The COVID-19 pandemic has presented Nigerian leaders with a perfect alibi to justify their under-performance. Some governors and ministers simply relapsed into inertia. No new projects, no continuation of projects caught in the web of the epidemic. Yet, these governors still collect their monthly allocations from Abuja. Despite the global lockdown, some governors still sneak out of the country to the West and elsewhere in their usual maniacal frolic. Simply put, the pandemic has created a thick pall of development stasis. And our leaders are loving it! They have stopped working, even thinking.
But Asian countries, particularly China, the presumed birthplace of the Coronavirus, have not broken their stride in their quest to birth development for their people. They even became bullish with infrastructure development, innovating smarter technologies to optimise productivity amid a pandemic. Lest we forget, it was on the heels of the pandemic in February, 2020 that China built a 1000-bed capacity hospital in 10 days (the Huoshenshan (Fire God Mountain) Hospital), Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province.
Fang Xiang, the project manager of the Third Construction Co. Ltd of China Construction Third Engineering Bureau, who marshalled his team to deliver the project gave a deeper insight into the once thought mission impossible: «For a project of this scale, it usually takes at least two years. It takes at least a month to construct a temporary building, not to mention a new hospital for infectious diseases.»
South Korea which initially suffered one of the biggest pandemic-induced crisis outside China, did not stop working. She leaned on her massive infrastructure built over the years and a productivity-focused policy of no-lockdown to spring out of the woods by keeping factories, the primary sector and critical services functional. Her leaders did not trot out the pandemic as excuse to stop delivering on development.
Nigeria seeks to push her way into the top global economic bracket in the coming years. This remains a wild dream if there is no intentional, deliberate and conscious quest to stay bullish with infrastructural development. In contemporary global development index infrastructure is key. Be it in healthcare, education, power, transportation, investment in critical infrastructure remains the catalyst for development. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, IMF, and the Africa Development Bank, AfDB, all support and recommend higher infrastructure spend for African nations as a fundamental to spring them out of poverty.
Nigeria, despite her huge potential, remains the infrastructure poverty capital among nations of her status 50 years ago. To get out of this development backwater, the nation must increase her infrastructure spend. With a comatose and grossly atrophied local government administration, Nigerians must look to their respective state governments and demand real, feasible performance in infrastructure development. The behemoth Federal Government which warehouses all of the nation’s revenues – whether from crude oil sales, excise duties, taxes and sundry sources – has, unfortunately, over the years showed an obvious lack of will and leadership to grow infrastructure.
This is the context wherein it has become imperative to understudy, and possibly replicate, the infrastructure development model of Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State. For over five years, Wike has been unrelenting in his quest to improve the infrastructure capacity of his state as a sine qua non for industrialisation, social engineering and economic growth. He models his infrastructure development style after the Asians. The economic miracles created in China, Japan and South Korea were no happenstances. They were deliberately conceived and painstakingly executed by their leaderships to birth what is today referred to as the Asian Tigers. The backbone of these miracles was infrastructure: transportation, healthcare, education, all of which triggered the blooming of cottage industries. We often forget that the Chaebols of South Korea – Samsung, Hyundai, LG etc. all sprouted as start-up family businesses, but today have grown into international conglomerates, creating an amalgam of cottage industries and economies of scale around the world.
Barely two years into his first tenure in the midst of a needless politics of attrition between the APC and the PDP, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, an APC man, overawed by the quantum of infrastructure projects on his visit to Rivers State, referred to Wike as ‘Mr. Projects’. It’s the highest bi-partisan validation of performance for any sitting governor. Some persons mindlessly steeped in primitive partisan politics had slated VP Osinbajo for applauding an opposition politician, especially one as outspoken and critical of the APC central government as Wike. But they miss the mark. Osinbajo is a development leader. His breed is rare here. His verdict on Wike as an exemplum in infrastructure development ought to set the tone for pragmatic peer review among governors, ministers and other sub-managers of our collective national economy.
Ever since that presidential validation, many other political leaders including governors of the opposition party have made sorties to Rivers State to commission projects both in Port Harcourt and in the rural precincts of the state. The roll-call is a rich mix including the Chairman of the Governors’ Forum, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, an APC chieftain; Minister of Works, Babatunde Raji Fashola, another APC member, and a man well-respected for his infrastructure development imprints in Lagos when he was governor.
Governors Ahmadu Umaru Fintiri of Adamawa, Bala Mohammed of Bauchi, Samuel Ortom of Benue, Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu, highly respected former governor of Anambra and vice presidential candidate of the PDP, Mr. Peter Obi and Senator Ali Ndume, the outspoken former Senate majority leader, among others make up the list of bi-partisan political leaders who have had to make the trip to Rivers to give credence to Wike’s revolutionary infrastructure development. The didactic import of this is that many of these projects were executed in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time many other political leaders were conveniently citing the pandemic as excuse for their lethargy.
The voice of extreme politics would say Wike is working because he gets huge allocation on account of Rivers being an oil-producing state. Cheap talk! Rivers is not the only oil-producing state. Some states in the north get fat allocations on account of having more local governments. They get bigger allocations on ecological funds and allied matters. The argument is not about big or small allocation. It’s about putting what you get including internally-generated revenue to smart use. Some governors would rather subsidise religious pilgrimages to Israel and Saudi Arabia, share money to the poor and the downtrodden in their states to score cheap political points rather than invest such money in the education of these poor. It’s about priority. How can we rationalise the fact that the same Nigeria which had superior income per capita than South Korea and others in the 1960s is in 2021 ranked as the poverty capital of the world? It’s hard to swallow but that’s the bleak truth. This country needs infrastructure leaders. Nigerians are smart people, brilliant and innovative. They excel more outside the country where they are exposed to superior infrastructure. This is why those who run the nation’s political economy must develop a pragmatic proclivity to infrastructure development. Wike is showing a feasible example. Other leaders should follow suit. The nation should not suffer development stasis because of a pandemic.