“IF Nigeria moves, then Africa moves. If not, then we must wait.”
I don’t remember where I first read that, but as a Kenyan I could never find a good reason to agree with it. That’s until I begun to interact closely with Nigeria. Over the past two years I have been a part of the Vecna Cares team that is working on designing and implementing an electronic health records tech tool for low resource settings in several Nigerian states.
I am just concluding my second trip to Nigeria in two years. The first time out, I spent all my time in Abuja and the outskirts of the FCT (Federal Capital Territory). This second time, I swam in the belly of the monster, venturing to some of the smaller rural towns of Ondo State, and then wound up my trip in Lekki area of Lagos.
I have changed my stance. There’s no doubt in my mind that Nigeria moves Africa.
This is a huge country. The number that I was operating on when I first arrived was 140 million people strong. But having spoken to a few people here and seen it for myself, I dare say that we should be pegging that number at about 190 million if not 200 million. One of the most mind-boggling statistics that I heard is that Nigeria now has 120 million active cell phone users.
I am here shortly after an election that saw a former military dictator win by a landslide. Think about that for a minute. Where else in the world would such a sentence be written, read out aloud and make sense?
It is said that during President Buhari’s first stint as leader of Nigeria, back in the 80s, Lagos was a hub for drug trafficking. Upon his assumption of command he decreed that drug trafficking would from then on be a capital offence.
Then he backdated the law and declared that all those that were in jail having been convicted for it would now be executed. Nigerians watched the public executions one after the other in utter shock. Needless to say the drug trade ground to a screeching halt, or so the story goes.
His was a no-nonsense regime, they say. He did not tolerate theft. He threw people in jail for mere suspicion of theft. When he left the throne, the weeds soon returned.
Sheriff back in town
Fast forward to 2015 and the sheriff is back in town.
It’s now September 2015, only months since President Buhari took over. The national electricity utility, the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), which was never known to supply electricity for more than 2-3 hours a day is now consistently powering the cities for 20+ hours.
Port Harcourt petroleum refinery that had not refined even a litre of petrol over the last 15 years is now pumping hard, and Warri and other refineries are about to come back online. “To the best of my knowledge,” my host says, “there’s been no extra funding, technical assistance, or anything new given. This is happening because of the fear of Buhari.”
The fear of Buhari. What a wonderful phrase. Who would’ve thought that a president who wins a landslide election victory would be termed as being fearsome.
Still, I cannot find anything to disagree with this view. President Buhari has not even named his cabinet and all these things are happening. The terror group Boko Haram which was advancing southwestwards into the country is now said to be just months, maybe weeks, from being snuffed out. How is it that Nigeria is now winning a war that it was steadily losing for almost five years?
As I write this, the sitting Nigerian Senate President, a key member of the President’s party and one of Nigeria’s most powerful men, is facing trial for false declaration of assets. His trial is being broadcast live all over the country. No matter the outcome of this process, the message is that there are no sacred cows in Nigeria.
Waiting for Buhari
Since their election, none of the state governors have named their cabinets either. They are all waiting for President Buhari to set the tone, and then they will align. It is expected that some of the best performing governors who couldn’t stand for election by a two-term limit rule are competing to be in President Buhari’s cabinet.
I never thought I would write such a thing when I came here. That governors in Nigeria would be angling for a cabinet position using their excellent past performance as credentials, in order to get to do even more transformative things on the national stage. Confusing, I know, in a continent where people just do a smash-and-grab on power.
“A governor in his state is more powerful than the President of Nigeria in the whole of Nigeria,” declares my host. So why would a person with near absolute authority feel the need to compete at all? It’s a sign of an emerging meritocracy, which the cynics had long-said was impossible in Nigeria.
Times have changed here. Nigeria has managed over the past few years to create a demand for more accountability, more thinking, more prosperity. It’s why the former president Goodluck Jonathan had no chance in his re-election bid. He has sunk into mediocrity, become out of touch and got comfortable. He didn’t take any decisive action against Boko Haram until six weeks before the election. The people saw through this.
Now, of course not everything is rosy. It is now emerging that former president Goodluck Jonathan withdrew almost $300M is cash from the Nigerian National Bank just as Nigerians went to the polls.
Many of the governors who have taken office have complained bitterly that the bank accounts of their states are empty having been looted heavily just before their election. As a result some states have seen industrial action by state workers as they have been unable to pay salaries, and many have gone home with empty pockets.
There’s blatant and open corruption everywhere you see somebody wearing a uniform. Murtala Muhammad International Airport in Lagos is a shakedown experience like none you have ever seen.
The check-in counter guy will shake you down, the civil aviation authority official issuing directions will shake you down, immigration people will bleed you dry and the the customs people will eat your bones. Then you will go to the loo and the cleaning lady will ask you to leave her “something for the weekend.”
Still, there’s a lot of fresh air in this country. A renewed expression of critical thinking, innovation and commitment to public service. Of course nobody knows how things will turn out over the course of this presidency but one thing is for sure Nigeria is on the move and the rest of Africa is likely to benefit.
The fear of Buhari. Long may it continue.