Nigeria at 59: Still the same story of despair

TODAY, like in the past, Nigeria is celebrating the Independence anniversary with the vast majority of the populace hungry and in despair. To say the least, this was not what Nigerians expected when it transited to civil rule in 1999.  Admittedly though, since the return to civil rule in 1999, the country has recorded some gains. These include the upgrading of infrastructure, banking and telecoms reforms and modest gains in universal basic education. Over the years, the country has played significant roles in liberation movements across the continent, and earned for itself respect for those roles. It has had 20 years of uninterrupted civil rule since 1999. The country has also made some gains in electoral reform, particularly with the introduction of card readers, and seen the rise of a vibrant civil society putting political office-holders on their toes. In addition, it has recorded significant milestones in sports, particularly in football, with its junior national team winning the Under-17 gong a record five times. At the state level, there have also been notable achievements, including, for instance, the Abiye maternal care programme in Ondo State, and the road infrastructure upgrade in Lagos State. In literature and the creative arts, the country has not fared badly; it has produced notable names in world literature and music. Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, is a force to reckon with globally.

But judging by the factors of present-day existence, the pains far outweigh the pains. Life in the country is indeed bleak. From Abuja to Kaduna, and from Lagos to Port Harcourt, most roads remain deathtraps; nearly 90 per cent of the country’s population lack access to potable water and regular electricity supply remains a pipe dream. It is over 20 years since the country returned to civil rule, but the rank and file of the security agencies still carry on like lords of the manor, inflicting injuries on innocent citizens for crimes unknown to the law, such as overtaking vehicles conveying policemen on the highways.

Abuja-Kaduna train service generates N100m monthly ― NRC MD

At no moment in its history has the country been this divided. Ethnic and religious suspicions are rife. Worse still, crime is festering as bandits and kidnappers have taken over major highways. Life has become so nasty and brutish in the country that thousands of Nigerian girls are into prostitution even in poor African countries like Mali and Burkina Faso. While Nigerians were still lamenting the fact that most of the 10,000 underage Nigerian girls involved in prostitution in Burkina Faso prefer the dreary conditions in the country to returning home, news filtered through that as many as double that number are currently engaged in the same horror trade in Mali, a site of perennial conflict. But perhaps the greatest indictment that the political class faces as the country clocks 59 years of independent nationhood is the fact that distraught Nigerians are giving a thought to, and openly verbalising a desire for, recolonisation. A country with over 10 million children out of school cannot be said to have a government. And while several state governments are admittedly making efforts to address the menace—only last week, the Oyo State government indicated that it had returned 43 per cent out of its out-of-school-children to school—the fact remains that Nigeria’s future is demonstrably imperilled by its large army of out-of-school children. When these children come of age, they will ask the country serious questions.

As for poverty, it is so pervasive that talking about it has become banal. In February this year, according to the World Poverty Clock, the number of extremely poor Nigerians rose to 91.6 million, meaning that virtually half of Nigeria’s population now live in extreme poverty. The World Poverty Clock had named Nigeria the poverty capital of the world in June 2018 when it revealed that the country had 87 million people living in poverty.  Worse still, according to the United Nations (UN), the country is facing a housing crisis, with conditions among the worst in the world. The country lacks more than 22 million houses for its citizens. Last week, the UN’s housing rapporteur, Leilani Farha, told journalists in Abuja, at the end of her 10-day visit to investigate the housing situation in the country’s cities, that more than two thirds of Nigerians are living in poor settlements with a lack of basic amenities. According to her, “Nigeria’s housing sector is in a complete crisis. Existing programmes will hardly make even a small dent in addressing the ever-growing housing need. Informal settlements are ballooning where conditions are inhumane and perhaps the most severe I have seen worldwide.” Nigeria’s population, already the biggest in Africa, is expected to double to 400  million by the middle of the century. But as the population has grown, so has the number of thieves and shady characters in public office. It is a fact that terrorism in the North-East has forced two million people from their homes, and that military casualties keep increasing due to failed strategies, corruption, insufficient equipment and sabotage.

Naturally, members of the political class have been churning out their usual messages of hope. For instance, speaking at the Independence Day interdenominational church service at the National Christian Centre in Abuja on Sunday, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo expressed optimism that in spite of the challenges facing the nation, a new Nigeria was about to be born. Osinbajo waxed prophetic: “God has promised through the mouth of His trusted prophet that He is giving us a new Nigeria. May I announce to you today that God is ready to take us to the Promised Land. We must remember that the Almighty God is the builder of the nation. God has also promised us a new Nigeria, a peaceful Nigeria, a prosperous Nigeria, a Nigeria where justice, equity and fairness shall prevail, a united Nigeria, where the different tribes and tongues are not the reason for separation, but joyful textures of our togetherness. God is ready to fulfill his promise.” Even the learned professor himself would be quite understanding if Nigerians are not wowed by these prophetic insights.

The organised labour is surely unimpressed by the state of affairs. For instance, the Trade Union Congress said the country’s position among the comity of nations of the world showed  its failure to develop at a steady pace after 59 years of attaining independence. It said:  “The military incursion into politics, corruption, ethnicity, religious crisis, etc, have worked against our national development. It is even more worrisome and unfortunate that at this time and age, the crack is widening by the day. We must interrogate the reason why countries we were at par with have left us far behind. China, India, Indonesia, etc, were our contemporaries but they are now in the first league while we are dragging economic space with some countries in Africa. Although revenue from tax has improved significantly, unfortunately, instead of widening the tax net, the impoverished public is overtaxed, leading to despondency and despair.” On the economic front, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that it was paradoxical that 59 years after independence, the oil sector still accounted for over 50 per cent of the nation’s revenue and over 80 per cent of the foreign exchange earnings.

Writing on Nigeria at 58, we noted that the most remarkable fact about the country was the widespread poverty among the populace. That has sadly not changed. As we noted, between January and September 2017, 4.07 million Nigerians became unemployed. The number rose from 11.92 million in the first quarter of the year to 13.58 million and 15.99 million in the second and third quarters. In March last year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) averred that despite the recovery of the economy from recession, more Nigerians were sliding into poverty, while the Federal Government itself said that no fewer than 80 million Nigerians lived in poverty,  and that only about 455,857 (0.57 per cent) had been captured in the National Social Register (NSP) being used for its National Cash Transfer Programme. As we pointed out, although in 2016 it set up the Presidential Enabling Business Council whose activities resulted in the country moving up 24 points on the ease of doing business index published by the World Bank in 2017, tthere still existed institutional barriers such as the squabbles among government agencies located at the ports which slow down the pace of doing business in the country. While the government seems to have made a little progress in this regard, much more evidently needs to be done if the current situation is to change.

It is quite a tragedy that on the political front, power remains concentrated at the centre, with the states being mere appendages. Time and again, we have pointed out that Nigeria was at independence not envisaged as a lopsided entity with an unproductive centre breathing down the necks of the component units. To hear President Buhari talk though, it is as if the advocates of restructuring are enemies of the Nigerian state. But then, Nigerians must not despair. They must, using constitutional means, continue to demand for change in all aspects of the national life, particularly in the leadership recruitment process. Not doing so will spell doom for the country.