Where are the catchy phrases?




Whatever happened to catchy governance phrases, of which this country had a surfeit in the last 50 years? Why are governments at all levels today regurgitating dry phrases such as “palliatives”, “reforms,” “it’s the fault of my predecessor” and “we see light at the end of the tunnel,” which could be an oncoming goods train? Maybe that is just as well because if one quarter of the catchy governance phrases spewed in the past had delivered on their lofty promises, Nigeria would have been an Eldorado by now.

Today, Nigerians are complaining about food. Governments at all levels are talking about palliatives. Some people are even looting warehouses and waylaying food trucks on the highways. Whatever happened to Operation Feed the Nation [OFN] that military Head of State General Olusegun Obasanjo launched in 1977? Nearly 50 years before a Farmer Governor surfaced in Niger, Obasanjo enjoined everybody to cultivate every little space around his house. The Head of State himself was seen on NTA slugging a hoe, cultivating a maize farm right inside Dodan Barracks. Three years later President Shehu Shagari launched the Green Revolution. How come, after 50 years, we cannot feed the nation and many of our farms are parched, not green?

Whatever happened to the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure [DFRRI] of the IBB era, headed by Air Commodore Larry Koinyan? In the wake of his unpopular Structural Adjustment Program [SAP], IBB rolled out a palliative, not of free rice, but of rural infrastructure that will assist farmers to move their produce to urban markets. It was a classic case of teaching people how to fish rather than giving them fish.

Probably no peacetime program in Nigeria ever received quite as much trumpeting by government officials as Health For All by the Year 2000. Billboards, flyers, radio and TV jingles, endless interviews by government officials all trumpeted it throughout the 1970s and 1980s. How come that millions of Nigerians are still sick today, cost of many drugs has tripled in recent months alone and our health workers find a reason to go on strike every now and then? Not to be left behind, Federal Ministry of Agriculture, prodded by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, promised us Food for all by the Year 2000. Federal Ministry of Housing followed suit with a promise of Shelter for all by the Year 2000. Twenty-four years after the deadline, millions of Nigerians are still looking for health, food and shelter.

In the 1980s, Federal Ministry of Health led by Prof Olikoye Ransome-Kuti promised to combat the “Six Childhood Killer Diseases” through the Expanded Program on Immunisation, EPI. Every mother in Nigeria was taught how to mix sugar and salt in the Oral Rehydration Therapy, ORT. Those two extremely important programs saved millions of children’s lives. Why are they not being trumpeted anymore? Where is the Rural Water and Sanitation [RUWATSAN] program that we heard so much about in the 1980s? It promised to deliver boreholes and running water to all towns and communities, a very good idea because water-borne diseases account for a large chunk of our health care budgets. Forty years since Ruwatsan, why are we still talking about open defecation in Nigeria?

One of the catchiest phrases in Nigerian history, which also fell very short after nearly 50 years, was Universal, Free, Compulsory Primary Education, UPE. In  the early 1970s, endless radio jingles and billboards trumpeted it. Although it was General Gowon who conceived it, General Obasanjo launched it with great fanfare in 1976. Twenty-four years later when he returned as civilian president, he expanded and relaunched it as Universal Basic Education, UBE. It turned out not to be universal because we have a guesstimated 15 million out of school children today. It was not free because millions of kids today are in high-paying private schools while public schools too found various ways to fleece parents. It was never compulsory because many parents do not send their kids to school. It is even doubtful if it is education, since many of its products today cannot read a book.

Where are the Gifted Children’s Schools that Education Minister Professor Jibril Aminu created in the 1980s? His idea was to pluck especially gifted kids out of the normal school system and concentrate them in special schools that could breed Nobel Prize winners. Pray, where is the Nomadic Education program that Aminu also created? All the pastoral kids that we see today rearing cattle, were they not supposed to have been injected into that program? By now the cattle must be in ranches for lack of herders.

Innumerable times, successive Federal Governments set target dates to end gas flaring from the oil fields, complete with threats of hefty fines and license revocations. One newspaper reported at one time that the oil giants found that it was cheaper to pay the fine than to invest in the technology to end gas flaring. What about the environmental cost of flaring and the health of people in the surrounding communities? These days, government’s economic team speak so much about “reforms”. Some people see these reforms as reincarnations of Babangida’s Structural Adjustment Program, SAP, only that it was not preceded by a Babangida-style “national debate on IMF loan.” CBN Governor Yemi Cardoso’s “merger of exchange rates” phrase is not as catchy as IBB’s “Second-tier Foreign Exchange Market, SFEM”.

Whatever happened to the 1980s phrase “local sourcing of raw materials”? In that era when foreign exchange was very scarce and you could get jailed for hawking dollars around, government officials spoke everyday about the need for industries to locally source their raw materials. Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman said in 1982 that the dollars and pounds spent by Nigerian industries to import raw materials exceeded the value of their produce, meaning they were simply siphoning funds abroad. In the 1980s government also propounded the phrase “export-led recovery.” Import-led collapse is more like it, with everything from toothpicks to razor blades competing for scarce forex.

Central Bank, where is your early 1990s program of “respect the naira”? CBN-sponsored radio and TV jingles admonished market women, butchers, taxi drivers and gamblers to stop mutilating the naira. A cartoon in The Triumph newspaper depicted a fat CBN official telling a crowd to respect the naira. One famished Nigerian in the crowd said, “Respect? Oya, release that one for your hand and see. We love the naira!”

Since the 1980s, successive governments have been promising us 10,000 megawatts of electricity. Some of them, such as Obasanjo II’s, Jonathan’s and Buhari II’s even fixed deadlines, only to breach all of them. Obasanjo’s first Power Minister, Chief Bola Ige, promised stable power within six months. President Umaru Yar’adua promised to declare a State of Emergency on Electricity, which he never did, instead he said his predecessor spent $16 billion on power “without commensurate results.” Poor me, I even offered Malam Umaru a [naïve] advice at the time, that why don’t you go to Ukraine, hire a 4,000 KVA floating power station, sail it to Lagos, of the kind they use off the coast of Arctic coast, connect it to the national grid, then you get a respite while you tackle the power problem?

Why is Nigerian society bedeviled today by kidnapping, banditry, child trafficking and baby factories? Wasn’t General Obasanjo’s 1977 Jaji Declaration supposed to have taken care of all these? When ace broadcaster Adamu Augie interviewed him on NTA, he said the goal was to make Nigerian society “fair, just, humane and African.” Unfair, unjust, inhumane and un-African is more like it these days. Shagari continue from where Obasanjo stopped by launching the “Ethical Revolution” in 1982, I think. He even created a Ministry of National Guidance in 1983, a concept borrowed from Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser. Buhari/Idiagbon regime capped it all with the War Against Indiscipline [WAI] in 1984.

Are we no longer doing “new breed politics” that Babangida promised in the early 1990s when he banned “old breed politicians” from participating in his transition program? Everyone who held a governorship, ministerial or other high political office was banned and only the young were allowed in. only that, new breed politicians ran behind the scenes to the old breed and sought for “endorsement,” very much like school and job applicants ask older folks to be their referees because neither school principals nor employers trust a new breed without a record of his own!

In 1991 when going to Hajj was cheap, the late Hajiya Bilkisu wrote a column titled “Hajj For All By the Year 2000. This year when a hajj seat costs nearly six million, Hajj For Few By the Year 2024 is more like it.

I said something earlier about the catchiest peacetime phrase. On the other hand, there was no catchier war-time phrase in Nigeria than the one propounded by General Yakubu Gowon in the late 1960s, “To keep Nigeria One Is A Task That Must Be Done.” Everywhere you turned, there was a large billboard with a picture of the youthful Commander-in-Chief Major General Yakubu Gowon, clean shaven except for his dark mustache, looking intently ahead at God-knows-what. Why don’t we have a catchy phrase to address Boko Haram, ISWAP, Ansaru, bandits, communal warriors, IPOB, Yoruba Nation agitators and secession advocates masquerading as “restructuring”?

Since 1975 when General Gowon and other West African leaders created ECOWAS in the mold of European Economic Community [EEC], one of the catchiest phrases in Nigeria has been “free movement of goods and persons.” After 49 years, what we had in recent years was free movement of coups instead, with constitutional rule overthrown in four ECOWAS member states. A fifth one narrowly escaped by postponing presidential elections at the last minute.

Our foreign policy too is now lacking in catchy phrases. Where is “Africa is the centerpiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy,” written into the 1999 Constitution? Look, where is “Concentric Circles foreign policy” launched by Foreign Minister Prof Ibrahim Gambari in 1984, or the “Concert of Medium Powers” launched by his successor, Prof Bolaji Akinyemi in 1985? Can’t we find another catchy foreign policy today, such as, “Knock the Sahelian bums” or “Throw out the Yanks, Limmies, Gauls, Russians, Nippon and Chinks”?

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