The Search For The Nigerian Dream


By Simon Kolawole

In July 2005, aboard an Egypt Air flight from Cairo to Lagos, a number of Nigerians spent hours discussing the state of the nation. We were from different parts of the country and different religions. We discussed virtually every topic — from the horrible roads to the unending importation of petroleum products, from the inhospitable hospitals to the abysmal education sector. We spoke extensively on corruption in public institutions across the country, the bazaar of contract awards, the hyperinflation of contract costs, as well as the obscene lifestyles of civil servants, politicians and political appointees. I was fully charged as passengers narrated their experiences.

Then something happened: we could not land at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. The pilot said a cargo aircraft had broken down on the runway and flights were being diverted. He announced that we were going to land in Kano. That clearly meant we would spend the night there. The first question I asked was: is there only one runway at the Lagos airport? Someone, who seemed to know a lot about the airport, said there were two but the other one was undergoing maintenance and had been shut down for a while. We were all frustrated because spending the night in Kano was not part of the plan. It added one day to our journey.

And then a young man from the Niger Delta dropped a bombshell: “All this nonsense will not stop until there is resource control! Nigeria is paying for the injustice being meted out to the Niger Delta! The rest of Nigeria will continue to suffer too!” I was shocked. The cabin initially went quiet, and suddenly we started arguing over the outburst. It soon became a bitter exchange about how the rest of Nigeria was a parasite on “our oil”, how the federal government needed to urgently organise a sovereign national conference to take a final decision on how to divide the country, and so on and so forth. I was disappointed. I gently withdrew from the discussion.

My disappointment stemmed from just one fact: for nearly two hours, we had discussed as Nigerians and reached a consensus that we had a serious leadership problem. We agreed that the political and economic mismanagement of Nigeria at all levels was at the root of our backwardness. We complained about how our council chairpersons were not up to scratch and how the governors were having fun at our expense. We agreed that the federal government was failing in its responsibilities. We went as far as saying all Nigerians, irrespective of “tribe and tongue”, were victims of this gross mismanagement. I was delighted that we could discuss so frankly without bitterness.

We collectively reasoned that ordinary Nigerians did not have problems with one another; we were just victims of elite manipulation for political purposes. We concluded that Nigerians needed a united front to confront the leadership deficit pervading the land. We all appeared to be on the same page! Then the Niger Delta “activist” dropped his bombshell — despite having been part of the “consensus” we had reached at the impromptu “national conference” on the flight. My spirit dropped. How could someone ruin such a beautiful conversation by introducing a divisive item on the agenda? Why are some people never satisfied until they play up our faultlines and frailties?

A few minutes earlier, the “activist” had been complaining about how the governors of the oil-producing states were wasting the 13% derivation payment and leaving the people of the Niger Delta poorer and poorer. He was complaining about a state governor who had bought up houses in Lagos, Abuja, UK and the US. He said some Niger Delta governors were arming militias to take out their political opponents. Virtually all of us made damaging allegations against our governors. Abruptly, the Niger Delta “activist” arrived at another conclusion that it was lack of “resource control” that led to the breakdown of an aircraft on Lagos airport runway.

In my previous article, “Nigeria and the Hegemony Ideology” (April 14, 2019), I adapted the theory of “cultural hegemony” propounded by Antonio Gramsci, the 20th century Italian Marxist philosopher and communist politician, to explain how the Nigerian elite class has successfully diverted the public agenda from bad governance and, instead, got us talking about our ethnic and religious differences every minute and every second of the day. This they do through institutionalised processes, with their intellectual sidekicks and pressure groups using up prominent pages in the newspapers to discuss all issues — except the ones that impact directly on the welfare of ordinary Nigerians.

As a follow-up to my proposal that we need a new generation of “thought leaders” in the media, academia, civil society and polity that will focus public discourse on issues of development and stop blaming Lord Lugard for all that is wrong with Nigeria, I would love to argue that there are several things Nigerians already appear to agree upon which should form the basis of our engagement with the political system. If we are able to discuss these issues openly and sincerely, we may just be able to evolve the Nigerian Dream and arrive at a consensus on the best way forward. I have not met a single Nigerian who says this is the best Nigeria can be. We aspire to have a better country.

I will point out at least three plagues most of us seem to have agreed upon as impediments to the progress of Nigeria, and these cut across ethnic, religious and regional lines. The first is “leadership without conscience”. Contrary to what you might have been led to believe, we run a multi-layered leadership structure in Nigeria: federal, state and local council. Each layer has its responsibilities and failings in the underdevelopment of Nigeria. However, if we are ruled by men and women of conscience, I believe our story would have changed. A moral morass is severely plaguing Nigerian leadership — and that includes commissioners, ministers and perm secs, to name but a few.

It takes only a dead conscience to see the poor state of public utilities and look the other way. The roads are bad, so the leaders buy Prado SUVs to be able to navigate the potholes deftly rather than fix them. Kidnappers are on the prowl so the leaders get a detachment of security officers for protection rather than attack the problem frontally. The schools are bad so they send their children to the best institutions around the world rather than fix the education system. The hospitals are horrible so they treat themselves abroad rather than make them world-class. Any leader with human feeling will not look the other way: the welfare of the masses will always be priority.

The second plague is “leadership without competence”. I do not mean paper qualifications. You can be a professor and be incompetent in leadership. The skill set for political leadership is different. One basic definition of leadership is “getting people and using resources to achieve results”. How can you develop a country, a state or a council when you don’t have a “vision of society” — a mental picture of where you want to take it, the same way an architect designs a structure before you begin to build? Most of the people who end up in public office in Nigeria do not have this basic competence. And it cuts across all divides, although we often limit this to a section of Nigeria.

The third plague is “leadership without accountability”. In Nigeria, public officers have unfettered access to state resources with little or no accountability. This has led to untold corruption and waste of resources. This works mainly through collusion. The constitution allows state lawmakers to remove governors for corruption and abuse of office, but that is only on paper. A minister can be fired for corruption but how often does that happen? How many can sincerely say they scrutinise their state budgets the way they talk about federal budgets? The thought leaders would rather we discuss Sharia and true federalism. That is how the status quo wants it.

I have listed three plagues that we seem to agree are hurting the development of Nigeria. Imagine a Nigeria governed by leaders with conscience, leaders with competence and leaders with accountability at ALL levels? Imagine the direction we would be facing! Many of my critics have repeatedly accused me of campaigning against restructuring. This is a wrong reading but I have given up trying to explain myself. I believe in restructuring. My point of departure is that it is a different thing we need to restructure — our mindsets, first and foremost. We have been bewitched to think our problem is the “tribe and tongue” of a fellow victim of poor governance.

We can have a consensus on critical issues that affect the ordinary Nigerian and begin to push an all-encompassing agenda for national development. Divisive agenda will only poison public discourse, as we saw with the “activist” on the flight from Cairo. I do not seek to silence the agents of sectional agenda — everybody enjoys freedom of thought in a democracy. They probably have their own convictions that drive their arguments. But I am afraid that we cannot construct the Nigerian Dream and achieve our aspirations for as long as those who believe in playing up our differences continue to dominate the public space. Remember we all are victims of poor governance.

President Buhari has now signed the new national minimum wage of N30,000 into law. In 1999, President Obasanjo inherited N3,500 as the minimum wage and increased it to N7,500 in 2000, while President Jonathan raised it to N18,000 in 2011. Many have argued that we are a federation and each state should determine what to pay, but most — if not all — countries have a national minimum; sub-national governments and businesses can decide to pay higher. The big issue, for me, is the value of the wage. In the 1980s, when minimum wage was N125, the value was roughly $200. Today’s N30,000 is worth $80 only. But N30,000 is still better than N18,000. Consolation.

An African proverb says once the snake became pregnant, you knew it would give birth to a ‘long’ child. That Justice Walter Onnoghen was going to be convicted by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) over alleged false declaration of assets was predictable from the beginning. The CCT chairman never hid it. Ordinarily, Nigerians should be happy that even the chief justice has not escaped justice, but the smell of the alleged political persecution has so much polluted the air that Nigerians cannot even have a consensus on what is right or wrong again. But let us cheer up and take this as a wake-up call — our culture of “too big to touch” is being broken. Precedent.

By some estimates, we spent $5 billion on fuel subsidy in 2018 alone — the highest ever. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has been less than transparent in its dealings in recent years — and that is saying a lot for an organisation that historically stinks from lack of transparency. The Buhari administration has also been playing games on the subsidy issue, preferring to call it “under recovery”, as if calling a spade by another name changes anything. The time has come to have an honest national conversation on this subsidy issue, no matter how bitter it would be. Truth is: our finances are going under. Inflammable.

Abayomi Shogunle, the oga for the Public Complaints Rapid Response Unit (PCRRU), don talk am say make we no dey blow big big grammar for police dem when dem dey ask us question. Some pipu laff when him talk am but na the truth the man talk o. Me I sabi police pipu well well bicos I don dey research dem no be today. The pipu wey we dey call officers for road think say dem oga for office no dey treat dem well. To come add insult plus injury, dem think say Nigerians no dey respect dem at all at all. Everything come join dey vex dem, so when we come dey form say we sabi Queen’s English plenty plenty, we sef dey put petrol for fire. Kasala!


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