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Eating Our Ponmo Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow By Okey Ndibe

December 1, 2015

Occasionally it becomes one’s fortune to read a statement that so closely captures one’s thinking about an issue. When that happens, one is freed from the burden of finding one’s own words to articulate the issue in question.


That was the case last Sunday as I read an account in the online edition of the Punch newspaper of views expressed by the Emir of Kano and former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Muhammad Sanusi II. 

I have long held that Nigeria’s developmental crises are rooted in three cultural habits. One is the near-absence of imagination on the part of those whose duty it is to lead. I am willing to allow, should anybody insist on the point, that there’s the possibility that what we lack is not so much imagination as the readiness and stamina to translate the imagined into reality. 

The second malaise, closely related to the first, is the adoption by too many Nigerians of the culture of mediocrity and low expectations. At public forums (in such places, by the way, as the US, Britain, and Canada), I often encounter Nigerians who are eager to declare that one Nigerian governor or another (and sometimes the president) has “performed creditably.” When I challenge them to list the achievements of, say, a governor, these Nigerians respond with statements like, “He has built 200 kilometers of road” or “He gave a bus to all the secondary schools in the state.” Sometimes they would say, “He pays salaries no later than the 30th of each month.” 

I then ask them, “Would you have left Nigeria and relocated to, say, the US, if all the governor of the American state where you reside did was award contracts for the construction of 100 or so miles of substandard roads? Would you line up to campaign for an American governor who boasted the “huge” achievement of buying one computer for each of his state’s high schools? Or if the American governor’s signature accomplishment was to guarantee payment of state workers’ salaries?” 

Often, my interlocutor then warns me, “You should not compare Nigerian and American governors.” Astonished, I always retort that, counting salary, allowances, security vote and sundry kickbacks, what each Nigerian governor rakes up each month dwarfs the US president’s annual salary. Why, I ask, should we pay scandalously high salaries to our mediocrities, but hand them immunity from reasonable expectations?  

The third major cause of Nigeria’s developmental woes—and, perhaps, the most consequential—is our disposition to “eating” before we have ever worked. From the moment of Nigeria’s founding, the going metaphor and rhetoric have centered on eating. I don’t think we’d find in the archives of Nigerian discourse much discourse about “baking the national cake.” But check that library and you’re bound to find innumerable demands by various interest groups for “our share of the national cake.” 

To take a look at Nigeria is to see a carcass of a country, a space eaten to a comatose, pitiful state. Despite Sani Abacha’s fate—the spectacle of people drumming and dancing on the street at the news of their ruler’s death—Nigerian officials have nevertheless concerned themselves, in the main, with the mindless business of “eating” their country into hopelessness. 

The price of Nigeria’s pathology, culminating in an inordinate and depraved obsession with consumption, was brought home as I read the Punch last Sunday. As I noted at the outset of this essay, the Emir’s words so closely echo my sentiments that I must quote the report at length. 

According to the paper, the Emir “called on the Federal Government to address the challenges facing the sub-sectors of the Nigeria’s economy, as part of efforts to check the impact of the falling price of crude oil on the nation’s revenue.

“Sanusi, who made the call on Friday at a lecture to mark the 41st Convocation and Founder’s Day ceremonies of the University of Benin, Edo State, lamented that Nigeria had a ‘very simple’ problem with its economy which it found difficult to fix.

“This, he said, was responsible for the country’s continuous importation of economic goods and services which it already had in abundance.

“He said, ‘The way I look at Nigeria and the Nigerian economy is that we have a very simple problem and I do not know why it is just so difficult to fix it. Nigeria is just a series of broken value chains; a country that specializes in exporting what it does not have and importing what it has. This is Africa’s largest oil producer but the largest imports of Nigeria from the United Kingdom are petroleum products.

‘“We are the world’s largest producer of cassava; we don’t produce starch. We burn our gas every day; for a country of 167 million people, we are generating 4,000 megawatts of electricity. And if you want to know how far we have come, when Obasanjo left office, we were at 5,000 (megawatts). There was a target of getting to 6,000; after we spent several billions of dollars, we ended up moving from 6,000 to 3,000.

“‘We produce cotton, we import textiles. We have hides and skin, but we import shoes and bags from China. Not that we don’t kill the cattle. But what do we do with the leather? We eat ponmo. It is a delicacy; we consume our GDP.’

“Sanusi, who is also the Chancellor of the university, added, ‘We talk of diversifying the economy away from oil. We do not even need to diversify away from oil; you can diversify the oil itself, from exporting crude to producing refined PMS, refined kerosene, diesel, gas for power, gas for fertilizer, petrochemicals.

‘“Everywhere, we have got potential and if your economy is growing at six per cent with these value chains, imagine the rate at which you will go. And it is not a theory. Ethiopia has been growing at 11-12 per cent consistently for over a decade. They did just this: fixed their coffee value chain; leather value chain; power value chain and cement value chain and every year, they get new value chains and they keep growing. That is a model.’

“He, therefore, urged the Federal Government and Nigerian universities to focus their research on fixing Nigeria’s value chains, market the results and implement them to create a multiplying effect in order to improve the economy.” 

After reading the report, I couldn’t help being curious. Did the Emir of Kano ever push these proposals when he served as Central Bank Governor—and had the ears (to some degree, at least) of two presidents? Or did the ideas germinate in his mind only after he had left the public space?

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