22 November 2017

Nigeria: Our Beloved Federal Republic of Confusion

opinion

A few years ago, someone said that he didn't like spending a lot of time in Europe and America whenever he visited, and he actually used to make a lot of visits. His reason was that those places were too organised for his comfort. He would rather spend time in Nigeria with its confusion. He could get away with anything and did as he liked. Most people in leadership positions in this country are well travelled. While some went to school abroad others have lived there for a reasonable amount of time. It is, however, a shame that just like the citizen I referred to above, we seem to enjoy the confusion that Nigeria has become in different aspects of its existence. We seem to like the fact that most things don't work here. In some cases, what is required to make things work may just be very little, but instead of fixing them we would rather wait for them to degenerate completely. This is true of our railway system that we left to rot and completely go out of business for several decades before the recent efforts to bring it back to life. Most public utilities are treated as if they belonged to no one, while we protect our privately-owned ones. That is the reason why someone would live in a comfortable house with all the amenities working, while similar amenities in his office are left to breakdown and permanently decay, particularly, if in the public sector!

Recently, I was trying to locate someone in one of the streets in mainland Lagos. It took me some hours of going back and forte before I could find the place. I then wondered, why we could not geographically map the country like it is done elsewhere. Why don't we have post codes so that everyone can easily be located once that person identifies his post code? I am not sure it is such an expensive project to embark on and even if it is, the advantages far outweigh the cost. Mapping every part of the country will not only help in locating ourselves, it will also help in fighting and reducing crime. With mapping, criminals will not be able to strike and disappear the way they do today. It will be easy to track them down and prosecute them. Even the numbering of houses on streets appears an intractable problem. In some places, you will have No. 9 come before No.3 and it could be that way for several years. In some cases, one street would bear two or more names at the same time. This is the case even in the highbrow Ikoyi Lagos, where some of the most expensive real estate in Nigeria are found. Related to mapping is our confused identity management system. Before the advent of the National Identity Card project, which by the way, does not seem to have so much traction, we did not have any way of identifying who was a Nigerian, except for those who could afford international passports. The introduction of the Bank Verification Number (BVN) by the banks has helped in identifying genuine and ghost bank customers. What to do with fake accounts and the balances therein is another matter altogether. If we have the will to execute a biometric identity management system, many criminal activities will be tough to execute as it will not be difficult to track down those behind them. A reliable identity management system could be integrated with the election management system and thus remove the need for permanent voter's cards since the identity cards will have all the information that a voter's card should have.

It is sad that we do not know how many we are in this country. We still rely on estimates! I had written about this recently. Attempts that were made in the past to do a head count all ended without reliable figures. Due to the fact that we do not know how many we are, we can hardly plan for our people which in turn leads to all the challenges we face with infrastructure. We also, hardly record births and deaths even though we know the data is necessary for updating population figures from a census.

We seem to reject technology which has made life a lot easier for humanity across the globe. Applying technology would resolve virtually all the challenges we face over identification and data management.

The way we have managed the oil assets with which we were blessed points to the height of confusion. We managed to build some four refineries several decades ago. We subsequently ran them aground such that we have continued to import petroleum products even when we export crude. Sometimes, I wonder if something is wrong with us. In the league of major oil producing economies, we are one of the two countries that import refined products. According to statistics from the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, (OPEC), in 2016, out of Nigeria's installed refining capacity of 455,000 barrels of crude per day, we only refined an average of 24,000 barrels per day locally. Our daily consumption was put at 408,000 barrels leaving a gap of 384,000 barrels per day which was filled by importation. The only other major producer that imports refined products is a fellow African country, Angola whose installed refining capacity in 2016 was put at 65,000 barrels per day. However, Angola was only able to locally refine 44,000 barrels per day while it imported 98,000 barrels per day to meet its total consumption of 142,000 barrels per day. So, what is the problem here? I believe that it is nothing but our ability and willingness to operate in confusion. It is not that we could not have maintained the refineries, after all, there are many older refineries elsewhere in the world that are operating efficiently. It is also not that we couldn't afford new ones, given that we spend so much money on things that make little or no sense while we ignore those expenditures that will not only save us money both in local and foreign currency, but will create jobs for our young people who now roam the streets in search of non-existent employment opportunities.

What about power? We seem to be comfortable with living in darkness and burning generators with all the associated hazards and costs. Ironically, even countries that depend on us for electricity boast of better power supply records than us. Our factories are running at exorbitant costs because of lack of power, forcing some of them to close down as their products cannot compete with cheaper imported products. The well- to- do have turned standby generators into main power sources while public power supply has been reduced to backups. How can a country develop without electricity? Yes, we had done something about it by letting the private sector get into generation and distribution, but the problems seem intractable as progress is very slow. Should we have done something about power earlier than now? Could we have used the days of oil boom to fix this major infrastructure? Our action, apparently came too little, too late and results are hardly noticeable. For instance, we celebrate when we reach a power generation level of 5000 megawatts of electricity for over 180m people. Meanwhile, South Africa produces about 252,000MW for 56 million people, Egypt, 187,000MW for 95m people, Algeria, 70,000MW for 40m people and Iran 286,000MW for 80m people. Can we in good conscience claim that we are competing with these nations?

Lack of power has also been attributed to the de-industrialisation of this economy. Those that are old enough would remember the factories that littered most of our cities, particularly, Ibadan, Kano, Aba, Port Harcourt and Lagos in those good old days. In fact, some towns had so many factories that the streets where those factories were located were named Factory Roads or Industry Roads and others Industrial Layouts and Estates. Except for Lagos that has managed to preserve its position, virtually every other industrial town has lost that status. Most of the factories for which Ibadan was renowned, have closed shop. The same is true of Kano and Aba. Major "industrial" activities that can be seen in Port Harcourt revolve around oil and gas. With this kind of situation, it is impossible to be talking of serious job creation.

Still on infrastructure, when you travel to other countries, you see road maintenance taking place almost round the clock. How come we wait for our own roads to collapse completely and then award contracts for their rehabilitation and reconstruction? Could we have done it differently? I remember growing up in this country and seeing road workers from what used to be called PWD- the Public Works Department. They were very effective in fixing potholes, and carrying out general maintenance of roads. It will be helpful to know what happened to that department and please don't tell me about FERMA? I know FERMA exists but I doubt that it is an effective alternative. I also know that some states set up such outfits that are at best ineffective. I would not talk a lot about the Nigerian Railway Corporation which was one of the largest employers of labour in the yesteryears. In the 1980s, I remember traveling from Port Harcourt to Kaduna and Kano by train, a journey of considerable distance and time. Somehow, we allowed that behemoth to collapse and no one raised an eyebrow. I am sure that if the corporation did not shut down for the length of time it did, the heavy expenditure we are incurring today to fix it would have been avoided. Yes, modernising the system is fine, but we seem to be starting afresh. Needless to highlight that the absence of an effective rail system has had a big toll on activities in the economy, increasing difficulty in evacuating goods and man and making access very difficult and expensive.

The Civil Service used to be one of the most important sectors of the economy. Today, virtually all of the Civil Service stinks. Many Civil servants will deliberately erect road blocks for the public they are supposed to be serving. You can hardly get anything done without avoidable strain or aggravation. Even the physical ambience of many of the offices leaves much to be desired. The intriguing part is that the civil servants themselves seem to accept the reduced standard. The same applies to the Police Force which was recently ranked the worst in the world.

It is justified to state that even government which is supposed to be the custodian and manager of these assets and institutions, has abdicated its responsibilities. In the wake of all these, institutions which should have been strengthened have rather been weakened. Once institutions are weak, corruption pervades the whole system. Once in a while, a strong man shows up to lead, talks tough and seemingly starts a fight as in the current fight against corruption. Because there are hardly strong institutions, once the strong man leaves, we all go back to where we were. The issue, therefore, should not be to look for strong men because they will come and go. If we have strong institutions they will take care of the confusion. While leadership has a lot of hand in creating the confusion, followership equally has its own fair share of the blame. First, followers seem to be comfortable with the persisting rot in the system and sometimes, we even consciously promote it, when we think it will benefit our short term purpose. The second point which is probably the most important one is that it is within the rights of followership to reject and resist the confusion. It is said that power belongs to the people. The people of Nigeria seem to be more preoccupied with primordial issues of ethnicity and religion that they lose sight of more important issues bordering on their welfare and survival. Some people think it is because most of the followers do not have the required level of education to know what to do. While I may agree with that assumption to an extent, I believe the issue goes beyond education. Even those who have some education seem to have been anesthetised to the confusion. Some people are in the habit of praising themselves and the country on what perceived progress has been made. Unfortunately, I believe that we are making progress in the wrong direction. The issues I highlighted here are just a few. I believe readers can identify other areas where we have authored confusion. Because I had extensively discussed education and healthcare in previous interventions, I deliberately left them off. If you think about them, you cannot but agree that those sectors have their own share of the confusion.

I believe we can still do something about our situation. Followership led by the elite should sit back and understand that if this country becomes a failed state, it is going to be the greatest losers. Everybody must not agree the first time, but we should start with the willing and draw up an agenda for genuine change and work on it. By the time we have a critical mass, we should move to insist on the quality of leadership that we want. If it had happened elsewhere, I believe it can happen here. Staying away from politics cannot help this situation. As 2019 approaches, those who know what to do should show greater interest in the political process and match words with action. This is the time to stand together and insist on installing quality leadership at all levels of the political structure. Leadership matters and if the right leader is not chosen, everyone lives to pay the high price. This is not the time to sit on the fence and expect that the right leader will emerge. It was Edmund Burke who observed that all it will take for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. We may not succeed at first attempt, but we should continue. It will require sacrifices and we must be willing to make them. After all, just like Ray Andersen said, "the powers that keep people in bondage do not relinquish control very easily"

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