Friday 27 April 2007

27 April 2007

The very first election that I remember covering was a by-election in Ilford North in 1978. It was won, I recall, by a hardline Conservative estate agent called Vivian Bendall. The defeated Labour candidate was a young psychiatric social worker by the name of Tessa Jowell.

Since then, I have reported on elections in Russia, Pakistan, Iran, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Israel, Bosnia, the US, France, Germany and Italy. I love elections. I get a real kick out of watching people marking a ballot paper and choosing a government. For just one moment, each individual voter has real power.

But it wasn’t quite like that last weekend in Nigeria. When I asked the chief EU election monitor, Max van den Berg, if it was the worst conducted election the EU had ever observed, he had to concede that yes, maybe it was. Ballot boxes were stuffed with pre-marked ballot papers, some polling stations never even opened for business, some ballot boxes were stolen by thugs. The official results from some parts of the country were literally incredible.

Yet at the polling station where I spent election day, in the capital, Abuja, everything went perfectly. It opened on time, closed on time, and there were enough ballot papers for everyone. True, the voting wasn’t exactly secret: there were no booths, just a bench out in a schoolyard with an inkpad. You picked up your ballot paper, walked over to the bench, inked your thumb and marked the paper next to the party of your choice. At the close of polling, the papers were counted in public, with everyone able to see for themselves that there was no funny business.

But Abuja isn’t, alas, typical of Nigeria. It’s an artificial, modern capital, populated almost entirely by civil servants and government employees. It resembles, as someone unkindly remarked, Milton Keynes, but without the charm.

So why is the Nigerian political system so corrupt? Other African nations which have embraced democracy seem to manage considerably better, so what’s different about Nigeria? A one-word answer is all you need: oil.

If the government coffers are swollen with oil revenues, who needs taxes from voters? Who needs to pay attention to voters? There is no direct relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. If you can buy the votes you need, why bother listening to what voters want?

On Monday, I asked President Olusegun Obasanjo if he was proud of how the elections had been conducted. He conceded that they had been “imperfect” but insisted that it is not reasonable to expect a country like Nigeria to be able to perform miracles overnight. It is, after all, only eight years since it returned to a democratic system after more than 15 years of military rule. (My conversation with the President is still available via the Listen Again button on the website.)

And the irony of it all? The man who “won” the election, Umaru Yar’Adua, may well have been the best candidate. He is competent, honest and, by all accounts, a modest, self-effacing man. But we’ll never know if he would have been the people’s choice in a fairly conducted poll.

It’s nearly seven weeks now since our friend and colleague Alan Johnston disappeared in Gaza, and there has been not a word from either him or those who are assumed to have kidnapped him. We have not forgotten him; I hope you haven’t either.

Friday 20 April 2007

20 April 2007

Kano/Abuja, Nigeria

Have you ever wondered what kind of life you’d have without a reliable supply of electricity? No guaranteed light after sunset, no computers, no TV. That’s what life is like for most Nigerians.

It was shortly before sunset when I arrived at the home of Mohammed in Kano, the impoverished, sprawling city in northern Nigeria where I’ve been spending the past few days. The light was rapidly fading and inside his house, it was sweltering. For much of the day, the temperature outside had been close to 40 degrees Celsius. Not surprisingly, his three young children were restive.

Mohammed and his family are not rural peasants eking out a living in a mud hut in the bush. He runs a successful timber business, and he lives in a major city, yet like everyone in Kano – and nearly everywhere else in Nigeria – he has had to learn how to make do with only the most sporadic of power supplies.

At the Kano hotel I was staying in, the power went off about twice an hour. Every hour. Then the diesel generators started up, but diesel is expensive, and most people can afford to run generators, if at all, only for a couple of hours a day. (Not like the huge hotel where I’m staying here in the capital, Abuja – here, they’re running generators 24 hours a day.)

This should be one of the richest countries in Africa. It is, after all, one of the world’s biggest producers of oil. Yet every time the government plans to build a new power station, somehow the money seems to disappear. The assumption is it’s going into someone’s pocket. Nigeria may not be one of the richest countries in Africa, but it is certainly one of the most corrupt.

So every time I ask a Nigerian what they want from the country’s next President, the answer is the same: electricity, and an end to corruption. To be fair, both the main candidates in tomorrow’s election – the ruling party’s candidate Umaru Yar-Adua, and the main opposition candidate, former military strongman General Muhammadu Buhari – have clean reputations. And many local State governors facing serious corruption allegations were disqualified from standing again.

Nigerians are good at fatalism. The Muslims say “Insha’allah”. The Christians say: “As God wishes”. They don’t have high hopes from tomorrow’s election, so they’re unlikely to be disappointed or angry when nothing much changes. They’re an ebullient people, and they are good at word play. So it’s not politics, it’s poli-tricks. Not an election, but a selection. And my favourite, coined by the late Afro-rock star Fela Kuti: not democracy, but dem-all-crazy.

The most touching thing I’ve heard since I’ve been here was when I was chatting a couple of days ago to a local journalist in Kano. We were discussing tomorrow’s election when suddenly he said: “By the way, when are you going to be able to get Alan out?” I knew exactly who and what he was referring to – it’s now nearly six weeks since our colleague Alan Johnston was kidnapped in Gaza and we are still desperately worried about him. But it’s good to know that even here in Nigeria, he is missed. Please keep him in your thoughts too.

Friday 13 April 2007

13 April 2007

Don’t you just love the many different ways politicians can find to avoid saying “I got it wrong”? Tony Blair: “Was it a good idea? No.” Des Browne: “I could have made a different decision.” Which, when translated, means something along the lines of “Whoever decided to tell those wretched sailors and marines, just back from a nasty couple of weeks as prisoners in Iran, that they could sell their stories to the highest bidder, is an idiot, a fool, an over-promoted stuffed shirt with too much scrambled egg on his peaked cap.”

Personally, I’m not all that interested in who made the decision (it was, apparently, the Second Sea Lord, Vice-Admiral Adrian Johns, with some help from the less-than-impressive officials in the MoD press office). What I find fascinating is that anyone could have thought for a moment that it was a good idea. Did no one at the MoD realise that as soon as you do a deal with one newspaper, the rest of them declare war on you?

And while we’re at it, let’s consider who thought it was a good idea to send 15 lightly-armed service personnel to conduct a stop-and-search mission close to the Iranian coast, with no one apparently bothering to check that there wasn’t someone with ill intent hovering just over the horizon. In my book, that’s an even worse idea than hurling them into the media den once they got home. Did no one in the Navy notice that the Iranian and British governments had been flinging insults at each other for weeks?

But who do you think could have told “Personnel Today”, while the sailors and marines were still being held captive: “They are trained to be resilient and to work as a team … All of them have had training in what you do when you get in these situations, and how to cope with interrogation.” Ah yes, the Second Sea Lord, Vice-Admiral Adrian Johns.

The trouble is, the Royal Navy, the so-called Senior Service, which for so long enabled Britannia to rule the waves, is no longer used to trouble. The army, on the other hand, knows all about media management, having learnt the hard way in northern Ireland, the Falklands and a dozen other hot spots. But the Navy? It’s been a doddle by comparison.

We expect a lot of our armed forces these days. We want them to be able to fight wars – in Iraq and Afghanistan – and we want them to be able to enforce UN security council resolutions – in the Gulf, the Balkans, Cyprus – with fewer personnel and less money than they had during the Cold War. No wonder they sometimes come unstuck.

The old military adage about the proper way to deal with reporters had the undoubted benefit of simplicity: “Tell them nothing till it’s over; then tell them who won.” It won’t work these days, of course, but I strongly suggest that the Navy – and the MoD press office -- send a few of their top bods off on a media course to learn what does work.

I’ll be in Nigeria next week, ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections, which are being heralded as the first time in the country’s history that one civilian administration will hand over to another. It’s the most populous, potentially the richest, and arguably the most corrupt, country in Africa: so a lot could hinge on what happens next weekend.

And of course I’ll be thinking of our colleague Alan Johnston while I’m away; it’s now nearly five weeks since he was kidnapped in Gaza. Please do keep him and his family in your thoughts.

Friday 6 April 2007

6 April 2007

Funny, isn’t it, how we haven’t heard much about Iran’s nuclear programme over the past couple of weeks? Do you think that might be why they decided to pick up those sailors and marines in the Gulf?

After all, what better way of deflecting attention, just as the UN Security Council was wagging its finger again? Stage a nice little diversion, get the auld enemy all hot and bothered, and then play Mr Nice Guy and send the captives home in time for Easter …

Me? I don’t buy it. I have no inside knowledge, but I’ve been trying to put together the jig-saw, and this is the picture I’ve come up with.

First, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Not a happy bunch: their hard-line allies were trounced in elections late last year, and then five of their finest were snatched from northern Iraq by the US military. So they were looking for a way to recoup a bit of self-esteem.

Enter stage right a couple of unsuspecting Royal Navy inflatables, poking their noses around the northern Gulf, making a nuisance of themselves, getting in the way of the lucrative smuggling trade. (Some of which, by the way, may well be benefiting the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.)

Bingo. Keen local commander spots them, intercepts them, captures them. Bosses delighted, especially when they discover, as we learned only last night, that they’ve now got their hands on the Royal Navy’s only two inflatables in the area and their entire boarding party crew.

Remember, it’s the Iranian New Year. All the top politicos are spending quality time with their families. But that doesn’t stop the Propaganda Department showing off its talents with a series of TV spectaculars. One after the other, the British captives pay tribute to the kindness and compassion of their captors and apologise for “apparently” straying into Iranian territorial waters. (We may find over the next few days that the truth as to whether they did or not is not quite as straightforward as we’ve been led to believe.)

Once the holiday is over, the leadership take control, decide they’ve extracted maximum advantage, and President Ahmadinejad, who probably was not the key figure in their deliberations, is told he can take the international credit for ordering the captives’ release.

So what have we learned? One, that the Royal Navy top brass need to keep their eye on regional politics. If they thought they were operating in friendly waters, they weren’t paying attention. Two, that Iranian political leaders are subtle and sophisticated. They know how to play the Western media. And the politics of Iran are far more complex than the impression we’re often given. There’s much more to Tehran than bearded mullahs chanting Down with America.

The 15 sailors and marines are back home, their families and friends are greatly relieved. Not so, alas, the family and friends of our colleague Alan Johnston, the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza, who was kidnapped nearly four weeks ago and of whom we have heard nothing since the day he disappeared. There’s an online petition on the BBC News website calling for his release: if you’d like to add your name, click here.