Nigeria: Vision Is What We Have Lacked, By ‘Tope Fasua

…we had no vision; no critical mass of visionary leaders who could imagine the future and ensure that Nigeria moved in a way that provided for eventualities. And the few we had perhaps weren’t prepared to take every risk to ensure they got Nigeria where it needed to be.

I like to bust myths. I like to interrogate what people have accepted as received wisdom. And this I do by thinking critically about issues. At the back of my mind is that fact that the only way to achieve different results, is to think, and act differently from the past. This attitude comes highly recommended for Nigeria at large. It is the only thing that has ever worked for humanity. This way of thinking is at the base of innovation; and innovation is the driving force of socio-economic development these days, and will continue to be until the end of time. So please forgive me if I sometimes challenge some deeply-held opinions of yours.

Just a glance at an old picture of Idumota in the 1960 got me thinking. There was a time when Idumota was pristine and orderly. One could see a few Nigerians conducting themselves well, even if they wore no shoes. Carter Bridge was in the forefront. I just discovered it was built in 1901! Now, all that infrastructure, and this new way of life, was handed to us by the retreating Brits in 1960. Why else was Idumota clean and dandy in 1960? One answer which may sound obvious but which is very true, is that there was a small population in that environment. Nigeria’s population hadn’t ballooned. And most people remained in their villages. So why is it chaotic today? It is because of the population explosion and rapid, unmanaged urbanisation. Let us add one more reason to cover everything else; we had no vision; no critical mass of visionary leaders who could imagine the future and ensure that Nigeria moved in a way that provided for eventualities. And the few we had perhaps weren’t prepared to take every risk to ensure they got Nigeria where it needed to be. It was my friend, Barrister Tunde Irukera who recently defined leadership at an event I attended, as the ability to take a people to a desired situation, in spite of themselves… yes kicking and screaming. People will talk, and complain. People are known to hate those who love them the most. A leader ignores all that, does the needful and bows out when the ovation is still audible. Or even when there is none at all.

So, it is this same lack of vision that is responsible for our inability to sustain our educational system. I feel so sad when older people relate how they attended school on full scholarships. Well there was indeed a time that Nigeria paid people’s parents just to encourage them to send their children to school, which was then attended for free – plus extra lunch thrown into the package. There are people who got double scholarships, and were pampered throughout their early lives. There are many people who have been sponsored in many ways by the Nigerian state. Some of them are still with us today, jointly complaining with the rest of us unlucky mortals. What does not occur to many of them is that the visionlessness of leaders then was responsible for the failure to know that such practices were UNSUSTAINABLE. Visionary leaders think sustainability, because they have a way of imagining how things will pan out. They don’t throw caution to the wind. They think of what and when resources might run out. It is of no use to us today to learn how graduates had four jobs waiting for them, and two cars plus a flat in a choice place. Looked at properly, indeed the jobs of today, the convenience of today, the good living standards of today, had been appropriated yesterday. Worse, we are now borrowing against our children’s wellbeing 40 years hence! Because we lacked vision. I was interacting with some youths recently, who didn’t know that a new Toyota Corolla now goes for about N15 million. Even a ‘Tokunbo’ car is beyond the reach of most of our working youth today. Imagine such a reversal in fortune for a country and its people!

The painful aspect is that till today, some states in Nigeria – North and South – are still in the business of granting unsustainable scholarships to a lucky few who are mostly connected to politicians, to travel abroad and give nothing back to society, when they could have used such monies to make local schools and higher institutions better, or more importantly, to ensure that the millions of deprived children in our society get at least a head-start in life. No vision. Or is it wickedness?

Even our corruption problem is a great manifestation of lack of vision. But first let me puncture what has become received wisdom; that Murtala Muhammad was the major cause of corruption, decadence and impunity, especially in our public sector. I have heard many public servants heap the blame on Murtala. But evidence shows this cannot be true. Their allegation is that by purging the service, Murtala made public servants become desperate and detached. Someone like our current president buys into that idea. That is why one of his first actions after he was sworn in, was to reverse the eight-year tenure limit that Umaru Yar’Adua had instituted for permanent secretaries and directors in the service. All that had to happen was for someone to sidle up to him and whisper sweet nothings in his ears about how that limit is making people steal. Now we are back to the era where people sit in positions for decades, adding no value, while their subordinates get frustrated. And they still loot. This, in a country with an increasing population of competent people. The ‘Idumota’ of the civil service will only become more crowded and chaotic, and yes, more corrupt.

Let us look at some evidence.

The mismanagement of our freedom was an endemic issue; it happened in the West, South, East and North, and perhaps puts a lie to the thinking that we may have done better as a people if we were homogenous. Note that these amounts above were large monies back then.

I extracted this from an online article which relied on records kept by the British colonisers – as far back as 1940:

“Federal Representative and Minister of Aviation, KO Mbadiwe, flaunted his wealth by building a palace in his hometown. When asked where he had gotten the money to build such a mansion, KO replied, “From sources known and unknown.””

“Minister of Finance Chief FS Okotie-Eboh responded to charges of accumulation of wealth by government officers by quoting from the Bible, “To those that have, more shall be given. From those that do not have, shall be taken even the little they have.””

In the same article, it was detailed how ACB – the bank – was wrecked in 1952 by reckless borrowing by one of Nigeria’s prime nationalists, and how the Western Region Marketing Board was bankrupted from a positive position of £6.2 million in 1954, to a negative £2.5 milion in 1962. It was recorded that the company granted a loan of £6.7 million, of which only £500,000 was ever repaid. Another nationalist was implicated. EFCC-type agencies are not a new phenomenon. As far back as 1947, commissions of inquiry were held to investigate cases of corruption. By 1955, an inquiry into the Igbo-Etiti District Council revealed in its report that there was ‘systemic corruption’ in the appointment and promotion of staff, and the award of contracts. The report also stated that “bribes of £80 to £100 were demanded for unnecessary appointments. The brother of the Secretary to the District Council was hired above a more qualified applicant. In one case, a man paid a £400 bribe to secure a post and was never refunded his money when he did not get the job.”

The mismanagement of our freedom was an endemic issue; it happened in the West, South, East and North, and perhaps puts a lie to the thinking that we may have done better as a people if we were homogenous. Note that these amounts above were large monies back then.

From extracts of Feyi Fawehinmi’s article which was a review of a book titled This Present Darkness, written by a colonial historian, I discovered that Awolowo had accused the Native Court system in the North of nepotism, had complained that judges received bribes, and that Emirs promptly replaced appointees of a former Emir with their own loyalists, thereby compromising the integrity of the courts. It was also documented that since 1922, the principal of Hope Waddell Institute in Calabar had complained about his students procuring charms and talismans from India, rather than reading their books. He intercepted almost 3,000 of such nonsense.

In the same book, it was captured that Nigerian women had become mass sex workers in Ghana since 1939, and in 1950 Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa – not yet a prime minister – had stated that ‘the twin curses of bribery and corruption (had) pervade(d) every rank and department of government’. In 1952, an anti-corruption campaigner (one would have thought that is a modern profession), named Eyo Akak, complained about our ‘consumerism’ and how every ex-serviceman who just returned from the Burma War wanted a bicycle before going back to their villages, while every civil servant wanted a car (the same way our top civil servants and politicians don’t joke with their luxury SUVs these days). He even blamed the women then for desiring to marry only rich guys. In 1959, the Western Regional minister of finance wrote that he was looking for ways to ‘crack down’ on school principals who collected money from students for sundry reasons.

Recently in the PUNCH newspapers, I read an interview by one Reverend Akintayo, who worked in Apapa Ports in the 1960s, and how because he wasn’t cooperating with the fraud that his fellow tally-clerks were perpetrating (recording 50 boxes of goods as 40), they planned to kill him, only to deliberately crush someone else with a crane. They threw the unfortunate person into the lagoon, while he watched from his hiding place and later ran away. Nigeria has been bad for long.

I posit that the blame for where Nigeria is grew with the ages, and so we today share the larger part of it. Why? Because with the benefit of hindsight (20-20 vision), we should have evolved some vision, if not to correct the errors of the past, but at least to ensure that our issues are not daily deepened.

The Diagnosis

We can see the beginnings of what is today called ‘corruption’ in Nigeria. That is why I say that the war against corruption hasn’t quite started. Our lack of vision has seen to it that we only mouth platitudes and do nothing serious about our issues. It seems that the inability to play straight – or perhaps for us to deal decisively with those who game the system – is more deeply ingrained in our culture than we admit. It isn’t even a Nigerian affair. I read Michela Wrong’s book, It’s Our Turn To Eat a few years back, where she documented how it played out in Kenya as well; exactly like in Nigeria. Till tomorrow, tribes in Kenya see the ascension of presidents as the turn of some to eat, while others wait and bid their turns.

If we critically analyse this problem, what will emerge?

1. Perhaps we were (and still are) confused about the transition between one economic system (traditional African) to a modern (Western) one. The new one does not allow for many undue advantages which we still take anyway;

2. Maybe those who found themselves in positions of authority already saw themselves as emperors and perhaps they were. Someone remarked the concept of democracy is pretty new to Africans. We still behave like we are only used to the ‘kaabiyesi’ system (where those in authority can never be questioned);

3. Maybe the allure of the good life that Westernisation offered was just too much for these lucky new administrators that they couldn’t resist the enjoyment that the new money promised them.

But I would still posit that we cannot lay all the blame at the doorsteps of these our forefathers. Certainly, the blame for the public sector screw-up cannot go solely to Murtala Muhammad. The problem had been there, simmering and growing. The leaders of the First Republic were in a peculiar position. They had no roadmaps. There were no textbooks on “How to Manage a Newly-Independent Country”. They didn’t even have means of communication. The phones were few, and hardly worked. There were no mobile phones, no emails, no WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest, which could assist them in sharing ideas and keeping each other in check. But some, many, most of them took undue advantage for selfish reasons. Still I forgive them.

I posit that the blame for where Nigeria is grew with the ages, and so we today share the larger part of it. Why? Because with the benefit of hindsight (20-20 vision), we should have evolved some vision, if not to correct the errors of the past, but at least to ensure that our issues are not daily deepened. In spite of the benefit of history, and at least 100 years of higher education (including at least 60 with universities established here), we seem to be making worse decisions, and showing less foresight than they did back then. And we are more drawn to the allure of living the Western life on stolen money, we have no vision for a sustainable society where a majority live above poverty, we mismanage the commonwealth, and we still have our primitive ways fully intact. Meanwhile we have access to all the compasses, billions of internet pages and everything that can allow us make better decisions. Whereas the colonial masters could take undue advantage of our forefathers, today, many of us gladly mortgage our country for a visa or less.

The Future

I was reading somewhere on Facebook today where someone compared the GDP growth rates of some African countries (at around 4 percent) with Nigeria’s IMF-projected growth rate of 0.8 percent, as a way of indicting Buhari’s dismal government. What worried me, and caused me to write this article, is how the IMF and other multilateral agencies predict growth rates for a country as big as Nigeria, with millions of university graduates and Professors, and they are often accurate. What those predictions, and the casual, almost offhand way they are made mean to me, is that they are stating that we will never be able to think for ourselves, this year and the next.

My message here is that if we lost the past, and perhaps the present, we needn’t lose the future. It may be safe to say we need leaders that have vision for what Nigeria could be and achieve, but my fear is that now we need much more than that. We need a mass of people with vision. And we need to mesh these visions together for our rapid progress. The key reason why this should be achievable is that we’ve been exposed to higher education for long enough. Education is not everything. Degrees and certificates are even much less. But those investments should begin to count for something in our country, and it is more likely to find people with sights that go farther among those who have been to a universal place called a university, or at least interacted for years with people of diverse origin, while exposing themselves to new knowledge.

We need a mass of people, with vision. We need to begin to blend that vision, to take Nigeria forward.

‘Tope Fasua, an Economist, author, blogger and entrepreneur, can be reached through topsyfash@yahoo.com.

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