29 December 2017

Nigeria: The March of Progress and the March of Misery

opinion

Klump. Klump. Klump. It is the inexorable march of human progress. Nations march; individuals march. Kings march and commoners march. Rulers march and the ruled march.

The grand purpose of our relentless march is to move away from the undesirable to the desirable; from a life of hard scrabble in a village, for instance, to a modern life of luxury in towns and cities, as in Lekki in Lagos, Asokoro in Abuja and other enclaves of the wealthy and the well-heeled. Nations march to move from being under-developed to developing and thence to developed nations. The developed nations march because they want to develop even more and uneven the score.

Our march is programmed into calendars measured over a 12-month period on the Gregorian one or 13 lunar months in the Islamic one. This helps nations and individuals to assess their progress over this stipulated period of time. The end of the calendar period marks the end of one year and the beginning of another. It is the time we check our progress.

As we stand on the promontory and look into the vista of the new year, 2018, I am sure the pundits are busy working on the mathematics of our national progress. In keeping with the time-honoured tradition, I found myself looking into our national progress in 2017, the year that is about to yield place to a new one. It is easy to check this by looking into the statements of ambitions of the federal and state governments captured in their 2017 annual budgets. I made a check list.

First on my list is the condition of our roads, federal and state. All the governments promised to fix the roads but as those who travelled during the Christmas holidays can verily testify, everything remained the same. The roads were not fixed. Their travels were not pleasurable; they were obstacle races. Some people lost the race and never reached their villages. They became heart stopping statistics in morgues.

The Romans said civilisation follows the roads. If so, I am afraid we have a long way to go before we can claim to be a civilised nation. No roads, no progress; no civilisation. It figures. As you certainly know, fixing our roads is a perennial promise by our governments. Yet, every year, they fail to keep the promise. Inter and intra-state roads are pathetic pictures of absent governments and absent rulers. I am sure some of our rulers subscribe to Napoleon's dictum that promises are made to be broken. It is nothing to be proud of.

Next on my list is light. Our country has been wrestling with this problem for more than two generations now. It seems the witches and wizards still have the upper hand. They prefer darkness to light. We must acknowledge the gallant efforts of our successive rulers by whatever titles they were or are known - heads of state or presidents - in addressing this problem. It is not unpatriotic to admit that this problem would be embarrassing in countries where shame and embarrassment motivate rulers to be truly responsible for the ruled.

No one seems to know now how much this country has spent, trying to give us light and make our light, when available, steady since the return to civil rule in 1999. The last time we heard about these huge expenditures they ran into some scary figures in billions of dollars. Yet, here we are; still less light, more darkness. Candle sellers would never starve in Nigeria, I tell you.

I trawled through the budgetary allocation to the Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing to see what the government intended to do about the electricity challenge in 2017. It was pure torture wading through the 97-page document. I wanted to know if we would celebrate 2017 as the year the government moved us from the pure torture of being subjected to the pure Greek of megawatts, as if this is a nation of electrical engineers. I found it all truly opaque.

Well, not quite. I could understand the votes for newspapers and magazines which, I believe the ministry personnel might likely read in the dark back home. Still, I could see that the ministry had a generous vote of N42, 285,003, 785 for the 'construction/provision of electricity.' My problem is what this translated into in terms of improved electricity in the country. You have to read the budget provisions to have a fairly good idea of what the ministry is battling with - transmission lines and transformers, for instance, virtually throughout the country.

In the times before these, we were told that the problem of epileptic power supply had to do with inadequate power generation. That was when we learnt about something called megawatts. The government thought it wise to separate power generation from power transmission to make both ends more efficient. For where? Now we are told that the distribution companies cannot evacuate and distribute what is generated because the old, rickety transmission lines cannot carry the load. It puts us in square one. Pox on the witches and wizards.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the ministry budgeted for solar street lights in various communities such as Ondo central, various towns in Yobe south senatorial district, Oluyole federal constituency, Oyo State and in 25 communities in Niger north senatorial district. You would think these people have never heard of Agila. Any way, this is part of the cosmetics of development. These communities would enjoy their street lights only to go home and light their candles.

Third on my list are the fuel problems we have been facing for as long as anyone can remember. Christmas and the new year period each year brings us the agony of induced fuel scarcity despite promises from the right quarters that all is well. We spend hours in fuel queues only to buy it at inflated prices from the thriving black market at petrol stations. Here is the double wahala: you have no light and you have no fuel to power your I-pass-my-neighbour generator.

Here is the biting irony. Nigeria has four oil refineries located in Port Harcourt, Kaduna and Warri. They have a combined installed capacity of refining 445,000 barrels per day. But we depend 90 per cent on imported fuel. No, there is nothing shameful about that. In any case, living with shame is as Nigerian as the hot dog is American.

Let me not be the one to tell you that none of the four refineries is working at full capacity. Nor do I want you to hear from me that petrol is still being subsidised at N26.00 per litre; and this, long after we were told that the government had removed subsidy from petroleum products. Quote the Managing Director of NNPC, Maikanti Baru, on that. Should you feel like weeping, do so after eating the new year lunch of rice and chicken. It helps to weep on rice-and-chicken filled stomach.

Fourth on my list is the fate of poor and starving civil servants and pensioners in at least 27 states, including my own beloved home state of Benue, who are owed salary and pension arrears running into between eight and 12 months. Not long after he assumed office, President Muhammadu Buhari took steps to improve the situation when he gave the states a generous intervention fund to enable them do well by their employees and those who gave of their best to the states in their youth. Since then, the president has given the states two tranches of the Paris refund. But the story remains the same in the affected states. And their excellencies are still excellent.

In 2016 when things were rough, we said things would be better in 2017. You can now see that nothing changed this year either. The old problems followed us from 2016 to 2017. You may be right to nurse the hope that 2018 would be different. At least, recession would not repeat itself. However, I advise you to raise your hope in moderation. All the problems of 2017 will be with us in 2018, making the new year feel old, very old: bad roads, none or at best epileptic power supply, fuel difficulties and uncleared salary arrears of civil servants and pensioners.

Klump. Klump. Klump. We march on to the poor man's anthem: e go better.

Nigeria

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