The Triumph of Mediocrity in Nigeria, By Femi Aribisala
Some years ago, I visited Angola. On a sight-seeing tour around Luanda, my guide took me to an area of the city where the powers-that-be lived. The houses were obviously more elegant than those in other areas. The streets were tarred and the gardens manicured. He then said something that caught my attention. He said: “There are no power-cuts in this part of the city.”
For some reason what came immediately to my mind was that Nigeria is an egalitarian country. Don’t ask me to justify this questionable distinction, but I thought: “There are no parts of Lagos where there are no power-cuts.” All Nigerians enjoy power-cuts. Even the powerful are not denied this benefit.
While that might suggest there is little discrimination between the rich and the poor in Nigeria, it is not intended here as a compliment. It means we have not been able to define exclusion zones to power-cuts. Let me put it this way: Nigeria seems to be currently incapable of identifying an area, city or region where there would be no power-cuts for whatever reason. Years back, there were power-cuts in the middle of the African Cup final football match between Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
Given our current romance with power-cuts, is it possible for Nigeria to define an area of excellence with regard to something as basic as electricity?
The President of Nigeria is the patron of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. In that capacity, he gives an annual speech on the state of Nigeria’s foreign policy under the auspices of the Institute. I recall one of those speeches when General Babangida was Head of State. The venue was the National Arts Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos. In the middle of the president’s speech, there was a power-cut that lasted thirty minutes.
The back-up generator failed to come on. Everyone remained there in the dark in silence, waiting for the light to come back on. The security implications were not lost on me. Given Nigeria’s checkered history, there might have been a coup d’état at that very minute and the president could have been attacked.
My problem with that incident lies in our inability to guarantee electricity even when the president of the country is giving a major speech. In other countries, heads would roll for such a blunder. In Nigeria, it is par for the course. We are not bothered because power-cuts are “democratized.” Nobody is excluded. Today, I bet there are power-cuts even in Aso Rock. The only thing will be that standby-generators are turned on when they occur.
Nigeria is a country of mediocrities. Anybody can be anybody in Nigeria. A carpenter can be appointed as Minister of Health. A doctor can become the Minister of Mines and Power. Qualifications matter little. It is “Turn-by-turn Nigeria Limited.”
An indolent man wakes up in the morning, has a long stretch and then comes to a sudden decision: “I am going to run to be President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” Two weeks later, he is interviewed about his candidature in one of the country’s major newspapers, after having given a bulging brown envelope to a strategically-placed journalist.
Does anyone really believe this nincompoop has a chance of becoming president of Nigeria? Yes, indeed! In Nigeria, all things are possible. Even a blind man can become the goal-keeper of the Super Eagles. Nigeria is a democratic country in a truly Nigerian sense of the word. Just about anybody can be president of the country.
Chris Okotie was a musician. Then he morphed overnight into a pastor. From there, he received a divine call to run for president of Nigeria. Nobody seemed to be bothered by this. Nobody laughed at his presumptiveness. He filled the newspapers with adverts proclaiming his divinely ordained candidature. He never thought it necessary to start off by running as a local government chairman.
He overlooked his state legislature. He refused to consider running for membership of the Federal House of Assembly. He considered the Senate to be beneath his aspirations. He clearly felt running as the Governor of his state would not cut it. In Nigeria, experience is irrelevant. Presidents don’t get much done anyway. Therefore, the first choice of a political neophyte by name of Chris Okotie was to run as president. Presumably, as president, he would run the country by prayer and fasting.
Nigeria is a country where true presidential materials never get to be presidents. Many are celebrated in death as the best presidents Nigeria never had. On the contrary, we have many examples of men who glory at becoming presidents unexpectedly, without plan or purpose.
Obasanjo became president and claimed: “Not My Will.” Shagari became president when all he wanted was to be a Senator. Goodluck Jonathan became president essentially as a result of his good luck. Buhari became president, but has no presidential agenda. That means people become president who don’t have a clue what to do when in power. When they become president, they register in a school and start to learn the ABC of public policy. By the time they reach JSS 1, their term is over. Then they might shoot for a third term.
Challenge of leadership
Different countries define their areas of specialization; not Nigeria. When you think Brazil, you think football. When you think of Cuba, you think Olympic boxing. When you think of Jamaica, you think of world class sprinters. When you think of Japan, you think electronics. But when you think of Nigeria, nothing of excellence comes to mind.
When you think of Nigeria, you think of corruption, kidnapping and armed-robbery. When you think of Nigeria, you think of 419; “yahoo yahoo” and other scams. We only specialize in the negatives. We have not yet decided as a nation to be good at anything or to be known for anything good. In 52 years of independent existence as a country, we have still not even decided to be a nation.
And yet, it is a decision that can very easily be made. All it requires is a leadership that can challenge Nigerians to excellence. There is no question that Nigeria is full of remarkable people who are exceptional in virtually every area of human endeavor. You will find them all over the world, in key and strategic areas of the economies of foreign countries. But you will struggle to find them in Nigeria. The same Nigerian who fails to pull his weight while working at the federal Ministry of Education, undergoes a metamorphosis when he moves to the British Council where he puts up a stellar performance.
“We choose to go to the moon,” declared John F. Kennedy as President of the United States in 1962, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” By 1968, United States had landed a man on the moon. That is proof of leadership. A decision is taken and resources are marshaled to bring it to fruition.
By the same token, Nigerians can and should choose to excel in something for a change. We cannot continue in the current pattern where we chose to go to the Olympics and are determined to win no medals whatsoever. The last Olympic outing was nothing short of disgraceful. We tried our very best to fail and succeeded.
The best sprinters in the world are naturally produced in Nigeria, the same way the best middle-distance runners are naturally produced in Kenya and Ethiopia. Nevertheless, we continue to watch on the sidelines as a small country as Jamaica, with only 6 million people, dominates the sprints in the Olympics.
Nigeria is a nation of footballers. Visit any major Nigerian city on a public holiday, and you are likely to find that many streets have been converted to makeshift football pitches. However, since our local football league is still under mismanagement, Nigerians adopt clubs of the foreign English Premier League. The London clubs are the most favoured, especially Arsenal and Chelsea. As a matter of fact, the European Champions League is hotly contested in Ibadan and Enugu.
There is no reason why a Nigerian team cannot win the World Cup in football, and yet we even fail to qualify for participation. Nigeria has a comparative advantage in producing excellent footballers. For some reason or the other, we produce quite a number of world class footballers who give good accounts of themselves all over the world.
Nevertheless, we fail again and again to put together a world-class national football team. When we manage to qualify for the World Cup, we choose our coaches four weeks to the competition and train a ragtag team for no longer than a fortnight. Is it any wonder why we always come back with eggs on our faces?
Finally, after a 19 year hiatus, we won the African Nations Cup in spite of ourselves. We did our very best to ensure failure as usual. But somehow, we succeeded most unexpectedly against the odds. The coach, Steven Keshi, claimed he only had five weeks to prepare. He refused to include some of the country’s best players in the squad.
By the last World Cup, we could not go past the first round. Then we showed our mettle as African champions by failing to qualify for the next African Cup. We sat on the sidelines while other nations took the limelight.
Something needs to be done about this failure-driven Nigeria. Something needs to be done about our penchant to be mediocre. We need to stop squandering our riches. Nigeria needs to become a serious country.
A country where a chronically sick man is “selected” President and then dies in office is not a serious country. A country that cannot increase its power output in sixteen years, in spite of spending billions of dollars for that very purpose, is not a serious country. A country that cannot even conduct a true census is not a serious country.