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Forward-looking, Backward-fearing By Sonala Olumhense

There seems to be a new revisionism in Nigerian history.  It goes as follows: we must forget about the past and focus on the future.  Enough has been said about bad Nigerian leaders and the malfeasance; say no more and blame nobody. 

There seems to be a new revisionism in Nigerian history.  It goes as follows: we must forget about the past and focus on the future.  Enough has been said about bad Nigerian leaders and the malfeasance; say no more and blame nobody. 

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It says: We must let Mr. Goodluck Jonathan get on with his job.  And we must stop criticizing former president Olusegun Obasanjo; after all, he left office all of four years ago.

This philosophy recently received a big boost from the federal government.  After Mrs. Farida Waziri was relieved of her position as the chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), word went out that the government would probe her tenure.

His spokesman was on the case in a matter of hours.  No way, announced Mr. Reuben Abati, there would be no probe of Mrs. Waziri because their government is “looking forward and not looking backward.”

And then he really wielded the axe.  “I don’t know where the story…is coming from,’ he said.  “I just hope some people are not planning to pursue their agenda...”

It is not clear what such an agenda might possibly be, but I take this opportunity to congratulate Mr. Jonathan for this decision.  The history of his administration is clear that even if there were to be such a probe, the report would disappear.  

Still, for the unwary, the argument is very seductive.  It is a salesman pointing at the glittering city lights the distance, compared to the darkness and poverty of the village which must be ignored if the city is to be claimed.

But what makes Mr. Jonathan’s philosophy very dangerous is that there is really no city up ahead because the only road to it goes through the village.  Nigerian rulers can make all the speeches they want, but each of them can only lead Nigeria to deeper poverty and misery unless they bring corruption to its knees.   That is not backward-looking; that is the future.

Let me rephrase that, using the hot-button subject of oil subsidy.

Mr. Jonathan says that withdrawing the subsidy will yield the resources he needs to turn Nigeria into a vibrant economic force.

The argument is false.  And it is false because, as I have always said, the challenge before Nigeria is not where to find resources for development, but what it has done with the resources available to it. 

Where have our resources gone?  They have consistently and ruthlessly been shared by privileged government officials and their friends. 

That is why the Presidential Projects Assessment Committee set up by Jonathan in March 2010 gave him a report that showed that there are nearly 12,000 uncompleted projects nationwide.  That number does not include abandoned government reports.

That is why the current anger in Nigeria has been misunderstood by the government.  This anger is not about subsidies in any sense.  The true issue is monster called corruption and Mr. Jonathan’s unwillingness—or inability— to confront it. 

No economic theories and no transformation agenda can alter Nigeria one bit for as long as we continue to feed helpless Nigerian children and empty clichés to this menace.  And no foreign aid—or oil fields, or taxation, or from Abacha loot refunds, or withdrawal of subsidies on anything—can withstand our ruling creatures. The poor will all be eaten alive.

I am not saying anything that is not known to anyone in Nigeria, or for that matter, our friends abroad.  For anyone to speak about development as a serious agenda item in Nigeria without meeting corruption frontally is to sell Nigerians into a new slavery.  That is not “backward-looking;” it is the future.

And this is not about Mrs. Waziri, but about the principle of accountability and what it ought to mean.  This government cannot claim to be interested in transparency and yet block every serious attempt to implement it.

Only recently, even Obasanjo himself angrily carpeted the government of Mr. Jonathan for corruption and the mismanagement of as much as $35 billion of Nigeria’s foreign reserves since May 2007.  He suggested the money may have been “shared.”

There has been no response from the government.  The question is: If $35 billion can be squandered in four years and the government does not know, or care, how much of the people’s blood will be required in the next four to feed the monster?  How can you close your ears to something as loud as this and not expect to go deaf?  How can you be “looking forward and not looking backward” on such a road and wind up anywhere other than in hell? 

The truth is that Mr. Jonathan seems determined to fashion his presence on the national stage on one compromise after another, each one far more delicate than the one before it.  Five months ago, crying that corruption was “the monster that we need to confront and defeat, the same Jonathan instructed the EFCC and the ICPC to probe all ministries, departments and agencies beginning from 2007.  But now, he now wants to be “looking forward and not looking backward.”

It seems obvious that he is traveling in circles. Mrs. Waziri ran a critical agency for years, during which Mr. Jonathan himself received public—including international—petitions about her.  How does preventing her from being probed serve the cause of transparency in Nigeria? 

During her tenure, Mrs. Waziri did not once fulfill the requirement imposed on her by the EFCC Act to file an annual report.  These are the simple provisions in our laws that are routinely violated because officials know that rather than challenge them, top government officials will say, “looking forward and not looking backward.” 

It is this kind of philosophy that is responsible for the collapse of entire wings of the government, such as we all now see in the security sector.  It is a shame when a police force as old as ours is running scared of Boko Haram, an outfit established only a few years ago. 

This philosophy is responsible for the mess in the power sector, where generator merchants and their sponsors are the only ones without a complaint despite our years of throwing billions of dollars at the problem; and in the transportation sector, where our roads are in ruins before construction is completed.  When a government speaks the language of contradictions, it is a signal to the crooks that caution is not necessary. 

Still, when a government speaks the language of contradictions, it certainly must be aware of the implications.  Jonathan seems to be unaware.  In Lokoja three weeks ago, he warned, "In the coming years, youths will revolt against any president or state government if we do not come up with policies that will create jobs.”

Actually, it is much worse than that.  That revolution may not wait for “in the coming years.”  That is because no government in our history has deliberately raised the hopes of Nigerians as much as Jonathan’s has done.   A part of the crisis is that Nigerian rulers have always counted on Nigerians to be docile and patient while they are being robbed.

And they count on Nigerians to be forgetful and forgiving while they pretend to be “looking forward and not looking backward.”

Nigerians must stand up and insist on being fully briefed by those who serve.  It is a patriotic duty to hold each servant accountable for his or her tenure.  The present is important, but there is no future if we let them persuade us to leave our past in their past. 

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