31 December 2012

Nigeria: No More Excuses, Mr President


President Goodluck Jonathan recently, yet again, invited Nigerians to be patient with his administration's apparent inability to successfully tackle the nation's myriad of social and economic problems.

The coming year, he promised, would be better. At a Christmas worship session at the Anglican Church of the Advent in Abuja, the president appeared primed to respond to the sermon by the Primate of the Church of Nigeria, Reverend Nicholas Okoh, who commended what he said were government's achievements in rice production, rehabilitation of railway transport, and road reconstruction in the aspects of these he had witnessed in Ebonyi State, and called for spiritual, traditional, and political leadership to give priority to the welfare of Nigeria's poor.

Adding to Okoh's list, Jonathan said the administration conducted free and fair elections and made major efforts to address its security challenges. He noted that his administration would appear to be slow; this was necessary in order to avoid rushing to play to the gallery, he added.

He had been decisive when the need arose, he said, pointing as evidence, the government's response to this year's floods that ravaged many parts of the country.

It was a homily likely to have gone down well with fellow worshippers, but would certainly leave people outside the congregation wondering what could be up the president's sleeve for 2013 that he had not applied in the more than two and half years that he has so far been in office.

In a political environment where performance is often judged by a rush of awards of contracts to cronies who do not deliver, it may be reassuring to hear that the government is moving at some speed of molasses to avoid making costly mistakes. Jonathan, however, has to contend with several legacies of failed performance. For instance, his predecessor, Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, also pleaded for time when it became apparent to Nigerian that there was no movement in real government business. There is no reason not to believe that in six months time, President Jonathan would not plead for more time to fulfil his pledges.

The beating of drums about fixing the railways didn't start from Jonathan; it goes way back to the 1975 - 1980 National Development Plan, which proposed to build a standard gauge rail at the cost of 2 billion naira, revised in the 1980 - 1985 National Development Plan at the higher cost of 7 billion naira. At precisely the time when China launched a fast train that will cut a journey of 20 hours to 8 hours, President Jonathan should offer Nigerians a railway transportation vision that is more in tune with the times, not a throwback to the past.

No one can deny the enormous security and social and economic challenges that have dogged the nation in recent times. But these are the reasons governments are formed to address. At a time when Nigeria is being tagged with a dismally low score in corruption index, such a gesture as the president made in the church should not be part of a politician's hollow talk to earn symbolic credit. It is clearly not in anyone's interest to have President Jonathan's tenure become a time lost in the nation's aspiration for development and the consolidation of democracy and good governance.

There is of course some merit in planned, cautious and cost-effective 'slow' performance. The president should hearken to Primate Okoh's injunction that the welfare of the common man should be the primary guide of governance. The poor are dying by incredible numbers, through infant and maternal malnutrition, lack of funds to buy basic drugs; fatal accidents in cheap buses running on potholed, poorly-maintained roads, and from communal conflicts triggered mostly by the very absence of economic opportunities that the government failed to provide. Their number one enemy is lack of the proverbial "timely action" by officials. This is a grave challenge, aggravated by a cynicism that comes from perception by the poor of their leaders wearing their obesity in public. These are the people for whom the government is the only enabler; and who would not be impressed by the president's asking for more patience after two and half years of unfulfilled pledges.

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