If Nigeria should emulate Mark Twain it would, in fact, represent poetic justice of sorts. For no less a person than Nigeria’s first president, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, was forced to follow Mark Twain’s dictum and deny his own death in November 1989 – seven good years before being called to join his ancestors.
Dr Azikiwe’s reaction to his premature obituaries – one of which appeared in The Daily Telegraph in London (a paper that he had no doubt once read with special interest, being the gallant fighter against imperialism that he was) showed more emotion than that of Mark Twain.
“Zik” of Africa, who was very well read, did appropriate Mark Twain’s witticism to describe his own situation. But he twisted the knife more caustically into the wounds of the journalists who had unceremoniously killed him off prematurely: “I feel ashamed to belong to a profession that can make such a blunder,” he said.
Over the years, “obituaries” of Nigeria – or pale versions of them – have appeared regularly in the world’s press. During the Nigerian civil war of 1967-70, the Federation was “buried” many times. Media pundits were convinced that the “Biafrans”, led by Colonel [later General] Odumegwu Ojukwu, would emerge victorious and that as soon as that happened, the rest of Nigeria’s larger ethnic groups would also splinter from the centre (then based in Lagos).
The survival of Nigeria after that traumatic episode, one would have thought, would silence the “obituarists” for good. But no: whenever there is unrest anywhere in the Federation, say in Ogoniland, or in the areas once threatened by the armed group known as MEND, or more recently, in the Northern areas where “Boko Haram” is holding sway, it becomes the backdrop against which the “unnatural alliance” that brought Nigeria into being, is viewed.
But even in “unnatural alliance” Nigeria, good news does happen. In October, the African-American tennis stars, Serena and Venus Williams, passed through Lagos as part of a two-nation African tour that saw them play exhibition matches in Nigeria and South Africa. In Lagos, the sisters visited Government House where the dynamic and development-oriented state governor, Babatunde Fashoda, hosted them to an animated discussion on “the role that women play in shifting perceptions and encouraging development at all levels across the African continent”.
Sadly, the leaders with whom Nigeria has been saddled in recent years have not been exactly confidence-inspiring types à la Babatunde Fashola. In the early 1990s, General Ibrahim Babangida worked hard to achieve a measure of popularity, which he used to spawn two political parties (one “a little to the left and one a little to the right”, as he was wont to describe them) which, incredibly, were accepted by the politicians of the country.
But having, against all the odds, created the enabling atmosphere in which the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC) could thrive, Babangida placed them in the ring to engage in a thrilling political combat. Yet when one of the parties won the battle, the same ring-master whose rules had been scrupulously followed during the fight, declared the result null and void!
Up till today, he hasn’t given his countrymen a satisfactory answer to the question: “Why did you nullify an election in which Chief M.K.O Abiola beat Bashir Tofa fair and square, to obtain the mandate of the electorate as president?”
As for General Sani Abacha, the mention of his name is enough to present a scenario so bizarre that unless someone has just crept up from beneath a rock under which he or she has hidden for two decades, it needs no “rewinding”.
And then, another strange episode in leadership: General Olusegun Obasanjo, a prisoner of Abacha’s, was released from prison after Abacha’s death and assisted by Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar’s military government to become president.
Whether Obasanjo’s two terms were successful or not shall not be probed at present. What is of interest is that on leaving office, he forced a very sick Umaru Yar’Adua on Nigeria as its president! He claims Yar’Adua assured him he was healthy and up to the task. But if Nigeria’s body-politic had been irreparably damaged as a result of the clumsy attempt by Yar’Adua’s wife and his kitchen cabinet to rule in the sick man’s name, Obasanjo would have been unable to escape responsibility for at least part of what nearly happened. President Goodluck Jonathan, a man whose first name has served as some sort of “talisman” that propels him to high office against all expectations next came to the helm. (Goodluck was a deputy governor when his boss, the governor, was impeached and he succeeded him as governor, and he was vice-president when Yar’Adua died, and he became president.)
With so much “good luck” on his side, one would have thought that he would steer a stable and powerful ship of state into peaceful, prosperous waters. But alas, he has alienated almost the entire North, to the extent that the result of the 2011 presidential election (which he won) presented a picture of a Nigeria divided into two halves – an anti-Jonathan North and a partially pro-Jonathan South. Grist to the mill of the “Cassandras”? You bet.
Indeed, Jonathan’s uneasy victory ought to have spurred him on to excel in the art of governance, so as to silence his many detractors. But instead, he has, when presented with an opportunity to demonstrate firm leadership, seemed to waffle.
For instance, he has been presented, in recent weeks, with an opportunity to carry out reforms in Nigeria’s petroleum industry that has been crying out for reforms for many years. The first is the problem of subsidising the importation of refined petroleum products into the country. This should not be necessary in the first place, because Nigeria has three refineries – at Port Harcourt, Warri and Kaduna. For reasons that are not too far removed from actual sabotage of their operations, these refineries are hardly ever able to supply the nation’s needs at any one time.
Yet the system of importing fuel has been transformed into a feeding trough into which all manner of companies, licensed by the federal government, have inserted their snouts and have been guzzling public money. In April 2012, the Nigerian legislature reported that some of these companies had been paid $6.8bn from the Nigerian exchequer in the past two years alone, in respect of fraudulent claims they had made regarding refined fuel they claimed to have imported into the country. So many questions arise from such scams: Did the Nigerian Treasury have a system in place whereby imported fuel would be paid for only when it had been physically sighted and its quantity scientifically established? Were the contents of the tankers that supposedly delivered the imported fuel checked against their manifests before payment was made? Did the Nigerian Customs Service inspect the alleged shipments?
If the Treasury and Customs made errors in accepting the false claims for payment, what about the paying authority, which, presumably, was the Central Bank of Nigeria? What of the office of the auditor-general of the Federation?
Naturally, Nigerians have been infuriated by the revelation that the importation of fuel, to be sold at subsidised prices to them, has served, instead, as a rich source of enrichment for corrupt companies and a coterie of politicians and public servants with whom they are in hock.
As if that was not a big enough blow, Nigerians have also learnt from a report commissioned in the wake of fuel protests early this year, that $29bn was lost in the last decade, in a price-fixing scam, involving the sale of natural gas.
The report also calculated that the Nigerian Treasury loses $6bn a year due to the theft of oil meant for export. This report confirmed estimates circulating in the World Bank that as much as $400bn has been stolen – or misspent – out of Nigeria’s potential oil wealth since the country became independent in 1960.
The sheer incompetence that makes such fraud and corruption possible must cause a great deal of distress and depression to the millions of Nigerians who live under the “poverty line”.
Indeed so explosive is the poverty issue that one of the most revered religious leaders of Nigeria, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III, who is the spiritual head of Muslims in Nigeria, made an overtly political comment on it, when he was speaking about riots that occurred at Bauchi, in Northern Nigeria, towards the end of 2008, in which hundreds of people were killed. Since then, of course, the Boko Haram insurgency is estimated to have cost 3,000 lives.
The Sultan said there was so much “hunger and poverty” in Nigeria that there was a “ready-made army” of hungry people who could be mobilised to wreak havoc at any place at any time.
On the causes of the Bauchi riots, the Sultan warned: “It is not just politics, it is not just religion. It is just that there is such total hunger and poverty in the land that there is a ready-made army, anytime, anywhere, in their hundreds of thousands, who, given just one or two thousand naira, are ready to form an army for you.”
The Sultan’s explicit fingering of social conditions – rather than a religious motivation – as the main cause of the riots, marked the first time a top religious leader had openly spoken in blunt terms about the recurrence of allegedly “religious riots” in Northern Nigeria.
Good educational and health facilities, decent housing, the provision of pipe-borne water, and a steady supply of electricity are a crying need which almost every intelligent Nigerian recognises must be a priority for the government, if the populace is not to rise up in anger and make the country ungovernable.
The danger that faces Nigeria is that many of its citizens are aware that other oil producing countries do manage to meet the social needs of their people by husbanding their wealth from petroleum in a sensible manner.
In Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Dubai, for example, personal income tax and social security costs are either absent altogether or tiny. Employer-topped pensions are generous and housing is often subsidised. Qatar is now recognised as one of the countries with the most advanced social welfare systems in the world, and is ranked above Sweden in terms of per capita income. Whereas Nigeria is nowhere near the top, even in Africa!
No doubt aware that his government is sitting on a social time bomb, President Goodluck Jonathan is seeking approval from the Nigerian legislature to borrow $7.905bn from overseas to carry out infrastructural and other projects in the country. But when the proposal came before the Senate, it was criticised by the senators, some of whom argued that there was “no rationale” behind “such a big loan”.
At least one senator described the huge loan as “a death trap for Nigeria and the future growth of the country”. Others expressed fears that the money might not be channelled into what it was ostensibly meant for, but used for other purposes.
The proposed loans form part of what the president says is his 2012-14 “medium term” plan, which covers pipeline projects and electricity infrastructure. Some of the money will also go into schemes aimed at creating youth employment. That the loan proposal took nine months to reach the Senate floor, before being referred to the appropriate committee for consideration, demonstrates how slowly the wheels of government move in Nigeria.
When the committee submits its report, the Senate will debate the proposals again, and then decide whether to give the president the go-ahead or not. So by the time the loan becomes available, if ever, a new presidential election will be just around the corner, which means that the projects for which the loans will have been contracted will not necessarily be implemented by the administration that conceived of the projects. Yet continuity is not one of the greatest strengths of the Nigerian body politic.
As Senator Benedict Ayade (PDP, Cross River North) put it: “We should not go borrowing, because when we do, we lose the value of the Naira, and our own values. There is no reason why we should go and borrow from countries that are not as rich as Nigeria.”