A Fork in the Road: Which way, Nigeria? – Kunle Ajibade

Let me begin by thanking Toyin Akinosho, Jahman Anikulapo and the rest of the Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF), team for bringing all us here. The resilience and optimism with which they have been keeping this very important festival going since 1999 in a country that has no endowments for the arts is highly commendable. And thanks to Dame Taiwo Ajai- Lycett, to whom the entire festival is dedicated this year, for her humanity. May she continue to be a blessing to mankind. 

Compatriots, our country stands precariously at the fork in the road once again. Ranked very high in the world index of the most fragile countries, Nigeria is buffeted  by many problems :constitutional crisis; regional autonomy agitation; ethnic conflicts; religious tensions; Boko Haram insurgency in many parts of the North-East; the reign of absolute terror by kidnappers and bandits across the country; authority stealing done now with more  shameless impunity than we used to know; the connivance of the Executive and the Legislative arms of government to make the cost of governance more prohibitively higher than ever before even when the country’s foreign loan profile keeps mounting; the systemic corruption everywhere you turn; the dilapidated public infrastructure around the country; the decline of our economy exemplified by the ridiculous value of our currency; – the last time I checked which was Thursday this week, a US dollar exchanged for 420 naira at the official market, at the black market, it was 540 naira. Because we are not linking up with the global supply chain with non-oil exports like farm produce, we are not earning more money. 

Inflation is soaring high. At a time that a regular Nigerian survives barely on less than a dollar per day, 26 billion naira has just been approved for travels, meals, refreshments, sitting allowances, welfare package, etc., etc. for our president. Similar allowances were approved for governors, members of national and state assemblies, and others. It would have been worse if the masses of our people are not supported by the networks of family members and the informal economy. Many Nigerians are dying of diseases that should not ordinarily kill them. The army of unemployed and unemployable youths are swelling in ranks and are very frustrated and angry. The country continues to make many of these youths available for insurrection. We all witnessed a bit of their anger during the COVID-19 lockdowns and the #ENDSARS protests. Our public universities which used to be incubators and factories of transformative ideas are in ruins. The system is mass-producing flamboyant fraudsters like Hushpuppi, who are now the mentors and exemplars of hundreds of our youths. The traditional and religious ethics which used to be the backrest of our lives are now substantially eroded. Many families that used to frown at evil now tolerate it in order to survive. Nigeria has been deeply wounded. It needs urgent healing. We need to reimagine and remake it to avoid a total collapse.

We are the sum of the choices we make. So, what are the choices we need to interrogate and contemplate in order to negotiate our way to a better future? Because I have only twenty-five minutes to do this, let’s just consider some of the major ones.

In the proposed 2022 Federal Government Budget the following are the allocations to key sectors: Security – N2.51 trillion; Infrastructure – N1.21 trillion; Social Development and Poverty Reduction Programme – N896.8 billion; Education – N888.8 billion;  Health – N821.4 billion;  Agriculture – N291.4 billion; Science, Technology and Innovation – N120.0 billion; Industry, Trade & Investment – N72.1 billion; and  Mines and Steel – N23.4 billion. Security takes the lion share of our budget. This has remained the pattern in the last ten years or so. A lot of oil money is purportedly spent to secure this country that is not secured. I say purportedly because, as you know, our legislators have learnt the art of padding the budget perfectly. Boko Haram, wrongly perceived as a ragtag army, has been waging a non-conventional war with our military since Muhammad Yusuf, its 39-year-old leader, was killed in July 2009. Before he was murdered at a police station in Maiduguri, Yusuf was quoted to have said: ‘‘This war that is yet to start would continue for a long time.” 

He was a gifted orator, a charismatic leader who, like Jim Jones of the infamous Jonestown, could ask his followers to commit mass suicide and they would gladly and piously do so. His brainwashed followers are happy to die in his name. They are ready to kill in his memory. His incendiary messages resonated with hundreds of the poor and the educated who had no job. He told them that with Sharia, social justice and equity which was lacking in Nigeria would be guaranteed. He preached against corruption and arrogance of power. He, who did not attend a Western primary school—he went only to an elementary Quranic school—slipped into a fallacy of sweeping generalization right from the beginning of his proselytizing career: he associated all the ills in Nigeria with those with Western education. He therefore concluded that Western education was a way to sinning against God and man.

Carter Ham, the then Commander of U.S. Africa Command in April 2011 said that the intelligence reports at his disposal showed that Boko Haram had strong links with Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and well-paid mercenaries from Libya and Syria, Today the Yusufiyya movement, whose variant of Islam is Salafism, has expanded its frontiers to Islamic State, ISIS, and Islamic State–West Africa Province,  ISWAP. And this has helped to bolster the sophistication in its combat operations. Many young men and women are still trained to become suicide bombers – a dastardly act that we used to associate with Afghanistan. Hundreds have been killed in bomb blasts, not only in its stronghold in the North-East but also in Abuja and Plateau State. In the night of 14 April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 female students of Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State and hauled them to Sambisa forest. Again, on 19 February, 2018, 110 school girls were kidnapped from Government Girls Science and Technical College Dapchi, Yobe State. Many of them were later released except Leah Sharibu who refused to renounce her Christian faith. This girl and some Chibok girls remain in captivity. How can a country that cannot protect its children expect them to grow and become patriotic adults? If they are children of our president, governors, ministers and top politicians, would they still be in captivity?  Boko Haram had bombed many churches and worshippers in them. It had killed other Muslims as well who did not share its credo. To be very clear, for these insurgents, this is not an ethnic war: they had murdered hundreds of Kanuri, Hausa and Fulani. If they are not slitting their victim’s throats, if they are not eating their hearts because they are infidels, if they are not running their own state within our republic, they are pursuing poor farmers and old people to the Internally Displaced Persons Camps and setting them ablaze.

This open and hidden war rages on, a consequence of many, many years of leadership failures. There have been hundreds of casualties on both sides. War profiteers—Generals, Ministers, Senators and House of Representatives members, contractors and advisers to the president—are making fortunes from this war. Would they allow it to end? Bandits who are copycats of Boko Haram are springing up every day across Northern Nigeria. They keep girls as sex slaves. Ritualists who enjoy the patronage of many top Nigerians are enjoying a boom in their trade of human parts. Kidnapping people for ransom has become an easy and quick way of making money all over Nigeria now. Many parents are scared stiff to keep their children and wards in boarding houses situated outside of towns. What the Niger Delta militants inaugurated in the creeks is now being replicated all over the place. Add all of that to the herdsmen/farmers conflicts and the agitations of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND, Niger Delta Avengers, NDA, the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, and Oodua People’s Congress, OPC, that threaten the sovereignty of Nigeria. The trafficking of guns by these agitators and their enemies will definitely have severe consequences for a long time. I have listened to many talking heads say glibly that our diverse nationalities and distinct culture are a major impediment to our unity. I disagree. The trouble is not with our different ethnicities; the problem is the management of them. The agitations of different nationalities have always been there, simmering, but they have always been assuaged one way or another. However, today it is very clear that the people empowered by the constitution to promote good governance, maintain order and security, dedicate to unity, harmony, welfare and peace of mind of all persons living in this nation have been overwhelmed by the menaces in the country they’ve helped to create and abdicated their responsibilities.

What is to be done? The answer is not in the angry and emotional mobilization going on in some Pentecostal and charismatic wings of orthodox churches to install a Christian president. There is nothing wrong in sensitizing people to go out and vote. In fact, we need more of that on all fronts. But the purpose should be for something that is bigger than ourselves. If Boko Haram is mad, must we become insane like Nwibe in Chinua Achebe’s short story, “The Madman”? Nwibe, an otherwise sensible, respectable and hard-working man runs after a madman who picks up his clothe by the riverside when he, Nwibe, is having his bath after a tedious farm work, and runs away with it. Nwibe, naked, runs furiously and energetically after him until they both get to the market place where people think that the two of them are mad.Why must we replace the dogma of a crazy sect with the dogma of some robbers, hypocrites, charlatans, literal interpreters of The Holy Bible and prosperity pastors? Tell me: has Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, a former president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, who was always in the Presidency to bless Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, fully explained how he, in 2014,was caught in South Africa with his private jet loaded with 9.3 million dollars in cash to purchase guns? Just two weeks ago, didn’t we all watch the viral video of Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo who said he was the inspirer of and prayer warrior for Femi Osibona, the late builder of the 21-storey building that unfortunately collapsed in Lagos? Why didn’t he see the horrible vision that the building would fall and save all of us the agony of that tragedy? To my mind, the answer to the insurgency of Boko Haram and other crises lies in defeating the very conditions that made, and still, make them possible. We must pay much attention to the structure upon which the superstructure of afflictions is built. When the principles of equity, justice and freedom are perverted in a country, that country becomes a Hobbesian jungle. The solution is not to enthrone a quasi- theocratic state. Secularism enshrined in our constitution should be defended to the death. We have had enough of manipulation of religion and ethnicity by some ethnic irredentists and religious bigots.

As Nigeria becomes a crime scene, as guns and other weapons of destruction are being stockpiled everywhere, there are calls for decentralization of Nigeria Police. We need to heed the calls. Although the operational control of the Nigeria Police is a concurrent duty of the federal, state and local governments in our constitution, the country has not had the necessary courage to devolve the power of the police which is a contradiction because you cannot adopt a federal system and run a police that espouses a unitary system. Let us have federal police; 36 state police; and Sheriffs or whatever other name we prefer to call it in all our local government areas. Nigeria is ridiculously under-policed. We all need peace to actualize our endless dreams. I speak of the police that will be properly kitted. Police that will live not in barracks that look like pigsty. Not the police that will kill young protesting Nigerians because the only weapons it has are the guns. I speak of the police that will not be a training ground for political thuggery. It is also not trivial to ask: under a federal system, should one state be entitled to the VAT earnings from another, and if so, why? If a state cannot support itself without unearned largess from a counterpart or group of counterparts, why should such a state exist? Which derivation formula is fair to the oil bearing states? There is a host of deformities in the 1999 constitution hurriedly put together by the military. If we want to continue with the default arrangement, if we want to continue with the political and institutional deformities in this constitution, we should at least have the decency to deliberate on the method of our madness! The preamble of our constitution says: “We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, having firmly and solemnly resolved to provide for a constitution for the purpose of…” Many lawyers—seniors and juniors— have been asking: who were those people? Who did they represent? And where did they meet? We need a social contract that will not be this contentious, this acrimonious.

Many investors are afraid to come and settle down here because what is certain in Nigeria is uncertainty itself. Which brings me to our problematic economy which is tied to crude oil, a volatile product in the world market. The pleas of well-meaning people since the late 50s and 60s that industrialization is the bedrock of economic growth and National Liberation have fallen on deaf ears because in the 70s the country was awash with petrol dollars as it began to earn easy money that fueled our importation spree and overdeveloped our importation mindset. The Asian Tigers like China, Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia from where we now import massively were simply smart enough to know that industrialization is key. Indeed, last year, Malaysia exported high-tech products worth 34 billion dollars while Nigeria, whose economy was better than that of Malaysia in the 60s, made only 33.5 billion dollars from crude oil. 

With our population rapidly growing far more than 220 million that we keep touting as our census figure—you see, we don’t even have an accurate census figure that will help us plan— a lot of strain is put on our decrepit infrastructure. The few manufacturing and service industries remaining in Nigeria are groaning under the weight of epileptic energy supply, multiple taxation by both Federal and State governments, not to talk of humongous bribes that the tax officers collect from these companies. All the promises made eight years ago for privatizing power sector have not been fulfilled because the sector was sold, in most cases, to crooks and incompetent distribution companies. 

Recently, the Lagos correspondent of Financial Times of London wrote the following about Apapa Port: “The port in Lagos has become so bad that it could cost more than four thousand dollars to truck a container 20 kilometres inland, almost as much as it costs to ship it 12 thousand nautical miles from China.” How can the congestion in Apapa Port defy solution for close to 50 years with so many panels of enquiry set up to solve the problem? Yet in 2017, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, 99 per cent of Nigeria’s trade was by sea and 75 per cent of the imports passed through Apapa Ports. Why can’t we make other seaports in Port Harcourt, Calabar, Warri and Onne work at maximum capacity to decongest Apapa Port?

Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank Group, observed, at a lecture in Lagos last month, that the cost of doing legitimate business in Nigeria is too high. According to him, while Nigerian banks charge 15 per cent interest rate, banks in India charge 4 per cent; banks in the US charge 3.9 per cent; in China banks charge 0.25 per cent; and banks in Japan banks charge – 0.1 per cent. With the borrowing rates so astronomical in our banks, and given the fact that Nigeria has become a dumping ground for all manner of bad products including medications—thanks to Standard Organisation of Nigeria that is as good as dead— enterprising manufacturers and industrialists are not encouraged to produce made-in-Nigeria products. Any wonder that many of the huge buildings for factories in Ogba/Ikeja, which constituted the first-ever industrial estates in Nigeria envisioned and built by the Action Group government led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, are now mindlessly abandoned. There such buildings in Kaduna, Enugu and Port Harcourt where Nigerians and foreigners used to make enviable careers of producing things. As Nigeria abandons industries and farm settlements, it depends largely on revenues generated from crude oil, which it doesn’t even refine, and then spends the money like a prodigal. 

Let me conclude with  Engineer Duyole Pitan Payne, one of the characters in Wole Soyinka’s new novel, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. Commenting on the sensational and morbid reportage in newspapers of the murder of a law enforcement officer by a savage mob, which he and Dr Menka Kighare witnessed a day before in Lagos, he says in frustration: “It challenges the collective notion of soul. Something is broken. Beyond race. Outside colour or history. Something has cracked. Can’t be put back together.” Pitan-Payne is a progressive in the true sense of that word. Completely detribalised, he links up with other progressives like Dr Menka Kighare to struggle against political brigandage and other ills in the imaginary Nigeria of this novel. He constantly calls for ”instant hands of truth to tear all painted masks.” But confronted everywhere, as we are now, by devastating horrors, he periodically feels the pangs of despair, pain, sadness and cynicism inflicted on him by the country. Faced with enormous problems, we must have had our own Pitan-Payne moments—moments in which we felt like giving up. But it is heart-warming that this engineer, after expressing this doubt, still redoubles his efforts to save Nigeria from the forces of darkness and oblivion. Compatriots, we must do less of agonising and more of organising. This will require a lot of hard work and serious thinking. The walk on this road will not be easy. And as we go down this road, we must defy the gods of tribalism, nepotism, bigotry, opportunism, crass materialism, distractions, etc., etc. It will demand discipline and a profound sense of history. We are lucky to have heroes around the world on whose shoulders we can solidly stand for ideas that will help us to unfurl the banners of a  just and humane future for our country. Let that be our cause and commitment at this troubling time.

I thank you so much for listening.

Mr.  Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor/Director of TheNEWS and PM NEWS, gave this keynote address at the Lagos Book and Art Festival at the Freedom Park, Lagos, on Saturday 20 November, 2021.

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