As the ‘Change Agents’ Assume Office… By Eniola Bello

ministersTomorrow, after five months of tortuous delay, the ministers-designate would assume office as President Muhammadu Buhari inaugurates the Federal Executive Council. The formation of Buhari’s cabinet has been unduly long, the process of nomination and Senate clearance unnecessarily politicised, and the expectations of Nigerians from the in-coming cabinet members understandably high. In other climes, as happened in Canada lately, a new administration names its cabinet members, wholly or partly, the very day of its inauguration. Garba Shehu, one of the president’s media assistants, has however compared this administration’s delay in forming a cabinet to the process of laying the foundation of a skyscraper. According to Shehu, it is possible to build several duplexes within the time it takes to complete the foundation of a skyscraper.  We should make it clear to the administration that at the end of the day we would take nothing less than many skyscrapers of achievements.

With the downturn in the economy arising from the fall in oil prices; the collapse of public infrastructure; the crisis of unemployment; the insecurity challenge and increased agitations for ethnic autonomy, if not secession; and the pervasive national non-productivity, those to be sworn in tomorrow have their work well cut out for them.

Barrack Obama, on being elected US president in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, boosted the economy by investing in public services such as scientific research, infrastructure, health care reform and education. The resulting job creation from such investment partly brought down unemployment rate from 10 per cent to 5.1 per cent some 67 months after.

This administration needs to take a leaf from the Obama interventionist book. There is the urgent need to give the economy a lift through massive investment in public services.

Most federal roads across the country are in major state of disrepair.

Travelling on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, for instance, is a journey in pain and despair. Commissioned in August 1978 during the military administration of Olusegun Obasanjo, the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, some 128km long, is the oldest in the country; the main access road to Lagos, Nigeria’s business capital; the major route to the northern, southern and eastern parts of the country; and the busiest inter-state road. In the last 16 years of democratic rule, the road’s reconstruction has been a serial subject of grand talk and grander politicking with little or no action.

It is a measure of how much contempt those elected to serve have for the people that they would allow such an important road to so degenerate and atrophy, with attendant loss in man-hours to gridlock, and in injuries and deaths to avoidable accidents. So many other roads across the country are equally as bad – the East/West road, Obajana/Ilorin road, Owerri/Aba road, MMI Airport road, etc. I always found it incomprehensible how politicians could, every election cycle, travel on these miserable non-roads without regret, and without shame, only to be garlanded and honoured in every community their campaign train stopped. It is a measure of the patient docility of our people that they would tolerate the charade going on in the name of political campaigns every four years and still could hold themselves back from throwing stones. The nation’s roads could benefit from a generous dose of the investment in public utilities. The airports are some other area of public utility requiring immediate intervention. The Murtala Mohammed International Airport (MMIA), Ikeja, Nigeria’s busiest airport, is a sorry sight. Built during World War II but renamed after the late military leader, Gen. Murtala Muhammed, in 1979. That was on completion of the international terminal modelled after Amsterdam Airport Schipo. Today, the MMIA is no more than the open sore of a nation. A first time traveller to Nigeria, arriving at that airport, would wonder if globalisation passed the country by. Right from disembarkation through the avio-bridge, immigration clearance to baggage collection and arrival hall, the heat is choking and the smell unnerving. It seems the single most important goal of the airport is not to be traveller-friendly. The escalator to the immigration desk is not working. The lift linking the ground floor to the first is out of order.

Passengers unfortunate to have to move from the arrival to departure hall, or vice versa, would have to carry or drag their luggage on the staircase. Luggage collection is another exercise in dehumanisation. For a six-hour flight to Lagos from anywhere in Europe, it could take up to half of your flight time simply to retrieve your luggage.

It is no wonder that the MMIA is perhaps the most chaotic in the world. The general atmosphere is so intolerable that passengers are either in a hurry to rush through to board their flights, or if arriving, to rush out to the comfort of their vehicles. And driving on the road leading to the airport, at night, is akin to walking blindfolded. The encompassing darkness is simply eerie. Yet Stella Oduah, who was minister of aviation in the immediate past administration, superintended over billions of naira in a celebrated airport-remodelling project. Travelling through MMIA, Port Harcourt International Airport, described in a recent survey as the worst in Africa, and Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja, it is difficult to understand how a woman who managed such a poor job and was removed as minister for her involvement in a scandal over the questionable purchase of two armoured cars ended up in the Senate. If the remodelling of those airports was to Oduah’s taste and standard, that was an achievement in mediocrity. Nigerians deserve better.

There is also the problem in the power infrastructure requiring critical investment. For far too long, Nigerians have been in darkness. Since the inauguration of democracy in 1999, there has been a great deal of hue and cry over the country generating 10,000 megawatts of electricity. That was the goal of the Obasanjo administration.

Eight years after, the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua administration parroted it. Following Yar’Adua’s death, the Jonathan administration repackaged it. Yet, despite the billions spent, Nigeria still has serious power infrastructure deficit, only managing to survive on barely more than 4,000 megawatts at the best of time. Sixteen years on, the 10,000 megawatts of electricity are no more than a ghost – elusive, invisible, untouchable, and haunting the land with 100,000 megawatts of darkness.

This administration needs to banish this ghost. So does the ghost of subsidy in the petroleum products supply need to be banished. Since Gen. Ibrahim Babangida seized the reins of power in August 1985, every administration, military or civilian, has found a reason to remove subsidy on petroleum products. Curiously, in a process that defies simple mathematical logic, the higher the percentage of subsidy supposedly removed, the greater the amount of subsidy payments to importers of petroleum products, creating a few millionaires and billionaires to boot. The ghost of fuel subsidy payments has, for several years, been haunting the nation. This administration needs to make it permanently rest in peace.

The investment in public services should also affect education and healthcare. The cumulative effect will necessarily reduce unemployment, put money in people’s hands, improve consumption and boost the economy.

The administration should see this investment as of immediate concern. That done, it can then begin working on the big ideas like a 50,000 megawatt electricity plan and a rail project belonging to the 21st century that would move people and goods speedily, massively and efficiently, not the antediluvian one celebrated by the Jonathan administration.

It is great to know that Buhari has in the last five months, to use Shehu’s words, “been busy cleaning out debris and plugging loopholes”. It is great to know that with the Treasury Single Account (TSA), there’s going to be, again to use Shehu’s words, “more transparency and less misappropriations by agencies of government.” It is also great to hear President Buhari warn, at the two-day retreat for the cabinet team he has assembled, that he expects the incoming ministers to “make the running of government at all levels as lean as possible, avoid waste and conserve resources. As ministers, you must be the vehicle that will administer the change”.  We shall hold the administration to these promises.

In addition to the president, there are some members of the cabinet team who have a moral burden to see to the realisation that change is taken from the emptiness of party sloganeering and brought to the realm of reality. For Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, there would be no more Jonathan to blame for the deplorable state of the East-West road. For Babatunde Raji Fashola, there can be no more federal government to hold responsible for the eyesore that is the airport road, the lockdown that is the Mile 2-Apapa motorway, the poor management of fuel tank farms in Apapa, and the general poor state of federal roads in Lagos. For John Kayode Fayemi, there would be no PDP (Peoples Democratic Party) to excoriate for the terrible state of disrepair that has become the Lagos-Ibadan expressway.

And for the troika, there would be no PDP and no Jonathan to accuse of illegally taking money from the federation account to make fuel subsidy payments. Amaechi, Fashola and Fayemi are today right there in the cabinet, close associates of the president. We wait and watch, we watch and wait to see how far they would walk their talk.

And for Buhari, there should be no more excuses, no more blame games. He was elected president to implement the change agenda. I cannot remember anybody telling us that finger-pointing would be part of it. Now, let the work begin in earnest.