My Ten Cents

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Nigeria: There Was Once a Country


“If you cannot leave us better than you found us, at least, try and leave us the same way you found us when you came.”

                                                                                                                 … Arochukwu elders’ advice.

 When I returned to the US in 2004, after spending three and half years in Nigeria, I swore never to bother myself about anything Nigeria and its myriad of problems anymore. Alas, that oath lasted only three months. Like the proverbial boil under one’s armpit, I could not ignore the country of my birth; so, before you could blink twice, I was back worrying and wringing my hands over Nigeria’s seemingly uncontrollable descent to the abyss.

For the record, I am not a frequent traveler to Nigeria, but I am an avid follower of events in that country. In fact, I have only been to that country twice, since I left its shore in 1987: first time in 2001 when I spent three and half years traveling to all the regions of the country, and recently, in December of 2012, for about a week. Agreeably, not enough time to adequately assess and judge the progress of the country. Unfortunately, this piece is not about Nigeria’s economic, political, and social progress from when I left in 2004 to December 2012; it is more about what we have achieved as a nation from 1960 to 1987; 1987 to 2001, and from 2004 to 2012. It is about finding out whether we are progressing as a nation founded in modern times, or regressing as one.

Referencing the elders’ advice at the beginning of this piece, one would be right to ask; where did our leaders found us in October 1, 1960? I would not know, because I was born in June of the following year. Now, as to where I found the Nigerian state from 1961 to 1987, I can tell you what I saw growing up in Enugu in the sixties up to the civil war, Umuahia, Arochukwu, back to Enugu, Lagos, Yola, Numan, Ife, Ibadan, Maiduguri, Gboko, Ilorin, Owerri, Onitsha, Port Harcourt, Abagana, Jos, Kano, Kaduna, and a few other cities I briefly spent time in. The phones worked, the water and power supplies were steady, roads and bridges were constructed to last an eternity, and healthcare was available, accessible, and affordable. Education was affordable and of a quality at par with those obtained in Europe and the US and university students were recruited even before their graduation for either further studies overseas, or into the civil service to help build the country. Law and order was the norm, and crimes were few and far in-between. Regions were economically and financially self-sustaining, and politicians across the tribes tripped over each other to deliver the dividends of leadership/public service to their people. All of these, unfortunately, were interrupted by the 30-month civil war, following attempted secession by the Eastern region under the late Chief Odimegwu Ojukwu.

In 1970, following the end of the civil war and the creation of 12 states under the Gowon administration, life was somewhat back to normal. In the major cities not affected by the war, infrastructures and other available social amenities remained functional. For the regions affected by the war, government exerted time, money, and efforts to reconstruct what were damaged, and return the bureaucracy to an acceptable functional level. Education, health care, security, power, water, and food prices were returned to the levels close to, if not the same level they were before the civil war. Civil servants received their salaries, unfailingly, on or before the 25th of every month. Families were able to plan and budget on what to expect at the end of every working month, and with such assurance, there were minimal disruptions in the family unit. The lower class could plan on moving to a class above; education was serious business, and universities recruited on meritorious academic achievements. In short, the country was so promising that newly-independent Asian countries trooped to Nigeria to learn the secret of our success. Unfortunately, from 1978, the sky began to fall nationwide.

From 1979, when politicians assumed the leadership of Nigeria, the quality of everything in Nigeria began to deteriorate, unlike in other countries of the same age of independence from the same colonial master. Old roads were left without maintenance and new ones were of such low quality that they only had a life span of six months. Qualities of education and healthcare plummeted, while admissions were rationed and affordability shot through the roof, because funding dried up overnight. To the politicians, many of whom were illiterate, education and healthcare were not priorities. Civil service jobs were reserved for cronies and relatives, while salaries were no longer regular and on time, thereby causing disarray and disruption in families. Water and power supply became more infrequent than they have ever been in decades before, yet annual budgets for same increased exponentially.  Crime waves were on the increase, transportation systems developed unending hiccups, and travel time between destinations doubled due to dilapidated road networks.

While one could easily attribute the many problems to an increasing population; one could also make the argument that along with populations increase came revenue increase from oil. Visionless leadership and lack of proper, if any, planning were more of Nigeria’s stunted growth than population increase. Meantime, corruption, the 8-headed monster, gradually crept into every fabric of the Nigerian society.

From 1984 to 1993, the country had hit rock bottom, in spite of attempts by the Buhari/Idiagbon administration to shock the citizenry into reality. The country was on a rapid descent into Third World status; an unfortunate state for a nation that gained independence at a developing or Second World level. Our leaders had moved us from where they found us in 1960 – middle of the bus – to the back of the bus, and ever since then we have been groping in the dark for the door out of this bus. During the period under review, corruption became officially institutionalized, in an attempted by the leadership to spread the national cake and, in their words, ease the economic hardship of IMF-imposed austerity measures. Along with corruption came moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Pen robbery was sanctioned at the highest seat of government, leading to increase in serious and violent crimes at the lower level; dissent was muscled and muffled at every level, sanctioned killings were the order of the day and, not to be outdone, religious institutions and their leadership joined the game. Education, healthcare, and other social amenities declined to the level of non-existence. Our roads became death traps, railway service ground to a halt, and Nigeria Airways was reduced to a hand-full of planes used by top government officials; with time, event that was history.

Nigeria’s security agency personnel spent more time collecting bribes than solving crimes. Though the overall number of universities doubled, the quality of education was at that level was at par, and sometimes lower, with those of secondary school students in the US and Europe. The Nigerian Middle Class disappeared, while illiterate business men and soldiers graduated from bicycle owners to private jet owners overnight, even as manufacturing fell to 35% of capacity. Hospitals were reduced to places where Nigerians go to die, and our primary – and most secondary – schools moved from under zinc roofs to under tree branches. Yet, during the same period, Nigeria’s oil revenue multiplied five-fold, and most of the former British colonies that gained independence the same time as Nigeria, continued on a progressive path to economic and social greatness, even under dictatorships. With no new refineries in over ten years, no other functional international air or sea port, except the ones in Lagos, the wheels were truly coming off the bus of Nigeria’ overall progress, and our leaders remained clueless, even with frequent changes at the top.

While not a frequent visitor to Nigeria up to December 2000, I made it a duty to keep abreast of almost everything that went on in that country, through Nigerian dailies, weekly magazines, government reports, and other international news outlets – biased or not. Most importantly, I interacted and exchanged views with the ordinary Nigerian. Yet, nothing prepared me for the level of decay and chaos I witnessed from 2001 to 2004, compared to the state of the nation prior to my leaving in 1987. For the next three and half years, I traversed every region of the nation by road and observed developmental progression at every level. I made these trips on my own expense and without directives or sponsorship from any organization or government agency; I visited some federal historical universities, hospitals, secondary schools, state capitals, cities, government offices, headquarters of some corporations, and found them all in advanced state of decay, disrepair, and/or chaos. Hospitals had become mortuaries, universities were nothing more than brothels with students in intense competition with their colleagues in secondary schools, all patronized by our leaders at every level of government and industry. Major roads had been reduced to deathtraps, with erosion splitting communities into islands. Power and water supplies were worse than 1987 standards, and people, forced by crime, were now living in 8-foot high fortresses built with their own money.

No new cities were built by any government at any level, except for Abuja; civil service salary arrears ran into close to 12 months in some state and federal agencies; pensioners were dying on queues while their daughters scavenged the streets looking to exchange sex for money, so that their parents could survive another day. Meantime, politicians and state governors built hospitals, refineries, and universities in South Africa and Dubai; at the same time Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia continued on their progressive march to becoming economic giants that will keep Nigerians away from their countries. To understand the extent of decay on our federal and state infrastructure, a trip from Lagos to Umuahia now took twice the same length of time in 2002 than it took in 1987. While one was able to make it to Umuahia by 4-5PM in 1987, it took three hours longer to cover the same distance, by the same mode of transportation, in 2002. Again, in the same time period, federal revenue quadrupled enough to offset any commensurate population increase.

Come December 2012, eight years later, I ventured into Nigeria, in anticipation of changes based on a chronicle of achievements published by government officials and their paid agents, except now with a difference; while it was impossible to verify some of their claimed developmental achievements in 2001, it has become, over the years, technologically easier to verify same claims in real time. Also, with an emboldened media, angrier and more demanding population, and almost fourteen years of modern democracy under its belt, I anticipated progress at every level of government in every state. Boy, was I disappointed by what I saw in the few places I passed through.

Granted, I did not have enough time to travel extensively as was the case during my last trip to Nigeria, I was still able to cut across a few states – Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Delta, Edo, Anambra, Enugu, Imo, and Abia states in four days. While there is visible evidence of progress in some of these states, especially Lagos, Delta, Edo, and Anambra; most of the rest of Ondo, Imo and Abia states remain the same, except for increased chaos. There were little evidence of improved infrastructural development and an increased level of decay of same. To the average Nigerian in their thirties, there is considerable improvement in the provision of some amenities from when they were born to the present; however, to those of us who lived when there was a functional Nigeria, things have gone from bad to worse, given the length of time to get it together, and available resources to the disposal of our leaders. Sadly, majority of our leaders at every level, who grew up in that era, also acknowledge this – albeit, privately.

Yes, there was once a Nigeria where her citizens were proud to identify with, where the green and white flag was proudly raised; where exemplary leadership was the norm, not the exception; where the interest of the people was priority to the leadership; where corruption was abhorred and criminals treated as outcasts by their kit and kin. A Nigeria where people succeeded on the strength of their hard work; where leaders would proudly point to their lasting achievements beneficial to their people; a nation where government officials were recognized and rewarded by their people for services rendered. Yes, a Nigeria where water and power once flowed for the asking; a Nigeria of my youth.

Today, that Nigeria no longer exists. Yes, there is still a country –a Nigeria where rudderless leadership is the norm; where corruption is accepted, and criminality is glorified and rewarded. A Nigeria where insecurity reigns supreme, and self-built prisons are the trend; where education though expensive, lacks quality; where hope and optimism is found only in churches run by fraudulent men of God. A Nigeria where justice can be bought and paid for at will; where infrastructural decay is considered progress, and healthcare availability is dreamt of, not realized. Yes, a Nigeria where its own leadership have lost hope in its very existence, and every citizen below the age of 35 have not experienced anything other than corruption and social decadence.

 

Felix Oti


Arlington, Texas.
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