10 game-changing ideas that could fix Nigeria and propel it into the new age. For good (Part 2)

I have new respect for the many talents of Nigeria for self-injury. Please note, you can fly economy and your spouse will still love you

NIGERIA can find greatness…more easily than it thinks.

It needs to be brave, and to seize this moment as the first part of this riveting two-part series argued. [READ: 10 game-changing ideas that could fix Nigeria and propel it into the new age. For good (Part 1)].

There are five more ways it could make the magic happen:

6. SCRAP ‘FEDERAL CHARACTER’

I bet many people are just finding out for the first time, as the new cabinet is slowly assembled, that the constitution requires the president to choose at least one cabinet minister from each of the 36 states of the federation.

Each time I reflect upon this, I have new respect for the many talents of my country for self-injury. Naturally, Nigerian politicians, fashioned from the same crooked stick as politicians everywhere, have taken full advantage of this to name unwieldy cabinets the size of all soccer players in the English Premier League combined. A number of years ago I was part of a team from the Aspen Institute that presided over a two-day leadership seminar for President Olusegun Obasanjo’s second term cabinet. My friend Nasir El-Rufai, then minister of the federal capital and now governor of Kaduna State, had asked us to do it. 

Now a typical Aspen leadership seminar is designed as a Socratic dialogue among 20-25 people sitting at a round table as if at Plato’s Academy in Athens, with ideas bouncing back and forth like a ping pong. But Obasanjo showed up with 76 cabinet and cabinet-level officers in an auditorium, with himself at the high table, pontificating for two long days. Clearly a cabinet of 76 is no cabinet at all.

Let us do the sensible thing and slash the cabinet to no more that 18 ministers. We should of course remove the offending constitutional provision but, this being a cumbersome process, we can in the meantime declare many key departments as cabinet-level agencies without in reality being actually part of the cabinet, as a workaround. The cabinet should be built for deliberation and for setting priorities in the executive branch. It should not be a bazaar of dozens of people meeting once a week for the purpose, as it has been thus far, of ratifying contracts and preening for presidential affection. 

The old western region, roughly one-quarter of the country, was run by 12 ministers and a premier, and they delivered free education and built probably the most egalitarian corner of our country. Now we have a central government with high officials and ‘honorables’ coming out the wazoo, and 36 state governments with hundreds and thousands of ‘big man’ officials complete with police outriders and flashing blue lights and wailing sirens, the best to impress the wretched multitudes.

Can we just calm down and dramatically shrink everything? Look for the smartest people, and let them run things, without caring too much whether they speak Igbo or come from the savannah. Geography is not destiny. Keep the goal clearly in front of you. Are you trying to educate children? Does it matter if the math teacher is from Ghana? Are you trying to fly a plane from Calabar to Kano? Does it matter if the pilot is from Kafanchan? Is the Central Bank governor highly competent and of sound mind and character? Does it matter if he is Kanuri?

We shouldn’t even have to be discussing this, but here we are, a benighted and slightly deranged people trying mightily now (I hope) to get themselves together. About four years or so ago my wife and I were invited to the carnival in Rio. Our hosts threw a nice lunch party at their splendid apartment overlooking Ipanema beach. One of the guests was the Brazilian Central Bank governor. He was not Brazilian. Gov. El-Rufai has a couple of Yoruba guys among his senior aides. He’s been under attack ever since for selling the “indigenes” short.

 Traditional dance groups march and dance in the Lagos Carnival, in April 2014.  It’s possible to achieve results that deserve a longer party.  (Photo/Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images).

In principle it is preferable to create the perception and, where possible, the reality of having people from all parts of our country participating in all spheres of national life. But this should be a politically enforceable proposition, not a legally mandated one. The first question always should be, is the person the best available for the job? Luckily for us this is not hard at all. We have talent from every nook and every cranny of the beloved country— and millions more in the Diaspora creating a huge pool of talent. The US Census bureau reports that Nigerian-born or Nigerian descended people in the United States are the best educated group in the country, producing per capita people with more bachelor and graduate degrees, including PhDs. We have no shortage of talent if we care to look for it. 

The problem is that many people, not having the requisite diversified social networks, make too little effort to seek such talent. A lot of people from southern Nigeria, especially the Lagos crowd, are guilty of this myopia. Seek, and ye shall find. Several years ago when we were trying to build the leadership as well as other staff of NEXT newspaper, Amma and I were determined to have many women running things, in addition to having editors and reporters from all parts of the country and of all backgrounds, familial and academic. We achieved something around 40% women, including the editor of the paper, who also happened to be a Fulani woman from Kano. We did not have to sweat too much to get her. We had a network of friends who naturally suggested candidates who were from all over. 

7. SET THE PEOPLE FREE

Eliminate all visa or residency requirements for all ECOWAS citizens. Allow a completely free flow of people and goods in our West Africa region. A potential megalopolis of hundreds of millions of people is already responding to the gravitational pull of Lagos along the coast as far west as Abidjan. Make it a reality. Be bold. If you are a little queasy in the stomach try this for three years initially and see what tweaks are required. Then go hell for leather and remove these artificial and ruinous border posts. 

Create a single ECOWAS market. You don’t necessarily need to create a single Eco currency. The Nigerian naira, backed by Africa’s largest economy, will be the de facto exchange instrument anyhow (while preserving the authority of local central banks to respond to exceptional situations, something that could have saved Greece.) While you are at it, begin construction of a Dakar to Douala coastal railway.

You might want to consider going even bigger. Offer citizenship to all Diaspora Africans, particularly targeting African Americans, at least those who would like to have it. Dual citizenship is legal in America and Nigeria. Use it. You will have a powerful constituency in the world’s most powerful country. You will have a steady inflow of talented and entrepreneurial people. Grant them the 40 acres and a mule, even if only metaphorically. They are descended from these parts anyway, so what right do we have to deny them their birthright? Besides, with such a natural constituency, it would be hard for the US government to screw with you. Think Israel. Play smart. It’s a win-win.

8. THIS LAND IS MY LAND (REALLY)

Account for every square centimeter of land in the entire territory of the federal republic. Issue certificates of occupancy to all identifiable land owners. End the vagueness of communally held land and its capacity to generate endless dispute and violence. Where a community, rather than an individual or corporate body, does historically lay claim to the land, create trusts to legally hold the property. 

A nationwide electronic geographic information system will do more than end violent disputes and endless court cases; it puts money in people’s pockets by making land easily fungible. My father’s house in Modakeke is worth almost nothing because there is no legal title to it. So is my friend Nosa Igiebor’s 1,000-hectare family land in Benin. Read or reread Hernando DeSoto’s Mystery of Capital. It was relevant yesterday; it is even more so today. Don’t make a mockery of most families’ principal asset when this can be turned into wealth. It is relatively easily done. 

Nasir El-Rufai accomplished this in Abuja, when he was federal minister of the Federal Capital territory from 2003-2007. 

 Sim Shagaya, founder and CEO of online retailer Konga.com: There are more such Nigerians where he came from. (Photo/Konga.com).

Now that he is governor of Kaduna State, he’s planning to do the same thing. Land is a state issue, so the federal government can nudge the laggards in the right direction by creating a fund to underwrite electronic land registration for any state that needs help. Stop manufacturing mass poverty and do the right thing. 

9. NEITHER HONOURABLE NOR EXCELLENT BEFORE THE FACT

Please, tone down the big man show. It has worn thin. You don’t need a 10-car convoy to move around, accompanied by a thousand police officers. You can fly economy domestically and your spouse will still love you. Carry your own bag. You don’t need to jump the queue at the airport. Stop calling yourselves honorable or excellency. Let us judge, at the end of your tenure, whether you have been excellent or honorable. Bring more young people into the highest reaches of government. The rest of the world knows that your best trained people aged 35-45 are in the sweet spot for maximum productivity. 

I am older than US president Barack Obama, UK prime minister David Cameron, and  Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi. Stop this ageist nonsense, my fellow golden oldies. We need high energy and creativity and an instinctive feel for how today’s world works. Our smart young talent, given massive responsibilities right now, will be in a position to run the whole thing in four years’ time.

10. FOCUS ON SYSTEMICALLY IMPORTANT ISSUES

It is far more rewarding than dissipating energy on the small stuff. It doesn’t take you away from fighting corruption or securing the citizen against the scourge of casual violence, or fixing schools or stocking the village dispensary. You can walk and talk at the same time. I was going to say you can talk and chew gum at the same time.

We have the outlines of a cabinet now. On the surface it doesn’t look like the world’s strongest cabinet but there are enough ponies in there to start galvanising the country in a certain exciting direction. There are talented men and women in there. Let’s seek perfection by all means, but progress is nothing to be sniffed at either. I can’t believe that I find myself quoting Donald Rumsfeld, but it is true that you go to war with the army you’ve got. Make this moment count. Get to work, my friends. Lead wisely and well, and we will follow. 

Also, try to have dinner most nights with your family and stop lurching from one political meeting to the other at all hours of night and day. Leave room for slow thinking on an early morning walk. Read for fun. Learn to play golf. Be exemplary citizens and we will take our cue from you.


The author is a Nigerian journalist and former foreign editor for Newsday, in New York. He was the first African-born winner of the Pulitzer Prize.


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