This past week, I had cause to engage with some folks over the propriety of Nigeria accepting the donation of a prison block from the United Kingdom. Whereas an assistance is an assistance, this time I felt it was a tad inappropriate. Over and above anything else, by accepting a prison, Nigerian authorities were confirming that the administration of the country was entirely beyond them. I mean, we had accepted hospitals, schools, water plants, power plants, funding for police, the army, and everything in between, such that by now we felt no oddity in accepting a prison block as if jailing people had now become a priority for the nation – some sort of ‘growth area’.
The incidence brought one of the chartbusters of the late Lucky Dube to mind. Titled ‘Prisoner’, Dube sang about how the South African government no longer built schools or hospitals but concentrated on building prisons. The song is a 1990 classic from Dube, who was shot on the street of Johannesburg by fellow black brothers in 2007, who had ‘mistaken him for being a Nigerian’.
The prison-gift business also brought to mind the practice of prison-as-business which goes on in some parts of the USA today, whereby moneybags realized that there was great profit in erecting prisons which they rented out to government, or ran themselves. They said it was the free-market age. However, the erecting of private prisons creates a perverse incentive for law enforcement because they MUST fill up such prisons for the ‘investors’ to maximize profits. The excess enthusiasm we have seen on TV among American police; excessive force, trigger-happiness and so on, are corollaries of the privatization of prisons.
So the UK offer threw up several of our nightmares.
In the same vein, we have heard how the Bill Gates Foundation has helped Nigeria to pay its bills to Japan for assistance rendered on Malaria Eradication. The bill was $76million, and we learnt of how Nigeria’s top politicians ‘advised’ Bill Gates to stave off this bill as if he owed us anything in the first place. All these news are depressing, given that we see exactly what our own leaders use our commonwealth for. By every means, ours is the most profligate country in the world. And not only are we profligate, we are also under-imaginative. Angola has budgeted over $47billion for its 25million citizens this year, Algeria has budgeted $60billion for 40million and South Africa is budgeting $155billion for its 58million people. Nigeria is budgeting a paltry $23billion just as it did last year, for 180million people. Our leaders are not embarrassed by this fact. They don’t even think they need to do anything about it. I have produced a schedule of this embarrassing fact.
A country that is not thinking at the level of its smaller neighbors, but where the leaders are living in luxury never before imagined, is living in a multiple tragedy. Corruption adds another level to the tragedy. Of the $23billion that we have budgeted this year, roughly half will disappear into the pockets of smart Alecs. The entire budget itself will be passed midyear and put into effect for a couple of months before the year runs out. If there is a better definition of wickedness apart from this, I’d like to know. Our level of governance is entirely dismal. It’s unbelievable what we are doing to ourselves as a nation.
During the week I also discussed with a friend who works in the mining sector. The sector is a bag of woes. We spoke about the bottlenecks to prospecting for these minerals in Nigeria and why most players in that sector are merely middlemen who wait to buy from artisan, illegal, small miners. The gentleman told me that there is no underground mines in Nigeria and that our students have to go to Ghana in order to see one. We also spoke of the challenges relating to policy flip-flops, insecurity and such like, which have ensured that real investors don’t come here.
As we discussed, what ran through my mind is that Nigeria and similar countries have not started their journeys until we start to think for ourselves. Earlier in the week I was in Yenagoa where I discussed with a few regulators of our oil sector. We discussed how International Oil Companies had moved deep sea where they now drill sometimes up to 5 kilometers into the sea, because the technology has become more sophisticated. Imagine the kind of technology these guys have. What aspect of the technology around the oil and gas, or any other sector have we produced and owned? Recall the technology used in the Rockefeller days and how all that has changed today. If Rockefeller were to wake up from the grave today he will be shocked at the level of innovation. Now imagine how we have nothing; no contribution to the innovation, and we cannot even replicate what they did 200 years ago, not even on a theoretical level.
We need to go back to basics.
I believe Nigeria needs to go back to developing simple tools, simple systems, and simple machines that we need and then scale up from there. I believe that we should perfect what we make and then take it forward. As things stand we own nothing. We merely anchor our claims on things that God put in the ground, but from the holy books, we can see how God himself was cross with the people who leave talents buried in the ground. As we clamber and clamour for proceeds of our natural resources today, we should always be humbled by the fact that we had no idea what to do with those resources in the first place until foreigners came, and still do not – except we are hand-held through the process. 60 odd years from when we obtained independence we still are not independent in adding value to these resources and it doesn’t seem like we shall be any time soon.
Back to basics.
The other day I was in an electricity seminar. We had all the electricity generating, distributing and transmitting companies there, and we had the banks. We even had the meter manufacturers. Everyone complained about not getting paid and performing under capacity. Yet their rhetoric was about how they could get more money to finance the sector. I commented there that the issues seemed to have gone beyond finance and it was time to think outside the box. We have come to the point where we now have to rely on our students for solutions to the electricity power problem that has lived with us for decades now. I advised the bankers to go to universities and polytechnics and challenge those students and their lecturers for ingenuous solutions. I believe that should be possible if they keep at it. Nigeria should be electrified from bottom up. All that nonsense of purchasing terribly expensive power points will never work and is unsustainable. There is a satellite image that shows how countries are lighted up at night. Africa is usually in pitch darkness save for a few capital and commercial cities. We need our young boys and girls to leverage on first principles and light up our villages, and build capacity and they navigate to the city. Nigeria must be lighted up from the village level, not from the cities down. Let us invert the process.
We are in the age of DIY – Do it Yourself
Politically that is what we need to do as well. The younger people have to get involved and bring their savvy new ideas to bear. The older people seem to have run out of ideas. And it is a truism that the younger people have a different way of arranging stuff. The salvation of the country lies in young, new hands.
Equally we cannot buy economic principles off-the-shelf. Indeed this may be then real fulcrum; the tough part that unravels every other thing. Africa has been dictated to for too long. We have been corralled by non-patriots and led by the noses. Too many dangerous economic ideas have gained popularity. Not even the fact that those ideas have never augured well for us have slowed us down. Sustainability will mean being able to think for ourselves in terms of the economy. What are our peculiar problems? Why do they say Nigeria’s situation never respond to economic theories? What will work for us? All these and much more will have to be answered by us. Peculiarly.