Nigeria’s Brand of Repression, By Tolu Ogunlesi
On a visit to Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, last week, I saw the city’s much talked about monorail project. Underwhelming would be an understatement. It was difficult to believe that what I was seeing is what the state government expects the world to accept as a landmark achievement. The bit I saw was a stretch of concrete beams that runs along the Nnamdi Azikiwe Road, and then stops abruptly in the middle of nowhere, after only about one kilometer. From what the website says, this is supposed to be a section of the 5.4-kilometer first phase of the project. The other phases are still being “contemplated.”
The question that you can’t help but ask is why is Nigeria’s third biggest state economy – with a budget twice that of Liberia and Sierra Leone combined – struggling to complete 5.4 kilometers of monorail, five years after the foundations were laid?
In Lagos, a similar scenario. The first phase of the city’s light rail — the 27km “Blue Line” — is years off schedule and still nowhere near launch. In Calabar, the story is not very different. A monorail project that, according to news reports, kicked off in April 2007, was in the news this week: Not because it is now running but instead because the locomotives have finally been delivered. There is not much to suggest that it will commence operations before Liyel Imoke steps down as governor.
At the federal level, the stories are just as depressing. Abuja’s intracity light rail remains unfinished. The Abuja-Kaduna “standard-gauge” railway, under construction since 2011, is not yet in use. It was reportedly finished in December 2014 (the news was full of celebratory stories at that time), and due for launch early in 2015. In March, President Goodluck Jonathan assured that he would ride on it before May 29; he now has barely two weeks to fulfil that promise.
Where do these unfinished – and in some cases abandoned – projects leave us? Sixteen years – and millions of cubic feet of hot air (promises and vows and foundation-layings and newspaper headlines) after we welcomed democracy with much fanfare, there is not a single functioning brand new railway project to present as a “dividend of democracy.” All that we have succeeded in accomplishing in that time – note that a child born when President Olusegun Obasanjo took office in 1999 would today be preparing for university – is revamping railway systems constructed during colonial times.
The Lagos-Kano line opened in 1912, and went into decline from the 1970s, finally stopping to function sometime around 2002. It was revived in 2012, but today still runs as slowly as it did a century ago. Yet, the outgoing government has been celebrating with the same verve that other countries reserve for nuclear testing and Mars Missions.
And that is how Nigeria works – on standards that would not pass muster anywhere else in the world. I was recently in Addis Ababa, and caught a glimpse of the city’s brand new light-rail system, reportedly currently running trial services (and ready to launch in a few months). ýTo do a bit of comparing, consider that the combined annual budget for Ethiopia’s nine states and two city administrations is only a little more than that for Lagos State (in dollar terms).
Putting Nigeria and Ethiopia side by side got me thinking about the concepts of state repression, government efficiency, and standards of living, and the relationship between them.
Let me explain. You see, Nigeria, unlike Ethiopia, is not a country you would classify as a repressive state. Our democracy, nowhere near perfect, generally grants us the freedom to say exactly what we feel about our governments. No internet site is banned here, and there is no danger of the government pulling the plug on the Internet. There has always been a plurality of opinion in our media, intensified in recent years by social media. Our democracy has always permitted the existence of opposition parties, and we have seen in recent weeks a most un-African feat of opposition coalition dethroning an entrenched ruling party. Ethiopia is a different place. There are several things you would write and say freely in Nigeria that would earn you a lengthy jail term in Ethiopia; there is much that Nigeria tolerates that the Ethiopian government would frown upon.
And yet, Ethiopia is a country that knows how to get stuff done with an ambition and focus and efficiency that we can only fantasise about in Nigeria. It is currently building a dam that when finished (scheduled for completion in 2017) will be the largest in Africa, at an estimated cost of about $4.7bn – a fraction of what the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation annually gambles with in the name of SAAs and subsidy fraud, or the civil service in the name of “ghost workers” and pension scams. Ethiopia, landlocked and lacking in natural resources, will be depending on taxpayers and borrowed money to pull off this wonder. No soothsayers are needed to guarantee that they will get it done. This time last year, the dam project was already 30 per cent completed, according to a BBC report.
Nigeria on the other hand stays busy doing what it knows best: making grand plans and tying them up in endless webs of scandals and controversies. The Mambilla Dam project, conceived more than a decade ago during the Obasanjo era, and touted as Nigeria’s equivalent of China’s Three Gorges project, has not left what Nigerians love to call the “drawing board.” The feasibility study for the project was first inaugurated a decade ago.
I have therefore been wondering: What’s the point of revelling in the fact that we are a democracy if the lives we lead are guaranteed to remain hellish year after year, decade after decade? Where, in fact, is the truth of our ‘freedom’ and ‘openness’? Is there not a case to be made that Nigeria’s own repression is of a different kind than the conventional kind; that, it presents itself, not as a direct and ruthless government control or intrusion in the lives of citizens, but as an exceptional abdication of responsibility to the people and to their welfare, so that those people are kept trapped in a permanent state of infrastructural dysfunction?
Isn’t it unconscionable that after the tens of billions of dollars in state funds that have gone into the power sector since 1999, President Jonathan will be handing over a generation profile that is only marginally higher than what President Obasanjo inherited from the military in 1999? Where else in the civilised world would this happen? In that same time, China has added several tens of thousands of megawatts of capacity. These scenarios have also led me to wonder, and not for the first time in this column: Is Nigeria perhaps an irredeemably jinxed entity?
Which is where the Muhammadu Buhari government comes into the picture. All of the hope that citizens carry today is premised on the expectation that the incoming government will be a jinx-breaking one; one that will inspire us to prove to ourselves that we can finally do the things that the rest of the world has long taken for granted.
The stage is now set; the clock will soon start to tick. If the past is anything to go by, our future will be an easy one to predict, as follows: in 2019, we will still be here, lamenting our electricity and public transport woes, wondering what happened to the grand dreams sold to us by the All Progressives Congress and Buhari, wondering what the point is of calling ourselves a country.
Follow on Twitter: @toluogunlesi