One of the most tragic aspects of Nigeria’s aborted promise is that too many Nigerians have now imbibed a terrible culture of low expectations. They look daily at the series of crises bedevilling the country, and they manage, somehow, to see something admirable.
It is sad to encounter this attitude in Nigerians who have never travelled outside their country, and who are, therefore, blind to the dramatically higher levels of efficiency in most other countries, including some of Nigeria’s neighbours on the western hump of Africa. Lacking a reference point, these Nigerians may be forgiven for believing that the intolerable state of affairs in their country is a mirror of how things happen elsewhere in the world.
But it’s always a case of sheer exasperation when one comes across well-travelled Nigerians infected with the virus of low expectations. These world-wise Nigerians have no excuse. They have been to other efficiently-run countries; they have seen other societies where institutions work fluidly and high quality services are expected and delivered; often, they function within these well-choreographed societies, helping to sustain a culture of excellence.
So why do some of these “exposed” Nigerians nevertheless rush to rationalise, defend or excuse their country’s mediocrity and ghastly performance?
Visiting London last week, I was interviewed by Kayode Ogundamisi on his live political program on BEN Television, “Politricks with KO.” The interview touched on the subject of presidential performance. I asserted that President Goodluck Jonathan, like Olusegun Obasanjo before him, had failed to deliver result-oriented leadership. Soon after, two or three callers questioned my assessment. One, a resident of London, reeled off a few roads he alleged that the Jonathan administration was building. He, or another caller, reminded me that the president had set up new universities. They insisted that the president deserved praise for getting round to roads and the setting up of new universities. Another, also resident in London, sought to remind me and viewers that Mr. Obasanjo’s presidency was marked by impressive feats, among them the payment of a huge chunk of Nigeria’s external debt and the husbanding of mobile telephony.
The sense of fervour in the two callers’ voices was sad to behold. If they had never been to a society where things work, I would have understood their misplaced advocacy. I reminded them that no serious leader today would have the temerity to list the building of roads as one of his or her achievements. The mayor of London, I argued, would be run out of the city if he ever tried to campaign on his road repair record. British citizens and residents take good roads for granted, which is as it should be. On the matter of Mr. Jonathan’s new-fangled universities, it was enough to tell my interlocutor that the government had not lived up to its obligation to fund existing universities. What, then, was the sense in creating more?
Mr. Obasanjo’s payment of jumbo sums to Nigeria’s external creditors never struck me as an achievement – not when he made the payment and not in retrospect. A more visionary leader might have used all that cash to improve his country’s ghastly infrastructure. Why transfer nearly $20 billion to creditors when Nigerians have no healthcare, no electric power, no dependable network of roads, and no waste disposal system? Why hand over such princely sum when our public schools, from kindergartens to universities, are in heartrending shape? Why invest in the Paris and London Clubs when the failure to address Nigeria’s electric power woes remains a huge impediment to Nigerian businesses, hampers economic enterprise, and leaves hordes of Nigerian graduates unemployed? What was the sense in serving the interests of external creditors – many of them complicit in the mismanagement of the loans they gave – when Nigeria’s climate of insecurity gets worse by the day? In short, why hasten to pay the foreign Peter and Paul whilst neglecting the plight of the Nigerian Musa, Okoye and Adebayo?
One of the callers to BEN Television scolded me for the sin of holding a Nigerian president to the same expectations I would apply to President Barack Obama. Nigeria was not America, he stated. It was, on the face of it, a salient point; but it was also a deeply troubling point. Here’s why.
Nigeria is in such dire straits that it is in more desperate need than America (or Britain, Norway, Germany) for tested, committed leaders. In other words, Nigerians need a leader with vision, energy, passion, and drive far more urgently than do Americans. And there are Nigerians who have the intellectual acumen, vision and leadership skills to stand toe to toe with the best leaders anywhere in the world. For some reason, however, the Nigerian state is rigged by and for mediocrities.
Here’s another slice of the argument. Many Nigerians are quick to contend that it’s unfair to demand American-grade performance for Nigerian public officials. But the same Nigerians are hardly ever outraged at the outlandish payments and perks enjoyed by their officials. Consider this fact: Each member of Nigeria’s House of Representatives hauls away enough cash in a year to pay Mr. Obama’s salary several times over. In fact, many local government chairmen take home enough cash to make Mr. Obama – whose salary is $440,000 a year – look, by comparison, like a chump.
It baffles that some Nigerians are at peace with the lavish payments to Nigerian public office holders, from municipal officials to the president. Yet, these same Nigerians raise their hackles the moment a critic demands that our obscenely remunerated officials demonstrate a semblance of engagement. It boils down to that disease of low expectations.
Given how much money Nigerian officials are paid – to say nothing of the additional sums they steal – why is it out of place to hold them to the highest levels of expectation? If they’re in the highest paid league, what’s wrong with insisting that their performance be Messi-like?
Nigerians who have never had the privilege of travelling to other parts of the world – and who, therefore, have never seen the fruits of true leadership – deserve our patience when they mistake the substandard roads most Nigerian governments build as evidence of sagacious leadership. As one caller to BEN Television noted, many Nigerians are so dehumanised that they praise governors for paying salaries!
The greater tragedy – absolutely inexcusable – is when those who have seen the world, who ought to know better, embrace the culture of low (even no) expectations. In the end, as I tried to tell the viewers of “Politricks with KO,” Nigeria – on such indices as healthcare, education and social services – lags many countries with significantly less resources. Countries like Ghana, Uganda, Jamaica, South Africa, Botswana and the Philippines are way ahead of Nigeria where it counts. Part of the reason is this: Nigeria is cursed with “leaders” who intone that they’re “moving the nation forward.” But they neither know what “forward” means, nor how to move in its direction.