Ask what you can do for your country – Nigeria!

Ask what you can do for your country – Nigeria!

By Babs Omotowa

2020 has been another difficult year for Nigeria. Coronavirus, kidnapping, and banditry have been devastating on lives, and the economy, which has also been battered by low oil prices, recession, and inflation. The EndSARS protest, killings, and looting have left a deep scar on our nation but also a silver lining. Nigeria is at the crossroads and witnessing a rising cacophony of disappointment, anger, and division.

John F Kennedy at his 1961 presidential inauguration rallied Americans during the challenging period of 22% poverty (55% in southern areas), war with Vietnam, and the throes of racism and the civil rights movement. He mobilized Americans towards national loyalty despite the tribulations, and his famous speech included “….ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.…knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own….”

Successive Nigerian governments have been faced with tribulations of security, poverty, infrastructure, and jobs. For example, one thing Nigerians cohere is 24-hrs electricity. It remains a mirage and has hardly flickered above 5GW, which is below 20% of the level needed to end power cuts and enable industries to perform at optimal levels. Yet, many distinguished Nigerians have been Power Ministers in the period.

(a). Cicero Bola Ige, 1999-2000 (b). Urbane lawyer, Liyel Imoke, 2003 – 2007 (c). Economics PhD and Investment Banker Rilwan Babalola, 2008 – 2010 (d). Automation and Robotic Professor, founder of Geometric Power Ltd, Bart Nnaji, 2011-2012 (e). UNN VC and Metallurgical Engineering Professor Chinedu Nebo, 2012 -2015 (f). Genial lawyer and former governor, Babatunde Fashola, 2015-2019.

Amongst them are patriotic, hardworking, serious-minded Nigerians, and with intimidating academic qualifications and practical experience. Despite this array, that it has not yet been sorted, should let the discerning, understand that the challenges we face are deeper, and require a long-term focus than many citizens appreciate (e.g., dissolution of mammoth PHCN/NEPA with 48,000 workers who had to be paid N410bln severance to enable commercialization to private distribution and generation companies, legislative probes leading to start and stops, construction of major power plants). From afar, it is easy to criticize and expect ‘quick fix’ results, when one is not confronted with the realities.

The current ruling party itself experienced it. As the opposition, they roundly criticized the previous administration on the kidnap of Chibok girls. But now at the helm, not only have they been unable to annihilate Boko Haram, but they have seen an escalation of banditry and kidnapping, including Dapchi and Kankara. As security is essential for our wellbeing and progress, the government and citizens must unite in supporting our security forces, putting aside political and ethnic differences, to defeat this evil.

This brings into play our responsibility as citizens, as well as our contribution to these challenges and how we should be part of the solution. Let me share a few examples.

1). Our population of 45m in 1960 was below the UK’s 52m. Whilst the UK has by 2020 increased by 16m to reach 68m, we have added 155m to reach 200m. We as citizens have contributed to the challenge in our nation with this population explosion. It is easier for the UK to cope with infrastructure challenges like electricity, when its population has in 60-years, only grown by 30%, unlike ours that has grown by 345% (Even the USA, the country of immigrants, grew by only 83% from 180m to 330m). We need to slow down our population growth rate until the country is able to cope with such a large number.

2). Many government employees (police, immigration, custom, ministries) at their duty posts; at the border control, passport offices, ministries, checkpoints, etc, use their position to extort money from fellow citizens in the provision of services that they are paid salaries to provide. The Nigeria Bureau of Statistics reported that of Nigerian citizens who had at least one contact with a public official, 30% paid or were asked to pay a bribe, with bribe being paid an average of six times per individual in a year. Why do we unleash these ills on fellow compatriots? And yet we complain about the country not working. Why can we not show more decency at our workplace?

3). Senior officials do not always demonstrate a commitment to transparent and fair processes. An example is NDE short term jobs for 1,000 citizens per LGA. Not satisfied with percentages allocated to themselves, the process was stalled (and alleviation for 774,000 citizens) as some stakeholders seek more allocations. Would this not have been a good example to role model the fair process, that we need in the country, rather than favoritism? How would other citizens looking at this example, not do likewise in their own areas of work? We need to be good examples of what we preach.

4). Many in roles of influence (Federal, State, LGA, Private), abuse their positions, corruptly enriching themselves or take decisions (jobs, contracts) to fronts or on ethnic interest. This is an open secret and evidenced in several contract fraud court cases, and these are just the tip of the iceberg. The ills of unfairness and lack of merit in many places, disenfranchise compatriots and affects their hope. It is hypocrisy to act unfairly in one’s workplace but then be vocal in condemning that things are not working in the country. Why can we not be the example of what we want to see in the larger society?

5). Nigerians spent over N3Trillion to buy mobile phone airtime during the year. This is 30% of the 2020 budget. It is more than the allocations for capital infrastructure, education, and health. Yet this is a country with 100-million people living in poverty. How much did we as citizens spend to help the poor and vulnerable during the year? An example of a good effort was the Cacovid contributions of N40-billion to support coronavirus efforts. But this is merely 1% of our spend on phone airtime! Are the rich and the middle class prioritizing enough on supporting the needy or are spending more on vanity (e.g., spraying at parties, buying expensive cars and houses) in the midst of high inequality?

6). Many citizens do not have a good knowledge of the country, having not traveled beyond their state of origin, region, or where they reside. As a result, they assess things in the country without a deep understanding of the diverse challenges or even progress elsewhere. For example, how many understand the challenging swamp mangrove terrains in the Niger Delta? How many appreciate the wide desert in the North and the need for nomadic life? How many understand the hills and mountains of the middle belt region? The lack of holistic appreciation makes many to view issues from an ethnic as well as a narrow prism, and an expectation of a ‘quick fix’ mindset, bereft of the realities.

7). Sadly, many Nigerians who are not yet in a position, do not resent those involved in many of these ills. Many are defensive of those who corruptly enrich themselves, either on a tribal or on a political basis. Some are even simply awaiting their own “turn” so as to do likewise. How would the country get better if our intention is to unleash evil on a ‘turn by turn’ basis?

Some of these can be partly traced to the erosion of values in us citizens and accentuated by a loss of national vision and purposeful leadership over the years, and as our ‘A’ team has given way to our ‘C’ teams at all levels. Regaining our core values (e.g., honesty, service, community, warmth) is crucial for our success as a country. It requires citizens reorientation, and is well beyond finger-pointing and even beyond agitations of federalism, restructuring, and ethnic agendas.

I am an optimist on the conquering spirit of mankind to overcome challenges. Nigeria will get to the promised land. It may not be in the lifetime of all of us, but the same occurred in other developed countries, as the lifespan of a country is different from an individual. It is easy to despair at our underdevelopment, however, it is more valuable to look for the silver lining, the inclusive paths forward, and opportunities.

2020 is ending with some rays of light such as the approved covid vaccines (despite wave 2 and variants), oil price recovery above $50, signing of AfCFTA to boost regional trade, and the Lagos-Ibadan railway commissioning.

In 2021, the Government must redouble efforts on security, poverty, jobs, infrastructure and work more on inclusion. For citizens, our narrative must not just be to talk ourselves out of hope, but should also include “..what you can do for your country..”.

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