Tag Archives: Education

Are we thinking about the digital future?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

If God wills, I shall be particpating in what I hope would be an exciting event on 31 January. Themed “Nigeria in the World, the World in Nigeria”, panelists at the “Nigeria Economic Outlook Conference 2018” (#NEOC18) would discuss what Nigeria’s place could be in a post-oil world. Tony Seba, a Stanford University scholar in entrepreneurship, disruption and clean energy with an enviable record of correct predictions, posits crude oil demand would peak at about 100 million barrels per day (mbpd) by 2020, three years from now. A decade after, by 2030, he supposes it could be about 70 mbpd. That is not so bad, you probably reckoned just now. If his estimations are vindicated, the price for a barrel of crude oil would not be so tolerable at about $25 by 2021-22; that is about 4-5 years from now. Why would these happen? Mr Seba believes 95 percent of passenger miles would be self-driving, electric and on-demand by 2030. His analysis is not sentimental. It is economic. By his reckoning, it would be ten times less expensive to ride electric, autonomous and on-demand than owning a car. While the likelihood that these new transport technologies would make it to African countries within these timeframes is slim, the impact would almost certainly be immediately felt by oil-producing ones like Nigeria. So are we preparing for this future? Our education system remains an archaic rote-style nonsense. Our job market teaches little of tangible utility for a digital world. And our government wants to grow more yam tubers for export. If our country remains in its current ill-prepared state, this near digital future could be bleak for us indeed.

Action talk
Incidentally, the #NEOC18 is coming after the just concluded World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. The flurry of ideas was simply extraordinary. I followed the proceedings extensively from my very warm abode in Lagos – if you are left behind, there is nobody to blame but yourself. (See my Premium Times column for my observations: https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2018/01/26/davos-insights-for-africa-by-rafiq-raji/.) Artificial intelligence was on everyone’s lips. Its unimaginable possibilities, good and bad, have everyone’s antenna up. What really intrigues me is that these happenings are also discussed animatedly by the Nigerian intelligentsia. Unfortunately, these conversations are not translating into policy and action. We cannot continue like this. The Nigerian who designed the Chevrolet Volt, an electric car, is back home. As far as I know, his mandate is to develop an auto industry in the country. I suspect his efforts are geared towards the futility of trying to build a fossil-fuel based car industry. If that is the case, I do not need to be a seer to know his years doing that are going to be wasted. Why not an electric car industry? He knows how to build one, doesn’t he? Someone might ask: where is the power? I would reply: why not a solar-powered one then? The sun is free, is it not? Besides, a solar-powered car is not just a concept: it has already been builit.

Step up
If we are serious as a country, we will put building a robust power and internet infrastructure at the top of our priorities. Off-grid power solutions are already taking off. And some well-meaning entrepreneurs have also been doing their bit in broadband access and developing coding capacity. MainOneand Andela are world-class Nigerian companies. They operate here and are run by Nigerians. They are evidence of our possibilities if and when we decide to put on our thinking caps. Nigeria needs more of them. The inequality of the future is not going to be so much between rich and poor as it would be between those acting on their knowledge for change and those who know but are doing nothing or are simply just ignorant. The knowledge gap would become contemporaneous with the wealth gap.

What else can we do? We could start acquiring the skills that allow us speak the “language of technology”, at least. You could also ask yourself how what you currently do for a living could change in the next decade or so because of technology; and what you are going to do about it. Digital banks would get better. Cars would become autonomous. Robots would be able to perform surgery. Manufacturing is going to become totally automated. Retail would become entirely online. In that event, what are you going to become, be able to do, and how are you going to earn a living? Of course, as these technologies evolve there is the sometimes mistaken assumption that human beings would be static and not similarly dynamic. Instead, it is more likely that as our current needs get cared for by machines, new ones would evolve precisely because of these disruptions. And it would likely be humans who are first able to handle or innovate to solve these new problems before machines are able to do them far better. So whether it is artifical intelligence, big data or something else currently just the pigment of the imagination of someone somewhere, no one can say for sure what the digital future would be like exactly. One thing is certain, though, unless poor economies step up their game, they would be left behind. Again.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/thinking-digital-future/

South Africa: Free higher education is complicated

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

If you asked university officials whether they desired free education for the poor, they would probably answer in the affirmative. Ask them if it is sustainable under the government’s recently announced plan, they are not likely to be so sunny. What is probably feasible is a system whereby an obviously brilliant and promising student is not prevented from higher education because he or she is poor. If South Africa were abundantly wealthy, free education might not be potentially problematic. Sadly, the country is not. Not at the moment, at least. And if the palpable absence of the finance minister or his representative at a media briefing on the new policy in early January is anything to go by, the fiscal authorities are likely at their wits’ end to fund what was clearly a unilateral pronouncement by President Jacob Zuma.

As the new academic session begins, university authorities have announced they would not allow walk-in registrations. Ultranationalist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party leader, Julius Malema, had urged prospective students to simply turn up at any university of their choice for admission. It is not difficult to see the potential complications that this would cause. The authorities have disabused any such action by learners who just passed their qualifying exams (“matric”) – results for the class of 2017 were released in early January. Hitherto, those who could not afford varsity would have simply sought employment in jobs where a matric certificate suffices. With higher education now “free”, they are now able to pursue their dreams. Because Mr Zuma’s proclamation was impromptu, those who hitherto did not apply to universities due to financial constraints would have ordinarily needed to wait a year if disruptions are to be avoided. Unsurprisingly, the EFF, and understandably, the affected prospective students, would have none of it. To manage the situation, the authorities have instead advised that those who qualify should follow the normal application process; an online portal has been designated for the task.

China works
Free education, whether at the basic or higher level, is not novel. It has been tried in many jurisdictions. Swedes attend university for free, for instance. And their degrees are very competitive. So the policy does work. But Sweden is rich, South Africa is not. In their heyday, communist regimes also provided free higher education to their comrade citizens. They succeeded to some extent. The times were a signifcant motivation, though. There was a cold war between a mostly democratic west and a mostly communist east. To the extent that they were able to compete quite well with the west on many technological fronts suggest free education is not only feasible but does not necessarily stifle innovation. In other words, poor countries can successfully educate their citizens for free. To some extent. Because when you look at how the west and east have evolved, there is a strong case for the clearly more developed west’s capitalist model. What about China then? Well, it realised free higher education was sub-optimal after a while: it abolished the policy in 1985. Instead, poor Chinese who desire a university education compete for scholarships. And those with ample means began to have a choice in the early 1980s, when Chinese authorities allowed the establishment of private universities.

My heart, my head
To be clear, one is not in anyway suggesting that the majority of black South Africans be left out in the cold without the prospect of prosperity that higher education is supposed to provide, eventually; ideally. I recall quite well during my doctoral studies at a top South African university how frustrated, and in fact angry, some black South African students were at the very high fees their sponsors had to scrape to pay. But the success of western universities can be directly traced to students paying the economic cost of their education. And the means through which they acquire the funding are in part responsible for the high value placed on it. A loans system means a student upon graduation is incentivized to find employment or engage in some entrepreneurial venture to clear his or her indebtedness. It also means that employers must pay an economically viable wage. Market forces that have been found to engender optimal pricing for goods and services have also been found to serve the education system quite well. So as a practicing economist, I see how fraught with risks for the economy the new free education policy is. As an African who has witnessed the pains of many black South Africans, however, I desire that they are able to achieve their wildest dreams. I am conflicted.

Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column. See link viz. https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2018/01/05/south-africa-the-complications-of-free-higher-education-by-rafiq-raji/

South Africa: Zuma goes legacy shopping

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

After much anticipation, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party’s leadership race started during the weekend (15-20 December). It got off to a slow start. Ahead of the elective conference, I sought the views of fellow Africa economists for an article for African Business magazine on what the implications for the South African economy could be depending on who emerges victorious. (See link viz. http://africanbusinessmagazine.com/region/southern-africa/south-africa-markets-weigh-ancs-next-leader/). I also published my preliminary personal views. (See link viz. https://macroafricaintel.com/2017/12/15/macroafricaintel-south-africa-a-race-of-three/). Although deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was leading with nominations and expected to win, the race still had an element of uncertainty. There were a few twists and turns, for sure. The national executive committee (NEC) decided in an emergency meeting before the start of the conference – which was actually the reason for the lengthy delay in the first place – that nullified structures of the Kwazulu-Natal and Free State provinces by the courts would not vote, for instance. Incidentally, these were the strongholds of one of the leading presidential contenders, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, ex-wife to outgoing party president, Jacob Zuma; who incidentally gave his own shocker just before the start of proceedings. He announced a free education policy; much to the dismay of market participants. It did reveal one thing, though. President Zuma does not want all that is remembered about his presidency to be the scandals that plagued it. He wants a good legacy. This late in the game, you probably wonder. I actually did think Mr Zuma would do something desperate to secure his postion in the aftermath of the conference. But considering the negative reaction of market participants to finance minister Malusi Gigaba’s mid-term budget and the sharp reaction of the rand to rumours before the conference that Mr Zuma might announce a free education policy and his denial afterwards, whatever potential outrageous move Mr Zuma was going to make, I did not think free education would be it. That said, it was the perfect populist move. Free education is such a popular issue with the masses that no matter the wrongs Mr Zuma may have committed, they could be overlooked on the back of it. That said, it is a negative for the fiscus and the authorities’ oft-touted fiscal consolidation drift. The move also raises fears that earlier denials about potentially negative policies like the declaration of a state of emergency might actually just be another ruse.

Worry about money later
Mr Gigaba, who was delivering a speech at a business breakfast event at the ANC conference when Mr Zuma announced his free education policy, says whatever is done would be done in a fiscally sustainable way. He left the details to the 2018 budget in February. Did he even know about it, though? Because it is highly unlikely he would have known about it without at least mentioning it during his speech. His remarks were made afterwards, when reporters accosted him on his way out of the breakfast venue. Besides, it made naught of the many right things he said in his speech. In any case, S&P Global Ratings’ decision in November to downgrade the country’s rating further into junk territory has clearly now been vindicated. And Moody’s? Well, if this does not move the rating agency, nothing else will. Free education is desirable. But a sustainable model is what is needed, not a populist, financially constraining and unsustainable move like the one Mr Zuma just made.

Factions for nothing and something
One key thing palpable from the conference proceedings are the deep divisions within the ANC. Most are just for mundane reasons. But some are ideological. Take the issue of land expropriation. The party’s youth wing wants it done without compensation. The older cadres reason some compensation would be appropriate. How the party should be structured is also an issue. It was proposed at the conference that there should be two deputy presidents, for instance. The argument proffered in support of this was that it would help unify the party. It was really Mr Zuma’s idea. He had earlier opined that the second position presidential candidate should automatically get a deputy presidency; a development that would have required having two slots available. The proposal did not enjoy majority support and was thus turned down. Take another example. The ANC women’s league’s official position was to support the leading female candidate for president; that is, Ms Dlamini-Zuma. Instead, outgoing party chairperson, Baleka Mbete, a woman and hitherto a presidential contender, chose to support the male frontrunner; Mr Ramaphosa. Her reasons made sense: Mr Ramaphasa was a better candidate to beat whoever the opposition might present for the 2019 elections. But you get the dynamics, at least. As I submit this column, no one could confidently say who would win. In fact, rumours surfaced South Africa might have its first female president this week.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/south-africa-zuma-goes-legacy-shopping/

The North needs Sanusi’s activism

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

In northern Nigeria, educating the girl-child beyond high school is frowned at. Even amongst the educated elite. Main reason? The more educated a girl-child is, the less likely she would find male suitors on time, goes the flawed conventional and chauvinistic wisdom. The oft-cited fear is that should a girl-child be allowed to become too highly educated and exposed, she is not likely to be submissive to her future husband. To this day, this view is pervasive. To cover their shame, some fathers deploy a trick if the daughter proves to be headstrong than usual: they convince her that once in her husband’s house, she can continue her education. Of course, once she gets there, the husband promptly puts her in the family way. Ironically, so-called pious northern Muslims who refuse to allow their female wards attain the heights of their dreams also bristle at the thought that male doctors might inevitably examine their wives and daughters when faced with one medical complication or the other. Well, if there are not enough female doctors, who else would do the job?

Hypocrisy runs deep
To be clear, the acquisition of knowledge is a fundamental requirement in Islam, irrespective of gender. So unlike the popular perception, the illiteracy and related poverty problems in northern Nigeria have nothing to do with Islam. They are cultural. That things have remained unchanged for so long is fundamentally due to patriarchy and resistance by the beneficiaries who despair at their potential enervation should females be empowered. Funnily enough, often is the case that northern males who are quick to show off in public how they exert control over their wives, are usually the ones most often under their thumbs; the so-called “mijin hajiyas”, a derisive term for husbands unduly influenced by their spouses. Incidentally, the mostly affluent northern elite who are quick to advertise their piety when their less endowed brethren are the subject matter, not only allow their wives many freedoms but also educate their daughters in the best schools. Curiously, they also do not hesitate to marry their daughters off to similarly rich males irrespective of their ethnicity insofar as they are Muslims. Their ethnic and religious bigotry is especially reserved for lesser beings it seems.

Thus, to have taken on so boldy the issue of female gender rights, Muhammad Sanusi II, Emir of Kano, is bound to offend many. Emir Sanusi, who by virtue of his position is the second highest Islamic authority in Nigeria, has always been a rebel of sorts. Former Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, cannot soon forget the grief Mr Sanusi caused him when as governor of the central bank, he blew the whistle on huge sums of crude oil sale proceeds unaccounted for. Unsurprisingly, those opposed to his accession to the emirship some three years ago worried he would not be able to keep quiet for long: by tradition, a royal is supposed to say little, and even when he does, it is preferably that he does so in such low tones that someone is assigned to repeat his words loudly. To their chagrin and hopefully to the benefit of his people, they were right. Still, it is probably unwise of him to have shown his hands so publicly this early in his reign. His real and much harder task would be to win the hearts and minds of the exceptionally conservative northern Islamic establishment he is an essential part of and which incidentally, he also leads.

Gently does it
Mr Sanusi must now reflect and decide on a strategy. His increasingly loud activism suggests he is probably a little frustrated already: He has no formal authority. Those fiery speeches of his, with their biting statistics and all, can only do so much. Yes, they have begun to touch a few nerves here and there. And then what? Besides, even as Mr Sanusi tries to espouse a certain anti-elitist intellectualism, he is the quintessential epitome of privilege. To be fair, Mr Sanusi has never suggested that he is “of the people.” But if he hopes to succeed at “being for the people”, the northern politicians – who ordinarily defer to royalty and who it happens are also the ones with the power to transform his activism into concrete reforms – currently at the receiving end of his fervent rhetoric are also the ones he has to win over. Mr Sanusi’s predecessors were able to influence them by guarding their tongues so that when they spoke, they listened. Mr Sanusi must drink from their cup of wisdom.

Dr Rafiq Raji is a writer and researcher based in Lagos, Nigeria.

Published as “Is Emir Sanusi’s brand of activism the way to go?” by Premium Times Nigeria on 24 April 2017. See link viz. http://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2017/04/24/177916/

Politics may trump mini budget

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

South Africa’s finance minister Pravin Gordhan delivers the medium-term budget policy statement (MTBPS) – “mini budget” – on Wednesday (26 October). Mr Gordhan has the unenviable task of persuading market participants that South Africa would remain on the path of fiscal consolidation. He would probably raise the corporate income tax rate, some suggest. Higher personal income tax for the wealthy and a new wealth tax may also be on the cards. Crucially, his views on putting state-owned enterprises on a sustainable path would be of keen interest. That is, even as he increasingly has less clout with them. Recent events, like the ‘FeesMustFall’ protesters’ demand for free education for all, suggest that even if Mr Gordhan were not facing pushback from President Jacob Zuma and some of his cabinet colleagues, he would still have a tough time fulfilling any fiscal consolidation promises. That is, if he remains long enough on the job to see them through. In any case, the authorities have already agreed to foot the bill of any university fee increase – peaked at 8 percent – for the 2017 academic year, about 2.5 billion rand ($180 million). Bear in mind, some 300 billion rand ($21.5 billion) was allocated to education in the 1.46 trillion 2016/17 budget, almost twice the allocation to health. The MTBPS and future budgets would likely need to allocate even more, if current agitations escalate: the ‘FeesMustFall’ protest might only just be the beginning, and could instigate other protests, more decent mass housing for instance. And there has been some sort of incrementalism by the student protesters in any case; seeking a reduction of varsity fees at first, then asking for free education for all and subsequently asking for decolonised education. Nonetheless, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party could resort to populism to make up for losses it suffered at the local elections in August; even though I think the results do not require that it should: South Africans just want better service delivery.

Fiscal targets may be missed
The finance minister would expectedly set ambitious fiscal targets. Still, he would probably make upward revisions to the budget deficit projections he announced in February. Then, he set deficit targets of 3.2% of GDP for the 2016/17 fiscal year, 2.8% for 2017/18 and 2.4% for 2018/19. In my submission to Reuters, I suggest he might make revised deficit projections as follows: 3.5% of GDP for 2016/17, 3.0% for 2017/18 and 2.5% for 2018/19. Current trends and what they portend for the fiscal outlook do not support such optimism, however. My forecasts – published in September – for the likely actual levels of the budget deficit is 4.0 percent of GDP for the 2016/17 fiscal year, 3.8 percent for 2017/18 and 3.5 percent for 2018/19. The budget deficit was 16.7 billion rand ($1.2 billion) for August – the penultimate month before the end of the first half of the 2016/17 fiscal year, more than double the amount for the same period in the previous year. Mr Gordhan has no illusions about the current harsh realities, even as he remains optimistic, opining just last week that South Africa could still avoid a credit rating downgrade to junk status this year.

Politics won’t go away
Mr Zuma wants Mr Gordhan out of his cabinet. A pliant replacement might not be as fiscally responsible. Still, the president’s cabinet came all out in support of the embattled finance minister last week, after its members from the defunct armed wing of the ANC earlier took turns to deride him. Mr Gordhan is to be arraigned on fraud charges before a court on 2 November. In an unprecedented show of support, about 80 chief executives of leading South African companies have announced plans to be in court on the day. It also emerged that the prosecutor, supposedly independent, met with Mr Zuma a day before charges were brought against Mr Gordhan. If South Africa’s credit rating is downgraded to junk status in December, Mr Gordhan would almost certainly be removed. If the country is twice lucky – a downgrade was averted earlier in the year, the embattled finance minister may keep his job. But the question is this: which is more important for Mr Zuma: Getting Mr Gordhan out or averting a rating downgrade? Unfortunately, they are probably mutually exclusive. Hitherto, I thought it totally irrational that for the second time, Mr Zuma’s loyalists have tried to unsettle Mr Gordhan ahead of a crucial budget. Regardless, there are other ongoing battles within the ANC. The battle for the succession next year is already in full swing, with cadres already taking sides. There has not been a week in recent months when one controversy or the other relating to rifts within the ANC did not come about. Just this past weekend, the ANC’s chief whip in parliament, Jackson Mthembu, suggested the entire leadership, including himself, should give way for new hands, after having failed South Africans, in his view. Bear in mind, Mr Mthembu is responsible for keeping erring cadre MPs in line. Ratings agencies see these events and likely wonder how long the centre would hold.

The likely scenario I am increasingly convinced would play out is that Mr Zuma would remain in office for the remainder of his term. I also think he would see the back of Mr Gordhan, probably by a likely cabinet reshuffle before the end of the year. So even though I doubt Mr Gordhan would stay long enough to implement the likely ambitious targets he’ll set in this mini budget, he could at least take comfort in the knowledge that his efforts contributed in part to the improved but yet uninspiring growth outlook and continued market interest – albeit cautious – in South African assets, especially its debt in light of recently successful foreign borrowings. It must be said though that despite all these troubles, South Africans still have a lot going for them. Their budgets are presented as and when due, a finance minister can challenge a president, an anti-graft agency can be a thorn in the flesh of a sitting head of state, and a woman may become president and still keep her place in the kitchen and other rooms.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/politics-may-trump-mini-budget/

#FeesMustFall protesters must negotiate

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Quality higher education cannot be free
Students at South African universities have been engaged in protests, sometimes violent, over the past two weeks or so. Why? They want free education, an escalation from earlier demands that ranged from a freeze in school fees to a reduction. Earlier agitations seem meek now with the benefit of hindsight. Security personnel reacted forcefully when the protests turned violent, firing rubber bullets and on one campus, throwing stones at students. Their heavyhandedness has been criticized. And rightly so. Still, how is it that destroying the very facilities needed for the education you are fighting for benefits you? I am glad all sides are admonishing restraint. More fundamentally, it is important to note that the grievances expressed are genuinely felt. It is true that university school fees are out of the reach of most students. And some poor students who manage to afford the fees – with government assistance in any case – end up struggling to survive, with negative consequences for their studies. When the protests turn violent however, they diminish the prospects that these genuine agitations might force authorities to increase the necessary consideration for poor students. At the beginning of the year, South African president, Jacob Zuma, set up a commission headed by a highly respected former judge, to consider the feasibility of fee-free education. With its report only due in 2017, students have become impatient. Considering the many demands on the fiscus, expectant students may be in for a major disappointment. There is just no way the authorities could provide free education for all South Africans. But for the poor? Those are worth considering at least. Mr Zuma has called a stakeholders’ meeting for this week (3 October).

Poor should be able to go to varsity if they qualify 
There should not be any South African who is not able to enjoy the privilege of quality higher education just because he or she is poor. That is, those that manage to gain university admission in the first place. True, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is designed to do just that. That is, provide financial aid to poor students who are able to secure a place. It is well known that students rig this process in any case: some students identify a poorer relative as their guardian so as to qualify for the government-backed student financial aid scheme. Still, it is often overlooked that the major problem is actually not so much the high fees, but that many South Africans, the black and poor ones especially, cannot get into varsity. And sometimes the ones that manage to get in struggle to cope tremendously. Not just financially, but academically. A wholesome approach is required.

Mobilize student majority that wants a negotiated solution
Students at my alma mater, Wits University, voted overwhelmingly – via an SMS poll conducted by the authorities – for classes to resume this week; after about two weeks of intermittent protests that turned violent, forcing authorities to stop classes. This is evidence the majority desire a negotiated and peaceful resolution to the crisis. Classes which resume this week would put that to test. Even so, the major issue that is not enjoying the attention it deserves is university funding. Higher institutions currently get funding from government (grossly inadequate), grants, higher fees from executive programmes and foreign students, and so on. Regardless, they have proved insufficient. There is a need for increased government funding certainly. Treasury officials would be quick to say they are trying to bring down the fiscal deficit. Students would argue that it is not so much increased spending that is required as it is a re-arrangement of priorities. Government officials are probably overpaid some would argue. Some planned capital expenditure are needless in any case, the proposed nuclear build for instance. More importantly, if the authorities are determined to find a solution, they would find a way. But to think they could quell with force what is really a long-brewing agitation would be a mistake. Firstly though, student representatives have a responsibility to mobilize what seems like the majority of students who want a negotiated solution. And they must not allow the few errant ones amongst them inclined towards violence jeopardize the future of thousands of innocent students.

Finish the academic year no matter what
If you have ever experienced the anxiety and toil of a student on the final lap of his academic ‘odyssey’ you would know the terrible anguish some are going through at the moment. It would be a great injustice to them if they are forced to cough out more resources for programmes they had been relieved to think were finally about to be concluded. I don’t even want to imagine the troubles that international students and the part-time ones are experiencing at the moment. Apart from the higher fees they pay, they often have to stay at expensive ‘bed and breakfasts (B&Bs)’ for the duration of their stays. The longer these protests continue, the higher their expenses, a lot of which now they didn’t budget for. Some would probably be stuck or need to borrow money to stay longer in the hope that classes would resume. Some would simply return home so as not to run the risk of being stranded or having no money for upkeep, an untoward experience one would not even wish for an enemy. Bottomline, it is in the interest of everyone for calmer heads to prevail. What is going on at the moment is not in anyone’s interest. Parents and guardians have made fervent appeals for the academic year to be concluded as planned. They should probably start with their wards.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/en/fees-must-fall-protesters-must-negotiate/

Piercing Pains – A Short Story #BringBackOurGirls #AfricaWrites

By Rafiq Raji


“You, stand up! Mai Ungwa, take her to my quarters”

Babangida had been relishing this opportunity for a very long time. He was determined to have his virgins here on earth. There wouldn’t be much privacy but the tent would do. In any case, his brazas needed to know he didn’t think the flowers beneath him. Some were already jealous of the life he enjoyed. His was the spoils without the slightest suspicion. As an elected public office holder, he had immunity. And he could count on his men’s loyalty. Anyway, they needed him more than he needed them. Who has been informing them about targets? And our people in the security services need to be taken care off regularly. Who provides the untraceable funds? This was not a bad reward for his troubles. The rhetoric around the security problem they created had also helped him politically. These were good times indeed.

“Kina da daurin kay, ko? Inna gama da ki, za ki sani”

“You think you are stubborn.”

The girls were all unkempt. He always thought Mai Ungwa was crude. Didn’t he know they were supposed to look appealing?

Mai Ungwa, before you go, make sure she takes a bath”

“But we are hard-pressed for water, Commander”

“This is an exception; make sure she takes a bath and don’t take too long, I still have to go back to amarya.”

“Your new wife, yes.”


As Zainab waited for her husband to show up, her life hitherto played before her. A few months earlier, she had just passed her O-Levels with distinction and had pondered at the great task before her. Having congratulated her, Baba had told her he would like to discuss an important matter when she was done with her chores. Her father rarely sought an appointment to speak with her. It did occur to her though that people around the house had been extraordinarily nice to her lately. She did think this could not have been only because she did well in her exams; especially as Yaro, didn’t do quite well. The privileges her brother enjoyed always left a bad taste in her mouth.

“What are you looking at? You had better mind your business. Anyway, you’ll soon be married off!”

She had grown accustomed to Yaro’s taunts. As usual, he was about to go smoke some indo again. Don’t they see his darkened lips? Leave Yaro alone, Mama would always say. She pretends not to see him roll the smelly weed. Last time, Yaro asked the driver to drop him off at a friend’s place on the way to school. He didn’t show up for classes that day. What does Mama do?

“He’ll change, Zainab. You just focus on your studies, my dear.”

She thought maybe it would not be difficult after all. Zainab wanted to go to University before getting married. After all, she was still young. At 16, she could still find a suitor when she finished her teaching degree four years from now. The degree itself was a compromise. It was either that or Medicine. The difficulty of convincing her parents to allow her finish a 7-year medical degree before getting married didn’t escape her.


“I have spoken to your husband, you know him, don’t you? Hassan. He was the one I told you brought gifts for you the other day”

Who is Hassan? Mama told me it was Babangida. He was a popular politician who until his recent accession to public office was just another drifter. Even back then, he was feared. I had always wondered why. The rumour mill had it he belonged to a radical Islamic sect. We all knew he was a Brazas (if only they would pronounce “Brothers” correctly). There were suggestions this was a cover for much more violent allegiances. Not that the local population didn’t already dread these brazas. You knew a mother had lost her son to them when implausible excuses were given for their wards’ recurring absences. Then suddenly, they show up with brand new scooters and a louder voice. You knew something was off when older men started ingratiating themselves to these small boys. And you thought, what about tarbiya? Everybody got the message after the Limami was kidnapped. The police found the Chief Imam’s charred body dropped like rubbish in Sabon Gari market. A very public place. The thought sent shivers down her spine. Surely, her father was not going to betroth her to such a man. Baba would have found out if the rumours were true. Maybe, he is really just a little bit religious than usual.

“He will make a suitable husband. You know I always watch out for your interests. Hassan is a good man. And good husbands are hard to find these days.”

“Baba, I’m worried he won’t…”

“I’ve spoken to him about it. He has promised to sponsor your university education. You are a lucky girl, my daughter!”

“But Baba, he has two….”

“Good husbands are hard to find these days, Zainab!”

He only calls me by name when he wants to seem firm. That meant my objections were to be muted. Hassan would be my husband.

“Baba, what if I get pregnant? Would Hassan be willing to wait till I’m at least 18 years old before we go in together? It is only two years?”

Professor Mohammed Mai Mangoro had always worried about his daughter’s stubbornness. She takes after him in that regard. After his last rendezvous with Amina, he had come to the resolution that the only solution was to marry her off. Amina was a third-year Psychology student at the University. They had been seeing each other for some time now. He first sighted her when she came to visit one of his daughters at their campus bungalow. She had stirred something in him. Let’s just say, those stirrings were no longer fantasies these days. But the guilt had left him hollow. No, Zainab will marry first! I’m not going to live to see another daughter of mine in tight jeans and body hugging blouses. And what is that horseshit they all put on their heads? Does she think any man would wait even a day talk less two years before exercising his rights? This matter would require some tact though. You are her Baba, she’ll listen to you. But gently now, Mohammed. Gently.

“I have discussed that matter with him as well. Hassan is an educated man. He shares your concerns as well”

“But Baba, he already has two wives. How does an educated man have that many wives and still want more?”

“Just remember what I told you, good husbands are hard to find these days”


“Mai Ungwa! Mai Ungwa! Come here right this moment!”


“What is taking so long? I don’t want my new wife to get suspicious. You know I still have to drive back to town. And you know how long that takes with the soldiers and all. Did you deliver our gifts to them? You are sure? Because, if you didn’t, you know they’ll bother me on the way back”

Ta na da daurin kay, Babangida

“Are you telling me you couldn’t control a 14-year old girl?”

“No, Commander….”

Zainab proved too difficult to acquire. And the wedding cost him more than necessary. He was going to make her return every dime. University? Am I her father? How an educated man like Professor Mai Mangoro couldn’t see his ruse baffled him. Maybe he pretended not to know his real intentions. Suitors like him didn’t come about easily. Hassan looked back at his life. He had once run into her, the arrogant bitch. She had the temerity to ignore his advances. But back then, he wasn’t exactly ango material. He wore the same clothes everyday and was lucky if he got some odd job here and there. His luck changed after he started attending the new mosque. After listening to one of the young Sheikh’s sermons, he felt enlivened. One day, after many visits, he was approached.

“I see you are a very serious Muslim”

“Yes, you.” Hassan couldn’t believe his ears. He never imagined Sheikh Zakari could have noticed him.

“I try my best, Sheikh”

“Very good. I’m happy when I see serious young Muslims”

“You should come and see me when you find the time. After Isha prayers, tomorrow perhaps?”

That was a while ago now. Today, he was a local government chairman with all the accouterments of office. He drove in convoys, had an Aide-de-Camp and people stood up when he entered the room. And there was no way the authorities could know he was a sponsor of Karatu Aha. Wait a minute, he was the authority itself. Even the Emir almost bowed his head a bit the other day. The thought brought a wry smile to his face.

“Commander! Commander, the girl is ready”

Hassan wondered how long his reverie had been. This escapade would have to wait another day.

“You know what? I’ve lost my appetite! We’ll continue this tomorrow. And this had better not repeat itself. And make sure to tell the others, she is not to be touched. They can take their pick from the others”

“Allah ya ja zamanin ka!”


As she waited for him after the last guests departed – the big wedding was an unnecessary expense if you asked her, she prayed very hard that Babangida would be gentle tonight. She had no illusions. He was feared for a reason. That Friday, after the Jumat service, Baba had asked her to serve lunch. She thought that unusual since Mama always served his food. And there he was, Babangida, meek as sheep. He even pretended to be shy. She wasn’t fooled. And now as his third wife, she wondered about her dreams. Who is to stop him now that she was in his house? Just then, she heard the sound of his jeep. Where did he go even? What type of groom runs off with friends minutes after his wedding? Well, maybe that is a good thing. Baba had told her he promised to wait a while. Her quarters weren’t that bad. She saw a tint of jealousy written over wife no. 2’s face. Asiya was no longer going to be the favourite; at least for a little while. They did their duty though; comforting her as she sobbed at the departure from her father’s house. Even Yaro managed to conjure up a sullen look. Yeah right, like he wasn’t already relishing the opportunity of being the only centre of attention now that she was gone. Hassan had done well for himself. Each wife had her own quarters; a living room, kitchen and bedroom. That should reduce the likelihood of petty quarrels, Zainab thought. She was still pondering where she’d put all the wedding gifts when the door suddenly creaked open. For some reason, she was jolted. Not that she was not expecting him. But, she had wanted to pre-empt his move; maybe even negotiate about her going to University. Too late.

“Take off your clothes”

“You promised…”

And then there was a piercing pain.



Girl-child education remains a major challenge in Northern Nigeria. You’d be surprised to know that a majority of Northern Nigeria’s intelligentsia prefers to marry off their daughters at the earliest opportunity. This preference has foundations in culture and religion. In these societies, there is a revolving door between these two institutions. Incidentally, Islam does not make even the slightest suggestion that a girl child should not aspire to the highest academic achievement possible. In fact, Islamic history is replete with the scholarly achievement of women. It is thus unbelievable how some Islamic Clerics get away with such absurd assertions as there being a doctrinal basis for relegating women to their husband’s or father’s homes. For instance, Islam prefers that women attend to women on health issues. So tell me, how on earth would that be possible if there are no female doctors? In Islam, women have rights on the property of their husbands, parents, siblings and children. And surely, Islam does not accept marriages that cause harm to women before they are fit for childbirth. Such absurd practices like genital mutilation is also un-Islamic. The truth is, much of these practices shrouded in clerical proclamations and fatwas (and who the heck gave some mortal the right to make such proclamations in the first place; surely The Quran is encompassing enough) really stem from male insecurities. A lot of men are scared of women; their brilliance, elegance and grace. However, it should also be said that most Muslim women wear the hijab with pride. The idea that they do so unwillingly is simply absurd and really has more to do with western exceptionalism than fears of human right violations. That said, there are abuses. Thus, the society we should all aim for is one where everyone has an opportunity at redemption, is free to practise his or her faith without fear and one where there is respect for divergent views.

Hundred days have also gone by since the abduction of over two hundred girls in Northeastern Nigeria. This egregious act was purportedly under the banner of Islam. Muslims must therefore raise their voices in condemning these elements that commit crimes in the name of a faith they hold dear. As human beings, we must also do the needful. We should imagine these girls were our daughters, sisters, and nieces. Surely, our anguish would know no bounds if these girls were our relatives. They don’t have to be before we empathize with their parents and continue the advocacy that has made it possible for even the slightest progress that has been made toward their safe release. While some of them managed to escape or were saved, a significant number of them remain in captivity. It is mind-boggling that this remains the case in this day and age. The amount of time those innocent girls have spent in captivity is enough to change their orientation and personalities. There are reports that their locations are known and the authorities’ caution stem from a desire for the girls’ safety. Bottom-line, we should all do what we can to contribute to their safe release.



Piercing Pains is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Photo credit: Rafiq Raji (Sunset in Cape Town)