May 29

How did we get here?

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The year was 2010, the month was October, and it was the first day. I crouched into a seat on the third row of the 18-seater Toyota Hiace bus at Ojoo, Ibadan and committed my trip into God’s hands. I was on my way to Lekki, Lagos where I was scheduled to be guest speaker at one of the numerous golden jubilee celebrations taking place across the country. I spent the next two hours searching the recesses of my brain for enough solid points to stun my audience with enough reasons to not give up on Nigeria. It was my intention to convince them to defy their better reasoning, ignore the voices of many who claimed that Nigeria had achieved nothing in 50 years of corporate existence and proceed with the belief that the future was bright. I don’t know how successful I was in passing that message across on Independence Day two years ago, but I know that my audience nodded with understanding intermittently. It wasn’t the easiest speech I have ever made, but I gave it my best shot and was rewarded handsomely with a fat white envelope. But wait, how did I get here?

Holidays are solemn occasions in Nigeria, but some holidays mean more to us than others. October 1, 2010 was very symbolic, as it marked the fiftieth anniversary of our independence from British rule. It was also the first opportunity that Goodluck Jonathan had to coordinate a national celebration as substantive president of the country and he wasted no time in issuing a N10billion budget.  This was going to the mother of all celebrations because we were apparently the first country on earth to attain the pristine age of 50. All hell was let loose with the astronomical budget, with even the Nigerian Senate surprisingly condemning the budget and slashing it drastically to N6billion. The common theme for Nigerians was “What is there to celebrate?” Just like all commentators of the day, I found myself rattling off endlessly on the list of failures of the country until I got a call inviting me to be guest speaker at a golden jubilee celebration. I instantly picked my topic: “Independence or In-Dependence?” and continued to develop my thoughts along the lines of our inability to break-even after fifty years until I realized that I was expected to give an upbeat presentation and not state the obvious. My heart sank!

English: Seal of the President of Nigeria Cate...

For several days, I struggled to string coherent thoughts together as I became overwhelmingly aware of the failures of civilian rule under Azikiwe and Balewa giving birth to military domination by Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gowon, Obasanjo, Buhari, Babangida and Abacha, with Murtala Muhammed’s regime being the brief interspersing of reasonable leadership. I recalled Shagari’s civilian docility and shook my head even further. It was much easier to narrate the history of politically-motivated killings all the way from Tafawa Balewa to Adekunle Fajuyi, Aguiyi-Ironsi and Murtala Muhammed.  Political assassinations seem to be a Nigerian staple and having grown up on tales of S.L. Akintola, Dele Giwa, Alfred Rewane, Suliat Adedeji, Kudirat Abiola and others, it wasn’t much of a shocker to realize that the murders of MKO, Bola Ige, Marshall Harry and others would never be resolved.

When I finally decided to realign my thoughts and deepen my research, I began to glean some speckles of gold dust amidst the murky waters of Nigerian history. I remembered that in sports, our soccer team was ranked 5th in the world in 1994 and claimed Olympic Gold in 1996; I remembered that one of the most skillful footballers on the planet, Ronaldinho referred to a certain Nigerian number 10 as his idol; I remembered that our music has been heard across the world and the documentary on Fela Anikulapo’s life has aired successfully on Broadway; I realized that Nigerian movies have been premiered at the world’s biggest film festivals and our screen stars have rubbed shoulders with the world’s best; I realized that our writers have claimed the highest literary prizes on the planet and the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart was celebrated in 50 cities across the world. I realized that in 2001, the most beautiful girl in the world was a Nigerian teenager, as was the first winner of the Nokia Face of Africa contest; I realized that the designer of the world’s first hybrid electric car, the Chevrolet Volt was a Nigerian; I realized that the inventor of mobile polyphonic ringtones and the designer of the world’s most expensive phones and suits was Nigerian. I realized that the Managing Director of the World Bank was a Nigerian woman; and that the only African to ever be Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations was Nigerian. All in all, I realized that Nigeria had so much to be thankful for, but always found a way to hit the top of global headlines because of the failures of a handful of political hooligans and some beggarly elements. I turned my speech around, spoke from my heart and left Lagos the following morning with a renewed passion to seek out the best of Nigeria.

On this solemn occasion of Goodluck Jonathan’s first anniversary as President, I have found myself treading that familiar path to ask myself how we found ourselves once again complaining bitterly about the state of our nation. We never really liked Umaru Yar’Adua because of the circumstance of his emergence as President in 2007, but Nigerians almost unanimously supported Goodluck Jonathan’s noiseless push to succeed him as President. We somehow believed that he was going to be a different brand of leader and his first few utterances as President seemed to prove us right. When he declared his interest in the 2011 race, Nigerians voted for him en masse and they knew what they were doing. The race was a clear popularity contest between Jonathan and three-time contestant, Muhammadu Buhari and Nigerians overwhelmingly rejected Buhari. We were not hoodwinked. We liked Jonathan because we knew very little about him and the very little we knew appeared to be good. So, did we make a wrong choice back then? Hindsight is 20:20, but at the time, Nigerians did what they thought was right.

A lot has changed in our history over time. Gone are the days when one naira exchanged for $0.55 in 1980, now we speak of N159; gone are the days when we overwhelmingly sent Ghanaians packing  in 1983 and laughed at their worthless currency, now there are almost more Nigerians than Ghanaians in Ghana and the Ghanaian economy rolls on like a locomotive engine. Perhaps the peak of embarrassment that Nigeria has received from Ghana, besides the fact that Ghana’s only oil refinery seems to be thriving perfectly with oil imported from Nigeria, was the coming of the Ghanaian Deputy Energy Minister to Lagos in 2009 to deliver a lecture on “How Ghana Kept the Lights On”. What a shame on us! Gone are the days when young Nigerian students received mouth-watering scholarships to study in the best schools in the UK and returned to lecture at Nigeria’s universities; these days, people who are lucky to escape to Uganda and Gabon are swearing to never set foot on Nigerian soil again.

English: Abubakar Tafawa Balewa
Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Abubakar Tafawa Balewa visited the United States in July 1961, he was accorded the highest honours in the land; received personally at the airport by Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President of the United States, met at the doors of the White House by President John F. Kennedy, accorded audience before a joint session of the US Congress (one of only 112 people ever to do so in US history), awarded an honorary Doctorate Degree of Laws by New York University (America’s largest private university), granted honorary citizenship of the cities of New York and Chicago (America’s two largest cities), granted audience with the UN Secretary-General and cheered endlessly by joyous Americans. These days, Nigerian politicians are being carpeted sheepishly by British lawyers, ridiculed and convicted while we struggle to explain our inability to bring them to judgment on their own soil. Far behind us are the days when Obafemi Awolowo built the Cocoa House (then Africa’s largest skyscraper) from the proceeds of agriculture, far behind us are the days when Nnamdi Azikiwe and Odumegwu Ojuwku fought tirelessly for equal representation of the Igbos; far behind us are the days when Ken Saro Wiwa gave his last drop of blood for the emancipation of the Ogonis; these days, Tompolo, Boyloaf, Asari Dokubo and their fellow militants strut confidently in the corridors of Aso Rock in defiant demonstration of the fact that their struggles were for personal aggrandizement.

So on a day like this, when there couldn’t be a clearer diversity of opinion between Nigerians in the corridors of power and Nigerians on the edges of rickety Lagos buses on the achievements of Goodluck Jonathan, it is appropriate to look backwards before looking forwards. Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency almost makes Olusegun Obasanjo look like a saint, but this is really not about Goodluck. True, he has done next to nothing to establish his credibility, but our challenges precede him and would possibly outlive him. No one can say for sure how we got here, but we find ourselves in a very desperate position and urgently in need of salvation. The call rings ever louder for true patriots to arise and take their places in politics, in business and in the civil sector. 2015 is far too long for Nigerians to wait for a comprehensive overhaul; we stand the risk of pandering yet again to the sweet talk of some phony politician who might have never had a belt to keep up his school shorts. The time is ripe for us, especially the young generation, to lay out a clear agenda for our future and design a roadmap for getting there. Nigeria belongs to us and our children and Goodluck Jonathan will not always be here to listen to our complaints. We have to reclaim our country by all means and shape her as a prime destination for progressives. We may not know exactly how we got here, but we can hardly move on into a bright future without a clear understanding of the past and a firm rejection of the present. Nigeria deserves better.

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun

Before The Noise Resumes

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In a little less than seven days, reasonable newspaper adverts will be rejected, relevant news items will be relegated, respected writers will be disregarded and a cacophony of celebratory clatter will ring far and wide across the Nigerian media space, all for one reason: Goodluck Jonathan would have officially spent a year on the throne! Yeah, May 29 is right around the corner.

Goodluck-Jonathan
Goodluck-Jonathan

In honour of all longsuffering Nigerians, there is an imperative obligation for rational and coherent analysts to review the ‘transformation’ that Nigeria has witnessed over the course of 358 days spent in servitude to the boy who had no shoes. I hear someone say “Why the rush? Why not wait till May 29 when 365 days will be completed?” “Aha! I’m not easily fooled, not anymore. We all know from history that an opportunity once missed can never be regained; within seven days, every available space on radio, television, newspapers and the internet will be taken over by the same sycophants and real noise makers who would do anything to make us believe that their intention is to fix Nigeria (no pun intended). This is an opportune moment to reflect on the choices that Nigerians almost unanimously made 12 months ago when they chose humility over experience, the resource-control bowler hat over the infamous Hausa cap, an unknown architect over an overly outspoken preacher. This is the time to speak while people may still listen, because in a week, there will only be extremely loud noise.

Actually, who is afraid of noise? Nigerians are generally noisemakers – think back to 2001 when mobile phones made their grand arrival on the soil of Africa’s self-appointed giant; our fathers rose to the highest peaks in the land and screamed till their lungs were sore to communicate with people who would have heard even a whisper. Think about the excessive lengths to which our barely surviving parents would go to celebrate our graduations and wedding ceremonies even when we insist on small parties; they would hear none of it, everyone must know that there’s huge a celebration in the house. More seriously, the ubiquitous distribution of IBN (I’m sure you know that means I better pass my neighbor) generating sets has further ensured that if you’re unfortunate enough to reside in Lagos, you currently suffer from partial deafness because you’re now comfortable watching ‘Super Story’ in your 1-bedroom apartment while an orchestra of 12 generating sets makes melodious music from every floor of your 5-storey building and you still sleep peacefully at night. Worse still, you’ve become accustomed to bus conductors vomiting and swallowing their saliva as they scream to attract potential passengers into the overcrowded bus in which you undertake your daily commute, you’re no stranger to Terry G’s pointless rants bursting out of extremely huge speaker boxes in every major Nigerian city, you even learned to respect your parents years ago because they were loud enough to beat you into submission with words and sticks. And if you follow the right people on Twitter, you’ve learned to juggle wide-ranging opinions from self-styled and government-branded noisemakers, and still check your dictionary for a definition of ‘noise’. So, who is afraid of noise? Not me!

However, as Nigerians come to terms with the fact that they trooped to the polls rather naively in April 2011, we need to consciously evaluate the Jonathan presidency so far and make plans for the future with an increased dosage of wisdom. Those who observed the last election season carefully will recall that Goodluck Jonathan was very miserly with the specifics of his ‘transformation agenda’, saying very little of his policy perspectives and harping on ‘changing the way things are done and giving the country a new direction’. Somehow, that was sufficient enough for Nigerians to embrace him because “he is a man that God has favoured since he was deputy class captain in secondary school”, “he is a very humble man who has never demanded power but has always had power given to him” and “he met with Barack Obama in the Oval Office during his interim presidency”. As a candidate, Goodluck Jonathan found every good reason to abstain from presidential debates and focused rather on designing 36 brands of beautifully-embroidered native wears in which to tour the country, inviting Tuface and Zaki Adzay to shine a torchlight and sing his praises while he handed out notebooks at the launch of his Facebook memoir and to engage D’banj in issues of national and international relevance on live TV while his opponents dripped sweat on the debate stage.

When he succeeded in fooling Nigerians to believe that he really had an agenda for the country, he scoured his predecessor’s Vision 20:20 plan and emerged with a macroeconomic framework that guaranteed 11.75% GDP growth between 2011 and 2015, persuaded Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to give him some legitimacy and hired one of the nation’s top wordsmiths, Reuben Abati to write and speak for him when he knew not what to say. Basing his projected economic growth on oil & gas, solid minerals, ICT, agriculture, tourism and trade, he hired the exact same people that have plundered the nation’s resources endlessly to manage the economy. Who ever thought that Diezani Alison-Madueke, Stella Oduah, Jumoke Akinjide or Barth Nnaji had any expertise in helping to transform an economy? We know of their expertise in colorful dressing, expensive make-up and prolific public funds transfer, but not policy analysis or economic forecasting.

President Jonathan promised a ground-breaking job creation strategy through a youth employment safety net programme including reviewing of university curricula to align with industry job requirements, promotion of vocational training, subcontracting and partnering of locals with foreign construction companies and implementation of mandatory skills transfer to Nigerians by foreign construction companies. His record to date is soiled with countless strike actions by federal and state universities, incessant bombing and threats of bombing across 19 federal tertiary institutions, and the construction of a massive cathedral in Otuoke by an Italian construction company (at least something has been transferred from the foreign construction companies to the locals, even if they are not skills). The review of the NYSC was supposed to be a fundamental approach towards alleviating youth unemployment but starving young chaps for months in the name of service to the fatherland was not included in the reform documents!

Is it appropriate to discuss the public expenditure component of the president’s transformation agenda? What has changed over the last one year? Herman Hembe and his fellow brigands at the Federal House of Representatives have demonstrated clearly enough that it is still business as usual at Aso Rock. Nuhu Ribadu has uncharacteristically gone quiet since his appointment to that phony Petroleum Review Task Force and Christopher Kolade now has the guts to assure Nigerians that the benefits of the Subsidy Re-investment and Empowerment Programmes (SURE-P) are now being evident on Nigerian roads and health services. Is there something in Aso Rock that rids otherwise reasonable people of their intelligence? The list of patriots gone haywire is disturbing: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nuhu Ribadu, Reuben Abati, Christopher Kolade and even Ohimai Amaize! How can people who were once on our side make the transition to the other side and then insult our intelligence by telling us that things are working but we just can’t see it? All we want is to see it! Why is that so difficult to understand?

Every other aspect of the president’s transformation agenda gives significant cause for concern: judiciary, education, power, transportation, health, labour and productivity and ICT. The President has failed to inspire public confidence in the judiciary with the poor handling of the Justice Ayo Salami case, the continuous incapacitation of the EFCC and the slap delivered to the Nigerian justice system by the British courts in the James Ibori case. Education remains a sham with bombs rattling off on campuses in session while other campuses remain closed for fear, poor electricity or lack of pay. As for electricity, let’s just pray that we can continue to fuel our generating sets until each individual learns how to generate their own power, because Barth Nnaji is off his rocker again promising stable power supply by 2013 and the University of Ibadan is poised to spend N1.25 million daily on diesel to generate 10 hours of power supply through two newly custom-built generating sets ordered from Germany (no kidding). Transportation remains a disaster with ever unfailing power failures across major airports, inability to sort out a reasonable contract for rebuilding the Lagos-Ibadan expressway and endless promises of the return of the rail system. Health remains an issue for churches and their wealthy pastors; labour will soon declare another nationwide strike and everybody has learned to conduct ICT business on their Blackberry phones, so there goes the Transformation Agenda!

In spite of all these, President Goodluck Jonathan will definitely be praised to high heavens next Tuesday for his visionary direction, passion and commitment to a new Nigeria. He will be congratulated for leading the country with the fear of God and the interest of all. He will be celebrated as being a courageous, dedicated and compassionate Commander-in-Chief. I can stand many things, but deception is not one of them; so before the noise resumes next week, I just thought to remind you that we Nigerians remain an extremely large and disproportionate body without a functioning head.

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun