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Alkali new picture

Saturday afternoon I sat down with Abdulrazaq Alkali, a Reagan – Fascell Democracy Fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy.  Mr. Alkali gave me several hours of his time, you can also hear him speak on “Strengthening Youth Participation in Nigeria” at NED’s office this Wednesday.

Although he graduated from Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria with a degree in accounting (and he often provides financial services for his family’s construction company), Alkali is most passionate about political activism and working with Nigeria’s youth in particular.  He is the Executive Director of Youth Society for the Prevention of Infectious Disease and Social Vices (YOSPIS), which he co-founded in 1997 in his student days and now operated in one third of Nigeria’s 36 states.  I found the name of this organization to be a bit perplexing until Mr. Alkali informed me that Kano has one of the highest rates of drug use in west Africa.  He has worked with various international donors, including NED, DFID, the EU, and Global Rights.  He was an active player in the Occupy Nigeria movement and his concern with corruption and mismanagement in Nigeria was palpable during our conversation.

Alkali expressed concern with Nigeria’s governance trajectory, indicating that since the inauguration of Nigeria’s nominal democracy under Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, things have slipped back under the succeeding administrations.  Alkali expressed grave concerns with Nigeria’s political leaders, indicating that the country has ‘money bags politicians’ who are more interested in using public funds to procure fast cars, big houses, and beautiful women than in building a sense of nationalist identity.  Alkali believes that President Goodluck Jonathan will stand again reelection in 2015 (if legally permitted to do so).  However, Alkali paints a picture of a very frustrated populace, which suffers from a lack of government services and is open to change.  Perhaps the 2015 election will witness a change in Executive power.

Although I have not heard many parties speak about the end of Nigerian unity.   Alkali appears to believe that the lack of a national identity in Nigeria is so serious that the state could fragment.  I asked Alkali about the role Nigeria can play as a continental leader and he astutely observed that a large population and natural resources do not inherent confer leadership status (though he did add the Nigeria has been successful in its foreign policy pursuits).  He spoke positively of governance in nearby Ghana and praised Jerry Rawlings for his strong and decisive leadership in eradicating a corrupt political culture in Ghana.  Unfortunately, Alkali notes that Nigeria has sufficient resources and stature that the only way Ghana can likely impact Nigerian governance is through hard hitting comments similar to ones recently made by Rawlings.

When I asked Alkali about which Nigerian political figures he respects, he cited Muhammadu Buhari, the military rule of Nigeria from 1983 – 1985; the Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fahola; and Rabiu Kwankwaso, the Governor of Kano State.

Alkali speaks very highly of the National Endowment for Democracy and his time in Washington DC.  He has forged a strong relationship with Dave Peterson, the Director of NED’s Africa Program, who intervened to assist him when he was facing difficulties in securing a US visa.  He has “meet a lot of very influential people” and attended a lot of policy events with US and international elites, although he notes with regret that grassroots voices often go unheard/unrepresented at these talks (the Atlas Corps and NED can only support so many Fellows).  Alkali added that his initial thoughts before visiting America for the first time was that people would be cold and unfriendly, however he has not found this to be the case and is particularly thankful to the people in his apartment complex who regularly hold the elevator door for him in the mornings.

Alkali’s fellowship will end soon and he knows that he will return to inconsistent supplies of water and electricity.  However, he has accumulated a wealth of new ideas and perspectives on human rights and democracy.  Given the high level of corruption that Nigeria’s oil wealth has enabled and the amount of money squandered by the State, Alkali believes that Oil-to-Cash transfers, which place oil revenues with the citizenry can be an effective tool to circumvent corruption.  Alkali will also seek to develop a coalition to engage youth and hopes to find ways to reduce brutalities committed in the North by security forces.

Alkali greatly misses pounded yams, he has not been to Rahama, so perhaps that craving can be satisfied at that establishment, which is also operated by individuals from northern Nigeria.  We differ on one of his favorite Nigerian novels – Things Fall Apart (he likes I don’t), but have similar tastes when it comes to Afro Pop – 2Face, MI, Ice Prince (he also likes Rihanna).

Alkali’s talk on Wednesday offers a great chance to hear a grassroots perspective from northern Nigeria.  Barack Obama has been pushing his own African youth initiative for several years.  I hope some Africa in DC readers will show up to hear what a Nigerian has to say on this matter.