sticking point remains the foreign exchange policy. Nigeria isn’t “ready to embrace a liberalized exchange rate or depreciation that would prove highly attractive to portfolio investors,” and the spread between the naira’s black market and official rates will probably remain wide, JPMorgan analysts Sonja Keller and Yvette Babb wrote in an e-mailed note to clients before the data was released. The CBN has stated that one of the objectives driving its monetary policy decisions in the past year has been to attract FPIs. Perhaps it is time for the central bank to actually start listening to what those investors want to see in Nigeria. Currently, the foreign exchange debacle has put the economy in limbo. The CBN is neither able to provide businesses with low enough interest rates to borrow competitively nor is it offering FPIs stable exchange rates that will ensure they can repatriate their funds at reasonable rates in future.
  • Two weeks ago, a former DSS Deputy Director, Mike Ejiofor, was kidnapped. Upon his release, he gave a detailed description of his experience in which he identified his kidnappers as Fulani and spoke to the level of sophistication of the kidnap syndicate. This statement by no less than a state police commissioner further confirms what Ejiofor disclosed; the herdsmen, mostly of Fulani extraction, who are carrying out killings in farmer communities across the country, and who have now added kidnapping to their skillset, constitute a key risk factor to which policy makers must urgently respond with all seriousness. The palpable insecurity being orchestrated by Fulani herdsmen across the country may jeopardize Federal Government’s policy to shift attention from oil-based economy to agriculture for sustenance, as the Boko Haram has also threatened the diversification of the country’s economy. The upswing of kidnapping will increase the risk associated with travel. Infrastructure projects all over the country which require personnel from outside the host communities as well as foreigners will be affected. The government must act to stem the reality and perception of insecurity across the country.
  • While the venue of the tussle between the Nigerian state and the Biafra protagonists have been the courts, the frame in which it must be understood is decidedly political. The rise of seccessionist agitation within the last decade has been fuelled by the uneven spread of Nigeria’s economic gains along class, regional and in many cases, ethnic divides coupled with a sense of political disenchantment with a gilded political class intent on enriching itself. The IPOB released a leadership structure for an independent Biafra this week that showed a proposed Biafra state as essentially a unicameral democracy headed by a Prime Minister and cabinet, while district assemblies, administrators and councils would complete the executive branch. This development is not likely to be taken lightly by an irritated Aso Rock which has hitherto failed to get the memo – in order to deal a death blow to secessionist urges, Nigeria must not clamp down on its primary prophets, it must do a galling and sincere soul searching.