I visited Oshogbo, the Osun State Capital, recently. This was my second visit to the city, and I believe I got a better glimpse of it. On both occasions that I’ve been there I saw a people in financial distress. Of course as in most other states in Nigeria, anyone not plugged directly to government – and Government House especially – is in financial limbo. Fundamentally, most of our people cannot find any purchase in the new global economy and most are in a state of economic disconnect – from global and by extension, the fragile, legless local economy. They have no skills that can be sold, and those that do, are priced down and beaten down in the mindless game of crony capitalism being played in Nigeria.
For example take the city of Ibadan. They have these famous Nissan Micras being used as taxis. Till today, one could get a ‘drop’ for N20 between one point and another. To that extent, people say ‘Ibadan is a cheap place to live’. But I pity the drivers and those who invest in such businesses. They could never survive for long in this economy. A driver could man say N3,000 daily driving those cars, but will struggle to repay his loans or handle major repairs. Even if lucky to scale these, all that is required to knock him out permanently is a major health mishap or illness requiring major spending. The business is not running at a pace that can afford him to save – or a rate that can afford him survival in this modern economy. Now, none of our economists is helping these people by letting society know that they exist and that they don’t understand the concepts of inflation, asset replacement, health insurance or the highfalutin necessities of the modern economy. The fact is that anyone not lucky enough to work in some organization where their racket is still holding up – like oil, telecoms, banking or some super government parastatal – falls almost in the same category as these Micra drivers of Ibadan.
But I digress. We have already reached Ibadan from Oshogbo where we started this journey but we have to retrace our steps for the two hours drive over very bumpy, abandoned roads. So I found in Oshogbo that the governor, Rauf Aregbesola did build a number of good roads especially in the city centre. Many places look good to behold. From his massive borrowing for infrastructure, he also tried to reposition the educational sector by rebuilding and refurbishing many public schools. However, the people have never been poorer than they are. Never been more disconnected from the economy.
Apparently, the profits made from the infrastructure projects did not remain in Osun State. I know a number of smart Lagos boys who used to boast about their consultancy to Aregbesola in his early days, and who held him up as the symbol of great governance. Those were the boys who creamed off the Osun people. Add to them the major construction firms from abroad or places like Abuja or Lagos. The problem with all of these – including the Lagos boys – is that the cream of their profits end up abroad – I mean outside this country. We Nigerians are still locked in that colonial mentality that says that until we can show how linked we are with foreign countries, through our investments there and our frequent travels, degrees and certificates acquired from ivy league schools – and perhaps our accents – we haven’t arrived. That is actually the biggest problem we have; the externalized cash flows and points of view. Our own president – at 75 – does not help matters. At the drop of a hat he jets abroad.
Osun brings to bold relief the fact that blind investment in infrastructure does not solve problems sustainably in country like ours. Indeed the World Bank, among many other agencies, has always said that it is in investment projects that the major corruption deals go down. And that explains the reason why most of our government functionaries and big politicians use infrastructure to hoodwink the people. I have a better idea on this by the way. But look at Ganduje. He stuffed his many pockets with $5million based on ‘infrastructure’ from a singular contractor. What about other contractors that did not have him recorded? What about all our other governors, senators, DG’s of parastatals, ministers and perhaps the president himself directly and through proxies? The infrastructure fraud is what reigns in Nigeria today.
Lest I forget, the World Bank President, Jim Young Kim, also apologized subtly to countries like ours recently at their annual meetings in Bali on this same infrastructure matter. He felt contrite that they have always misled us. I can’t say I blame him. I blame us. Why can we not think for ourselves? Why for example, do we need to wait for World Bank and IMF Growth predictions for us – which come around 1% and 2% – when we should be projecting our own growth by reorganizing ourselves. I have always fought this war. I recently found out that in the 1960’s through the 80’s, even the US economy often grew at 15%-18% in some years, and the UK managed 8% to 10% growth per annum. Now when I argue that we should set our growth targets at that level, I hear how it’s impossible.
We must note that as our people say ‘the pains of washing, cleaning and dressing a wound will be borne by the carrier of it’. The World Bank has misled us and our most-vulnerable people bear the brunt. But our own people (leaders and smart alecs, profiteers and robber-barons) have misled and harmed us even more. Hear Jim:
“I think that the World Bank has to take some responsibility for having emphasised hard on infrastructure, roads, rails, energy for a very long time and I think that changed 20 years ago.But there is still then the bias that says we will invest in hard infrastructure and then when we grow rich, we will have enough money to invest in health and education.We are now saying that that’s really the wrong approach, that you’ve got to start investing in your people right now.’
Let us remember the infrastructure wastage of the past in this area; the $470million spent on CCTV cameras in Lagos and Abuja – the infrastructure of which lay in the dust today. Let us remember the N73Billion spent on Abuja stadium which is grossly underutilized and decrepit today (an equivalent of over N350Billion in today’s Naira). What about the ones we borrowed for, such as the Chinese-built Abuja Airport, which we recently heard we will need a whopping N500Billion to correct just the defects. That facility is unused today. Nigeria is strewn with infrastructure projects that are abandoned and going nowhere. In every state we find them – roads going nowhere, abandoned housing estates, airports used by the governor alone, rail-lines and metros uncompleted for decades, federal government behemoths infested by rodents. We seem not to have that presence of mind to complete most of our projects or to ensure they are judiciously and optimally utilised. Waste is Nigeria’s second name. There are many fancy projects that are built on a whim, usually these days by foreigners, and with foreign loans. We have left our children to pick up this heavy bill.
So apart from the fact that our infrastructure projects are not well-thought-through and are often conduits for corruption, the bigger issue as stated earlier is that there is no pass-through benefits especially for our youths. Like I said, I have a better idea. We should start involving our university students in the building and maintenance of small infrastructure as a way of powering Nigeria into the future more rapidly, growing the economy in leaps and bounds, and training these children to be able to build their own country. And we must pay those students a token for work done. These should also form part of their curriculum because it is the best way of repositioning education from theory to practicals. The professors should also benefit, just as this can also cause a massive creation of employment for graduates who can supervise such infrastructure building and maintenance. It will be far cheaper than awarding huge contracts for everything. I wish we could find patriotic leaders who can take up this idea.
So, we should be urging our leaders to reduce their penchant for corruption and fraud and get our youths to reposition this country themselves. Street roads should be built by our students as semester projects. We should provide them with implements and resources. Let them make their mistakes and learn. Established companies, and their professors, should mentor and supervise them. Not everything is about money money money. Our environmental disaster areas must be made good by our students and our youths as well. Even History and sociology students can be useful in documenting our languages and the histories of our many ethnicities. It’s not enough to quarrel over ethnicity while all the languages and cultures are dying. Every Nigerian student in higher institution, and every youth, can be useful.
We need to start appreciating what we have and banish this idea that locks us into waste as we build monstrosities just because of kickbacks. We can actually have maintenance budgets in this country for the next 5 years and insist that we will meticulously manage what we have. I know countries in Eastern Europe, South America and Asia, where it could be argued that they don’t have what we have in terms of infrastructure. Here, we sometimes behave akin to spoilt children always throwing tantrums for new toys after spoiling or abandoning what we have. The place to start is to understand the value of things; to be able to make and maintain valuable assets on our own. Imported development is no development. It’s at best a good day out at the amusement park.