Chidi Oguamanam

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Withdraw this ministerial nomination, Mr. President

Posted by Chidi Oguamanam on March 12, 2015 at 7:55 PM Comments comments (0)

Recently, Canada recorded a conviction under its extant Elections Act. In that case, which is now under appeal, Michael Sona, a Conservative Party campaign employee got a nine-month jail sentence and a year on probation as a result of his role in the so-called “robocalls” incidents. The “robocalls” refer to automated calls that targeted opposition party supporters and falsely advised them, on Election Day, of a change in their designated polling centres. The objective was to frustrate and, conceivably, disenfranchise citizens who would have voted for rival parties. The judgment text and newspaper reports of this landmark decision demonstrate the judge’s stern view of Sona’s conduct. He called the “robocalls” scheme an “ill-conceived and disturbing plan” and a “callous and blatant disregard for the right of people to vote”. No member of the Parliament or any other serving politician has been cited, directed or indirectly, in the “robocall” affair. In fact, before any politician could be linked to such an affair, it is the custom in the Canadian clime that they will be the first to resign, and submit themselves to the legal consequences of their misconduct.

 

But consider the “Ekitigate” whereof an alleged audio record of political conspiracy that plausibly influenced the outcome of the governorship election in Ekiti State has surfaced. The “Ekitigate” is associated with leading members of the ruling party, including cabinet ministers of the Federal Government. So far, responses from a majority of the individuals cited have been quite jerky. Initial denials of the audio recording and lame attempts at disputation of the authenticity of the voices of dramatis personae have given way to incoherent narratives over the context and motive of the meeting at the Spotless Hotel, Ado-Ekiti venue of the alleged recorded exchanges.

 

The President’s response has been typical. The suggestion was that the audio record was fabricated for political motives. Not surprisingly, there is no appetite to conduct an investigation on the part of the Presidency, not even to clear the President whose errand, one of the actors claimed to be running in the alleged election rigging controversy. It is convenient for the government to claim that the whistle-blower is required to substantiate his allegations; notwithstanding that he is now on a self-imposed exile. But the authorities expediently forget that they can also provide the whistle-blower assurance of security and personal safety. In his interview with “Sahara TV”, the whistle-blower claimed that he fled the country out of fear for his life. In the same interview, he claimed that his younger brother has been victimised by the military whose personnel were also alleged to be part of the “Ekitigate.”

 

Time and again, when the President has the opportunity to address the issue of corruption in Nigeria even as a mere discussion point, he is wont to trivialise it. From the President’s worldview, it is either that small theft is not corruption or that the issue of corruption is blown out of proportion by the media. I am still imagining what quantum of corruption would be satisfactory for the President to appreciate that corruption is an albatross in the country he is presiding over. And it is hardly surprising that the impunity label has stuck with this Presidency like a stamp. While the President is inclined to make a political capital of his modest and humble background in one step, in another, he progressively remains disconnected with the reality and feelings of the Nigerian people.

 

The President has recently nominated Musiliu Obanikoro, an erstwhile minister and a pivotal party cited in the “Ekititgate” shenanigan. Obanikoro vacated his ministerial position for a shot at his party’s nomination for the governorship ticket for Lagos State, which he lost. Calling him back to the cabinet was at attempt to soothe the political bruises of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party in Lagos State arising from Obanikoro’s defeat in the party primaries. He has since withdrawn his threat of court action against his party over the primaries. Elsewhere, this form of kiss-and-make-up attracts serious sanction. In Ontario, the Premier’s (Nigerian equivalent of a state governor) deputy chief of staff is currently accused of inducing a former nominee of the ruling provincial liberal party in a recent by-election to get him to step aside from running for the election. The Premier’s senior staff was allegedly caught on tape suggesting that the Premier was disposed to assist the non-preferred candidate to find a job. The allegation is already a subject of investigation by both the Provincial Police and Elections Canada. In Nigeria, the Ontario’s situation would be preposterous. Mindful of context and political culture, I am not suggesting a political transposition. But in relation to Nigeria, the Ontario scenario paints a portrait of sharp contrast.

 

Admittedly, the President nominated Obanikoro before the “Ekitigate” came into the open. For all intents and purposes, the “Ekitigate” is now a distraction requiring the ruling party, the Presidency and all parties cited to clear the air on the matter that refuses to go away. The most sensitive thing for the President to do is to withdraw the nomination since Obanikoro has not honourably declined the nomination himself. Without staking hope on the senators’ ability to follow through, so far, the Senate has twice failed to allow the ministerial nominee – himself a former senator – the privilege of the usual “bow-and-go”confirmation ritual. Opposition party senators have frowned over Obanikoro’s nomination in view of the “Ekitigate”. Yet, it does not seem the Presidency is getting the message.

 

By the way, how many months would Obanikoro serve as a minister before the elections and inauguration of a new government on May 29, 2015? Why would this President continue to take Nigerians for granted? Why would he continue to even alienate a segment of Nigerian constituency, especially those outside the partisan political fray, who might yet be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt? When will this Presidency perceive a political opportunity and seize it, even one that could not cost it anything? Why choose impunity over integrity? President Goodluck Jonathan should withdraw the Obanikoro nomination and, for once, show respect for the Nigerian people. It is too late already, but better late than never.

This op-ed appeared in The Punch newspaper of Monday March 9, 2015 under the title: Withdraw this ministerial nomination, Mr. President.

Poll postponement: Nigeria in the eye of storm

Posted by Chidi Oguamanam on February 13, 2015 at 9:40 PM Comments comments (0)


It is really true. A day in politics can make a thousand years’ difference. The idea of postponing Nigeria’s 2015 general election originally scheduled for February 14 and 28 was easily dismissible as a dangerous rumour from a fifth columnist. But everything changed following the meeting of the National Council of State on Friday, February 6. Politicians’ inability to give uniform account of what transpired at the meeting was a first sign that all was not well. Various media reports provided some nuanced partisan spins. But the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Attahiru Jega’s late broadcast of Saturday, February 7 helped to lay any lingering confusion to rest. That broadcast was quite commendable as it doused any haunting doubts as to the intrigues that undergirded the election postponement.

 

While there may be cogent and credible reasons to ground a case for election postponement, the context and consequence of such a decision give strong causes for apprehension.

 

First, INEC should not be fully exculpated for playing into the hands of forces that wanted election postponement for ulterior motives. For one simple reason: INEC’s poor handling of the distribution of the Permanent Voter Cards. A week before the elections under the original timetable, the commission was only able to deliver 68 per cent of the PVCs to eligible voters. But it was instructive that Jega insisted that INEC was far more prepared going into the elections under the annulled (that dirty word again!) timetable than it was when it conducted the elections of 2011. In short, for INEC, the hiccups regarding the PVCs were not enough reason to warrant the postponement of the elections. As far as the commission was concerned, to the extent of its capability, it was determined to proceed with the elections under the original schedule. However, security issues are outside its control. By the way, no one has mentioned the costs of election postponement at a time of dire national economic pressure.

 

Second, Nigeria is in an unconventional war situation or, if you like, a serious security crisis. And beyond security crisis, we have yet to attain a position where our elections can be truly a civil process in operation, character and content. Sadly, the nation’s armed and security forces are integral part of our electoral apparatus. That is why they are highly courted by politicians during the elections. The nation’s topmost security agencies, which are part of the apparatchik of the government in power, have advised that they cannot guarantee the security of the elections; including those of citizens and personnel of the electoral body were the elections to go ahead under the original schedule.

 

The security priority of the nation, according to them, is focused on the crisis in the North-East. Decode: We did not defeat Boko Haram these five or so years; we think that we can defeat them in the next six weeks! But how does that sit with the rest of Nigerians, most of whom had construed the next elections as partly a referendum on the ruling government’s handling of the so-called insurgency in the North-East? Many would wonder whose interests are best served by the postponed elections.

 

Third, apart from the Boko Haram-anchored shenanigans or fallacy, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of toying with the electoral timetable at the most critical hour is its constitutional ramifications. As it stands, INEC has been able to succumb to the pressure to defer the elections within a very tight window of constitutional accommodation and pursuant to its enabling law. But then, there is quite a tiny vent for further elasticity without real danger of constitutional crisis. The tenure of the President and other actors in the extant electoral process would expire on May 29, 2015. In the event that the presidential election turns out to be inconclusive for some constitutional or other unpredictable reasons, then one wonders whether we have not by this new revised electoral calendar laid the foundations for a constitutional crisis that could undermine our fledgling democracy. It is shocking, to say the least, that after Nigeria’s nasty experience 22 years ago when Ibrahim Babangida annulled the fairest elections in Nigeria’s history that we would be in a position that smells close to history repeating itself. This time round, we cannot pretend that history does not teach us anything!

 

There would have been little reason to worry if the elections were postponed pursuant to consensus amongst all stakeholders. Such would have been more so the case if there was unequivocal confidence regarding the non-partisanship in truth and in appearance of key agencies in favour of the postponement of the elections. But there is crisis of confidence in the ruling party and agencies of government that have pressed for the postponement of the elections. The onus is therefore on them to restore the confidence of the citizenry. Anything short of that would expose the country to avoidable stress. The opposition and all stakeholders should ensure that there is calm among their supporters. It is an opportunity for all, including of course, INEC, to go back to the drawing board and collectively work towards the best possible elections that Nigeria could deliver. They should mobilise Nigerians to civic vigilantism. We need a huge voter turnout to elect new governments at national and sub-national levels. The legitimacy of the ruling party or the opposition, whichever wins and, of course, the credibility of the electoral process are enhanced by a resounding mandate. One month begets another; as does February, March. We should not be like the tortoise whose patience ran out only a few minutes to its rescue after it had been holed in for decades. That would not be a path of wisdom and patriotism.

 

As for the security agencies, we hope that they would appreciate the enormity of the responsibility they have taken on. The high expectation of Nigerians and, indeed the world, are on them. In all of this, theirs is a far higher burden. They can only discharge that burden by remaining non-partisan and resisting all attempts by politicians to drag them into the fray. That is the only way they can restore the confidence of Nigerians. If there is any excitement in these uncertain times, it is the security agencies’ indirect promise to restore order in Nigeria’s troubled North-East. In that case, six weeks of postponed elections would be a worthwhile price. Perhaps by then, the Chibok girls can get home, get their PVCs and go to the polls! A win-win. Fingers crossed.

 

This op-ed appeared in The Punch newspaper of Monday February 9, 2015 under the title: Poll postponement: Nigeria in the eye of storm


Intellectual Property: Leveraging on Diaspora Exchange (I)

Posted by Chidi Oguamanam on December 28, 2014 at 1:30 AM Comments comments (0)

Depending on where one locates its advent, contemporary globalization is now, certainly, more than half a century. It requires asking whether globalization has been beneficial to Africa. One quick and easy way of addressing this often asked question is to cursorily look at the regional dynamics of over half century of globalization. Not many disagree that East Asia, South East Asia and South American regions have taken a quantum leap. China, India and Brazil have indisputably emerged regional economic and global powers. Despite prevalent poverty and inequity in these continental and sub continental countries, there is demonstrable evidence that they have been and are on the match. And the world has taken notice. Today, these countries are accorded the recognition and respect they deserve as they continue to wield influence and to shape the global economic and power dynamics.

 

But the African picture has not been as exciting. Through globalization's trajectories Africa is still the continent with the highest concentration of least developed countries. It is still home to the most vulnerable in direst need of the basic means of human survival. It is perhaps the most vulnerable region to global climate crisis as it is the least prepared for the challenge. On a global scale, human development indicators in Africa still remain the worst. If any claim can be fairly made of globalization in regard to Africa, it is this: Globalization has not changed the status quo about Africa. Nonetheless, there are visible signs of change in contemporary Africa.

 

In the last couple of decades, there is a "big buzz" about Africa. This is as the US, Europe and most of the developed world's economies fumble and contract. The downward economic trends in Europe and the US are results both of systemic failures as well a consequence of involuntary, even if inevitable, structural calibrations to accommodate the continuing shift in the global economic status quo instigated by the emerging powers. At the same time, the red-hot growths of the new emerging economies have begun to show signs of cooling down or stabilizing; Africa's regional economies are surging. Compared to other regions, Africa successfully weathered the global financial crisis of 2008-2010, for reasons outside the present discussion. Today, African countries constitute 50-70% of the fastest growing economies in the world. The specific national have grown at a rate of double or close to double digits. As far-fetched as it sounds, it is projected that at the current growth rate, by 2050 Africa's economy will surpass that of the United States and Europe combined. But like all projection, a little unforeseen game changer can result in a dangerous turn. For example, not many policy makers and economic pundits saw the current global oil glut.

 

Meanwhile, Africa has become the destination of choice for foreign direct investments (FDIs). Africa's traditional partners in the West (Europe and the United States) are fast being displaced by China, India and Brazil. The three are pushing and digging into Africa not only to satisfy their appetite for energy and natural resources, but also to leverage their political influence in a fast changing world order.

 

These contemporary transformation in the global economy in which Africa is strategically implicated unravels the catalytic role of two major technological revolutions. They are the digital and bio- technology innovations. From rural and mobile telephony to diverse computing applications and the wonders of the Internet, digital technologies have changed the global landscape and have left nothing untouched. From resource extraction, harnessing of genetic resources for food, agriculture and medicine, to various creative repertoire in music, movie, choreography, and resourceful deployment of the cyberspace to energize the social media, personal cum communal exchanges and democratic participation, nothing has escaped the innovative potential of the digital overhang. From research in medicine, to agriculture, food production and processing, and various aspects of life sciences, the marriage of digital technologies and biotechnologies continues to transform our society.

 

The two technologies of transformation and global transition to the knowledge economy are essentially proprietary. Consequently, current African economic activism and attractiveness is consolidated through the pivotal role of intellectual properties rights. It is hardly surprising that intellectual property rights have expanded exponentially since the mid-1990s in order to optimize benefits and control for innovators. Africa is both a consumer and is fast transitioning into a producer of new technologies and innovation. Africa hosts the Silicon Savannah. Africa is the birthplace of Nollywood.

 

Like most African countries, Nigeria had embarked on critical transformations in virtually all sectors of its economy since the return of democracy in 1999. The corruption-ridden privatization regime of the early 2000s has swept through the telecommunications, power, ports, banking, petroleum, agriculture and the broadcast industries to name the few. All of these involve the opening up of the market for FDIs and competition. Because technology is the driver of the new ways of doing things, the ability of countries to optimize their interests in the new environment depends, in part, on how they leverage on intellectual property rights and technology transfer in the pursuit of their peculiar development objectives. If a country is not well equipped in the intellectual property and knowledge governance front, it is less likely to optimize opportunities on the critical issue of technology transfer and capacity building. Without strong capacity in intellectual property and overall knowledge governance, the present buzz about Africa may be one in which Africa yet again receives a short end of the stick even in the new framework of South-South partnerships.

 

… (to be continued)

This article appeared in Nigeria World newspaper of Sunday December 21, 2014. 

Africa's renewal: Burkina Faso and youth power

Posted by Chidi Oguamanam on November 10, 2014 at 4:35 PM Comments comments (1)

A recently published foresight study on Africa focuses on the potential role of knowledge and innovation as key to Africa’s future.The study conducted by a global network of predominantly African researchers under the aegis of the Open African Innovation Research (Open A.I.R.) makes a link between the continent’s economic prosperity and its political stability. The research points emphatically at one of the defining features of Africa -its burst of untapped youthful energy as the world’s youngest continent. The authors highlight the double-edged nature of Africa’s youthful credential and note that the youths, as active actors in the digital technology sphere, are potentially instrumental to the continent’s economic renaissance as well as its political explosion and extreme radicalisations. Only those countries on the continent that can harness their youthful energy would meet their developmental challenges and attain political stability. The authors warn that, “youthful energy with no constructive outlet can turn sour and most countries are witnessing the most destabilising and negative manifestations” of untapped youth energy, as “‘grievances among the young are likely to be expressed violently’”.

 

The Open A.I.R. observations attained credible fulfilment in the recent political unravelling in Burkina Faso. With a national median age of 17 and nearly 70 per cent of its 18 million people under 25 years, that country has one of the most youthful populations in a continent that is the world’s youngest. The Burkinabe crisis has been long in brewing, and has been suppressed on its tracks on several occasions. During the 2008-2011 global economic crises that dovetailed into high cost of staple food, extreme hunger and poverty pushed the tiny landlocked least developed West African country to the edge. It required the army’s alliance with the transmuted and long running civilian dictatorship of Blaise Compaore to keep the peace of the graveyard in Burkina Faso. With high cost of living, chronic unemployment, endemic corruption, cronyism and youth restiveness, it was a matter of time before civic anger boiled over.

 

Campaore has been in power for as long as Nelson Mandela was in prison – the latter in a sacrificial act of national renewal for South Africa, and the former in an orgy of progressive rape and plunder of his country. He came to power in circumstances, which, for many, marked the scuttling of Burkina Faso’s renaissance in the 1980s. He authored and executed a military coup d’etat in 1987. With that, he interred the vision of that country’s revolutionary and youthful leader, Thomas Sankara, who renamed the tiny Fracophone West African Upper Volta into Burkina Faso (land of people of integrity). Campaore’s 27 years in power was sustained by manipulation, intrigues and highhandedness. After he consolidated his hold on power, he transmuted into civilian dictatorship in 1991. He was “elected” four times since then (two seven-year and two five-year terms). On very occasions, his elections were a charade. In his latest gambit, he sought to further manipulate the constitution to secure an additional five years that would retain him in power up to 2020. His parliamentary political acolytes in the ruling party were determined to grant him his wish. But the youths said no. Enough was enough!

 

Campaore was able to remain in power for too long not for his political ingenuity. But if ever he had such ingenuity, it was hardly evident he deployed it in the service of his country and compatriots. In reality, the strategist in him was most evident in his sustained and calculated engagement with his friends in the West: The United States and France and their allies. Not too long ago, Burkina Faso was touted as one of the “most stable” African countries in a similar and familiar manner as Ivory Coast, Egypt, Kenya (under Arap Moi) and Cameroon had been touted before recent political unravelling in some of these countries. The West’s tendency to equate African dictatorship with political stability belies the quality of their interest in good governance on the continent. The courtship between Campaore and his Western allies have remained self-serving for both parties. He allowed them unhindered military and strategic access to his country under the plot of stemming Islamist insurgency in the Sahel region. None of Campaore’s Western allies pushed him hard enough towards genuine democracy and good governance. Until his hurried and dramatic exit late October, there was little whimper from the West over Campaore’s indiscretions. He was a good business for his Western allies while Burkina Faso and its people’s interests suffered.

 

But history teaches us that it does not teach us anything. The same was the case with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak until the game was up, and his allies began to sing a different tune. But Burkina Faso and Egypt have further similarities. Egyptian revolution, if ever there was one, became a stillborn shortly after. The Muhammed Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood left Egyptians with little option than a dramatic return to military-era style politics. Pundits continue to ponder when and whether Egypt could ever witness a full democratic rebirth. A similar dilemma stalks Burkina Faso. The military that has been hands-in-glove with Campaore has managed to find itself in power again, with a familiar promise to return Burkina Faso to a democratic order. There is much scepticism in the air. As was the case in Egypt, Burkina Faso had little time to mull over its options: to trail the path of constitutionality or its abridgment. Campaore had sought to serve out his term in 2015. However, he could not be trusted by the restive youths either to keep his words or to supervise a credible electoral transition. In the alternative, the head of parliament is next in order of constitutional succession if the president resigned. But he could not be trusted either. He is a member of the Campaore’s inner circle in the ruling party. This situation made it easy for an opportunist military to step in to preside over the mess they helped create.

 

The political class should not claim credit for the turn of events in Burkina Faso these past two weeks. It was for the most part a youth-led movement. From Ouagadougou to Bobo-Dioulasso, the reality evinces popular discontent by Burkina youths against the political class. The youths have violently vented their frustrations against political leaders of all shades and against symbols of state power. The army and, certainly, the rest of the political class, will be foolhardy to take the credit or assume the ownership of the change in Burkina Faso. The West, especially the US and France, has a fresh opportunity to re-engage with Burkina Faso in a manner that genuinely recognises the collective interest of the youths and the weary people of the country. There is the need for marked departure from the West’s hypocritical shenanigans that sustained Campaore’s dictatorship. In this new turn of events lies an opportunity to make the youths the bedrock of a new Burkina Faso to take their country’s destiny in their own hands.


This op-ed appeared in The Punch newspaper of Monday November 10 under the title: Africa’s renewal: Burkina Faso and youth power

For the Falconets, this victory is personal

Posted by Chidi Oguamanam on August 27, 2014 at 10:55 AM Comments comments (0)


He pressed his head to my bosom. I looked down. I observed some tears rolling down his little cheek as we sat on the sofa watching Nigeria engage Germany in a game of skills and wits. Then, he said (as if I did not notice), “Daddy, Germany has scored”. And I replied, “Son, it is ok; there is still some time. It is not over yet”. With a pack of Nigerian and Canadian friends gathered and routing for the Falconets, we kept hope alive. Eventually, after an eventful 120 minutes, the Germans took the gold, and left Nigerians with the silver. Some silvers are more golden. As far as I can say, the Nigerian women team that showcased exceptional talent and indomitable resilience in the just-concluded 2014 FIFA U20 Women World Cup tournament in Canada was the best side throughout and in each game. Many footballers and fans know that victory is not an exclusive entitlement of the better side. It is a combination of many other factors beyond the latter’s control. For the game against the Germans, I would refrain from further remark on the quality of officiating and not play a sore loser. The Nigerian young women and their coaching crew are anything but losers. They are champions in heart, skill and conduct. When juxtaposed with the performance of the Super Eagles in the June 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Falconets were simply exemplary, unassuming, courageous and adventurous. And it paid off, big time, each time, with convincing victories.

 

I am compelled to seize the moment to reflect on the ramifications of the victory of the Falconets. Here in Canada, their presence has been a powerful symbol of positive press and social mobilisation among Nigerians in the Diaspora, their Canadian spouses, friends and their children; and indeed the soccer-loving world. No amount of government sponsored self-serving image laundering could accomplish what the Falconets did for Nigeria within so short a time, and with astounding credibility. From Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Alberta and Quebec, despite the comparative poor traction that women football currently garners, the Diaspora Nigerians and Africans rallied around the Falconets as they came close to the domains. Nigerians remained loudest voices in support of their team, even in sparsely occupied stadia across Canada. As the tournament progressed and the Falconets came into solid reckoning, there was little effort required for mobilisation and support.

 

Canada is a hockey nation, and not a football-playing nation. But it has a strong profile in women football. When the Canadian side was edged out by Germany, it was then not a tough call where a unified loyalty should lie for Nigerian-Canadian families, who may have been split temporarily. The Falconets enjoyed undivided goodwill for the most part when Canada dropped out of contention. But it is presumptuous to claim that football has no traction in Canada. For both male and female football, a lot is going on in Canada. A careful observation through my personal network reveals that Canadian youths of Nigerian ancestry have a powerful presence in the football revolution that is gradually sweeping across the nook and cranny of the exceptionally vast country of Canada. So, the month-long presence and extraordinary showing of the Falconets in Canada was a powerful symbol of inspiration to a section of Nigerian youths from Toronto, Halifax, Calgary, Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal and elsewhere. In a way, the Falconets affirmed Nigerians’ undeniable credentials at home and in the Diaspora as Africa’s football powerhouse.

 

The solid performance of the Falconets could not have come at a better time. Before that victory, many Nigerians in Canada struggled to convince their curious and innocent interrogators that the experience of the over 200 abducted Chibok girls was not the norm. As much as the abduction was symptomatic of deviant and perverted religious extremism, most unknowing Canadians needed better evidence of how Nigeria treats its young female population. Thanks to the Falconets. This victory goes to remind us about the plight of the Chibok girls. It should help to re-fuel the #BringBackOurGirls campaigns that seem to have lost steam. Any of the Chibok girls could well have been in the line for the glorious expedition in victory and courage that the Falconets displayed in Canada for the whole world as worthy bearers of Nigerian banner; not as Boko Haram sex slaves.

 

While the tournament was going on, the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa (including Nigeria) attempted to becloud the gallant strides of the Falconets. Nigeria was again an ugly focus of unpleasant news. Canadian media was awash with reportage of quarantined suspected Ebola infected Nigerian returnees to Canada and elsewhere in the United States and Europe. It is telling to observe how the media would insist upon calling folk out as Nigerians when the news is negative while turning a blind eye to the “victims”’ other citizenships which are perhaps most appropriate in the given circumstance. Despite the pervasive trend in what I call immigration racism of the Ebola outbreak, the Falconets kept a positive media spotlight on Nigeria, which climaxed on Sunday, August 24, 2014, when they took the Golden Silver. It was a delight to be a witness to their extraordinary character and courage as a team, including the coaching crew. Their success reflects the enormous possibilities that lie within Nigeria’s national horizon despite our pathological inclination to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as a sage once observed.

 

On a more personal note, my little one overcame his tears and smiled along when he saw Nigerian, French and German women football players being called out for individual awards. I told him that they were all winners and that’s part of the reason we call football the beautiful game. Then, he asked me, “Who’s that man in a hat and suit with a long scarf?” I replied: “His name is Chief Ojo Maduekwe. He is Nigeria’s High Commissioner to Canada”. It was a positive optics, even though our President was in Germany when the Falconets took the Golden Silver in a stiff contest against the Germans. I wondered what he was doing that hour; how he felt.


This op-ed appeared in The Punch newspaper of Tuesday August 26 under the title: For the Falconets, this victory is personal.

Of stray Dogs, Humans and Social Responsibility

Posted by Chidi Oguamanam on August 19, 2014 at 2:45 PM Comments comments (1)


The three mega cities of New Delhi (India), Cairo (Egypt) and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) have something in common: An intimidating presence of stray dogs! Many animal rights activists and municipal bureaucrats in these three cities remain ever restive to the nightmares stray dogs constitute in their midst. It is not unusual for the serenity of night sleep in the city centres to be truncated not by wayward crows of rogue roosters – those that crow out of time on occasions – but by often ceaseless barking or, more appropriately, howling of destitute dogs.

 

In the daytime, one beholds pitiable ubiquity of stray dogs in the cities’ nook and cranny. The dogs appear in different forms, sizes, age groups, genders and dispositions. They have diverse countenance; some are friendly, docile and laid back, others are downright rude and ferocious. Depending on which part of each city and what time of the day, some look fairly well fed, others are in dire stress rummaging through city waste and hanging around some unofficially adopted spots where food is often thrown at them. The bitches among them continuously carry on endless reproduction process, despite their palpable deficiencies, littering the streets with a cycle of the next generation of stray dogs. The situation is quite horrifying. One is left to wonder whether the goose bump inducing adverts by the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the resulting funds can ever make a difference in the remotest part of the world where animals are abused. It is unavoidable to ponder the possibility of an animal equivalent of the reputable Medicines Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in the form of Vétérinaires Sans Frontières (Veterinarians Without Borders).

 

The omnipresence of stray dogs provokes yet another cause for reflection on the factors that account for their prevalence. Like humans, stray animals are often products of dysfunctional homes, both of their owners and even of the pets themselves. Most of the dogs that are now members of the stray fraternity were not born stray. They had loving homes before circumstances changed. Some were conceived and born into a stray lineage though. They do not know any other life. So, the membership status of the stray fraternity of canines is not equal. Most become stray by various circumstances including personal adversity, abuse, and changes in the circumstances of their owners. It is also not uncommon that some stray dogs are products of congenital wayward behaviour that frustrate the best efforts of even the most beneficent and dedicated of owners.

 

The public nuisance ramifications of the stray dog menace are multi-faceted. Mostly early in the mornings, after their howling through the nights and foraging through the litter bins, stray dogs have a tendency to convene in characteristic public demonstration of promiscuity, even of admirable solidarity. Most early morning workouts have been cut short by a wall of stray dogs. That was once my experience in Cairo. In addition to their rabbis-infested bites, stray dogs are pathogenic vehicles for other forms of viruses that threaten public health.

 

Stray syndrome in canine societies has also some parallel in human societies. In the Lagos metropolis, I have yet to take a considered note of stray dogs. Perhaps, that is not a big issue in Lagos it has become in the three cities I have hitherto focused. If so, good of Lagos. But there are many a destitute and stray members of the society all over the world. They are called by various names and they are represented in diverse categories. In Lagos, street urchins are not born equal. They are also called by different names such as area boys, pavement dwellers, under the bridge landlords, etc. Similarly, they arrive at their unenviable status by different routes. Not the least of which are dysfunctional homes, dramatic personal circumstances, chronic waywardness, outright revolt against family and authority symbols and pathological inclination towards rebellion and prodigality. They tend to also constitute significant public health and public security threats. They remain present and existing danger to social cohesion. Stray members of human family are easy candidates for drug, sex, alcohol and other forms of abuse, radicalisation and dangerous indiscretions.

 

On a deep refection, societies have treated stray dogs with as much insensitivity as they treat some of the human population on the fringe. History is rich with accounts of how dogs (man’s best friends) have been betrayed and maltreated across civilisations. On a more recent note, one cannot but remember the 2013 Stray Dogs Euthanasia Bill in Romania, which was passed into law by 100 per cent parliamentary majority. How societies treat stray dogs has a corollary to how they treat their vulnerable population. In many societies, public policy provides support for sanctuaries and second chance for stray animals. Such societies insist upon holding accountable those who by their negligence abdicate their responsibilities to vulnerable dogs and other pets.

 

Lagos’ fringe or stray populations have been historically given correlating forms of the Romanian stray dog policy. Often, these “area boys” have been rounded up by security agencies upon flimsy excuses and subjected to gross human rights violations. Some have been “deported” even in their own country! Some of them, who are also victims of mental and other psychological afflictions have been variously re-victimised, even burnt alive through jungle justice. However, in other societies, homeless people, pavement dwellers and various members of the stray population have even been indulged through elaborate rehabilitation programmes, such as, shelters, feeding programmes, safe injection sites (for drug addicts) etc. The NGOs and municipalities are frequently the arrowheads of these humanitarian rescue missions through creative forms of public-private public interest partnerships.

 

It is the responsibility of the government and the citizenry at large of any decent society to seriously tackle the moral crisis of stray members of both human and animal societies on the fringe and at the brink. There are so many of those from Lagos to Addis, New Delhi and elsewhere in need of urgent and creative interventions.

 

This op-ed appeared in The Punch newspaper of Tuesday August 19 under the title: Of stray dogs, humans and social responsibility

An Educational System fit for Africa's Largest Economy

Posted by Chidi Oguamanam on June 6, 2014 at 10:15 PM Comments comments (0)

By Chidi Oguamanam

Beyond a bragging right, what are the implications of Nigeria’s recent claim to being Africa’s largest economy through the so-called re-based GDP? This question is not posed as an attempt to rehearse the criticisms and scepticisms that have since trailed that claim. Rather, it is a kind of exercise in hair-scratching over how we could possibly rise to the challenges of Africa’s largest economy. First, let me start on a positive note that shines a ray of light on Nigeria’s ever darkling socio-economic plain: Nollywood.

Hate it or like it, Nollywood is Nigeria’s success story. It continues to be a subject of academic study from various disciplines across the globe. Nollywood is a symbol of Nigeria’s cultural renaissance and its export flagship, for which all stakeholders are entitled to a bragging right. In fact, it is a site for cultural bridging among Africans across the globe. Nollywood is not like Nigeria’s oil for which no one in their right senses should take the credit. In oil lies no hard work or merit but only a sense of entitlement. Nollywood is a product of Nigerian individual and collective creativity, a grassroots phenomenon of sort that feeds on private enterprise. There is little, if any, public investment in Nollywood; little if any public interference. I often shudder when a few Nollywood stakeholders push for one form of government ‘support’ (read intervention) or another. A prominent Nollywood stakeholder even called for a ministry to be created for Nollywood! My response is that such folks should be careful what they ask for. Nollywood would die the very instant the government takes it over in whatever form. That moment, Nigeria would infest it with corruption, lousy bureaucracy, quota system, embezzlement, religious bigotry and all other companions of our national malaise.

But to be fair, it is not entirely true that public investment in Nollywood is zero. Most of Nollywood stars, directors, technicians, and practitioners of all sorts are products of mainly second generation Nigerian public universities, especially in the liberal arts or humanities. There is something to be said for the contributions of those institutions in the making of Nollywood. In a way, Nollywood is, but not quite an accident. The Nollywood-led cultural, creative and entertainment sector is one of the key sectors of the Nigeria’s re-based GDP and its new economic profile. Certainly, a positive convergence of factors resulted in Nollywood. That in itself is a subject of inquiry I have explored elsewhere. But it bears wondering, why is the Nollywood experience not being replicated in all other trade, professions and quasi-professions in the Nigerian productive and service economy?

For too long, Nigeria has been short-changed in the trades and cognate sectors. Bureaucracy and public policy myopia has foisted a narrow educational policy and outcome in Nigeria. It is no longer worthy of headline to hear educational policy technocrats boldly, if not shamelessly, claim that Nigerian graduates are unemployable. Everybody is racing to obtain a degree, paper degree, that is! The tradition of supporting trade and skills education has long been politicized, with polytechnics and other forms of mid-level community technology or technical colleges seeking an upgrade to degree awarding status, as an end, while abandoning their mandate. In the rush for degrees, building effective workshops, laboratories and other forms of creative curriculum designs that could make their graduates become responsive to the twenty-first century economy in which Nigeria has found itself hardly occupies anybody’s imagination. The argument is that there is a discriminatory pathway in absolving of graduates of specialist mid-level or tertiary level trade colleges into the public service in relation to their counterparts from conventional universities. And what is the solution? Level them all up by every means possible! The assumption here is that the public service is the only destination for all manner of graduates. Not many consider that graduates of trade colleges and their equivalents in most educational systems across the globe are trained mostly to be service-oriented; and, as such, they are most likely to be self-employed and entrepreneurial. Already, there is faint signal of this outcome in some isolated sectors; including agriculture is some parts of the country.

Since the return of democracy and double-digit economic growth in Nigeria, the real estate and general construction sectors have remained hot. But a critical inquiry into the inner workings of these and related economic sectors shows that there is a dearth of locally-trained Nigerian artisanal and cognate manpower to service those industrial sub-sectors of the economy. A bulk of the tradespersons such as masons, bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians are sourced from neighbouring countries. As most of these trades are now highly technology-intensive and competitive, requiring expertise in the deployment of latest component technologies, craft and aesthetics, most job owners complain that Nigerians are not competitive enough. The Chinese, Indians, Koreans and Philippinos and other foreigners have since inevitably entered into the competition to the delight of Nigeria’s superrich elite, foreign corporations and various owners of capital. As a consequence, able-bodied Nigerian youths are increasingly marginalized in the local job market.

One recalls in the 1990s, when fairly used automatic transmission vehicles were imported en- mass into Nigeria as tokumbos. Some car owners were forced to ‘convert’ or downgrade such cars into manual transmission engines. Essentially, the auto mechanics then (and now still) were neither trained nor prepared to handle the ever-increasing technological sophistication of the automobile industry. Nigeria was frozen in time while the world moved forward. It is not as if Nigerians are not among the smartest in the world. Save perhaps in the area of ICTs, the problem is that we have yet to build an educational system that is meant for the present century. Who gets to be auto mechanic or auto body technicians in Nigeria, for example? Who trains them? Who certifies them? Do they have a continuing training program to be abreast with new technologies? The same can be asked of dental or pharmacy technicians or assistants, tourist guides, painters, landscape artists, florists, carpenters, morticians, etc.

The opportunity provided by the rise of private ownership of tertiary educational institutions, including universities, has hardly been deployed for the needs of the twenty-first century economy. The imperative for private universities has been hijacked out of the pressing needs of the economy into status symbols to massage the egos of retired generals, politicians and religious organizations. A closer look into some of these institutions shows an entrenched culture of corruption through “accreditation by staging” and doctoring of the books. Most of these universities are in the degree-chasing race for profiteering. They are hardly tasked by accrediting authorities to justify their contribution to the nation’s needs. Through public and private university channels, Nigeria continues to roll out paper graduates from its educational factory lines. For no fault of theirs, most of these products are congenitally defective and constitute a misfit for an economy that pretends to be the largest in Africa.

We are missing an opportunity to train graduates in the most critical areas of need to sustain our economic growth under a private sector, free market service and production-driven enterprise. These de-educated graduates are supposed to be the much needed missing link and catalysts for the transfer of various technologies required to reposition Nigeria’s middle class for fair income re-distribution and sustainable poverty eradication. As late Ken Saro Wiwa would say in Bassey and Company, ‘if you want to be a millionaire, think like a millionaire’. To be Africa’s largest economy is not reconcilable with having Africa’s largest army of unemployed and unemployable graduates. If we want to be Africa’s largest economy, we must revisit our educational system and put the youths to productive work. Nollywood speaks louder than a re-based GDP.


This op-ed appeared in The Punch newspaper of Friday June 6 under the title: Looking to Nollywood for Africa's Largest Economy

Lessons in Public Service and Academic Freedom

Posted by Chidi Oguamanam on May 27, 2014 at 2:50 PM Comments comments (0)

May 27, 2014

Chidi Oguamanam , Punch

The suspended Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, Sanusi Lamido, did not hold his office as an academic. But, always cerebral, he sounded and talked like one. Strictly, though, he was a public servant. While the courts are presently determining his grievances against his former employer, I am interested in the lessons interred in his ongoing run with the authorities and its ramifications for other actors in the public service, who often do not fully grapple with the implications their activist inclinations. The present reflection is motivated by a recent controversy at the University of Saskatchewan in Western Canada. There are a few lessons from Saskatchewan for Nigeria’s public servants and institutions.

 

The tale concerns Prof. Robert Buckingham who, until recently, was the Dean of the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Public Health. The university recently fired and rehired him. The university was pissed off because the dean wrote a critical open letter on its proposed plan of action. In the letter, the professor revealed that the university senior administration had threatened him and other deans that their deanship would be dropped if they opposed the university’s budgeting and restructuring plan aimed at saving about $25m. The plan also involved job cuts and faculty rationalisation or mergers in which Buckingham’s faculty would be affected.

 

The firing of Buckingham provoked outrage among the Canadian public, not used to executive highhandedness. Like a wild fire, reactions to the incident spread across the nook and cranny of Canada. It became a subject of talk shows in electronic media of various platforms. Both students and Buckingham’s colleagues in the academia quickly stood up in condemnation of the reactionary response of the university. Some alumni even threatened to surrender their degrees. Others promised that with the present university administration, they would not make donations to the university, let alone encourage their wards to attend the university. Needless to mention, the university faced a public relations nightmare of unprecedented magnitude. Less than a week, Buckingham was “rehired”; an apology was tendered to him. But his deanship was not restored. As I write, the President (Vice-Chancellor equivalent) of the university is struggling to keep her job as a result of the blunder and public pressure.

 

Buckingham is a tenured professor. The unique attractions of being an academic, more so a tenured one, include academic freedom and the security of tenure, which is akin to those of judicial officers in credible democracies. Academic freedom, like the independence of judicial officers, is a long and hollowed tradition. Most academics would tell you that if you take away their academic freedom, there is no basis remaining in the Ivory Tower. Academic freedom enables professors to conduct their research in areas of their interest and competence, publish the results, and advance their scholarship in an atmosphere of autonomy and integrity, and of course, subject to applicable research ethics and relevant protocols. When research is carried out in academic liberty without interference from any sources, including employers and funders, it guarantees the integrity of the undergirding scholarship with positive spin off on the university as an institution. A converse scenario is a recipe for disaster in any academic setting or system.

 

Often, academics wear double hats. A tenured professor who is also a dean is first an academic before being a dean. The office of the dean is largely but not exclusively an administrative one. The dean is a senior member of the university administration. In that context, when a dean openly protests or criticises the university administration of which he/she is a part, the question becomes whether the criticism or protest passes the test of academic freedom. Opinion may be divided on this. The details may be buried in relevant contracts. But in Buckingham’s case, a segment of the Canadian society does not believe that the university infringed his academic freedom when it decided to fire him. Those who hold this view argue that his open letter titled, “The Silence of the Deans”, has nothing to do with his scholarship or research, which is the legitimate site for academic freedom. I will reserve my personal opinion on this.

 

But it is tenable to also argue that as much as the dean is part of the university’s senior management, he/she holds the position by virtue of being an academic. Hence, it is part of the dean’s duty to defend academic freedom, which entails protecting his/her colleagues from any decision or situation that has the potential to undermine their academic freedom. That may well have been on the mind of the good professor.

 

Assuming that Buckingham’s disagreement with the university can be located within the last reason, it does not seem to fully absolve him in the opinion of some. He made his criticism openly. Here is how a leading Canadian newspaper characterised the crisis: “Dr. Buckingham wasn’t an academic taking a shot at the administration. He was a member of the administration taking a shot at the administration: It can’t be plausibly argued that, simply by virtue of being an academic, he had a right to publicly criticise the management team that he was part of. Once he went public with his criticisms, something had to give: Either he had to go, or the senior administrators in his sights had to”.

 

Back to Sanusi and other activist public servants or political office holders who do not even have half as close as security of tenure or academic freedom that professors enjoy. It is commonplace in Nigeria for these categories to wax populist by publicly turning against the same administration of which they are a part of. Before and not when public servants or political office holders turn against the administration they serve, the most honourable thing to do is to resign. The integrity of their objections is better measured by whether they have the courage to resign. Even in the cases where such public servants have a constitutionally or contractually guaranteed tenure, it is still a matter of ethics, integrity and good faith that they resign when they perceive themselves to be at moral crossroads with the administration in which they are called to serve.

 

It may be tempting to insist that a public servant owes allegiance to the country and the constitution (where applicable). Interestingly, the country can be more effectively served by an exemplary resignation. Such act sends a strong message that there are higher ideals than perks of office. As for the constitution, it almost always provides for resignation for open-ended reasons of officers who hold their offices by virtue of the constitution. Beyond the focus on public officer-turned- insider-activists in Nigeria, perhaps another important lesson in the Buckingham scenario is the quick volte-face by the university in recalling him as a tenured academic while confiscating his deanship. Rarely do Nigerian institutions exercise the courage to right wrongs or admit their gaffes. Sanusi could have borrowed a page from the likes of Oby Ezekwesili, who became a full-blown activist after public service and, by so doing, helps to elevate the quality of Nigerian public service. There is a dignified way of exiting the public service that NigeriaN actors have yet to embrace. The name is resignation.


This opinion was first published in Punch on May 27,2014. 

 


Bring back our girls, our country!

Posted by Chidi Oguamanam on May 9, 2014 at 12:00 AM Comments comments (0)

MAY 9, 2014

Chidi Oguamanam, Punch

Nigeria has forced a shift in the attention of the global media from the disappeared Malaysian Airways flight MH370. Events in Nigeria in the past several weeks are unprecedented but not unpredictable. Boko Haram has progressively capitalised on the ineptitude of the Nigerian government, emboldened to “success” by the failure of the state apparatus on several fronts. Recently, through successive car bombs on soft targets that have yielded monumental casualties and the successive kidnap of more than 200 schoolgirls from both their hostels and families, the sect has aroused international anger. It has called international attention to Nigeria, a country of contradictions and complexities, wherein the more you look, the less you see.

 

Nigerians and all people of goodwill are united in not only demanding the release of the abducted schoolgirls, but also for an end to terrorism that is festering in that country and, by extension, in the Western and Central African regions. The brazen nocturnal abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria’s North-East zone has the potential to be both the tipping and turning points for Boko Haram and the Nigerian state. We should seize this moment for good. Already, the social media has been co-opted to fire the campaigns, thanks to Ms. Ramaa Mosley of Los Angeles. Mosley heard and took up the plea of Nigerian mothers: “BringBackOurGirls”. Facebook, the Twitter verse, celebrities of all shades, and civil society activists have now pushed the reluctant Obama administration and segments of American political leadership to join in. The same is true of Canada and the rest of Africa and the democratic world. Nigerians at home and in the Diaspora have found a sense of partnership globally. Before now, all the atrocities targeted against Nigerians by Boko Haram seem to have gone unnoticed in the eyes of the international community. Nigerians felt lonely and left alone. The Western media have woken up from their slumber or convenient blackout of the Nigerian crisis. The spotlight seems to have now turned on Nigeria and inexorably on its failed political elite and the cesspool of corruption under which they habitually wallow. Nigeria is now bared naked before the whole world. Knowledgeable, ignorant and pretentious experts on Nigeria are all competing for space in the media with genuine and questionable statistics and information about the country. So be it. It is a welcome opportunity to interrogate “Nigeria” and to hold its leadership to account across the globe.

 

But what took so long before everyone weighed in? The Nigerian leadership and the international community have equal blame in keeping the Nigerian crisis out of the radar. Nigeria has created and sustained the illusion and delusion that it has the Boko Haram menace under control. In the characteristic arrogance of its political leadership, the “giant of Africa” is equal to the task. After all, it has the strongest military power in the West African region and has been a stabilising military power on the continent. Did President Goodluck Jonathan not promise to assist Kenya following the WestGate Mall massacres in Nairobi recently? Nigeria has long pretended that it does not need outside help. If it did, it did not seem to approach the needed help with deserving seriousness. How one wishes that it truly needed no help. But terrorism is not like conventional warfare. It is not the exclusive internal affair of any country, not even the strongest country on earth, let alone for one incapable of policing its borders. Perhaps, Nigeria is afraid that with outside help comes close scrutiny in regard to accountability for resources deployed, even those claimed to have been deployed in fighting terrorism. Accountability is a department in which the Nigerian governments at all levels perform most woefully.

 

Consistent with the arrogance and ostrich mentality of Nigeria’s political class, one of the country’s political actors at the Presidency was recently playing to tune. Making a highfaluting claim to CNN’s Aisha Sessay, a presidential aide, Dr. Doyin Okupe, enthused that Nigeria has the manpower, resources and what it takes to deal with the situation on the ground. He ended the encounter by pleading with the world to give his government “sometime”! Not any more, the parents cannot wait; the people are tired of excuses; the world is running out of patience. The presidential official needed to have wondered where in the world could such large number of casualties and victims be recorded in quick succession without consequences. How many more people would have to die, how many more girls would have to be abducted while Nigeria is given sometime?

 

Nigeria is not prepared but it has no choice but to embrace the consequences of a global outrage and the scrutiny it entails. The Nigerian government had claimed that shortly after their abduction, its security forces rescued a large number of the girls. But it retracted the claim when it did not add up. With the continued global scrutiny, more details are coming out, for example, regarding the timeline of the abductions and with critical information that unmistakably put the government on the defensive. Clearly, these accounts point to the bungling of the prevailing crisis. Meanwhile, the government has constituted a panel on the Chibok schoolgirls abduction – another bureaucracy in the line of much needed result. Many Nigerians believe that their governments at all levels have failed them. Whether they are right or wrong is a matter of the evidence on the ground. Everywhere one looks, that evidence is incontrovertible in support of the prevailing sentiment.

 

In their anger and outrage, Nigerians are demonstrating both against Boko Haram and their governments. Gradually, they are tapping, with the rest of the world, onto the power of the social media. Nigerian government ought to sit up and read the handwriting on the wall. No government should underrate the power of the social media, especially as it relates to a people that are increasingly resentful of their political leadership. One is sick and tired of the worn-out refrain of not politicising national security on account of terrorism. The truth is that only a few things are apolitical. The rise of Boko Haram is an integral part of both Nigeria’s political fragility and its political metamorphosis. Weighing government’s response or failure of response, or even lack of effective response to Boko Haram is essentially a political exercise before it was a security one. What else can it be? Politics is like air; it is everywhere even when we do not see it. Those who want to conveniently take many things out of the political realm are often quick to take political credit over the stuff they seek to exclude. Assuming that the Boko Haram crisis has been decisively resolved, one wonders if the ruling party would not gloat about that in its imminent campaign trail.

 

In seven months, Nigerians would head for the polls in another general election. At the moment, Nigeria is conducting a National Conference from constitutional sidelines with a view to a collective reflection on its political future. Deliberations from the conference point to a country in which its constituent nationalities have a strong appetite to renegotiate the basis of their political engagement from all the important fundamentals. That sentiment assumed unusual urgency since the return of democracy in Nigeria in 1999 and subsequent introduction of what ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo called “political Sharia” law in parts of Northern Nigeria. A combination of interrelated factors including corruption, chronic poverty, wealth and educational gap, religious fundamentalism, ethnic distrust, struggle for resource control, youth restiveness and unemployment remain combustible threats to Nigeria’s existence. Not too long ago, tens of unemployed youths were choked to death as hundreds of thousands struggled for employment opportunity open to only a few hundreds under a bungled public recruitment exercise. The plight of the Chibok abducted schoolgirls and others and the victims of the recent Nyanya double car bombings in the Abuja suburb are enough to transform the #BringBackOurGirls to #BringBackOurCountry! But not the old country.


This opinion was first published in the PUNCH 

Talking Open Innovation in Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

Posted by Chidi Oguamanam on February 22, 2014 at 3:45 PM Comments comments (0)

The following is an article published on IPOsgoode blog


Talking “Open Innovation” in Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

Chidi Oguamanam


The contemporary global order for the promotion of innovation exaggerates the role of intellectual property (IP) as a closed proprietary model of knowledge production and protection. Partly as a boomerang effect of that order and/or partly as a coincidence of the phenomenal rise in the information and communication technologies, there has been increased gravitation toward open, collaborative, shared, communal, and interdependent models of innovation. This trend is typified by the rise of open software movement and cognate endeavors in the era of wiki, open access, creative commons, crowdsourcing, etc. The discourse and dynamic of open innovation is, however, limited mostly to knowledge production in the digital realms. Open innovation is underexplored in the context of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). Analysts are wont to ignore the significance of customary seed sharing and exchange as the centerpiece of the inherent open nature of innovation in agriculture, especially in indigenous and local communities (ILCs). A critical appraisal of emergent institutional and legal frameworks for the governance of PGRFA, through a complex interaction between the processes and programs of work at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA or the Treaty) and the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research Consortium (CGIAR) finds that they reflect pragmatic attempts at melding both the IP-driven closed model and the accommodation of open or public good approach toward the promotion of access and overall management of innovation in PGRFA. One of the important lessons of the emergent regime in open innovation or a public good approach to R&D in PGRFA is a repositioning of the role of IP as not necessarily antithetical but potentially facilitative of open innovation. The 2010 CGIAR enunciation of Principles on the Management of Intellectual Assets (IA Principles) demonstrates the importance of a pragmatic deployment of IPRs to serve the interests of complex stakeholders involved in agricultural R&D without compromising the overarching imperative for optimal uptake of innovation by those in direst need. According to the CGIAR, the IA Principles provide “a clear framework [...] to help knowledge travel freely [...] to ensure that intellectual assets reach those who need them most [through] adopting common sets of principles with regard to production, acquisition, management, and dissemination of assets.” This approach aligns with new realities in favour of more open, collaborative, shared and non-proprietary essentials, which have been marginalized under the TRIPs agreement. Another obvious lesson from the CGIAR Consortium Intellectual Asset initiative is that subject to the contingencies of a given sector, the optimal exploitation of innovation would require a deliberate calibration of both exclusive and open models. An IP system that is too strong undermines economic development and public objectives, which are (or ought to be) at the core of both IP and innovation systems in general. By contrast, an unfettered openness could chill the entrepreneurial investment that is necessary to convert invention into innovation for the common good of society. IP and open innovation are hardly ends in themselves. Consequently, fairly recent attempts at mapping the intersection of open innovation and IP within interdisciplinary inquiries focus on how the concepts could best interact to contribute to development. As an outcome, such interaction has potential to address global inequity, democratize creative processes, extend the benefits of innovation, uplift the quality of human life, and advance the optimal realization of human potential with significant impact on those people Larry Helfer and Graeme Austin call the most vulnerable members of the human family. A word about open innovation: Innovation is inherently open to the extent that openness characterizes or depicts, in an ex post facto sense, universally-shared impressions on the nature of the innovation process as one that “rests on a public domain of ideas.” However, the uniqueness of open innovation arises when openness is a referential or comparative designation in relation to alternatives, especially the closed models that are usually (though, less accurately) associated with IP. Rarely is any innovation system completely closed or completely open. Everything is a matter of degree. Comparatively, open innovation emphasizes or depicts the flexibility in the generation, transition, translation, and transformation of information or knowledge across internal and external stakeholders in the innovation process. It captures the conduct of innovation in the framework of collaboration, collectivity, and community by promoting network-building, sharing and democratic participation. It also capitalizes on the incremental nature of innovation, the interdependence of knowledge systems, and all the actors in the innovation process—not the least of which are generators and users of innovation. Rather than latch onto any perceived demarcation between these two categories, the open innovation paradigm recognizes the interaction between them (i.e. generators and users) as a healthy extension of the innovation process. The reification of “the culture in agriculture” in ILCs reflects the cooperative and collaborative system of sourcing farm labor and farm resources such as seeds or other genetic materials through a trans-generational, networked process of open knowledge exchange. But it is hardly as if the system of agricultural innovation in ILCs is totally open. It, too, adapts to complex and layered forms of individual, communal, or collective credit or reward for contributions to knowledge and innovation. That said, unlike the conventional IP system where exclusionism and proprietary control dominate, here we see consideration of openness, interdependence, and sustainability as pillars of knowledge production. Thus, before openness was fashionable it was of obligate first nature in agricultural traditions and overall knowledge production in ILCs. Agriculture reifies or mirrors “nature” as a fundamentally open phenomena. This proposition is, for example, symbolized by pollination, which involves a voluntary and non-voluntary combination of meteorological, bioactive, artificial and other forms of social and ecological collaborative interventions. Humankind and other partners in the ecosystem (i.e., insects, birds, microbes, and animals) are inevitably involved in concerted, accidental, and deliberate dispersals of genetic materials in an open manner that supports food, agriculture and environmental sustainability. The intrinsic self-propagation of PGRFA and the universal culture of seed exchange historically, even if symbolically, remains the mainstay of agricultural production and innovation. Despite the diversity in global agricultural knowledge systems, no such system operates in isolation. For example, notwithstanding the North-South geo-ecological disequilibrium in the natural dispersal of agro-ecological resources and global plant germplasm, agricultural biodiversity is nurtured and sustained by ILC farmers for the common good in centers of origin and diversity. These farmers’ fields are no less laboratories of genetic revolution than those of their more powerful and better-organized counterparts, steeped in modern forms of agricultural production now epitomized by the ag-biotechnology, especially genetic engineering. Modern ag-biotechnology not only depends on global agro-biodiversity and the sustainability of the plurality of various knowledge systems in agricultural production, its potential for optimal impact on society is largely dependent on the level of openness across these systems. That is why the concerns about Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) and the imperative for open innovation models are at the center of legal regulatory structuring in PGRFA, as evident in the implementation initiatives of the ITPGRFA and the recent strategic recalibrations at the CGIAR, especially through the IA Principles. Significantly, the Treaty supports an open approach to innovation in PGRFA through a global information system. Information exchange, access to and transfer of technology, and capacity building (targeting especially developing countries and countries with economies in transition) are constitutive elements of the system, as elaborated in Article 13 on technology transfer. Similarly, the CBD is in the process of consolidating an ABS Clearing House (ABS-CH) website pursuant to the Convention’s Article 18.3 and Article 14 of the Nagoya Protocol on ABS. The ABS-CH website allows for tracking and global audit of uses of genetic resources, toward entrenching open innovation and facilitating equitable benefit sharing over the uses of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. Information exchange (or sharing) in these contexts can be distinguished from mere reference to “free information” in the conventional open innovation discourse symbolized by the free software movement. Free information (or the more familiar refrain in ICT, free content) may bridge access gaps, sometimes in order to temporarily fix inequity, but it does not guarantee systemic change or capacity building and socialization of knowledge for the benefit of recipients. More often, the innovation in question is usually a product of centralized or hierarchical order. Information exchange, however, reflects, in part, the essence of openness. Information exchange or openness is not an end. It is innately functional because of its ability to develop capacity or promote empowerment, and it is essentially democratic in its ability to fuel optimal epistemic traffic across diverse competences in society in a horizontal chain of interaction. Rather than serve as a one-directional hand-out meant for consumption or absorption, creating a producer/consumer dichotomy, openness supports “social, [or socialized] information-network-based, models of sharing [and exchange], participation and collaboration.” Concluding Thoughts Foundational discourses about open innovation are understandably linked to the impact of digital technology and the internet platform in reifying the elements of openness—specifically collaboration, dependency, networking, and sharing. In this conceptual frame, new information technologies are essentially disruptive as they serve to catalyze pressure, disorient or even dismantle the more conventional, closed innovation model often represented (albeit, less accurately) by IP rights. Consequently, it is tempting to characterize IP as a counterpoint to openness and to deny its relevance in open innovation. However, whether as a metaphor or as a direct analogy, the information-technology driven model of openness requires a pensive approach in regard to its adaptation to sectors in which networked communication technologies are only ancillary. One such sector is the agricultural sector, specifically as implicated in the context of the global regulation of PGRFA. Like several sectors of human innovative endeavor, PGRFA has and is still benefitting from the adaptations or deployments of networked digital technology in furthering and in creating new interest in open innovation. Unlike in the software sector, the historic poster child for openness, innovation in PGRFA is prima facie an open process manifested across epistemic boundaries of all agricultural knowledge systems. However, despite the innate culture of openness over innovation in PGRFA, there is a glaring equity gap in the diffusion of the benefits of R&D, owing largely to the exaggerated stress on IP as a closed or proprietary model of innovation. That stress is exacerbated through global strengthening and universalization of the IP standard pursuant to the TRIPs agreement. TRIPs and other subsidiary systems, such as the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), successfully cast IP as selectively exclusionary and rigidly closed regime of protection in a manner that alienated the interests and contributions to innovation made by ILC farmers at the centers of crop origin and diversity. The unbalanced focus on IP, in turn, helped to fuel concerns about equity and ABS in the realm of PGRFA and also provided an impetus for expediting long-lasting efforts in other sites for addressing those concerns, notably the CBD, the Treaty, and the CGIAR-IARC system. Ongoing implementations of the Treaty, recent reforms at the CGIAR and potential coming- into-force of the Nagoya Protocol on ABS encourage the consolidation of open innovation in PGRs and the pragmatic role of IPRs in this new dynamic.