Communications and Digital Economy Minister, Isa Pantami, has disavowed his earlier views on terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda which have been generating controversy. Speaking at a Ramadan lecture in Abuja on 17 April, the minister said the comments in support of the terrorists were made when he was young and had not fully understood the issues involved. In videos from the 2000s, Pantami, a known Islamic scholar, was reported to have said that while he was against the extremist anti-western ideologies of Boko Haram, he supports some of what Al-Qaeda and Taliban had preached. At the Ramadan lecture, however, Leadership quoted the minister as saying that his position at the time was based on his understanding as a teenager. He insisted he has converted several young persons who “have derailed from the right path” in his teachings against the Boko Haram insurgents. He said: “For 15 years, I have moved around the country while educating people about the dangers of terrorism. I have travelled to Katsina, Gombe, Borno, Kano states and Difa in Niger Republic to preach against terrorism. I have engaged those with Boko Haram ideologies in different places. I have been writing pamphlets in Hausa, English and Arabic. Some of the comments I made some years ago that are generating controversies now were based on my understanding of religious issues at the time, and I have changed several positions taken in the past based on new evidence and maturity.” In related news, the government resumed the issuance of new SIM cards on 19 April, pursuant to a directive from Pantami’s office. In December 2020, the government suspended the activity as it embarked on an audit of the subscriber registration database. Pantami said the country is set to implement a revised national digital identity policy for SIM card registration, adding that the national identification number (NIN) is mandatory at all levels. “The policy includes guidelines on new SIM Acquisition and Activation, SIM Replacement, New SIM Activation for Corporates and Internet-of-Things/Machine-to-Machine (IoT/M2M), amongst others,” the statement read. “The possession of a National Identity number will be a prerequisite for each of these categories. For the corporate registration, institutions will be required to appoint a telecoms master (at the minimum of an executive management level) to provide the operational Primary NIN representation. The telecoms master will also be responsible for ensuring that the users provide their NINs to serve as a secondary NIN. Pantami further directed the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) to ensure that the provisions of the policy are strictly followed by all operators and subscribers.

Nigeria says the plan of the United Kingdom to grant asylum to “persecuted” members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) undermines Nigeria’s security. According to a report by The Cable, UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) had released new guidelines on how to treat asylum applications by members of Biafran secessionist groups. In the guidelines, asylum is to be granted to “persecuted” members of the proscribed IPOB and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). Commenting on the development at a forum organised by the News Agency of Nigeria on 20 April, Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed said the decision amounts to sabotaging the fight against terrorism. Mohammed said the decision is unacceptable and disrespectful to Nigeria. “Let me say straight away that this issue is within the purview of the honourable minister of foreign affairs and I am sure he will handle it appropriately,” he said. “But as the spokesman for the Federal Government of Nigeria, I will say that if indeed the report that the UK will grant asylum to supposedly persecuted IPOB and MASSOB members is true, then something is wrong somewhere. “Against the background of the fact that IPOB is not only proscribed but also designated as a terrorist organisation here in Nigeria, the UK’s decision is disrespectful of Nigeria as a nation. “The decision amounts to sabotaging the fight against terrorism and generally undermining Nigeria’s security. “If we could go down the memory lane, what the UK has done is like Nigeria offering asylum to members of the IRA before the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement.” The minister said IPOB has been alleged to be behind the recent attacks in the southeast — “in spite of its denial”.

The Senate on 19 April asked Nigeria’s 36 state governors to save the country’s democracy from collapsing by granting full independence to the judicial arm of government. The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, stated this while reacting to the protest staged at the National Assembly by the Nigerian Bar Association on the issue. President Muhammadu Buhari had last year signed into law, Executive Order No 10 of 2020 cited as “the implementation of financial autonomy for state legislature and judiciary Order, 2020”. The order granted powers to the Accountant-General of the Federation to deduct from the allocations due to a state from the Federation Account, any sums appropriated for the legislature or judiciary of that state which the state fails to release to its legislature or judiciary as the case may be, and to pay the funds directly to the state’s legislature or judiciary concerned. Speaking with journalists, Bamidele said judicial autonomy was non-negotiable and that state governors should emulate the FG by granting independence to the arm of government. He said, “It is laughable that at this point, we are still grappling with the need to grant independence to the judiciary arm of government at the state level and at the local government levels. The National Assembly has been making laws that would guarantee full autonomy to the judiciary at the federal level. “The National Assembly does not make laws for the states, such power resides in the state Houses of Assembly. What is next is for the state Houses of Assembly to do what they are supposed to do. We cannot continue to call on the judiciary to give peace a chance when we know the conditions under which they work cannot guarantee a passionate and enhanced delivery of justice.”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) still hopes to reach a deal with Zambia before elections in August on an economic program that will form the basis of the country’s planned debt restructuring. Talks that began last year are continuing, and the Washington-based lender aims to conclude them “in the next few weeks,” Africa Director Abebe Aemro Selassie said in an interview. “I hope we can move forward by reaching agreements and get broad endorsements of political leaders,” he said. “But that will depend on agreeing on the parameters of the program, and we are not just there yet.” The timeline is tight. While the polls that will probably be closely contested are set for 12 August, the constitution stipulates that parliament, and by extension President Edgar Lungu’s cabinet, must dissolve about three months before that, suggesting a deal may need to be agreed by 14 May. Zambia’s $1 billion of Eurobonds due 2024 extended gains on Thursday, rising by as much as 1.6% to 59.14 cents on the dollar, the highest in more than a year. Africa’s second-biggest copper producer last year became the continent’s first pandemic-era defaulter. External commercial creditors, including those holding the nation’s $3 billion of Eurobonds, want the government to reach a deal with the IMF, which they will then base their restructuring talks on.

Commentary

  • Mr Pantami’s disavowing of his previously held views represents a significant turnaround in his stance after the earlier news article published by the Daily Independent newspapers (since retracted). However, he was not entirely truthful in saying his position was based on his view as a teenager, as the well-publicised sermon in which he praised Al-Qaeda and the Taliban happened when he was 33. Away from the minister’s integrity problem, this fiasco raises questions of the thoroughness of security screenings and background checks for presidential appointees by security agencies such as the State Security Services as Mr Pantami’s history ought to have come to light; especially in light of a 2009 Wikileaks cable that linked a religious crisis in Bauchi that year to a mosque where he used to preach – his incendiary sermons were fingered as a remote cause of the conflict. It raises even bigger questions about the process of Senate confirmation of nominees as it is very likely that a report existed on Mr Pantami by the secret police. The final thing to note is that the Presidency finally broke its silence on the matter late last night, with Garba Shehu, President Buhari’s spokesman saying on Twitter that Mr Pantami “is a victim of cancel culture.” This position is certain to polarise the country even further. Away from his past to the issue under Mr Pantami’s remit, the lifting of restrictions on the issuance of SIM cards is long overdue, as restricting new registrations until the completion of the linking of existing SIM cards with a national identification number constituted a drag on a thriving telecommunications sector, which itself has been a key driver of what little economic growth Nigeria has seen over the past five quarters. It is perhaps ironic that security was cited by Mr. Pantami as the reason for the SIM sale ban and it has now emerged that he himself should have been subject to a more rigorous security screening process. This policy about-turn also shows that a better way would have been to issue deadlines for existing SIM-NIN linkages (accounting for the capacity of the NIMC) while allowing for the continuous sales of new SIM cards.
  • It remains to be seen if the move by the UK government to grant IPOB members asylum will strain relations between Abuja and London, especially given Abuja’s political and socioeconomic dependence on the UK, not the least tending to the health of Nigeria’s President. The guidelines released by the UKVI lend credence to observations in many quarters, including ours, that the approach of the Nigerian government in responding to the secessionist ambitions of IPOB has been heavy-handed, fostering human rights abuses against IPOB supporters and members, and having the unintended consequence of increasing the group’s legitimacy and support in the South-East. An SBM survey conducted in late 2015 showed support levels for IPOB at below 40%. Today, there is anecdotally that the figure is much higher. In addition, the British action appears to show that the Nigerian government is alone in viewing IPOB as a terrorist organisation – the FG had proscribed it as a terrorist organisation before obtaining a court order in September 2017 to that effect as required by the Terrorism (Prevention) Act of 2011. Although IPOB fits the outline of a separatist group, it is a stretch to define it as a terrorist organisation in the absence of evidence that it utilises terror as a means of achieving its radical political objectives. Evidently, the FG’s Western allies such as the UK have made this calculation. The challenge with the FG’s designation of IPOB as a terrorist organisation is that this mindset has influenced how it has approached the issue, using military force and repressive tactics while dismissing the political and economic root issues that make separatism appealing to groups in the South-East. This could force IPOB to become militarised and convert its struggle into an armed one, thus becoming the Nigerian equivalent of separatist groups such as the Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) in Spain or the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka that turned to terrorism as a last resort, with all the attendant negative effects. It is also worth pointing out that the FG keeps accusing IPOB of being the mastermind behind violent attacks in the region – such as the recent spate of attacks on police formations in the region and traders of northern origin – despite repeated denials by the group. This creates the unhelpful impression that these accusations are intended as justification by the state for more heavy-handed tactics against the group, thus ensuring that the vicious cycle of violence and disenfranchisement is perpetuated. Just as the Spanish and Sri Lankan experiences illustrate, that approach has a limited upside. It is time to try another tack.
  • The NBA’s protest to the National Assembly, itself precipitated by a strike by judicial administrative officials – is a continuation of the fallout from President Buhari’s signing of Executive Order 10 of 2020, granting state legislatures and judiciaries financial autonomy. The foot dragging on judicial autonomy by Nigeria’s state governors reveals a worrying duality. On the one hand, the governors want more powers and a greater share of revenues from Abuja. On the other hand, they are unwilling to ensure that the various arms of government at the subnational level enjoy a similar level of autonomy to its federal counterparts, a freedom which is necessary in order to effectively carry out their constitutional duties. It was very much the same posture on the issue of autonomy of state legislatures, who are typically under the thumb of the governor.. The timely dispensation of justice at all levels of government is critical, especially at a time when the country appears to be fracturing as more people take the law into their own hands. Also, as the state governors demand greater powers, the need for stronger checks and balances has become even more imperative. To have the former without the latter will only promote irresponsibility and make an already tenuous situation at subnational level even direr. The governors have only one sensible move to make on this issue – budge.
  • Although Zambia’s current fiscal situation is the result of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, its finances were already in dire straits before the pandemic as it was buckling under an unsustainable debt load of about $6 billion – half of which were in the form of Eurobonds with the other half owed to China and Chinese entities. This was the primary cause of the country defaulting on its bond payments and its requesting for IMF assistance. At the moment, Zambia’s debt to GDP increased from 91.9% in 2019 to 119.5% in early 2021, and without a properly structured repayment plan, it is likely to still remain above the 100 percentile by 2025. According to the IMF, the southern African state, which like others is recovering from the devastating effects of the pandemic, would have a 2021 projected real GDP of 0.6%. As President Edward Lungu is running for re-election, his campaign has hinged a lot on agreeing to a deal with the IMF that will include a reforms package upon which a cash injection will be predicated on enabling the Zambian government take care of its financial obligations, particularly its bond payments. This will also mean that the cabinet must move fast to wrap up the deal before mid-May 14, a speed that is not characteristic of a slow bureaucracy. Zambia’s debt crisis is quite instructive for many others in the continent, as roughly 40% of sub-Saharan African countries were at risk of debt distress even before the pandemic hit. About 10 countries, including Angola, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya are mired in debt problems with China as their principal creditor. What we are likely to see is that more countries will go the way of Zambia or at least secure some type of debt suspension, since African countries make up 50% of the 73 countries eligible for the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI). This possibility is unlikely to thrill current and prospective investors and the outlook for African debt heading out from here looks set to be far from robust.