GOP, step away from the Tea Party

After the racist and homophobic insults used at a rally against healthcare reform, Republicans should denounce the Tea Party
Supporters of the Tea Party movement hold a sign outside the US Capitol
 Tea Party protesters hold a sign outside the US Capitol as they demonstrate against the health care bill. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past year, the Tea Party movement has grown to the point where it can get a great deal of press attention and exposure. While that may be a good thing for the Tea Party, it is proving to be not necessarily so for the Republican party, which has jumped onto the Tea Party bandwagon.

Some Republicans may have become affiliated with the Tea Party movement in the hope of aligning themselves with an invigorated and energetic grassroots conservative movement. Instead, Republicans are now finding themselves in alignment with a movement in which some members feel that it is OK to shout out racist and homophobic insults (including the N-word) and spit at Congressmen as happened this weekend when the Tea Party protested against healthcare reform on Capitol Hill.

Despite the weekend’s shocking behaviour – one Congressman and civil rights leader, John Lewis, said he had not experienced such attackssince the 1960s – Republicans, particularly GOP chairman Michael Steele, spent the weekend defending and rationalising those Tea Party goers’ actions. This is dangerous ground for the Republican party.

There are some benefits of getting involved in a movement that is not clearly defined. The Tea Party was originally framed in the media as an umbrella movement for a bunch of disgruntled Conservatives, whatever their discontent may be. On that level, the Tea Party presented an opportunity for Republicans to gain some leverage.

The flip side is that a movement with no specific cause attracts all sorts of people with all sorts of agendas, which can put the GOP in a tricky position, and potentially turn important voters against them. The idea of what a “conservative” or “Republican” is continues to be shaped and distorted by a minority of people on the fringes who get the most attention. This does nothing to attract new supporters or independents and it may indeed turn off existing, more moderate Republican supporters. This is not a good strategy for the 2010 elections – unless that is, the GOP is looking to portray itself as a very rightwing, almost extremist party.

The obstructionist attitude may have worked while healthcare reform was still going through Congress, but with its passing, it is likely that public sentiment may continue to warm in the president’s direction. The fringe elements of the Tea Party will only start to look more and more repulsive which would only harm the Republicans, making them look even more narrow and one-dimensional.

“Appealing to the base” seems to be a key concern of Republicans, but if the base is the type of people who were at the rally this weekend and Republicans do not denounce that type of behaviour, the Tea Party may start to be of more harm to the Republicans than good. Yet, this all leads back to the question that was raised after Barack Obama’s election, which is what the GOP actually stands for. Right now, it looks like the Tea Party is getting to say who the Republicans are. And that’s a type of tea that many people might not want to drink come election time.

Lola in Nigeria and Democracy Inaction

[Originally published at]

How long can Africa’s most populous country go on without a clear leader?

Imagine that one day President Barack Obama disappears. It is rumored that he has gone to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment of a condition that nobody is quite certain about. After three months, the public starts to speculate as to whether or not he is still alive. As a result of failing to follow the correct constitutional steps to ensure that the country would be run in his absence, Vice President Joe Biden has been unable to take power. The country is leaderless, in political turmoil, and Americans are left wondering what is going on. Nearly four months later, the protests of a despondent and resigned public prompt some action and Biden steps in to run the country. Shortly after that, Obama reappears–still not telling anyone exactly where he has been, nor the truth about the current status of his health. Access to him is limited and first lady Michelle Obama starts taking interviews on his behalf.
It sounds bizarre. Unthinkable, even. Yet this is exactly what has been happening in Nigeria since late November when the president, Umaru Yar’Adua, left in secret to go to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, leaving the country teetering on the brink of a political crisis, calling into question the very nature of Nigeria’s democratic process and sparking a new sense of urgency for change and reform within the country. He has not addressed the public since November 2009, when he left the country to have inflammation of the lining around his heart treated. No one heard from him in February, when Vice President Goodluck Jonathan became acting president, or since Yar’Adua’s return to Nigeria last week.
How did we get here? In 1999, after years of military rule which followed Nigeria’s independence from Britain and failed experiments in democracy, the country finally embraced civilian rule and the democratic process. However, the self-serving attitude and actions of a supposedly democratic leadership, which often seems to be no different from that of the former military rulers, continues to prohibit Nigerians from fully reaping the fruits of democracy and from having the country run at full capacity.
Let’s be clear what “not running at full capacity” means. It means that Nigerians are now used to power outages that can last months. They have become used to sitting for hours in traffic on roads with gigantic pot holes and no road signs in which innumerable vehicles, people and perhaps even a random animal jostle for space. They have become used to the corruption that has become a part of the fabric of everyday life, and the incredible gap between the poor–who can live on top of each other in shacks–and the rich–who live close to them in compounds and mansions. They have become used to substandard education and universities that spend half of the year on strike. They’ve become used to their leaders enriching themselves out of the pockets of the people who they are supposed to serve.
These problems didn’t always exist. My parents often talk of a time–in the 1970s–when Nigeria functioned well. However, the negative effects of military rule, particularly that of General Sani Abacha between 1993 and 1998, took hold and have not fundamentally been altered by democracy. Abacha was responsible for many human-rights abuses, as well as a slow but steady increase in corruption and a lack of investment in Nigeria’s infrastructure. Despite some efforts from the president who came before Yar’Adua, the corruption has continued.
It is a tragedy that Nigeria–nearly 50 years after its independence from colonial rule–is still falling so far behind its potential. Just a few months ago, Princeton Lyman, the former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria, said that Nigeria risked becoming irrelevant as other, better-managed countries, such as Ghana (where oil has recently been discovered) rise to prominence on the international stage.
Yar’Adua’s 2007 election was controversial. Many Nigerians believe that he is essentially a puppet who was handpicked to lead by former President Olusegun Obasanjo and that election rigging ensured that his party–ironically called the People’s Democratic Party–won. Since his election, a number of undemocratic incidents have damaged Yar’Adua’s public image. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, an anti-corruption body which seemed to show that Yar’Adua was doing something positive for Nigeria, was undermined by the ouster of its chairman, Nuhu Ribadu. After having successfully prosecuted hundreds of Nigerian corruption cases, Ribadu was sacked by the Nigerian Police Force two weeks after close friend of Yar’Adua, River State governor James Ibori, was charged on 170 counts of corruption by the EFCC. One of those counts alleged a $15 million bribe that Ibori had offered to–and was refused by–Ribadu. Ribadu now resides outside of Nigeria, essentially in exile.
If there is indeed anything to be gained from what has been going on, it is that Yar’Adua’s absence has sparked an outrage in Nigerians. For the first time in years, people have not just been talking about what’s going on, but taking action. Protests and newspaper articles are part of that. Many organizations dedicated to change have sprung up, including the nonprofit Nigeria Leadership Initiative (NLI), of which I am a member. NLI is made up of Nigerians, both inside and outside of Nigeria, who are dedicated to transforming leadership and values for the benefit of the Nigerian society. Political action also has an important role: Just this week, Nuhu Ribadu announced that he would be setting up a shadow government. That’s the kind of action that Nigeria needs.
There is much that’s going on in Nigeria that is great. Recent years have seen a real boom in business and cultural activities in the nation, and many Nigerians who were born or educated in the West have been returning in droves, bringing with them new ideas and attitudes. It is now in the hands of Nigerians to be cause in the matter of helping the country become a fully functioning and fair democracy that works for the greater good. We all have a vision that we wish to see come to life, so that Nigeria can be a shining beacon of African success. If the leaders won’t do it, we, the people, can and must.

Should Obama do more for black America?

He need not ‘ballyhoo’ a ‘black agenda’ but solving problems that affect African-Americans would strengthen the US as a whole

Over the past week, the recording of an on-air argument between Reverend Al Sharpton, the prominent civil rights leader, and Tavis Smiley, a well-known African-American media personality, has been circulating in the black US media. Sharpton and Smiley’s public fight has brought to the fore a significant issue that has been emerging as a key point of discussion over the past year: whether or not President Obama is doing enough for black people.

Smiley, who has been highly critical of President Obama for quite some time, believes that the president is not doing enough for African-Americans and that African-American leaders are giving him “a pass” for not doing so. Sharpton, who advises the president on education issues, believes that the president is doing what he needs to do. During an interview on MSNBC this week, Sharpton pointed to the fact that just last week, for example, President Obama signed a bill supporting historically black colleges and universities. Sharpton also believes that the president need not “ballyhoo” – that is, publicly push – a black agenda. The question at the heart of this debate is whether or not president Obama should champion a “black agenda” at all?

In reality, there are more than a few valid and pressing reasons for a specific black agenda. The current unemployment rate for African-Americans has leapt to 17.3%. This is in comparison to 9.7% for white Americans. African-American unemployment – which is typically higher than average anyway – has become a chronic problem, going far beyond just being the effects of a recession. Before the recession, the higher than average unemployment rate was written off as just the way things were, even by President Obama. Now, however, it is clear that it cannot be ignored.

The rate of foreclosures in African-American communities is disproportionately large, negatively impacting African-American wealth, the bulk of which comes from home ownership. Education is another area where black children are being massively underserved with more black children attending “high poverty” schools with poor facilities and less qualified teachers, than any other group, and more likely to receive a second-rate education. When it comes to healthcare, African-Americans are massively overrepresented in death rates from a variety of treatable and preventable diseases and illnesses, even if they suffer from them less. It is likely that a new healthcare plan, especially one that contains no public option, will make little difference for African-Americans. The hard facts tell you that this community requires a concerted effort.

Superficially it makes sense to say that addressing education, healthcare and the economy in general is enough. That view assumes, however, that general initiatives such as the stimulus actually reach and/or impact the hardest hit people. It also assumes that all communities have the same needs, and that a one-size-fits-all approach works. Yet, studies continue to show that this is not the case. According to a study released by the Kirwan Institute in February (pdf), “The stimulus did not go far enough in terms of marginalised communities, and it lacked transparency and accountability in regard to racial equity. Because people are situated differently, groups in declining urban centres with lower access to job creation face different needs for well-targeted investments in critical community infrastructure such as transit, schools, and parks and development of new recruitment and training standards that help new workers secure jobs.”

Solving the issues that affect African-Americans strengthens America as a whole, since chronic unemployment, foreclosures and healthcare issues have not only a cultural and societal impact but an economic one. Racially-based health disparities, for example, cost America $229bn between 2003 and 2006. As Kathleen Sebelius has said, reducing such disparities: ” … makes [America] a healthier and more prosperous nation”.

Obama is not required to tackle this issue just because he is an African-American president. This is a job for him to do because he is the US president. Any society which ignores, or overlooks, those of its citizens who are not doing well is a society that cannot function to its full potential.

President Obama was elected in order to make a difference and to change the status quo. These persistent issues are part of that status quo. Transformation of African-American issues is not something that Obama can solve on his own and there’s no doubt that he requires the support of not only civil rights leaders and organisations but of individuals as well. Sharpton is right to say he doesn’t need to “ballyhoo” a black agenda, but he does need to do something.

In truth, though, this is not just about black people. This is about the underlying and continued systems of disenfranchisement, poverty, and inequality in America. Unfortunately, many of President Obama’s initiatives do not uplift those who need the most support, not just to weather the storms of an economic crisis, but over time. These root causes may disproportionately impact African-Americans, but they undermine American society as a whole. President Obama should focus on a black agenda, yes. He would be failing all Americans if the African-American community does not find itself in a better place than when he came in.