Feyi Fawehinmi on 2019 Elections, Newspaper Reviews, Red lines in Politics, and more
If you’re remotely interested in Nigeria civil discourse especially as it affects politics and policy — you would have heard or read one of Feyi Fawehinmi’s articles at some point.
It’s no exaggeration to say Feyi has emerged as one of the most exciting and original thinkers in Nigeria. His writing leans towards public policy, capacity-building and governance in Nigeria.
And Feyi has an advantage (or weapon — depending on who you ask) because he sure can write. He now has bylines at Guardian, BBC, Quartz, to name a few. I would describe his approach as a wonky workaholic who is able to connect the dots about subjects we should all care about, in a way we can digest.
Like most excellent thinkers, not surprisingly, Feyi usually has a well thought out opinions about most things. He was recently a speaker at the last BTNG event, and we spoke about having this interview to go into more details about the current going on in Nigeria.
Last Monday, we met in a coffee shop at Borough high street, London Bridge (coincidentally, we used to be course mates in an accounting college on the same street many many moons ago). Below is an edited version of our conversation. Enjoy.
Papa: Who’s Feyi Fawehinmi?
Feyi: I came to the UK 15 years ago after studying in Nigeria. I qualified as an accountant and mainly worked in the financial services. Over the years, I have kept in close touch with Nigeria’s current affairs. Some years ago, I started a blog called Aguntasolo and also do a newspaper review. They both have ended up creating a kind of audience.
Papa: Let’s talk about your writing process. One thing that never seems to amaze me is how you can quickly write on a trending topic even though you’re not a full-time columnist/journalist. You recently wrote on the Ojulegba Tanker accident that occurred last week. How do you choose? Or is it a case of what makes you most angry gets written?
Feyi: Nigeria serves up topics every day. The reality is that you can’t write about everything. Instead the question I pose to myself; what angle can I bring to this story? I try to provide another angle for consideration in the public domain.
Concerning writing, once I feel like I have an opening paragraph or introduction to the piece, then the rest becomes easy. To get that ‘introduction’ is what takes more of my time. Once I get that angle, then it becomes straightforward for me to complete a post.
For instance, the Ojuelegba post, I was in a WhatsApp group where we were discussing the idea of restricting trucks to certain times of the day. I thought that this had been done already. And if you check our laws, you would find some statute or local tenet explicitly saying trucks are not allowed at certain times of the day. We keep on having these incidents that take lives.
I decided to propose an idea as a solution to this recurring tanker accidents and with my knowledge of Nigeria, also provide reasons my proposed solution wouldn’t work.
The reality is that in Nigeria, no matter how bad a situation is or damaging to the country, we resist change and this is usually because some vested interests or actors benefit from keeping the status quo. It’s like a hostage situation.
Papa: Apart from your original writing, a lot of people look out for your opinion or take on those topics you mentioned Nigeria serves every day. The daily newspaper review is probably the most consistent and concise way you’ve done this. Was this intentional to shape the online discussion in this manner? And is this some social media genius/masterplan in action?
Feyi: No, not at all. Now, I could say it was all planned, but that wouldn’t be true. It all started back in 2013; I was working for a company at the time where I used to get to work really early. Before starting the day, I would use my free time to browse Nigerian papers and post a comment or two.
What I can say I’ve realised is that as there’s information overload in the world, there’s always going to be a need to curate information for people. This invariably meant a lot of people were interested in the newspaper reviews. Also, at that point, Twitter was 140 characters, so you had to be concise with your words. This worked out well for readers as there was no beating around the bush.
The key benefits for me is that there’s always someone that has an extra context to a topic. Someone out there that knows better than most people either because of proximity or expert knowledge. And those people drop comments, or sometimes they don’t want to be public — they come to DM. For the newspaper review, my interests are mainly economic stories, crime and the customary courts where family issues are decided.
Doing it allows me to see patterns in Nigeria that I may not have noticed before. The crime stories make me realise how harshly lack of ambition is punished in criminals. If you steal a billion, you are good. But God help you if you are caught stealing N1000, you will go to jail.
Another tragic insight is that we’re in the middle of a slow-motion collapse of the family in Nigeria. People are getting divorced for flimsy stuff. Yes, there are really bad situations e.g. husband beating his wife — I’m not referring to those cases. The flimsy stuff like mere suspicion; ‘she’s not coming home on time’, and a divorce is being sought. I can tell you that some of Nigeria’s wisest judges are customary court judges as they’re always thinking long-term impact before passing judgment.
The newspaper review is great for me, not just because people like it, but because it works as a connection to Nigeria for me and also provides me with useful data and insights which helps my writing. For instance, I suddenly realised market fires were prevalent in the county. I was amazed — how can markets be burning with the attendant loss of property, income and source of people’s livelihood — without any resolution in sight? When I started tracking it — I kept a spreadsheet- I found out some markets have even burnt twice. And this burning of markets is across the country so not limited to one region. I also found a common cause of the fires — roads inside markets being so narrow such that even if a fire truck comes, they are not able to enter the market. Yet someone will still build a market with such narrow roads tomorrow.
Papa: Still on daily newspaper review, as an ardent reader, I would say your tone is 80% cynical & 20% ‘siddon look’. I’m wondering, how do you keep yourself from being 100% pessimistic? Also, how do you sustain a level of discipline to do something that appears simple but I can only imagine — not so simple to execute?
Feyi: I would say for every 20 stories, you get a beautiful story. Having done this for a while, I have my favourite categories. For example, If I see any story about NURTW — I’m interested as it’s a good microcosm of the society.
Last week, I saw the story about MC Oluomo who happens to be one of the heads of NURTW. He went to the mosque for an function, and as usual, he started giving people money. One girl refused the money and instead told him that their school toilet was in terrible condition. He ended up building a new toilet for her school and took a few of his friends along to commission it. That young girl affected change in her community.
That’s definitely a positive story as this is a young girl that gets the concept of ‘delayed gratification’ which is one of the things we desperately need as a society to move forward.
Trust me; I’ve also considered stopping the reviews as the bad news can do damage to you. For me, the cynicism is a filter. There are loads of things you read that would make you so annoyed.
Papa: In the last BTNG event, you mentioned how you allow rejoinders or corrections to the record for issues that you have written about. Recently, you published the CEO of NSIA’s position to criticism you made in an earlier article. Why do you think this is important and what do you hope to achieve?
Feyi: In terms of people in public service, they broadly fall into two categories — good faith and bad faith actors. Some people might be lying, or intentionally misleading the public or abusing their positions. Whereas there are others, who are simply doing the best within their capacity, constraints or convictions.
Shakespeare says there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face. I can disagree with a government policy or initiative but the key thing is whether it is done in good faith.
For instance, when I spoke to Uche Orji, the first thing he said was; I’m not trying to convince you but here are the reasons why we did the fertiliser investment. We ended up speaking for over an hour and while I wasn’t convinced it was proper for the government to intervene in such a manner, I will say Uche Orji is a good faith actor.
The reality is that inasmuch as we ‘attack’ government, there are good people there doing their possible best under very hard conditions, financial constraints. politically acceptable parameters, etc. We have to give those people credit and raise their status while lowering the status of the bad faith guys.
Papa: Politics affects governance and ours appear fragmented, disjointed and tribal. No national emergency or tragedy like the recent herdsmen killings can be discussed without the taint of tribalism. But to politicians, there’s no national emergency like an election. For 2019, a lot of people have thrown their hat in the ring for president and there’s a feeling that despite Buhari’s poor record, he will squeak through to a second term. Do you agree with this?
Feyi: I think there’s a bit of quality out there. For instance, Kingsley Moghalu has been saying some good stuff. But you need a huge machinery to win elections in Nigeria. And a lot of the better candidates don’t have the operations to compete.
The way it can work is that everyone disgruntled should team up. Kingsley, Fela Durotoye, Sowore, everybody could come together and form a viable opposition.
For 2019, nobody is excited. The economy is growing at 1%, herdsman’s crisis, young professionals fleeing the country.
A debate between Atiku and Buhari does not sound like something to get anyone excited. It’s not looking inspiring unlike 2015 where it became a large operation. Some big donors also switched to Buhari — This is why it also annoys me so much because it was such a wasted opportunity.
Cynicism is high. As for Buhari, he campaigned on change, and now we’re here where people are counting the number of people that died under PDP to compare to deaths under APC. How did we get to this ridiculous state of affairs?
The prospect of another four years of Buhari fills me with sadness. He doesn’t’ have an eye for picking talent. He can’t sack ministers. He’s getting older, he was ill for a substantial part of his first term for still undisclosed reasons, and yet he wants a second term?
Nigerian politics is completely bonkers. In APC, we have a group of people calling themselves nPDP. They keep on threatening to leave. Yet this doesn’t sound crazy to them.
Papa: Is this not a systematic problem, because we don’t have a way of removing someone not competent?
Feyi: That’s correct. The problem is that in Nigeria there’s nothing that the political class agree on. We don’t have red lines that can’t be crossed.
In most countries, there’s a political consensus like government ownership of private property — e.g. guaranteeing property rights. In Nigeria, tell me one thing that our politicians — irrespective of political party — agree on?
When your population is growing at 3% and the economy at 1%, it’s clear that the economy is the fundamental challenge facing the country. If we had ‘red lines’ then maybe the politicians might say; sorry Mr president, this thing is not working again. Let’s give you a soft landing so we can try someone else.
Instead, there are all sorts of political calculation like I’m a southerner, let me let this person finish, even if he destroys the country, at least in 4 years time, it will come back down south and I can have a shot at it.
The idea of putting the country or economy first is a non-starter.
During the forex crisis is 2016, I was shocked as I heard people in government saying things I know they don’t believe.
Papa: Let’s go slightly deep on public policy. You now have an impressive body of work — writing on various areas such as on Agricultural initiatives, petroleum subsidy/NNPC, foreign exchange, land reform act, to mention a few. However, if you were to enact one policy immediately — what would it be?
Feyi: Number one no debate is to abolish NNPC. It’s at the root of all our problems. If you look back at 1978, the idea then was that government was all knowing and powerful and as such could concentrate more power in its hands. This was the same time we had the Land Use act.
But if you look at what was happening around the world at the time, people were moving in the opposite direction. In Britain where the government owned mines, car companies, airlines and all sorts, Mrs Thatcher came in and said — this thing has run its course. She started the process of moving the economy from government to private control. Same thing in China — after Mao died, they began to loosen government control over the economy.
Yet, Nigeria was moving in the other direction. That period is what gave us NNPC and it remains the biggest source of corruption in Nigeria today. It corrupts the government.
It is possible to have oil and not have an oil company. Britain and America have oil and don’t have a national oil company.
NNPC can’t drill, can’t sell, can’t even account for what it does. We have to accept that this is a 40 year experiment that has woefully failed.
Papa: Let’s talk about the African diaspora. It appears that a lot has changed over the last 20 years. Arguably, it’s become harder for an African to find themselves anywhere in the west — except they’re well educated and young. Yet, there is an assumption that we’re one monolithic body with easily defined aspirations and tastes. What way can the government do to utilise this group better?
Feyi: I wrote an article about this a couple of years ago when Buhari made comments about Nigerians washing toilets in the UK. The HSMP was enacted in 2002 or so. My theory is that remittances from the diaspora shot up right after that because the Nigerians who came on it didn’t come to wash toilets. The programme selected professionals with career experience so when they got here, they were able to get good jobs much quicker.
The same thing will eventually happen in Canada as well. The point to note is that there’s always been Nigerians in Canada — but now you’re getting young professionals moving there.
It’s hard enough for the Nigerian government to know what’s happening in their backyard so asking them to keep an eye on people in the diaspora is asking for too much. They can’t do it.
What is perhaps annoying is that the conversation about the diaspora has not moved beyond remittances. India’s diaspora built an airport in India. When the government did the diaspora bond lays year, all of it was bought by foreign investors and hardly any Nigerians touched it.
Papa: All heroes are flawed and at some point prove themselves to be human. Flawed and fallible. However, in Nigeria, we seem to be especially affected by our ‘heroes’ turning out to be villains — especially in the public sector.
A lot of Nigerians views a critic as someone waiting to be invited to ‘eat’. Abike Dabiri, Adams Oshinmole, Festus Keyamo, etc comes to mind. And when these critics get into government, they almost always throw away those principles that got them noticed. Do you have any ideas about why we have many of these examples?
Feyi: Part of the problem is that Nigerians are quite optimistic. People go into government unaware of the problems or challenges they’re trying to tackle or will likely face. Then they fall at the very first hurdle.
In more developed societies, crucial information and lessons are documented and freely available or accessible. Politicians and top civil servants, regularly write books, gives speeches, workshops, etc passing on the knowledge of what they’ve experienced or how the system works. In Nigeria, everyone is flying blind.
Last year, I really liked Ayisha Osori’s book ‘Love doesn’t win elections’ because she went into detail about her experience trying to run for House of Reps in Abuja. We need more of that sort of inside knowledge about how the system works.
Papa: Okay, allow me to a typical cynical Nigerian, can one expect that one day, you hold a political appointment and we wonder; what happened to Feyi?
Feyi: No, to the contrary, If I don’t disappoint people, then I’m clearly doing something wrong. I also expect to be dealt with the way I’ve dealt with people on issues where I’ve felt they should do better.
The interesting thing is that because I supported Buhari in the past, I now have access to more people in government than I’ve ever had. And I now have a better appreciation of the challenges of implementing anything successfully in the Nigerian environment.
To be clear, I hope I don’t disappoint people with stories about money going missing. Now that would be a complete waste of everyone’s time. But I might disappoint because an issue that I’ve publicly campaigned against — e.g. dissolution of NNPC — is harder than I envisaged and maybe I’m not able to implement as completely as I promised.
Papa: Finally, you jokingly talk about your coming ‘revolution’ what do you think your final evolution would be?
Feyi: I don’t know. I have no plans of moving to Nigeria. And definitely no current plans to seek political office. Right now, it would take a great opportunity for me to think of relocating.
However, I feel there’s something that needs to be done but is not attractive; getting into the heads of Nigerians. That’s the role I’m interested in playing — you can describe it as deep voter education.
There’s an urgent need to educate people about issues, how to think about solutions, not to believe the lies we’ve been told that status quo always has to prevail.
It’s a never-ending task with little or no rewards but that’s what I’m interested in.
I would hope to help create some type of method or platform to get Nigerians to think about the future. What we have now is short-term thinking on a national scale Everything is short term. Someone collects N3000 for their vote, solely thinking about today, but not considering what that politician is going to do tomorrow.
Everything is not ‘stomach infrastructure’. How do you explain people scooping up fuel when a tanker spills? That’s not really hunger, after all, it was an accident that may not have happened. There’s something fundamentally short-sighted about how we make decisions that a long-term fix is needed.