Until recession crept into our homestead, we were living like the man with the Pound. Of course you know what the good old adage says about the temperament of the man who has a Pound and the other with a Penny? The one with the pound lives as though there is no tomorrow. He believes he has so much money and so life must be lived to its fullest. He is reckless in spending, unbridled in his splurge. He is the foolish one, as the saying instructs. And what about the other man that has just a penny? The saying tells us that he is the wise one, because he is the flipside of the other man. Penny wise, pound foolish, is how the saying goes.
And so, that is our story, the story of Nigeria. Until the harsh wind of recession came howling, we were the ones with the Pound. We were foolish. We were unrestrained in our reveling; immodest in our accumulation and gaudy in our consumption. Succinctly put, we had no sense of proportion. We spent in the most imprudent fashion. One way or the other, everybody had access to the public till. By some unholy prodding, we have come to convince ourselves that public money is nobody’s money. You find it, you take it. And it was always there – free, available, plenty.There were no controls or the controls conveniently gave in to compromises. And to give the devil a saintly name, we found a romantic metaphor for it. We fondly call it ‘national cake.’
Now there is nothing in the till and the coffer is empty, dry. The cake is gone. We are now looking like the prodigal come home. Two days ago or so, President Muhammadu Buhari told the world that when he came in a president, the first thing he did, as every one in that position is wont to do, was to check the strength and capacity of the treasury. There was nothing in it. It was as dry as cracker biscuit. I would imagine that he almost fainted. Well, he confessed he did something close to fainting: “Actually, I felt like absconding.” But the obviously flustered president did not stop at that. “And I asked, any savings? I was told there was no savings.” That is the result of being foolish with the Pound; of living recklessly and irresponsibly as a people. It reminds me of the debate in the immediate past administration of the desirability or otherwise of the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF). Many, especially governors stoutly kicked against it. They didn’t want it. They didn’t want it because they needed more resources to service their profligacy, their debauchery.
I am not knowledgeable in the mumbo-jumbos of economics, but I certainly appreciate the basis for SWF. I understood then, as I still do, that those who put the whole thing together at the time, expected it specifically to serve as a savings fund for future generations; for economic stabilisation as well as an infrastructure fund. The wisdom to save is as old as man himself. Save for the rainy day, they say. Even conventional wisdom tells us that no matter how little the income, we should always put something aside in form of savings. And as it is with an individual, so it is with a people, a nation. Anyone who eats with 10 fingers today is decidedly making his way into the house of lack and hunger, tomorrow.
Just as we have always lived so foolishly on our Pound, we have also done that with the mentality of the nomad. The nomadic mentality is a ruinous one. A nomad comes to a locality with his herds and renders the place desolate. And once that is achieved, he moves on to another place and does the same thing, on and on. Since we discovered the gushes of oil and their source, we have put all else away and settled down on it. Now again, we are in a bind with the ever-declining oil price.
Oil has made us lose our sense of creativity and striving. Every end of the month, every tier of government queues up in Abuja to share oil proceeds. Which is why state governments (as well as the federal) must draw up their annual budgets based on how much allocation they expect from oil revenue. What happens to other economic sources? What about other minerals resources? Every state in this country, if we look well, must have been as endowed as any of the states in the Niger Delta area. But we have failed to see this, because, like the nomad, we delight in quick and easy fixes. There is always enough to steal.
I said earlier that Nigeria has all the resources today to achieve every basic need of every citizen. And that is a fact. Saying that Nigeria has no business with poverty, is now a trite. But it does not invalidate the truth, nor does it detract from it. Nigeria has the resources to make Nigerians live decently, with dignity. The conditions of the Twenty First Century Nigerian are abject because he has the misfortune of having a successive band of buccaneers called leaders – political and bureaucrats. Imagine, for a minute, what the country could have done with all the monies stolen by these characters and their collaborators outside government and outside officialdom. And just imagine also, that every kobo this country makes is in the national till and accounted for. But the trouble is that, everything leaks away through a million holes. Apart from direct, bare-chested thievery, there are so many indolent, unproductive people permanently at the table. They trap the cake even before it is served; before it lands on table. Imagine, again, that our legislators earn decent wages, and not the haul they make every quarter.
I did a piece in 2011, entitled: We aren’t sufficiently provoked, I think. Please allow me to quote from it. I had said: “But the legislators’ criminal take-home pay is not all there is to it. It may just be a fraction of it; a small act in a big drama of the macabre. On the whole, the cost of running our government is obscene; it is crippling, if not killing. Indeed, it is killing the country and it is doing so in many ways. One of which is that, the resources of the country is ceaselessly squandered in servicing a legion of ravenously unproductive bureaucrats. For instance, in the presidency, I’ll be shocked if the president knows the exact number of his aides – I mean advisers and assistants. We are not talking of lesser assistants and advisers. And of course every one of them has a train of assistants.
“That is in the presidency. Now multiply whatever number of these assistants and advisers, their lesser opposite numbers and all the members of the train by 37 (representing the 36 states and Abuja). Then multiply the same number of aides with the number of ministers and number of junior ministers. When you have got that, add everything and you can have an idea just about how much this country spends in sustaining indolence. I’m not asking you to add hangers-on, court-jesters and fawners, international errand men and women, hatchet men and attack-dogs. Nor am I requesting that you consider the clan of First Ladies and their leeches. No, these ones are in a class of their own. With a colony like that, a colony of vampires, how would a nation have the resources to give its citizens the good life?”
Now, do you understand what I mean? We have enough to spend; enough to make us live up to the full measure and standards of the Twenty First Century civilisation. And enough to save, too.
Perhaps, we will appreciate these things better if we can summon the courage, that is, if we are not scared of asking the question: “What is the Nigerian Story?” But the problem with such question is that the answer could lead us to where rage resides and it equally has the capacity to excite rage. But truth has never asked that it should not be spoken of or be told; it is just that most of the time, truth causes serious discomfort. But truth must be told so as to relieve us of the torture of falsehood
The Nigerian story is evident on every street, at each turn. It is a story of a people trapped in the middle of the ocean and battling tempest and dreadful sea creatures. The Nigerian story is one of a people without a rudder; a people constantly led and tormented by evil, unprincipled and visionless characters, full of bad manners and mean desires. The Nigerian story is about a people defeated by their circumstances; a people in ceaseless regress.
It is about a people who live for their leaders; of public officials who cannot distinguish personal purse from public purse. The Nigerian story tells of a country where lofty dreams end in smoke. Have we said that our story is not complete if the intransigence of Nigerian politicians is not part of it? The Nigerian political elite is one that does not believe in anything. Members of this tribe do not believe in the humanity of the next person. And it wouldn’t amount to overstretching the matter to say it is doubtful that they even believe in God or a force greater than man.
The Nigerian nation is rudderless. Governance here is all about position and acquisition; it is all about getting money and sharing it. That is why politics has become the biggest industry in Nigeria today. And because there is desperation all over, anybody who is desirous of breaking the yoke of want, goes into politics – after all, you do not have to have good character to be a politician in Nigeria.
Anyone, who has failed in his career or profession, finds accommodation in politics. Anyone, who has searched for a job and cannot find, turns to politics. Anyone, who gets tired (Nigerians don’t retire from active service) of his job, throws in the towel and goes into politics. And because rivers flow together, many of those who cannot pay the high price – the blood if necessary – resort to other engagements but no less reprehensible. It is the reason you can scarcely find among the youths, grand dreams and noble desires.
The Nigerian story is about a people in dire straits and desperate. And there is indeed desperation everywhere – everybody is desperate. The teacher is desperate, the market person is desperate, so is the policeman, the landlord, the journalist, the lawyer, the council official and everyone else, including the NGOs. It is the story of a mad house; a situation where everybody is driving against traffic.
That is the Nigerian story. And here we are today, naked as we can possibly be. Our foolishness has led us to the inevitable destination: the recession avenue. But then, we have this opportunity to start all over again. As my boss here, Mr. Eric Osagie, used to say, the first thing you do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. Thank God we have managed not to dig any further – or forced not to – so we don’t use our own hand to bury ourselves through our foolish preferences and indulgences. “I guess it’s true what they used to tell me,” says a character in James Baldwin’s Another Country, “if you can get through the worst, you’ll see the best.” As we said in the first part of this piece, this recession could well be a purifier; a purgation of sorts. Indeed, it is an opportunity to reorder our choices and spruce up our bad manners. If you can get through the worst…