May I seize this opportunity to send my deepest sympathies in advance to whoever succeeds President Muhammadu Buhari in May 2023. The next president is going to inherit an agelong and entrenched misconception in Nigeria: that the progress of the country rests solely on his shoulders. That is what I have observed since we transited to democracy in 1999. I don’t know what is responsible for this notion, but I often try to pin it on our long history of military rule in which the all-powerful head of state, presiding from Dodan Barracks or Aso Rock, appointed and teleguided state governors and enforced his agenda. They needed the head of state’s approval for most things.
In my previous article — the first in a series on five common errors we make about Nigeria — I sought to dispel the popular notion that Nigeria is rich. No matter the criteria we use — GDP, GNI per capita, oil revenue or individual wealth — Nigeria cannot be classified as rich. Even if all our public revenues are spent judiciously and not one kobo is stolen or wasted, we still do not generate enough wealth to meet the critical needs of a country of 200 million people. The best compromise we can reach is to say that Nigeria is potentially rich — based on the human capital, arable land and untapped resources. Only all-round good governance can translate the potential to wealth, I argued.
Today, I intend to dispel the notion that the president is solely responsible for the progress of Nigeria and if things are not going well, all the blame should be placed at his doorstep. I guess it is this perception that makes us savage every president, especially since the return to democracy in 1999. A year after President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua took over from President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2007, we said: “Obasanjo was not this bad…” With President Goodluck Jonathan in charge in 2010, we said: “Yar’Adua was not this bad.” After Buhari came on board in 2015, we said: “Even Jonathan was not this bad.” I am fully braced up for “even Buhari was not this bad” by this time next year.
First, a clarification and a definition of concept. I do not intend to suggest that the president plays no role in the development of Nigeria. Not at all. In fact, he sits atop the hierarchy. He is responsible for the broad policies that shape the economy — macro, trade, industrial, etc. He is also responsible for internal security. If we are at the mercy of robbers, kidnappers, bandits and terrorists, he has a chunk of the blame. What I want to disprove is this ingrained notion that the president should be held responsible for most of the things affecting the lives of ordinary Nigerians and stalling our overall progress as a nation. Here, I will try to prove that there is enough blame to go round.
I have taken time to survey ordinary Nigerians, by which I mean those I interact with day by day on the streets and in other common places. I could be practical with my questions. I would give out sheets of paper or chat people up on WhatsApp and ask them to list what they would like to enjoy in Nigeria that would make them not consider relocating to Canada. I have noticed that most people would list affordable food, jobs, schools, roads, healthcare, security, safe water and a clean environment. “If the president can provide all these things,” someone said, “I won’t relocate.” Please go through that long list again and let me know when you see what I am talking about.
During Obasanjo’s first term in office, I was told he held a meeting with the governors and told them agriculture and food security were key to his development agenda. One of the governors reportedly reminded him that agriculture was not the sole business of the federal government and that, in fact, the only land the federal government owns is the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The states are in charge of the lands by virtue of the Land Use Act. Constitutionally, agriculture is on the concurrent list, so it is a shared jurisdiction between the national and subnational governments. Thus, Obasanjo was not in a position to be legislating about agriculture to them, the governor reportedly told him.
Undaunted, Obasanjo encouraged the states to pick crops and promote them. Let every state be known for something in agriculture, he implored the governors. If I remember well, Cross River state picked pineapple, oil palm and cocoa and Governor Donald Duke pursued the agenda with passion. He proposed a pineapple factory at the Calabar free trade zone, which he said would require a minimum of 80,000 fruits for processing per day. He instituted a cash prize of N100,000 for the best kept pineapple farm in the state as he cultivated outgrowers to be part of the project. He was making real progress before he left office, although there were many challenges in the process.
Let us now get to the nitty-gritty, using just the pineapple case. The first thing I can see is job creation for semi-skilled and unskilled workers. But when we discuss unemployment in Nigeria, it is the president that always takes the blame. The second thing I can see is value creation — and more jobs. A pineapple factory will, at least, produce juice. People will work in the factory. Companies will produce the packaging. Many professionals will benefit from jobs created by such a massive project: civil engineers, electrical engineers, industrial chemists, accountants, HR managers, and so forth. The notion that it is only the president that can make policies that will create jobs is highly misplaced.
On bad roads, the notion is that the president should take the blame. I have told this story a million times: in 2013, an uncle came visiting and we got into a mild argument over Jonathan’s performance as president. I said Jonathan was not doing badly, insecurity aside. I listed some physical projects he had executed across the country, in addition to the non-tangible feats. My uncle interjected: “Until he does the road in front of my house, I don’t believe he has performed!” I said: “Uncle, but the council is responsible for the road in front your house!” We laughed it off, but then that just sums up our understanding of the remit of a president. Most of our roads belong to states and local councils.
Whenever we say public schools are not good, the starting point has to be primary education. How many primary schools are run by the federal government? Nil. Of all the secondary schools in Nigeria, the federal government owns only 112, called “Unity Schools”. It is at the primary level that we determine how many children are out of school. We also analyse the quality of literacy and numeracy based on basic education. Most public schools are under states and councils. But you hear things like: “Under Buhari, 20 million children have dropped out of school.” Why? Because of the deep-rooted belief that everything wrong with Nigeria should be blamed on whoever is president.
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) 2022 classifies 133 million Nigerians as “multidimensionally poor”. Commentators went to town about how millions of Nigerians had become poorer under Buhari. Fair comment. The only problem is that by the time you read the report, the blame is not on one person. There were 15 indicators under four broad areas: health (nutrition, food security, distance to healthcare); education (school attendance, years of schooling, school lag); living standards (water, water reliability, sanitation, housing materials, cooking fuel, assets); work and shocks (unemployment, underemployment, security-shock).
Have you noticed that yearly, newspapers report how much Aso Rock has budgeted for food? Nobody talks about the budgets for food and spoons in the 36 state government houses. We focus only on the president — because we unconsciously think that is where things start and end. We complain about budget padding (the inflation of budgets by lawmakers with the understanding that the excess would be “kicked back” to them) only at the federal level. You would think it doesn’t exist in states. We report how much a federal lawmaker earns per month and pay little or no attention to state lawmakers. We are wired to discuss only the severance packages of the federal lawmakers.
What is my point? I agree that the president should take the lion’s share of the blame for the underdevelopment of Nigeria. But it is very unhelpful to think all the problems of Nigeria start and end with whoever is president. There are limits to presidential powers in a federal system. If we were running a unitary system or military regime where all the powers belong to the centre, the notion would be perfect. But powers and responsibilities are shared in a federal system. They are defined in the constitution on the exclusive and concurrent lists. Nigeria would be far better than this if the governors and council chairpersons do well. They need as much scrutiny as the president.
In summary, I concede that the president is very powerful, both legally and symbolically. But his latitude to get much done is constrained if the others are not doing their parts or not doing enough. We need all to put in an excellent form at all tiers if Nigeria is ever going to change. And for that to happen, we need to splash attention on governors and council chairpersons as well. If the president says his development agenda is to tackle the issue of out-of-school children and the governors say their own priority is to build airports, what can the president do? In a federal democracy, the president has an uphill task getting the governors to sing from the same hymn sheet with him.
Of course, somebody is reading me and saying: what about the constitution? Doesn’t it constrain the governors with its lengthy exclusive list? How about revenue sharing? How can Nigeria develop under an “evil constitution”? We shall be discussing these questions in the third instalment of this series. Before then, though, I want us to chew on this: Nigeria is essentially 36 countries in one country. Every state has a CEO and a legislature. Every state prepares its own budget and spends its own money without president’s interference. Every state has duties to discharge in education, road, jobs, healthcare, sanitation, safe water and security. Let’s ponder on these things again and again.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the APC presidential flagbearer, opened fire on “hypocrites” at his campaign rally in Abeokuta, Ogun state, on Wednesday. He insinuated that some people (in government, I presume) were trying to sabotage his chances with the lingering petrol crisis and naira redesign. Ordinarily, the twin crises should hurt APC in the general election and could amount to wilful suicide. His campaign team has tried to play down his weighty outburst, but it is not so much of a secret that Tinubu has not been getting solid support from a government controlled by his party. Perhaps, he also wants to distance himself from the hardship facing Nigerians. Counterattack.
I must be one of the few Nigerians who did not buy the fable that N89 trillion stamp duty revenue was stolen between 2016 and 2022. When the claim started trending, I did not need to do much investigation to know that it is not true. We are so gullible and cynical in Nigeria that we believe anything, as long as it feeds our biases. How much was our total revenue from 2016 and 2022 out of which N89 trillion would be stolen from stamp duty only? According to the CBN, the total stamp duty revenue collected from 2016 to 2022 was N370.7 billion only. This looks far more realistic. We can probe if we want, but we have a moral duty to stop spreading outrageous fantasy. Reckless.
To those who may not know the significance of the just inaugurated Lekki Deep Sea Port, let me just say it is a major milestone not just in the maritime sector but in our economic development trajectory. When it takes off, it will become the first fully automated port where human involvement will be minimal, as it is done in modern countries. Globally, focus is shifting to large vessels which can freight four times the size of regular ones and reduce the cost of shipping. Only Lekki will be able to handle such vessels. Also, as the deepest in sub-Saharan Africa, it will serve as a trans-shipment hub for the region. In case you were wondering why it is such a big deal, that should help. Progress.
FACING THE MUSIC
The music suddenly stopped for Senator Ademola Adeleke (PDP) on Friday when the election petitions tribunal sacked him as the governor of Osun state and declared Mr Adegboyega Oyetola (APC) as the one duly elected. The plank of the judgment is that there was overvoting in several polling units. With the votes from those units cancelled, Oyetola was deemed to have won with the lawful votes. Adeleke will surely appeal. He would also think the tribunal chairman dropped “another banger” by saying Adeleke “cannot ‘go lo lo lo lo’ and ‘buga won’ as the duly elected governor of Osun state”. It sounds like a joke, but I think these judges need to “calm down”. Banters.