Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
Who Speaks for the People?
Habu Dauda Fika
October 4, 2006
The issues being ventilated over most media outlets today are about the row between the President and his Vice. Undoubtedly, we all agree that the disagreement will come to a head sooner than later. In the mean time, lost in the dust of this titanic battle in Nigeria’s political misfortunes are the people. Apparently, the people have grown weary of this constant bickering between the number one and two citizens of Nigeria. Here they bicker whilst most Nigerians wallow in an invariable state of deprivation. Forgotten are the oaths taking by the two principals to uphold the constitution and protect Nigerians from all manner of ills that that have married our lives today. Despite all the problems that face Nigeria, our people have become remarkably docile in the face of a Zombie-like-leadership that has managed to do nothing but create insurmountable odds for us all. As a Nigerian who is guilty of leaving our own shores for greener pastures, I cannot help but lament the practical realities within which most Nigerians eke out their daily lives.
I was privileged to visit our dear country for two weeks this past September. What I met in my daily efforts to replicate what most citizens of the world take for granted is a gargantuan obstacle course that can put the most strongest amongst us to the brink. It is truly a wonder that Nigerians have been found to be the happiest people on this planet. Go figure! I am not sure I am capable of illustrating the daily pains that most Nigerians endure but pardon my crude effort below; with the hope that the debate will someday begin to address the real issues of our time and our people.
I was lucky enough to be hosted in a house that has the full compliments of modern plumbing and electricity, nevertheless, when we awoke after my first night in Nigeria, in Abuja of all places, there was no water. My nephew who was full of abundant optimism informed me that they normally expect water availability between 5 and 7am. A whole TWO hours a day! Our crime that day, we stayed up too late talking about what has changed in my absence - most of which is a complete retrogression in all areas of public responsibility such that the little systems that did work in the past have been cannibalized or left to die by our increasingly god-like leaders who never suffer the consequences. Abuja of all places has no portable water! Nonetheless, Nigerians have managed to learn how to squeeze water out of those dry pipes anyway. Some have dug boreholes in their yards, some have hoisted tanks after tanks for storage, while most just buy it daily from hawkers who are most happy to deliver for a very pricey fee that is too expensive for many who must pay one way or another. Water still runs in Abuja, but not inside city pipes as should be expected.
While those at the top have abundant water supply from their boreholes, those at the bottom spend as much as one, or more, hours out of their day looking for water to meet their daily needs. A good day for many is really dependent on how much water they have in the morning.
And as if that problem is not enough, leaving your home for work in Abuja is another dread. This is because the next gauntlet that awaits you is the notorious morning commute. Most cities of the world are familiar with the daily rush-hour (go slow) traffic. What is unique about Nigeria’s commute is that the road itself becomes an added obstacle course. Yes, there are many good roads in Abuja, but don’t be fooled by those few. There are a great many roads that are dilapidated beyond description, upon which even the most rugged vehicle can only survive but a short life, but Nigerians have accepted those conditions as well. On that morning, my mind raced with questions but my companions were quick to point out how the situation has become second nature so much so that any discussion of the causes, or the proffer of possible solutions is viewed as waste of their time. Not to outdo the problems we face with the road, it is also apparent that most drivers do not have the necessary knowledge to drive and the few that do have decided that it is better not to obey the traffic rules and regulations. The highway and traffic authorities are more interested in the condition of equipment on the vehicles but rarely pay any attention to how the roads were used. I noticed how they were stopping drivers for not having reflectors in the middle of the day – I could not figure out what law they were breaking then, or how relevant reflectors are in the middle of the day – but at night they stopped us and demanded we turn our interior lights on for them to see who we are but never bothered to see if our vehicle had a reflector or not. When I asked why they are making the traffic stop, I was told they were profiling for armed robbers. The comedy I found in that act was never obvious to my companions until they asked me to explain why I was laughing so hard. Here are the police, on a potholed road, with dust and smoke in their eyes, standing in the dark – in the middle of the road mind you, looking for armed robbers!
And then there is the menacing ‘Achaba’ (Okada) warrior. Their’s is a life mired in the daily battle to evade the authorities, deliver their hapless fare in record time - sometimes alive or in one piece, cut off as many cars as possible in the process, and pollute as much of the breathable air while transporting more than half the city to and from work. Yet Nigerians have accepted the fact that without the Okada’s, life will just be that more difficult to navigate. A necessary evil we must put up with until a miracle comes.
Another equally dangerous menace is the police escorts enjoyed by our dictatorial heads of government! One morning as we make our way on one of the better roads of Abuja, I was rudely startled when our driver had to swerve violently off the road to avoid a head on collision with a police vehicle with sirens blaring in our lane of traffic coming at us head-on at an ungodly speed. Somehow the police have concluded that the siren will sweep away all vehicles off road in the manner of a tornado cutting a path. The person being ferried in this manner (I was told) is a minister of the federation. I have, on a few occasions, seen the President of the United States, leader of the most powerful Military force in the World, pass by me, yet I was never intimated by his security detail as I was by that of the Minister of the federal republic of Nigeria. I completely understand the need to protect our leaders; I just cannot help but wonder why we cannot protect them and be civilized at the same time!
I remember my nephew respectfully telling me that he is absolutely sure I cannot drive in my own country. He was, unfortunately, not only right but most people I met at home made the same determination. Somehow though, the people around me were resolute in their efforts to ignore and overcome these problems. There is debate about all manner of “stakeholders”, but in most, ordinary Nigerians are not considered “stakeholders”. (I was so tired of hearing the word “STAKEHOLDERS”, only to happily remind myself that the word “NASCENT” has moved off the lingo radar. One out of two is not bad. I hope someone will find a new word for both, soon!) Will someone please speak for the ordinary – forgive me – “stakeholders”.
Afternoons in Nigeria are the most peaceful. We have overcome the morning battles, the winners and losers that day have declared a ‘no victor, no vanquished’ truce. Afternoons are also where most of us are guaranteed the use of water and electricity as we find ourselves in offices and companies that either compel the PHCN to deliver constant power or have provided a backup system for their need. Most Nigerians have said the afternoons are the best time for them. After careful consideration of the problems we face in the morning and that which we eventually face at night, there is no question as to why. However you must still fight a battle with technology. You must learn to manage several mobile phones during this period because that is when these blood sucking conglomerates twist every ounce of blood from us just like the ubiquitous mosquitoes do at night. I have been told by many that some companies are good for making international calls, some are better around major cities, and still some are better in the hinterland, or at night, or on the weekends. The level of smarts needed to manage four SIM cards with less than four phones is not minute by any measure. Yet Nigerians have accepted that as normal. If the government of the day can manage our money the way most Nigerians manage their mobile phones, we would have eliminated poverty a few years ago. Why these companies are allowed to price a product that is never reliable at such exorbitant rate beats me. Where I live today, you will normally pick up the phone, dial a number, and put the phone to your ear and speak to the person you called in about 2 seconds. In Nigeria, you will pick up the phone, dial a number, and then watch the phone! 90% percent of the time the first attempt never goes through. I found out the hard way that I cannot wait until I need to speak to someone before I call them, instead I must call anyone before I actually need to speak to them. I found that 99 percent of the calls I made had to include apologies for the failures of the networks. Here we are paying one of the most exorbitant rates in the world and yet, we have to constantly apologize for making the calls late or never making them at all. Yet there is nary a din about this fleecing of Nigerians by international corporations that have corrupted our leaders with petty gifts and made them mute. Why do our leaders go to afternoon siestas while we do battle? Will someone please speak for our ordinary warriors!
Of course some of the problems that we faced in the morning are replicated here as well, but the question of electricity becomes a gigantic one. Abuja by all standards is a modern city. But it is a modern city in the dark. Yes there are certain parts that enjoy the veneer of an uninterrupted power supply, even though those places can be counted on one hand. The majority of Nigerians have grown accustomed to a circle that has no particular order regards when they will get and for how long they will receive any electric power. My nephew was quick to note that the preceding two weeks or so, PHCN has been kind to them. His words, “we have had electricity every night till we go to sleep.” Nigerians have been so summarily abused by the power company that they have now learned to compliment the PHCN for failing to provide constant power as long as they can get some power at night. The outrage that should lace most conversations have disappeared, it is now replaced by the realization that the whole country is powerless and power-less in the face of the bully that is the PHCN who has become a clammy leach on all Nigerians. Billions poured have resulted in some filthy rich individuals who live with constant power while we lock ourselves in fortresses more fortified than many prisons, while we still get robbed in those prisons, are harassed by the police, sleep at the mercy of our super reliable mosquito, and pray that the mornings will bring good tidings. I was ashamed to note that my family and friends went to great length to find ways to ameliorate the power shortage in the days I was home. We had no generator – although my host was prepared to procure one just because I was there. I prevailed on him not to but the pervasive smell and the noise coming from many of our neighbors generators tells me that Nigerians have moved on. Nigerians always find a way and thankfully they have. If and when PHCN is ever able to provide reliable power, I will advice those of us who hold stocks in generator companies to divest quickly. I know business is brisk for such companies today thanks to Nepa. I had to perform many initiation rituals in order for most to believe that I am still a Nigerian who can just as well overcome the ills of Nepa (sorry the “problem has changed name” PHCN). But for the few hours that we did have electricity at night and the TV was broadcasting, the news was persistently about the president, the vice president, the governors, the ministers, the national assembly, and the mundane matters of power – who has it, who wants it, who wants to keep it, how they intend to get it, or how to stop someone from getting it. Oh! And then there is this constant celebration of birthdays, and retreats – I mistakenly thought the retreat referred to some officials running from the rest of us, as in withdraw from sight - on national TV. Some states spend more money on these birthday celebrations than they do on their entire school system. Absent are the normal news about the lives and troubles of ordinary Nigerians. Even the media has learned that speaking for Nigerians is not good for business. The NTA has particular abandoned any news stories about anything that is not originating from Aso rock or thereabouts. What a shame for those journalists. Who then is there to speak for the people?
Those at the top please take note..
The average Nigerian has made it clear that things always change for the better. The poor and the middle class have all indicated that things must change quickly. Here is a snap short for you. Feel free to adjust the numbers or correct the arithmetic. In the early 80s, a civil servant on grade level 06 was paid about 160 Naira (1980 exchange rate = 256 Dollars) per month. Today, the same grade level 06 receives about 10,000 Naira per month (today’s exchange rate = 77.5 Dollars). A true living wage for that same civil servant should be about 33,000 Naira per month. Sixty (60) percent of our purchasing power has disappeared into thin air and yet those at the top have conveniently lost their hearing. Our voices are loud and they are clear. Either our leaders make changes for the good now and make them quickly, or irreversible events will make the changes for them. Either way, change will and must come! Sooner than later, someone must stand up and speak for the people. The Jerry Rawlings’ and the Murtala Muhammeds of the world are not gone forever. Only a fool believes such is the case.
Habu Dauda Fika (webmaster – AmanaOnline.com) writes from Washington DC
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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.