Before I go into whether oil is a curse or not, I would like to touch on various ways in which the country survived without oil
I would like to begin with reference to a recent article where I commended the former governor of Delta State, Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan, who coined the phrase “Delta without oil” in a state that is the highest oil-producing area in the country. Even though the campaign didn’t result in the expected outcome, the phrase remains with me and in the process generated the title of this article: “Nigeria without oil.”
Sometime ago, at a dinner event that I was privileged to attend in honour of the Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the host, Amb. Dele Cole, in a speech, mentioned how oil has been a curse to Nigeria. The Rwandan President, who was at the time was looking into the possibility of oil exploration in his country, reacted to this opening speech by saying, if oil was a curse, then he would like to have the curse in his country.
Before I go into whether oil is a curse or not, I would like to touch on various ways in which the country survived without oil, especially dating back to the 1940s and 1950s, which was the time during which I transitioned from childhood to adulthood.
During that era, most parts of Nigeria did not have electricity. Instead, we depended on lanterns at night and gas lamps for the elite, on occasion. For most parts of Nigeria, the full moon was a major source of energy and that was when the young came out to play. That was also the time most people experienced romance for the first time.
We harvested rainwater for domestic use and supplemented the other uses with water from rivers. Bridges and roads were built to international standard and maintained by road overseers who were on hand to patch up potholes whenever and wherever they occurred. There were post offices everywhere and it took not more than three to four days for letters to travel at any part of the country. Telegrams took 24 hours to get to their destination within the country.
There was train service from the South to the North and there was very little food importation. The northern part of Nigeria exported groundnut for foreign exchange. The groundnut pyramids were a sight to behold and a huge tourist attraction at that time.
The western part of Nigeria exported cocoa. The income brought development to a good part of western Nigeria, with cocoa houses scattered around the region for everybody to see. Also, western Nigeria was the first region to build a television station in Africa. Mid-Western Nigeria had palm oil and the value chain that generated millions of employment. Eastern Nigeria was a region dominated with trade and commerce; they also had a bit of palm oil.
From my recollection, Nigeria did not borrow more than she earned from exports. Our Nigerian pound was stronger than the dollar and almost at par with the British pound. Our educational standard rivalled that of the British and was better than that of the United States. Religious institutions like Christianity and Islam were private. They built schools, colleges and hospitals all over the country as part of their evangelical mission to draw members to themselves.
Our medical institutions, which employed a combination of traditional and conventional methods, were fairly adequate and I cannot recall Nigerians travelling abroad for medicals the way we do today. As a matter of fact, our education and health systems were such that attracted people from other African countries. This was the Nigeria that I loved so much to a point where, during the course of my work in the UK and the United States, I had opportunities to take up dual citizenship but I declined. I was proud of our green passport; sadly our green passport today has become a source of embarrassment.
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The Nigeria with oil that I have come to know and that we are bequeathing to the generation after us is a different Nigeria. It is a Nigeria that ran a national airline, which started with 28 planes and infrastructures not only all over Nigeria but in major cities of the world, but now can’t even boast of one. A country that began with six universities and teaching hospitals attracting students and patients from all over the continent due to the quality of education being offered; but today, we have well over a hundred universities that offer some learning but no education.
We built super highways like the Lagos-Ibadan expressway but that fell apart in a period of 10 years. We built six refineries but in the last 25 years we jave been importing refined petroleum products from countries that buy our crude while we watch the collapse of the refineries one after the other.
We also built six motor vehicle assembly plants with a view of developing secondary industries and gradually reducing the importation of vehicles and parts; however, almost 40 years down the line, these assembly plants are still importing 100 per cent TKD, whereas these plants should have by now been generating millions of employment in the secondary industries built to support the assembly plants. There were also six steel mills but they also met the same fate as our refineries.
All the things listed above were supposed to be the beginning of the industrialisation of Nigeria. Not only funded by money from oil, this process was also supported by funds borrowed from the London and Paris clubs. The loans were later to haunt Nigeria before the arrival of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who negotiated debt relief for the country.
Looking at where we were before oil and what we were able to build as a country with oil money supported by borrowed funds meant to bring about industrialisation of the country, Nigerians are left wondering how it is that we still remain underdeveloped.
One would expect that by now the Nigeria my generation should be handing over to my children would be a better Nigeria, but this is sadly not the case and the situation is worsened by the fact that nobody has been truly held accountable for the mismanagement and derailment of the very many initiatives that were started in the 1970s and 1980s.
Inasmuch as I do not want to take Nigeria back to my stone age, a time when we had no water or power, I can’t help but refer to those days more fondly than I do the present.
Now that we are engaged in this gigantic transformation of the country, we must do everything in our power to avoid the mismanagement of the past. If one is to go by the recent letter exchanged between the present President and a former President Olusegun Obasanjo, highlighting the problem of having power without power, building refineries without refined products, water works without water and public works department without good roads, there may be no change in sight. It is time to appeal to the leaders of this country to stop politicising all the issues at stake and focus on what will bring about a Nigeria that was the dream of our founding fathers.
There are three areas I would like to point out as I conclude:
1. The environment was once clean and healthy because we had sanitary inspectors.
2. The council of states is a platform where former heads of states, governors and chief security officers of the state meet to deliberate issues at stake. Recall that President Obasanjo is a member of this council; topical issues raised in his thought-provoking open letter to Buhari could have been better discussed at this platform.
3. Bearing in mind that nations of the world that have committed to the Paris Climate Change protocol have started the implementation of the protocol, which will eventually bring about a reduction in energy requirements, coupled with the fact that the USA has started drilling new fields, which will also reduce their energy requirements from Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries. Also of note is the fact that most European countries have been carrying out research and developing electric vehicles. At the time all these innovations come on stream, the appetite for crude oil will drastically reduce, which will also crash the price of crude oil and that could spell doom for Nigeria.
Therefore, Nigeria needs to position herself to function without crude oil and now is the time to start, not tomorrow.