2023: The Choice Before Nigerians


(Presentation at the 2022 edition of ‘Platform Nigeria’ of the Pastor Poju Oyemade-led Covenant Nation in Lagos on 1st October, 2022)

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I want to begin by expressing my profound appreciation to the entire leadership of Covenant Nation for considering me worthy to be invited for this programme again. It is an honour and privilege that beginning exactly a decade ago today, this is the 8th time I will be speaking on ‘Platform Nigeria’. And it’s not something I take lightly.    

The best leaders, according to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and founding chair of the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, do not necessarily hold formal positions. Rather, they “convene conversations. They set the stage that enables others to develop solutions.” That precisely is what Pastor Poju has been doing for the past 15 years. By using his convening power to bring together people from diverse backgrounds, he provokes conversations on how to promote peace and prosperity in our country. Let me also extend my appreciation to my sister, Mrs Toyin Oyemade whom I believe has been instrumental to my being invited here again and again.  

I have listened attentively to the previous speakers. And I share their thoughts on the challenge of leadership at all levels in Nigeria – as well as what we must do differently this time. Especially as we approach the crucial 2023 general election. Rather than belabour the point they have all so eloquently made, I am simply going to tell two stories and take my exit. As many in this audience are already aware, I enjoy telling stories because they connect reality with imagination, allowing us to learn from the achievements, failures and foibles of others. As our Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated in what the Bible describes as parables, stories not only add nuance to complicated issues but leave a deeper and more memorable imprint on hearers. They also offer different experiences of the world which can then shape, strengthen or challenge how we view the past or envision the future.     

Now, the first story. A certain farmer had grown old and was ready to pass his farm down to one of his two sons. In his wisdom, he decided to appoint the younger son his successor. This of course did not go down well with the older son who rushed to their mother to report. “How can you give the farm to the younger brother?” the woman challenged her husband. “What do you think the people would say about your choice? You want to disgrace our family?”    

When explanations by the man that he had observed the two sons and that the farm would fare better under the younger failed to impress his wife, he said, “Okay, let’s try something.” He called the two sons and in the presence of their mother, he told them: “We need more cows for the farm, and I have a million Naira that we can spend for the stock. I understand that there is a place in Ilorin, the Kwara State capital where they sell cows right now. I want both of you to travel separately, go to the farm and negotiate for us to buy cows from there.”     

A few days later, the elder son returned. The man invited their mother to bear witness. “Father, the farm indeed has cows for sale and the price of each is N200,000. So, if you give me the N1 million, I can get us five more cows.” The father thanked him, and he left. Not long after, the younger son also returned. Again, the man invited his wife to bear witness. “Father, it is true that they have cows for sale. Each cow will cost N200,000 and they are not willing to bend on that. But I negotiated with the farm manager, and he agreed that if we deposit N1 million, he is willing to give us ten cows so that we can pay the balance of N1 million within another week. Meanwhile, when I went through the farm, I noticed a special cow that was bigger and healthier. The manager told me that was Sokoto Gudali which is not in stock right now. But he also told me that they are taking delivery of the cows from the state next week and that if we are not in a hurry, it may be good to wait.”    

After the younger son left, the man turned to his wife and said, “That’s why he is getting the farm.”    

I will come back to the moral of this story but I want to tell the second one before I do. I am sure discerning listeners already get the point. The campaigns for the 2023 general election officially kicked off across the country four days ago. And we have entered a period when we will be examining those who seek to be President, Governor, Senator, Members of the House of Representatives and Members of the State Houses of Assembly. As voters, we are placed in the position of that farmer. We have a choice to make, and it is about our future. Should our decision be based on sentiment by placing our inheritance in the hands of those we know may not manage it well? That is the question Pastor Poju has invited us to deliberate upon at this session with the theme: ‘A better Nigeria is possible. Why, What, How? What the next leadership should look out for.’    

Let’s begin from the issue of what the next leadership should look out for. Whichever direction one looks today in Nigeria, the statistics are frightening. Two weeks ago, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) disclosed that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) that measures the rate of change in prices of goods and services rose to 20.52 percent. A figure regarded as the highest in 17 years. The projection is that it could climb to as much as 23% next year, if the current trajectory remains the same. That sadly does not even tell the whole story of the hole we now find ourselves in as a nation. And we have not stopped digging.    

Apart from inflation, several other micro and macroeconomic indicators have also worsened. For instance, the fiscal deficit of the federal government hit N3.09 trillion in the first quarter of 2022. According to a forthcoming report by Agora Policy, a think-tank spearheaded by the former Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) Executive Sectary, Waziri Adio, Nigeria’s total debt stock increased by 439% from December 2011 to December 2021. While the domestic debt component increased by 242%, from N5.6 trillion to N19.2 trillion, according to the report produced with support from MacArthur Foundation, the foreign component increased by 1,689%, from N885 billion to N15.8 trillion.     

Within the same period, federal government borrowing from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) through Ways and Means increased by over 7,000% to N17.4 trillion. From January to April this year, debt service exceeded revenue by N308 billion. And it was the largest component of expenditure. Against the background that approximately 70% of the population are under the age of 30 while 42% are under the age of 15, the rise in youth unemployment (15–34 years old) from 8.04% in 2011 to 42.49% in 2020, going by the Agora Policy report, is very telling of our precarious situation. With the research conducted by a team of experts drawn from academia, the private sector, military and civil society, other reports by the think tank on national security, social inclusion and the state of transparency and accountability in Nigeria which I have also been privileged to read are no less grim.       

I do not want to belabour the issue of the mismanagement of the oil and gas industry, especially the downstream sector. The federal government admission that it subsidised petroleum consumption by N2.57 trillion in the first eight months of this year is enough for us to understand the enormity of leakages within the system at a time of dwindling resources. Meanwhile, the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed has already informed us that out of the N19.76 trillion budget proposed for next year, petrol subsidy would gulp N6.7 trillion for the full year. Even when I have a problem with the ideological fixation of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) on how to fund tertiary education in Nigeria, the amount of money we propose to spend as subsidy on a single consumption item is still more than six times the N1.1 trillion being demanded by ASUU to call off their strike. For those of us who are still counting, today marks the 229th day since the campuses of our public universities were closed in February this year.      

What I find particularly disturbing is that even when we are all agreed that Nigeria has reached a difficult intersection in practically all areas of our national life, there is no serious discussion about the future or why things must be done differently. Instead of marshalling arguments on how to tackle the deteriorating security situation, the overwhelming youth unemployment and the economic crisis that plague the nation, most of our presidential and gubernatorial candidates have outsourced their campaigns to supporters whose rhetoric, especially on social media, is anchored on the same old politics of bitterness, rancour and mudslinging.    

This then brings me to my second story. For 80 years, four soldiers had been guarding a concrete slab in front of an army barracks at all times. I first shared the story in a column I wrote in January 2017. But it has significant meaning at this moment, and I want to use it to illustrate my point on the kind of people we should elect (or not elect) in 2023. As the story goes, new commanders were at different times posted to the barracks, and the tradition of four soldiers changing shifts to guard the slab remained. But a day came when a new commander sought to know why he must continue to keep troops committed to passivity.    

Nobody could provide a rational explanation beyond stating that their previous commanders instructed them to continue guarding the slab. So the new commander went to the archives to look for answers. In the process, he came across an old document that offered the explanation. Almost a century before, the commander of the barracks at the time wanted to build a platform where events could be performed. He put a team together and they laid the concrete slab. But that night, wild animals walked over the slab before it could dry – thus messing up their work. When the soldiers fixed it the next morning, the same thing happened again at night.    

To solve the problem, the commander ordered that four soldiers should guard the slab for three weeks to allow it to dry. But a week after giving the instruction, he was transferred elsewhere. Meanwhile, the new commander brought to replace him at the barracks found the routine of guarding the slab by four soldiers and without reading the handover notes left by his predecessor or asking questions, he continued to enforce the order. And every other commander that came after him did the same thing. That was how 80 years later, there were still four soldiers guarding the concrete slab! No society can progress when you have such commanders at the helm of affairs and that, many would argue, is the story of Nigeria.    

If we critically examine the two stories, that of the older brother who felt it was his right to inherit their father’s farm and the commanders who for decades deployed troops on a needless assignment, there is nothing to suggest they were bad people. The problem is that they lacked essential leadership attributes. Nigeria did not degenerate to its current abysmal level overnight. Our country is what it is today because of the poor choices made over the past sixty-two years by generations of leaders at practically all levels; and in all sectors, public and private.  

To borrow a phrase you often hear when members of the Nigerian elite engage one another in the usual lamentation about our country: ‘We cannot continue like this’. Yes, we cannot. More than at any period in history, we need leaders who can bring our people together to solve the existential challenges we face. But for that to happen, we may need to take lessons from both the farmer and the commander in the two stories I just shared. In choosing to be rational, the farmer was securing the future for the family. Meanwhile, leaders who cannot interrogate the past with a view to making positive change will continue to waste scarce human and material resources as was demonstrated by the concrete slab story. Taken together, what the two stories teach is that without deviation from the norm, progress is impossible.   

Ordinarily, whether you are president, governor or even a lawmaker, you are not expected to have all the answers. But you must demonstrate the capacity for asking salient questions. And those questions must be the right questions. You must also follow up on the answers. Leadership is not visiting a prison after a violent jailbreak, asking questions directed at no one in particular and walking away without holding anybody to account. That kind of leadership will not serve us in 2023. In the delicate times we find ourselves as a country, it will be tragic if we end up with leaders who are either too docile to go beyond the norm or not curious enough to ask probing questions with a view to understanding our challenges and how to tackle them.    

Perhaps the most pressing challenge confronting our country today is insecurity. With reports that Nigeria accounts for at least 70 per cent of the illegal small arms and light weapons (SALW) circulating within the West African sub-region, it is no surprise that we have become a country that is practically under the gun. Whether on the road, at school, inside places of worship, on the train or in the marketplace, death has become an unscheduled consequence of normal living since government lost the monopoly of violence to sundry criminal cartels. And if I may repeat that phrase, ‘we cannot continue like this.’   

At a most difficult period when more and more of our young people are losing faith in our country, we face a critical choice in 2023. We don’t need governors who cite paying salaries, painting classrooms, erecting boreholes and buying vehicles for traditional rulers who do not even stay in their abodes as achievements. We need forward-thinking governors whose idea of job creation is not limited to appointing thousands of aides just to loaf around. We don’t need lawmakers whose notion of oversight function is no more than extorting money from heads of the Ministries Departments and Agencies (MDAs) they are to hold accountable. What we need are leaders in both the executive and legislative arms who will inspire hope and gather the best people to deliver for the good of our country.   

Whoever becomes the next president, his first task will be to inspire the citizenry to believe that indeed, as envisioned by the organisers of this session, a better Nigeria is possible. That is not going to be easy in a milieu where trust has been serially betrayed. It is therefore important for us to ensure that the right people are given the right attention and support, regardless of where they come from or what religion they profess. Sadly, when it comes to choosing leaders in Nigeria, sentiment too often comes into play. And we can see the consequences in practically all aspects of our national life. We may have gotten used to ethnicity, faith, region, party affiliation and the other things that divide us. And most of those who seek to lead us from 2023 may be fashioning their campaign messages along these lines. But we should not allow them to get away with such perfidy this time.   

Like that farmer, we are sometimes confronted with difficult choices. We attempt to carefully think through our choices but most times we act on impulse or our expectation of the crowd around us. The farmer was well aware that making the decision as to who should take over the farm based on the restrictive guidelines imposed by society, as his wife encouraged, could be counterproductive. He chose to go against the norm in the long-term interest of his family. So, the power in our hands is the opportunity to choose our own destiny by supporting those who will work for the good of Nigeria. We must understand that when we choose on the basis of our delicate fault-lines (whether ethnic or sectarian), it will be difficult to hold elected officials to account.   

I must make it very clear here. There are no easy options ahead. In 2017, on this same Platform, as many may remember, I illustrated my point about the situation in Nigeria with the anecdote of an industrious one-legged cow that was being cannibalised alive based on the conclusion by an unreflective owner that “A cow like that, you don’t eat it all at once.” The unfortunate cow, as I also explained, had a great deal in common with our country. With an inclination to “sharing the national cake” that no one ever bothered to bake, we have all been behaving like that poor farmer who for fleeting pleasure chose to mortgage the future. Like the man in my 2017 anecdote who started the bite from the cow leg, we must dispense with the proclivity for eating whatever is available today so that we can secure tomorrow.    

Before I take my seat, let me also warn the social media titans (across political divides) who believe that by denigrating people on the basis of artificial differences they are helping their candidates. No, they are not. It is good that our young men and women are involved in the electoral process. But they must resist being converted into pawns in this latest version of an old game. As President Barack Obama reminded us in his last address to the United Nations General Assembly on 17th September 2016, “our identities do not have to be defined by putting someone else down, but can be enhanced by lifting somebody else up.”  

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I am sure many of us have read literature that suggests Nigeria is a lost cause; that nothing will change. But I do not subscribe to such pessimism. In fact, yesterday, my friend, Kingsley Omose described me as an ‘incurable optimist’ when it comes to Nigeria—a tag I gladly owned. The choice of topic for this session also demonstrates Pastor Poju’s conviction that a better Nigeria is indeed still possible. And the fact that many are gathered here today is testimony to the fact that we all share that optimism.

Nigeria is at a crossroads. This is no time to choose our leaders on the basis of sentiment. The problems that the people want urgently solved know no divisions. Youth unemployment is neither northern nor southern. Poverty is neither Christian nor Muslim. Insecurity speaks no ethnic language. The price of garri is the same for those who carry tribal marks and those who don’t. Kidnappers and bandits don’t care about the religion of their victims or where they hail from. When the national grid collapses to zero megawatts, the darkness that follows does not discriminate. We all feel it, whether in Sokoto, Enugu, Port Harcourt or Lagos. In a perverse way, the majority of Nigerians have never been more united than now as to what plagues us all. Whether we are Christian or Muslim, Northerner or Southerner, male or female, young or old, we are united by adversity, joined by clear and present dangers and threatened by an overwhelming sense of uncertainty about our future.   

In the coming 2023 general election, we have a choice to make. We may vote for someone because the person speaks the same language as us or they profess the same faith. Fair enough. But we must also remember that the consequences of those choices can reverberate for years, or even decades. That precisely is why it is so important that we understand that when we go to the polls in February 2023, we are setting the stage for what our tomorrow will be.

Thank you very much for listening and God bless Nigeria.  

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