Pains we live with

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Every Nigerian who has had the privilege to travel out of the country (whether to Ghana or Russia) knows the pains of being a Nigerian, and every Nigerian who has a relative who has enjoyed such privileges has at least heard about the countless headaches and embarrassments that Nigerians are condemned to suffer out of the borders of their fatherland, but relieving those stories to every listening ear never gets old. It’s always an interesting meeting whenever Nigerians fortuitously run into each other at the airport in Dallas, Texas, on the subway in New York City or at a movie theatre in Phoenix, Arizona. One of such meetings occurred on Monday August 20th at a Greyhound Bus Terminus in New York.


Besides London, there are few cities in the world that play home to more Nigerians than New York; of course, not counting Lagos. One can almost swear that there are more Nigerians in London and New York combined than there are in the whole of Oyo State. Otherwise, how else does one account for the tremendous success of the famous ‘Buka’ restaurant in Brooklyn, New York or the massive sales recorded daily in Peckham, London; Peckham is actually reputed to be the headquarters of Nigerians living in the United Kingdom. While fraudulent young and old Nigerians have helped to define the country in seemingly irreversible negative light, the brilliance and academic achievements of young Nigerian students in American and British universities seems to be compensating for that huge deficit in some way. While 47-year old Okechukwu Ogbonu was getting nabbed at the Houston Airport in Texas for ingesting 65 pellets of heroin on Friday August 10, 27-year old Dr. Bahijja Raimi-Abraham was making history as the first person ever to graduate with a PhD in Pharmacy from the University of East Anglia in the UK. Young Nigerians in the Diaspora seem to be determined to counteract every negative action with equal and opposite positive reactions in the hope that the evils of the past few decades can be undone.

However, my unexpected meeting with Mrs Frances Adekunle (not real name) in New York on Monday provided yet another opportunity for two sane minds to brood over the plight of Nigerians at home and abroad. While I had tales to tell about the pains of applying to the Nigerian Police for a Police Clearance Certificate for foreign travels, she had tales of struggling to transfer bank accounts from one branch of a second-generation bank in Abuja to another branch of the same bank in Ibadan. Both difficulties revolved around the fact that officials of both agencies would not willingly perform their duties because palms needed to be rubbed. Historically, anything having to do with the Nigerian Police was bound to be characterized by complexity and shrouded with bribery, but common Nigerians have no choice. The crux of the process is the fingerprinting and confirmation of the applicant’s criminal record, but when non-criminals are condemned to offer bribes in order to confirm their innocence, are we not all transformed into criminals? The alternative is however not desirable – waiting as long as four weeks and enduring untold frustrations to secure a document that is usually produced within an hour.

In the course of bashing the Nigerian Police and officials of Zenith Bank (there you go, I couldn’t keep it to myself), my discussion with Mrs. Adekunle shifted to her work at the Nigerian consulate in New York. She wondered if the recent decision by the White House to provide deportation relief to illegal immigrants who arrived the USA before the age of 16 and who had no criminal records applied to me. Sadly, the answer is no; I’ve not been in the USA so long, but she advised that I keep my fingers crossed because Barack Obama is definitely up to something.  She told me how she had been neck-deep in negotiations for a 21-year old Nigerian who arrived in the country at the age of 11 and schooled here before attempting to join the US Army in order to secure permanent residency, but was discovered to be an illegal resident during the application process and was sent to jail. The poor boy who has no prior criminal record has been incarcerated for several years, but now faces the possibility of release if the new American immigration policy works for him. We’re all hoping he gets released, but the question is “who is to blame for the almost ruined life of this once 11-year old Nigerian boy”?

Nigerians have come to accept the fact that travelling to the USA in search of greener pastures doesn’t always yield actual green pastures; many of those pastures are brown, red, black or even yellow. We have always been told the stories of Nigerian bankers who abandon their jobs in the country to go and ‘wash dead bodies’ in American mortuaries, but while that is not always the case, it’s not really far from the truth. Nigerians indeed perform odd jobs in America; yes, we serve as mortuary attendants, we drive taxi cabs, we serve as night security guards, we clean buildings and perform other thankless jobs in pursuit of an extra buck or two. But we’re not the only ones who do that; Americans do too, as do nationals of other countries. There’s simply no green grass anywhere but where one’s academic qualifications, personal hustle, human connections, God’s favour and a tinge of good luck work in concert. The average person living in America works about 18 hours daily on two or three jobs and is still dissatisfied with their income. Things are just so tough.

That’s where my other fortuitous encounter with a Nigerian guy, Lasisi comes into play. I was riding on a bus last week; eager to get home to rest my weary body when I felt someone leaning into me and peeking in to my phone to see the names on my Twitter feed. Something must have caught his eye because he instantly smiled and asked if I was African. I confessed, and then he asked if I was Nigerian. I immediately knew he was a Yoruba dude, but then he completely eradicated whatever concerns I had when he launched into a tirade in a thick Ijesa accent about how difficult it is to get a job in America. He claimed to have been in the country for about two months and was surprised at his inability to get a job, having been told how beautiful life is in America. I reminded him that even Americans with Masters Degrees are filling daily queues at employment offices and accepting whatever comes their way in order to get by. He retorted by saying that 9/11 must be the reason why it’s difficult for Nigerians to get jobs in America. I was in no mood to prove otherwise so I merely nodded in agreement and concurred with every other reason he proffered until I eagerly hopped off at my destination, all the while praying that he didn’t ask for my phone number.

Life is tough, and it’s especially tough for Nigerians. Living in the country has proven that hard work is not enough to succeed; knowing the right people at corporate offices, rubbing palms with difficult public officials, sucking up to wealthy politicians, and generally being a hustler are some of the proven ways to achieve one’s objectives. Whoever would break the mould must be prepared to employ some unconventional strategies to beat the system. Whether at home or abroad, Nigerians have learned to live daily with the pains inflicted on them by generations of selfish, greedy and mindless strangers whose despicable activities yield equal dividends for 162 million people, and several more counting.

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun


Moving Nigeria Forward (IV): Respect to the People

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Only a few weeks ago, President Goodluck Jonathan made a very difficult decision by his own standards and hosted a media chat, where he fielded questions from members of the national media and attempted to address some of the concerns of the Nigerian people. Whether or not he really answered any questions at all remains a debated issue, but he made one point clear: he doesn’t believe he is being treated with respect by Nigerians. He thinks that Nigerians like to insult him because it is a fashionable thing to do and it is a quick way to generate attention; none of which fazes him. Jonathan is not alone in this reverie; past and present Nigerian politicians have complained of disrespect from the Nigerian people, and even ordinary citizens have joined the clamour for more decorum when the names of politicians are included in national discourse. However, if Nigeria is to move forward, respect must be a two-way street. The famous saying that ‘respect begets respect’ holds true all over the world, and it must become reality in Nigeria.

Mutual respect, quite understandably, is not a Nigerian concept; children are brought up across the country to understand that they are answerable to their parents and never vice versa. From childhood, Nigerians are taught to never look in the eyes of adults when they are being rebuked, to never retort when they are being reprimanded and to never complain against constituted authority. This cultural phenomenon has played out on the national stage, with politicians assuming the roles of overbearing parents whose authority must never be questioned. Conventional knowledge about mutual respect dictates that there will be constant communication between parties, non-negotiable total honesty, a commitment to not wilfully harm the other party, and always seeking the interest of the other. These much-desired traits are some of the scarcest in Nigeria, especially between politicians and citizens, and as much as they detest it, politicians will always be subject to endless vituperation from the people unless the tides change.

For too long, Nigerians have been insulted and disrespected by elected officials, while they continue to trust God for changes and believe that there will be improvements over time. No, there would never be improvements over time! Things do not change by wishful thinking, things change when individuals take definite action. When politicians declare unbelievably exorbitant salaries and allowances for themselves, and constantly review them with the turn of successive legislative tenures, while struggling to debate, approve and implement minimum wages for people who slave away at government agencies, that is utter disrespect to the people. Minimum wage bills are always the slowest to pass through the Federal House of Representatives, and even when they do, state governors would declare their states broke and unable to fund such increases; yet those same governors find it very convenient to embark on endless trips to foreign lands at the expense of their citizens.

Nigerians are grossly disrespected when elected officials appoint all their unqualified friends and acquaintances to technical positions in government, and then end up with advisers, special advisers, executive assistants and senior special advisers to a state governor on ‘disability matters’. Of course, every governor should make plans to address disability matters in their states, but do four separate individuals with several secretaries and staffers need to live large on the state budget because the governor intends to assist physically challenged citizens? Even more insulting is the fact that politicians appoint their cronies to such ill-advised offices as ‘adviser on political matters’, ‘special adviser on internal integration’, ‘senior special assistant on accountability’, and the most insulting of all – ‘friend of the governor’. What manner of political office is that of the ‘friend of the governor’? It is extremely shameful that elected officials perpetrate such acts of stupidity, but it is even more shameful that Nigerians allow such despicable actions to stand.

Another flagrant demonstration of disrespect to Nigerians is the frequent abuse of public office by politicians who orchestrate the weddings of their sons and daughters to coincide with their tenures in office. During his ill-fated three-year tenure, two of President Yar’Adua’s daughters got married in arguably the most lavish ceremonies ever hosted in Aso Rock. This trend is not uncommon to state governors and federal legislators who seize the benefit of the national spotlight to trade their daughters for wealthy suitors and to receive generous gifts in exchange for government contracts. These same politicians repeatedly insult the citizens from whom they are stealing with noisy sirens and extensive motorcades to further drive the wedge between them and the citizens whom they pretend to serve. What a generation of vipers!

During political campaigns, Nigerian politicians have continually exploited the docility of citizens to run extensive 24-month campaigns without visible agenda. Very rarely does an aspirant to the federal legislature or state government houses issue their strategies for addressing social issues in their constituencies, aside erecting gigantic billboards with their huge faces and their names and traditional titles in very bold print, while sneaking “accountability, transparency and progress” somewhere in a corner.

How on earth does that suffice for an agenda? Political campaigns have always been run in Nigeria based on the clout and financial strength of sponsors and never on the qualifications of aspirants. Political debates are rarely organized, and when they are, aspirants decide to boycott them without implications, because they are perceived to be avenues for embarrassing unintelligent politicians. Well, politicians who have nothing to hide, and who are eager to demonstrate their qualification and readiness to their constituents would never miss an opportunity to meet with their constituents and assure them of their preparedness to serve them. Failure to do this is nothing but disrespect to the people.

When asked about the plan for constant power generation in the country in the course of the media chat, President Jonathan brazenly expressed disappointment at Nigerians for complaining about poor power supply when their counterparts in India merely light candles and continue their duties in the events of power outages. How more disrespectful could a president be to his own citizens? Having siphoned so much of the nation’s resources on pointless trips around the world, travelling with over 200 aides on each occasion, he still finds the audacity to insult the long-suffering citizens who plead for crumbs of electricity from his table? It is a huge shame on the man who claimed to have walked without shoes in childhood, but it is even more shameful that there are still Nigerians who see him as a God-sent messiah. The disrespect that the president has shown to the people is further evidenced by the multiplication of committees in his government, including committees to probe non-functional committees, none of which has produced a comprehensive report that can be viewed by the people, or whose resolutions have been knowingly adopted to change the status quo.

Evidently, Nigerians have never been confident of the capacity of their elected officials to solve any of the challenges that plague them, but they find it more disturbing that the government is equally unable to stand up to private enterprises that make life unbearable for them. The major telecommunications firms in Nigeria have always been blood-sucking agencies, as are the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, and all arms of the Dangote franchise which have monopolized the production of almost all household items in the country. Granted, Aliko Dangote is a business man who has utilized his business acumen to enrich himself and employ a handful of Nigerians, but it is not the place of the Nigerian president to endow him with the second highest honour in the land (GCON) and to claim that the country is still not doing enough to protect the man who rose to the 76th position on Forbes’ list of richest people in the world with unfair trading practices at the expense of 162 million people. The same president found the audacity to address the nation and claim that Wale Babalakin’s legal expertise is the sole reason behind the stalling of the reconstruction of the nation’s primary highway that claims hundreds of lives almost weekly. This is an insult to the several millions of hardworking Nigerians who never get any recognition for their investments in the nation; total disrespect to every single one of us!

Perhaps the peak of disrespect that has been shown to Nigerians in recent times, ignoring the mindless appointment of the president’s wife to a bureaucratic position in Bayelsa state by an overly grateful political godson, has been the quotation of the national constitution by the Minister of Youth Development to justify the deployment of National Youth Service Corps members to the gates of hell (heaven) in the north. A government that has failed to prosecute political criminals who are always found ‘not guilty’ by our politicized legal system, a government that has failed to deliver on the promised reforms in the power sector and in education, and a government that constantly recycles thieving politicians in significant offices is not one that can be trusted. Both the Minister and the president would have their hands drenched in blood if evil befalls any corps member in the new deployment. We would never move forward as a country if politicians fail to treat citizens with respect, while expecting already subservient people to spread their clothes and bodies for them to trample on. Enough is enough; Nigerians have gullibly pandered to the wishes of the ruling class for too long. If things would ever change, the future of the country will depend on a principle of non-negotiable respect, first to the people.

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun

Moving Nigeria Forward (III): Back to the ’70s

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In an ever-evolving world, it is not entirely strange to look to the past to garner inspiration for moving forward, but it is quite unsettling to persistently agitate for the glory days in history. This exactly is what Nigeria has grown to personify at the moment. Very little in the present gives satisfaction to the older generation or the new breeds; we have expertly documented the several challenges that cripple our country’s economic and social fibre and concluded that we were much better off in the past than we are now and that the most prosperous era in our history were the 1970s. Actually, many Nigerians would much rather live again in the 1970s if telecommunications and internet access could be guaranteed. But what is it about the ‘70s?

The four years that preceded the ‘70s were perhaps the darkest years in our history. The loss of 200,000 military and civilian lives in Nigeria and the loss of about 3,000,000 military and civilian lives in the Republic of Biafra left both regions of the country extremely weak and dependent on each other for survival. In spite of the relative victory of the Nigerian army over Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu’s troops, the nation was wounded almost beyond repair and desperately needed the words of Gen. Yakubu Gowon on January 16, 1967: “The tragic chapter of violence is just ended. We are at the dawn of national reconciliation. Once again we have an opportunity to build a new nation. My dear compatriots, we must pay homage to the fallen, to the heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice that we may be able to build a nation, great in justice, fair trade, and industry.” Whether or not the nation heeded the justice and reconciliation call specifically, fair trade and industry seemed to thrive in Nigeria in spite of the instabilities in government.

Between 1970 and 1979, Nigeria witnessed perhaps her best extended period of social and economic growth; characterized by a massive explosion of revenues courtesy of the oil boom. So great was our wealth that General Yakubu Gowon famously declared that “the only problem Nigeria has is how to spend the money she has”. When his government was overthrown in 1975 on account of corruption, his successor General Murtala Muhammed instantly demonstrated his resolve to build an equitable and prosperous country by using the words “Fellow Nigerians” for the first time. Murtala is reputed in the country, not only for his forthrightness, but more importantly, his courage. His tenure saw the mass retrenchment without benefits and trials of over 10,000 public officials on accounts of age, health, incompetence and malpractice. He ensured that his reforms cut across the diplomatic service, the judiciary, the academia, the military and the civil service; pruning government and diversifying public offices between the military and civilians. Within the seven months of his presidency, Murtala Muhammed faced inflation in the Nigerian economy and attempted to reduce the amount of cash flow in government, promoted private sector expansion, and adopted a ‘Nigeria First’ foreign policy. Unfortunately, good things never thrive in Nigeria and Murtala Muhammed was brutally assassinated on February 13, 1976, but not before laying the foundations for a successful economy managed by his successor, Olusegun Obasanjo.

Jimmy Carter with Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo o...
Jimmy Carter with Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obasanjo’s military rule was much shaped by the oil boom which saw Nigeria gain a 350 percent increase in oil revenues. Several sectors of the Nigerian economy were boosted both by this unexpected windfall and the dedication of public servants to national development. Infrastructural projects were multiplied across the country; long-lasting roads were built, hospitals were constructed, steel factories were established, and manufacturing was greatly promoted. During Obasanjo’s tenure, the Nigerian manufacturing industry witnessed so much growth that vehicle assemblies sprung up in the country, most prominent of which was Peugeot Automobile Nigeria (PAN); the five existing Nigerian universities were equipped and eight more established; universal primary education was instituted in the country and the northerners who had hitherto lacked much investment in education began to derive some benefits from increased schooling opportunities; and the green revolution was sparked with massive distribution of seeds and fertilizers to farmers all across the country leading to increased productivity in the nation’s agricultural sector.

The ‘70s were such blessed years for Nigeria that the country’s currency had a much better exchange rate than the US dollar, durable commodities were produced and sold at cheap prices, food was available in abundance, and oil flowed endlessly through the nation’s refineries. It was also during this period that several easterners and westerners earned foreign scholarships to study Medicine and Law in the United Kingdom, several others secured employment in the federal civil service, health facilities were less crowded and more effective in treatment, solid structures were constructed across the Western Region under Chief Obafemi Awolowo, smooth roads which have defied wear till this day were built, leaving the country with fewer road accidents and making the country much more peaceful and stable.

The ‘70s are the years that our parents can never stop speaking about; they were the years when every single parent purchased those mathematical sets which they still brandish before their children; they were the years when two kobo purchased a good meal of ‘amala and goat meat’; they were the years when every one of our parents were top of their classes, even when there were 40 students in a class; they were the years when Government College, Ibadan, Government College, Umuahia, Government College, Ughelli, Government College, Zaria, Wesley School of Science and Kings College, Lagos, were the pride of the Nigerian education system; they were the years when ‘National’ brand fans and radio sets were purchased at ridiculously cheap prices, and on the foreign scene, they were the years when Nigeria had almost zero external debts.

There was something about the ‘70s that made Nigeria very prosperous, and it was not just about the oil boom; there were visionaries in government who made the decision to administer the country with a clear purpose and to invest the country’s resources into lasting projects. There were no thieving legislators who took bribes from successful businessmen to cover up corrupt practices and subvert national interest, there were no governors who embarked on 22 foreign trips in 24 months to ‘attract foreign investors’ to their states,  there were no anti-corruption agencies which seconded the prosecution of big name politicians to the British government; there were no senators who served as covert sponsors of northern terrorist groups and there was no president who claimed to be ‘saddened’ by the wanton loss of lives all across the country while maintaining a disposition that displayed extreme comfort in crisis. The ‘70s were the years when Nigeria was governed by democrats who put the interest of the country above theirs; the ‘70s were the years when military subordinates kept a very close check on their superiors and made it clear that they could be ejected at a moment’s notice for non-performance, and more importantly, the ‘70s were the years when Nigeria conducted a peaceful election and made a smooth transition from military rule to democracy for the first time.

There is an urgent need to revisit the practices of the ‘70s as we forge a path forward for Nigeria. National interest was at its peak during those years; the efforts of General Murtala Muhammed and General Olusegun Obasanjo on the local and international scene were tremendously great influences on local administration and regional integration. The ‘70s were the years when Nigeria truly earned the toga of ‘the giant of Africa’, and we demonstrated across the continent that we had a system that worked. The ‘70s were the years when Ghanaians flooded the country because of the widespread economic development which we offered not only our citizens, but all citizens of Africa. We need the ‘70s again, but more importantly, we can make this decade and future ones more successful and more prosperous than our past. The same values that guided our leaders then can be revisited and we can collectively build a nation that we can be proud of. If Ghana could rise from the ashes of economic desolation, reclaim her citizens from Nigeria, attract Nigerians en masse to her markets and then flush out illegal Nigerian marketers within a span of thirty years, it will be a massive shame for Nigeria to stand aside and allow ethnic, religious, political and other roadblocks to hamper our development. We would be haunted forever by the memories of the ‘70s if we fail to act. The time is now; let’s rebuild Nigeria.

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun