The Real Problem With Nigeria By Reno Omokri
For instance, ask any Nigerian what the problem is with Nigeria and they will say like, Chinua Achebe, that it is leadership, forgetting that Nigeria’s leaders come from amongst us; and if we are saying that our problem is leadership, we are invariably supporting the racist Rhodesian doctrine that a black man would thrive best under white rule.
So if our problem is not leadership, what then is it?
I propose that our problem in Nigeria is that we lack a sense of history and we live only in the present moment which means that we are always reacting and hardly ever pro-acting.
If my five year old son comes to me and tells me that he has lost his toy, I will ask him to think back to the last time that he saw it and begin the search from there.
Nigeria has seen phenomenal growth in the last three years with our Gross Domestic Product, GDP, growing at a rate of over 6% per annum making us one of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies. Yet, we still have areas of Nigeria where population growth is higher than the growth rate of our GDP; and it is only common sense that where population outpaces production, there will be crisis. This is a theory that Reverend Malthus propounded and which has stood the test of time.
Between 1960 when Nigeria got independence and 1966 when we experienced the first military intervention in governance, Nigeria experienced phenomenal growth – a feat that has evaded us since, except for the growth we have had in the last three years. Almost all of the national institutions that were responsible for our growth pre-1999, were products of that first golden era before the first coup, such as the four great universities, (Lagos, Ife, Nsukka and Zaria), Kainji Dam, Nigeria Airways etc.
Also, in the same time period, we had some of the best civil servants in the world and our public service was very functional. There were reports from that era that some of our politicians were corrupt, but it is universally acknowledged that our civil servants of those times were above board. Our hospitals were renowned worldwide and it will surprise some to note that the Saudi Royal family received treatment at the University College Hospital, Ibadan, in the early 60s.
At that time we did not have oil in the quantum that we have today, yet, the nation was thriving, we had little or no foreign debt and we were first amongst equals in the council of emerging nations that included Indonesia, Brazil and Egypt.
But all these changed after 1966. So, as I would say to my five year old, if you are looking for a thing, go back to the last place where you saw it. That place is 1966!
Pre-1966, admission into primary and secondary schools was purely on merit. The same was the case for universities as well as the federal civil service. After 1966 when the military intervened and ended the First Republic all that changed and has remained the same till today.
A child could no longer bank on academic prowess as the yardstick for his gaining entry into primary and secondary schools. Children at their most tender years, when they were being emotionally scripted were told that even though they passed and passed well, they were not good enough for government funded schools because of where they came from.
With the Quota system of entrance into public schools introduced after 1966 and enshrined by the military into our body polity extant laws, children as young as nine got to understand that in Nigeria, where you come from is more important than how intelligent and hardworking you are.
Now, the sad thing about the policy of quota systems is that geneticists in the very best universities of the world have established that some races and tribes are not more intelligent than others and as such you can find intelligence in almost equal measure wherever you use it as a yard stick. In fact, many, including the Harvard Medical Journal, have reported that culture is more to blame than intelligence for the reason why some peoples are backward while others are progressive.
And our culture has been that children who are more endowed intellectually are held back and children who could grow their intellectual capacity are prevented from doing so because there was no need to challenge them intellectually. Come as you are, the system says.
This system would probably have brought minimal damage if it was limited to secondary schools, but it is not.
After completing secondary school, post 1966 Nigerian youths faced the same issues in gaining admission to Nigerian universities. Cut off marks and catchment areas were discriminately apportioned using region as a yard stick. So, after being told at age nine that were you came from was more important than your intelligence or your academic hard work, the message is reinforced at age 16-17 when you are still in your formative years.
At 16, you enter university and study for four or five years (ASUU permitting) and then graduate and go through your National Youth Service (one of the best policies the military bequeathed to Nigeria) and then you start to look for a job.
The largest employer of labour is the government, so naturally you start there. And what do you find? At age 24, just as when you were nine and sixteen, you are now faced with a policy that says where you are from is more important than what you can bring into the system. You are told that although you are qualified, the system must take people who are less qualified than you because of where you are from and where they are from.
So, between the ages of nine and 24, your psyche has been reinforced and scripted with the message that where you are from is more important than what you bring to the table.
Why wouldn’t a post 1966 civil servant face temptation to steal when merit is not the order of the day and you are forced to serve under someone who did not get his placement by merit – who enjoys perks and privileges far in excess of you? How can such a system promote morale and how can you have efficiency where morale is low?
Prior to 1966, an Nnamdi Azikiwe could win election in Ibadan and an Umoru Altine could win election as the first mayor of Enugu, but how can we replicate that ideal when, in every form you have filled since the age of 6, your ethnicity, state of origin and religion has mattered more than your Nigerianness. But whenever you watch television in the 1980s you see the MAMSER directorate showing you clips of your leaders telling you that where you come from does not matter and what matters is that “we are all MAMSER people who want the basic things of life”.
It is not until you get to your 30s and you watch as those same leaders that sold you and your parents that line form themselves into Northern and Southern Political Leaders Forum that you realized that you have been had!
And then young people who through no fault of their own have been conditioned to only live in the moment are then manipulated by these same set of leaders to begin to blame the government of the day for crumbling infrastructure that has been neglected for years and is only now being addressed after decades of neglect for the simple reason that we now have a leader who emerged not through the establishment but through events that could only be described as divine. And then you wonder, do they know their friends from their enemies? I mentioned Kainji Dam earlier but young people would be surprised to note that between 1979 and 1999 no new power plants were initiated and the one commissioned in 1982 was initiated in 1978! Yet, these same young people egged on by those who have milked the system in that time frame point accusing fingers at the man who is making a difference.
Take something as universal as power. In Nigeria, history has been made as the power sector has just been privatized by President Goodluck Jonathan in fulfillment of the promises he made to Nigerians when he launched the Roadmap to Power Sector Reforms on August 26th 2010. But before then, Nigeria has and is still suffering from chronic power shortages.
Now, power is one of those industries that rely strictly on efficient manpower in order to function properly. But power has been exclusively managed and operated by the government. Now who would the government hire to run our power plants, transmission grids and their commercial offices? Of course it would be Nigerian citizens.
Now, are those citizens the very best Nigeria has? No! These are citizens employed as part of the federal civil service that depends not on merit but on ethnicity for its hiring. So what then do Nigerians expect from such a venture?
You can repeat this for our refineries, airports, railways, sea ports, and other vital national institutions.
It is a notorious fact (yes, that phrase again) that you are only as strong as your weakest link. Therefore where you have not taken in the best right from secondary up to university and up to the civil service, your system is only as strong as the least endowed person.
To put this into perspective, if you have a school entry system that gives someone who scored 2 admission, and stops someone who scored 290 from getting admitted, your system is only as strong as a 2.
The saddest thing is that if that 2 knew that he would only get in if he had a 290 and nothing else would ensure he gets in, he would be forced to build his capacity to at least a 290. It is called competition and that is what existed between 1960 and 1966.
That, my people, is the problem with Nigeria. President Goodluck Jonathan and the leadership he offers to Nigeria is not our problem. As a matter of fact it is part of our solutions. Why do I say this? Because this is a man who has seen that even though we have made phenomenal progress in the last three years such as we have never witnessed between 1966 till date, yet we can do better.
And speaking as a private citizen, it is my hope that the coming national conference would look into these issues and go back in time to the place where we lost it.
Reno Omokri is the Special Assistant (New Media) to the President.
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