Sixteen Years a Lesson Teacher -By Tolu Ogunlesi

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Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi

 

The best time to deal with a wound is as soon as it emerges; there is no second-best time. First we ignore, then we ignore again, then things go out of hand, then we’re forced to sit up, and pay a heavy price for our initial nonchalance. Now we’re on the cusp of another rebellion in the South-East, and we need to do something about it. Something a bit more creative than a random and ruthless military clampdown, which failed to work with Boko Haram, failed in the Niger Delta, and will similarly fail with any other manifestation of the potent mix of poverty and perceived marginalisation in Nigeria.

One important plus for the new government is the sixteen-year record of the PDP in the management of Nigeria. There’s nothing the new government is or will be contemplating that has not been previously mooted or attempted or possibly accomplished by a previous one. Heart-warming, if you think about it; much like going into a difficult exam with a large dossier of what my generation of Nigerians would call ‘Expo’.

Take the example of Ministry-structure reform. Not many people remember that one of the last things the Obasanjo government achieved before it handed over was restructuring the number of federal ministries from 31 to 21. Alas, because habit is a far more potent force than change, the 21-Ministry structure, which the Yar’Adua government inherited, didn’t last very long. Today, several years later, we’re back to the beginning, contemplating cutting 28 ministries to 18 ministries. Sad, on the one hand, but also, on the other, useful, because the failure of the previous attempt provides learning material for this latest one.

Below are five lessons I think the new government can learn from the 21st century ‘Expo’ left behind by the PDP government.

Show me your people

The years 2003 to 2007 – the second and final term of President Olusegun Obasanjo – are in my opinion the golden age of government-driven reform in Nigeria. Think of all the critical reforms that were accomplished in that time: the Electric Power Sector Reform Act, which laid the groundwork for the long overdue reform of the power sector (by laying NEPA to rest, creating PHCN as a holding company for the companies unbundled from NEPA, and establishing the Nigeria Electricity Regulatory Commission); pensions reform, which produced a National Pension Commission, as well as a Contributory Pension Scheme that has in the decade since its launch amassed $25 billion.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (which successfully brought down Nigeria’s biggest advance fee fraudsters, and dented the appetites of rapacious government officials); the Medium Term Expenditure Framework which mandates government to plan its budget around a three-year cycle (to allow for greater coherence than the year-to-year convention); the Due Process Mechanism; the Bureau of Public Service Reforms; the National Integrated Power Project (NIPP), and the Oil Price-based Fiscal Rule (OPFR) which allowed the government to establish the Excess Crude Account as a ‘rainy-day fund’ – all of these are also from Obasanjo’s second term.

That the second Obasanjo term was markedly different from the first is not in doubt. So what was responsible for this difference? I’m sure there are many possible theories, but I strongly believe a lot of it had to do with the team President Obasanjo put together in the engine room of economic management during that second term, including but not limited to people like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nasir el-Rufai, Nenadi Usman, Nuhu Ribadu, Charles Soludo, Bode Agusto, Oby Ezekwesili, Mansur Muhtar, Ifueko Omoigui, Ibrahim Dankwambo, and Bright Okogu. Many of these people came into government as new blood, with unconventional ways of thinking and seeing, and the Obasanjo government benefited immensely from their different-ness. Lesson: In government, as much as in the private sector, freshness of talent and ideas count.

Beware what you PAUSE

It is normal for every new government to press the PAUSE button on some aspects of the preceding government’s programme. Obasanjo wasted no time reviewing all contracts and appointments by the Abdulsalam Abubakar government between January and May 1999. When Yar’Adua took over he cancelled a number of significant deals the Obasanjo government signed in its final weeks. One was the 5-year $8.3 billion contract signed in 2006 for the construction of a new, standard-gauge railway line (which allows for high-speed travel); and then a year later awarded a much less ambitious contract – focused on rehabilitation/resuscitation of the century-old narrow-gauge line. China didn’t begin to build its own high-speed rail link between Beijing and Shanghai (slightly longer than Lagos-Kano) until November 2008, but by June 2011 it was done. A year and half later we finally launched our own, with one small snag: our own trains take four times as much time as China’s to travel the same distance.

Sometimes new governments need to use the PAUSE button on inherited plans and projects, but this should be done with great care; and only following a serious and painstaking assessment of the pros and cons. One of our biggest problems in Nigeria is continuity; new governments rush in, press PAUSE or CANCEL, and then launch off in a direction, only for another government to come in and repeat the cycle.

A president and government for everybody

On this score President Jonathan failed spectacularly. Which was sad because he came to power on the back of a pan-Nigerian coalition of supporters, who fought for him to take power when a power-hungry cabal tried to throw every obstacle possible in his way. And following that he went on to earn a decisive – and deserved – victory as president.

Sadly, somewhere along the line, the president seemed to retreat into the narrow straits of religion and ethnicity; so that by the end he seemed to me – and I believe to many others – an Ijaw Christian president. His dwindling band of fans (as the numbers dwindled, the divisive rhetoric of that rump increased) were seeing and blaming everyone in sight for his problems. For them the North was sponsoring Boko Haram to attack him and the South-West using its media power to do the same. They had many of these simplistic and erroneous arguments that only succeeded in leading them further astray.

That tragic scenario has provided a good lesson for the new government; it has to strive to avoid that route. It should never forget that it has a responsibility to be a government for everybody, regardless of what party they voted, or what language they speak, or what God/gods they worship, or even of what views they hold about the President.

Big things start small

If there’s one thing we know how to do very well in Nigeria, it is leaving wounds to fester until they become unmanageable. We ignore the cries of the marginalised until they take on a violent bent, and then we scramble wildly in search of a band-aid. Long before Boko Haram became what it now is, all the signs were there. From 2002 to about 2007, Mohammed Yusuf grew his support base from a ragtag band of followers to a popular movement, piling up vast amounts of frustration along the way, and finally exploding in the 2009 uprising that has since gone on to claim well over 15,000 lives, and displaced more than 2 million Nigerians.

The latest hinting of rebellion is from Radio Biafra, broadcasting hate messages against what it says is “the zoo called Nigeria.” I briefly listened to it online while writing this piece. You cannot miss the sense of grievance driving the rebellion-in-progress. As the columnist Joseph Rotimi puts it in a recent opinion piece, “The voice may be childish, sometimes incoherent, vituperative and prone to condescension but it is a voice all the same, and listening despite the noise, would prove that we are not a zoo.”

The best time to deal with a wound is as soon as it emerges; there is no second-best time. First we ignore, then we ignore again, then things go out of hand, then we’re forced to sit up, and pay a heavy price for our initial nonchalance. Now we’re on the cusp of another rebellion in the South-East, and we need to do something about it. Something a bit more creative than a random and ruthless military clampdown, which failed to work with Boko Haram, failed in the Niger Delta, and will similarly fail with any other manifestation of the potent mix of poverty and perceived marginalisation in Nigeria.

Policy versus Politics

Policy is the cold, hard, documentable part of a reform process; rigid and unyielding and focused and obsessed with change; Politics is the warm, soft, malleable element; the human elements with all their fears and hopes and dissembling and scheming, and their preference for status quo. Change is about expertly and steadily blending the two, and doing so in a way that the most important stakeholders – the citizens, for whom the government exists to serve – can identify with, believe in, and support wholeheartedly.

Follow me on Twitter: @toluogunlesi

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