How have the times changed in my time?
When I was a boy, Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ which is celebrated the world over on this date, was the happiest day on the calendar. It brought family members—every family, everywhere as far as my young heart could grasp—home.
For Christmas, it seemed the sun was always out. Everyone visited everyone else. Everyone was generous and affable. We wore new clothes. The meals were the most sumptuous, and there was music and dancing and a lot of happiness.
The magic lasted into the New Year. And then, a certain melancholy set in as people began to return to their schools or where they earned a living. ‘Home’ was deferred for another year.
When I worked in Lagos, it soon occurred to me that Christmas was the most important time of the year for my car to be in excellent shape. Being stuck in the city was not an option.
In a way, those days now seem to define what it is to be well to do. Today, we have a richer country, but we are a poorer people. Last week, for example, Muhammadu Buhari presidential aide Tolu Ogunlesi, who enjoyed a tour of one of the confiscated homes of former Chief of Defence Staff Alex Badeh, lamented on Twitter that its bedroom alone was “bigger than your house.”
The former Air Marshal is facing corruption charges arising from a $2.1 billion national arms fund that was allegedly converted into private pockets by the well-connected.
Speaking of billions of bewildering dollars, another presidential aide, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, also last week disclosed that in the first 11 months of this year alone, Nigerians abroad had remitted over $35bn home.
The Senior Special Assistant to President Buhari on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora Matters compared that figure, reportedly the world’s third highest in foreign remittances, with the $21bn her compatriots sent home in all of 2015.
Dabiri-Erewa didn’t speculate, otherwise she might have projected that given the end-of-year celebrations, Nigeria could be well over $40 billion overall. She might have said it appeared that as things have got tougher in the country these Nigerians have opened their hearts and wallets more broadly to those at home.
Her government would have fired her for the idea, but the truth is that while it is the only viable reading of the numbers, her government demonstrates little interest in the Nigerian abroad unless he or she achieves something which attracts the attention and praise of an international authority.
Think about it: recently, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, was shamelessly gushing about the appointment of Bayo Ogunlesi by US President-elect Donald Trump as an economic adviser as a “smart move”.
“It is almost paradoxical that we in [in Nigeria] will certainly need people with the caliber of Bayo Ogunlesi and that it should be the U.S. rather, that is now going to be benefiting from his amazing talents,” he said.
Paradoxical? The truth is that Mr. Ogunlesi has become important only because he has received international recognition. There are similar talents within Nigeria, as there are outside of it, but we often painstakingly select the charlatans instead.
The trouble is that Mr. Onyeama’s government is not simply hypocritical concerning talented Nigerians, it is also blind. As I have argued in previous articles, instead of the current drive for painful foreign loans, it could have sought the money, or at least some of it, from them.
Dabiri-Erewa’s $35 billion proves my point. In a win-win proposal, many Nigerians would be thrilled to invest in their country, and the government would score championship goals if it sought policy options deliberately targeting such investment for the rural areas.
Mrs. Dabiri-Erewa’s disclosure raises other questions. About 12 years ago, I was with a travel agent in New York when a Nigerian called from Chicago seeking to make travel reservation for a Christmas trip to Nigeria. It was July, and he wanted four seats. The lady offered him the four seats, but only in January.
There was a furious exchange. She told him there was one vacant seat in early December, but nothing else was available until early in the New Year. Again, that was in July!
That is how heavily Nigeria trooped home from foreign climes as recently as 2004. I don’t mean they no longer travel, but it was not just the pleasure of seeing relatives or an ease of buying tickets that attracted them. They wanted to get home, where home was not the big city in which the plane landed, but some town or village in the interior.
It is that town or village that has all but disappeared today in government thinking today. Geographically, those places still exist, but practically, they are gone: lost behind bad roads, bad governance, and crime.
How bad is all of this? Consider as an example the federal government’s announcement last week it intends to shut down the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja for six weeks to “upgrade” the runway.
Last week, Harriet Thompson, the United Kingdom Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, cried out about the Abuja airport plan, which would involve busing passengers in their thousands to Abuja.
Remember that Abuja-Kaduna has the nation’s newest rail service, commissioned by President Buhari only a few months ago. For some reason, even that rail service does not factor into the new plan.
It is unclear if each of those buses will travel in a convoy, with soldiers and policemen armed to the heavens but perhaps no working toilets, and if those heavens will also be patrolled—24 hours a day—by the Nigerian Air Force for each bus, assuming the Air Force actually has a storage of jet fuel.
“A robust security arrangement involving the police, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence, Immigration service and Customs service [has] been made to escort passengers from Kaduna to Abuja,” Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, explained to the ambassador on Thursday.
The truth is that we are traveling in circles. Poor policy choices over the years, along with corruption and inexplicably poorer personnel choices, have landed Nigeria in a quandary. To break out requires a radical and courageous response that would have the country headed in the right direction on the back of competent persons who wish to work for Nigeria and not themselves.
The answer is to plant economic revival within rural Nigeria, if the government can locate where that is, and have it feed—and feed into—the urban. Among others, the Buhari government must see security as being broader than Boko Haram, and its mandate as being just four years.
It should do what is done by smarter democracies: constitute strategic panels such as the one on which Mr. Ogunlesi is going to serve in the US, to think and plan for it, and listen to its expertise.
Otherwise this Christmas, as bleak as it may appear to be on the material front, may by next year be remembered as the good old days. Next Christmas will be just one year away from the 2019 elections. While we celebrate this Christmas as some kind of formality, given the issues on the table and the balance of political forces away from it, this may well be the calm before the storm.
What if Nigerians, bleeding from every stab wound since independence and particularly since 1999, refuse to buy either new advertising campaign, or prospective new heroes?