Monthly Archives: March 2012

Interview with a Role Model

Some days ago, I happened to catch an interview with a representative of PTDF (Petroleum Technology Development Fund) on the radio. I reckon he is the head or a senior officer there. PTDF does a lot of projects to build capacity in Nigeria but it is most popular for its Overseas Scholarship Scheme (OSS).

The issue being discussed was that some candidates who are offered a local (non overseas) scholarship tend to decline the offer. I am not sure if its a full scholarship (tuition, accommodation and maintenance) or not but it seems it is. It also seems like some unsuccessful candidates of the OSS are offered the local scholarship. These uncertainties I am positing here will become clear (or irrelvant as the case may be) after you read the next section.

The Interview

Let us assume the speaker is the head of the PTDF. The following is what the speaker said (not verbatim) highlighting all the points I found interesting.

Speaker:

Our youths are hindered by grandiose ambitions. When they fail to get a chance to go overseas and study, they despair. They decline offers for lucrative local scholarship. These days everybody wants to go abroad and study. This generation dose not value education, they just want to live a fantasy life abroad. Let me tell you about my story which illustrates this point and hopefully, our youth can learn from it.

I graduated from a local university with a Bachelors degree. I applied for a Masters degree via scholarship in a prominent university in London called Imperial College. I was granted the scholarship… but it was a half scholarship. Therefore it covered only my tuition, I had to fund my accommodation and living expenses. I tried all my options but I could not raise the amount I needed to show as proof for visa application. And that was how I forfeited the scholarship.

I did not despair nor wallow. I applied for Masters at the university of Benin. I studied there and got awarded my Masters degree.

Twenty years later now I am in this office. I visit the UK often. We have a number of scholars we send to Imperial College every year. Now every time I visit Imperial College, the Vice Chancellor only need be informed I am around and he will come down to greet/meet me.

The lesson is simple. The same Imperial College which I couldn’t get into, is the same one that now treats me with so much respect when I visit. Don’t be disillusioned about going overseas. If you really want to study then your focus won’t be on overseas but on education.

The Lessons in Summary

  1. Power is good. Aim to get into a position of power; the type that may attract sycophancy.
  2. Focus on Education, not the temptations of being overseas. You can do that later. Be patient.

Three Things Wrong with the Anecdote

The gist of the anecdote is thematically covered in pride and conceit. The experience captured is contrary to the lesson youths are to derive from it. In fact the two lessons are not complimentary but almost antagonistic. However, when I tell these stories to people, many don’t seem to see the fault/inconsistencies in it because it is in a language that many Nigerians understand; conceit. Imagine how many listeners of the programs got encouraged by this “inspirational” story. This is the same language “leaders” propagate in Nigeria. The dialectics and discourse are in conceit-perpetrating cycle.

The second issue further buries the importance of quality education beneath the quest to achieve a certificate; aka Masters Degree. It should be noted that Imperial College is indeed one of the best universities one could hope to graduate from; a leading university in the world. The anecdote makes the simple equation that Masters in Imperial College is no better than Masters in University of Benin. Therefore encouraging the ubiquitous Nigerian attitude that a “degree is a degree”. I am not so much concerned with the name “Imperial College” on the certificate but rather on the academic environment one is exposed to at Imperial College.

The final defect of the anecdote is that it assumes that the Nigerian University System is stable and even healthy. In fact, the last nationwide university strike was called off a month (or two) ago. To be fair; he mentioned that because of the way the government has handled the latest strike, the universities are unlikely to go on strike for the next ten years. Given the Federal Universities’ precedence, every Nigerian has earned the right to dismiss such comments instantly.

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A Day (or Two) at The Visa Office – Day 2

Day 2 at the visa office; here is the link to Day 1

I returned to the visa office the next day and everything went almost exactly as did yesterday. The metal detector was still silent. However I came early so I expected a shorter queue.

Queuing

I entered the Visa-application submission office. My uniformed friend was there to greet and usher me in. He seemed happy to see me. We exchanged pleasantries; him in a native language and me in English (I guess everything is just like the day before). He gave me a queue number and there were only seven people in ahead of me. Now I had every detail right; the passport photographs, the photocopies and even the exact application fee.

I referred to the Nigerian official exchange rate that morning before leaving the house to calculate the Naira equivalent of the fees in Pound Sterling. Like a careful scientist, I gave room for error anticipating the retail exchange rate; I was generous with the error. The most I would have to pay should be about N122,000. My uniformed friend informed me that my number was up.

Hidden Costs

I approached the submission counter glad it wasn’t the rude staff from yesterday. My papers were checked and all seem to be in place. A payment teller was offered to me with the amount on it roughly N128,000. I called the staff’s attention to their mistake to which she cross-checked here reference and gave it back to me convinced she was right. It then occurred to me, the extra N5000+ naira must be their service charge. But they don’t mention this in the website (or it may be hidden in fine print) or anywhere around the office. I took the inflated payment teller in good faith and was proceeding to the next stage when a familiar voice called my attention… in a native language.

Farewell

My uniformed friend seems the jolliest he’s been. He asked how my first stage went and offered me some words of wisdom on the virtues of patience. He must have thought of me as impatient (in addition to being dumb). He inquired if I was done with this first stage about three times during this brief exchange; as if he couldn’t believe it. As if he was going to miss me when I leave. I got the gist… but I wasn’t falling for it. I looked at him in the eye with a straight face and thanked him for his help, but he interrupted me as I was turning. He asked again in the native tongue “You know this means you won’t be coming back to this stage if you proceed”; hinting that I should “settle”/tip him for his troubles now because we won’t see later. I felt the slight pressure to reach in to my wallet and give him something but the rebel in me just looked at him with all honesty and I replied him: “I know”.

His face had a priceless expression which was a mixture of shock and disappointment. An interesting expression I thought I saw was also that of failure; failure to pamper me in to giving him money. Did I mention that he was calling me by titles that only a suck-up would call another person who is not your boss/master? I feel for him though. He probably does this for a living and gets more kickback from “settlements” than from his salary. But how could some unsuspecting target evade him like so, a target who seems so naive in his expectations of the system; and dumb as well.

Moving On

I proceeded to the next three stages. Where I met another interesting uniformed friend, dealt with another hidden charge and took part in a corny-pretentious practice. But I don’t want to bore readers with my experiences on these particular incidents; I have written two blogs on it anyway. I could write a third blog to capture the rest of my adventures but only if someone interested requests. You must have been patient to read to this point. Thank you.

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A Day (or Two) at The Visa Office – Day 1

Like many seeking to keep their job options open, I decided to invest in a two-years UK visa (Post Study Work Visa). I figured I am entitled to apply and since it will be abolished in April, it seemed imminent to apply ASAP. I did my homework on the application while in the UK but because I had some things to attend to in Nigeria, I decided to delay my application and do it in Nigeria. It will be easy (I thought to myself, naively). I found out application details ranging from the exact amount of application fee to the specification of passport photographs (to the millimeter).

In Nigeria, the service of UK visa application is handled by a company called VFS Global. Since I will be applying through this “middleman”, I decided to check the website of VFS Global for additional visa application requirements. I didn’t find any. It seemed to me that VFS Global manages logistics of the application (using the UK Border Office application requirements) and submit applications in the best format for the UK Border Office. I was naive.

Entrance, Queuing and Waiting

After a few circuits on a crescent (circular street), I finally got a parking space. There was no parking agent around so I tiptoed away from my car (as if making noise will draw attention to my car). I didn’t actually tiptoed but in my head I was; I wanted free parking. At the gate of VFS Global, I showed my completed application form, ID and switched off my mobile device. I passed through the metal detector. By the way, it must be the quietest metal detector because I have never heard it make the tiniest beep (and I have passed it a couple of times).

Entering the submission room, I enquired from a uniformed staff if I was in the right place; in English. He replied in a native tongue; instantly trapping me into becoming more familiar with him than I would have by default. He marked me well based on my dressing which gave away my ethnic background. As if to decline his hospitable invitation, I replied to him in English (with a grateful face). He gave me a queue number 94 and offered me a seat that appeared to be for his distinguished. I thanked him and checked the queue on the board was at 72. I sighed.

I didn’t have anything to read with me nor could I turn my mobile device, so I got in to one of my hobbies; observing people. I made a couple of friends and chatted intermittently for the first hour. Second hour; we were entertained by two cute toddlers roaming around. Third hour; I was counting five more people to go while cross checking my documents. I thought to myself, why did I bring all these extra photos and unrequested documents? Then I remembered, you can’t be too careful.

The Announcement and the rupture

There were two people ahead of me now. My uniformed friend came over (with an I-am-doing-you-a-favour face) and informed me undeterred by the fact that I was intensely staring at the queue board. May be he thought I couldn’t understand that when a number is stricken (and the correspondingly-numbered queue card disposed in the trash), it means the customer has been served. How dumb he thought of me. What a nice guy.

Unanticipated, a staff from behind the submission counter came to the front to give an important Announcement:

Ladies and Gentlemen, can I have your attention please. We offer VIP services downstairs for those who want to be attended to in less than 30 minutes. It costs N10000 ($70+) and you can wait in the VIP lounge

I thought what the?!!… for a moment until a voice behind me said “only N10000 naira? you should ‘ve told us earlier. I am going downstairs”. A few mumblings and then between 5 and 10 customers went downstairs. What was I thinking to judge this announcement as unfair even for those who can afford it but didn’t come with the cash? This information is neither on the website nor on any board there for one to plan.

The staff continued:

Can I have your attention please, I am not done. The passport photographs must be colored, white/grey background, UK-Visa size and you can’t be wearing a white shirt. Make a photocopy of all your documents except your bank statement

PhotographSSSS?!! white shirt?!! photocopies?!! these were alien to me, after all my homework. I referred to the forms and I was right. The passport photo requirement didn’t have any of these strange caveats. There was a mention of photocopy (on the UK Boarder website) but only as what NOT TO DO; they want only originals.

Luckily I had extra colored photos; I planned to submit the last of a photo-set since the website requires only one photo. There was a photocopying machine in the room so I quickly got copies of my documents. It was my turn after three hours of queuing. The announcing staff (now behind the counter) looked at my two photos and said they were too dark and can’t be accepted. He said it in a dismissive tone. Then he offered that I go down take an instant photo and come back. While taming my instinct to thrash their work ethics he said to my uniformed friend: “He will go down and come back. Give him a new queue number when he comes back”

WHAT THE #!!!?!@#$@*

The queue board now had its last customer at number 122. Then I gave him (behind the counter) a piece of my mind. As I was leaving my concerned uniformed friend came to calm me and persuaded me to go down and do it anyway, “it will just be one or two hours more” he said. But having stayed there for three hours, I know how long one has to stay with twenty people ahead of you. I simply told him (this time in a native language since we ‘ve become friends) that I will come back the next day. I will go cool off, get other stuff done and then come early tomorrow when there is less queue. My uniformed friend actually had a sad face as I left. How empathetic of him… I thought.

Continue Reading Day 2 here

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Boko Haram: Appreciating Abstract Art

Enough is enough! Foreigners seem to have a clearer picture on the decline of Nigeria as a state. May be Nigerians are just too artistic that we subvert a picture (clear as unlabeled biology drawings) to an abstract art.

 

Abstract Artists

I can’t stand this but many Nigerians can’t either, that is why they sit down and get a jolt of excitement when the occasional bomb-story sparks an imagination in their minds; which makes their favorite abstract art take semblance. Abstract art has its powers in its ability to resemble different things to different people. But whatever image(s) it resembles is a product of the memory of the observer. Therefore Nigerians’ collective memories and harbored-sentiments seem to shape the picture they see from the abstract art; that is Boko Haram.

Nigerians still argue against Boko Haram menace with popular remarks such as “If they don’t like western education how come they use phones, the internet and even electricity”. While it is easy to use this single-statement attack to dismantle the Boko Haram ideology, it suffice to say this statement is way off. It shows how people lack the most basic understanding of the Boko Haram agenda; which ironically their unofficial nickname (Boko Haram) clearly captures. More insidious is when the aforementioned assertion is not stated but can be found as implied in a more sophisticated argument. The latter is what overwhelms media reports. It is difficult to take serious arguments that assume such primitive, yet rudimentary, understanding. We seem to be lost in the world of abstract arts while foreigners seem to get a clearer picture.

I am referring to three analytic articles recently written by foreigners with insight in to the Nigerian recent problems. They articles are, in chronological order: “Boko Haram is not the Problem by JEAN HERSKOVITS“, “Nigeria’s Battle for Stability by JOHN CAMPBELL” and “On The Trail Of Boko Haram by ANDREW STROEHLEIN“. (The last of which was published 12th March 2012)

 

Non-Abstract Artists

Jean Herskovits is a professor of history at the State University of New York. Her article highlighted the lack of evidence in most of the Boko Haram rhetoric and promotion of unnecessary complexities regarding the threat which culminated in the exorbitant security slice of the annual budget. She cautions the US government from embarking on the Nigerian war on terror; which she made to look more like a child’s call for attention by the present Nigerian administration.

 John Campbell was the US ambassador to Nigeria from 2004-2007. The article starts from the death of the former president to present day crisis with Boko Hram. He laid out the two popular narratives concerning boko haram: the first portrays the President as a hero who saved the country, promises a bright future but is hindered by the unforeseen tentacles of Islamist terrorist; the second portrays the president as dishonorable opportunist who’s inability to deal with the country leads him to unsubstantiated accusations. The first narrative is favored and promoted by present administration (and probably more supporters in Southern Nigeria) and the Obama administration while the second is only harbored in discontented minds (most from Northern Nigeria). He advices on how the Obama administration can do its part in fighting (or at least, not supporting) corruption which he believes is at the heart of Nigerian problems.

Andrew Stroehlein is the Communications Director of the international Crisis Group. He laments about the omnipresence and concurrent absence of the menace that is Boko Haram. He attempts to make out a discernible outline from the murky media/mass-painted picture of Boko Haram. He sees the government as a hindrance to solving the problem for its incompetence. The other two major contributors, he felt, are the unskilled police force and the rumor-mongering media. He feels good governance is promptly required to prevent a failed state; Boko Haram being a symptom.

 

Art Critique

Do we lack publishing analysts of similar insights? May be I haven’t come across them. I have read a few interesting pieces which deceptively start as analysis then seamlessly alternate to and from sentimental accusations. It doesn’t help too that most of the vocal commentators (that draw mass attention) are not without their political allegiance. In a society where sentiments & allegiance reign over critical thinking, it is so easy to dismiss the most valid argument with an accusation of an attack. Not that the two are mutually exclusive; an attack could be a valid argument.

I think I am objective, but that is an oxymoron. On many issues, Nigerians lack creativity; content with whatever. But this is a place I think they have overcompensated for their lacks. Their imaginations runs wild around this Boko Haram issue and what each has is a different picture of the situation shaped by sentimental memories. This is no parochialism, it is an Abstract Art exhibition where what you see is only limited to your mind’s imagination. Let Nigerians move away from Abstract Arts and deal with objective diagrams. The psychedelic past-time must stop!

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Biki Dialogue

Biki means Ceremony in Hausa.  When unqualified, it refers to wedding ceremonies. This has been a tradition that has puzzled me and I have accepted that it is just one of those irrational exhibitions humans are never short of; especially when it is so devoid of esoteric significance but rather tainted with a copy-cat practice.

 How It is Typically Done

Wedding Ceremonies (among Norther Nigerian Tribes) last an average of four days. Most Northern Nigerians are Muslims so I will focus on that. I am not aware of Muslims going to the court for legal marriage but if they do, it is not an event during the ceremony. The main event that effects matrimony is usually on second to the last day and it is just another event.

The events are a mix of ceremonies/events with cultural origin and others are as borrowed as bridal showers. If not for restriction by religion, many would by now be having bachelor’s nights (As in Hollywood productions). The following is a typical list of events for a wedding ceremony: Lunch, Walima, Dinner, Indian Night, Arabian Night, Mothers Night. Depending on the locality the couples are from, there is a menu of standard (albeit cliché) cultural events to pick from.

Wedding ceremonies can be quite varied in the name of events but disappointingly look and feel the same. On the spectrum of wedding ceremonies, two stand out at the extremes: The Extravagant Orthodox and the “Bid’ah conscious”.

Two Known Extremes

The Extravagant-Orthodox wedding can last between four days and a week; this is more popular despite the gap in economic-capabilities of its practioners. Venue for the events cost hundred-thousands (Naira) or Millions to rent. The food is expensive even if not posh. The souvenirs (goody-bags) may include microwaves, water kettles, toasters (which are not cheap in Nigeria) etc. The couple’s wardrobe and jewelry (for the wedding) costs Millions as well. Gifts given to the couple may include houses, cars, and millions of cash. The dowry is worth millions.

On the other end are the Bid’ah-Conscious. They are “Pious” Muslims who despise innovation. Innovation is basically anything that cannot be shown to have been sanctioned by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). In the context of Northern-Nigeiran weddings, the oath (Niqah) is said in front of witnesses and dowry is presented; not as in a church but via representatives. This usually takes place either at a mosque or the house of the bride’s grandparents. A Walima then follows and that is it! A Walima is a get together in an “islamic” way i.e. no music and probably sex segregation.

Of course the Extravagant-Orthodox subsumes all the events in the Bid’ah-Conscious but not limited to that and probably not in the same manner.

Dialogue on the different Positions

There are three characters in this episode: Kunne is an observer trying to form an opinion on wedding ceremonies. Malam is a Bid’ah conscious guy and DanDuniya is an extravagant orthodox guy. Kunne does not participate in the conversation but only thinks while listening. You, the reader, are Kunne.

Kunne (Thinks): I shall soon be getting married. I am not fussy on the details of the event(s), I just hope I can afford to pay for it.

Malam: Weddings these days… Muslims are lost. They don’t adhere to what the prophet has taught us; that one should not be extravagant and wasteful. They wear the most expensive clothes for show off, print the most expensive wedding invitation cards they can afford, hire the most expensive venues, give the most expensive souvenirs and gifts… all for fame. So that they will be praised across town and be envied by others. Show off like that is a sin, not to talk of the vain waste involved. How they pay so much to burden themselves with sin.

DanDuniya: It is not really extravagance when you can afford it. As for being wasteful, I know I am not wasteful. May be others are. A wedding should be made worthy of remembrance, let everyone come or hear about it. Of course I don’t mean “everyone” because it is strictly on invitation. Even the Prophet ,that you keep quoting, says the more the merrier and the more blessed the wedding.

Malam: What about the trouble you people go through to make your wedding grande?

DanDuniya: You wont even understand. Both families of the couple expect much from you. You have to meet their demands and be sure to impress them if not they could make life miserable for you. They will say of you: there goes the miser (or pauper). In any case, a seminal event like a wedding is worth doing in the best way.

Malam: Did you know that all of this troubles you go through (to get sins) was not practiced by the prophet?

DanDuniya: I know but what we are doing is culture. In fact we do all that the prophet sanctioned. We just do more and that is for our culture.

Malam: Aha! Culture… and therein lies your demise. You have admitted it. You are bringing INNOVATIONS inside the pure religion. And you know that any innovation is forbidden as it is a path to hell fire.

DanDuniya: Well that is your opinion. Even though you seem to know more about the Prophet’s sayings, other pious people I know do like I do and so they must know something you don’t which permits our manner of wedding ceremonies.

Malam: But you don’t know, yet you follow. God save you

DanDuniya: On the other hand, people like you have no appreciation for culture so you wont understand.

Malam: what culture is there better than Islam? I don’t need any other culture apart from the “right path”.

DanDuniya: Like I said, you wont understand. For us there is culture and there is religion. We do both.

Malam: If that is what you call culture then its a shameful culture. Look at the “sexually suggestive” fashion people (but of course he means only the females) wear at those events. Even parents. And the parents endorse it. Glory be to God! It is so shameful yet you are unconscious of it. No I think it is clear, you only deny it. But beware of judgment-day.

DanDuniya: So what?! These are the clothes we were everyday. Who gave you the right to judge us. Do you think if our dressings are inappropriate our own parents will let us wear them?! We cover where needs to be covered and we eve wrap veils.

Malam: A transparent veil you mean. It is mandatory on muslim women to wear the full hijab. Anything less is commitment to hell fire

DanDuniya: Your dream of having every woman – and I repeat only women – to be covered in hijab will not be realized so find a different preoccupation.

Malam: Since you brought it up, let us talk about parents. The epitome of decadence is when parents not only help organize these events but they are the main dancers in some. Don’t even get me started with the content of the songs; very despicable indeed.

DanDuniya: Do you see the parents dancing everywhere they go? No they only do that in these events. This is the only time they get to feel young again with their peers. Plus most of the mothers only dance in women-only events. As for the contents of the songs well… (giggles) that is something else. It is important that the mothers do all this in seclusion.

Malam: God save you from this innovation to religion. I can see you are clearly lost but you deny it. Rid yourself of satan.

DanDuniya: Look at you acting all pious when we have heard stories of what people like you do behind closed doors; at least I am not a hypocrite.

 

Disclaimer: Although I think the character Malam is a typical example of his archetype, DanDuniya is not so much. DanDuniya seems to care a little about his actions and cares enough to distinguish between religion and culture. However in reality most DanDuniya(s) EITHER agree with Malam’s view and decide to look the other way OR they don’t have an opinion of themselves but can’t be bothered to contemplate on their actions as long as everybody does it. Personally, I am critical of both positions.

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