May Nigeria find the will
Some Nigerians have voiced their regrets that the first African-American president of the world’s largest economy would end his two-term tenure without visiting Africa’s largest economy. My impulsive reaction to such comments is: What difference would President Barack Obama’s visit make to Nigeria’s fortunes anyway? (Authoritative statistics show that the plight of African-Americans and other minority groups in the U.S. has worsened under his presidency). More specifically, what difference have previous U.S. presidential and other top U.S. officials’ visits made to Nigeria’s democratic development? The outgoing U.S. president may well be asking himself that question; twice he has had to call off his scheduled visit to Nigeria at the eleventh-hour, as it were. On his previous official visit to Africa he came as close to Ghana.
Indeed, top U.S. officials visit Nigeria quite frequently in relation to other African countries. Most recently, no less a top U.S. official than avuncular Secretary of State John Kerry, undertook his second official visit to Nigeria in a little over 12 months. John Kerry’s predecessor, now the Democratic Party’s candidate in the US 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, had undertaken an official visit to Nigeria during President Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure. Hillary Clinton’s charismatic husband, Bill Clinton, then as U.S. president visited Nigeria during President Olusegun Obasanjo’s tenure. Olusegun Obasanjo’s democratic predecessor, Alhaji Shehu Shagari had hosted the Georgian millionaire peanuts farmer, Jimmy Carter as U.S. president.
In a nutshell, Nigeria has always been a significant subject on the White House agenda. Presumably it is of the first importance to the U.S. that Africa’s most-populous nation succeeds in her democratic aspirations. So the U.S., continuing the tradition of their “democratic cousins,” the British, has since Nigeria adopted the U.S. presidential system of government in the Second Republic, been preaching to Nigeria’s leadership to cultivate democracy’s finest traditions, the most crucial aspects of which include placing the wellbeing of the Nigerian masses above group political-cum-economic ambitions. The U.S. officials have been more graphic than the British in their message.
In his address to a joint-session of the Nigerian National Assembly, President Bill Clinton said he couldn’t justify lending his weight to Nigeria’s international plea for debt forgiveness; he would rather ask questions about what happened to Nigeria’s decades of huge petroleum revenues. Our usually fashionably-appareled lawmakers gleefully stood up and applauded. Apparently not quite sure of how to interpret that unexpected gesture, the august visitor haltingly uttered: “You know what?…if l said that back home, they will be applauding and standing still…” Were the lawmakers momentarily hard of hearing, or were they simply heedless? The completely bemused visitor’s never-say-die wife, Hillary, as U.S. secretary of state, few years after, addressed the same joint legislative chamber.
Expectedly, Hillary’s message to Nigeria’s leadership was not different from Bill’s. She said it was mindboggling to hear that Nigeria could not meet her electricity demands even with her huge deposits of natural gas. The lawmakers yet applauded (!) (Nigerian legislators often give the unsettling impression they work at cross-purposes with their executive colleagues). The US secretary of state had graciously winked Nigeria a hint, but as always her distinguished audience missed it line, hook and sinker. Years following, Nigeria’s leadership remains heedless even as Nigerians continue to depend more and more on petrol/diesel-powered generators. (It is extremely scandalous that a US$500m GDP per capita economy is run on generators in a hydrocarbon-rich nation).
Listening to Secretary of State John Kerry painstakingly holding forth in the ornate interior of the Sultan’s palace in Sokoto during his latest visit, I couldn’t help wondering at his private perception of his audience. Surely, the average foreign visitor to our shores must wonder at the patriotism of Nigeria’s leadership. It is as likely only in Nigeria that we hear of national leaders who unconscionably collude with foreign nationals and international organisations to siphon hundreds of millions of US dollars from their country to the vaults of other countries. It is also as likely only in Nigeria that we hear of national leaders who would proudly expend their country’s scarce foreign revenues on offshore goods and services, rather than assiduously develop in-country capacity for those goods and services.
And, it is as likely only in Nigeria that we hear of national leaderships that would happily promote the rent-seeking segments of the economy at the expense of the real sector.
The key to resolving Nigeria’s seeming insuperable socio-economic problem is as elementary as elementary economics: put in place policies that guarantee high velocities of money while holding recurrent expenditure well under revenue. If you think this is an over simplification of a serious national challenge, recall that a sage once said that some of the wisest things are said in jest, much in the manner the most priceless things of life are said to be the most affordable.
It is trite to say that Nigeria is not bereft of the knowledge to attend to her pressing problems; what she lacks is the will to diligently act on her surfeit of knowledge. This is also trite; and evidence abound that Nigeria’s tribal and religious composition is at the heart of that lack of collective will to put the nation on the path of greatness. Needless to say, the very idea of proposing a drastic reduction in our asphyxiating recurrent expenditure would seem to some persons as an incitement to a revolution. But the proposition reflects the predominant feeling across Nigeria. A popular Nigerian proverb goes thus: When a child irrepressibly weeps, pointing in a particular direction, it is either its mother or father is thereof. Nigerians in their majority, and irrespective of tribe or religion, have continued to call for a comprehensive review of the country’s unsustainable political structure. That call has increased in crescendo. There is little doubt that the 2014 National Conference report presents an excellent starting point for that inevitable structural review; may the federating components of Nigeria find the collective will so to do.
• Nkemdiche, a consulting engineer, lives in Abuja
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