Friday, 2nd June 2023

Rebuilding the Nigerian dream: Mapping the building blocks

By Osita Chidoka
03 February 2015   |   3:45 am
WHEN the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, opened formally on October 7, 1960 – six days after this nation’s independence – it was with a spirit of hope and optimism. The same spirit pervaded the Eastern House of Assembly on May 18, 1955, when Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe gave a speech seconding the motion introduction by the…

WHEN the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, opened formally on October 7, 1960 – six days after this nation’s independence – it was with a spirit of hope and optimism. The same spirit pervaded the Eastern House of Assembly on May 18, 1955, when Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe gave a speech seconding the motion introduction by the Eastern Region’s Minister of Education (Azikiwe, 1961). In the words of Dr. Azikiwe:

“The immediate aim should be to develop the characters, initiative and ability of the youth of the country, so that they may be reliable, useful and intelligent in the rapidly-changing life and circumstances of their own people. In other words, the aim of education is to develop the manhood and womanhood of the rising generation for the sake of their people. Anything narrower than this must lead to a stagnant and menacing flood of unemployed and unemployable youths”.

 He further said in the course of his speech:

It is my fondest wish that when the University of Nigeria ultimately becomes a reality, our young men and women will find opportunities for gaining experience in life’s battle, so that lack of money will not deter them from obtaining higher vocational education in any of the faculties or institutes of the university. I hope that the training in self-help and the experience in self-reliance will make them more confident of themselves and enable then to puncture the myth of the proverbial of initiative and drive of the part of the Nigerian worker.

    With those momentous words our own dear Zik seconded the motion for the establishment of what was then called the “Palm Kernel University” as that the large portion of the income of the Eastern Regional government came from the palm kernel. Indeed, the founding of the University of Nigeria was a momentous step taken by the Eastern Region at that time to place the region on a sound and competitive footing for the training of its manpower.

    However, many doubted the capacity of a regional government struggling to keep up with the pace of growth in the demand for primary and secondary education to implement this grand dream. Story had it that on the day this motion was being moved it was feared that Mazi S. G Ikoku, who was the leader of the opposition Action Group, was going to oppose the motion for the establishment of the university. Knowing his strong intellectual make-up and erudition, the ruling NCNC party had to come up with a plan on how to ensure that Ikoku did not raise his objections to the bill.

   So a strategy was hatched. After the motion was moved and seconded, an NCNC member of the house – in his speech to support the motion – said that the idea of this university was to make it possible for those who didn’t have any opportunities to go abroad to be educated in Nigeria. It is also intended for those who, after their fathers had spent a fortune educating them abroad, would not come back to contest and defeat their fathers in political elections. As planned, this statement infuriated Mazi Ikoku who stood up and attacked the NCNC members in turn causing uproar in the house. In the midst of the furore, the Speaker of the House put the question of the university and all the NCNC member chorused “Ayel” and the bill passed without Mazi Ikoku having the opportunity to put the Eastern Regional government on the spot.

   The establishment of the University of Nigeria held out great promise. A promise beautifully encapsulated in its motto: To Restore the Dignity of Man. The restoration of the dignity of man, I believe, has remained the focus of this great institution and, indeed, the goal of the Nigerian state.

   As you graduate from this institution, you have been endowed with the academic regour that this institution is know for. You have been provided with the tools of learning. The deep urge to question, to search for knowledge and to satisfy the curiosity of your mind has been planted in you. As you march out of the gates of this university, you are leaving behind the state of the lion and the years you have spent in the beautiful hills of Nsukka and Enugu to go into a world lacking the protection that academics provides. You are marching into the reality of our dear country Nigeria.

    Many past convocation lectures, political analysts and political commentators have said so much about Nigeria and today I have decided to join them. But I am not interested in hashing the trouble with Nigeria, to paraphrase Chinua Achebe, but in finding new opportunities for the restoration of the dignity of man. To remind you that the most abundant resources are sometimes right under our feet.

    Let me share with you the story of Bata shoe. The Bata shoe company was founded by a family from the Czech Republic at the beginning of the 19th century (Wikipedia, 2014). In the 1970s Ken Burnett, a writer, was travelling through rural Kenya and saw children wearing this brand which was relatively unknown in the US (Burnett, 2011). It turns out that at the end of the nineteenth century, just as colonial Africa was opening up as a market, manufacturers of shoes across Europe sent representatives to various countries in Africa to see if there might be opportunities there for their products. All these representatives went back with the same answer: ‘Nobody in Africa wears shoes. So, there is no market for our products there’. Except for the Bata representative who went back saying: ‘Nobody in Africa wears shoes. So, there’s a huge market for our products!’ Today we are all familiar with Bata shoes.

    Nigeria today is a nation punching below its weight. As of 2013, our population stood at 173.6 million and our GDP at N80 trillion or US $521.8 billion. Our nearest competitor, South Africa has a population of 54 million and a GDP of US $350.6 billion (CIA, 2015). However, though Nigeria’s population is more than three times that South Africa’s, its GDP is only 1.4 times greater. Brazil, which at 202 million people has a more comparable population to Nigeria, has a GDP of US $2.246 trillion. More significantly, as of 2012 Brazil’s poverty rate was 3.8% while Nigeria’s was 33.1% (Emejo, 2014).

    We are well behind in many other areas as well. With only 180,549km2 of roadway, we have fewer roads than we should. South Africa, by comparison has 362,099 km2, Indonesia has 437,759 km2 and Brazil has a whopping 1,751,868 km2. As you well know, we generate far less power than we should. In 2011, Nigeria only generated 27 billion KWh. In the same year South Africa generated nearly 260 billion KWh while Indonesia generated more than 182 billion and Brazil nearly 532 billion (CIA, 2015).

    However, side by side with comparable nations, Nigeria looks like a country of missed opportunities. A country on a trajectory that is not promising,. But like the Bata story, there’s a huge market for the products of our great Alma Mater and that is the opportunity.

   A Financial Times of London article earlier this month announced that fashion and lifestyle magazine, cosmopolitan, will be launching cosmopolitan Nigeria, its first online-only edition in Africa. According to the company:

“Nigeria was chosen for the “digital first” debut for several reasons, including its young, English-speaking population, the lack of competition and increasing consumption fuelled by economic growth. [Parent company] Hearst [Magazines International] said nearly three-quarters of the population has a mobile phone, more than a third of Nigerians are mobile internet users and mobile commerce is widespread.

   The country was also considered to appeal to advertisers looking to reach a new pool of consumers. The site will begin running adverts “in a number of weeks”, [Duncan] Edwards [Chief executive of Hearst Magazine International] said.

“Sub-Saharan Africa is of great interest to our advertising customer’s,” he said, particularly to personal goods groups such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble, whose product ads omnipresent in women’s magazine.

    Last year Heineken NV, the world’s third-biggest brewer, announced that it was increasing its investments in Nigeria. Heineken, which is the majority owner of Nigerian Breweries, is confident that market, based on our population growth and rising urbanization will increase its beer consumption and ultimately boost profits (Atuanya, 2014).

    Nigeria has many things going in its favour. We are regarded as Africa’s largest economy, with an annual growth rate of 6 to 8%. As Cosmo pointed out, we have one of the largest mobile phone markets on the continent. And nearly 40% of our population has access to the internet. That is almost as much as South Africa at almost 47% and far higher than Indonesia at only 16%. Even Brazil has only managed to connect 53% of its population online (CIA, 2015).

    The most virulent critics of Nigeria are Nigerians. When two or three Nigerians are gathered their topic is usually Nigeria: Its missed opportunities, its poor outcomes and, particularly, the giant strides of other countries. A few years ago Nigerians celebrated one year of no blackouts in Ghana. Even though no such celebration took place in Ghana. They talked about how Ghana Cedi was equivalent to the US Dollars even though is was just a decimalization. Now that the Cedi has turned out to be one of the world’s worst-performing currencies, loosing nearly 300% of its value within a couple of months, and blackout have become  a common feature in Ghana as its budget deficit balloons, the Nigerian media has curiously kept silent. I don’t see any media commentaries on the fact that Ghana has fallen back to the International Monetary Fund (Talley, 2014), and indeed to Nigeria, for assistance.

    The criticism of our education system and the lamentations about the so-called Nigerians factor notwithstanding, the Nigerian Diaspora has been singled out as one of the most successful black Diasporas in the world. In the United States, Nigerian-Americans dramatically outperform Americans in terms of income. In their book The Triple Package, Professors Army Chua and Jed Rubenfeld explain that Nigerians are over-represented in the field of machine, higher education, law and investment banking (Chua & Rubenfeld, 2014).

  Almost 25% of Nigerian households make over $100,000 a year, only 10.6 percent of black American household overall do. Five percent of Nigerian American household earn over $200,000 a year; the figure is only about 1.3 percent for black America overall. The medium Nigerian men working full-time earned a median income of $50,000, which the figure for all U.S born men was $46,000.

   Why are Nigerians so successful? Because of the way we raise our children. According to the authors, we Nigerians possess the three traits that breed success: a superiority complex – an idea that we are special in some way;  insecurity – the fear that if we don’t work hard we will fail; and impulse control- the ability to delay gratification in the short term for better outcomes in future. Even if you had never attended this august institution, by virtue of being raised Nigerian, you already have the tools for success.

    Dear graduate, I’m happy to announce that you have won the African lottery. The lottery you have won is the fact that you are born Nigeria, a country with the demographic dividends, the natural resources and the most progressive human resource base on the continent that will produce the greatest opportunities for growth and advancement.

  Our resilience and resourcefulness as a national has pulled us back from the brink of disaster when many other nations would have crumbled. We survived a civil war and several military dictatorships each returning with lessons learned that we incorporated into new iterations of our constitution. After the civil war we gave the world the phrase: “No victor, no vanquished” and The Three Rs – Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and reconciliation. And nine years after the war Dr. Alex Ekwueme from the Biafran side became the Vice-President and Edwin Ume-Ezeoke became the Speaker of the Federal House Representatives, an example of the Nigerian spirit.

• Chief Chidoka (OFR), Minister of Aviation, delivered this lecture at the 44th convocation of the University of Nigeria Nsukka, Enugu State.