The roots of our troubles

Pat Utomi

Ironies litter the landscape.  Newspapers chose to emphasise the back of the President, Major General Muhammadu Bujari (retd.), as he climbed aboard the presidential jet to go for another medical checkup abroad. Many are still pondering if meaning was desired in the symbolism of turning the back at a distraught people battling an inchoate economy and ever present threat to life and property.

At about the same time of the President’s medical travel, the US National Consumer Advisory Board was naming a Nigerian, Prof. Iyalla Elvis Peterside, one of the best Physicians in the US. And the President’s Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Timpre Sylva, was announcing the approval of $1.5bn to refurbish the unrefurbishable, the Port Harcourt Refinery.

An angry Atedo Peterside, who is heading the President’s committee to plan our future, declared the $1.5bn could build 12 world-class hospitals in Nigeria. From my quiet corner, I could imagine at least 200 Nigerian doctors as good as Iyalla Peterside, who, incidentally had their medical education in Nigeria, as they trained in the UIs UCH, like him, and many more from UNEC, CMUL, UNICAL and other medical schools in Nigeria now making waves in the US return to run these 12 hospitals,  Nigeria would attract billions in medical tourism income. Much more, I suppose, than we are doing with religious tourism, thanks to the pastors and prophets.

In addition, these 12 hospitals would save the Nigerian people the jet fuel costs and parking fees for the aircraft taking our President to London for health checks. I can imagine how much of the misery in the land can be relieved by such savings.

One frustrated gentleman reflecting on the matters as he read the report of the Secretary General of the Arewa Consultative Forum declaring the current government was the most corrupt since Independence, lamented that it’s hard to tell which bandits are Nigeria’s greater problem, the ones in the bush causing insecurity, or the ones in positions of public authority.

The conversation shook me to the core because an anti-corruption mantra drove the charge for change in 2014/15 and led many decent people to jump in at the deep end. Were they sold the big lie?

The paradoxes do not end there. The National Bureau of Statistics released numbers showing unemployment at 33% and more than 45% youth unemployment. Properly synthesised, taking disguised unemployment and other factors into account more than 50 per cent of the youth graduating from university have little chance of becoming employed in the next five years.

I imagine what can be done with $1.5bn creating SME manufacturing clusters and agricultural outgrower schemes for young people in all the 774 local government areas of the country.

It just boggles the imagination that Nigeria has earned $1.2 trillion from oil alone and has hardly any infrastructure to show for it or a manufacturing base that Brazil had even when it was floundering in the wilderness before Fernando Cardoso and Lula DaSilva showed up. And that globalisation has produced a bigger stock of capital than at any time in human history such that, even if French economist, Thomas Piketty, is unhappy about its distribution, the plain fact is that $17.1 trillion is currently sitting at zero per cent interest out there but the indiscipline of the Nigerian political class prevents such money from entering Nigeria to power up the opportunities waiting to be exploited here. The Federal Secretariat in Ikoyi, Lagos and tons of government assets are wasting or of marginal utility even as the economy is asphyxiated from illiquity while countries like India and Brazil are funding development by financialising such assets. No wonder, Forbes magazine concludes that Nigeria is Africa’s money losing machine. Meanwhile, the country’s elite is perplexed and watch in soporific daze of Champagne infestation of the brain. Nigeria hurts the thinking mind.

So, what are the root causes of these avoidable costly errors in public choice?

When ‘the other room’ entered our lexicon, the first set of ears to suffer through it were those of an extraordinary German woman who wears less than fashionable clothes, Angela Merkel. Her life and outstanding service to her people in the role of Chancellor approach a close as we behold our troubles. I suspect we can learn a thing or two from how her experience defines leadership, which many will agree with Chinua Achebe is the trouble with Nigeria.

I have argued that Merkel is probably the greatest German leader since Otto von Bismarck. Even with a string of post-World War II leaders including the much dignified Konrad Adenauer and talented people like Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, Merkel combined intelligence with an uncommon commitment to service and uplifting the German condition and a selfless focus on purpose over power. This just seems impossible to find in many of the kinds of people that political and public culture in Nigeria tends to flush up into positions of public authority.

I have favoured Merkel over Adenauer just as I favoured Margaret Thatcher over Winston Churchill for the Briton of the 20th Century but recognise something she has way over Thatcher: the capacity to look hubris in the face and push it aside.

In Nigeria, politics seems to be all hubris. It consumes so much that our democracy is lost already. Everything is put into subverting the will of the people that politicians seem to commit everything to bankrupt the treasury so they can buy the next elections. And then what?  What really? To have power and money and be a laughing stock of history. How much of this loot can they meaningfully use?

So, the next study shows that beyond being the poverty capital of the world and inflation is galloping at a rate that it is wiping out the income of the few who have overcome 50 per cent youth unemployment to be in the work force, nothing of lasting value defines us.

Even with this state of despair, politicians still fund from the shrinking public till the purchase of state-of-the-art  SUVs for their motorcades. More hubris. More vainglory where power triumphs over purpose.

How they manage to sleep at night puzzles me.

But ignorance is blitz. They have not read history. They know little about the times between Louis XIV and Louis XVI and the chopping off of the head of the King and the French Revolution. More hubris makes them say revolutions are not possible or likely in Nigeria even when anarchy is already upon us. But narcissism reigns and blinds them to logic and reason.

The politicians rely on legal plunder for material accommodation of self and those close to them. If the National Assembly approves for a parastatal to employ 100 people, they demand 50% of the positions be allocated to them. The minister gets 30 positions and the DG, his directors grumble about how to share the few slots left. No one comes by merit. The Weberian merit bureaucracy is toast in Nigeria. It is progressively crippled,  becoming a minefield of incompetence and corruption as nepotism determines appointments and promotion. And we dare to wonder why things are not working.

What can we learn about leadership from Angela Merkel? The American guru of personal effectiveness, Stephen R Covey, dimensions it in the imperatives of knowledge and a sense of service. Without both being present, effective leadership is not possible, Covey postulates.

Angela Merkel is not only sound, she also clearly agrees with country man Jurgen Habermas, the philosopher of the public sphere about rational public conversation as central to democracy and modernity from how she logically takes on the issues guided by  ennobling values and what the American political scientist James McGregor Burns would call the intellectual’s Moral Authority. She therefore deploys her prodigious intellect to marshal her views and often secured support for her position. But those who lead us cannot articulate their views neither do they care to talk to us. Even though it is supposed to be a democracy and we have the institutions of complex redundancy in the legislature, we suddenly hear of cabinet approval of amounts that can turn around the future of our children and engender a demographic dividend for bringing a murdered horse like the PH refinery back to live just so it can be sold.