L AST Saturday, Nigeria’s independence anniversary coincided with what some have described as the worst recession in its post-colonial history. Economists disagree over the depth and possible length of the slump, but it is hard, if not insensitive, to ignore the tell-tale signs of adversity all around us, especially as it affects the embattled citizenry, several of who are dying silently, some coping in heroic ways with the severe downturn.
Come with me first however, to Oloibiri, a small community in Ogbia Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, which on November 30 will mark the 60th anniversary of oil-find in Nigeria. Oloibiri, recall, was where Nigeria’s status as a petrol-dollar state was born, with the first crude oil export emanating from there in 1958. That community, despoiled, ravaged and abandoned by the Nigerian state and oil multinationals, remains today an open sore and a mockery of its illustrious antecedent as a harbinger of our once glittering oil prosperity. A British engineer recently testified to this when he reportedly said, “I have worked in several oil producing countries and I have never seen an oil producing community as desperately poor and neglected as Oloibiri.”
Needless to say that Oloibiri and its picturesque abandonment is a metaphor for the tragic failure of the Nigerian state to employ our collective wealth to uplift the material status of the majority of its people, including, especially, the people of the Niger Delta. Presidents, governors, “arrange” elections have come and gone but Oloibiri, like most of our communities, sits in abjection, watching with frustration what great uses the oil wealth has been put by an infinitesimal proportion of the elite. Successive oil booms, even downturns have produced their billionaires living in opulence of a scale comparable to American billionaires, but the people who magically become real citizens only in election seasons are left behind.
So, where did the money go? That brings us to another dismal comparison between Nigeria and other oil producing countries. In the ongoing debate about whether or not to sell our national assets, it became known that several other oil producing countries had sold minority shares and stakes in their national assets, in the case of Saudi Arabia, less than five per cent. Why were they sold? It was not to create another easy cash window and loose spending for a consumptive elite, but to build up their Sovereign Wealth Fund, so as to join the league of countries such as Norway and cities like Abu Dhabi, which have the highest Sovereign Wealth Funds, built up by modernising political elite who prepare, not just for their own generation but future ones as well.
Recall that Nigeria once toyed with the idea of a Sovereign Wealth Fund, but it never really got off the ground because too many politicians and their cronies wanted a piece of the action, with immediate effect. We do not have a full account of how much money disappeared under the bend in successive regimes, but if ongoing revelations are anything to go by, it must be handsome enough to have transformed the country to an industrial state with diversified avenues of wealth creation and earnings. Consider the paradox: As an agricultural state, Nigeria built world class universities which offered degrees as good as any in the English speaking world; fashioned world class hospitals, created an emergent industrial sector and scored a series of “Firsts in Africa.”
Then came the petroleum rush and Nigeria had far more revenues from oil than it could ever imagine. Then, institutions such as universities multiplied, infrastructure expanded and opportunities for mass education were to an extent seized. But this dizzying expansion, under Nigeria’s prebendal elite, was not matched by quality. With each passing regime, institutions, some of which once enjoyed global status shrivelled into provincial organisations, universities which had ballooned to about 130 and still counting, have long retreated, for the most part, into mimicries of their once glorious selves. Infrastructure became far less durable than they once were, and under our emergent “contratocracy”, the phenomenon of collapsed buildings, rickety roads, with short lifespans, became more and more pronounced. The professions, once the epicentre of an efflorescent civil society declined, pushed to the back stage in the brave new world of newly arrived political breeds, replete with tool kits for padding elections, budgets, certificates, and justifying them as perfectly normal.
What went wrong? There was spiritual decentring, an ethical rank shifting, and an aggressive philistinism celebrating easy money rather than time tested virtues. In short, Nigeria lost its soul or sold it for a mess of pottage in desecrating bazaars, in which the only value that counted was how much money you had in your bank account. The politicians of the First and Second Republics thought long and hard about national problems, wrote books about them, surrounded themselves with think-tanks, and engaged for the most part in evidence-based policymaking. Today, in a shocking lowering of the bar of public office, most politicians are educated illiterates, several of them with forged or doctored certificates; do not read any books or engage in intellectual activity at any serious level. For them, the universe begins and ends with the Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Congress. No wonder, all of Nigeria’s problems for them begin and end with Goodluck Jonathan or Muhammadu Buhari.
A broader perspective on our current economic challenges was recently provided by Professor Banji Oyeyinka, Director, Regional Office for Africa of UN- Habitat. Postulated Oyeyinka: “Our current economic difficulties stem in large part from our import-mindedness, the absurd reliance on the outside world for everything we use daily, eat, drink and build our shelters with. Nigeria needs to diversify and invest heavily to bring back manufacturing capacities and capabilities. The roots of our economic problems run deep far back into our history and we are being naïve if we ascribe the problems to events of the last one or so year alone.”
Running deep, similarly, is the recurrent question that will not go away in a hurry, concerning under what terms and arrangements, should the diverse peoples of Nigeria constitute a nation of unity in diversity. Most of our leaders have merely postponed or papered over the huge cracks in the national wall. So, political adversity and divisiveness come with the opportunity to reshape national destiny through inter-ethnic conversations that build bridges rather than bomb them.
Economic adversity also carries with it the seed bed of its own amelioration, if we turn it to an opportunity to refashion the national economy away from over reliance on imports, taking into account the need to create new windows of economic activity in agriculture, services especially Information Technology and strive harder to build a knowledge economy by recovering our lost intellectual utopias. That is how to turn adversity into opportunity. In spite of all, Happy Independence Anniversary!
- Olukotun is a professor of Political Communication.