Alms, as empowerment: Senator Monsura Sunmonu got it wrong
I must commend you for your “world empowerment programme”, which kicked-off with paying the cost of the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) examination forms for 200 lucky students in Oyo State, Nigeria. I heartily join others who have commended this initiative and sincerely thank you for the effort.
Oyo Town and Oyo State are both very important to me. I was born in Ogbomoso in the late 1960s and raised in Oyo Town in the 1970s and the 1980s. I also schooled at the University of Ibadan in the 1990s. All these should point to you that Oyo State is important to me on many fronts. One, a large number of my friends is from Oyo State.
Two, the different events that shaped my life – the civil war, the murder of Murtala Mohammed, the various military take-overs, the balkanization of old Oyo State into two states, the murder of Ashipa of Oyo, the Muslim versus Oro worshippers’ conflict, June 12 and return to democracy in 1999 – occurred to me while living in Oyo. Hence, you are not just any senator, but my senator. You are the senator of all indigenes of Oyo, and not the senator of a select few – rich or poor, educated or illiterate. I would therefore like to state that this essay is a citizen’s call for accountability. Besides owing it to myself to demand accountability, I believe that I owe it to you, to Oyo and to Nigeria as a whole that, as a concerned citizen, I should undertake the task of being eternally vigilant in the quest for a better Oyo Town and Oyo State and a better Nigeria.
Permit me, in the following few lines, to ask a few questions, call your attention to a number of observations and make some general comments on your “world empowerment programme”. Madam Senator, Oyo, so also Nigeria, would emerge stronger and better if citizens meaningfully engage with their leaders – elected and appointed. Hence, I plead upfront that this essay (at the beginning of your career as a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria) is both an expression of my civic rights and also my quota to nation building. Given the number of Facebook and Twitter apologists that politicians like you have today, I would be glad if you could take the time to read and reflect on this piece, rather than asking ‘one of the boys to reply him’.
In order not to assume a knowledgeable audience, Madam Senator, a flyer is making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter in your name, asking exceptionally bright students (indigenes) of Oyo State who are planning to write the forthcoming Joint Admission and Matriculations Examination Board (JAMB) to compete for 200 slots in a supposedly ‘world empowerment programme’. As noted in the flyer, you would pick-up the bills of these 200 lucky winners.
This is commendable and I salute your intelligence in coming up with this ‘world empowerment programme’. However, I would be glad if you could say to what purpose is this “world empowerment programme”. Put differently, does the payment of examination fee constitute empowerment? In addition, why is this “world empowerment programme” a lottery? What is the benefit of this programme?
Gone were the days when some Nigeria members of parliaments, federal and state commissioners and ministers were semi-illiterates. During those ‘dark days’, different forms of tokenism were touted as dividends of democracy. The people, ignorant of the depth of sleaze that was going on in government, rolled out the drums, singing praises of these politicians. The military era took corruption and graft (in government) to yet another height. Today, we have come of age.
Madam Senator, giving ‘alms’ to citizens, like giving aids to developing nations, have been with us for a long time. In fact, when one checks our recent history, evidence abounds to support the argument that millions have marched and fought for these ‘alms’. Having mentioned aid; let me also note that many judged governments by the amount of external aid they attract. We have also seen academics, politicians and professionals proselytizing for the need for aid. Since 1999 when Nigerian returned to civilian rule, we have seen dramatic rise in the number of ‘alms’ that politicians have given to citizens. Things like constituency projects, millennium development programmes, and empowerment projects have become barometers through which we evaluate performance. States and lawmakers, since 1999, appear to be locked in an endless competition over payment of either West Africa Examination Council (WAEC) fees or the National Examination Council fees. This is unfortunate. Besides self-reporting (done by states and lawmakers), has there been any measurement of the contributions of these alms to the growth and development of Nigeria, especially in education and human capital development?
Even if there are no measurable proofs that they work in Nigeria, evidence from different parts of the world reveals that giving alms to citizens only make these citizens poorer and, at the same time, stymies national development. At the national level, its equivalent is debt-relief. The devious culture of alms (aid, in the case of the nation) has left Nigerians vis-à-vis Africans poorer, debt-laden, and more vulnerable to endemic poverty than anything else since 1900. In addition to this, the culture of aid made Nigeria unattractive to higher-quality investment and also susceptible to the vagaries of the currency markets. Competition over location of aid-induced projects has intensified (already existing) civil conflicts and social unrests, with the attendant negative impacts on the nation’s economic prospects. At the personal level, which makes sense between making this examination free across Nigeria and the giving of alms to a few individuals either through lottery or through whatever procedure makes sense?
Madam Senator, only a fool would deny that there is a clear moral imperative for humanitarian aid, especially when socio-economic, political and even environmental situations warrant it The hurricane in New Orleans, earthquake in Haiti, the 2004 tsunami in Asia are some instances of environmentally-induced circumstances, which necessitated aids in recent history. The poor has money to purchase examination forms.
The hurricane destroying their lives is tuition. The tsunami eroding their humanity is cost of textbooks and the requisite day-to-day requirements of keeping students in school. Unless you are admitting that since 1999, politicians in Nigeria have down the ship of state so much so that the situation is only comparable to hurricane Katrina, then I would agree with you that the current situation calls for alms giving. Even at that, it is better to send a bill to the National Assembly calling for the abrogation of all user-fees in educational matters. Nigerians would benefit immensely from this rather than giving them alms.
Until fairly recently, doctoral education is free for a number of African nations, including Nigeria, in the Netherlands. Currently in Germany and Finland, education is free at all levels and for all – citizens and foreigners alike. In these cases, lawmakers made the law abrogating user-fees in education rather than giving tokens and alms. In Nigeria today, it is certainly easier to consign a soul to perdition than to say prayers to save it. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of your current effort and other similar efforts, alms are relatively small drops when compared to the sea of money that are daily flooding into the pockets of our esteemed politicians.
Since 1960, rich countries across the world have transferred more than $1 trillion of development-related aid to Africa. Nevertheless, real per-capita income today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50 percent of African population –more than 500 million people – lives on less than a dollar a day. Even with the debt-relief that a number of African nations enjoyed since 2000s, African countries continue to pay a little below $20 billion yearly in debt repayments. What does this mean? If $20 billion were spent on education and health care, would any Nigerian need alms from any senator? Alms, like aid, are not free.
As the whole world knows, alms, like aid, are inexorably linked to corruption. As the African Union noted in 2002, aid-related corruption stands at $150 billion a year. So, we know that the current alms programme would enrich certain individuals more than the intended lottery winners. It would also polarize Oyo State, as you are a senator of Nigeria representing a senatorial district in Oyo State and not for a segment of Oyo State. You are senator of both the highly educated ones and illiterates.
If we could borrow important lessons from elsewhere, in a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in May 2004, Professor Jeffrey Winters of Northwestern University, argued that the World Bank (directly or indirectly) participated in the corruption of roughly $100 billion of its loan funds intended for development. What is the lesson in this? You would be aiding your advisers who suggested this project in their corrupt enrichment scheme. Just as with international donors, you would also be turning a blind eye to corrupt enrichment and inadvertently fueling graft.
Let us remind ourselves what alms, such as this, can and cannot do. Compared to paying tuition and buying textbooks, paying examination fee is a lot easier. If our dear senator cares for the indigent people, as she is projecting via this “world empowerment programme”, she should not only declare free education in Oyo State but also the provision of automatic employment. In other words, aid-supported scholarships rather than payment of entrance examination fees is a far better ‘empowerment’ than this current deceit. Given the current state of Nigeria, churning out graduates in the absence of jobs is like providing “plaster solutions” to alleviate immediate suffering. Plaster, by its very nature, is simply adhesive, which, therefore, cannot heal a wound. For a long-term sustainable growth, Madam Senator, get your colleagues in parliament to make laws abrogating user-fees in education. Stop giving alms; you are voted into office solely to make laws. The executives are to reduce these laws into policies and programmes and then implement them. Alms are unmitigated political, economic and social wastes.
•Oyeniyi is a Professor of African History at Missouri State University, USA.