Anniversary without cymbals

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*Buhari

Ayo Olukotun

Nothing brought into focus the people-centred dimension of a vibrant democracy more than the rage and spontaneity of the ongoing protests in Minneapolis, United States. A couple of days back, George Floyd, a middle aged black man, had passed on as a result of a police officer putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly five minutes during which other policemen in the vicinity looked non-challantly on, ignoring the victim’s wails and anguished cries for help.

The firing of the offending and colluding policemen in the seemingly premeditated murder of Floyd had done little to appeal the outraged protesters who defied the ravages of coronavirus to register their displeasure. The point here is that a democracy without the demos (the people) is not a real one given that the people are the trustees and the sovereigns in whom resides the democratic essence. So, when Nigerian governors and presidents read speeches on Democracy Anniversary Day, which will henceforth, hold on June 12, there is no dialogue and there is no connecting thread with people outside of the captive audience of party loyalists, contractors and henchmen. This year, there would be no such ceremonies because of the coronavirus pandemic, but since it is exactly one year today that the Chief Executives of federal and state governments were sworn in, there is likely to be virtual anniversaries mediated by digital communication. It is worthwhile, therefore, to ask about what important changes, if any, have taken place at the federal or state level in the past 12 months, and in the context of Nigeria’s persisting governance woes. To be sure, the pandemic has taken the shine off any other serious governance endeavour, but it is obvious that even our responses to it are a function of earlier dysfunctions.

The repetitive character of our setbacks and lacuna is legendary, for example, on the eve of the swearing-in of the President and the governors, preoccupation was with insecurity symptomised by the Boko Haram challenge, rising banditry in several parts of the country, surge in kidnappings, among other bedevilling factors. A fortnight to last year’s May 29 ceremony, Emeritus Professor of History, Akinjide Osuntokun, had lamented, “to repeat Chinua Achebe, there was a country. Only God knows, what we have now, when major roads connecting our most important cities… are under the siege of kidnappers and terrorists and the North-East and North-West of our country are besieged by bandits” (The Nation, Thursday, May 16, 2019). What is the situation a year later? A frank assessment would reveal that little has changed as far as banditry, kidnappings, and attacks by herdsmen are concerned. Aside from the pandemic, insecurity of lives and property remains a front burner issue, illustrated by the fact or scandal of frightened citizens in the North-West going across the border, to Niger Republic, to pay the military for protection against bandits.

A week or so ago, a senior lecturer at the University of Jos was brutally murdered at the University Staff Quarters where he resided, by unknown gunmen. Round the bend, there have been sporadic or coordinated attacks in such states as Kaduna, Benue, Kogi, Zamfara, Delta, Sokoto, Katsina, Kaduna, Plateau among several others. That is why, when recently, our President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), instituted a military task force to clear the bandits in his home state, Katsina, several commentators observed that Katsina is perhaps only a worst case scenario of the spreading contagion of raging insecurity, recommending that special purpose institutions should be created across the entire spectrum of the North-West and the North-Central. Do you want to look at erratic power supply, where marginal increases have been quickly followed by downswings in the stability of power? On Wednesday, The PUNCH reported that 10 power plants are sitting idle, while power generation has fallen below 3,000 Megawatts. This, of course, is an old story, as this particular shortfall is not only endemic, but has become the defining albatross of our underdevelopment. According to one source, only six out of 10 Nigerians have household access to electricity, leaving almost 80 million others in the dark and in the lurch. Compared to Brazil which has roughly the same population as Nigeria, but generates over 100,000 Megawatts, our 3,000 Megawatts is dismal indeed. Hopefully, if and when the proposed deal with some German companies comes through, there might be some improvement in the power situation, which also defines several dimensions of economic underperformance and underdevelopment.

It is interesting that the Senate has opted to probe the N1.5 trillion spent by the Federal Government on the so-called intervention between 2013, when the privatisation of the sector commenced, and this year. Whatever the results of the probe are, it is obvious that the country cannot go on in this manner because time is not waiting for us to catch up with the rest of the world. Needless to say, and especially in the wake of the pandemic, that the economy has suffered a further dip, and is approaching another bout of recession. For example, inflation, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, is currently at a two-year high at 12.34%, while the spinoffs of COVID-19 are obvious in the areas of job losses, declining productivity and an upward cascade of our debt stock and debt servicing, which before the pandemic, were already extremely high. What we have, therefore, will appear to be a sinking deeper into crisis, the full implications which we cannot at the moment, compute.

Illustratively, it is estimated that, in the past six years, the public debt had sharply increased by 214.9%, while debt servicing had grown to over 60% of our independent revenue. Doubtless, all of these will impact on the capacity of government to translate its laudable poverty reduction programme of lifting 10 million people per year, out of poverty, into reality. If we take a look at the quality of life of Nigerians, as measured by the United Nations Human Development Index, we find a similarly sorry picture.

This columnist has written so much about the health sector that one is beginning to sound like a broken record. However, much of what was lamented became troubling and defining reality when the pandemic broke out suddenly and it now mattered what the quality of that sector was like, especially in view of the fact that our itinerant VIPs can no longer access overseas medical institutions. Would we learn the lesson that the pandemic is teaching, namely, that charity ought to begin at home? Time will tell but the omens are not very bright in this direction. Similarly afflicted is the education sector riddled with truncated calendars, broken infrastructure and myriad other problems which continue to downgrade it.

As we speak, it is not clear whether when the universities finally reopen, the strike of the academic and non-academic unions will not take over from where the pandemic has stopped. It is a pity that we allow issues to degenerate before we continue to seriously tackle them.

However frustrating things become, we must keep hope alive, drawing upon our famed ability to bounce back after every crisis, even if the bounce is getting smaller all the time. In this light, therefore, we hold out the hope that new opportunities can be created innovatively in a post COVID-19 Nigeria.

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