In the last decade, billionaire Bill Gates is reputed to have funneled estimated $1.6b (Over N500b) of his own hard-earned fortune into humanitarian causes in Nigeria, especially immunization for kids against polio with a view to helping to end the nation’s shame as the world’s capital of the horrific yet preventable disease. Without being prompted, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would, for instance, pay off recently a $76m loan the Jonathan administration took from Japan in 2014 in the name of fighting polio with little or nothing to show for it.
But having just returned to his Seattle home in the United States after a week-long visit to the most populous black nation, it is doubtful if today the Microsoft founder might also not have given a serious thought to the urgency of helping to avail Nigeria a different sort of inoculation - for commonsense; and for the most unlikely demographic - the political leadership. As usual, Gates spent the better part of his latest visit to the country attending meetings and giving talks on how to improve the living condition of the Nigerian child in the company of a fellow billionaire philanthropist, Aliko Dangote.
Then, there was also an opportunity to briefly immerse in Nigeria’s accustomed feasting and jollification. As Dangote gave out his daughter Fatima in wedlock, Gates savored a front-row seat in the cultural extravaganza that echoed from Kano to Lagos last weekend.
But the most unforgettable must be his rather brusque encounter with Nigeria’s officials at the highest level in Abuja. Customarily, guests are permitted a few indulgences. But such hardly include the liberty to sample the hazardous dessert of telling uncomfortable truth, especially when the host happens to be generous in not just hospitality but most flattering in the citation heralding the visitor. Speaking last Thursday as special guest at an extra-ordinary session of the expanded National Economic Council, however, Gates chose to break that golden rule.
With the fervor of a fiery First Testament prophet, the American visitor spoke bitter truth to Aso Rock. A fetish had been made of the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan as the new silver bullet to lift the nation from poverty. But Gates did not see any power in the talisman being flaunted. Rather, he only saw the lame shuffle of an ant officially mistaken for tentative step of coming prosperity. Without spending on human capital, without spending more on education, without spending much more on quality healthcare, without seeking to keep birth rate on par with the development of social infrastructure, Gates declared that a nation is doomed to poverty. His verdict: “The Nigerian government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan identifies investing in the people as one of three strategic objectives.
“But the execution priorities don’t fully reflect the people’s needs, prioritizing physical capital over human capital. “People without roads, ports and factories can’t flourish. And roads, ports and factories without skilled workers to build and manage them can’t sustain an economy.” But expressing the optimism that Nigeria can still join the league of nations with upper middle income like China, Brazil and Mexico given her abundant resources including huge population, the American billionaire stressed that such quantum leap depends on the choices the political leadership makes -namely reordering national priorities.
Overall, Gates’ prognosis is hardly new, though. It does not require extra intelligence to know that a nation that spends more than seventy percent of its earning on recurrent subhead and consumption generally is merely seeking to perpetuate the dynasty of penury.
What must have confounded Gates and any right-thinking particularly is the nearly rude official reaction to what should ordinarily be taken as home-truth from a man who, by personal deeds and humongous financial commitment, has demonstrated more than unconditional love for Nigeria in the past decade.
Whereas VP Yemi Osinbajo was, as usual, unfailingly nuanced and took pains to explain in his response that they were already aware of some of the fears expressed by Gates, not so with the voluble Kaduna governor, Nasir “The Bulldozer” El-Rufai, who seems never willing to allow any “slight” pass unavenged, however negligible. It was as if someone had waved a red flag before a raging bull again. Even in the face of implicating statistics, El-Rufai’s response was short of branding Gates a liar: “(I)t is not correct to say that the economic recovery and growth plan does not give primacy to human capital, it is not correct.”
But note: the issue is not promise, but delivery.
Sentiments expressed by his Ebonyi counterpart, David Umahi, was not markedly different. But perhaps, the real shame is that Umahi still chose to deny Gates’ truth on the same day the national media was awash with the chilling story of an Ebonyi mother, Mrs. Veronica Igwe, who allegedly gave her four-year- old daughter, Uloma, to a trader, Mrs. Josephine Nwali, in lieu of a N100 debt. Following a tip-off, officials of the state Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, had tracked the latter to the campus of the Ebonyi State University, Abakaliki. Lo and behold, they found little Uloma and another seven-year- old boy already deployed in street hawking.
Of course, the likes of Uloma are conveniently never captured in the miracle fables Nigerian officials like to retail in propagation of false prosperity, counterfeit progress.
As if on cue, some of our ministers would also suddenly switch to the defensive mode as if Gates’ critique was personal. The minister of Budget and National Planning has since flooded the airwaves with fabulous budget figures that give the impression of a commitment to raise expenditure in education and healthcare in the past three years.
But, as they say, the devil is often in the details. Budget is mere declaration of intent to spend. It would have made more sense if we were shown proofs that funds eventually released matched the promise. There is another undeclared truth: recurrent subhead is prioritized in the face of shortfall in expected revenue. Even when capital projects are executed at all, the costs are often mindlessly inflated, leaving the people doubly short-changed. Well, with abundant proof of contagious delusion in high places, maybe Gates’s vaccine for common sense may not be a bad idea after all.
Ogoni: Prison and cemetery as federal amenities
The proclivity of the Nigerian state to deny and dehumanize the minority ethnic nationalities is again playing out in oil-rich Ogoniland, Rivers State. Following decades of environmental degradation occasioned by relentless oil exploration, Nigeria had acquiesced to a recommendation by the United Nation for a holistic rehabilitation, if only to preserve the humanity there. So, amid song and dance in 2016, the Federal Government flagged off the implementation of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). Then, a high-powered panel was named, though not empowered to work.
Twenty-one months later, Ogoni people have become restive on account of the inaction. Life has continued to be miserable and aquatic vocation unthinkable. With an eye now obviously on the next election and the other on the vast oil still buried in Ogoni soil (the exploitation of which the oil majors are just too eager to resume), Abuja thought up a way out. Without evincing the slightest pang of conscience, Abuja now wants to give the people prison and cemetery instead.
It sounds like a crude plagiarism of OBJ’s own playbook at a time. In response to repeated lamentations of “federal neglect” by Imo leaders at a town-hall meeting while on official visit to Owerri sometime in 2002, then President Obasanjo cynically punctured such claims, citing Owerri prisons for instance as “federal presence”.
With a straight face, he reckoned that the only federal amenity his own native Ogun State could perhaps be said to enjoy above Imo was - wait for it - Aro Psychiatric Home. He therefore asked the now dazed audience that day (including Governor Achike Udenwa) whether they would fancy a replica in Owerri, in the spirit of equity.
Today, the symbolism of the offer of prison and cemetery as substitute for more economically impactful amenities should not be lost on Ogoni people. It is perhaps to remind them of two stark options available. One, Abuja’s commitment to, at least, provide ample store for the remains of those broken by the scorched earth policy underlining the mindless oil exploitation. Second is the assurance of a holding facility for resident “trouble-makers” who might wish to lend themselves to temptation to disrupt the operation of the prevailing architecture of state plunder.
Abuja’s lip service to the Ogoni clean-up has, in turn, provided a perfect excuse for the conniving Shell and other joint-venture partners to withhold the agreed $1b counterpart fund for UNEP implementation. Expectedly, Abuja would blame the inertial on cash crunch, even though oil receipt mined from Ogoniland and other blighted provinces in the Niger Delta accounts for more than 80 percent of the nation’s gross earning. But, of course, there is money to build a fancy rail that stretches from Katsina into Niger Republic and co-fund the construction of a new refinery in same Niger Republic.
Truly, equity has a new meaning.