Thinking Nigeria

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By Owei Lakemfa

ON a visit to Windhoek, Namibia in 2013, I took a taxi to the city centre. I indicated to the driver the building I wanted to alight. He apologised that he had to take me to a nearby taxi stand. He explained that there are rules and laws about parking by the road and that traffic rules in the country apply more to taxi drivers who are supposed to be professionals on the road.

I was to learn that traffic rules are applied and a driver found guilty on two or three occasions, loses his license. So a taxi driver who loses his driver’s license automatically becomes unemployed hence they are extra careful.

In contrast, the most lawless drivers in Nigeria, tend to be taxi and bus drivers; they park, pick or drop off passengers not just on any part of the road, but even on highways. I reflected that all it takes is to apply the rules, and our roads will experience sanity.

I crossed to Zimbabwe and the shock was that no amount of what you bought from the shop, it was put in a paper bag. I once demanded for a nylon (plastic/rubber) shopping bag and was told it was not allowed except I pay some significant price. The explanation is that nylon is not biodegradable so using it even in packaging products, is not encouraged.

I reflected that in Nigeria, it is a way of life. Even the roadside trader who sells you a lobe of kola nut, offers you a nylon bag. Our cities are litered with nylon, and drainage blocked with it. Whenever Lagos, our economic nerve centre experiences its usual flooding and the rains threaten to sink it, plastic bags and bottles play a significant part. In the near-drowning of the city in the rains of July 22, a middle class area like Surulere, was encased in used plastic bottles and plastic bags. Perhaps, the worse environmental crime apart from oil pollution we have committed as a country, is blocking our drainage with used sachet water; the impure water we glorify and sanctify as ‘pure water’. Zimbabwe teaches us that we need not live such a perilous life.

I crossed to South Africa and right across the bus stop in Johannesburg is a public bath and toilet. I reflected that I could find no such basic human facility in Nigeria, not even in upscale Abuja, the jewel of Nigerian modernis ation. I know that the Nigerian leadership is not trying to argue that only South Africans answer the call of nature. It is just that the right lessons have not been learnt.

In 1986, at the height of military rascality in Nigeria, I visited Cuba. I remember that at the departure lounge in Lagos, I was watching Attacking Midfielder, Diego Maradona in a World Cup match, dribbling Argentina’s opponents, like our then Military strongman, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, was dribbling Nigerians on the political turf with fake promises and programmes. Going round Havana, I noticed that soldiers were not just guarding public institutions, but the workers building public houses, roads and clearing drains, were soldiers! What indignity! I asked my host if the soldiers have no work.

He replied that they were at work! No, I told him that what I saw them doing was not soldiering but basic manual work. He replied that although Cuba was always in danger of being invaded by the United States, but the fact was that the country was not at war, so what will the soldiers be doing after the normal drills; sit idly in the barracks or go home to sleep? No, they have to work like other Cubans if they are to deserve salaries. I also learnt that the Armed Forces was so demythologized in Cuba, that all citizens between 16 and 60 years were either in the military or had been in it. So unlike Nigeria, there can be no military coup nor are there ‘Bloody Civilians’. So military service to the motherland is not only in carrying weapons. Despite their preoccupation with such civil jobs, the Cuban Armed Forces, in their military defeat of the powerful South African Apartheid Army in Angola, showed they are one of the best in the world. I told myself that if I can influence policies, I will advocate we build our Armed Forces on the Cuban model.

There are many slums in Nigeria where poverty grows in leaps and bounds, insecurity thrives and are generally unfit for human habitation. When sufficient attention is focused on such places, the usual reaction is to demolish them, sometimes at the cost of lives. In most cases, the affected simply drift to another slum. One of the biggest such cases is Maroko, while the trending one is the Otodo-Gbame demolition.

China also has slums but its handling is different. Five months ago, I visited rural China. In the mountainous parts of Yiwu. For years the government tried to persuade the people to leave areas that were unfit for human habitation, with cases of tiger attacks, poor sanitation and difficulty in assessing modern healthcare. But the people refused. So the government changed tactics. It mapped out large areas near the villages, built sweet-looking roads linking the city, put in place electricity, water, mapped out plots and bunched them into areas for different villages. It then invited the villagers to come down promising further assistance including schools and hospitals if they agree to relocate. The village of Yangguang was one of the first to relocate twenty years ago.

The transformation of the villagers especially their standard of living was so remarkable that the United Nations adopted it as the universal model for poverty eradication. Ten years later, the villagers of Xinxing followed. They told me and other visitors that when they saw the marked development of their former neigbours in Yangguang who took the government offer, they relocated ten years after.

The lesson I learnt is that people who live in shanties know that they live in places unfit for human habitation; but have no alternative. Rather than use force, demolish property and livelihood, we can learn from the Chinese.

We can also learn from Rwanda that hate speech, giving ultimatum to fellow citizens to quit particular parts of the country, attacking neigbours and host communities and presenting one ethnic or religious group as inferior or superior, can only be catastrophic. This free lesson we are learning, cost Rwanda 850,000 lives within 100 days.
A wise man is he who imbibes the wisdom of other people; Nigerian leaders need to imbibe the wisdom of other leaders and steer the country from the rough seas of insecurity, incompetence, parochialism and want, to the calm harbour of inclusive development.

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