Time flies. Seventy years ago, this prestigious club was founded. Much has happened since then. As a nation, we gained our independence. It was a happy and hopeful day. Since then, most of the years have been spent squandering the chances wrought by independence. The nation has cried more than its share of tears.
Yet, this club has beckoned as an island of excellence and forward thinking through it all. If only more of our institutions aspired and attained the high quality of this club. Nigeria would be a better place.
Thus, I must say Happy 70th Platinum anniversary to the Island Club. I celebrate with you. I identify with your fervor to forge lasting friendships and critical associations across the various divides that to often characterize this nation and determine the course of events.
I join you in recognizing the primacy of our national identity and commend the Club and its members in their unending quest to make Nigeria a better-governed country. Happy anniversary!
Though ostensible a social institution, the Club is today a gathering place for intellectual and political economic discourse. The Island Club encourages diversity of ideas and civil debate among its members as an honest and true way to craft suggestions on how state and national problems can be resolved. Anyone who thinks the Island Club is just a place for recreation and to laugh and relax has only an incomplete understanding of this place just like you can’t tell the depth of the waters by examining the surface. You must plunge in.
Seventy years is a long time. That the Island Club is still alive today, 70 years after its establishment in October 1943, testifies to the fact that it holds to something important, something that has withstood the tests and vagaries of time and something that fulfills its members far beyond a good laugh and a pleasant evening. These things can be had at other places but this club offers more.
Drawing its members from innovative and creative segments of society, the Island Club was, from the start, set to be great.
The Club has marched and advanced during the years. If only this nation had followed the trajectory this Club set, we would be a nation in reverie. Instead, we are one quaked by regret.
Though older than Nigeria, the Club still shines. Unfortunately, the glow of Nigeria has turned to dross; the nation is a gem obscured by the grime of venal and menial leadership.
Today, I state the name ‘Island Club’ not only has geographic significance, it also has poetic or figurative bearing. Yes, we are located on an island but the Club is also an island of good management, unity and vision in a sea of national muddle and confusion.
Though having to adjust at times to the dizzying political thermometer of the country and in response to the sometimes-conflicting demands of its members, Island Club has pulled through. It stands stronger today because it has figured out the recipe of cooperation and compromise for the common good.
Today, the story of your club will serve me well as I speak to the theme of my lecture – looking at Nigeria’s Path to National Rebirth. Imagine for a moment the Island Club was Nigeria. This Club was started by Nigerians from all walks of life. Through seven decades, it has gone through various changes both in its leadership cadre and in its objectives and goals. Though having to adjust often times to the political thermometer of the country and indeed respond to the sometimes-conflicting demands of its members, the Island Club has pulled through. It stands today stronger than it started out and with a strong hope set on the future.
And where does Nigeria stand today? Today, we loiter on the road of confusion because we are guided by leaders who themselves need guidance.
The dream of a robust and great nationhood has been deferred. Nigeria now limps and pleads for crutches to help it just to stand.
Former United States (U.S.) Ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington, while delivering a lecture at entitled “On the Dawn of Nigeria’s Second Century: Challenges to a New Generation” at the University of Ilorin convocation ceremony brought fresh insights into Nigeria’s current precarious conditions in various sectors. I share most of his positions and postulations and couldn’t agree more that Nigeria though a giant in Africa is punching below its weight.
For Ambassador Carrington, the greatest challenge to Nigeria’s development is corruption closely followed by insecurity. The most gripping of Carrington’s lecture are the data and statistics about Nigeria’s. He was very provocative on the position of Nigeria, nay Africa, in the global equation.
Let me quote Carrington. “The latest Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme, better known as the UNDP, was released in March this year and lists the world’s 46 lowest ranked countries. Thirty-seven of them are in sub-Saharan Africa. All of the bottom 26 is African with the single exception of Afghanistan. Out of 187 countries surveyed, oil- producing Nigeria is ranked 153, the lowest, by far, of any non-African member of OPEC. Indeed, with the exception of Angola (which ranks 5 places higher than Nigeria), all other members, including war-ravished Iraq (107), are included in the ranks of the more developed. Your neighbor, Niger, at 187 has the dubious distinction of coming in last”
It would not be so sad if we closed our eyes in order to dream of a better Nigeria. Instead, we close our eyes so that those who lead us can make things worse. We must stop the charade. We no longer have the luxury to play such a distorted game.
We lap up the story of our yesterday as we recall with nostalgia Nigeria’s post-independence era. Though turbulent at first, Nigeria soon settled down to calmer waves and we saw development all over as we settled into nationhood. A crop of leaders forged in the nationalistic struggle for independence and schooled in some of the best institutions in Europe and America took charge and charted a course for our nation. They had a vision and made us dream of a country where though tongue and tribe may differ, still stands in brotherhood. Those were the days when with pride we declared and carried the badge of nationalism and being Nigerian.
Unfortunately, as we entered the second decade of nationhood, the bottom fell out. We all know about our descent into spasms of military dictatorship and civilian miss-rule that led to the collapse of the second republic. I will not dwell much on this point, but suffice to say here that we are a people still in search of true nationhood. The derailment of our dreams and the blurring of our national vision by some of our past leaders have consequences for both our present and future.
Today reminds us of yesterday. Of how we perhaps headed in the wrong direction. Today, we fret regarding the course of the nation and even about its longevity. Some stay she will fail. Some say she has already done so. Some believe that tomorrow can only be one of doom.
For years, the idea of a national dialogue has been bruited. Government has always slapped the notion away. Now, devoid of ideas and with its back to the wall of poor performance, the current government grabs at the notion much like a drowning man does a life vest.
Yes, we need to talk. I remain an ardent supporter of the call for a national conference that is sovereign and truly open to all. That is the only route out of the woods. We must bring Nigeria back on the path of true federalism. A staged-managed affair scripted and monitored to achieve the narrow political aims of narrow political minds in Abuja will do nothing but whet Confusion’s appetite. Anything short of a Sovereign National Conference will be like trying to apply a bandage to a tornado. So soon after calling forth this event, we have seen the deceptive, unsure steps of the government. Many of those that attacked my position in questioning the sincerity of the government are now retreating from the Jonathan Conference. All I ask is that you watch not with blind hope but with a watchful eye. I believe you will come to see this as the dark alley that I see.
Now, back to the larger issue, the picture of Nigeria as it now stands. If you ask me to describe the state of the nation I would say it is an ambivalent one.
Nigeria is a nation standing half in the light of progress and promise and half in the darkness of injustice. We live in a period of grave uncertainty. As things now stand, we have no idea where the nation is headed.
We live in a fast-paced world but Nigeria is only crawling. In front of us, progressive development moves quicker than us. With each day, the distance between development and us increases. Behind us, calamity moves fast, gaining ground on us. With each day, it comes nearer and near to us.
I shudder to think of the state of the nation in years to come if we continue in this limp fashion. Those now in government take false solace in the belief that Nigeria is a land of happy, carefree people who will somehow manage to eke a living no matter how badly governed we might be. Those in governance better look again. Whatever happiness we had was born of fantasy or of faith and patience that a better day was to come. It was not based in the fact of good governance because little in their governance has been good.
But even strong faith wilts under an avalanche of bad tidings and misfortune brought about by clumsy, wrong-minded governance. A jobless, hungry man cannot eat fantasy or faith. His reality forces him to choke on them. The people are asked to suffer and be patient while those in Abuja revel and fete each other as if mimicking ancient Rome at the height of empire.
These forces of high privilege and regression want to consume more than their share. This means they are willing to steal a good portion of yours. While we pray and strive for democratic governance ushering in a progressive era of broad prosperity, development, democracy and human dignity, these conservatives seek to stifle you as modern serfs living ramshackle lives, half-fed, under employed, and desperate for a hand-out.
Many have become so desperate that they thank these people for lending us a small pittance of the money they pilfered that is rightfully yours to begin with. They wash their feet in champagne. Meanwhile too many people struggle to find clean water to soak their garri. They seek a nation comprised of a small, well-oiled and happy elite and dry, struggling masses. Robin Hood would run from Nigeria because it operates on principles opposite to those that endeared this mythic hero to our imagination. Instead of bringing balance by taking a bit from the rich and give to the poor, our current system robs from the poor to give to the rich.
The self-appraised glowing performance report of the ruling government of Goodluck Jonathans one of the most remarkable, creative works of fiction ever written in Nigeria. The Mathematics about GDP growth, about economic empowerment, about energy provision, about employment do not add up. And here is why. Even though according to the IMF Nigeria parades the second largest economy on the sub-continent with a GDP of 270 billion U.S. dollars second to South Africa whose GDP is 375 billion, there is nothing to show for it.
The PDP government claims we have one of the world’s fastest growing economies and that our GDP expands by nearly seven percent per year. Yet, the people don’t feel this happy expansion. The official youth unemployment rate nears 50 per cent. The true rate, when joined with underemployment, may be over twice that amount. Most graduates from our tertiary institutions will not be greeted by job offers once they leave campus, but by an indefinite period of joblessness.
World Bank in its 2013 report says Nigeri’s unemployment rate is 22 per cent while Youth Unemployment rate is 38 per cent.
Millions of Nigerians are being pauperized and continue to fall below poverty line. The AFDB, in its African Economic Outlook report of 2013 revealed that poverty has worsened since 1996 and through 11 years of the PDP’s rule. The efforts of President Jonathan’s government at combating poverty was also faulted.
Another global institution, The World Bank also in its ‘Nigeria Economic Report’ released in May 2013 stated that “Poverty rates remain high in Nigeria, particularly in rural areas.”
“While the officially reported growth rates of GDP well exceed population growth in the country, the pace of poverty reduction does not, this implies that the number of poor Nigerians living below the poverty line has grown measurably,” the report stated.
No populous nation ever reached prosperity without a vibrant manufacturing sector. It is this sector that is the mainstay of urban employment just as farming is the mainstay of rural jobs. Thus, the more we move toward urbanization, the more vital is manufacturing as an economic catalyst. However, our manufacturing sector shrinks under the policies of the current government. As it shrinks so do the job opportunities of that vast army of city dwellers.
Agriculture remains stagnant. We have made little progress toward returning to the days when Nigeria had surplus and exported food. Now we import too much food for our own good and security. Our small farmers suffer because there is little government support and assistance. They sink under the reality of rising costs and too little income from the crops they raise. Moreover, we annual lose arable land to desert encroachment as harvests are spoiled by extreme conditions of drought and flood. Too many of our old people have little, save misery, to look forward to in their golden years. Pension plans have proven unreliable and government would rather turn its back on the elderly than help them through their frail years. After having worked for the good of the nation and lived decent responsible lives, they find themselves alone. This is a shameful rip in our social fabric.
Our infrastructure remains outmoded. It was established for a small nation not a large, productive one. If not for progressive state governors, road construction in Nigeria would be minimal. Too many federal roads remain avenues of nightmares, fear and death. Driving these roads is tantamount and as dangerous as going to war.
Social services remain nil. Primary health care is a mirage. Too many pregnant women go into ill-equipped hospitals and clinics not knowing whether they will have a joyful appointment with timely birth or grim rendezvous with premature death. We lose far too many mothers and children to diseases and medical situations readily treatable if we had decent medical facilities. Instead, the best health care in Nigeria is still a plane ticket abroad. Health care is only for the elite. For the rest of the people, the government does not care.
The government says it has everything under control. If this is control, I dread to see how lack of control looks. In Boko Haram, the nation faces its greatest security threat since the civil war. Much of the North lives in fear of this extremist group or of the indiscriminate force used by this government in its ham-handed attempt to muzzle the group. If positive political action had been taken earlier, we would not have reached this unfortunate point where every policy option is fraught with risk.
Kidnapping and armed robbery scar the Southeast. Because we have become a society that exalts wealth no matter wrongfully gotten, violent crime and stealing lie just below the surface in all parts of the country, ready to break forth at the slightest chance.
Education remains the most portent tool against illiteracy and poverty. Our educational system needs an overhaul and we have several countries from which we can learn from. Here is what I propose we do to our education, especially Primary and secondary education.
We must rededicate ourselves to quality primary and secondary education that all people have basic language, writing and math literacy skills. At the tertiary level, we must begin to educate people to equip them with the skills and for the jobs that this economy will produce in the next five -ten years. This will require a reemphasis on technical education. Government must reach out to the Private Sector to better coordinate education and job opportunity. Otherwise, to educate our youth for jobs that do not exist, is to miseducate and misled them.
Furthermore, my position is that we make a special effort to draw all children to school, particularly the poor. We cannot afford to allow poverty to keep children out of the classroom who what to be there. If so we are suborning a life of ignorance and poverty for millions of our young ones.
What a progressive government will do is provide all school-age children one free meal daily. This seems a simple thing. But it is also wise and prudent. A hungry student does not learn. If the child is too hungry too often, he stops attending school altogether.
By this program, students will more eagerly attend because their stomachs as well as their minds shall be fed. Parents will encourage children to attend because this will take the children off the streets while also alleviating pressure on the family to feed the children.
The lunch will nourish the children, helping them to physically and mentally develop as they should. The increased demand generated by the feeding program will spark more agricultural and economic activity, inuring to the benefit of the overall local economy.
This is one of those situations where everyone gains. Sadly, this government does not see things in this light. It rather see things in the light of ignorance where only it wins and the rest of us lose. This may be the way to aggrandize power but it is not the way to develop a nation.
A NEW PATH
The most troubling aspect of the current state of the union is that we lack inspirational national leadership. The country is adrift on a dark ocean with no clue how to get to safe harbor. The people have lost faith that government is capable of solving the problems affecting them. The people see government more as a burden than benefit, more as overlord more than a servant. The ruling party caused this. Most of its politicians are not interested in progress; they live to maintain power. Thus, they invest their efforts in gaining and keeping influence. They care little about solving public problems and devote scant time to it.
Due to this lack of content and policy, our politics have taken an ugly coloration. Ethnic, religious and regional chest thumping is more strident than in many years. Nigerians now live in the most divisive times of their lives. That is the state of our nation today in a nutshell. A nation at sea. A people in despair. A leadership lost at sea.
This is not as it should be. We need change or else calamity shall befall us as surely as day turns to night. To turn the nation from its sad present to a happier future, the people must recognize the ruling party and its narrow-minded conservatism is not the only political alternative we have. It is the inferior alternative.
We can start to build a more promising future or tomorrow if we pay attention to the critical issues that assail us and reset our priorities as leaders and as followers. Agriculture holds the key to our future and the answer to swelling unemployment numbers. Let us make agriculture and oil production the twin engines of our development.
Although urbanization is taking place, farming remains the backbone of Nigerian life. Our policy is simple. We believe farmers need to earn a sufficient enough income that they may purchase their own phones should they see fit.
A vibrant agriculture sector will produce enough food for domestic consumption and for export, thus earning foreign exchange as it did decades ago. It will also create and maintain jobs. For this to happen, farmers need to earn enough money. This means their produce must attract a sufficient minimum price. This is where government plays a vital role. We need to return to agricultural commodity boards that guaranty a minimum price for farm produce. We did this in years past and it helped make the nation a net exporter of agricultural goods.
Other nations do this now and it works. Why don’t we try it again? It will work.
Let us not kid ourselves, Nigeria’s over-dependence on oil remains the bane of its economy. Agriculture, which has the capacity to generate employment, is not getting the deserved attention by government. Again, I return to Ambassador Carrington’s speech. “At Independence in 1960, Nigeria’s yearly agricultural crop yields were higher than those of Indonesia and Malaysia. Today they have dwindled to half as much. The fact that Nigeria’s current yield per hectare is less than 50 per cent of that of comparable developing countries dramatically demonstrates how much Nigeria has abandoned its once promising agricultural sector”. Nothing could be more true. Still on Agriculture he posits that if Nigeria pays attention to its agricultural sector which employs 70 per cent of the country’s labour force, whose output is already second to none on the continent and 25th in the world, then the country might as well be able to put millions of its citizens back to work and the economy on the road to full recovery.
Nigeria today has no business parading the kind of burgeoning unemployment figures we read about. Nigeria has no business battling with the provision of stable electricity what with its world provision reserves of natural gas and the billions sunk into the sector. Nigeria has no business with battling to provide good roads, mass transportation and efficient health services when its annual earnings of about $57 billion from oil revenues is put into consideration.
The provision of enough energy to meet Nigeria’s demand is crucial to the rejuvenation of small scale and large scale businesses and creation of jobs for millions of youth who can become self-employed. Nigeria remains a laughing stock when its failure to provide sufficient energy comes up for discussion. Five decades after independence, the Nigerian State is a state in darkness where all the manufacturing machinery have gone silent and businesses run the highest overheads because purchase of gas to fuel generators consumes their funds. We can improvise or borrow from other countries that have succeeded in taming this lack of energy problem. We delude ourselves if we think that without sufficient energy generation we can ever develop or solve many of our economic and social problems.
The rule of law and electoral fairness will help place Nigeria on the path of desired growth and development. But I also fear this government will not allow free and fair elections when the time comes. If the balloting for the chairmanship of the Nigerian governor’s forum is indicative, then our coming elections will be ones where numbers and maths don’t matter. Our elections may likely be ones where those who the people reject will be proclaimed the people’s choice. Such misconduct and malpractice will place the nation in dangerous straits.
To avoid this calamity, we need sweeping electoral reform and we need it now. Foremost among the reforms, we need a fully bio-metric voter’s registration system. Our current system encourages multiple voting. As such, it is a green light to massive fraud and malpractice stifling the democratic will of the people.
This can easily be fixed by introducing the Biometric Voter Registration, BVR. To introduce it is to invite clean and fair elections and guarantee democracy. Not to introduce it is to invite rigging and the loss of democratic legitimacy.
This nation stands at the threshold between greatness and failure, between progress and collapse and hope and despair. As if blindfolded, we cannot decide which way is best. Our fate depends on whether we can summon the courage to see as we must that we may take the step we should.
We live in a land that is ours but is ruled by a government that does not belong to the people because it does not like them. Nigerians want democratic governance, economic development, broad prosperity, justice, equality, moral purpose and human dignity. At that point, the state of the nation can be a state in which we are all proud and in which we all can live as free people.
I charge every member of this prestigious club to join the rank and file of change agents. It is not only when you are in politics that you can work for change. You can be a change agent in your place of work from where you can speak out against injustice and unfreedom and economic deprivation.
We must together rebuild our nation by rebuilding ourselves. We must start with the moral character within. When the various parts of the nation are given a sense of belonging, when each Nigerian feels he is Nigerian first and foremost, then we begin to realize our nationhood. We seize being a mere geographic expression to become a concrete national reality. Until then, our so-called national government will continue to play ‘Ludo” with our lives. And out tomorrow will come unstuck.
Let me end on a positive note that a better future, a better tomorrow is possible for our youth and for us all. But only if we try. We must try with all the strength, belief and passion that we can muster.