My Open Letter To Nigerians
To you, my fellow compatriots, I say, “Do not turn away your attention from this epistle of mine; I address you plainly.” Do you know that we, the people determine what manner of nation we want built? Let us reason together. Every time you cast a vote, you launch into the unknown like the fisherman casts his net in hope; you don't know what you will bring up—a monster or a good manager; a skillful guide or a blind one. You cannot tell what the elected public official will turn into (they change so often). And those Nigerians that do not vote, or refuse to vote, have sacrificed their right to complain about the design of the craft; those that could not vote for no fault of theirs, must offer support through good deeds and wise counsel how the design should be made or made better.
Citizens deserve their leaders (rulers), who are only representatives of our unique “coset”. The best of leaders cannot succeed at the task of development if the morally ugly elements of society preponderate; if the warriors against the best interest of society dominate. I am knowingly amazed at how many of you my compatriots speak gleefully about the misfortunes of your country as though they were those of your leader (ruler) alone. I am sadly amused that some of you assume immunity only because you live outside the shores of Nigeria. I must remind you, who fall in this category, that you are only refugees wherever you presently reside. The glories of your palace fade into miniature insignificance in the global awareness of the broken walls of your home city.
Government, like politics, is always local. Many Nigerians I come across betray ignorance about the roles of governments in Nigeria; and some of these have high academic degrees, but are so ignorant about this matter. The Nigerian constitution shares functions to the three levels (tiers) of government—federal, state, and local. Do you know who your local government chairman is? I guess you don't know, and this also illustrates our defective performance in our distinguished office of Citizen. I propose you read the Fourth Schedule of the Nigerian constitution (it contains only 47 lines, some of which are very short). This Schedule states unambiguously the functions of a local government council, which include: provision and maintenance of homes for the destitute and infirm; establishment, maintenance and regulation of slaughter houses, slaughter slabs, markets, motor parks and public conveniences; construction and maintenance of roads, streets, street lightings, drains and other public highways, parks, gardens, open spaces, or such public facilities as may be prescribed from time to time by the State House of Assembly; collection of certain levies and taxes; provision and maintenance of public conveniences, sewage and refuse disposal (i.e. waste management); provision and maintenance of primary, adult and vocational education; development of agriculture and natural resources, other than the exploitation of minerals; provision and maintenance of health services; and provision of such services that may be conferred upon it by the State House of Assembly.
Pause and consider those functions of your local government council (which are not exhaustive) stated above. Does your local government council provide those services? I guess your honest answer will be No. Do you now understand why our towns and villages have become the capitals of garbage, indiscipline and disorder? Let us do some math. Many of our 774 Local Government Areas (LGAs) have populations of sub-one hundred thousand (<100,000). Some of them receive from the Federation Account more than one billion naira (>N1, 000, 000, 000) a year. The 2016 federal budget proposal contains a capital expenditure of about two trillion naira (N 2, 000, 000, 000, 000), which is the highest ever in the history of our country. If you divide this by 774, you get N2.584 billion per LGA. The question we must ask ourselves is how much of the monthly allocations from the Federation Account and the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) (at both local and state levels) is invested by our local government councils in the provision of those constitutional services? And do we, citizens care to enquire and apply pressure at this all important tier of government? The average population of LGAs in Nigeria is 219, 000. If the population of your LGA is not less than 219, 000, and the federal government intervention in the 2016-2017 fiscal year in your LGA is less than N 2.5 billion in value, then you must ask some questions. Furthermore, you can do the same math with respect to the capital expenditure component of your state budget to see if your local government is being short-changed. The federal and state governments must consider this math in the interest of fairness in the distribution of our commonwealth.
At the local government level, it is all common to see “thugs” harassing citizens and extorting all kinds of sums from the people in the name of levies and sundry taxes, which are not applied to the provision of the services listed above. Such monies end up in private pockets, including the hellishly insatiable ones of the local government chairmen, certain traditional rulers and thug leaders. But you see, we the famous “national” opinion leaders and critics are too timorous to get involved with “local politics”! We are fixated on the central government, which seems so far away from the people, and pontificate on good governance at that level. Don't misunderstand me, compatriots. We must, but we must lower our eyes also. The moment we put our local government chairmen under our microscopic review, good governance shall begin to sprout up across Nigeria. We are often too federally-minded to instigate development in our backyard.
Compatriots, permit me to bring up a very sensitive matter at this point. For years, we have complained about “restructuring of our federation”, “rights of indigenous peoples for self-determination”, “The Biafra agitation”, “the Middle Belt peoples interests, as distinct from the Muslim North's”, “the Hausa-Fulani domination”, “the neglect of the Niger Delta people”, “Born-to-rule syndrome”, 'the mistake of 1914”, etc. I have written copiously about all of these and more (For instance, read my series “Nigeria and her seven secrets”). But this is what I have observed through the years as I have matured in perception and depth of thought (The writer grows every moment of meditation). These remonstrations, contrary, perhaps, to our pure intentions, are being used as excuses for poor performance in public offices by our governors and local government chairmen. Let me illustrate to you, my friends, how even under this extant “fraudulent” constitution of Nigeria, our elected (or selected) governors and local government chairmen can provide us with all the basic infrastructure and opportunities to create wealth and fulfil our cherished dreams. I quickly remark, if a man is not faithful with little, he cannot be faithful with much.
We have had some states build “federal roads” within their territory, and then claim compensation from the federal government thereafter. This can be replicated in just any other area of development. In the concurrent legislative list (Second Schedule of the Nigerian constitution), there are 30 items. For instance, a State House of Assembly can legislate on generation, transmission and distribution of electricity within the state. While some states have taken advantage of this to provide electricity to their people, others have done nothing to improve electricity supply. Generation and distribution of electricity are now in private hands; and the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) is now being managed by a private firm. The role of the Federal Government is mainly that of regulation and facilitation of investment in this all important sector (It is the same scenario we have in the telecommunications sector). I wonder how many Nigerians know this. And if our brethren vandalize electricity infrastructure that are now privately owned, don't we deserve to suffer the consequences together if we fail to condemn such and educate our less than knowledgeable folks against this cannibalizing act? When citizens have taken up arms (economic or otherwise) against their country, shall there not be consequences for us all? For instance, if Nigerians decide to destroy everything within reach and “bring disorder to the house” (courtesy of President Buhari), how many security personnel shall we require to contain this situation? If Nigerians should vandalize telecommunications infrastructure in Nigeria, would that be the fault of our government? Security personnel in any country can never be greater than the people; they only complement the resolve of the people to be safe and free. A people builds its nation. Nigeria needs us more than we need her. We are the ones to build this place!
I know of a federal university where staff in the Works department went and deliberately blocked a water pipeline, and then asked for almost one hundred thousand naira for “repairs” in order to allow supply to a block! I know of a federal institution where electricity supply was disrupted so that some staff members will receive plenty of federal money for “repairs and maintenance.” I know of a federal establishment where the “Oga at the top” received “returns” from inflated “lawful” expenditure. What kind of country is ours? Are there not federal and state universities, polytechnics and colleges in Nigeria, where students are helpless, not knowing who to report to when they are literally forced to part with large sums of money for “hand-outs”, “sorting”, and the like by their lecturers, and their professors, heads of departments, deans and other principal university leaders do nothing to protect them? Does not the National Universities Commission (NUC) know that universities hire mercenaries to pose as resident faculty during accreditation visitations, and yet no punitive measures are taken (even expatriates working in those universities know the formula for getting easy accreditation for academic programs from NUC, and are playing along)? Some of you compatriots, who were in the Diaspora, returned to Nigeria to work, and are now more professional than your home-nurtured brethren in the art of graft.
Two boys went to a wise man in their community who was famed for having the right answers to all problems (a kind of a polymath). They had caught a live bird and hidden behind them as they got to the wise man. They asked, “Wise man, what do we have in our hands?” The wise man starred at them for a moment and then replied, “A bird.” The boys asked, “Dead or alive?” Their conspiracy was that, if the wise man should say, “Alive,” they would squeeze the bird's head and show the wise man a “dead” bird. And if he said, “Dead,” they would show him a live bird. Therefore, whatever answer the wise man gave would be “wrong.” The wise man thoughtfully answered, “As you would have it, my sons.” Nigerians, we will always have the Nigeria we deserve. We are free to do with Nigeria as we wish; but we cannot choose the consequences, they will come naturally. Nigeria is a “failed state” (as some of us are quick to assert joyfully) to the extent that we are a failed people; we have failed in moral values, choosing present gratification over enduring and sustaining development. We give out to strangers the family portion in exchange for crumbs. We invite foreigners to destroy our people if only we shall fulfil our contrived prophecy against the nation. We steal what is ours and share with outsiders.
Although legislation on railways is in the exclusive legislative list (item 55), this has not stopped some state governments to embark on railway projects. Similarly, I should expect state governments that are interested, to discuss with the central government on exploitation of solid minerals within their states, even though legislation on mines and minerals is in the exclusive legislative list (item 39). Governments in Nigeria are not supposed to be antithetical in development efforts, but complementary. The current constitution is not a hindrance to development as some would have us believe. We must change the narrative. Nigeria does not need physical restructuring; rather, Nigerians require social re-awakening to know how we can solve our problems without allowing sentiments to blind us.
My state (Benue) is presently governed by a Benue citizen, not someone from Enugu, Taraba, or any other state. If he does not provide to Benue people security and welfare (the primary responsibility of government), I must not call for “restructuring of the federation”, “regionalism”, or the creation of Tiv State. The Fulani herdsmen have been raiding my state and other states in Nigeria (North, Middle belt, and south) for years, government-after-government (whether headed by a “Christian” or a “Muslim”) at the federal level, destroying our farmlands, homes, and raping our mothers and daughters in the process. It is very simplistic to say that this is a Muslim agenda to take over Nigeria. This is a problem of resource scarcity. I have personally opposed taking over of lands from our people as “grazing reserves”, since this would contradict Section 42 of Nigeria's constitution. How do we solve this problem? I think those who kill human beings for cattle rustling, who rustle cattle, and who invade and destroy farmlands and homes should all be prosecuted. The constitutional freedom of movement does not include trespassing people's farmlands or occupying people's homes. That is anarchy. And if herdsmen are allowed to carry arms, then farmers and community vigilantes must also carry firearms to defend their communities. I think this will deter the belligerents. But we have elected our local government chairmen, governors and president to protect us. That is the least we expect of President Buhari. If he fights against Boko haram, he must also stop these lawless cattle herders otherwise a bigger conflagration will be kindled. He has met this problem, and he must lead in solving it.
I have heard about and spoken against the practice of “quota system” which is skewed to favor a particular part of the country (i.e. Muslim North). But let me say this. If local and state governments provide world-standard education to their citizens, opportunities for jobs and productivity, many Nigerians shall not care about the discriminations that are fraught with quota system. It is failure at the lower tiers of government that fuels anger, sanctified in self-delusive assumption of marginalization. It is a classic in hypocrisy to see local public officials loudly asking from the central government for “my people” what they don't offer at home.
Compatriots, I have tried to convey to you four things: First, we must focus on every tier of government, and understand the responsibilities of each, and hold the key players to account. If, for instance, a governor complains that he is being hindered by the constitution, and cannot provide good governance, I would liken such to a man who licks his fingers while muttering that the broth is sour. Secondly, we must not think that our problems are caused by other Nigerians, and our “sons of the soil” are not complicit. In other words, the solution to our problems cannot be found either in “restructuring of the federation” or in secession. There is no group war between ethnic groups or religions in Nigeria; our imaginations don't always confer reality. But what I know is that social growth always projects areas of conflict because of paucity of resources; and how a people resolves them sets them apart or in the midst of fools. Thirdly, if we destroy the little we have, we will suffer the consequences together. Vandalism does not hurt the “government” but us, the people. Finally, our governments (local, state and federal) must provide us prompt and adequate security. This is the least we expect from government. We should not expect perfection of our governments; and our governments must not expect unconditional acquiescence in spite of unsavory evidence.
Compatriots, no nation becomes civilized where the people hand over their lives to government, and become spectators, blaming government for every form of personal idleness and indulgence, abdication of neighborly responsibility, and for their personal choices, wondering why government did not stop them. Government is not God. And even God does not impose himself on us. He allows us to make our choices; but never indulges us to choose the consequences.
Written by Leonard Karshima Shilgba.