So much has happened in our country in the past one week that speak to the challenges confronting us after 59 years of independence. Last Thursday, following a police raid, as many as 300 boys were rescued from an Islamic Centre in Kaduna State. Many of the victims said they had been sexually molested and almost all were starved. Some, with fresh injuries on their bodies, had metal chains around their ankles. While that tragedy was still playing out, police in Lagos uncovered a ‘baby factory’ with 19 pregnant girls in the Ikotun area of the state. We have heard heart-rending stories from these girls as to how they were impregnated and weaned of their babies who were then sold like merchandise by unscrupulous Nigerians.
From politics to the economy to the not-so-subtle attempt to muscle dissent with ‘treason’ trials and disobedience of court orders, there has been no dull moment in Nigeria in the last seven days. Tuesday’s 59th independence anniversary also came with the usual recriminations and lamentations about what might have been. But no issue has generated as much national conversation as the disqualification from the current edition of ‘Big Brother Naija’ of a young woman, Tacha. The boisterous overreaction of her fans has been countered by the desperation of those who, because they follow other housemates, endorsed her controversial ejection. There is even an interesting aside to the drama: a famous musician named Peter had promised to give the lady N60 million in the event she did not win the grand prize but began to ‘edit’ his pledge the moment she lost out, leading to a reminder by commentators that even an apostle called Peter thrice denied Jesus!
I don’t watch ‘Big Brother’ but it is difficult to escape what is going on there, even for those of us whose social media exposure is limited to Twitter. In any case, whether or not you watch ‘Big Brother’, given how hooked many Nigerians are to the reality show, ‘Big Brother’ is watching you! At salons, in hotel lobbies, inside the markets, in MDA offices, there is no way you would not come across people glued to their television sets, arguing about how Khafi allegedly ‘slept’ with Gedoni, almost as if they were under their bedsheet taking notes! By the way, the moment of madness that sent Tacha out of the ‘BB Naija’ house is not enough to justify the social media hysteria and the body shaming is most disgraceful. Besides, if the clip I watched was indeed responsible for her disqualification, I see no reason why the female housemate with whom she had an altercation should remain in the house.
Big Brother, football (and I plead guilty here) etc. have become means of escape for many Nigerians. But if we are ever to develop as a society, we must confront our demons. Yes, these pastimes are for entertainment and they are good business for a lot of people (my brother, Ebuka Obi-Uchendu will soon buy his Private Jet). But they do not shield us from the reality of our existence. That is why we can easily connect both the tragedy of Kaduna’s shackled boys to the enslaved girls in Lagos who were hired to produce babies for sale.
I watched Channels Television news last Sunday night and was shocked by the rationalisation of a man who had three children inside the Kaduna horror house. He claimed having more than 40 children and said a bag of rice lasts no more than five days in his house. For that reason, he needed to ‘offload’ some of these children to wherever he could, not only for survival but also for correctional duties. Sadly, we have thousands of such irresponsible fathers across the country today.
That we should have a conversation on this issue is more urgent than ever before. We need voices like that of the Emir of Anka in Zamfara, Alhaji Attahiru Ahmed, who recently cautioned low income earners against marrying more than one wife. “Civil servants on a salary of N15,000 a month marry more than one wife and end up raising families they cannot cater for. It is this attitude that is responsible for increasing out-of-school children because the parents cannot shoulder the responsibility. People should marry in accordance with their earnings to ensure that their children have sound education and good moral background,” the emir counselled.
Incidentally, the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, had in 2017 advocated the same thing before his voice was drowned out. Men who are not capable of maintaining one wife, yet marrying four, according to Sanusi, most often end up with many children that become a nuisance to themselves and the larger society. While no scientific study has been conducted on the issue, most of us are aware that it is the poor and largely illiterate segments of our population that account for the majority of children who have been left to roam the streets without much prospect in life.
In the interventions I did on the immigration policies of western countries in the past, I used the 1974 controversial book, “Life Boat Ethics: The Case Against Helping The Poor” by Garrett Hardin to explain the current situation. The central argument in his thesis is population control. If we divide the world crudely into rich nations and poor nations, Hardin argued, two thirds of them are desperately poor, and only one third comparatively rich. “In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in, or at least to share some of the wealth. What should the lifeboat passengers do?” he asked.
This was the way Hardin answered his own question: “So here we sit, say 50 people in our lifeboat. To be generous, let us assume it has room for 10 more, making a total capacity of 60. Suppose the 50 of us in the lifeboat see 100 others swimming in the water outside, begging for admission to our boat or for handouts. We have several options: we may be tempted to try to live by the Christian ideal of being ‘our brother’s keeper,’ or by the Marxist ideal of ‘to each according to his needs.’ Since the needs of all in the water are the same, and since they can all be seen as ‘our brothers,’ we could take them all into our boat, making a total of 150 in a boat designed for 60. The boat swamps, everyone drowns. Complete justice, complete catastrophe.”
After examining different scenarios, Hardin now hit at the problem: “The harsh ethics of the lifeboat become harsher when we consider the reproductive differences between rich and poor. A wise and competent government saves out of the production of the good years in anticipation of bad years to come. Joseph taught this policy to Pharaoh in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago. Yet the great majority of the governments in the world today do not follow such a policy. They lack either the wisdom or the competence, or both. On the average poor countries undergo a 2.5 percent increase in population each year; rich countries, about 0.8 percent. Because of the higher rate of population growth in the poor countries of the world, 88 percent of today’s children are born poor, and only 12 percent rich. Year by year the ratio becomes worse, as the fast-reproducing poor outnumber the slow-reproducing rich…”
It is instructive that our 59th independence anniversary coincided with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Looking at the trajectory of the two countries, it is important for us to understand some of the things that make a difference. According to the United Nations projections, Nigeria is among the countries with the highest yearly change in population. With an annual growth rate of 2.6 percent, we are in the same league as countries like Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Mali, Congo, Chad, Cameroon, Western Sahara etc. Yet we want to compete with countries like China that have an annual population growth rate of 0.6 percent and Singapore with 0.1 percent rate despite their levels of development.
Even in the world of make-believe, there are forces that nudge fate in the right direction and we can learn that from ‘Big Brother Naija’. From what I have read about the opinion polls conducted in the days preceding her disqualification, Tacha was by far the most popular housemate among watchers of the programme which then put her in a pole position to win the grand prize. However, while her popularity and huge following demonstrated how fickle our society is—despite what was generally regarded as toxic behaviour in the house—the real promoters of Big Brother (in Johannesburg) may have decided that allowing Tacha to win could degrade their brand. So, she may just have played into the hands of some smart gods with the fight that provided a ready excuse for what appears a strategic decision to eliminate her from the contest.
As a nation we need to borrow from rule books that leave no room for sentiment in crucial matters. Our demographic time bomb is one that deserves serious consideration by critical stakeholders in the country. Not only is our population growing at a rate that far outstrips our resources and productivity, we are not making any plans for tomorrow. On Tuesday, the 2019 edition of Pastor Poju Oyemade-inspired ‘Platform Nigeria’ held in Lagos with respected economists, including former CBN Governor, Prof Chukwuma Soludo and Financial Derivatives Limited CEO, Mr Bismarck Rewane, as speakers. While they dissected our mismanaged opportunities and proffered several solutions, nobody spoke to the over-bloated population that is at the heart of the current challenge.
At independence in 1960, the population of Nigeria was 45.14 million people while that of the United Kingdom was 52.37 million. On Monday, the population of UK was estimated at 67.6 million and that of Nigeria, 200.9 million. Since we like to delude ourselves, the usual claim is that we are a rich country where once we ‘fight corruption’, all our problems will be solved. The reality of course is that no matter what structural or constitutional changes we make, if the low income earners of our society continue to produce babies they have neither the willingness nor capacity to take care of, nothing will change.
Having allowed the majority of our people to remain chained to cultural values and belief systems that promote irresponsible procreation, we now have a huge but largely unproductive population on our hands. If we are to develop as a society, we need an enforceable population policy that is tied to incentives as it is done in several countries. But we cannot continue to pretend that the current trend is sustainable.
As the World Bank said recently, we are simply living on borrowed time!
The AIG idea for public sector
The recent confirmation of the former Executive Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service of Nigeria (FIRS), Mrs. Ifueko Omoigui Okauru as the 2019-2020 Africa Initiative for Governance (AIG) Visiting Fellow of Practice at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, was one of the easiest decisions taken by the Advisory Board. The annual Fellowship is awarded to an individual from either Nigeria or Ghana who has demonstrated evidence of outstanding contribution to public good, through exemplary leadership.
Omoigui Okauru comes highly recommended as a public official who does her job with professionalism and integrity and that stood her out in the course of the selection process led by our Advisory Board Chairman, former President Olusegun Obasanjo. “Our partnership with AIG continues to bring inspiring individuals to the Blavatnik School and to the wider Oxford community,” said Professor Ngaire Woods, Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government, in accepting the recommendation. “We look forward to welcoming Mrs Okauru as the new AIG Fellow, and to learning from her invaluable experience of reforming and increasing the capacity of Nigeria’s tax authority.”
Past recipients of the AIG Fellowship are former Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega and the immediate past (and first female) Chief Justice of Ghana, Justice (Mrs) Georgina Wood. “AIG Fellows are selected on the basis that they have a record of professional excellence in public service,” said Mr Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, AIG founder and chairman, who added: “Our Fellowships are not just a reward for good service; they provide an opportunity for Fellows to think through the work they have done and to use the knowledge they gain at the Blavatnik School to explore other ways of adding value to public service in West Africa”.
Mrs. Okauru currently serves on the boards of several reputable public and private organisations in several states in the country. During her time at the Blavatnik School, she is expected to serve as a mentor to the AIG Scholars at Oxford and to deliver a public lecture at the University. “The AIG Fellowship is, first of all, recognition of one’s work and the need for that work to be replicated,” said Mrs Okauru, “It is also a challenge to continue building on what one has done in the past, examine what others elsewhere have done and, ultimately, to be part of a coalition of people who develop solutions which will change the African continent in a meaningful, practical way”.
It has been exciting serving on the AIG Advisory Board alongside Dr Enase Okonedo, Dean of the Lagos Business School (LBS); Alhaji Abubakar Mahmoud, SAN, former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA); Mrs Yemisi Ayeni, a former finance director of the Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company; Mr Ken Ofori-Atta, the Finance Minister of Ghana and Mr Ernest Ebi, Chairman of Fidelity Bank Plc and a former CBN Deputy-Governor. Even with former President Obasanjo as our chairman, the driving force has been Aig-Imoukhuede, the founder and promoter who remains a study in tenacity.
Taking up the goal to reform Nigeria’s public service by providing scholarships for some brilliant and career-driven young men and women as well as Fellowships for accomplished professionals is no doubt noble. However, to expect that you can create a tiny pool that would serve as a catalyst for change in a vast sea of rot is a big ask. But Aig-Imoukhuede is always looking at the positives. If we give in to discouragement, he keeps emphasising at every of our meetings, that can only hamper vision and the attainment of goal. Rather, he argues that we should target incremental change. “It doesn’t matter if the big change we envisage does not happen in our lifetimes, what is important is for us to set the process in motion.”
That precisely is what Aig-Imoukhuede has been doing. Every year since 2017, AIG has awarded fully funded Scholarships to no fewer than five young, outstanding men and women from all backgrounds who are passionate about the public sector, to pursue the Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government. After their study at Oxford, it is expected of every AIG Scholar to return to their home country and apply their learning experience in the public sector. The 2019/2020 AIG Scholarship recipients are Babafemi Adebola (Nigeria), Onyekachukwu Erobu (Nigeria), Nasir Mohammed (Nigeria), Kwame Sarpong (Ghana) and Hakeem Onasanya (Nigeria).
If there is any joy I derive from the annual selection process (which involves round-robin interviews and informal interactions with the prequalified candidates), it is the fact that we have several brilliant young men and women in Nigeria who are passionate about making a difference in the public sector. “I felt an overwhelming sense of joy and relief to have met the exceptionally high standards set by AIG for the prestigious Scholarship”, said Nasir Mohammed, a Mechanical Engineering graduate of King’s College, London and a member of the 2019 cohorts. “Being selected as an AIG Scholar is a vote of confidence in my latent abilities which I intend to nurture during my time at the Blavatnik School, in preparation for my contribution to public service. I intend to use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop myself both personally and professionally,” he added.
To develop as a nation, we must improve on the human capital in the public service. Yet, as Aig-Imoukhuede is wont to argue, the value that a public servant provides, through their knowledge and skills, is dependent on the level of investment you make on them. It would appear from our experience that Ghana appreciates this point better than Nigeria, given the way their authorities have embraced the scheme. The AIG Scholarship, according to Sarpong, one the recipients from Ghana for the current session who holds degrees in Administration and Law, “is a stamp of recognition of my academic abilities and leadership potential, which not only humbles me, but also spurs me to do more for the benefit of humanity.”
Despite all the challenges, the disposition of Aig-Imoukhuede reminds me of a story I once shared in one of my ‘Platform Nigeria’ lectures of a young girl who was walking with her parents along a beach upon which thousands of fish had been washed up after a terrible storm. When she came to each fish, the girl would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. Her parents and all the people watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You cannot save all these fishes. What you are doing won’t make a difference!”
For a while, the girl kept quiet, thoroughly deflated. But in her innocence, after a few moment, she bent down, picked up another fish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man with a smile of satisfaction and said, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”
That is the spirit with which Aig-Imoukhuede nurtures AIG. To change this society, that precisely is the attitude we need.