How We Ate Our Yesterday


A majority of Nigeria’s problems today are a function of the poor choices made yesterday, writes Babatunde Fashola

At the heart of this issue, is the reason for the issue and that reason is us – people. We are so different and yet, want to be the same. We are so different that even those we call identical twins are not exactly the same because we can tell them apart. We also exist in a world that changes more frequently than we can grapple with it.

Interestingly, we are the paradox. We are creatures of habit; we want things to remain the same while we pursue change with all our might; yet we have already acquired a vested interest in the same thing we seek to change.

So I will discuss leadership and the politics of reform in Africa with lessons from Nigeria within the realities in which reforms are implemented, that is, in people’s lives and the conscious focus of what reforms entail, which is to “alter”, “improve” or “change” things.
How will people, who are creatures of habit, and who have acquired a vested interest in the existing order react to any person or institution who seeks to alter or change what they have become used to, no matter how well intentioned the change or new alteration is?
If we start with ourselves, as the microcosms of leadership in our homes, work place and our schools and if we focus on what happens in our daily lives, instead of focusing on our mayors, governors and presidents, we should ask ourselves how we react to reforms or change.
Let us imagine our favourite chair in the living room, where we watch our favorite sport programme or TV show or our regular seat in the classroom, or our cluttered desk in the office, where only us know where we put every stray piece of paper.

Imagine yourself arriving home in a rush or to class for the first lecture, or to the office in the morning, and you find the TV has been moved or the seat has been moved, or that your seating position in class has changed or the person who normally sits next to you has changed or that the office cleaner has cleaned your desk and moved all the stick-on pads and your loose notes around.

How would you feel – angry, displeased, disappointed, unimpressed, disorganised? Most likely you will experience one, more or all of these emotions even if the TV view is better, your chair is more comfortable or your desk is cleaner and better organised. This is exactly how people react to their leaders, especially the elected ones. This is partly why reform is difficult, even if it is ultimately beneficial. So, sometimes, and perhaps more often, it is not always the case that our leaders do not know what to do.

In many cases, it is the problem of how to get us to agree to it, and how they can stay on our right side that makes reform difficult, because they need or seek to stay always on our right side to get elected again.

For want of a better explanation, therefore, I would argue that consensus building is the heart and soul of leadership and politics of reform, whether in Africa or anywhere else. So, the next question is how do we build consensus in order to implement reform? ‘Communication’ is one thing that comes to mind. ‘Trust’ is another while ‘Knowledge’ is yet another and there are certainly many more.

If we keep in focus the fact that not everybody votes or indeed voted for the leader, it must then be pretty difficult to expect that those who did not vote at all, or who did not vote for that leader will trust him or be favorably disposed to or interested in listening to what he is saying or doing until it directly affects them and then, the reaction and sometimes, resistance begins.

When we acknowledge that there are increasing platforms of communication becoming available to people today, it becomes more problematic to choose which to use. From the traditional radio, TV and newspapers, the world has moved to cyberspace with people receiving information on many platforms like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and many more, with a list that is growing on a daily basis. This is why there was also a growing skill set to study communication platforms, the communication audience and the expertise to choose which platform is best suited to reach which particular audience.

So, in real life, it is less likely that leaders are accused of over communicating. On the contrary, the popular rhetoric is that of lack of communication. I will attempt to illustrate this point with the recent tariff review for electricity consumers in Nigeria, by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC).

Although the law allows for the commission to review and determine tariffs to: “allow a license… to recover before costs of its business activities, including a reasonable return on the capital invested in the business”, Section 76 (2) (a). The law further provided that tariff review must be done in consultation with stakeholders.

In spite of advertisements by each DisCo (Distribution Company), with records of stakeholders’ meetings, including affiliates of those who later complained, there was a massive outcry of Lack of consultation and allegation of 45% Tariff hike, when in fact the tariff of the most vulnerable consumer never changed, when in fact the fixed charge which consumers found offensive in the old tariff had been removed in the new tariff; when in fact it was impossible to have a uniform 45% increase in tariff, because the tariff for each distribution area in each class of consumer (except the most vulnerable consumer is not the same amount).

The outcry ignored the fact of the Tariff review was still many notches cheaper than the consumers cost of self-generation. This is an empirical problem with communication, and perhaps proof of an emerging global lack of trust of governments. These two problems are vividly demonstrated by data, in a World Economic Forum publication which showed that on a score of 10 points, where people were asked the question “which sector is most trusted for its leadership?”
Non-profit and charitable organizations were trusted at 5.53, Business 4.72, Education 4.70, International organizations 4.62, Health care 4.53, News Media 3.94, Government 3.83, and Religious Organisations 3.57
When the figures were further analysed, they showed that while 52% of respondents do not have confidence in government leaders not to abuse their positions, 55% of respondents had confidence in non-profit leaders to advocate for the marginalised or the under-represented.
In the same survey that asked respondents across continents to identify “… the qualities that made for strong leadership”. North America identified global perspective, collaboration and building consensus. Europe identified global perspective, communication and collaboration.
Asia identified global perspective collaboration and communication. Latin America identified collaboration, high morality and global perspective. Middle East/North Africa identified collaboration, inspiration and communication, while Sub-saharan Africa identified Relationship with everyday people, collaboration and communication.

These responses show that the issues of consensus, communication and knowledge which I raised are the same things these survey responses seek in their leaders, when they ask for collaboration consensus or relating to everyday people, or when they speak about communication (the right to know) and of course, knowledge, when they speak of a global perspective.
The question then is how do leaders or governments communicate, collaborate or build consensus or indeed demonstrate the knowledge that citizens expect of them? If we go back to our test case on the upward review of electricity tariff in Nigeria, we can perhaps test the parameters of reform and the attributes that our respondents alluded to.

Is it reasonable to have expected the Nigerian electricity regulator or the 11 (ELEVEN) distribution companies to have consulted everyone of the 6 million known consumers on their new database? Can we or should we hold them to such a standard when we know that polls and surveys, which are usually accurately predictive of a population of say 20 million people are based only on a sampling of the views of 5,000 to 10,000 people?

While still on the problem of leadership, let me make the point that I have observed that non-Africans speak of Africa as if it is one state. It is not. It is a continent of over one billion people, made up of 54 independent nations, many tribes and ethnic nationalities that were indeed once thriving kingdoms and empires, whose clear identities have been blurred by the force of Western military expansionism.

They are extremely diverse people and speak different languages, such that the homogeneity of language that exists in some other continents, which are nonetheless also diverse, are less pronounced and less complex than in the average African country.

In Nigeria, for example, although the language of business is English, communication, in order to be effective requires you to translate to at least the other widely spoken languages of Yoruba, Hausa and Fulani, Igbo in addition to Pidgin, which is a slang of English mixed with the local languages, if you want to achieve a meaningful reach.

That said I will now deal somewhat with the issue of collaboration as a leadership requirement. I will start with a quote from Robert K. Greenleaf, which says “The leader of the people is their servant.” The point I first wish to make is that leadership confers an office/status as it imposes a responsibility.

I, therefore, argue that it is possible where leadership is not of the quality that is expected; it is perhaps possible that not only have the leader and the led focused more on the status or office, they have focused less on the responsibility, which is to serve, and this is not something that is unique to Africa.

From my experience, it is more likely that when leaders focus less on office and more on the responsibility, they are likely to be more “mindful”. I believe that “mindfulness” is perhaps the most important trait that a true servant, as leader, must possess.

“Mindfulness” will constantly remind the leader that people have expectations of him; that what he does or fails to do affects people’s lives. That they lose their lives, their jobs, their homes or other properties if he fails to act properly and that conversely, they are safe, their jobs are secure, and their property rights are guaranteed if he acts properly.

It is mindfulness that prompts the leader to show courage, when there is danger to raise hope, when there is despair and to preach togetherness and unity even though he alone bears the burden of an expectant people.

During my tenure as governor, my constant source of fear was the security report. I wanted to always protect all the 21 million people I was responsible for even though I did not know them all personally and I could not be in their homes. I received a daily report from the state police headquarters. The best days were the days when no murders or deaths were reported.

During long holidays or festivals like Christmas or the Muslim Eid el Kabir when people went out to beaches, malls, tourist destinations and places of worship, were long, tortuous and full of suspense. We planned ceaselessly to ensure security presence in all those places; even if citizens were unaware. All law enforcement agencies were on a minimum of 48-hour patrol and sometimes, 72 hours with allowances until the citizens returned without incident or very little ones.

The Ebola outbreak and the urgency to prevent it from reaching epidemic level was perhaps one of the biggest challenges we had to contend with. Mindfulness was a great asset. It helped us to build consensus and collaboration, and our communication was well received. Apart from keeping the leader focused on his responsibilities, it is mindfulness that helps the leader focus less on himself and manage his ego.

This matter of ego, perhaps obliquely allows me to speak to the issue raised in Dr. Muyangwa’s press statement about “institutionalising change and keeping reforms beyond one tenure.” Again I wish to reiterate the paradox that we are. We do not want long tenures of leadership. We have evolved term limits of 4-8 years after which we demand that the leadership is changed.
Nevertheless we want some of the things they have done to remain the same. Let us first look at ourselves as the microcosms of leadership and ask ourselves if we will keep a rented apartment in the same way as the last occupant left it?

We all have egos. Some are big and some are small. Whatever their sizes, I have always believed that the issue is whether the owner of the ego controls it or whether the ego controls the owner.
Where the leader controls his ego, he is able to compromise in order to build consensus and get the job done, even if he does not like some of the people he has to work with or some of the things they do or some of the things they demand of him.

What I always insist is that while you can compromise on your position, you must not compromise your person, values or integrity. This is a difficult path to navigate when you need consensus. Let us all remember the importance of consensus in a democratic setting because often times, the executive is different from the legislature which has oversight and power of checks and balances. Their numbers vary as their constituencies are expansive.

As governor, the state legislature I worked with had 40 legislators from different parts of the state, with different constituency requests, different educational, religious, professional and cultural backgrounds.

We got things done because we could build consensus. I was not always agreeable and they were not always agreeable, but I think mindfulness and our responsibility, which were shared, helped us through difficult times.

In the federal government today, the President of Nigeria has to work with a Bi-Cameral legislation of a 108 member Senate and a 360-member House of Representatives.
Apart from difficulties that may occur and have been known to occur between both houses as institutions, there are cultural, ethnic, religious, political party, gender and ideological differences between the members individually, and this underscores how difficult it can be to achieve consensus.

Before I conclude, let me discuss what is happening in the sectors of power, works and housing in Nigeria that I now have responsibility for. As far as power is concerned, I wish to state very clearly that the problems are not technical. They are man-made. As long as they are man-made, they can be solved by men and women and that is what the administration led by President Buhari is determined to do.

The problems range from liquidity issues, to errors of commission or omission in the privatisation process, and the usual teething problems of transitioning from the mindset of public sector managed power for 63 years, from 1950-2013, to a mindset of public sector regulated power managed by private sector, between November 2013 and today ( a period that is under 3 years).

The problems cover poorly designed projects, which must be corrected and completed, contractors who have not been paid for three years and therefore have no funds to complete projects, community issues over way leave, issues of land and compensation claims, resulting in disputes some of which led to court cases, and anger resulting in vandalism of public assets.

These in my view are not technical. They are man-made. It requires proper analysis, understanding and decisive choice making to get to the heart of the problem and resolve it.
We have evolved a clear roadmap which we have started implementing, to deliver first incremental power, because we do not have enough, stable power, by knowing how many people need energy and what quantity they need, to uninterrupted power that requires us to conserve energy, because what is wasted will never be enough.

In the works sector, especially our road and bridge development, the problem is not different. It is not that we have not built roads before. It is man-made issues or budgeting, lack of payment to contractors for three years, project supervision and discipline to manage 206 road contracts that were not budgeted for or if budgeted for were poorly funded.

The total outstanding contractual liabilities are in the region of N1.5 Trillion and this administration is taking them in batches starting from the critical high traffic highways that evacuate goods from ports, fuel from tank farms, and move foodstuff and agro produce across the country.

In the first quarter of 2016, road contractors have received N73 Billion in payments, which is four times more than the total budget of N18 billion for roads in last year’s budget. It is the first payment they are receiving in almost 3 years.

In the housing sector, the big issue is how to design houses that respond to the diverse cultures and climatic conditions in Nigeria. We have resolved this by developing two broad categories of designs comprising blocks of flats for the southern states and bungalows with courtyards for the northern states.

We have completed the process of standardising fittings with a view to using only Made in Nigeria windows, doors, hinges, tiles, plumbing and electrical appliances in order to stimulate production by local small and medium businesses.

We are now issuing tender documents for local contractors to bid for construction contracts in order to inject money back into the economy and create jobs, stimulate demand and reflate the economy. When will results show you might ask? Soon enough is the best I can say. We manage the time but we do not control the time. We need people to work hard. We are changing the unproductive practices of yesterday.

Practices where the government chose to distribute cash, rice and imported kerosene in order to win votes, rather than invest it in the payment of contractors, get them to build roads, power projects, housing and real infrastructure.

Yes, the global economy is not in the best place across Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The impacts are local and diverse, and those who invested well yesterday are better able to cope with a harsh winter while they expect a glorious spring.

In Nigeria, the choices of yesterday make this winter a very harsh one for our people because we did not invest in the right things. Our government of yesterday expressed its preference for providing “infrastructure of the stomach” giving handouts instead of real infrastructure. This is how the seeds of today’s recession were sown.

For those who say that today’s government should stop talking about yesterday, with respect, I disagree. Yesterday will remain relevant in understanding today in order to make choices that make tomorrow different and better.

I once used the allegory of the patient, and I think it deserves repetition. If a patient complains about stomach pain, the first question that the physician is likely to ask is: “What did you eat yesterday?” The answer helps the physician make a diagnosis, and choose a prescription first to solve the problem, and to recommend further dietary habits about what to eat and what not to eat. This is what the current leadership is addressing.

What we ate year yesterday is that we wasted our money. We did not invest in roads, highways, bridges, schools and hospitals. Money was taken out of the larger society and invested in private accounts. The economy began to shrink, construction companies laid off workers, who in turn lost income, which resulted in shrinking demand for goods and services, and in turn led to national under productivity. That was what we ate yesterday. The stomach pain is comparable to symptom of bad dietary choices that manifest in the recession we now deal with.

The solution is to spend on infrastructure which has started. The recovery time is a function of what we can spend and how quickly it will go round.

Ladies and gentlemen, if an arid area of land has not witnessed rainfall in 2 to 3 years, you know what happens when the first rain falls. It literally disappears into the ground. In order to reach a point, where any moisture is visible in the soil that may support the germination of a seed to be planted, more rain water needs to be injected.

This is the best analogy I can offer for where our national economy is. But I will conclude by saying that I am optimistic that we will turn things around. I believe that the current leadership, represented by President Buhari and a large number of other leaders in the public sector, at national and state levels, and in the private sector are sufficiently mindful of the responsibilities of leadership rather than the status of leadership.
Therefore, they have started to make choices and will continue to do so, in order to provide for the millions of people they are responsible for.

-Fashola, the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, delivered this lecture titled: “Leadership and the Politics of Reform in Africa: Lessons from Nigeria” at the Wilson Center, Washington DC, United States

In Nigeria, the choices of yesterday make this winter a very harsh one for our people because we did not invest in the right things. Our government of yesterday expressed its preference for providing “infrastructure of the stomach” giving handouts instead of real infrastructure. This is how the seeds of today’s recession were sown…What we ate year yesterday is that we wasted our money. We did not invest in roads, highways, bridges, schools and hospitals