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The change that never was

The change that never was
December 09
23:30 2023

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Pardon my French. I was saying: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” When the All Progressives Congress (APC) wowed Nigerians with the slogan of “change” ahead of the 2015 elections, I was as sceptical as I could be, knowing well that it was a gimmick. In my article, ‘May We Now Discuss the Issues, Please?’ (THISDAY, December 21, 2014), I wrote: “I am one of those Nigerians who cannot be easily moved by political slogans. I love the music of ‘change’ as rendered by the APC, but talk is cheap. What we need to know now is the content of this ‘change’…” Nine years on and I am still waiting. Fellow Nigerians, it is all politics.

Perhaps, our understanding of change differs. Maybe the problem is with me, not with the APC. To me, change means a new way of doing things: departing from our notorious culture of profligacy, impunity and “anyhowness”. Every government, APC or not, will do economic reform, build physical infrastructure, and initiate poverty reduction programmes under different names. That is the drill. But genuine change should reflect in the conduct of government business, in the quality of appointees, and in the management of resources. I think of change in a transformational way that will make Nigerians truly believe in their country again after so many false dawns. I am still waiting.

It took me less than two months of the APC-led government in 2015 to figure out that “change” meant something else. On his first foreign trip, President Muhammadu Buhari went to the US with a 33-man delegation, which I considered too large and wasteful. His son was on the entourage for reasons we were never told. Things were shaping up to be more of the same. Buhari’s spokesman retorted: “President Barack Obama travels with his children and so the President of Nigeria can travel with three or four of his children. Late President Umaru Yar’Adua used to travel with two of his sons and one of his grandchildren.” Nigerians always justify silliness with “it also happens in America”.

The most alarming line of the attempted justification was that since Yar’Adua too travelled with his sons and grandchildren, then all was well. In other words, change does not mean change. Travelling with your son or daughter or grandchildren probably costs us next to nothing in the grand scheme of expenditure. But there is something called dissonance — when your words and your signals misalign. You cannot promise to do things differently and then continue in the wasteful traditions of your predecessors. That is dissonance. With Buhari also retaining the expansive fleet of presidential jets like his predecessors, it was soon clear that my understanding of “change” was different from APC’s.

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Oh, I understand the game. The US also has presidential jets, so Nigeria must maintain a fleet too. Meanwhile, the King of England and the UK prime minister fly British Airways, but… never mind. The US is the goal. I can imagine Senator Sunday Karimi asking if we expect a “whole” Nigerian president to fly “rickety” commercial airlines. I recall that when the National Assembly refused to approve the purchase of a new jet for President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2001, he petulantly flew British Airways in order to blackmail them, maintaining that the existing presidential aircraft was too old and unsafe. Today, we have acquired a yacht for presidential pleasure. Afterall, the US president also has one.

After Buhari’s first term in office, the “anyhowness” did not stop. In ‘Just Take a Bow, Guys’ (THISDSAY, July 28, 2019), I wrote: “Anybody who is interested in studying the quality of leadership in Nigeria and why our country is perpetually stuck in underdevelopment would have learnt a great deal from the screening of ministerial nominees by the senate… Buhari finally sent a list of 43 nominees to the senate without attaching their portfolios — as usual. The PDP governments did that [for] 16 years and we criticised them. Buhari and APC promised us ‘change’ but they have continued with that tradition. If APC rules Nigeria for 16 years, we can expect the tradition to endure.”

These days, it is very painful to the eyes as a “change” government that is preaching “sacrifice” is busy showcasing extravagance in the face of harsh economic realities. I have not seen anything yet to make me think anything is about to change. The latest episode is the massive population of Nigerian officials that invaded Dubai for COP28. The waste actually started weeks after President Bola Tinubu said “subsidy is gone” on May 29, 2023. Over 100 vehicles, fuelled from our loan-dependent treasury, took over Lagos roads to welcome him from a foreign trip. This was followed by the appointment of a bloated cabinet. Tinubu’s budgets so far are full of misplaced priorities. What next?

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Nigeria’s culture of waste is legendary — and this started before the oil boom. The late Lee Kwan Yew, former Singaporean leader, recounted in his book, ‘From Third World to First: The Singapore Story’, what he saw at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, in Ottawa, Canada, in August 1973. He recalled how the leaders of poor countries, namely Nigeria, Kenya and Bangladesh, came in glittering jets while at the same time trying to make a case for development aid for their countries. This is exactly what I mean by dissonance: living a life of waste and opulence and at the same time begging for help to tackle poverty and underdevelopment. The joke is on us, guys.

Lee wrote on the irony thus: “The Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, arrived in style in his own aircraft. When I landed, I saw a parked Boeing 707 with “Bangladesh” emblazoned on it. When I left, it was still standing on the same spot, idle for eight days, getting obsolescent without earning anything. As I left the hotel for the airport, two huge vans were being loaded with packages for the Bangladeshi aircraft. At the conference, Mujibur Rahman had made a pitch for aid to his country. Any public relations firm would have advised him not to leave his special aircraft standing for eight whole days on the parking apron. You want aid but you are showing opulence to the world.

“Presidents of Kenya and Nigeria also arrived in jets. I wondered why they did not set out to impress the world that they were poor and in dire need of assistance. Our permanent representative at the UN explained that the poorer the country, the bigger the Cadillacs they hired for their leaders. So, I made a virtue of arriving by ordinary commercial aircraft and thus helped preserve Singapore’s Third World status for many years. However, by the mid-1990s, the World Bank refused to heed our pleas not to reclassify us as a “High Income Developing Country” — giving no Brownie points for my frugal travel habits. We lost all the concessions that were given to developing countries.” Poor Lee.

I will never forget the Nigerian jamboree to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. To start with, there were more officials than athletes. I could even live with that. We did not win a single medal, not even wood or clay. But I could also live with that. By the time it was time for our contingent to return home, the chattered aircraft could not accommodate the excess luggage. Maybe our people were consoling themselves by embarking on a shopping spree after the dismal outing. When Nigerians back home criticised them for lacking shame after such failure, an unnamed official told journalists: “I am over 70 years old. You don’t expect me to go to Korea and return emptyhanded.”

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This Dubai jamboree is difficult to justify. Could it be that we are really interested in climate change? There was a climate change forum in Abuja on November 22, 2023, organised by Agora Policy, a think-tank. Its report on the impact of climate change on socio-economic development in Nigeria was to be presented and discussed. Dr Salisu Dahiru, the DG of the newly created National Council on Climate Change (NCCC), confirmed he would be on the panel. Aside my joy that we now have a government body dealing with climate issues, I was also eager to listen to Dahiru. He did not show up. He reportedly had a call from the “Villa” — a well-used excuse to avoid appointments.

Effectively, a climate change conference addressing issues specific to Nigeria and holding in Abuja did not have a single representative from the NCCC, the federal ministry of environment, or presidency, despite invitations. It would have cost less than N5,000 petrol for someone to attend. Two weeks later, the same NCCC sent 32 delegates to attend COP28 in Dubai. The federal ministry of environment sent 34 delegates. Presidency sent 67 officials. Until there is a fundamental change in the thinking and values of those who hold public offices in Nigeria, there can never be a change in the conduct of government business. It will continue to be business as usual. It is a cultural issue.

I know there are people still in electioneering mood. They are gloating over Tinubu’s missteps. But as I often argue since time immemorial, if the Nigerian president fails, we will all suffer the consequences. It is like praying for your flight to crash because you don’t like the pilot. It doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t matter who you supported. We have a de facto government in place and its success or failure will impact all of us. That is why every Nigerian with a voice (and a brain, no matter how tiny) should brace up to hold this government accountable every step of the way. Democracy does not start and stop with elections. Moreover, demand for accountability should not be seasonal.

It is not too late for the APC to change. The ominous signs are that this government will be wasteful and insensitive. The indications are clearly outlined in the 2024 budget. Tinubu must send the right signals. He can use some frugality. I do not suggest that being frugal makes a good leader — you can be prudent and incompetent — but it is the barest minimum. You should not be wasting food in front of hungry people. Millions of Nigerians are hungry and angry. The government cannot afford to be tone-deaf. Let the message of sacrifice apply to everybody. Change is better as a verb. It shouldn’t be just a noun, a slogan. It is still not too early (or too late) for Tinubu to press the reset button.

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AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

TUDUN TRAGEDY

Over 100 villagers in Tudun Biri, Kaduna state, were accidentally killed in an operation against suspected terrorists by the Nigerian army. According to the defence headquarters, an unmanned aerial vehicle, better known as drone, targeted the movement of terrorists at Ligarma, “an area notorious for being a haven of insurgents”. Although these errors are not uncommon in military operations across the world, they are becoming too commonplace in Nigeria and this speaks to a deeper problem than just a case of mistaken target. No amount of apologies, though necessary, will bring back the dead. The military must urgently up its game to avoid more tragic mishaps. Painful.

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BUDGET RUMPUS

Someone asked: why are journalists focusing on budgetary allocations for food, travels and renovations when there are many development-oriented items? I am not authorised to speak on behalf of Nigerian journalists but I know that budgets for travels and food are always more likely to perform 100 percent. The ones for schools and hospitals will score F9. Basically, budgeting in Nigeria is for the comfort of government officials. They are always padded with waste and corruption. I am glad that increasingly, there is public spotlight on self-serving budgetary items, although mostly at federal level. Our democracy cannot engender development without people-led accountability. Fact.

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REWRITING HISTORY

Senator Jimoh Ibrahim (Ondo South) was on TV the other day saying things I am still trying to understand. “Don’t let us talk about the Buhari’s administration because Jonathan left a positive $15 billion GDP to current account cash,” he said. What does that even mean? “All these rails and airports were built by Jonathan. You can’t even pinpoint one single project that cost $1 billion that Buhari actually funded.” Really? Buhari completed standard gauge railway projects between 2016 and 2021: Abuja-Kaduna, Itakpe-Warri and Lagos-Ibadan, which he started from scratch. Then, there is the second Niger bridge. This definitely cannot be blamed on history not being taught in schools. Cruise.

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NO COMMENT

You think you have heard it all? Now, add this to your collection. Senate President Godswill Akpabio has just made an uncommon discovery that lack of accountability is what is making citizens to not trust political parties. Listen: “Political parties have not only provided platforms for citizens to participate in the democratic process… However, it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the issues that have marred our democratic culture. These issues have led to a decrease in public trust and confidence in political parties. It is disheartening to witness citizens disenchanted with the very institutions that should represent their interests and safeguard their democratic rights.” Wonderful.

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