Nobody needed any telling that he was angry as he made his presentation. â€œNigeria is a failed stateâ€, Dr Abubakar Othman, who teaches African Poetry and Creative Writing at the University of Maiduguri, repeatedly declared before launching into a song, or more appropriately, a chant, rendered in a â€œstrangeâ€ language. Even when he provided no interpretation, he nonetheless offered an explanation: â€œThat is the anthem of the hunters who have been battling Boko Haram in my town. I donâ€™t sing the Nigerian anthem anymore. It means nothing to me.â€
While I was on the panel, Andrew Walker, a Briton and author of a very revealing book on Boko Haram titled, â€œEat the Heart of the Infidelâ€, spared me the ordeal of having to defend Nigeria. Walker, who has spent considerable time in our country, prefaced his intervention with a rejoinder of sort. â€œLet me say very quickly that I disagree with the notion that Nigeria is a failed state. It is not. I believe Nigeria is a state that is working but only for a few. So, you still have all the apparatus of a functioning state but the system is not working for majority of the peopleâ€, he said.
The foregoing interaction took place at the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival 2017 (KABAFEST) two weeks ago at a panel discussion on â€œReligious violence: Picking up the piecesâ€. Dr Othman, who hails from Madagali in Adamawa State, gave a chilling account of how in 2014 Boko Haram invaded and occupied his town and how it took him three days, with the aid of hunters, to move out his family, a traumatic experience that still haunts his young daughter. He painted a pathetic picture of a nation that cannot protect its citizens, whether they are in the North or in the South.
The frustrations expressed by Dr Othman are not in any way different from the one you hear on the streets of Port Harcourt, Kano, Enugu or Lagos where parents of the six Igbonla college students still have no clue about the whereabouts of their children who were kidnapped right in their school premises almost three months ago. Of course it is convenient for the Lagos State authorities, and indeed the society at large, to forget â€œthe Igbonla 6â€, essentially because these are children of poor people! And yesterday, the Kaduna State Police Command confirmed the 33 people died in Kajuru Local Government Area of the state where there have been violent clashes in recent days.
Incidentally, another speaker at KABAFEST, Dr Razinatu Mohammed, an associate professor of Feminist Literary Criticism, also from the University of Maiduguri, was no less scathing about the state of our country but she located the problem within the context of rule of law. â€œI agree that Nigeria is a failed state. The evidence is there for all to see. For instance, look at what is happening in the Senate with the recall process of Senator Dino Melaye. Can you imagine our lawmakers calling a lawful process by the voters a waste of time?â€
I wish Dr Mohammed knew at the time that Senator Melaye had even secured a curious order from the Federal High Court in Abuja. Well aware of the 90-day timeframe established by the Constitution for the entire recall process to be completed by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Melayeâ€™s Super Judge fixed 29th September as the date to hear the Motion on Notice, knowing for sure that by then the entire recall process would have lapsed–and become, in the words of the Senate leadership, a waste of time!
Thanks to Ms Lola Shoneyin who provided the platform for the conversations about our country that lasted four days and successfully hosted her annual book event, Kaduna was the first in a series of several formal and informal engagements on Nigeria that I have actively participated in within the last two weeks. On Thursday and Friday last week, I was also part of the dialogue at the 4th session of the Prof Ibrahim Gambariâ€™s Savannah Centre conference on the theme, â€œIs Restructuring the Panacea for National Cohesion and Good Governance?â€
The lead speaker for my panel, Bishop Hassan Matthew Kukah said Nigerians cannot hold conversation on more than one issue at the same time. He believes that we are good only at shouting matches on an issue that catches our fancy at any moment (corruption, recession, Biafra etc.) after which we move on without really finding solutions to any of these challenges that plague our nation. So, the issue of the day is restructuring and someone reportedly said that if you ask ten Nigerians to tell you what they mean by the term, you would most likely end up with 15 different definitions!
For sure, the system is creaking beneath all of us and we must fix it but those who couch the narratives in ethnic or religious arguments miss the point and they are actually the problem. I believe we need to restructure the current system to make it work for the people but we must also come to terms with the fact that this is not a North-South debate. And that perhaps explains why political office holders, whether in the South or the North, are not interested in the restructuring debate because what is being called to question are the undue privileges they are bound to lose under a system that places high premium on accountability.
While millions of Nigerians are denied their emoluments under the pretext that there is no money to pay, serving senators and ministers, who are already drawing salaries from the federal purse, still cart away hundreds of millions of Naira from their states in the name of a fraudulent pension. And last Saturday, wife of a State House of Assembly Speaker ordered policemen to beat some men of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) on patrol for daring to question the non-use of seat belt by her driver. These are some of the governance issues we must tackle along with restructuring if we are really serious about the future of our country.
Two weeks ago in Kaduna, each of the panellists was asked to make a closing remark. Walker said most cryptically: â€œLet everybody begin to pay taxâ€. It was so odd a response that there was an exclamation from the audience. But I got his point. Until we begin to run our nation on the basis of what everyone can bring to the table by way of taxation, we are not going anywhere. And by that I mean the productive capacity of each citizen rather than the resources that are buried in their family compounds. But that will not happen under a milieu that discourages productivity and where, in the words of Bisi Ogunwale, â€œit is easier to do business in Gaza and West Bank or Sudan or Iraq than in Nigeriaâ€.
Unfortunately, in the restructuring debate, little attention is paid to productivity as it would seem that all the agitations are about the sharing of federal allocations. Even Chief Emeka Anyaoku, at his presentation last Friday, said that â€œan important question to be considered and settled before the new constitution is put to a national referendum is the issue of how to ensure that all the federating units have equal share of what would in the new structure be accepted as â€˜federal revenueâ€™â€.
However, the question that is yet to be addressed is: In a country where those who control the levers of power, both within the public and private sectors, have overpowered the system, how will restructuring proffer any solution to the existential challenges of the poor majority? Put more succinctly, if the solution is to partition the country into six geo-political zones for the purpose of sharing federal revenues, are we going to manufacture new sets of politicians different from those who have so rigged the system that any election with their participation (whether in Arewa, Oduduwa, Egbesu or Biafra Republics) can only produce predictable outcomes? Besides, in each of these regions, are we going to add another cost centre or are we collapsing the states into one administrative unit?
There are so many questions begging for answers. Meanwhile, I worry at the dummy being sold the people that once we restructure, all our problems will be solved which is almost akin to the campaign gimmick that brought the All Progressives Congress (APC) to power: once they â€œtackle corruptionâ€ (whatever that means now), every Nigerian would enjoy abundant life. But the Minister of Finance, Mrs Kemi Adeosun, told Nigerians last week: â€œOur budget is the lowest in Sub-Sahara Africa and one of the lowest in the world. Our budget size is too small and that means we can only pay salaries in some cases and we donâ€™t have money to deliver essential services. I am sure you will say that is because people are stealing or because you are wasting money but I am saying even if you plug all the stealing and all the waste, the budget size is not big enough.â€
That is the greatest understatement of the year. According to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), in its latest economic report for the month of May, the countryâ€™s federally generated monthly revenue was lower than the receipt in April 2017 by 13.4 per cent, reflecting a serious decline in both oil and non-oil revenue earnings which totaled N458.42 billion. That is less than $1.5 billion, even at the official exchange rate for a country the size of Nigeria and with all the enormous challenges. But that miserable sum is not, and cannot be, a true representation of the capacity of our people when unleashed though the question remains as to how we will do that when, rather than address the governance issues that have for decades held our country back, we are tearing at one another on the basis of ethnicity and religion.
Interestingly, anybody who has been following the civil forfeiture of assets proceeding instituted by the United States Department of Justice against the former Petroleum Minister, Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke and two businessmen cannot but understand the Nigerian tragedy. I have read the entire 91-page document filed at the Southern District Court of Texas, Houston Division which includes telephone transcripts as well as the â€œselected provisions of Nigerian lawâ€ that were breached by the accused persons and the audacity of the transactions is mind-boggling.
In a press statement last Friday, the US Government said that â€œfrom 2011 to 2015, Nigerian businessmen Kolawole Akanni Aluko and Olajide Omokore conspired with others to pay bribes to Nigeriaâ€™s former Minister for Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, who oversaw Nigeriaâ€™s state-owned oil company. In return for these improper benefits, Alison-Madueke used her influence to steer lucrative oil contracts to companies owned by Aluko and Omokoreâ€ while â€œthe proceeds of those illicitly awarded contracts were then laundered in and through the U.S. and used to purchase various assets subject to seizure and forfeiture, including a $50 million condominium located in one of Manhattanâ€™s most expensive buildings â€“ 157 W. 57th Street â€“ and the Galactica Star, an $80 million yacht.â€
It is instructive that ethnicity played no role in the choice of beneficiaries of these questionable deals that were clearly against the interest of the Nigerian people. But then, members of the political and business elite only use identity politics to play the people after gang-raping them. And we can all see where and on what the ill-gotten oil money was reportedly spent. It is typical. Those who use their positions or connections to help themselves to our common patrimony almost always add insult to our collective injury by spending their loot on frivolities far away from our shores.
In a chat with former Cross River State Governor, Mr Donald Duke, last weekend, he said restructuring is useful and indeed inevitable but he also argued that it’s neither a panacea nor a substitute to good governance. â€œNotably, the clamor for restructuring is loudest when there is poor leadership and sections of the country feel marginalized and reason they are better off having more autonomy to manage their affairsâ€, he added.
What that says very clearly is that while the debate about restructuring is important and must continue, nobody should be under any illusion that it is the silver bullet to what ails us. For the debate to be meaningful, we must also discuss the serious governance deficit in the country. That we live in a society where there is no correlation between wealth and work is what has landed us where we are today and it is something we must also talk about.
Meanwhile, as we all look forward to the trial in the US which will once again highlight to the world our emblem of shame, I reproduce below my column of 20th June 2013 when one of the characters identified in the court papers took the wedding of his son to Dubai. Titled, â€œThe Dubai Wedding Crazeâ€, it is worth recalling in this season of restructuring: â€œWhile many of our idle rich people have for long stopped celebrating their birthdays in Nigeria, preferring to transport their friends and associates to some choice destinations abroad, the new craze in town is that the wedding ceremonies of their children and wards also no longer hold in our country: It is now a Dubai affair!
â€œOrdinarily, wedding ceremonies are religious cum traditional affairs between two individuals and two families who would invite their relations and well-wishers to share in the joy of the day. And it is usually held, in most cultures in our country, at the location where the parents of the bride reside or the community they hail from. But because of the corruption of our values and all that we once held dear, wedding ceremonies are now being exported to countries that have nothing to do with the family of either the bride or the groom.
â€œThe latest of such happened recently between the son of one of our subsidy billionaires and the daughter of a top civil servant. Even when the parents on both sides are Nigerians who have done well for themselves here, they did not consider our country good enough for their children to tie the nuptial knot. The father of the groom had to spend a scandalous amount of money ferrying no fewer than 20 senators, numerous House of Representatives members, many bankers and politicians of all hues to Dubai in the United Arab Emirate for the obscene wedding that has now put the career of the brideâ€™s father in serious jeopardy.
â€œFor sure, there is no law that prevents anybody from taking the wedding of his children to the moon. But there is something immoral about Nigerians who make cheap money here and would not even allow our people to share in the crumbs. Because by their offshore wedding ceremonies, they are cutting off the local event planners, the caterers, the musicians, the photographers and the poor people who ordinarily mill around such events to take home reception leftovers. Beyond all these is the image problem they create for our country.
â€œWhen people associate Nigeria with corruption, it is not that other countries are immune from such sordid practices but rather because here, people flaunt ill-gotten wealth. And with no tax man after them, they can afford to advertise their debauchery since the money they spend is not worked for and no one is putting them to task on how they come about such humongous wealth. Yet we are talking about people who donâ€™t employ beyond drivers, cooks, gardeners, stewards etc.â€“domestic staff who only minister to their personal indulgences. When you can get billions of Naira without sweat, you can as well decide to hold burial ceremonies in Alaska to feed your vanity!
â€œSuch is the level of decay that when someone recently gave me details of the private jets owners, I just could not place many of the names on the list. When I sought to know what some of them do for a living, the standard response was, â€˜he is into oilâ€™, which essentially means they are mostly rent seekers who prey on the lack of transparency in our oil and gas industry. It is therefore understandable that they will be taking their birthdays, wedding celebrations and even the naming ceremonies of their children to Dubai. But no society can develop when you have, as Nigeria evidently does, a preponderance of people with such warped values in critical positions in both the private and public sectors.â€