By ADEKUNLE YUSUF
It is celebration time, once again. Any moment now, especially by Wednesday this week, government houses at the state and federal levels will be agog with revelry of all kinds. Despite a menacing shadow cast on the horizon by the lingering insecurity challenges, the nation deserves to celebrate with fanfare its 14 unbroken years of democracy, the longest stretch of civil rule since independence in 1960. Besides the fact that the good news is worth going to town with, celebrating what is now looking like a feat also affords operators of the current dispensation an opportunity to mount the rooftops and trumpet their achievements in office.
However, as drinking orgies hold in the corridors of power, the feelings emanating from the camps of the poor and the unemployed, especially the teeming jobless graduates who daily roam the streets seeking jobs that are often elusive, are tales of lamentations and neglect. In this bourgeoning tribe of the disillusioned and the neglected is Tunde Bolarinwa, an unemployed graduate. Like millions of his ilk, he seems to have enough reasons to score 14 years of democracy low, having to resort to doing all sorts of things to eke out a bare existence. Since Bolarinwa graduated from the department of business administration, Olabisi Onabanjo University, OOU, Ogun State, and finished his compulsory National Youth Service five years ago, he has pounded the streets to no avail in search of gainful employment. However, even as he lamented that the dividends of democracy fell far below his expectations, the father of two vowed that he would not do anything untoward or illegal till mother luck smiles on him.
But Bolarinwa is not alone in his travails. If viewed through critical lens, he has over 20 million colleagues journeying in the labyrinth of hopelessness, which life has become for many of them in a nation of plenty. According to the figure reeled off in 2011 by Yemi Kale, statistician-general of the federation and chief executive officer of National Bureau of Statistics, NBS, the nation is contending with 23.9 per cent unemployed rate, up from 21.1 per cent in 2010 and 19.7 per cent in 2009. By the figure, in a population of over 160 million, it means over 30 million people who should be gainfully engaged are jobless. Although that figure was contested by stakeholders, given the fact that it captured only unemployed youths who are actively looking for jobs, experts insist that the number of the jobless is far higher than what the NBS has supplied.
Although the National Poverty Eradication Programme, NAPEP, established in 2001, and the recent Subsidy Reinvestment Programme, SURE-P, are among a plethora of measures targeting alleviation of poverty in the country, analysts maintain that millions of Nigerians are yet to feel the impact of such interventions. And as if those managing the affairs of the country are unaware of the wrenching effects of an impending tragedy, which a skyrocketing unemployment rate portends, not much has been done in most of the 36 states to put a social security net in place for millions who have plummeted into the vulnerable rung of the social ladder. Even when Arua Arunsi, a member of the House of Representatives from Abia State, sponsored a bill in February this year, seeking monetary incentives for millions of unemployed graduates in the country, it was swiftly thrown out by his colleagues, many of who have a large army of unemployed hands in their respective constituencies.
In a report presented in May this year in Abuja, John Litwack, World Bank lead economist, and Marie Fraccoise Marie-Nelly, World Bank country director, noted that the rate of unemployment and poverty in the country has assumed a worrisome dimension. “Poverty reduction and job creation have not kept pace with population growth, implying social distress for an increasing number of Nigerians,” they warned. Putting these in perspectives, Olusegun Oshinowo, director-general, Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Forum, described the increasing rate of unemployment as a time bomb, adding that solving it requires putting in place sound micro-economic framework that can stimulate private sector jobs. “Unemployment is the biggest, most worrying socio-economic incidence for this country today. We are in dire straits. It has diverse implications. Security wise, large unemployed youth is a threat to security of the few that are employed. Any transformation agenda that does not have job creation at the centre of its programme will not take us anywhere,” he said in a recent newspaper interview.
In a way, similar lamentations pervade the electricity sector. Despite repeated promises by the government, residents in many urban settlements still complain that the nation’s power supply woes still persist. However, with a power supply of about 4,517 megawatts, MW, some neighbourhoods seem to be experiencing a slight improvement in power supply. According to the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, MAN, there is a recent improvement, albeit a minor one, in power supply in some cities to its members across the country, ranging from six to nine hours per day, which is said to have slightly reduced the cost of production for manufacturers. Yet, many homes still groan in darkness as a result of epileptic power supply, forcing them to resort to power generating sets to light up their homes and run businesses. Unfortunately, there seems to be no end in sight to the problems of this all-important sector. Even if power projects that are currently under various stages of completion in the country are completed and operational, industry watchers say power generation will only reach about 10,000 MW, which they say is still a far cry for a population of over 150 million. On May 5, 2013, Chinedu Nebo, the minister of power, hinted that the nation needs about 200,000 MW before it can realise its dream of adequate power supply. “Nigeria needs to generate over 200,000 megawatts. We are still at less than 5,000 MW. Within a year, we should be upping this to 10,000 and it is still a far cry,” he told a visiting business delegation from Britain led by Roger Grifford, lord mayor of the City of London.
Perhaps that is why Mashood Erubami, an activist and president of the Nigeria Voters’ Assembly, says the vast majority of Nigerians have not benefitted from government programmes because public policies hardly reflect the yearnings of the ruled. “The lifestyle of the politicians continue to give the wrong impression that everything is in order when indeed the lives of the people are threatened by the absence of essential needs for their basic existence. Government does not listen any more to the voters after winning; politicians are less accountable for delivering on their election promises and live no avenue for citizen participation in decision making,” he said.
Last November, during an interactive session with the Nigerian community in Pakistan, President Goodluck Jonathan assured that there would be steady power supply in major Nigerian cities by the end of the second quarter of 2013. He also identified poor infrastructure as the major challenge militating against efforts to evacuate additional 1,000 megawatts of power being generated through recent interventions by the government. Yet, as the nation inches towards the end of the second quarter, Jonathan’s promises, like many of these made in the past by power sector officials, remain unfulfilled.
As the nation rolls out the drums on Democracy Day, critics urge the leaders at various levels to look inwards, especially their self-awarded juicy remunerations and ostentatious lifestyles, which are said to be far above what the governed consider acceptable.
And there seems to be a justification for public opprobrium towards leaders. In 2012, a staggering N71 billion was expended on federal lawmakers alone in a country where infrastructure is almost completely decadent. A further breakdown shows that the 109-member Senate gulped N19.6 billion, while the 360-member House of Representatives had N51.8 billion in the period under the review. This excludes salaries and estacodes each lawmaker happily draws while on committee work in and outside the country. Also not included is the state-sponsored opulence enjoyed by principal officers of both arms of the National Assembly, NASS, in a nation that pays a minimum wage of N18,000 for civil servants. Despite the fact that some of the lawmakers hardly attend sittings or contribute meaningfully to deliberations on the floor of the Assembly, each senator also reportedly goes home with N45 million as allowance per quarter, while every House member pockets N35 million, making Nigerian lawmakers the highest paid in the world.
Expectedly, the obscene remuneration the nation showers on her political office holders is affecting the credibility of the institutions of democracy. In a recent survey carried out by Afrobarometer, a respected research project that regularly measures public attitudes on political, economic and social matters in sub-Saharan Africa, Nigerians were full of unkind opinions for their lawmakers. On the level of trust the people have in their lawmakers, the report says only four per cent said they repose full trust in the NASS members, while 54 per cent noted that they had little trust; 24 per cent said somewhat, and 31 per cent pointed out that they had no trust at all. This does not suggest that those manning the executive arm of government fare any better, even though it is difficult to compute their jumbo remunerations. Perhaps, that is why Debo Adeniran, chairman of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, CACOL, sees the last 14 years of democracy as a tragedy and concludes that Nigerians have fared worse under civil rule.
“The democratic experience is expected to be a relief, but it has turned out to be a tragedy. We thought that it would be a departure from the military dictatorship. Instead of that direct tyranny, we now have a deceptive crop of leadership and leadership practice,” Adeniran told the magazine.
Again, in the estimation of respondents, one other failure that serves as a rebuke to the performance of the leadership the nation has witnessed in the past 14 years is the deplorable state of public hospitals in the country. Not even one of them is equipped with state-of-the-art facilities that citizens can bank on for treatment of major ailments, forcing those who can afford treatment abroad among the citizenry to always fly overseas. While patients who need surgery struggle to raise funds for their medical treatment outside the country, hospitals in India, Israel, Europe and the United States are smiling to the banks with the huge sums of money they make from these patients. For this, critics lament that Nigerian public office holders now act like an ostrich, having developed a penchant for jetting abroad for even the smallest of ailments, while they watch their nation’s dilapidated health facilities unfixed.
In the last few months, some of the prominent names who have indulged in foreign medical tourism, sometimes involving spending several months abroad, are Dame Patience, wife of President Goodluck Jonathan, Rochas Okorocha, Liyel Imoke, Sullivan Chime and Danbaba Suntai, governors of Imo, Cross Rivers, Enugu and Taraba states, respectively. Going by figures quoted recently by Osahon Enabulele, national president, Nigerian Medical Association, NMA, Nigeria loses N78 billion ($500 million) annually to foreign medical trips. “We lose at least $500m every year to patients travelling abroad for treatment. India makes $260m from Nigerian patients annually. It is estimated that this year alone, India would gain between $1bn and $2bn from medical tourism. Our patients are part of the people that make that sector boom. Something must be done; this figure should provoke some actions from our government.”
Harping on what she calls the hypocrisy of political leadership, Joe Okei-Odumakin, president of the Campaign for Democracy, CD, said the last 14 years of democracy have not brought a better deal for the people because of bad governance. “Political leaders at all levels have been the same self-centred, selfish and corrupt people. They all occupy public office as a way of solving their own personal poverty. Political leaders at all levels have treated the people with disdain whereas they are stupendously rich in comparison with the critical mass that has been greatly impoverished,” Okei-Odumakin said.
In a land where citizens in some states are now living on the edge, critics wonder if there is anything worth rolling out the drums to celebrate. Amitolu Shittu, a human rights activist and national president, Committee for Democracy and Rights of the People, CDRP, who pointed to the mounting insecurity posed by the menace of the dreaded Boko Haram in the northern parts of the country as well as kidnappings in some sections of the South, concludes that the gains achieved under democracy in the past years have been largely traded away by lack of focus and insincerity of our leaders. Therefore, he is also of the opinion that the recent declaration of a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states may not do the magic Nigerians expect. “The present security condition in the country is almost getting out of hand with the dreaded Boko Haram. Just last week, Jonathan declared state of emergence in three northern states in the country, barely two months after the same government constituted a 26-man committee to negotiate peace agreement with the group. Mr. President should have taken a clue from similar actions taken on Plateau State during Olusegun Obasanjo’s tenure if declaring a state of emergency can actually solve the crisis. Up till today, Plateau State is still in crisis,” Shittu said.
Even in the realm of anti-corruption war, many Nigerians have unkind words for the current political leadership in the country, saying the crusade against malfeasance is being prosecuted with lip service. For instance, critics like Shittu, who cited the controversial presidential pardon recently granted to Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, former governor of Bayelsa State, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2005, believe that corruption is worse under democracy than during military rule.
According to Okei-Odumakin, corruption has become a subculture in the last 14 years, adding that public office holders who used to steal in millions now do so in billions and trillions. Some also fingered the “sacred cow policy” of the executive as the bane of anti-sleaze war. In his view, Morris Alagoa, researcher and environmental activist at the Yenogoa, Bayelsa State, office of the Environmental Rights Action, ERA, the fight against corruption is selective. “Only those who have personal issues to grind with the ogas at the top are pinned down for investigation and intimidation. If not, why are all these public office holders in our local government, state houses of assembly, and others who get rich overnight not investigated and prosecuted? Some of them who had nothing before they got into public offices are building estates, hotels everywhere and owning many properties both at home and abroad. Not only politicians, even civil servants and some unionists ought to be investigated and prosecuted if we must make progress in the fight against corruption,” Alagoa said.
Nevertheless, some critics also believe that 14 years of democracy, as imperfect and seemingly hopeless as things may currently be, has presented the nation an opportunity to take stock of what has been achieved with a view to improving on the shortcomings. Although he also acknowledges that the picture is a mixed grill, Oserhiemen Osunbor, professor of law and former governor of Edo State, is one of such optimists. However, unlike many who have scored 14 years of democracy low in terms of solving perennial problems besetting the nation, Osunbor, who believes that human freedom is an indispensable element in societal progress, ranks democracy high, saying the prevailing air of freedom is one intangible dividend of democracy that is worth defending with all it takes. “Democracy gave us an opportunity to express ourselves freely. You know during the military rule, it was difficult to say the truth if it would embarrass the government, which is not so in democracy. The freedom of individual is what has made many nations great. Nigerians today are able to express themselves, including the press,” the former governor said.
On the economy, both Shittu and Adeniran agreed that it is not entirely a bleak outlook, adding that some progress is being made, especially in states like Osun, Edo and Oyo where they said governments have employed thousands of graduates. Analysts, including those who said they are unhappy about the terrible state of public schools and road infrastructure in the last 14 years of civil rule, also argue fervently that some semblance of progress is being made in some key sectors such as agriculture, aviation and telecoms, thus giving democracy a pat on the back.
Like Osunbor, Anthony Adefuye, a former senator and now a businessman, rates democracy high, though he quickly adds that “we could do better if we can minimise corruption.” For a more glorious future, he admonished that all the country needs to do now is to develop a system that can make the current “transformation the country is witnessing” sustainable. “The problem we have now is how to make our leaders become leaders of men so that they can actually promote Nigeria to greater heights. What we have now is that our people are developing other nations. If you go to Ghana now, many industrialists there are Nigerians; most of the banks there are keeping Nigerians’ money. It is the same in East Africa. This is money that should have been used to develop our country. We should let our people return all these monies even if we are going to give them amnesty (for stealing it in the first place),” he advised.
This week, as the political elite embark on what critics call another jamboree of celebrating democracy, it is expected that public officials will lend their ears to the concerns of the electorate on whose behalf they exercise power.