The Debt We Owe Nigeria

That so many of our professionals are leaving Nigeria for societies where things work and where they believe their families can be assured of a secure means of livelihood is a normal human aspiration. I understand the frustrations arising from government failings and dwindling opportunities pushing this drift, especially for our young men and women. But I fail to understand why members of my generation and those before us would join the chorus that we owe Nigeria nothing. That is not true.

It is important we deal with this transferred aggression against a country that has been serially raped and disdained by those to whom it provided a ladder of opportunity. Even our young people, especially those born with privileges and second passports, are perhaps where they are today because of what Nigeria gave their parents. My appreciation of this fact was fired by a tweet last week from an American, Lacy M. Johnson, professor and founder @FloodMuseum who wrote: “When I left grad school in 2008, I owed $70k in federal student loans. (A poor choice I wouldn’t make again). For the past 11 years, I’ve been making payments (except for a period of underemployment), totaling about $60,000 in payments. Guess how much I still owe: $70,000.”

That opened a floodgate of revelations by other Americans. The first respondent commented: “I graduated from law school in 1978 at the age of 27. I don’t remember the sum total of the loans (7 years’ worth) but I remember making my last payment at age 39, some 12 years later. I cannot imagine doing it in today’s world. This has to change.” Next came Liv Covfefe who tweeted from @liddlemocovfefe handle: “Have two bachelors and a law degree. Actual tuition was in the neighborhood of $100K for all three. I owe close to $200k now. It’ll never be paid off unless I win a lottery.” And then @saturnineba: “Started out owing $120k. 7 years, never missed a payment, got it all the way down to $137k!”

Until perhaps two decades ago when we began establishing private universities, all universities in Nigeria were publicly-owned and tuition-free. Many of today’s big men and women were products of these universities. In fact, those who graduated before my generation were even fed free of charge! So, since independence, Nigeria has produced university graduates who paid nothing for their education, yet feel no sense of obligation to the public purse from which it was funded. If we did, Nigeria would not be what it is today. Sadly, the more some politicians savage Nigeria—even if they contributed to the rot—the more popular their opinion, because of the erroneous assumption that whichever government happens to be in power at a particular time is to blame.

Meanwhile, the implication of the thread on student loans in the United States is that were we to be born in those countries we all admire so much, our opportunities might have been limited by the prevailing circumstance concerning the funding of university education there. According to a report, “more than 44 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, which has become one of the biggest consumer debt categories” while all student debt in the United States “now totals more than $1.5 trillion.” In the United Kingdom where more than £16 billion is loaned to students each year, outstanding loans at the end of March 2019 reached £121 billion while the government forecasts the value to be around £450 billion by the middle of this century. The question to ask is if our society is not working, should we blame it on ‘Nigeria’ that at least gave its leadership elite free university education? How have we repaid the country for its largesse?

In a nation where public officials excel only at lamentations, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, said on Tuesday that no fewer than 100 million Nigerians are without decent jobs. “Nigeria is over 200 million and about 60 percent are youths who need employment. Unfortunately, only 10 percent have decent jobs.” Despite this pathetic picture, our public officials continue their binge spending. With the approval of his $29.96 billion loan request, President Muhammadu Buhari has in return approved a whopping sum of N37 billion (more than $100 million) for the renovation of the National Assembly.  And with money involved, whether they are APC or PDP, our lawmakers in Abuja speak the same language and worship the same god; they are all together now, moving to the ‘Next Level’!

Yet these examples do not even compare to the waste of subsidy payments that continue to gulp trillions of Naira every year or the madness that goes in the name of governance in many of the states. With almost a million children out of school, Jigawa government yesterday prioritized the construction of 95 mosques across the state above everything else. All these are choices made by human beings for which we blame ‘Nigeria’. That is because of a shallow understanding of nation-building. It is the people that build a country but in our case, we expect Nigeria to build the people. It doesn’t work that way.

Following the killings of 39 persons by bandits in Tabanni, Allikiru, Gaidan Kare, Kursa, Dankilawa, Ruwan Tsamiya and Gidan Barebari villages in Rabah Local Government of Sokoto in July last year, I visited the state. In my trip to the affected area, I was accompanied by Mallam Abubakar Shekara, the Director-General, Media and Public Affairs to Governor Aminu Tambuwal. As I marveled at how kind nature has been to us as a country and agonized over mismanaged opportunities, Shekara shared with me a story that is worth recalling. After God had created the world, according to Shekara, “He sent an angel to carry resources to different parts. In America, God told the angel to drop a lot of resources because people from different parts of the world would congregate there. In Asia, God also directed the angel to drop a lot of resources because the inhabitants would be very industrious. The same pattern continued until the angel got to Africa and he had not even expended half the resources he carried. But upon entering the continent, the angel stumbled and spilled all the resources. As he tried to pack them God told him: ‘Don’t bother, just watch. The people will not use them’.”

You can interchange Africa with Nigeria. But since no one accepts responsibility for anything, almost everyone points fingers, oblivious to the fact that Nigeria did not degenerate to this abysmal level in one day. Therefore, cursing Nigeria, speaking ill of her and throwing tantrums, especially on social media, may appeal to the mob but that is not the way other societies were built. Nigeria is what it is today because of the poor choices that were made over the past six decades by generations of leaders at practically all levels; and in all sectors, public and private. Changing the narrative of our country requires more than moaning about our challenges or putting the blame only on those we do not like.

As I once wrote on this page, nothing perhaps best illustrates our situation than the embedded message in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” which is regarded as one of the best works of literature regarding ethics and society. Published in 1974 by Ursula K. Le Guin as a short story in her collection, “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”, it is about a beautifully constructed utopian society called Omelas where the prosperity of the people came at the expense of one deprived child locked in a dingy small room. At the coming of age, every citizen of Omelas is confronted with the condition of the child and no matter how well the matter was explained to them, “these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgusted, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations…Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives….”

A major theme in this story, popular in leadership courses, is morality and how different people within a given society react to situations around them. While the citizens of Omelas were quite aware of the child’s deplorable condition, they did nothing. Apparently, because their happiness was dependent on his deprivation. Omelas is a good metaphor for our country today: To every dysfunction, there are beneficiaries. The challenge of course is that the option taken by the residents of Omelas offers no solution to what ails us as a country. We must confront our own demons.

There are two critical issues in the foregoing. The first is our collective sense of entitlement to free university education which we must, at some point, interrogate in light of our current reality. Since we have a way of subverting everything, Nigeria is the only country I know where university education is far cheaper than primary or secondary education and we can see the result in the standards. The second is our culture of unpatriotic self-flagellation. While each valid issue can stand on its own burning urgency, the tragedy is that Nigerians have perfected the art of detaching themselves from the nation as a shared patrimony. The standard refrain: “Nigeria is a useless country”. It is understandable. When we exploit our delicate (ethnic and sectarian) fault-lines in a divisive political environment, it is difficult to hold anyone to account either for the past or the future; or for that matter, engage one another in any meaningful conversation on the way forward.

Even though Nigeria retains all the apparatus of a functioning state, it is obvious that the system has been rigged against the majority of the people. For us to develop as a society, we need to come to that special place where both the government and the people meet in an honest admission of shared responsibility for lost opportunities and also the challenge of national retrieval. This convergence between government and the people requires leadership and political will. Unfortunately, that is the tragic gap that has bedeviled our nation repeatedly over almost six decades.

In this season of goodwill to all men, we should spare a thought for our country by stopping to blame ‘Nigeria’ for our self-inflicted woes. I wish all my readers Merry Christmas.

Still on the Road Sweeper

Following a short piece in my column of 10th October titled, ‘Death of the Road Sweeper’, a reader has offered the sum of N100,000 to the family of Mrs. Folasade Ogunniyi who was knocked into the lagoon by a hit-and-run driver while performing her duty on the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos. That the family of the deceased was only entitled to a sum of N45,000 from her employer, Highway Manager, was what touched the reader. If there is anybody who knows how I can contact her husband or other members of the family, the person should please get in touch with me.

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