Lessons I Have Learnt By Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi

A version of this column first appeared in December 2010. It was an attempt to look back at my two years of writing a newspaper column, and to see what I could isolate as lessons. Three years on (yes, I have now been regularly writing opinion pieces for five years), I’m revisiting it, and updating it. I think it’s important for us to always keep an eye on the past, and what we can learn from it. What Chinua Achebe, borrowing ancient Igbo wisdom, liked to call “knowing where the rain began to beat us.”
Government matters: Much of Nigeria’s private sector success has taken place in spite of the government. Think Nollywood, or the music industry, and most recently, the tech start-up scene; all of these success stories had already established themselves well before the government took any notice or offered any support. Again and again, we’ve seen examples of the amazing things Nigerians are able to do independent of government attention and support.
This state of affairs has helped create a “Yes We Can!” mentality that believes that, with or without government support, we can achieve anything we want, government be damned. There seems to be the prevailing belief amongst an influential class of young Nigerians that since the government is not very helpful, the best way to advance is to seek to operate as far away from it as possible.
But the truth is that government – “small” or “big” – matters far more than we think. The global economic meltdown further highlighted the importance of the government. The policies and laws and licences and bailouts that most significantly advance nations, or grind them into dust – are created by the state. Big business has important roles to play, billion-dollar-earning banks and corporations are needed, but government will always remain in the driver’s seat.
For example, the new broadband policy of the Federal Government has the potential to affect the burgeoning e-commerce industry as much as all the millions of dollars pouring in from foreign venture capitalists.
And one misguided government policy can suddenly destroy an entire industry. It’s happened before. Arbitrary import duty changes reportedly played a major role in killing the struggling local production of tyres in Nigeria, circa 2008. Today, we’re still seeing confusing import policies and their effects all over the place.
We can see the impact of government very clearly in the case of the Petroleum Industry Bill. Oil companies have their fingers on the pause button because of the uncertainties around the terms and conditions that they will have to operate under. It’s the duty of the government (executive) to carry everyone along in the drafting of that bill, and the duty of the government (legislature) to ensure that it is passed promptly.
There’s the railway as well. Unless our 1955 Railway Act (conferring a monopoly on the Nigerian Railway Corporation) is repealed, like we did with NEPA in 2005, it’s very likely that in 2020, we will still be celebrating 30-hour trips between Lagos and Kano.
So, because government matters greatly, we cannot continue to abandon it, at any level whatsoever (local, state, federal governments), to our second or third “eleven.” For every one talented (young) person seeking to conquer the film industry, or e-commerce, we must have one or two with an eye on the political space, seeking to set new standards of political engagement.
Wanted: Leaders who can subordinate personal interest to public interest
Nigeria has for long been cursed with a rapacious breed of caretakers; persons who gather in the “kitchen”, serve themselves and their descendants to the third and fourth generation, then pack the kitchen up and disappear, as if the kitchen existed for them, and not the tens of millions of people who call themselves Nigerians.
I was recently on a TV show where I highlighted the fact of Nigeria’s lost decades – all those years during the 1980s and 1990s when no serious infrastructure spending – maintenance or expansion – was taking place. We stopped building electricity plants, stopped maintaining the ones we already had. No one thought the international airport in Lagos, built when the city had less than four million residents, deserved an upgrade like other airports in serious countries. Hardly surprising when you consider that for years, Lagos could not even competently deal with the garbage it was generating.
Afterwards, I got a phone call from someone who watched the show, who rightly argued that it was necessary to emphasise the fact that this neglect of development didn’t just happen by itself, it was the product of the action and inaction of human beings.
It was a succession of military officers (most of whom are still alive today and running the show) who were responsible for that state of affairs. The point is that countries do not run themselves aground, they are run aground by people. What we call “government” is in fact merely a system of “people”. The ones at the top of the system to a large extent determine how everything plays out. When “Oga” has a “settlement” mentality, it shouldn’t be surprising that all the people within the system quickly learn from them.
Sometimes, it’s less about corruption than about competence. Evidence does in fact point to the fact that Nigerians don’t mind having leaders who “eat” (shall we blame something deep-seated in our cultural DNA for that), but that all they’re saying is ‘eat responsibly’, and, while eating, ensure that most of the ‘food’ gets to the people to whom it belongs in the first place.
Questions are as important as answers
A lot of my writing is an attempt to make sense of this country called Nigeria. This quest often manifests itself as a relentless questioning. I think the duty of a columnist is less to answer questions than to articulate them, on behalf of the public. My questions are as abundant as Nigeria’s gas reserves. I’ll share a few, perhaps readers might have answers:
How did a James Ibori rise to rule one of Nigeria’s richest states for two terms, become a presidential kingmaker, get a High Court created specially for him, and ultimately become Nuhu Ribadu’s nemesis? How can we ensure such never happens again?
Why is it perfectly acceptable for politicians to hop between the All Progressives Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party as though they were only differently-named franchises of the same brand?
Why are Nigerians so materialistic (and I have no apologies for this generalisation), creating a land where you are judged solely by how much money you appear to have?
Why are Nigerians so uselessly religious – a religious-ness that doesn’t translate into better lives or a better country?
How can we put an end to this debilitating culture of “BigManism”, where all “Ogas At The Top” are instantly deemed all-wise, all-knowing, all-deserving-of-boot-licking?
The supremacy of common-sense
While former President Yar’Adua was away in Saudi Arabia, common sense demanded clear-cut evidence of his ability to lead the country. The question buried amidst the frenzy was the simplest of all: “If our President is getting better, why can’t we see him?” But in the face of the fervent scheming of the cabal, a questionable BBC interview, the summoned clerics, and planted stories of a jogging President, the small, still voice of logic was forced to take a retreat.
Therein is a lesson that indeed wisdom is often to be found bound up in the simplest premises. What does this mean? The next time the government issues another bunch of wild statistics about new private sector jobs created on account of yet another wonderful government policy, the question to ask is the simplest and most logical of all: “Where are the jobs, and where the so-called newly employed people?”
Asking those important questions is not “criticism” (as our over-sensitive government would like us to believe), it’s common-sense.
Change is often slower than we think: This is the Evolution vs. Revolution theory. When the winds of uprising started to blow across North Africa in 2011, there were speculations about when they’d blow southwards. Back then, I was sceptical about the potential of a flashy “revolution” to suddenly create the Nigeria we’d all love to live in. I’m still as sceptical today. The events of the last few years, in Egypt and Libya especially, have borne out the wisdom of that scepticism. There’s no “revolution” that can instantly undo the psychic and physical impact of decades of unchallenged dysfunction.
As the former Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai once said: “People may want to see instant change, like instant coffee, but we have chosen the evolutionary path not the revolutionary path and evolution is sometimes disappointing because it is slow.”
The change we’re seeking will happen more slowly than we’d like it to happen. The most important task for us is to ensure that we do everything to fight and push for an environment in which that change, as it slowly rolls in, will feel very much at home.

– Twitter: @toluogunlesi
This piece was first published in the Punch Newspapers http://www.punchng.com/opinion /lessons-i-have-learnt/ and it appears here courtesy the author

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