From the Magazine: The view from outside

 by Mfon Ekpo


How many roads must a man walk down before he is called a man?

How many seas must a white dove sail before she can sleep in the sand?

How many times must cannon balls fly before they are forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind;the answer is blowing in the wind.

I never understood this song by Bob Dylan. Of all the songs I heard playing on the radio when I was a child, this was the most confounding, as I really didn’t know whether the ‘blowing in the wind answer’ was a good or bad thing. Did it mean the answer was all around me, as obvious as  evening seaside wind or did it mean the answer would eternally elude me as the wind does when you try to catch it?

Only recently did I finally decipher the mystery in the song and, strangely, over discussions on the plight of Nigerians in the Diaspora in relations to the 2011 elections.

Last year, it became final, the Independent National Electroal Commission (INEC) once again restricted the involvement of Nigerians in Diaspora in the forthcoming elections by failing to set up a structure that enable us vote from outside Nigeria. This comes after we had been tossed around like an unwanted baby.

In today, out tomorrow

A ray of light came for us, the clan of excluded Nigerians, when a class action suit was filed at the Federal High Court in 2007 by Nigerians Living Abroad, a group led by Hon. Hakeem Bello, Professor Bolaji Aluko, and 18 others. This the move that alerted the general public that this time around, as Terry daRapman put it, “Boys (and girls) are not smiling!”

In 2008, our hopes were raised when the court, in a significant judgment, held that it was the constitutional responsibility of INEC to put in place the relevant machinery to assist Nigerians living abroad exercise their own constitutional right and duty to vote from wherever they live outside the country.

The then Chairman of INEC, Professor Maurice Iwu, issued a press statement essentially saying that plans had been concluded to conduct pilot elections in four English-speaking countries abroad. He did warn, however, that this would only be possible if Section 77(2) of the constitution) was amended and consequently, a bill to this effect brought before the National Assembly.

Those hopes were dashed on 29 April, 2010, when the House of Representatives Ad Hoc Committee on the review of the 1999 constitution, led by Deputy Speaker Usman Bayero Nafada declared that, due to cost implications (emphasis mine) there were no immediate plans for “diasporan” voting and INEC’s intended pilot test was against the laws of the land.

Then, to add salt to injury, he added: “We …have enough Nigerians at home to vote”.

If that were not enough, in the same breath, he disclosed that the National Assembly might recommend the creation of eight to ten more states. Was the creation of 10 more states, that would run perpetually, each requiring their own yearly budget, more affordable than collating the votes of Nigerians in Diaspora, which would be required only every four years?

Nafada attempted to console us by saying the programme was only shelved “until things improved”. Seeing as Nigeria has been waiting for “things” to improve since1960, the question then is, when exactly might this be?

Not good enough

Interestingly, this National Assembly resolution camebarely two weeks after President Goodluck Jonathan had acknowledged that remittances from Nigerians living aboard contribute significantly to the nation’s economy and, barely a month, after the speaker of the same House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, acknowledged the capacity of Nigerian Diaspora communities to mobilise substantial investment and development capital into the country.

Notwithstanding the let down, the President gladly informed us that the Nigerian Diaspora Commission would be established before the end of his administration. Then, to put icing on that cake, we woke up this year to the news that Bianca Ojukwu, wife of the former Biafran leader, had been appointed Senior Special Assistant to the President on Diaspora Affairs.

When a colleague of mine asked me at a meeting soon after, “How many things will the government give us before they give us the electoral participation we specifically asked for?”, I heaved and withdrew into a silence of sadness and I was reminded of the Bob Dylan lyrics. Which brings me to the question, why on earth is it so difficult to give Nigerians whether at home or abroad what we specifically ask for? Nigerians in Diaspora have asked for years for electoral involvement from their bases abroad.

In response, the Obasanjo administration in 2005 gave us July 25 as Nigerian Diaspora day and the Nigerians in the Diaspora Organisation (NIDO).When we asked more forcefully from this government, it responded with the establishment of the Nigerian Diaspora Commission and Bianca Ojukwu; every thing but what we have specifically demanded.

Same ol, same ol

It is a peculiarly Nigerian trait. Nigerians ask for constant supply of electricity, instead the National Assembly intimates us of the billions of naira budgeted for the running and maintenance of generators. We say we want good roads; instead preference is given to flower planting projects and then fights ensue amongst public officials as to who should or should not commission a road that had been under construction for ages (I refer here to the Sango Ota bridge and the battle between Messrs Bankola and Gbenga Daniels).

We appeal that our educational institutions are falling apart, and are presented the “Bring back the book”campaign. We demand security, and are offered CCTV cameras and sensors.

While these things are not wrong in themselves they become like bile in our mouths when, years down the line, our requests remain unanswered. The reliefs we seek as a people have been buried under a lot of substitutes.

We need to keep asking the questions – until we get the answers. It’s the same song when the Niger Delta youths take up arms in order to demand that their communities be developed instead of exploited.

Why do we face almost the same issues we faced in 1993, with the exception of a few variations, yet approximately two decades later there are still no tangible answers? Are the answers to what we ask really that hard?

In this case, all we ask for is the right to vote – from wherever in the world we are. All we ask for is the right to decide for ourselves those who will lead our nation. This is not the Nigeria of our dreams – and by God we are determined to do our bit to make it better. Y!

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