Lecture by Mallam Nuhu Ribadu at the 13th Professor Wole Soyinka Lecture held at the Shell Hall, MUSON CENTRE, Onikan, Lagos on Tuesday 20th July, 2010.
Good afternoon friends and compatriots. It is with the deepest gratitude that I stand here with the privilege of giving the 13th Professor Wole Soyinka Lectures.
The great man in whose honour we gather to do this today clocked 76 a week ago, but the true insurgent that we have in him forbids the pleasure of celebrating his birthday in any outward way. In retribution, therefore, I propose that we flip the significance of the day to interrogate our dear Kongi on the reason why his presumed ‘Renaissance’ generation tragically ended up as the “wasted generation.”
The National Association of Seadogs [NAS] asked that I speak on Nigeria@50: The Crisis of Nationhood. I believe there is already some consensus regarding our diagnosis of this problem. The much respected elder statesman, Christopher Kolade, summed it up for us the other day, with respect to the debate on how much the current administration is proposing to spend for the 50th anniversary celebration. Chillingly, he said:
“I have read in the papers that the country might be celebrating its 50 years of independence this year and that we might be spending N10bn on that. For those of us that are more than 50 years, if we think about what we had in place 50?years ago, then we shall be celebrating 50 years of decline.”
Let us be frank about it, the prospects of our failure in this nation-building enterprise had been visible so early in the day, and had been the subject of endless journalistic commentaries and literary texts. It was such that a mystery handsome and idealistic youngster in Ibadan, presumably armed with a gun, back in October 1965, seized a radio station, stopping it from announcing a forged election result. Although a competent court of law cleared him of any wrong doing, if that young man is in our midst today let him stand up for recognition!
Yes let us admit that he is our father, our friend from whom we learnt rebellion. But he is also the man who taught us how to build institutions. Ladies and gentlemen, kindly clap for him and say a hearty thank you. Ese gan ni ooo
THE NATIONAL QUESTION YET AGAIN:
Nations are like living organisms. If they are nourished with a diseased breast, the result varies in the dimensions of birth defects, but just as in science so it is in nation building; you cannot plant cassava and hope to reap cocoyam.
Nigeria’s failing scores often lead many of our compatriots, out of frustration, to seek comfort in some absurd resolution like the balkanization of our nation. However, for all their imperfections, some nations at the brink of a rupture have been able to survive on account of dogged will for collective redemption and with the opportunity of an imaginative leadership.
Fellow compatriots, leadership matters a lot to the health and progress of every social institution or community. Let me illustrate this point with the examples of two African nations both in the Eastern region: Tanzania and Somalia.
Think first of the complexity of Tanzania in terms of its ethic diversity of about 175 ethnic groups and religious pluralism – a good balance between Christians and muslims. Not to idealize the country, and in spite of the usual strains and pains of nation building, is it not surprising to us that it remains the most stable and peaceful land in that region?
Think, on the other hand, of Somalia, with its homogeneity in ethnic and religious experience– one people, one religion, one language. What has become of it? Somalia is today the poster child of the very example of a veritable failed, and rogue state. Part of the explanatory index for this is the type of leadership that both nations had at different phases of its history. The simple example from the world of fashion teaches us that sometimes the shoe doesn’t quite fit well. It will be foul logic however to trim the foot to accommodate the legs. Nations are ultimately works in progress, and the challenge we face is to confront the problems honestly and courageously rather than sweep them under the carpet.
Thus, at this proper beacon of a jubilee anniversary, I want to strongly challenge fellow compatriots, in this hall and outside it, to make a pledge of honor on how to give our federal experiment and our democracy a makeover that is mediated by equity, rule of law, and, a transparent sense of justice, and above all, a sincere commitment to build a modern multicultural Nigeria.
The boundless energies of our people, the enviable spirit of our youth, and the lush resources of our environment all lay in waste and abuse, increasing our common embarrassment to see what we are offering the nation, the continent, and humanity as the product of labor from the largest black nation on the planet.
A nation that produced the likes of Chinua Achebe, Oladele Awojobi, Chike Obi, Bala Usman, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and Murtala Mohammed cannot agonise for lack of models. A nation at that also threw up the examples of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Oby Ezekwesili, Sefi Atta, and Adichi Chimamanda cannot be said to be deficient in super brands. Above all however, the nation that produced the towering presence of Wole Soyinka will lose a rational argument if it pleads the absence of heroes as the basis of the failure of Africa’s largest state.
What we confront from all these examples is that something structural went wrong, but with the power of thought, analysis, and appropriate action we can undo the wrongs and get the train back on track. I strongly believe that Nigeria’s greatness is buried in the fact that it can be made an asset that works for us all still. That, indeed, is the challenge and the task ahead from this point on.
YOUTH POWER IS THE AGENDA:
Dear compatriots, fifty years of our federalism and less of our democracy pose the challenge of what can be an endless rite of passage, if a new vision is not allowed to take over our political space. The experience of our elders can provide the source-spring and template for our new trajectory, but let us say it bold and clear here today that young Nigerians must take the responsibility and accountability for leadership of this great nation from now on.
From industry, through civil society, to the world of research and development, towards the important crucible of leadership, politics, and management of development, I call on fellow young Nigerians today to bury the preoccupation with anger, cynicism, and inertia and move in the direction of taking control of the destiny of our nation.
Children of Independence, fellow Nigerians, let us take our nation back today and save it from sliding irreversibly into chaos and disintegration. It may be a difficult job; it may even require sacrifice of material and emotional resources on the part of those who choose to join the train of change, but it is the most rewarding and glorious calling to save our nation from further decline.
Let us strap our boots and roll up our sleeves. The time is now, no other time will be right. The work to remake Nigerian federalism and its democracy for the benefit of the majority of our people is not in air-conditioned offices, not in the long stretched limousines, the private jets, or the pent houses on foreign beaches that house the property acquired with resources appropriated by a few of us from our common wealth.
The important work to rebuild Nigeria then requires that we set our gauge beyond the sky, we have the grace of a needful tailwind to coast us home—it is the boundless energy of our people and the indomitable spirit of our youths. Look across the world, just see what wonders Nigerians, many of them young men and women, are doing in the management of institutions and initiatives. Why is this difficult to replicate at home?
The challenge for our youth today must however proceed with humility and gratitude to the labours of some of our forebears that mean well for this country. Few men in our history epitomize that sense of investment to community than Professor Soyinka. His life work either as an artiste or public intellectual, or even community activist, has been defined by unstinted sense of integrity, selflessness, and excellence.
I call on us all here today, and the younger generation in particular, to thank him for all he has done for our country, and for always being our conscience and missioner for truth and justice, but for which he has suffered exile, death threats, and wanton abuse. An appreciative nation, and a grateful community salute your epic virtues, and your humanity today as always sir. Here, truly is one god that made a pantheon. Please live long, not only for your family but also for a country that is just about to embark on the true path of progress, peace, and development.
Yet the irony of a man like Soyinka as indeed of all the heroes we are so quick to advertise is that they pose a sharp antithesis to the social environment we live in today and from which we hope to compete in the global market place.
AIMING AT GLOBAL COMPETENCE:
Here was a product of public education all through his early years, who went ahead to climb to the very peak of global excellence in his chosen field. Contrast that to the product of our new academic environment where over 80% of secondary school students are unable to pass their secondary school exit examinations. In both the last WAEC and NECO examinations, less than 15% of candidates obtained grades that can make them eligible for admission to tertiary institutions: universities, polytechnics, and colleges of education.
Only last year, our Federal Minister of Education said publicly that over 80% of our graduates are unemployable in a merit-based market. And many of our leaders are acting as if things are okay with the country. How can things be okay with a country that is in danger of losing the contribution of its most productive generations, those below 35 years of age!
I said it above already; we have a lot of the diagnosis. What is needed now is the right policy thrust to reverse this dreadful situation. Our goal in the education as well as in the economic and political sector is to create capabilities with global competence. This is how to remake our nation, and provide regional leadership, and global competitiveness. It cannot be any less.
My own direct experience as a member of our nation’s economic management team assures me that this can be done with dedication and hard work. Most of us here will recall that this nation once had an impressive economic record indexed by significant growths in banking, capital market, and in the telecommunication sectors among other examples.
Thankfully, the case of the four kidnapped journalists has finally come to a happy resolution. After a week of ordeal, they have all returned home to loved families while the nation too is nudged to the contemplation of just how pitiable our law enforcement mechanisms have become. Corruption and leadership have been the bridge in the differentiation of performance between our law enforcement men and women who travel abroad on many international missions and return with praises and laurels, with their under-equipped and underperforming peers at home.
Lacking the effective tools, and the right motivation to excel, our local security agencies find themselves outflanked in the battle to make us and our assets secure. The strategy to renew the security and law enforcement sector does not require the knowledge of rocket science. We need to privilege the process that rewards and empowers competent, courageous, accountable and capable leaders in the security and law enforcement sector in the full knowledge that a democracy that cannot secure lives and property will ultimately fail to defend itself.
A NATIONAL SHAME:
Nowhere is the shame of our nation more visible than in the Niger Delta. To say this is not to claim that the other regions have been symbols of excellence but the burden we face as a nation is the lack of gratitude to the region that produces the bulk of our wealth. Yet here again, corruption has made it difficult for the country to give adequate protection to its only source of revenue: petroleum and gas. Through a failure so shocking in its magnitude, we have abused the people of the Niger Delta so badly that it seems to rank among the world’s highest index of abuse in the literature of social and economic rights.
Our country’s reliance on petroleum is worsened by the intellectual lethargy and moral depravity of political leaders who see the Niger Delta region, the core of the country’s mono economy, as a site of exploitation. Rather than using revenue from petroleum to develop the country’s infrastructure and prepare the country for industrialization, political leaders in the last thirty years have converted such revenue to sources of easy personal wealth, through graft or undeserved compensation for political office holders, and rent seekers. The result is that today, Nigeria has one of the lowest per capital income in the world. Nigeria has more hours of darkness than any other country on earth because of our failure in 50 years to achieve energy security for our factories and our homes.
In addition, we make no serious pitch at true development without the right and adequate investments in growing the economy. I have always believed that to have an economy that depends solely on oil and gas is a sign of lack of economic imagination and ambition. It is a sign of mental laziness. We must mobilize and encourage our citizens to produce wealth. It is also the responsibility of the government to ensure that distribution of such wealth that comes into government coffers through taxation takes into consideration the need to ensure that no citizen is made to lose his or her humanity and dignity on account of neglect at their moment of utmost need for support from the government.
For this reason, the creation of more and more wealth is a central challenge before my generation and those younger than I am in the audience. We need only look at emerging economies like China and Brazil to pick the lessons well.
However, the government must ensure that regulations that can nurture positive competition are established and implemented to the letter. The era of big, indolent and irresponsible governments will be over. The culture of using government to create illegal wealth for unscrupulous politicians will come to an end the day we are already to see these priorities in their stark reality.
For the kind of progress and modern society I propose here, the private sector is a key actor at the driving seat and it can reduce the burden of governance by creating jobs for citizens, providing life and health insurance for employees, and providing a bigger revenue base for government to have additional resources to improve infrastructure for all.
But a regime of regulatory capture that has made even the private sector sometimes a mechanism of abuse of citizens’ rights must be strengthened. Proper regulation must ensure that citizens enjoy the true worth of their taxes, and to ensure that the proper interest of the producer and the consumer are catered for. What young people, but particularly the civil society, can ensure now is to come to the table with their own experiences, and power of advocacy to demand for a very strong, transparent, and effective regulation across the board.
Before I conclude this lecture, let me quickly touch on the urgent need for infrastructure renewal. All laws that inhibit states and local governments from engaging in infrastructure development from railway to electricity and aviation ought to head for the garbage dump. What Nigeria needs today is to aggressively support the model of public-private partnership to solve the country’s electricity and other infrastructure deficits.
While it is a correct argument that we need legislations now to reform the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity, such reforms must be targeted at the flowering of the spirit of entrepreneurship to guide this strategic sector. Even where the government enters into partnership with private producers of electricity, the government should peg its ownership at no more than 25% of such investment as in any of the Public –Private Initiatives.
Energy security will define what kind of future we seek. We must come to terms therefore that it is counterproductive in the 21st century to leave the energy sector solely in the hands of government. But production of energy for us today must embrace all forms of energy production: bio-fuel, coal, gas, hydro, nuclear, solar, and wind. This point cannot be overemphasized. It is a matter of topmost national security consideration to get the energy sector on high salvo because the future of industry, services, and job creation will amount to a pipe dream if this is not promptly addressed.
But our development will lack the right spirit and the effective vision without a special programme that mainstreams gender into all the neural paths of the new vision of opportunity we must create to break with the past. Societies that have made appreciable development are those that have given special consideration to cogent demands of women, especially of maternal health, children and family progress.
The Nigeria which the young generation must invest in today must demonstrate a robust political will and commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment; it must also improve women’s participation in politics and decision-making; invest in women’s economic empowerment and livelihoods; and above all, value women’s health, security and safety. All these are however possible only if we demonstrate principled transformational leadership in all spheres of our engagement.
Where we are going, dear compatriots, is farther than where we are coming from. I feel a great sense of optimism in spite of the obstacles. That is the power of youth. This nation has had its great and low moments, but that is true of all lands in the world. The energy to draw now from those great moments and are embedded in our youth, it is demonstrated in the feat we accomplish when we do great deeds, and score remarkable goals at home and abroad.
Dear compatriots, we do not have the time any longer. The world is not waiting for us, we have the stuff to win, we need to hit the road running, today, we got the momentum, the pains of past failures can no longer become the inspiration or impetus for going forward.
Let us harness the plutonium power of youth to march forward and define excellence as the standard of building a society. We can do it, we can win, we shall win. That is the metaphor embedded in the life and story of this irresistible rebel, we are soldiers of Kongi, we cannot fail, not again. Thank you all, God Bless this country.
Photo by Lamidi Bamidele (Courtesy: http://community.vanguardngr.com)