I was graciously invited by the Economics students of the great University of Ilorin for their yearly NESA week, to which other Economics students were also invited. I took the opportunity to re-familiarise myself with Ilorin, which I hadn’t been to since my friend got married over a decade ago. But more importantly, it is always a pleasure to interact with these young minds – much disparaged and put down as know-nothings by every Dick, Tom and Harry in today’s Nigeria, who probably went to university on a scholarship when the going was good. My fraternity with Nigerian students is very interesting and I hope it grows. Each time I’m with them, I see fear in their eyes; they are not sure of what the future holds for them. But they are ready to learn and are learning fast; mopping up every information they can get in this digital age.
The plank of my discussion this time centered on Good Governance and Youth Employment, and we went through defining what good governance means and how that impacts on youth employment. I shared with them my idea that the youth in this country, though neglected and abused by politicians/leaders, still hold the key to our socio-economic emancipation. I affirmed in them that they are learning differently and there is nothing wrong with that. Almost every student now has some sort of smartphone and is connected to the world. They may not be reading Shakespeare and the Classics, they may not even know a lot about Nigeria’s contemporary history, but today’s youth process much more information daily than we ever did in our time. One study found out that the average person with a smartphone today possesses ten times more information than President Bill Clinton did while he was president. It’s the globalisation age. And age really does count in these matters. One of the students I met in OAU, Ile-Ife – who is now interning in my office – has such a sound knowledge of social media that he is an asset to me already (and of course to himself). Meanwhile, most of the people controlling these children’s destinies are old men who have no clue where the world is today. Such a pity.
Back to Ilorin. We discussed the tenets of good governance (which I study a lot these days in my capacity as the President of the Institute for Service Excellence and Good Governance), which includes the capacity for visioning for a people, planning and organising, being efficient and effective with policies, and the necessity of mastering speed and accuracy in policy implementation. We also discussed the United Nation’s definition of Good Governance, which adds the need for inclusiveness, consensus-building, accountability, transparency, responsiveness, equitability and the need to follow the rule of law. The United Nations also emphasises the need to care for the most vulnerable in society, as a society is judged by how well the weakest are taken care of. I emphasised to the students how it was important for them to pay attention to details, for the difference between success and failure is in details. It was clear to all that our country is the way it is today, because we have not paid attention to details.
Nigeria is great for building big things, but not in their maintenance. We can construct, but we don’t know how to nurture. We can purchase at great cost, but are unable to create and build from the scratch. We can pontificate, but are unable to conceptualise – not even that which is of serious importance to us. I want to believe that a lot of our people are blind to the environment around them, or they believe that somehow, they, and their compatriots do not deserve better. When these Nigerians make it into governance positions, as they often do, we cannot expect them to do right by the people and to exude those tenets of good governance as enunciated. This is because ab initio, they believe that better things – beautiful environments, infrastructure that works and lasts – are for foreign lands. The basest of them thinks in terms of the quantum of contracts that can be issued when things totally collapse. These are not people with the fine minds to comb through each process in our land and proffer sometimes very easy solutions to problems which have plagued us for way too long.
Yes, the crop of leaders Nigeria has been unfortunate to have for way too long are not such that are given to innovation. For innovation is about attention to detail, and without innovation, we will continue to run dysfunctional societies, which are totally dependent on the result of other people’s thinking. And we will keep paying untold costs – which our so-called ‘natural resources’ will never be able to meet up with, for that privilege. These leaders lack the deftness, eagle-eye view of things, and the savvy to tackle our ever-more complex problems as a people. For as long as socio-political leadership positions will be attained by the primitive fear of godfathers, of voodoo and cults, for that long will we also keep battling inane and mundane issues like insurgency, terrorism, religious intolerance, overdose of religious opium, mindless corruption and looting, self-aggrandisement by politicians and other such problems that make us blind to the fact that the world powers on at supersonic speed (intellectually and otherwise), into the future. Pity.
My challenge to the youth is to ensure they do things differently when it gets to their turn – given that they already have to struggle to get that turn as the present crop are unwilling to cede the reins of power. I also did a simple challenge about Apps. Given that Apps are ideas which solve problems or perform tasks, I asked them why Nigerian – and its youths – always wait for foreigners to find solutions to the plethora of problems our country and environment present. Apps (applications), to me, do not merely represent computer software, but the general idea flows from the fact that people who solve problems are in a good position to profit greatly therefrom. And sometimes, it’s less about the money than the joy of creating a good society. I read somewhere that convenience sells. Most of the devices and softwares the world depends on today were borne out of the idea of making the world a better place. People love convenience. Nigeria is an inconvenient country for tens of millions, so why are the youth not coming up with solutions? Where are the small implements that will make life easier for our people? How come no one is improving on the ones we’ve always had to make them better, more efficient, cheaper? Do you know that the hoe and cutlass could be made better with technology such that rural farming does not have to be so tasking?
I made example of the 1,000 years old grindstone shown on NTA the other day. It was found somewhere in Badagry and is revered for its historical value. But it is also a reminder of how static our thought processes can be in Africa. Why would a people use a grindstone for 1,000 years until the oyinbo man came? If Mr Smith, Lugard or Mungo Park hadn’t come a-looting, would we still be using such implements (ready-made by God), and feeling fantastic like nothing could go wrong? I also made an example of the solar phone (phones that will have solar panels behind them and will not need to be charged with electricity (coming soon to a shop near you). I wondered why such innovation had to be done in South Korea where they have no problems with PHCN! I asked that given the abundance of problems in Nigeria, why do we yet have an unemployment crisis?
Of course the problem is not so cut and dried as you think. For too long the problem has been placed on our youth. But governance has a great role to play in these matters. Whether it is the enablement of these innovations through governmental financial and intelligence support, or the direct encouragement of innovation, or the sometimes forceful opening up of foreign markets, the government cannot go to sleep. Unfortunately in Nigeria, we hear politicians say ‘government has no business in business’ (true), while they spend half of the national budget on themselves! Nigeria is one country where – even under a ‘change’ regime – there is almost 100 percent opacity in the way government spends the commonwealth! No accountability. It just doesn’t matter. Meanwhile, the greatest companies in the world – almost all resident in the USA – had some serious government backing and involvement when they started. Ask Google, Microsoft, Facebook and the rest. In China, they practice State Capitalism, whereby the biggest companies are part or fully-owned by government and are ruthlessly and efficiently run, in such a way that anyone working in them has – in addition to their salaries – national fervour and enthusiasm as a boost to their morale.
Why won’t these countries win? Do we know that each time we confirm how useless government can be – either in our speech and thought or by deliberately and greedily running our public institutions aground for personal benefit, we are making a statement that as humanity goes, we are substandard as a people? Do we know that until the day our public service does right by us and shows good governance, this country will not make a jot of progress and our entrepreneurs will also never conquer the world? Do we know that our youths cannot come up with these problem-solving Apps except our government acts responsibly and provides a support base? At least they cannot do as much as they should.
Having tried to open the minds of these young Nigerians to the opportunities ahead of them, and charging them to challenge the status quo in thought and actions, with a view to creating a new world for themselves, I decided on a tour of Ilorin. I like travelogues. Thank God today’s smartphones have powerful cameras with which one could create mementos. So off into Ilorin I went. Ilorin is a very chaotic town, I must say. Too many parts of the vast city have defied organisation. One cannot go there and be impressed by the Sarakis and Abdulfattahs of this world. There is obviously an administrative capability problem. Maybe they tried and they failed. The commercial taxi driver I was with knew his job as a tour guide, and I insisted I didn’t want to tour only GRA (which wasn’t much to write home about), but the real town – the Emir’s palace, all the works. And so off we went. This driver, David, a native of Lafiagi area, was so articulate in speech and action that at some point I blurted out and asked if he’s been to university. Lo and behold, David is a graduate of Biochemistry from no less than Ahmadu Bello University!
Which is why I wrote this article. We had passed through the chaos that is Ilorin city; broken culverts, dumpsites, chaotic markets, untidy streets and all of that. In my discussion with the students earlier on, I had pushed by idea that Nigeria should really start focusing on secondary school leavers education – just like in the UK, USA and elsewhere – as a way of resetting the economy and starting afresh. My position is that we are presently wasting too much time and money acquiring degrees which are useless to us. I made an example that Nigeria is full of slums, and that we could train and employ 500,000 to a million Sanitary Inspectors/Workers who will always have work to do, and whose actions will reduce Nigeria’s health bill significantly, reduce the security problem, and that the ambience this will encourage internal and external tourism in the country. I had averred in the lecture, that those ‘sanitary inspectors or workers’ could be secondary school leavers – or even dropouts – who will then be supervised by our biochemistry, chemistry, biology and even economics graduates. My position was that going through a university meant that someone has been exposed to the world and was therefore ready for leadership positions.
But here I was, being driven around Ilorin by an articulate and intelligent graduate of Biochemistry who is better off making impact on his disgusting environment. It was just a tragedy. I voted and rooted for Buhari because I hoped he could reenact a semblance of the WAI in a more humane way. I wanted to see and feel the presence of the new Sherriff in the ambience of our streets and the way we do things in general. Apparently, all that is not on the card. I hear instead that they want to spend big on infrastructure as a way of reflating the economy. Someone should help me ask them how they intend to maintain the ones we have built. What exactly could be the cause of the cognitive dissonance that has afflicted us as a people? Why do we keep making all the wrong choices?
This is a country where in the recent report by WHO, four of our cities were cited among the worst polluted 20. I think one of ours was named the very worst in the world. We ignore this ‘detail’ and instead fantasise about building large structures. Hear what the WHO had to say, and note the benefits of becoming very concerned and finicky with the environment;
“Air pollution is a major cause of disease and death… When dirty air blankets our cities the most vulnerable urban populations—the youngest, oldest and poorest—are the most impacted… It is crucial for city and national governments to make urban air quality a health and development priority… When air quality improves, health costs from air pollution-related diseases shrink, worker productivity expands and life expectancy grows. Reducing air pollution also brings an added climate bonus, which can become a part of countries’ commitments to the climate treaty.”
I am an accidental environmentalist, simply because I see that this is exactly where we need to pick up Nigeria. I see the economic and socio-psychological benefits of this and the returns we can get therefrom, are enormous.
In all the countries we admire in the world, one thing is common to them – at some point they resolved to start obsessing about their environment. That is why when we visit there we enjoy the ambience. No great country is chaotic, disorganised and dirty. It’s about attention to details. Great countries fix small problems before they become big – because they are not blind to small problems… Attention to details. They see cracks and act. They see small potholes but have crack teams whose jobs it is to fix them promptly, sustainably and professionally. They paint things over before structures start to look like pigsties. They wash their buildings down with jet spray. They constantly make small improvements. They manage their spaces more efficiently each time. They always strive to do more with less. They have a sense of scarcity – like resources will run out, so manage them effectively. They look at what they have and wonder why it cannot be better. They don’t settle for less. For them, there is nothing like ‘as good as it gets’. Because of that they have turned into global innovators, from whom everybody else buys at great cost. They don’t waste time and resources. They have an eye for what is good. They know you are coming. And you go. It is you, dear Nigerian, that is not expecting anyone. And no one will come. Instead, you pack your resources and head to someone else’s clean-swept, organised and futuristic country.
The problem must be in our DNA.