Is The National Cake Worth Eating?

Source: Matthew Ma.
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Matthew Ma.

“Our national cake, which we are all entitled to, is good roads, quality education for our children, a supportive environment for entrepreneurs, job creation, and reliable electricity. These are the pillars of a thriving society. If we indulge in consuming aportion of the national cake for our own selfish reasons, we forfeit our right to the main cake when it's ready to be shared. Therefore, before you bite that national cake, ask yourself: is it worth a moment of pleasure and a lifetime of suffering?”

Nigeria faces a multitude of complex challenges. On the one hand, there is a pervasive sense of insecurity due to incidents of kidnapping for ransom, farmers and herder’s insurgency, armed robbery, and other organized crimes. On the other hand, there is a sluggish pace of economic development, an alarming rate of unemployment, and a distressing level of poverty and deprivation. However, at the heart of these issues lies the pervasive and destructive force of corruption, which has plagued the country for decades. Unfortunately, it is believed that this scourge is perpetuated by a particular mindset among Nigerians, commonly referred to as the "national cake" mentality. The title"Is the National Cake Worth Eating?" is a thought-provoking statement that raises questions about the drawbacks of our national resources. A “national cake” mentality is the cancer that continues to turn our politicians into members of questionable character. In the 36 states of Nigeria (including Abuja), we see men and women who are scandalously known as Legislators but legislate mainly on how best to distribute the most significant portions of our cake to themselves. It baffles me to find a fertile ground that propels the greed that our State Legislators exhibit. I am shocked to see legislators across the 36 states strategize how best to eat our “national cake.” To say that this is evil would be reducing an obnoxious scenario to the level of comedy. It is pure wickedness for the legislators to be feeding fat while the people they claim to serve collapse and die of hunger, malnutrition, and numerous preventable diseases.

So, what is this so-called national cake? While the phrase literally refers to a cake that represents a nation, in Nigeria, it is commonly used to describe the country's national wealth. The concept was introduced in the early 1960s to emphasize that the wealth of the nation belongs to all Nigerians and not just a select few. The idea behind the national cake is that every citizen should have access to the country's wealth, which is primarily derived from crude oil sales and exports. However, the original philosophical meaning behind the concept has been lost and distorted in our country, and it is now commonly associated with a privileged few against the vast majority of the populace. This raises important questions about whether the national cake is worth eating. Those who remember the Gowon era are likely familiar with the famous statement, "The problem with the nation is not money, but how to spend it." In 1973, during his tenure as head of state, Gen Yakubu Gowon made a statement about Nigeria's abundance of oil money. At first glance, the comment may seem naive or reckless, but upon closer examination, it becomes clear that it was true then and remains true today. Nigeria has always had a supply of money since the discovery of oil. The issue lies in how the money is spent or squandered, as some would argue. For example, the amount of money spent on running Nigeria's democracy is staggering. Billions of Naira are allocated each month to local governments, senatorial districts, and states, with little to show for it. If even half of this money were spent wisely, Nigeria would be in a much better position today. However, due to widespread corruption and incompetence, the country is where it is. So, what is the solution? One possible answer is to examine the differences between Nigerian and Western democracies, using the US as a case study.

First, in the United States and other Western countries, elections are primarily funded by public donations from individuals and organizations who support a candidate's campaign. This means that even wealthy candidates, like Donald Trump, rely on the financial support of their party and donors. However, in Nigeria, elections are typically funded by aspirants or by wealthy "godfathers." If a candidate wins, their primary responsibility may be to recover the funds spent on their campaign, often referred to as the "national cake." Second, it is a well-known fact that in the United States, politicians tend to accumulate wealth after leaving office rather than during their tenure. This phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that while in office, many companies seek their assistance in securing contracts or passing laws. However, once they leave office, these same companies often offer them full-time positions or consulting roles, allowing them to continue to leverage their connections within the government. As a result, it is not uncommon to find retired or defeated politicians serving on the boards of various US companies. Third, the governing process in the United States is designed to be efficient and effective by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable components. For instance, if you encounter a pothole on your street, you wouldn't need to contact your state governor or Senator. Instead, you could reach out to your Mayor or council chairman, who is equipped to handle such matters promptly. This is in sharp contrast to Nigeria, where many people do not know who their council chairman is, and even if they know, it may lead to insignificant outcomes.Today, the current state of salary arrears in 23 out of 36 Nigerian states raises questions about the validity of the Gowon statement and the availability of easy money for many Nigerians. Since the discovery of oil in Bayelsa in 1956, the Nigerian governance discourse has been dominated by the concept of "sharing" the "national cake." This has led to a fundamental change in the mindset of many Nigerians, reducing the Nigerian dream to the simplistic struggle of trying to get a "bite" of this "national cake." Currently, Nigeria's abundant natural resources are not being utilized for the benefit of the country as a whole. Instead, individuals are taking advantage of them to accumulate wealth for themselves. Experts have pointed out that the country's leaders are driven by greed and have manipulated the government to serve their own interests. Policies are often fraudulent, and regulations are used to extract bribes. Despite numerous cases of corruption and embezzlement, many offenders have escaped punishment. This culture of impunity and evasion is pervasive in Nigeria.

The "national cake" mentality has become synonymous with the opportunity to join the ranks of the country's elite, including politicians and businesspeople, and gain access to wealth quickly. Unfortunately, this culture has given rise to the practice of "bring your own people on board," which perpetuates institutionalized nepotism, where opportunities are shared only with those closest to you. This cake represents the ease of access to wealth that should be available to all but is limited to a select few. Originally intended to leverage the country's oil wealth for the benefit of the elites, it has now expanded to include all opportunities, from public funds to government contracts and appointments. Any chance to access funds with little accountability but unlimited financial opportunities is part of the national cake. Our economic model is built around the idea of high reward and minimal effort as long as you are in the right place at the right time. Instead of working together to create a better national cake, we are focused on securing our own piece. The "chop make I chop" mindset has unfortunately become the norm in our governance. People prioritize their immediate needs over the greater good, saying "If I don't bite now, when will I?"Our political leaders often offer us a small portion while keeping the more significant amount for themselves. We must reject this false generosity and demand a fair distribution of resources for all. We must remember that problems persist even after we have eaten our share of the cake.

The distribution of national wealth in our country has unfortunately been concentrated among a few elites, even within political parties. It's no secret that many political parties engage in the practice of sharing money during rallies. The more money a party shares, the more members it attracts, leading to increased corruption within the political landscape. It's disheartening to see that many Nigerians align themselves with the Ruling Party not because of the competence and ingenuity of its leaders but because they hope to partake in the sharing of the national cake. It's important to note that this mentality is not limited to the ruling class; many other Nigerians are also guilty of it. As the saying goes, "If the head of a fish is spoiled, the body cannot escape the decay." For instance, in 2016, President Mohammadu Buhari's administration launched the National Social Investment Program (NSIP), a groundbreaking policy in Nigeria. The NSIP aimed to combat poverty and hunger, as it was reported that up to 62 percent (around 100 million) of Nigerians lived below the Western poverty line, surviving on less than $1 per day. The NSIP consisted of four subsets: the National Home-Grown School Feeding (NHGSF), which provided locally grown food to primary school children; the General Enterprise and Empowerment Program (GEEP), a micro-lending initiative for traders, farmers, and women; N-Power, which trained young graduates and paid them a monthly stipend of N30,000 for two years; and Conditional Cash Transfers, which gave N5,000 monthly to the poorest of the poor. While these programs were generally successful, there were some instances of corruption and misinformation, such as vendors supplying substandard food and officials favoring their relatives for loans. In the COVID-19 era, even the relief supplies provided by the government and private donors were vandalized while government officials hoarded them. The supplies included food items such as rice, spaghetti, instant noodles, and garri, which were donated by the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management, and Social Development. The discovery of these supplies in large quantities led the people taking them away, claiming it was their "national cake."

The mindset of biting the 'national cake' continuous to bring numerous problems, particularly in relation to corruption and bribery. This idea has fueled the embezzlement of public funds and other related issues, leading to a dangerous hunger for power among Nigerian politicians. Unfortunately, the notion of a cake for all has been twisted to mean a cake for a select few, resulting in an intense desire among people to hold positions of power and leadership. This is primarily due to the fact that leadership positions in Nigeria often come with access to the country's resources and wealth. As a result, elections in Nigeria are marred by political assassinations, the influence of influential political figures, violence, kidnapping, bribery, and other forms of corruption. These challenges have made it difficult for Nigeria to establish a stable and fair political system. In the political landscape, sharing is a prevalent aspect of governance, akin to the distribution of stomach infrastructure. It serves as a convenient means of easing tensions within the polity and among politicians. Whether it's the National Assembly divvying up principal positions or the Federal government providing fiscal bailouts to states, sharing is a recurring theme. For instance, there have been reports of discontent among stakeholders of the All-Progressive Congress (APC) in Benue regarding the N5 billion palliative provided by the federal government to alleviate the impact of fuel subsidy removal on impoverished citizens. Apparently, some members of the party are not happy with the manner the State governor is spending the N2 billion grant designated for the State from the promised N5 billion. As a result, a member of the National Assembly removed the governor's picture from his office, citing concerns over his lack of commitment to the welfare of the people. There is a growing concern among Benue indigenes that party stakeholders may pressure the governor to divert funds intended for development to private pockets.

In recent times, the national cake has become increasingly attainable for the ordinary person, resulting in a heated race for public funds that are then converted into personal gains. This trend has transcended the confines of oil wealth and has become deeply ingrained in the psyche of every Nigerian. Instead of striving to boost productivity, many people will dedicate themselves to acquiring skills solely to partake in the national cake and achieve success and wealth. Regrettably, the worth of hard work is frequently eclipsed by the appeal of swift and effortless riches. By taking a purposeful tour of Nigerian households, one can gain insight into where the idea of bitingthe national cake begins." For example, I entrusted a 10-year-old child with N1000 to purchase an item for me valued at N600, with the remaining amount to be kept as a token of gratitude. Despite being unable to locate the requested object, the child returned with a balance of N600. In Nigeria, the national cake begins right from the home. At home, it is widely believed that the nation's wealth should be shared, regardless of individual contributions. Unfortunately, this sharing formula has led to misplaced priorities and the emergence of the "eat once and suffer long" mentality, resulting in setbacks and deception. How can we understand a family who believes that the only way to partake in the benefits of society is through questionable means? How can we communicate to a parent who thinks that their child's wedding can only be successful through a political sponsorship? How can we help a capable young person who believes that everything should be given to them for free? How can we address the mindset of a graduate who feels that they must compromise their values in order to succeed in life? How can we explain to religious leaders that they do not need to flatter a human in order to receive blessings? Is it possible to eat one's cake and have it? This concept is impossible in reality, as once a cake is consumed, it is no longer present.

The "national cake" approach has also had a detrimental impact on government operations at all levels. This term has created a perception among the general public that government positions are primarily a means of securing a portion of the country's resources rather than an opportunity to contribute to the nation's growth. As a result, politics has become one of the most lucrative professions in Nigeria. At times, when the government pledges to combat corruption but simultaneously glorifies it in both overt and covert ways, it displays a severe lack of understanding of what corruption truly entails. The national cake syndrome serves as the precursor to corruption in Nigeria, as it creates a hierarchy of Nigerians and facilitates the transfer of public funds into the hands of looters. The national cake is responsible for the emergence of regional and ethnic politics. This notion has led to some of the most absurd and wasteful investments in human history, such as drilling oil in Bayelsa and refining it abroad. The national cake stifles human innovation and hard work. It crushes merit-based excellence and fair competition, leaving the entire nation waiting for the return of the politician-benefactor to enjoy a good meal. The national cake is the reason why Nigerian workers refuse to work unless they are guaranteed their gains and why tribal origins are often considered superior over competence and merit. The national cake is also the reason why the presidency must come from a specific region of the country in the name of zoning, which serves as a soft landing for sectional consciousness. The national cake is the reason why the government, particularly the federal government, operates as a center for benefit-sharing, with no obligation to serve the citizens except to offer them crumbs from the table as benefits they have no right to demand.

The national cake has hindered the development of Nigeria's regions, regardless of their natural and human potential. This is because the Federal Government controls development through the distribution of the national cake. The national cake is seen as the only way to maintain Nigeria's unity and prevent any attempts to negotiate coexistence. It is evident that true democracy and progress in Nigeria will not occur until the older generations, who created the national cake mentality and used it to maintain themselves, release their hold on Nigerian politics. This mentality is the foundation of corruption, which many in government either do not understand or cannot resist. However, Nigeria must inevitably move towards a brighter future. This will require a new beginning free from the national cake mindset. Therefore, in order to bake the national cake, let us come together like ingredients in a cake. The Hausa-Fulanis can bring the flour, the Yorubas can contribute the eggs, the Igbos can provide the butter, the Ijaws can offer the sugar, and the Efiks can get the baking powder. Let the Urhobos give the milk, and let the Biroms, the Tivs, Ibibios, Kanuri, Annag, Nupe, Igala, Kalabari, Manga, Badawai, Bade, Gade, Igede, Bokyi, Bjagham, Etsako, Agatu, Edo, Esan, Alago, Gbari and all the other tribes and ethnicities of the nation offer their unique ingredients and services for the baking and meet with each other at the kneading table before the baking. Only by working together and meeting at the kneading table can we bake a cake that represents our free choice and serves as a symbol of our fraternal coexistence. Therefore, the concept of the national cake carries great importance for the development of our country. The effects of this ideology should be vehemently rejected. It is imperative that we acknowledge the detrimental impact of national cake politics on Nigeria's political sphere and take measures to counteract it. This is the only way we can make genuine strides towards attaining actual progress and prosperity for every Nigerian.

Dear fellow Nigerians, it's time we shift our perspective on the national cake. The national cake is not the money we take from the treasury for personal gain, nor is it the N10,000 they pay us to spread false news. It's not the incentive they offer us to discredit and disrupt the programs of our opponents. The national cake is not the money they pay our daughters to compromise their dignity, nor is it the meager amount they pay us to hold up signs for or against others. It's different from the vast sums they pay our religious and traditional leaders to sing their praises. Our national cake, which we are all entitled to, is good roads, quality education for our children, a supportive environment for entrepreneurs, job creation, and reliable electricity. These are the pillars of a thriving society. If we indulge in consuming a portion of the national cake for our own selfish reasons, we forfeit our right to the main cake when it's ready to be shared. Therefore, before you bite that national cake, ask yourself: is it worth a moment of pleasure and a lifetime of suffering?

Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit Catholic priest and PhD candidate in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.

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