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NIGERIA: A CRIPPLED GIANT AT 50

For a people who like to celebrate anything at all, from the "washing" of a Grade A second hand car, to the "warming" of a rented apartment, it is curious that there is a near-complete absence of excitement among Nigerians over their country’s attainment of the 50th year after its independence. This paradox explains a palpable disconnection between the individual and the state. The people have been badgered, deceived and betrayed for so long by their leaders and by circumstances that they have lost faith in the idea of being Nigerians.

Number one reason is the suspicion that the celebration of a golden jubilee could become an opportunity for over-paid and underworked political leaders and their agents to further deplete the treasury. Number two reason is the belief that the same money that should be spent on parties, on the First Lady visiting "cemeteries, the butcher’s shop, and bakeries," or on the preparation of souvenirs and the placement of advertorials in foreign newspapers, could be better utilized to buy books for school libraries where there are no current books, drugs for public hospitals which are no better than village dispensaries, or to fix pot-hole ridden roads, which on a regular basis cause the loss of lives. Number three reason is that the average Nigerian no longer trusts the professional political elite. Democracy was meant to bring us progress, "dividends" we call it, but 11 years after the return to civilian rule, not much value has been added to our lives, in terms of universally accepted indices of human development.

As Nigeria celebrates its golden independence jubilee, it is the sixth largest producer of crude oil in the world, but it is classified among the poorest countries of the world. Despite its enormous resources, it is one of the countries with the lowest ratings in the Global Competitiveness Index. In a recent Newsweek magazine survey of 100 countries in the world which could be good destinations for business investments, Nigeria was ranked 99th. The Nigerian President has just returned from the United Nations General Summit which focused on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and strategies for alleviating global poverty, Nigeria is one of the most backward countries in terms of MDG-targets and achievements. The country has the second highest maternal mortality/morbidity rate and the second highest infant mortality rate in the world.

More than 8 million Nigerian children of school age are out of school, according to UNICEF. More than 70% of the population lives below the poverty line. The country’s illiteracy rate used to be about 49%, certain estimates indicate that the figure has risen to about 65%. Average life expectancy is about 47 years. In addition to this is a crisis of social infrastructure: epileptic power supply, lack of potable water supply resulting almost annually in cholera-epidemic in parts of the country, a failed transportation system; religious violence, and other forms of social violence: restiveness in the oil-rich Niger Delta, and the rising wave of kidnappings and economic crimes being the most critical. Every other country which attained independence in 1960, all less endowed than Nigeria fare better in many respects on the development index.

And so, in the 50th year of Nigeria’s independence, Nigeria’s inflation rate as at June 2010 was 14.1%, lending rate is circa 26%. The banks no longer lend money readily for investment, the capital market is troubled, the micro-finance bank system designed to provide access to finance for the poor has virtually failed with about 224 of such banks recently de-licensed by the Central Bank in a self-indicting act of desperation, generally the cost of living is high, the cost of dying even much higher. Before now, Nigeria became a country of 419ers, drug pushers and public looters, now we have reduced that reputation but gained a new set – yahoo businessmen, kidnappers, militants and public office looters, rejecting only the tag of suicide bombers because we love to enjoy life and make money but may soon be a festering ground for terrorism proponents if the money to be made is right. When the rich fall sick, they seek medical care abroad, not in local Nigerian hospitals which have had too many cases of misdiagnosis and failure. And yet the same people in the corridors of power who have been given the opportunity to make a difference, and who have failed to do so, want to use more taxpayers’ money to celebrate a crippled giant at 50. We are right in telling them that what they need is sober reflection, not a jamboree. Nigeria may celebrate at 50, but the people cannot afford to jubilate.

The root of the country’s misfortune is systemic and widespread corruption. Over a third of the country’s total revenue from 1960 has been looted by conscienceless leaders at all levels. Public officials are infernally corrupt: they go into office, poor and haggard-looking, modest and enthusiastic; they return with bigger bellies, fresher faces, fatter bank accounts, arrogant and contemptuous. Their lives change, the people remain at the same spot, or their circumstances worsen. Yet, a few years after leaving office they become ordinary and become desperate to get back again, hence the growing number of recycled public office holders – Why? Because political office remains the most viable business for survival in the country; not the business of service to the people and the state.

The hope of this country lies with us, not with those who abuse the privilege of governance. We must begin by admitting our complicity in the rot that has overtaken our country. There is an obvious contradiction in the way we live our lives relative to our realities. The gap between our earnings and the lives we live suggest, rather sadly, that we as a people have found a way to develop an alternative economy to bridge the gap and this is why corruption in all its forms thrive and may have evolved into a way of life which we are all reluctant to give up though we admit it is destroying our values, moral fibre and our development.

The average Nigerian is adventurous, energetic, creative, willing to learn and ready to excel. True but most times, these attributes are deployed in little doses along positive lines. The bulk of how we use our skills is to undercut, create opportunities or out rightly circumvent the rules of the game to get ahead. Some of our compatriots divert their talents to crime and mischief. Their activities create a multiplier effect which is closely tied to the collapse of normative values – we expect a relative, old school mate, neighbour, former colleague to remember his ‘own people’ if and when he gets rich and given the family structure that requires the successful one to impact the future of the other family members – no one concerns themselves with what was done to make the money.

We are all therefore guilty of promoting corruption and thus creating what I will call a disguised majority that appears as a minority act. Even bereavement is not spared, people are expected to bury their loved ones lavishly and they are looked down upon if they are unable to do so. Simply look at the opulence on display at such events and ask how many of the partying folks live in their own homes or can access mortgage or be sure they can build a house even if they work till they are 60. We live an external life driven by the need to belong, to arrive and to be seen to be successful or risk an unspoken ostracism. That is what fuels corruption; society through its value systems and not its criticism creates the conditions for corruption to thrive.

It is important for Nigerians to remember what being a sovereign nation means and why individually, if we fail to adjust our values and demand institutional changes even the little that we have gathered in 50 years could go to waste…the possibility is evident in the relative lack of second and third generation wealth – why family wealth appears unsustainable. We should remember the heroism of the likes of the great Jaja of Opobo, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi of Benin, Attahiru in the North, the naked, protesting women and all those who stood up for the democracy we enjoy today – these are the reasons we should mark the golden jubilee, to be dedicated not to the throwing of the biggest party but the building of institutions that can challenge and shape a new generation that will not imbibe the flawed attributes of the present. We must remember the many men and women - dead and alive- who continue to live in our minds not for their money but for the changes they have made in our values and freedom.

We must not despair. At 50, we can celebrate three key attributes: Freedom, Hope and Our Heritage. What I see is the resilience of the people, their infinite optimism; their capacity to endure. This is what makes us special as Nigerians. It is what makes us "the happiest people on earth." Happiness is a matter of the spirit. It is a reflection of an inner essence that is unique. Our leaders may have failed us, 50 years after independence, but we the people are not hopeless. We are a nation of enormously talented people in every field of human endeavour. And the world knows it. There is hope for this country, in spite of everything else – thank God we do not have to deal with natural disasters as we see on cable television, we do not have to deal with a society that is beyond redemption. There are difficult days ahead but we should stay focused on the critical message of our being Nigerians – people who will protect their freedoms and who possess an indefatigable spirit, optimistic that tomorrow will find them in a better place and who now simply want their leaders at all levels to respect that by deploying fiscal responsibility and make the needed sacrifice for future generations.

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