by Simon Kolawole
Nigeria is 57, going by the year of independence, and the consensus in every corner is that we can be, and should have been, better than this. I have not met a single person who said this is the best we can be. Our economic and development indices at independence are largely better than what we have today, but the real deal is that we were such a promising nation in 1960 that it was thought we would dominate Africa with the speed at which we were developing. It is a fitting tribute, isn’t it, that the immortal Lee Kwan Yew, the man behind the Singapore success story, saw Nigeria as a model to be emulated when his country became independent from Malaysia in 1965.
If things had worked out well for Nigeria, especially if the stupendous petrodollars gushing into our treasury had been intelligently managed, our story would have been significantly different today. We would not be talking about thousands of kilometres of bad roads, we would not be lamenting epileptic power supply, we would not be crying over hospitals that are basically torture centres, we would not be groaning about third-rate quality of instruction and infrastructure in our schools, and we would not be moaning that millions of people are homeless. Poverty rates would be low. Literacy rate would be high. We would be an economy built on production and productivity.
The biggest question as we clock 57, at least going by the headlines, is the unity of Nigeria. There is a trending agitation for “restructuring”, “true federalism” and “Biafra” which, we are made to believe, hold the key to the development of Nigeria. Many think Nigeria is like this — underdeveloped and conflict-prone — because of the amalgamation of “strange bedfellows” in 1914, or because we run a “military constitution” aka “unitary constitution”. Some even blame our multi-ethnicity, maintaining that until we are broken up along ethnic lines, our problems will persist. But, at least, there seems to be a consensus that corruption is hurting our development.
What’s more, words such as “ego”, “oga”, “oya” and “shikena” have successfully crossed lingual boundaries and become part and parcel of everyone’s daily conversations. I don’t even know the origin of some words anymore. An example is “garri”. Is it Igbo? Is it Yoruba? Is it Edo? That is how far our cultural integration has gone since amalgamation and independence. Our sartorial preferences have also crossed ethnic boundaries: you see dresses such as “senator” and “agbada” being worn by northerners and southerners, Muslims and Christians alike. For those who think we hate one another with passion, their evidence is inconclusive.
The entertainment industry excites me on the viability of the Nigerian project. Our home movies typically feature people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. You see Igbo and Edo actors and actresses featuring in Yoruba-language movies in a country where we are made to understand we hate each other. In music, cross-cultural collaborations are the in-thing. Artistes like Onyeka Onwenu, Sonny Okosuns, Christy Essien Igbokwe and Funmi Adams did an enormous job in the 1980s and 1990s promoting, in different languages, the one love that binds us together. In churches, worshippers switch from Igbo to Yoruba to Hausa to Urhobo to Ibibio songs like second nature.
I have long concluded that ordinary Nigerians do not have problem living with one another in spite of our differences. But because we are different along the lines of ethnicity, religion, ideology, history and politics, there will always be conflict. That is not peculiar to Nigeria. As I always say, there is no country in the world that does not have its own internal divisions, rivalries and flashpoints. Conflict is human nature. The real issue is the political management of diversity and conflict. Ultimately, it is the political leadership that has the responsibility of managing conflicts and potential conflicts to the best of their abilities.
Unfortunately, most unfortunately, while ordinary Nigerians have largely integrated culturally and have evolved ways of living together, they are daily being let down by the political elite who manipulate ethnic and religious sentiments for selfish ends. Those who control the airwaves have ceaselessly poisoned the minds of Nigerians against each other, stirring up sectional strife, stoking tension and promoting political messages that are designed mostly for their personal pecuniary benefits — under the pretext of fighting for “my people”. All said and done, who eventually benefits from “it is our turn”? The elite or the market women?
Sadly, our political elite, working hand-in-glove with their intellectual sidekicks, have successfully developed narratives that muddle up the real issues and becloud our reasoning. There is a popular claim that “military” constitution has hindered our development. This is absolutely false (although there is even the bigger falsehood that Nigeria’s constitution was written by the military, but I’m done with that argument). Anyone who has studied the history of the role the military played in the development of South Korea, and the role of civilian dictatorships in the development of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, will laugh off the claim. China is not even a liberal democracy!
To be clear, I do not recommend dictatorship for Nigeria, but neither will I support the narrow proposition that we can’t develop because of “lack of true federalism”. This is ridiculous. Norway, consistently ranked No. 1 on UNDP’s human development index (HDI), runs a unitary system. In fact, there is no resource control or derivation payment. All the oil revenue is managed by the central government. Yet Norway’s per capita income is $67,614, compared to $5,442 in the resource controlled-Nigeria. I do not propose a unitary system for Nigeria, but neither will I contribute to the claim that Nigeria cannot develop because of the supposedly “unitary” constitution.
So you know, 15 of the world’s top 20 most developed countries, according to the 2015 human development index, are: Norway, Denmark, Singapore, Netherlands, Ireland, Iceland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Sweden, Liechtenstein, UK, Japan, South Korea (formerly a federation), Israel and Luxembourg. What do they have in common? They ALL run a unitary system. The only “true federalism” countries in the top 20 are Australia, Germany, Switzerland, US and Canada. Next time somebody tells you “true federalism” or “regionalism” is the magic formula for development, ask them for the evidence. In fact, China runs a unitary system! The elite love to prey on our ignorance.
Nigeria has three major ethnic groups and we are often lectured that we cannot develop until we balkanise. But Norway has seven ethnic groups — Norwegian, Sami, Jew, Traveller, Forest Finn, Romani and Kven. They are not doing badly. There are over 300 ethnic groups in Malaysia; its per capita income is four times that of Nigeria. India has roughly 2,000 ethnic groups, and while it is a Hindu-majority country, the population of Muslims is about 172 million, almost equal to Nigeria’s population. India is not yet categorised as a developed country, but it is way ahead of Nigeria. It is an economy built on production and boasts of multinational companies in Tata, Ranbaxy and Infosys.
Frankly, I do not blame the ordinary people who cannot decode the unending political manipulation of ethnic and religious sentiments in Nigeria. I’m rather saddened, if not depressed, when those propagating the false narratives and half-truths about “true federalism” are the enlightened people. There is a glaring lack of sincerity. I need to emphasise, and I will keep doing this for the sake of clarity, that I am not saying the current system or structure of Nigeria does not need tinkering with. We definitely need to restructure the country. My point of departure, though, is the campaign that restructuring has to be along the lines of ethnicity, religion and natural resources.
I do not know of any country that developed simply because of “true federalism” or “regionalism”. I am still frantically researching that idea. But I can give plenty examples of countries that developed because of competent and patriotic leadership, with or without “true federalism”. I hope most Nigerians will come to this realisation someday. As we mark our 57th independence anniversary, I would propose that we rethink these inherited wisdoms that we have always failed to critically question. Those who direct the orchestra know how to make us sing their buzzwords, but a deeper reflection on our part will confirm that it is all politics. Before I forget, Happy Independence Day.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS
I was elated when I heard that governors have called on the federal government to hand over the so-called federal roads to the states. This makes perfect sense to me. However, I was not very clear about how the reconstruction or maintenance will be funded. One governor spoke about public private partnership, but there are other ways: one, the federal government can hand over the funds budgeted for the roads directly to the states, or more permanently, let go of some of its share of the federation account. I find it incredible that the centre takes 52.68% of the federation revenue, leaving the 36 states with 26.72% and the 774 councils 20.60%. Restructuring.
When the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) recently raised the alarm that the Sukuk bond, a non-interest Islamic finance facility issued by the federal government, was an attempt to Islamise Nigeria, the most appropriate response, in my opinion, came from Mr. Femi Falana, human rights lawyer, who said: “I am challenging CAN to Christianise Nigerians. Christianise us by setting up interest-free banks.” Some of the most expensive schools in Nigeria today are owned by churches, and if Muslims decide to offer tuition-free education now, CAN will say it is an attempt to Islamise Nigeria. Someone said it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Word.
An intended impact of criticism, I suppose, is change of style and attitude. President Muhammadu Buhari has been accused of being too slow to act on most of the issues he has had to deal with since he came to office in 2015, and I am yet to see any attempt to do things in a different way. It took him ages to constitute a cabinet; it took him forever to respond to economic downturn; and it is taking him an eternity to constitute boards and appoint substantive heads for agencies. In that case, we will wait forever for the implementation of the reports on the suspended DG of the National Intelligence Agency and secretary to the government of the federation (SGF). Frustrating.
My attention has been drawn to a potential case of discrimination by Hillcrest School, Jos. Rinret Yusuf Gukas underwent the entire admission processes without being asked if he had any allergy. It was only upon his resumption that he was asked. The parents confirmed he has nuts allergy and provided the medication in case of accidental ingestion. To their surprise, the school nullified his admission. He had relocated from the UK and paid all the fees. In advanced societies, this is a case of discrimination on health grounds. While Hillcrest might be seeking to play safe, it needs to review its admission processes. And where are the regulatory authorities in all this? Sickening.