Nigeria, wasted generations, wasted opportunities

Several years ago, I met this person in the home of a friend and mentor. He was from Rivers state in the Southern Eastern part of Nigeria; that was before Bayelsa State was carved out so you have an idea how far back this chance meeting was. We got talking, and soon the discussion turned to life and career opportunities (or lack of it) in Nigeria. It soon became clear this person was frustrated with life and was very bitter. He was bitter because he could not get a job in NNPC (Nigeria National Petroleum Company), because he was from the “wrong” part of the country, worse, that “wrong” part of the country was his home state that produce the oil that made the country rich. He could not get employment in the multinational oil companies either, because he didn’t know someone from the “right” side of the country.

To complicate issues, his home country of Ogoni land was seriously decimated by oil spill and other environmental disasters that made people unable to fish or self employ in other areas. This was the story of the average Nigerian that grew up in the late 70’s to early 90’s. To borrow Professor Wole Soyinka’s words, it was a “wasted generation”. That was when people look forward to the NYSC (the one year compulsory national service for all college and university graduates) as a gap year to pray for a job, not really to serve the nation, because life could be seriously terrifying if you don’t get a job before the end of that one year.

If our generation is wasted, I wonder what we should call the generation Prof. Soyinka referred to as wasted; in comparison; they are privileged. When you now look at the generation that followed ours; theirs is worse than wasted. It seemed life has left Nigeria behind. Nigeria seemed to be a big village that pretends to be a city. Nigeria is like a sad story that refused to be rewritten, a bad dream that refused to go away. Nigeria is a country of squandered riches and wasted opportunities per Onyeka Onwenu’s classic documentary of 1984. You can still see it on YouTube; you will appreciate the visible pain on her face as she faced the camera and narrated the sad story that was Nigeria. ( We never realized it was going to get worse.

Growing up, my father told me stories about pre independence politics, elections, and the infamous 1964 census, that was heavily rigged in favour of Northern Nigeria. In the words of the late Emeka Ojukwu, “Nigeria is the only country in the world where people living in the desert are more than those living by the coast line”. As irrational as that may seem, even plants and animals gravitate towards sustenance, but not Nigeria. Nigeria is an irrational creation of non rational human beings who thought only of their comfort and convenience; otherwise there was no way the North and South of “Nigeria” would be in the same country. Nigeria today is not a nation, but a collection of incompatible nations forced together by the 1914 amalgamation.

Not only did Nigeria wasted opportunities after independence to become a united prosperous nation, we also wasted political opportunities to grow into a powerful nation as the North had this idea they are superior to the South, and this idea still subsists till today. This was not only frustrating, but became one of the reasons that set off the chain of events that led to the unfortunate civil war of 1967 to 1970 that wasted over one million lives.

After the 1966 coup, the military moved in and abolished the regional governments, and replaced them with an ill advised unitary form of government that effectively truncated regional initiatives and tied the legs of those regions that wish to fly to those that still want to crawl in the 16th century. The twin policies of retard the south, for the North to catch up; variously called “Federal character and quota system” practically destroyed the Federal Civil Service. Capable hands took flight either abroad or to the private sector leaving the bureaucracy in the hands of morons.

Federal character ensures a Northerner with a first degree in Islamic studies get a job in NNPC while a southerner with an engineering degree will never get considered. The quota system ensures the North has a larger representation in any institution because of the various rigged censuses. Today there are more states in the North; more local government areas in the North, more representatives from the North, thereby getting more allocations from the Federation account than the South that produces the bulk of the revenue. The current government of President Buhari has not helped a bit, it’s like the federal character policy is on holiday, as it always is when the North occupies the presidency. But this time around it is horrible; we never saw nepotism on the current scale. Most of all senior positions in the Federal civil service are occupied by the North, 99% of management positions in the state owned NNPC is occupied by the North, while the South that produce the oil got next to nothing.

The principle of “let the North catch” up was at play when Buhari, then Military Head of State, in 1984 cancelled the Lagos Metro line rail project despite advanced initial work done. Nigeria eventually paid a huge penalty enough to almost complete the project. Yet the Abuja sinkhole project continued at breakneck speed. Cancelling the Lagos Metro line project was very myopic, wicked and criminal. The act was nothing but a reflection of the inborn desire to see the South retarded. The effect is what Lagos is still battling with today. It seemed no price will be too small and no stone too huge to overturn to keep the South destroyed and incapacitated. For the same reason, the then Central Bank of Nigeria Governor Lamido Sanusi, the recently deposed emir of Kano destroyed Intercontinental Merchant Bank and the Oceanic Bank, because they were owned by the wrong people from the wrong side of the country.

The current problems of Nigeria did not start in a single day, they started even before independence. It seemed some critical parameters of nation building were got wrong from the beginning. The then Northern Premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello  was quoted to have said, the aim of the North was to dip the Quran in the Atlantic Ocean, meaning to conquer and subjugate the Southern states; that was not a good mindset for a progressive nation. That policy was vigorously pursued through the various Military governments and surprisingly, with the help of gullible Southern leaders.

The self appointed conquerors had no idea of what to do either. A onetime Military Head of State said, (I quote my father) “money is not our problem, but how to spend it” I would not believe that statement if I heard it from another source. In a nation that had no modern transportation system, no world class research institutions, no top of the line manufacturing plants, yet someone still wandered what to do with money. Now that we know what to do, we no longer have the money, we have wasted it all.

Where Nigeria is today is a consequence of years, nay decades of abuse of political and economic process. We neither planned for the future, nor anticipated it. We believed the common saying “tomorrow never comes”. What we did not realize was that tomorrow actually comes; only when it does, it comes under another name, “today”. The “future” came “today” and we were not ready. I visited Lagos as an adult for the first time in 1978, and moved to live and work there in 1983. I left in 2000. In twenty two years the only major road built in Lagos was the third mainland bridge, Governors Fashola, and Ambode had built some since then, but a single bridge in 22 years is not a good barometer of progress, it’s nothing to be proud of. I returned to Nigeria in 2012 after 12 years away since 2000, the Lagos/Ibadan expressway was under repairs; 8 years after in 2020 it’s still not completed. I wandered how long it would take if it was a new road project entirely; it possibly will take a century, by then maybe there would be no need for such roads anymore, because cars will be flying. The Lagos light rail system has been under construction for years now, when will it be completed? We seem to do things in retrospect, not in anticipation.

Something needs to done fast about Nigeria. It has become frustrating to explain what is happening there. One colleague downloaded an article on Nigeria from the internet, apparently he wanted me to see it, and I was not on seat, so he left it on my chair. The title of the article: “Nigeria; worse than a banana republic”. It is not fun when you read such things, but the politicians do not care. All they want is their time at the till. Just immediately after one election, instead of settling down to governance, they are talking about the next elections. Now they are talking about 2023 elections, when nothing tangible has been done to address urgent problems confronting the people. The political class is “fantastically corrupt” and unbelievably ignorant of their role in governance. What is the purpose of these elections anyway? Some ex Governors have robbed their states bankrupt while on holiday in the Senate, collecting unbelievable pension from the states and double dipping in the senate collecting another pay as Senators. The “till” will soon run dry; you don’t need to be a prophet to say that accurately. As Nigerian leaders do not anticipate the future, they are behaving as if oil is still what it used to be. Nigeria is sitting on kegs gunpowder.

Any developing nation (a politically correct name for under developed nations) that spends more than 40% of its budget on recurrent expenditure, is asking for trouble, because there won’t be enough for capital projects that actually stimulates the economy. The compensation package of a Nigerian Senator is N13.5 million monthly. Multiply that by three Senators for each of the thirty six states, plus one for the Federal Capital territory (109). The House Representatives (360 of them) earn N12M each monthly; for doing what?

The house of Reps looks like a boarding school and most of them are dozing when the house is in session, why we need such over bloated, over compensated national assembly is still a mystery? It is a sink hole, something needs to be done. The cost of governance is a huge problem of the current system; aside of the National Assembly, there are 36 state governors, 36 deputy governors, and 36 legislatures with numerous uncountable aides, some with dubious titles. The national assembly purchase sleek vehicles every time a new legislature is inaugurated.

It has been said for a long time that Nigeria is on the brink of a precipice, the nation is there today, and the tipping point could be anytime. May it not be violent like the Arab Spring of 2010/2011. The Arab spring did not give any warning, it flared up in Tunisia because a poor peasant got fed up with the system and self immolated. The pent up frustration of the people erupted like a volcano. There is need for political, economic and social reforms in Nigeria to avoid such violent eruption.

Many ethnic nationalities, like the Yorubas of the South West, the Igbos of the South East have been agitating for self determination for some time now; it is wise to look closely into this while it is still peaceful. Just recently, the middle belt broke away from the Northern political union; saying they too have been oppressed for long by the Fulanis; this was unthinkable a year ago. All those sitting pretty in the national assembly and the various government houses will not be safe when the eruption happens, because it is those armed security guards protecting them that will shoot first.

Politically, Nigeria need to restructure before it is too late (some say it is too late already). There is need to go back to true fiscal federalism. Each region should determine their pace and run their race. No need to hamper one region so that another region can catch up, that never happens. The crawling regions will never catch up, because the south has never slumbered despite all the frustrations to slow it down. The agitation today is to restructure, let this be done before the 2023 elections, otherwise there may not be any election at all. May this not become a self fulfilling prophesy.

There also need to be a new social reorientation. It is sickening to see how much money is wasted on parties and “spraying” that still goes on in the country when some are starving. Let Nigeria prioritise her social values. It is disgraceful that Bill Gates spends more in Nigeria, on Nigerians than the Nigerian rich. The billionaires rarely do anything for their communities, other than for themselves; our people never give back to the society, partly because the government has not given anything anyway. Each household is like a local government, generating self electricity, water and provides own security; however that should not be a reason not to give back to the society.

We need to look forward to a better society, it could be better than this. We have the potentials to be a great nation. Nigeria must wake up before it is too late. The waste must not continue, otherwise there may be nothing left to waste.

God bless Nigeria.

Oludare Ayeni


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