What is worst then having an early morning flight? Arriving at the airport before it opens! In our last day in Croatia, we were punished with a 6:20am flight. We decided to get an early start and get to the airport two and a half hours before our flight. When we arrived at the airport at 4:00am there was a crowd of people sitting outside the airport. I told Sheila that I didn’t think the airport was open because there were too many people just loitering outside the door. A Canadian family hopped out of a taxi before us and charged at the door only to be shocked that the airport was closed.

At about 4:30am, an airport worker approached the door to open it. The people outside flooded into the airport but there were no men or women sitting behind the check in desks. There were a few kiosks for checking into your flight but when Sheila and I tried to check in the kiosks told us we needed to see an agent. So we moved closer to the check in desk and I sat against a pillar in the middle of the hall. Before I could look up all the westerners (mostly Canadians, Americans and a few Europeans) had formed a queue at a random desk. Now, the American in me wanted to join that queue. I appreciated the people for bringing some organization to a little chaos. But the five-year old Nigerian in me was thinking, “why are these people forming a random queue when we don’t even know what check in desk will open?” I whispered to Sheila, “so what’s going to happen is that when they open a check in desk, the people at the front of the line will demand that they have been queuing and deserved to be checked in first, even though we had all been in the airport the same time!”

Fifteen minutes after making this declaring the check in desks began to light up and the desk in front of Sheila and I was for business and star alliance gold passengers. Sheila and I quickly grabbed our bags and moved to the check in desk. A family that was queuing at the front of the line enter before us and declared that those in the former queue should be given preference. I laughed out loud and looked and Sheila and gave my familiar “these folks are crazy stare!” We entered behind the family with little to no reaction to his declaration. You can’t form a misdirected queue and then try and direct traffic. Thanks to our quick thinking (and a little Nigerian chaos in us) we were one of the first passengers upstairs and into the lounge.

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So what’s the moral to this story…great question! As an old hymn says, I have met Nigeria and I will never be the same! So please forgive me if I offend you with wanting to be the first one off an airplane or desire to store my luggage anywhere on the airplane. I’m a product of my environment!

 

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On Thursday, Sheila and I took a road trip that led us to the most unlikely of places for us to visit – Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). We were following the travel books and tour guides that suggested taking a day trip to the city of Mostar. Mostar is famous for its old bridge, the Stari Most (photo above). Stari Most is a 16th-century Ottoman bridge that was unfortunately destroyed during the 1990s wars in the region. The bridge was rebuilt in 2004 by a multinational coalition and even funding from the World Bank. The pedestrian bridge crosses the river Neretva and connects the two parts of the city. After a tour around the town and a dinner along the river, we hit the road in hopes of making it to Dubrovnik before dark.

Bridge drive

Along the way, we entered the Republic of Srpska. Now, before planning our trip to Croatia, I had never heard of the Republic of Srpska. And I can’t really pronounce it. During our drive through this newly discovered Republic, we found ourselves hopelessly turned around (not lost) thanks to our navigation system that kept wanting to send us down farm paths and tiny mountain side roads. We have stories from pervious vacation of intently following the GPS only to find ourselves stuck in the mud or in some off-the-beaten path village (https://fredayinafrica.com/2017/02/15/we-sit-in-the-mud-and-reach-for-the-stars-ivan-turgenev-literally-that-is/). We didn’t want to find ourselves in a similar situation. In addition, because of the war in BiH, there are still active landmines scattered throughout the country so tourist are encouraged to stay on major highways and roads. So again, we didn’t want to deviate from the major roads but the navigational system wanted to take us down narrow farm roads to get to Dubrovnik. That is when I used Google Maps to checkmate the navigational system. Despite our adventures on the roads in BiH, we discovered that the country is a federation that has two administrative districts that make up the country. These administrative districts emerged after the fall of Yugoslavia and the 1990s Balkan wars. When driving through the Republic of Srpska, you are constantly reminded of their connection to Serbia because the Serbian flag is everywhere along on the road and in villages. When in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the flag is blue and yellow with stars.

I’m not going to get involved in what caused the wars in the Balkans but there are a lot of similarities to conflicts happening in Nigeria. It seemed that the “troubles” in the Balkans that manifested in the 1990s stemmed from land rights and deep-seeded marginalization. This sounds very much like what is happening in the middle belt of Nigeria. Land rights mean access to power and new tribal groups are infiltrating lands that were once held by different tribes. In addition to their ethnic differences, the groups are from different religions because of the influences of different groups from the outside (the Roman Empire, the Byzantium Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Austria-Hungary Empire, etch). While we can look at the Balkans and see a Roman Catholic Croatia, an Orthodox Serbia and a mixed religion BiH (Muslims (majority), Roman Catholics and Orthodox too), it doesn’t explain the root causes of the issue. The same with the middle belt of Nigeria. A few months back, a friend called me to say that he was told by Christians in the United States that Muslims are killing Christians. He said that it had hit persecution levels. I was taken aback by his comments. He was referring to the middle belt crisis in the Nigeria. We talked that day for over an hour about the causes of the troubles in the middle belt. And while it may seem that it’s a fight between Christians and Muslims, we can’t miss the land disputes and access to power that has caused the problems in the middle belt. We should all desire to read deeper into religious crises. It’s not as black and white as we think. Finally, these problems are not new and are sometimes decades and even centuries old. We need to go back to the source to find the cause of the problem. And sometimes the source is messy and confusing.

Churches and memorials in BiH during our road trip. The trip picture was of a memorial in the Republic. It stood at the edge of a cemetery.

So, our unexpected road trip turned into a lesson on the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the current land rights issues in Nigeria. What I can say from our time here in Croatia, while it is a beautiful sea front country, the visible signs of war and destruction are everywhere. And what we teach our children last for generations so we should be careful as we might be passing down our hate. Also, always double check your navigational system. You don’t want to be a Michael Scott and end up in a pond! #TheOfficeLifeLesson!

If  you want to learn more about the former countries that made up Yugoslavia, you should read Rick Steves ‘s (the travel author) Understanding Yugoslavia. https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/read/understanding-yugoslavia Its a great read and very informative. I encourage you to read it even if its just to learn more about the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Sunset

A reminder that the sun continues to rise and set on the conflict of man. The more things change the more things stay the same. “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Isaiah 40:8

According to Tony Toni Tone, it’s our anniversary! A great song from my teenage days…

Yes, today is our third wedding anniversary. And if you are married to a son or daughter of the African soul, then you have multiple anniversary dates around your wedding. On May 29, we marked three years since our Gusaba. Gusaba is a Kinyarwanda word meaning ‘to ask’ and is the ceremony where the family of the groom-to-be officially requests for a girl as a bride. The Gusaba is a fascinating event that includes all members of the two families who come together to discuss the giving away of the bride and marriage of the two families. The two families go back and forth debating why the bride or daughter should be released to marry the potential suitor. (https://fredayinafrica.com/2016/08/03/the-gusaba-to-ask/)

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On June 2, we celebrated three years since making it official with the Rwandan government. Today, we celebrate going before God and committing ourselves as husband and wife. The last and final wedding anniversary is July 10 when we celebrate the day we became legal in the United States and again, before God. That’s a lot to keep track of!

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For our anniversary, we wanted a complete escape from Nigeria. So we found ourselves in the former Austria-Hungarian Empire! We spent four days in Austria traveling between Vienna, Obertraun, Hallstatt and Salzburg. We went “high in the hills” to experience the Sound of Music, learned to sing in the Mirabell Gardens of Salzburg and “Touched the Sky” high above Hallstatt. On Monday, we flew to Split, Croatia and have been hanging out in the walls of Diocletian’s Palace and chilling out on the shores of the Dalmatian coast. We will hang out here for a two more days before heading south to walled city of Dubrovnik.

We took cable cars up the mountain in Obertraun (left) and took in the picturesque town of Hallstatt on the Hallstatt See (Lake). (right) 

It has been a busy year for us. After many trips between the United Kingdom and Nigeria, Sheila returned to Abuja after completing her master’s degree in psychology and we traveled between the UK and France with my parents and brother/sister-in-law. We spent Christmas in the US and a few days of the New Year in Turkey before returning to Abuja to prepare for the 2019 general elections in Nigeria. The elections came and went (thankfully fairly peaceful for Nigeria) and we spent Easter in Rwanda.

Family in Paris (Nov); Sheila’s graduation from Coventry; at the Bowl Game in Nashville, TN (Dec) and posing at a lake in Scotland (Aug).

Sheila and I are truly thankful for the wisdom and growth that we have gained over the past year as husband and wife. We continue to learn and grow in our marriage through each conversation, disagreement, adventure and disappointment. We are forever thankful for the love and encouragement that is showered down upon us by our family and friends. We look forward to another year as #Shentell! https://fredayinafrica.com/2018/06/04/two-years-latercelebrating-our-two-years-as-shentell/

 

 

Five Years Later…

I always like to tell people that when I arrived in Abuja, I was only supposed to be here for nine months. I was sent to Nigeria to fill a crucial vacancy in our Nigeria office as the country prepared for the 2015 General Elections. 1,825 days later, I am still in Nigeria and I have grown a lot (including the few pounds added to my waist line). When I woke up this morning, I went back to read the blog I wrote when I landed in Nigeria. I laughed because while some of it was a bit of a stretch, some of the words are still true.

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One of my first outfits made in Nigeria. This picture was take in July of 2014.

Initial Impressions on Abuja from 2014 –

Abuja has a standard international airport unlike Juba. The Juba airport can best be described as a house. It is also important to note that the Juba airport does not have lights, so no flights in or out between 7pm-7am.

  • Since my arrival in Abuja in May 2014, the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) has opened a new international airport. The fancy new international airport is a vast improvement over the previous airport but it still lacks the necessary signage to navigate the terminal.

New Abuja Airport

The new airport is nice but the next step is ensuring that passengers are able to get their bags off the conveyor belt.

Certain neighborhoods in Abuja have sidewalks which I did not see in Kenya or South Sudan. I do recall seeing sidewalks in Rwanda.

  • While it is true that Abuja has sidewalks, the citizens don’t seem to respect sidewalks. Just the other day, I posted a photo of Nigerians using the sidewalk to maneuver around traffic. Sheila and I like to use the sidewalk for evening and morning walks around town.

Traffic on the Sidewalk

Abuja has massive expressways that whisk travelers from the airport to the city. The expressways are well maintained and new construction projects are everywhere. It is easy to see the influence of oil on Abuja.

  • Unfortunately, the same construction projects that I saw when I moved here four years ago are still under construction. Many of these projects I like to call, “Monuments of Corruption.” Money was appropriated for the project but it was stolen before the project was completed. I have also been told that construction projects are often started to show that the money is being spent but the project is never completed.

Construction

The security threat with Boko Haram is real and people are aware of the situation. As people have welcomed me to Nigeria, they have apologized for the actions of Boko Haram.

  • I would admit, for the first year I lived here, I was afraid to go to supermarkets, movie theatres and any event with a large attendance. I’ll never forget the day Boko Haram targeted a shopping plaza in Abuja just two months after I had arrived. It was a frightening day and for at least two weeks, I would not even walk down the sidewalks in Wuse II because of fear of being attacked on the streets by Boko Haram. Did I forget to mention that I blend in with other Nigerians so I don’t stand out like a typical American!

Bryon Cage, a gospel artist from the United States performed in Abuja on Tuesday night. If I would have been here longer than a night, I would have went to the concert. This would have never happened in South Sudan…

  • Bryon Cage was just the beginning. Sheila and I have seen Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, CeCe Winans, Travis Greene and many others. In addition, each December, we travel down to Lagos to attend The Experience, free gospel music concert held at the Tafawa Balewa Square and hosted by the mega-church, House on the Rock. More than 200,000 people attend the concert each year. In addition, gospel artist are always coming in and out of Abuja. I believe that Nigeria is the lifeblood of gospel and Christian artist.

The Experience

A photo from the experience in 2016. It was a crazy crowd!

My fifth anniversary day was quiet but the highlight was the church service we attended this morning. We were invited by our dear friend, David Young to attend the Aso Villa Chapel for worship service. For those of you who don’t know, Aso Villa is the presidential office and residence. David was the guest pastor this morning. In attendance was the Vice President of Nigeria. Sheila and I got to greet him and then take a photo with him. We hope to get the photo from his office this week so we can share. She was standing right next to him, which was a good thing because they are the same height. To be honest, Sheila was a few inches taller because she was wearing heels. It was a pleasure to meet him for the second time.

The Youngs

David and Diane have been great friends to us during their three years in Nigeria. They have taken us under their wing and included us in their family. We wish them well in their next assignment.

Sheila and I have no idea what the future holds and how much longer we will be in Nigeria but we have both been stretched beyond our comfort level but it has made us more gracious in dealing with other people and probably more aggressive in getting in our negotiation skills.

Living in Nigeria, I have seen some crazy things, especially they way people drive on Nigerian roads. It is quite common to see drivers going against traffic on the freeway because they don’t want to be inconvenienced and drive to the next off ramp. I have also been stuck in several traffic jams caused by herders who are moving their cattle from one location to the next through the streets of Abuja…A Capitol city no less…

Cows in Town

A few mornings ago I watched as hitchhikers hopped a ride on a slow moving truck in the middle of traffic. I only wish I was paying more attention to what was going on because I could have caught it on video but I was busy flipping through my email.

The two men were standing on side of the road as if they were looking to stop a taxi. As we slowed to clear the speed bump, the men entered traffic as if they were crossing the road. All of a sudden they took off running. I thought I was watching an early morning robbery. The first guy leaped onto the back of the trailer and held on to the straps holding the cargo.

Back of Truck

The second guy had to work a bit harder to catch the truck but with assistance from his friend, he was now hanging on to the straps. It was really exciting to watch because it was if I was watching a movie where men were hoping a ride on a cargo truck or train. But this is not that unusual in Nigeria. Stranger things happen on a daily basis.

Traffic on the Sidewalk

As the traffic in the road builds during rush hour, drivers often take to the sidewalks to maneuver around the traffic buildup. Drivers do this with little or no regard for the pedestrians that are walking in the streets. Unfortunately, the police do very little curb this horrible habit.

 

It has been too long since I spent time sharing my experiences on the African continent. I am just emerging from the 2019 Nigerian General Elections! In addition, what an ordeal it was. I’m sure I have mention this before but almost everything (ok, pretty much everything) in Nigeria is managed from the National level. All 36 states receive funding from the federal government. For some states, they receive as much as $47 million dollars of their allocation from federal coffers. This means Nigerian elections take on a life of their own because everyone wants to control the resources in the states.

In February and March, Nigeria conducted two separate elections. The first election was for the Presidency and members of the National Assembly (House of Representatives and Senate). Two weeks later, the country held elections for Governors and members of the State House of Assembly. Because of the level of illiteracy in the country, individuals are not listed on the party ballots. Citizens vote using party symbols. For the National level elections, individuals received three long ballots for presidency, House of Representative and Senate. Funny enough (not funny at the time), the electoral management body postponed elections six hours before the opening of polling units for the national elections. The elections were postponed for one week until the following Saturday.

Nigeria Ballot

A Senate Ballot in the Federal Capital Territory.

Elections are a do or die affair in Nigeria! The control over government resources and money makes elections so competitive that politicians hire thugs to disrupt polling units or intimidate citizens so they don’t come out to vote. This leads us to what Nigerians call, SUPPLEMENTARY ELECTIONS. Recently I traveled to Sokoto State (Northern Nigeria) for a SUPPLEMENTARY election. An election is supplementary in the fact that when the electoral management body held the gubernatorial elections on March 9, they CANCELLED some of the polling units because of violence or over voting (more ballots casted than voters accredited to vote).

(L) Women queue to vote in Sokoto Supplementary Election on March 23, 2019. (R) Elderly citizens wait their term to vote in Osun State during the gubernatorial elections in September 2018.

Many of the March 9 gubernatorial elections were declared INCONCLUSIVE by the electoral management body. The term inconclusive means, the number of CANCELLED votes are larger than the margin of victory. If you were to conduct an election of those cancelled votes (or polling units), the votes could change the results of the elections. Everything I just explained to you is exclusively Nigeria! Don’t try to understand it because as an outsider you won’t get it. Nigeria has a long history of election violence and rigging and this is a way of not allowing violence and rigging to influence the system. Other terms Nigerians like to use regarding elections and politics are

  • INTEREST (kind of like your political interest in the US but more like personal interest. Meaning, I might get money if this person is in power);
  • GODFATHER (this is the person that sponsors your political career. He or she does it to benefit himself or herself, usually financially);
  • CROSS CARPETING or DECAMPING (this means to leave one party to join another. This is very common in Nigeria. As common as changing your clothes. The election I just observed in Sokoto, the Governor was in the ruling party until August 2018 when he left to join the opposition party to run for president. After he didn’t win the nomination, he came back to the state to run for Governor), and
  • WINNING YOUR POLLING UNIT (this is like me winning my parents’ polling station in Mount Vernon. However, most time, this means using money to get people to vote for you. The money is as small as $3-5 but during the Sokoto election, I heard rumors of $50-75. That is big money for many voters. In Nigeria, Trump would be a failure because he did not win his polling unit in NYC or his state. HABA – Nigerian for “Can you Imagine”). There are a lot more but I will stop there.

Nigerian elections are very complicated and have various steps in an effort to protect the integrity of the ballot. All voters must has a permanent voter’s card with ID, use fingerprints to authenticate them at the polling unit and have their fingernail painted to show that they have voted. Once they vote, many Nigerians hang out at the polling units to ensure that local officials count votes and report votes to local collation centers. This also reflects the lack of trust that exist in Nigeria and its institutions.

This is Nigeria as they say!

Nigeria Children

Young Nigerians watching the voting process from outside the school premises in Sokoto State.

2018 – A year in review…

dsc_0500Our review is a bit late this year as we were traveling through the United States and found ourselves in Turkey after the New Year. But 2018 has come to an end. The year began on a sour note as Sheila had just departed for the United Kingdom where she was starting a masters program in Psychology. However, the end of 2018 finds us back together again in our cozy Abuja apartment. Here are some of our top moments for 2018.

Celebrating the fact that Sheila is a Master Student

 

 

In November, Sheila completed her studies at Coventry University in Coventry, United Kingdom and graduated with a Masters in Psychology.  It was a long and challenging year for both of us but we are happy to be back together. It was a difficult time as Sheila was adjusting to a new environment in the UK and I was overwhelmed with closing a program and starting a new one. But we are thankful for all the support and encouraging notes during our year of separation.

The Barnes Family European Vacation

2018 also found the Barnes family taking over London, Paris, Abuja and Accra. To celebrate Sheila’s graduation, my parents and brother and sister-in-law all traveled to the Europe to watch her walk across the stage and visit the European continent for the first time. We were also met by Sheila’s mom who traveled from Rwanda for the graduation ceremony. It was a trip of a lifetime (in so many ways). This trip has been ten years in the making and thanks to Sheila for making sure my parents would travel across the Atlantic Ocean. My parents experienced left side driving (UK), fish and chips, using “funny money” (my dad’s reference to Pounds and Euros), the yellow vest protest in Paris and multiple long haul flights across the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea. It was an experience of a life time!

Return to Africa

 

 

After our European vacation, my parents traveled back to Abuja with us for a week. It was their second trip to Nigeria (Give it up to Freddie and Brenda for making a SECOND TRIP to the African Continent). After a busy trip in the U.K. and then Paris, we decided to treat my parents to a low-key visit in Abuja. We gave them five days of rest before we started again. AND As if the U.K., France and Nigeria wasn’t enough, we took my parents to Ghana to visit the slave castles where millions of Africans were sent to the Americas. It was a sober end to our trip but I am happy my parents visited the slave castles and learned a little bit more about our family’s voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. In 2016, I took them to Badagry, Nigeria to visit the slave museum, the former Portuguese settlement and the “point of no return.”

Meeting with the President and Vice President of Nigeria

 

 

This year, my organization started a new responsive political party program to strengthen political party development in Nigeria. It has been an insanely busy year! However, I was honored to meet both the President and Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria discussing our new political party program and the upcoming elections in Nigeria. It has been quite the year and will only get busier in 2019.

“The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

 

I love this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Family and friends have truly made our home in Abuja a very special place. We were blessed to open our house to family and friends who came to visit us in Abuja or were passing through to other destinations. We love that our house is always open for visitors, family and friends. We hope that you will come to visit in 2019. We would love to show you around the neighborhood.

Sightseeing in the Merry Ole England…and Scotland…

 

 

Thanks to Sheila’s program at Coventry University, we did a lot of sightseeing during my trips to the United Kingdom. Funny enough, in all my trips, we never traveled to London. We decided to use this opportunity to experience other areas of the United Kingdom. We traveled across the Island visiting the Roman “baths” of Bath, the industrial city of Birmingham, the university villages of Cambridge and Oxford, the ancient stones of Stonehenge, the medieval castles of Edinburgh, Salisbury, Warwick and York. Salisbury has become infamous for the poisoning of Russian/British dual citizens. We arrived in Salisbury less than a week after the incident and could not understand why the town was so quiet.  It was Sheila’s former boss and friend who reminded us of what was happening in Salisbury. Edinburgh is by far my favorite city in the U.K. I loved the history and the university population that just gives it a very cool vibe. I told Sheila we should find a home in Edinburgh to retire to in our sunset years.

 

Rocking in the Music City with the Auburn Football Team

 

 

Auburn started the 2018 football season as the #6 team in the nation. There was a lot of expectations for the season. However, those expectations were quickly dashed with losses to LSU, Mississippi State and then Tennessee. Additional losses to rivals Georgia and Alabama closed the season with a 7-5 record. Auburn’s consolation prize was a trip to the Music City Bowl. We were not extremely excited about going to Nashville for the Music City Bowl but its not every day that we are in the US to attend an Auburn game. So Sheila and I drove up to Nashville for the big game. It turned out to be a pretty awesome experience. For one, not only did Auburn show up to play but scored a record number of points in the first half of a bowl game. Second, we spent the evening/morning with a dear friend Susan. Susan traveled all the way to Kigali for our wedding in 2016. Finally, I got to catch up with fellow Auburn Alumni that I haven’t seen in more than ten years. It was great to see Sanford, Glennis and Horatio at the game.

 

 

We Clean Up Rather Nicely…

I have been told by some friends that they miss my periodic updates from Nigeria. I told them that we have been insanely busy with work and school and unfortunately, the blog has taken a back seat. Anyway, while life will only get busier as Nigeria prepares for its 2019 General Elections, I will try my best to highlight the fun, interesting, shocking, disappointing, etc. moments from our time in Nigeria.

NCMG Peace Awards

This past week, Sheila and I had two black tie events. On Wednesday, November 7, I was the keynote speaker at the NCMG Peace Awards in Lagos, Nigeria. The event was a black tie event so it was an opportunity to get dressed up and strut our stuff. During my keynote, I talked about the work IRI is doing in Nigeria and around the continent and what we should be looking out for in 2019. It was a fun opportunity to share my political analysis, my knowledge of the African continent and really talk about the good work IRI is doing in Nigeria. I tried to tell a few jokes about how I am often mistaken for a Nigeria. Recently I was told that the shape of my head and the gap in my teeth make people think I am Igbo brother from Imo State. The Igbo tribe is one of the tribes in the southern part of Nigeria.  I was told at the end of the awards dinner that I would get an Igbo name! I told them that an Igbo driver once called me Onyedikachukwu, which means ‘who is like God!’ You can call me Chuks for short!

We Look Good

On Saturday night, we attended the 243rd birthday celebration of the United States Marine Corps. This was the second time that Sheila and I attended the birthday celebration…also known as the Marine Ball. We attended the 2015 birthday celebration, just two weeks before we became engaged. Somehow, it was a topic of conversation at our table. https://fredayinafrica.com/2015/11/15/dancing-the-night-away-at-the-2015-marine-corps-birthday-ball/ My dinner jacket and Sheila’s dress was the talk of the table and the ball. I picked up my jacket in Thailand last year during our anniversary trip. Sheila has an amazing dress designer here in Abuja that designed both the dress for the Marine Ball and the dress for the NCMG Peace Awards. You should check her out @WoorahCreations on Instagram.

Marine Ball Photo

I recently published an article on my organization’s blog about the political happenings in Nigeria. I have included it below for your reading pleasure.

https://www.democracyspeaks.org/blog/defections-decamping-and-cross-carpeting-challenges-facing-nigerian-political-parties-ahead

Sentell Barnes, 

It has been an interesting few weeks in Nigeria. For those of us that have been watching Nigerian politics for the past four or five years, it feels very much like Déjà vu.

When I arrived in Nigeria in 2014, the country was reeling from what many Nigerians were calling a gale of defections that was threatening the house that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had built. In 2013, five governors (from Adamawa, Kano, Kwara, River, and Sokoto), 37 representatives and 11 senators left the PDP and joined the All Progressives Congress (APC), giving life to a newly created opposition party. Many of the same individuals that left the PDP in 2013 are involved in a recent move to PDP. Earlier this month, 15 senators, 37 representatives, and three state governors left the APC and joined other political parties— PDP picked up a majority of these disaffected politicians.

As the 2019 General Elections get closer political parties are trying to find an edge over each other. Political parties are important institutions for developing policies and platforms and providing critical oversight and accountability of government action. Through their elected representatives, political parties implement policies that reflect the ideology of the party. However, this is not the case in Nigeria. Moving from one political party to another is common and seen as a way of gaining an advantage over other political parties.

For example, Nigeria’s current president. While he was never a member of the PDP, he did move between various political parties in his quest to become the number one citizen of Nigeria. In 2003 and 2007, he contested for president as the candidate of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP). In 2011, he was the presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), which he founded. And we all know what happened in 2015, he won the APC presidential primary in the Fall of 2014 and was elected president in the March 28, 2015 elections.

Party control of states in 2015

So why do Nigerian politicians bounce between political parties? Political parties in Nigeria, and in other parts of the African continent, tend to lack ideologies and explicit messages that separate them from each other. Because of the country’s tribal, religious and geographic divide, political parties are driven by personalities as opposed to ideologies. For example, in the United States, political parties are defined by their platforms, or manifestoes as they are called in Nigeria. So, if a Republican candidate comes knocking at your door, you have a sense of where he or she stands on the current critical issues.

That is not the case in Nigeria. During a recent pre-election assessment mission conducted by the IRIand the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the delegation heard from numerous Nigerians who “expressed frustration with political parties, which are seen as personality-driven and lacking internal democracy. Emerging political alliances are based mostly on personalities and agreements among political leaders, and do not necessarily reflect differences in policy preference or ideology.”

When a politician defects, as they say in Nigeria, he or she usually moves with thousands of individuals, including officials of the party that he or she is leaving. While political parties are vessels to government and power all over the world, they are the only way to get into government in Nigeria. There is no independent candidature, so every person must contest under the logo of a political party.

This is where IRI comes in. The Institute is currently working to increase political parties’ responsiveness and representation and increase oversight and accountability of government programs. We help build the capacity of party officials and teach them how to better engage citizens in identifying their concerns and develop party policies and manifestos that respond to citizens’ priorities. Our work enables parties to develop an ideology that distinguishes them from other parties, thereby decreasing the need for party leaders to ‘defect’ to other parties. In addition, once ideology is established it enhances the political competition around elections as voters will be able to choose between varying ideologies and not just tribal, religious and geographic divide. Currently, elections in Nigeria expose the deep rifts that exist between tribes and regions because political leaders are unable to conduct issue-based election campaigns.

Party control of states in 2018

Parties also play an essential role in providing oversight and accountability of government processes and policies. By enhancing their manifestos and developing an ideology, political parties empower their elected members to effectively represent the citizenry and the party’s principles.

In the lead up to the 2015 elections, the APC got the upper hand by saddling the PDP with the issues of corruption, insecurity, and unemployment. The party used topics important to voters to paint the PDP as ineffective and out of touch. However, less than six months from the 2019 elections, neither party has clearly put out a message on why it should win the 2019 elections.

Nigeria is a dynamic country with one of the fastest growing populations in the world. The citizens deserve parties that are not only generating answers to the country’s complex problems but are also engaging its citizens about the best way forward. When the citizens go to vote on February 16, 2019, they will vote for the candidate and party that has put forth the best vision for the future of this country.

Where did the last 38 years go? Or is it 39 years? Or is it that I am getting to old to remember? I was reminded by a 52 year old friend that I am not even close to being old. It feels like yesterday I was packing my bags and heading off to Washington, D.C. to chase the fantasy of changing the United States of America and the world. But that was 15 years ago! Wow.

Today, I marked my 39th birthday! I am a believer that each person should celebrate their birthday. It’s the only special day that we will have to celebrate ourselves. This might sound conceited or selfish, but it’s my day! I might celebrate it with many other people, but it’s my day!

My day started at around 5:00am. An unidentified number kept calling and calling. My first thought was, “Its 5:00am in the morning! Who is calling me?” After the third ring, I decided to look at my phone. I noticed that my wife had been trying to reach me. So I answered…She said that she had been trying to reach me because she had friends that wanted to talk to me…AGAIN, its 5:00am in the morning…who does she have that wants to talk with me this early in the morning? It turns out that she convinced some of my friends from the U.S. to stay up past Midnight (one friend told me that he set an alarm to wake himself up to be on the call) to wish me a happy birthday. I was touched by what she had went through to organize a surprise birthday party all the way from Coventry, UK. What an amazing wife and what amazing friends…

Birthday Skype

The Skype call organized by my wife with friends in the US.

My day continued to get better with messages from friends wishing me well on my birthday and beautiful messages from my staff. I’m trying not to let those messages go to my head. I even got a video from friends in Washington, D.C. singing me happy birthday. It wasn’t Aretha Franklin (God rest her soul) but it was the next best thing. It was touching…

Finally, I must applaud my Sokoto State staff. Unfortunately, I am not even in Abuja. On Monday, I had to travel to Sokoto State in Northern Nigeria. I often joke with friends in Nigeria that Sokoto State is like Alabama…religiously conservative and extremely rural. The two main differences – Sokoto is the home of the Sokoto Caliphate. The Caliphate was an independent Islamic Sunni Caliphate that at one time was one of the largest empires in Africa . And second, the black population of Sokoto is 100 percent. Alabama is a religious state – a Christian State (in every sense of the world) with a black population of 27 percent. Anyway, back to my staff, they surprised me with a birthday dinner, cake and drinks (the non-alcoholic kind). It was a fun evening celebrating my birthday and marking the end to a busy week of meetings and political activities.

With my Sokoto State Staff and friends from DevTech and USAID

On Friday, I finally head back to Abuja where I will have a celebratory glass to wine to celebrate the big 39. (Even saying I will have a glass of wine makes me feel old…)

Thank you God for another year, for an amazing wife, great friends, and experience this thing they call Nigeria! I am forever grateful!