For a change we can eat
The photograph of a carton of that premium whiskey, Johnie Walker, received by e-mail just as his plane touched down in Washington, was all I needed to spring into defence of President Muhammadu Buhari’s travels on one hand and on the other, to acknowledge the ultimate futility of his exertions over Nigeria as it presently is.
With Johnie Walker’s silhouette replaced with Buhari’s image, the message is unmistakable. Our president is depicted as a man who traverses the globe, walking about, with very little to show for his air miles. Of course, that impression is wrong.
And this got me thinking: Nigerians are not necessarily ungrateful. Neither are they deliberately mischievous. But the scale of the problems they daily contend with is such that makes even the most hardworking leader seem a laggard. The results of his efforts naturally pale into insignificance against the daily pains the people endure.
And this state of affairs momentarily reminded me of my encounter with Donald Kabieruka, the immediate past President of the African Development Bank, ADB, in Abuja at the 2014 edition of the World Economic Forum Summit on Africa.
As is always the case at that forum, many ideas were on offer on how to make the world a better place for all. The focus of the gathering being Africa, of course, tomes were said, written and documented on how to make the continent prosper. But Kabieruka made one statement in response to those who sneered at what was being touted as some good percentage growth of the Nigerian, nay African economy.
With the majority of citizens wallowing in such grinding poverty, what growth were the experts talking about? No food, no water, no meaningful life and there was so much noise about growth! Could that growth be eaten? In other words, of what use is economic growth without life lived in abundance by the people? To that question, Kabieruka offered a simple answer: Growth could be eaten. But that would be dependent on who is invited to the table.
An economy may be growing but it may exclude the majority of the people. In which case, the growth is only for a few in power and influence, leaving out a majority of the people or available to them only on paper.
This would have been alright, however, if the result would not be the certainty of a massive coalition of the deprived and disaffected it would create and, with its rank swelling by the minute, ultimately develop the potential to destroy that nation, growth and all!
This would seem to capture the current tragedy in which Buhari’s efforts, even when such yield any results, have hardly ever meant much to the people.
When his promise of change is not being mocked, its content is being questioned and every step he takes appears one more shuffle on the vanity dance floor.
A redeeming value in this, however, is that it is the best instruction to the administration on how to go about its mission of seeking any change to Nigeria’s condition: the challenges today are too daunting and no change will ever come unless a new seed of what Nigeria should be is planted.
A virtually empty treasury, looted dry by rampaging locusts or mismanaged by empty heads, the current fuel scarcity, poorer power supply than usual, higher cost of living than usual and inability on the part of government to do much by way of building infrastructure, have occasioned a different kind of democratisation: The table of want has been set so large with enough seats for most Nigerians. Growth, in the hands of a responsible leadership, may or may not be inclusive. Lack of it, even with a well-intentioned government, automatically engulfs almost everyone. In the face of this, a nation can only find its way by re-thinking its own being.
I am familiar with the saying that the United States of America is not a country but an idea. The idea is that all Americans or even all human beings are created equal, have equal rights and can pursue prosperity as well as happiness equally under the sun. The result of that idea is the world’s most powerful country, not without its own challenges, but certainly constantly pushing the frontiers of liberty and prosperity in undisputable unity.
What is Nigeria, if we may ask ourselves? Or, better still, how can we make Nigeria an idea that truly lives or thrives? One that finds expression in the belief by all, from east to west, north to south, that we are diverse in roots, different in tongues and varied in inclinations, but united in respect for one another and irredeemably committed to our indivisibility in the pursuit of happiness under one roof?
Nations, it is said, fail or succeed on the strength of their leaders.
To entrench Nigeria as an idea, there is an immediate task of breaking its pestilence of perfidious leadership or its leadership must break from its perfidious ways. Our country’s potentials will never be realised until men or women of integrity who will work for a just, equitable country take the reins of power. And the only Nigeria that can be just or equitable is a truly federal Nigeria.
Now, that is the simplest thing to recognise and forge but, strangely, the hardest for contemporary Nigerian leaders to contemplate.
An uncle of mine, a retired admiral of the Nigerian Navy, who once governed one of Nigeria’s 36 states albeit in acting capacity, the other day gave me a simple illustration: Nigeria is a man who has 36 children and 774 grown-up grand-children. Asked to move a weight of five thousand kilogrammes from one point to the other, this man, in his warped wisdom, says to 810 adults with commensurate degrees of strength: Leave it all for me, I can do it. I have all the energy, resources, wisdom and strategy to do it!
Of course, he has spent decades at that exercise in stupidity and rank foolishness, with neither father, children nor grand-children making as much progress as an inch from the same spot.
Today, the kind of leaders Nigeria needs is that which shuns the petty, the short-sighted or the narrow but espouses a grand vision and follows through with actions.
The APC leaders now in power promised change but are still nibbling at the design of those values and ethos, not to speak of the material contents that will bring about that change. This, with all their good intentions and incredible goodwill they enjoy, can only be so, because Nigeria as presently structured and run is a lie upon which no enduring change can be built.
A vague admission of the flawed federal system in place could be gleaned from some of the resolutions of the National Economic Council retreat the other day. By asking states to go find ways of developing crops in which they have comparative advantage, for instance, the point has been made that each state has something unique it could use for its own economic advancement! Yet, that was nothing more than a way of skirting the issue of a truly federal Nigeria, refusing to do the right thing by beginning the process of economic liberation and resource democracy?
No wonder, almost a year into the era of promised change, all Nigerians have is a vague idea of what the vision is and even a more opaque plan for its attainment.
Let the word go forth from here and now that spreading the wealth of Nigeria and its ownership is vital to ending the menace of injustice, political and economic, currently threatening the very existence of the nation. If Nigeria is to survive, a conscious effort must be made to enthrone inclusive democracy and a democratised economy.
Nigerians must get their fair share of the profits their resources have produced, proportionately to the quantum of yields from each place. The sort of inequality, economic injustice that reigns today is a sure ticket to a nation’s destruction. Even if these lean times pass and the nation’s economy grows, with the extant structure, it will be inequitable because only a few will be at the table.
To ensure prosperity for all, Nigeria needs to facilitate economic growth and democratise economic well-being of all citizens by liberating their entrepreneurial energies and allowing ownership of natural assets in their domain. The people cannot prosper and the country cannot thrive when productive capital is appropriated by a centre that is so far removed from, hardly useful and barely accountable to the people. Nigerians must be made to re-discover themselves as a band of creative thinkers, inventors, explorers, miners, planters, harvesters and creators of wealth. They must be freed from the shackles of deceit and allowed to be solvers of their problems.
That can only happen when the poor organisation of the Nigerian state is reversed and the denial of the strength in its diversity is repudiated, either gradually or in one fell swoop.
The longer the Buhari administration delays the process of changing Nigeria’s structure from the fraud it is today to one that suits its manifest destiny, the longer and louder would the slogan of change be shouted without any appreciable change, no matter his exertions.