On Monday 4th November, the Governor of Lagos state, Babatunde Raji Fashola spoke at an event at the House of Commons, in the UK Parliament, on his state’s priorities for sustaining growth and development, and how he responds to key challenges. The event was jointly organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Nigeria, the UK Trade and Investment and Chatham House.
It was an event I had marked in my calendar over a month in advance given the relevance of the subject matter, and the personality involved. Fashola is doing some amazing work reforming Lagos in terms of transport infrastructure, taxation, revenue generation, and a whole lot of other things. Lagos is the commercial capital of Nigeria. The state’s economy will become Africa’s 13th biggest economy in 2014, equivalent to that of Ghana, according to Renaissance Capital.
Unfortunately, I forgot to factor in the London traffic on Monday. I was therefore horribly late and missed more than 70% of the talk. I only caught the last two minutes of Fashola’s presentation and the brief Q&A session.
The highlight of the event for me was Fashola’s response to a question posed by a young lady. She asked what the Lagos state government is currently doing to encourage Nigerians in the diaspora to go back home and “contribute to national development”. Now, this is the typical question posed to African policymakers by (young) Africans in the diaspora at these Africa-related summits.
Governor Fashola retorted thus:
You are a Nigerian, it’s your country “why should I convince you to come back home?” Many Nigerians have made the move back home without anyone persuading them to do so. This man here [he points to someone seated close to him] moved back to Lagos from the United States a few years ago, and he has done a lot of things. It’s your choice. I don’t think I need to convince you to come back to your country. [paraphrased]
I think most of us were jolted by his unexpected response because the reply to such a question is usually more conciliatory and appeasing. Yet this departure from the norm by Fashola is really food for thought. If you’re so passionate about your country, as an African in the diaspora, do you really need anyone to convince you to go back and contribute to national development? Many others have made that decision, some have been successful, and others haven’t, isn’t this risk all part of life’s uncertainties? Is “moving back home” the only avenue of “contributing”? For those who make the decision, do they have realistic expectations about how best to engage or contribute? Does the government have a responsibility for putting in place special structures and incentives to encourage the diaspora to relocate back home?
Back in secondary school, I distinctly remember being taught in Social Studies class that Nigeria operates a mixed economy – an admixture of socialism and capitalism. It made little sense to me then, just as I am still struggling to understand what this mixed economy means now. More recently, I’ve had cause to believe that Nigeria does have a mixed or rather, a dual economy – not the capitalist-socialist variant my secondary school teacher mentioned – where parallel economies exist side by side within the national economy.
The Nigerian economy has evolved considerably since my secondary school days in the late 1990s to early 2000s. One such change is the wave of liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation that swept across significant parts of the public sector from the early 2000s under the Obasanjo regime. These include the privatisation of the Nigeria Telecommunications Limited (NITEL), liberalisation of the telecoms sector which led to the introduction of GSM mobile telephony, the re-capitalisation of the banking sector from 2005, the (on-going) process of deregulating the downstream sector of the oil industry which culminated in the contentious partial removal of subsidies and so on. All these should leave no one in doubt that Nigeria is on a steady path towards fully-fledged capitalism.
These liberalisation policies along with the boom in global commodity prices, mainly oil, which Nigeria heavily relies on as a primary source of foreign exchange (90%) and government revenues (85%) along with the booming banking and telecoms sector, have led to massive inflow of revenue and steady economic growth, averaging 6 to 7 per cent per annum. Nigeria is reportedly, one of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world. According to global investment bank Goldman Sachs, Nigeria is one of the Next Eleven or N-11 emerging countries driving the global economy, after the BRICS countries. With the upcoming revision of GDP figures, Nigeria, like Ghana in 2010, could overnight be upgraded to an upper middle income country.
Without being overly pessimistic, it is easy to be confounded (I certainly am) by these figures and projections, especially when one considers the stark reality on ground that sometimes contradicts the figures. Looking at Abuja or Lagos, one could easily conclude that Nigeria is an emerging country and the next big driver of the global economy. The new shopping malls, the exclusive hotels, the “happening” joints, the brightly painted duplexes and the endless stream of air conditioned SUVs on the wide roads can give the impression that Nigeria is catching-up with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and we do hope it is. However our fervent optimism should be tampered with pragmatism over our real pace of development.
There is the general perception that Abuja, the capital city and Lagos, the commercial nerve-centre are anomalies – they are the exception rather than the norm – and are far removed from the realities of the other 35 states in Nigeria. It is not uncommon to hear people in other parts of Nigeria speak of Abuja and Lagos with such awe and fascination, as they would, of a North-American or Western-European capital. This could also explain the high rate of not just rural-urban migration, but also urban to urban migration, particularly to these two cities. Many of my friends and classmates from Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria are now domiciled in Abuja and Lagos because this is where the “opportunities” and “infrastructure” are. If I were living in Nigeria, I would most likely be living and working in either of these two cities.
The fact is that there is just so much more to Nigeria than Abuja and Lagos both of which account for less than 20% of its over 170 million people. Sometimes, it’s tempting to assume that some consultancies and development organizations go to Abuja and Lagos, interview a few bankers, high-ranking civil servants and successful “business owners” and then conclude that Nigeria is “emerging” and rubbing shoulders with Malaysia and Indonesia. A huge bulk of the population is engaged in the informal sector which data and projections do not sufficiently capture.
In many parts of Nigeria, a traditional and informal economy exists side by side with the trappings of modernity; and by implication, grinding poverty and stupendous wealth paradoxically coexist. In the north-western city of Birnin-Kebbi, the capital of Kebbi state, it is not uncommon to see peasant farmers use donkeys, camels and other beasts of burden as a mode of transportation while big Japanese and German SUVs carrying public officials, politicians and business men zoom past. In Kano, spacious, and exquisitely-designed elegant mansions abound in tree-lined GRA areas, while bright yellow tricycles, reminiscent of New Delhi in India, popularly referred to as KEKE-NAPEP (named after a poverty alleviation program that introduced it) dot the busy streets.
Overall, there is certainly more to Nigeria which these reports and figures arguably fail to capture, and of course which leave many like me at best deeply confounded and confused, and at worst dismissive and cynical at such projections. While certain parts of the economy might appear to be “growing”, the same cannot be said of other sectors where the bulk of the population is engaged, leaving the impression that there are parallel economies within the national economy and conclusions drawn from the “booming” sectors are conflated to cover other sectors as well. Global consultancies and international development organizations would do well to factor in and capture these nuances and complexities.
In the aftermath of the double tragedy of Sunday 3rd June, notably the tragic air mishap of a Dana Air passenger plane which claimed over 160 lives and the Bauchi bomb blast, the whole of Nigeria is terribly saddened and outraged by these unfortunate events. President Goodluck Jonathan visited the crash site yesterday, and was apparently so overwhelmed with emotion that he shed tears. The picture below captured that iconic moment:
Whether you believe the President’s tears indicated a genuine outpouring of grief and empathy or otherwise, this is an iconic picture and is symbolic of the mood of the whole country. But then, as I noted earlier, this plane crash in itself is not unique in terms of the number of casualties or scale of devastation. Rather, it simply drove home the point that there is a needless loss of innocent lives in Nigeria today as a consequence of human (non)action: whether in plane crashes, road accidents, in hospitals, at the hands of criminals and murderers, as victims of bomb blasts, as victims of extrajudicial killings by trigger happy policemen and so on. The picture below, a “munched” (snapshot) of a friend’s Blackberry messenger status update, drives home this point clearly and forcefully, albeit with a touch of humour:
The message which is an instruction of sorts, reads thus:
“How to cross Road in Naija: look left and right for moto (car), look up for aeroplane, down for Bomb then walk zig zag to avoid straight Bullet!”
Its quite hilarious but then it is a sad reminder of the insecurity in the country. Hundreds have died this year alone.
As the plane crash has awakened all Nigerians to the grim reality, let it also be a wake up call to the authorities to be alive to their responsibilities: for regulators across a broad range of sectors to perform their mandated duties and ensure customers and consumers’ lives are not risked on the altar of stupendous profits and for all Nigerians to remain vigilant. So far, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has suspended the license of Dana Air. This is a welcome development and Nigerians await more stringent measures to clean up the sector. May the souls of the departed rest in peace.
As I struggle feebly, to pull myself together from my misery and muster the vestiges of strength to write this, Nigeria reels from grief and mourning as a result of the deadly bomb blast in Bauchi close to a church which claimed about a dozen lives and the plane crash in Lagos, of a passenger plane carrying 153 passengers who all perished. Perhaps it is the fact that these two avoidable and monumental tragedies occurred on the same day, Sunday 3rd June, which has heightened the sadness and grief felt by Nigerians or the subconscious depressing reminder of how no one is really spared as hundreds of innocent people die frequently and needlessly which makes it sting the more or that the fundamental right to life in Nigeria is rapidly becoming a mirage everyday.
As a human being with a beating heart and with a conscience, it would be incredibly difficult not to be thoroughly saddened by this double tragedy. Whether you knew the victims of the plane crash personally (such as Farida S. Kaikai and Amina Bugaje, with whom we shared mutual friends) and the bomb blast or not, or whether you spoke with friends and loved ones in person or over the phone, or just interacted with fellow Nigerians on social media, the atmosphere was unmistakably distressing and grim on Sunday. Death, despair and sheer helplessness hung in the air like the fumes of cheap cancer-inducing cigar in a poorly lit and ventilated shack, at once suffocating us and making our eyes water. What makes the double tragedy of this Black Sunday most gut-wrenching is its symbolism: the cold, hard, blinding affirmation of our inevitable mortality, how we are more likely to encounter it in Nigeria and a chilling reminder of how life is rapidly descending into a Hobbesian state with life for the ordinary Nigerian fast becoming “poor, nasty, brutish and short” as blood flows needlessly and ceaselessly.
Without dishonouring the memory of the victims, the bomb blast in Yelwa, Bauchi in itself would rate an average or below average on a scale measuring sheer terror, deadliness and carnage in Nigeria given that more than a dozen (suicide) bomb attacks and murders have happened within this year alone claiming hundreds of lives – the Kano attacks which claimed up to 250, the violent Thisday Newspaper attacks, the blasts at a church service in Bayero University Kano (BUK) claimed about 20, the Potiskum massacre claiming more than 60 and numerous others.
However, even before news of the plane crash filtered in, there was already a build up of misery and helplessness at how people are bombed, butchered and murdered with impunity, at how the victims and their families have little hope for justice, how perpetrators are not likely to be apprehended or successfully prosecuted and how ordinary Nigerians cannot shake off the feeling of being on a conveyor belt of sorts in a slaughter house assembly line headed towards a certain demise. Thus as the news of the tragic plane crash along with the gory pictures flowed in, the country was swiftly enveloped in nationwide horror, grief and sorrow such that President Goodluck Jonathan’s declaration of a 3-day national mourning period couldn’t have been more timely.
What makes this tragedy hit harder is not that it happened – accidents and crashes happen everywhere, especially if you can recall the Italian Cruise Ship, Costa Concordia mishap earlier this year – but that in Nigeria, it is happening with so much frequency. Furthermore, the reports that the crash was the result of criminal negligence on the part of Dana Air’s management, who allegedly insisted on flying a very faulty plane against better judgement, simply add salt to a fresh, festering and haemorrhaging wound. And all these in turn serve as depressing reminders of the consequence of the depths of decay which has eaten deep into our infrastructural fabric.
The blast and the crash have given us a crude and electrifying jolt to the reality of how lives are lost and wasted everyday on the pot-hole-ridden death-traps of our roads and highways; in our poorly equipped and collapsing medical centres; in the blood-soaked hands of armed robbers, kidnappers and psychotic terrorists; in the clutches of malaria, tuberculosis and other preventable diseases and most importantly as a consequence of the ravenous appetites of unconscionable, corrupt and kleptocratic bureaucrats. Certainly, death is inevitable to any living, breathing organism but it seems to have disturbingly nestled itself comfortably, within Nigeria’s bosom as it cruelly snatches away people at will in the most gory and gut-wrenching ways.
As we mourn and pray for the souls of the departed, we consciously or subconsciously are grieving over our helplessness as we watch our nation bleed from every orifice, thrashing and convulsing violently as her citizens’ lives waste away. As we gnash our teeth, bite our lower lips and wipe away our hot burning tears of searing pain from lives lost to very avoidable circumstances, and as blood of innocents continue to flow needlessly without justice or recompense, our humanity as a nation slowly ebbs as well. One sincerely hopes the authorities would make protection of lives and property their foremost priority, would fast track the prosecution of suspects apprehended and in custody over bomb blasts and that a full inquiry would be launched into this plane crash with anyone found culpable made to face the swift and full wrath of the law.
Finally, may the souls of the departed rest in perfect peace, ameen.