It’s the Environment Stupid!

November 1, 2015by Tope Fasua0

A recent survey by Mr. Abimbola Akosile of Thisday newspapers, regarding which ‘quick-fixes’ the government can deploy, in tackling the unemployment challenge in Nigeria, threw up the following result:

Top pick: Massive investment in agri-business
Second: Improve industries and infrastructure
Third: More electric power and skills acquisition
Radical tip: Give collateral-free loans to youths!

I have cause to believe that these respondents gave answers to other questions, not the issue of unemployment. Massive investment in Agri-business in my view, will mostly ensure Nigeria’s food sufficiency. If done right, it will create a handful of jobs, ensure we waste less food year-in year-out, but it cannot be the much-needed ‘quick-fix’ because investments are driven by the private sector and that takes time (time to convince the private sector, time to see investments into gestation). Nigeria’s incoming Agriculture Minister, Audu Ogbeh is a big time investor in Agriculture, and so our Agriculture policy will favour large-scale, export-oriented behemoths, meaning machines will replace humans and we would hardly make a dent on the unemployment figures.

Regarding industries (the second popular choice), automation, technology, globalisation, has ensured those can no longer be employment havens. We need to think critically, as we live in the age of creative destruction. Just as you are setting up massive factories (even if you have the funds), the intended products become extinct – they are no longer needed. Innovation creates alternatives. And Nigeria is not at the cusp of innovation. If we were, we would know that ‘industries and manufacturing’ can no longer be considered as the saviour. My own research tells me that what we need in the area of infrastructure is to develop a culture of finicky maintenance of what we have. I see daily, how Nigeria builds expensive infrastructure and watches them go to rot. So?

Yes, the banks could grant more loans to the SME sector, but ideas, and an ideological atmosphere that understands their value, is more important than loans. Many Fortune 500 companies started from garages and did not become big just because someone granted them a loan in the bank, but because they were ideas whose time had come.

Skills acquisition (third choice) comes close, but the immediate employment opportunity there would be for TEACHERS – if we could get people to ‘download’ what they know, to our upcoming youth. That would be immediate. But the problem is that very few Nigerians have the skills that we know our youth must learn in order to compete with their colleagues from other nations. Sometimes, I become afraid that electricity will only give us more time to watch Nollywood and make babies. Yes, a better standard of living may enable Nigerians to think better and be more productive, but without conscious mobilisation, we may achieve little. Say, we have enjoyed better electricity under President Buhari (in many parts of Nigeria). But unemployment is increasing, if anything. Due to stagnation and a lack of economic policies – or perhaps the ongoing pursuit of corrupt people – small businesses are in a meltdown instead.

So, we move on to the next excuse: the banks are not granting loans (let’s not forget the list of delinquent debtors recently published). Which makes one laugh at the person who ‘radically suggested interest-free loans to Nigerian youth (I reckon he/she is of the opinion that the youth also have a right to take their own free money from the banks, the adults having had their fill). Yes, the banks could grant more loans to the SME sector, but ideas, and an ideological atmosphere that understands their value, is more important than loans. Many Fortune 500 companies started from garages and did not become big just because someone granted them a loan in the bank, but because they were ideas whose time had come. When young people often complain about lack of loans, I just pity them. It is just an expression of how broke they presently are. Many loans to people in that state of distress have been mismanaged; often confused with ‘God’s blessings’, national cake, or another ‘hammering’.

 

Who Needs Quick-Fixes?

Perhaps the question really is whether we need quick fixes. One of the respondents on that ThisDay article stated that we don’t. He must have interpreted ‘quick fixes’ to a lazy approach to doing things. I interpret quick-fixes for this purpose, as ‘low hanging fruits’. These are opportunities that government and administrators can easily reach out for to douse the tension in the land. They are important because nobody knows tomorrow, and we have been asked to work hard and do good, like there is no tomorrow, and save and build goodwill, like we will live forever. So, in this globalised world, we may not have that luxury of hoping time and opportunity will continue to exist or present themselves. Many governments have come by, which ignored the low-hanging fruits and went in at the deep end, only to be consumed in the vortex of national problems. For example, successive Nigerian governments could have transformed the lives of our people, before Boko Haram became an international phenomenon and almost consumed the nation.

…what is the answer to Akosile’s question? I am clear in my mind, that it is THE ENVIRONMENT, which encompasses Agriculture, Security and those other issues mentioned. Inability to see the eagle-eye perspective means that we miss the ball entirely.

So what is the answer to Akosile’s question? I am clear in my mind, that it is THE ENVIRONMENT, which encompasses Agriculture, Security and those other issues mentioned. Inability to see the eagle-eye perspective means that we miss the ball entirely. The environment is the singular phenomenon that can employ our millions of youth and release their energy for productivity. As a matter of fact, Nigeria shall be emancipated when it brings together two things it has perennially neglected – the youth, and the environment.

The Answer Is Blowing In the Wind

The answer to Nigeria’s sustainable prosperity is literally blowing in the wind. The environment locks up so many trillions of Dollars for us, if only we will look. Our biggest problem today is about connecting with our environment, taking cognizance of what we have and valuing them properly. Till date, our interaction with our environment has been of aloofness, and often times, we see the environment as something we need to brutally explore. Most citizens of Nigeria, as well as most administrators are fixated on the immediate convertibility to money, of ‘the resources God put in the ground for our benefit’ (another symptom that shows we do not understand what economic development is all about). We often forget that whatever resources are present in our environment today, including the ones we cannot readily convert to money due to our myopia, are there, not only for this generation but for generations unto eternity. Our shallow thinking is the reason why we have been hearing ‘Mining’ more and more often as one of the ‘solutions’ to the employment problem today. I daresay, that is a thoughtless alternative.

Whereas government is desperately looking for funds from wherever they can get some, to balance the accounts and fulfill their obligations, it is imperative to caution government that we should not dig up the whole country. I have seen some parts of Plateau State and what mining did to the land there. I have also seen parts of Ghana where devastation is the legacy bequeathed by miners – local and foreign.

Our environment is beginning to give us some feedback, and in a matter of time, our mindless exploitation of the environment may teach us some very harsh lessons. Yet, this is where I believe our next wave of collective prosperity will come from.

We need to think ENVIRONMENT. We need to think SUSTAINABILITY. And not just for the semantics or to merely look good to the rest of the world, but to be truly prosperous, even beyond our dreams. I will explain.

The other day, five days of rain threw up a mass of debris in Ajegunle that we never knew existed. The sight was disgusting, and even more alarming. Buried in every gutter (drainage) in Nigeria, are plastic bottles, materials made out of rubber or petrochemicals, nylon, cellophane, polythene, and what have you. Most of these materials are used in every household and despite the best efforts of a state like Lagos, a lot of these materials escape into places where they create tremendous damage to our ecosystem. Most of these materials are not biodegradable, meaning that they remain the way they are, for at least 200 years! Yet we are churning out more of these materials – perhaps in the name of ‘industrialisation’! Developed countries are moving away from these materials, or they have effective policies around their disposal. I saw the same mass of debris thrown up somewhere in Gwarimpa in Abuja recently. Our environment is beginning to give us some feedback, and in a matter of time, our mindless exploitation of the environment may teach us some very harsh lessons. Yet, this is where I believe our next wave of collective prosperity will come from.

Now Nigeria’s population is increasing, and we now have a natural default of using quick-fixes; taking easy routes. Some of these materials are easy to produce en masse, especially those obtained from petrochemicals. A drive from Abuja to Kaduna will reveal to anyone the amount of damage we are doing to our environment with these products and that it is likely that we will shrink available arable land over a period of time if we are not careful. No one but ourselves will open our eyes to what is going on. Our reliance on foreigners to always help solve problems peculiar to us, was always going to get us into trouble anyway.

The New Scramble for Africa

We need to think strategically and be very careful of the choices we make. Nigeria has been, is and will be, the result of the choices we made, are making, and will make in the future. I am reading a book titled The New Scramble For Africa, and on page 2 it goes:

“African development is defined by the paradox of plenty: that is, that it is a very resource-rich continent, but economically poor. Africa is thought to contain 42 percent of the world’s bauxite, 38 percent of its uranium, 42 percent of its gold, 73 percent of its platinum, 88 percent of its diamonds, and around 10 percent of its oil (Bush 2007). Nonetheless, around half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa live on the equivalent of $1.25 a day (World Bank 2010), and despite the fact that Guinea in West Africa contains almost half of the world’s bauxite… its government’s budget is only 0.0005 percent of that of its former colonial master, France…”

I would have taken this for granted but something told me to interrogate the statement. Check it. Of all the mass of land and water in the world, we say Africa has all these? Instead of me running into the streets in jubilation for ‘what God has done for Africa’ (or beat myself up about Africa’s poverty in spite of its blessedness like most Nigerians would have done), I prefer to take a cautionary route. The truth is, most of the developed countries, these OECD guys, are not telling the world what they have. The exposition about Africa above, is not a thing of pride, but cynicism writ large. Africa is the continent whose people seem so distracted and of simple mind (didn’t Lugard say this?), and all these reports are only meant to expose our innards to rape by just about everyone in the world. Africa is simply the most explored, exploited, denuded continent in the world, where its natural resources are freely taken for peanuts while its people revel in some idea that God loves them more than others. Africa is indeed Open Sesame. Yet we must protect what we have for maximum value, and we can.

I usually say – and still maintain – that whoever owns the technology, owns the resource. What did our ancestors do with Crude Oil for centuries before the white man came? We need humility and introspection. Mythology, religion and superstition are not helping us.

Look what I found in an article titled “The Paris Basin Oil Shale Play” written by Keith Schaefer in 2010. It is about how Paris, France is sitting on one of the biggest oil finds in history, worth $20Trillion!

“It was a handwritten note on the margins of a long-forgotten report, in French, from a well site geologist many years ago who was on a rig drilling into the Paris Basin for conventional oil… “That was our first clue,” says Craig McKenzie… “The geologists were writing about uncontrollable oil flows from the Liassic shale and eruptions due to over-pressurization… Rock was erupting into the well bore because the over-pressured oil was pushing everything out of its way. When you see this being repeated over linear distances of 50 miles or more, you get excited that this is not a one-off, but this is basin wide…. That was the Eureka! moment for McKenzie and his team that the Liassic shale in the Paris Basin had the potential to be something very special… It’s big. It’s simple. It’s over-pressured, which generally means bigger flow rates. It’s been known since the 1950s”.

Since the 1950s, Paris, France has been keeping what it has, and saying absolutely nothing about it, but ‘intellectuals’ from there and elsewhere have been directing attention to the “God-given resource-richness” of the continent of Africa instead. Like I mentioned above, we aren’t solving any of our peculiar problems ourselves and are usually never at the cutting edge of any research. Thus, the Shale technology presently disrupting the price of our mainstay – crude oil – is alien to us. And we don’t know what else the world has up its sleeves, in any facet of societal evolution and development. What is more? I usually say – and still maintain – that whoever owns the technology, owns the resource. What did our ancestors do with Crude Oil for centuries before the white man came? We need humility and introspection. Mythology, religion and superstition are not helping us.

The Environment Holds Nigeria’s Next Gazillions

So how does the environment hold our next gazillions of dollars?

In several ways: Taking charge of our environment tells the world clearly that we have come of age – or that we are on course at least. It makes the world exploit us less, and they begin to pay us better than peanuts for our resources. At present, Nigeria behaves like a junkie adolescent who steals his parents’ trinkets and any little thing in sight, for quick sale to anyone that will buy in order to get that quick hit, which never lasts for long. I call it Junkie Economics. Taking cognizance of our environment shows we are ready to go into economic rehab. And we need this.

Taking charge of our environment means the deployment of our most important resource – human resource – into the very foundation of our economy. I had advised for so long – sometimes stridently – that the best bet for our new government is the immediate launching of a project called “THE CLEANEST, SAFEST, AND MOST ORGANISED COUNTRY IN AFRICA”. This is a project that we can plug in millions of youth in sustainable careers. It is a project upon which we can launch a global campaign to immediately begin repairing our battered image as a people. Nigeria presently suffers the fate of being the most disrespected, disdained and distrusted country in the world and something needs be done urgently. A recent report from our Nigeria Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) has it that Nigerians are the highest traffickers of drugs the world over! Now that is quite some achievement, negatively. But I see that as a cry for help from our youth, that there is a need for mass engagement and mobilisation.

I am pained, because I have since offered my ideas to the Nigerian government – writing – on several occasions, but never been as much as acknowledged. Sometimes one gets tired of worrying about a nation that is almost deliberately on the road to nowhere.

Our biggest challenge as a people is not how to maintain the existing suboptimal system, but how to start creating a new one. We need to think from bottom-up; new careers for the youth in the environment, reorientation of Nigerians through this means preservation of our resources in order to get more from it, value-addition to these resources in order to get some premium, more respect for Nigerians in global community…

Many industries can be created from our engagement with the environment. Nigeria being something of a dumping ground for sundry items from around the world – including electronic waste – has every reason to declare an emergency in the area of recycling. Only a few initiatives in Lagos are doing this, but this should be a national affair. There is sustainable money to be made, and we would be working for a sustainable future for Nigeria. There are peculiarities relating to different regions in Nigeria that we need to divert our attention and energies to, and therein lies opportunities for youth employment (given that our labour is largely unskilled and this problem requires largely unskilled labour).

Our biggest challenge as a people is not how to maintain the existing suboptimal system, but how to start creating a new one. We need to think from bottom-up; new careers for the youth in the environment, reorientation of Nigerians through this means preservation of our resources in order to get more from it, value-addition to these resources in order to get some premium, more respect for Nigerians in global community, leading to ease of doing business and premium for our people, not the current cheapening that we receive from the rest of the world. This, to me, is the path to sustainable prosperity. And it is achievable.

The alternative will be the continuous ignorance of vast changes in our environment, encroachment of farm land by non-biodegradable waste even as our population increases, the desperate search for any resource we can exchange for quick cash, the total neglect of our unskilled youth and the concomitant crime spikes, the continual disrespect we get from other people around the world, and the eventual implosion of the existing system where a few of us are demanding more from the system, even when we know that way too many are excluded from the cycle of prosperity.

What Walter Rodney Had To Say

Rather than be thinking of how to disembowel our land in the name of mining – and I saw a documentary recently about vast areas of Plateau State and even Ghana, devastated by long period of mining – we should consider how we can deploy the energy of our youth in cleaning up and taking control of our environment. That to me, is the GROUND ZERO, the point to start REINVENTING, not DIVERSIFYING our economy. And it can be done.

Mind you, dear reader, when we speak about the ENVIRONMENT, don’t only think about the physical environment, but every type of environment – political, social, economic and otherwise. As a matter of fact, Walter Rodney, in his famous book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, had described Economic Development precisely as the ability of a people to take control of and shape their environment(s). His definition almost showed that indeed Africa may have underdeveloped itself, not Europe as alleged. Hear him on Page 3 of the book:

“What then is economic development? A society develops economically as its members increase jointly their capacity for dealing with the environment. This capacity for DEALING WITH THE ENVIRONMENT, is dependent on the extent to which they understand the laws of nature (science), on the extent to which they put that understanding into practice by devising tools (technology), and on the manner in which work is organised.”

No nation will move an inch if it totally alienates its most productive demographic – the youth – for starters. As for the other aspects of the definition, it is self explanatory: Understand what goes on and anticipate CHANGES in your environment. Don’t be a dinosaur. Change before your environment changes.

It took me years to understand this definition – especially the part about how work is organised. I used to think it was a throwback to Rodney’s socialist orientation. But really, it is about ensuring that all who should contribute to a country’s development, actually do. No nation will move an inch if it totally alienates its most productive demographic – the youth – for starters. As for the other aspects of the definition, it is self explanatory: Understand what goes on and anticipate CHANGES in your environment. Don’t be a dinosaur. Change before your environment changes. Understand SCIENCE and TECHNOLOGY. Provide your own, not just buy the latest and most expensive gadgets, weapons, or even intelligence!

Nigeria’s Geographical Challenges

But for the purpose of getting our youth employed (unlocking that precious energy that only the youth have), let us limit our discourse to the physical environment. We go around our country and see so much devastation in the land. For me, it is simple; this is where to start everything from. Let us not kid ourselves. The reason why the world will not respect us for building Banana Island or Maitama, or for living in gated exclusive estates and being the highest consumers of luxury goods, is because 90 percent of our nation is bathed in filth and ugliness. We must take control. We must see ourselves with the eyes of the rest of the world.

In the North of Nigeria, we have desert encroachment. The other day, the governor of Sokoto State was lamenting that his people no longer plant trees to stem the desertification. I believe a lot can be done with the mobilisation of youth there. Even the security problems in Northern Nigeria will only eventually be solved when we mobilise the youth to take charge of their environment. Think about MAMSER on a higher level.

The South-West of Nigeria is a haven for solid waste. We need a comprehensive policy on the environment, and we need to be obsessed by and meticulous with our environment. As described above, a lot will spin off from this approach.

In Nigeria’s South-East we have problems with gully erosion. Hear what Dr. Luke Onyekakeyah, nd Editorial Board Member at the Guardian newspapers had to say in his book The Crawling Giant, and a recent interview by the Sun newspapers:

“We have erosion that is creating big gullies and redrawing the map of landscapes in South-East, yet none of the universities in the region or anywhere in Nigeria is training engineers to come up with creative ideas on how handle it. That kind of thing cannot happen in Japan… Going to school without a personal goal or corporate agenda as a nation is meaningless… The products of such an educational system would turn out to be educated derelicts and the nation gains nothing. This partly explains why millions of school leavers at all levels of our educational system can neither help themselves nor the society. But this is not so in Japan where the education system is tailored to solve society’s problems.”

Dr Onyekakeyah had lectured in a University in Japan, hence his reference.

In the South South, we have problems with oil spills – some of which are caused by illegal bunkerers. Many parts have been devastated by illegal oil refiners. The South-West of Nigeria is a haven for solid waste. We need a comprehensive policy on the environment, and we need to be obsessed by and meticulous with our environment. As described above, a lot will spin off from this approach.

The Dimensions of the Environment

From a Systems-Thinking approach, a refocus on the environment will enable us re-start our economy, by providing employment very early for our youth (14-21). A new class of spenders will come up who will buy local goods. It used to be that Nigerians of that age were very active in the economy and had small jobs way back in the 1960s-1980s. But today we shoved them into the entertainment sector. Not all of them will be footballers, musicians and comedians. The government needs to take charge. I have written specifically elsewhere on how the youth can be harnessed. I would share this again very soon.

There is work to be done and it is criminal that these jobs are not being given to those who can do them – the youth.

 

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