Nigeria and its white elephants

Federal secretariat Lagos

By Patrick Dele Cole

Some economists claim that you can predict the economy of a nation by counting the number of people idling around at motor parks and airports. There are all kinds of touts outnumbering the ones that are employed. They are so busy collecting money and extorting people. People who are so busy doing nothing but wasting in idleness and laziness and ironically, those next to them are the National Officers of the Road Safety Marshalls, Yellow Fever, Police, Military, Vehicle Inspection Officers and so on, harassing motorists just to extort money from them for little or no traffic infractions. Another group comprise those from the State and Local Government offices who harass drivers especially the commercial vehicle should carry goods and passengers within and outside the state. They mount illegal checkpoints, requesting for vehicle documentations that have absolutely nothing to do with the roadworthiness of the vehicles. It became necessary for the vehicle drivers especially those who ply particular routes where these groups of criminals as I would call them, mount these roadblocks. The people just keep wads of N200 notes to give so they are not bothered and delayed on the road by these jobless individuals who believe their job is to harass citizens who are going about their lawful businesses.

The National Assembly man who goes to the company that a budget has been approved for a contract, to ask for a cut. How are you going to look after me since I am a member of the committee that approved the budget? The reason why they are not working is that the government has encouraged so much waste.

Subsidy is at 4 trillion and you are earning 7 trillion, it is obvious that the subsidy is higher than the budget and earnings. The justification to go on with the subsidy is explained with the story that people will suffer if the subsidy is removed. The CBN has failed in its duty to ensure the monetary policy works. The CBN has abandoned its responsibility for monetary …… The people are suffering much more now. The Operation Feed the Nation (OFN) seemed laughable but people went to the farms to produce. The ministers have no plan for agriculture. The past ministers only acquired farms for themselves having understood the value of farming. They only made it possible for themselves. Young men who are in the city have no jobs that is those who should have been in the space of agriculture. What a wasteful nation. The issue of subsidies for PMS (petrol) could have been dealt with several years ago. A plan to solve this problem has been abandoned. Now the problem looks unsolvable. The Government response is to abandon the problem.

In Lagos the Federal Secretariat was projected to serve as flats for Nigerians in diaspora who planned to return. The project has long been abandoned for over 20 years. It is common to see many abandoned high-rise buildings in Lagos. Can you imagine if that space was transformed to serve as a General hospital? Can you imagine how many people would be gainfully employed? The NITEL Building in Marina acquired by former Speaker Bankole, was abandoned over two decades ago; the Federal Guest House in Victoria Island, Lagos, the NICON Building, the National Oil building and so many others have similarly been abandoned. For administrative reasons, we kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Only the buildings that belong to the banks seem to be working.

Why has the subsidy solution been abandoned? So also are the three refineries in Nigeria, the activation of which must be an integral part of dealing with this unsupportable subsidy? Is the subsidy regime not surviving because it provides incredible wealth to the unsatisfiable piranhas along the food chain of oil? Today the conventional wisdom is that 80% of our oil is stolen. Shell has just warned that the oil industry is in danger of collapse.

In MM2 there is a skeleton of a 5-star airport hotel abandoned now for over 20 years. Near the Race Course, the former Ministry of Communications has been abandoned to squatters. The National Museum project has been abandoned and its building is now a shopping mall in King George Street.

Does the government not understand that people should be employed gainfully to occupy these buildings? Can anyone imagine the GDP of Nigeria if these buildings were functional? They buy it and they abandon it. Can anyone imagine how much money had been spent on these buildings and ridiculous amount they had been purchased for, yet abandoned.

There are more airlines that In Nigeria that have died than in any other nation of the world. Imagine how much has been sank into the airline business in Nigeria? The Nigerian Airways was killed, resurrected, died again, rebirthed and rebranded but to no avail. Yet other airlines who came to learn from us still proudly have their airlines in operation, Ghana Airline, Ethiopian Airline and Kenyan Airline to mention but a few.

Today we have aviation fuel issues and we complain while all the other African and European airlines while complaining are still thriving. The other airlines use the same Aviation fuel yet they fly. Arik once had 19 planes and today it is in receivership just like Aero. Where are all the gains? When these businesses die, the organizations set up to run them continues, despite their high running costs. If all the airlines were running, there would be more people employed. In the airline industries, they can’t pay salaries and the unions continue to threaten. The airlines unions threaten strikes and sometimes they discharge the airlines of their duties. And we expect the country to function?

The Steel plants in Ajaokuta, and the oil refineries in Warri, PH and Kaduna are all mothballed. (By the way it was the Ukrainians who built the Ajaokuta Steel Plants).

The Ajaokuta steel plant occasioned the building of the railways to Warri, now it is a useless moribund white elephant project. Apart from the Ajaokuta Steel Plant, Nigeria built 6 Steel rolling mills which have all been abandoned.

In 1975, the government built twelve brick-making factories, one in each State. They have all been abandoned.

Nigeria had a Peugeot assembly plant and Volkswagen in Badagry and in Enugu, Mercedes Benz had the Anamco Truck Assembly plant. All the ancillary industries that were supposed to support the industries across these value chains were built but are now abandoned yet the civil service had no diminution in their pay despite the death of these industries. The loss of working opportunities in Nigeria was obviously fantastic.

The employment rate in Nigeria of 15% can never sustain the nation. The aluminium smelting plant in the south East and the newsprint plant in the South East have equally been abandoned, so also are the numerous cement plants.

Each of these major investments has ended up not being able to produce and achieve its purpose. There is no realization that the failure to make these enterprises work, is the major reason why our recurrent expenditure is skewered. Nigeria at one time had about 22 textile plants, at the moment, we have none.

The abandonment is particularly galling for the industry had encouraged the growing of cotton which made Nigeria self-sufficient in cotton production. It is true that our cotton had to blend with the long-stem cotton which we imported from Egypt.

With the great research done on cotton and the backward integration made in Cotton, Nigeria should have been a major player in the production of textiles. It is not so today.

Nigeria could have been like Uzbekistan which today is the 6th largest cotton producer in the world, employing two million people. No industry in Nigeria employs two million people.

We had sugar and that is also now a failure. We had timber which was cut and sold but no timber trees had been replanted over the years.

Cocoa and groundnut have gone moribund. Ghana is still producing cocoa and is a second-world producer. Nigeria used to produce more than Ghana. A major world producer.

Malaysia came to borrow palm fruit from Nigeria and today we are the major importers of Malaysian palm produce of which Malaysia is the largest world producer. Nigeria used to be the largest Palm producer in the world.

Nigeria had fed Europe with a lot of cashew products which we no longer have. Anambra and Imo were the greatest cashew producers, we were the second cashew producers second only to India. Nigeria had no competitor in the production of groundnuts. We do not produce enough for home consumption.

Some ingenious agricultural scientists were able to produce a formula for cassava flour to be used for baking, especially of bread. No one is baking with cassava flour today. There is a scarcity of wheat now due to the war in Ukraine.

We were in bed with North Korea to give us technical advice from 1976 for rice production. This present administration’s agenda for rice growing will probably just die like everything else. There are other countless projects that have been abandoned. As of today, there is evident lethargy. Nothing we are doing now will make much of a difference.

It is ironic that we should have problems with cattle. We had a vibrant leather- Hides and Skin Industry 25 years ago and now, I don’t think one pelt of leather is being made now nor are we exporting any leather. The saddest thing is that the expertise all of these endeavours had produced, is perhaps now lost forever.

The Banker’s Verification number issue has merely increased an unnecessary cost in the Banking Sector. The CBN wakes up one morning and orders the issue of new chequebooks and phases out all the old ones with no explanation. When you see the new chequebook, you see that the signatory section of the cheque was moved to the left and the amount moved to the right. These adjustments are a waste of money. It is clear that some contracts had been awarded to some favoured souls.

We were told that NIN was to help stop corruption. We have evidence that it is easier now to hack into people’s accounts. The NIN, BVN, and POS are all making it easier to hack our systems leaving people vulnerable.

There are stories that in about 11 minutes a person’s account was cleaned out after numerous withdrawals. It doesn’t give any defence but makes it easier for one to make a POS transaction and by the time he sleeps and wakes up, his entire account is cleared. All because she used a POS to pay for excess baggage on a flight from Lagos to Abuja. Over 1 million disappeared from the account.

The Bank account I had in New Zealand in 1962 is still the same account I have which hasn’t changed to date, but the accounts I’ve had in Nigeria have had to change severally. We are always verifying and updating data, yet the banking system remains very inefficient in fishing out those who commit financial fraud against its customers and their accounts.

You go to London and New York and other parts of the world and buy a sim card and it begins to work but in Nigeria, you must do all manner of registrations to get a sim card activated. They say it is for security reasons. Now all this documentation leaves people more vulnerable than ever, yet they will say they can’t fish out the criminals that are terrorizing the Nation.
The Universal Basic Education
If the Universal Basic Education (UBE) embarked on in 1974 had been followed, Nigeria would by now be the most educated nation in Africa and would compare favourably with Europe.

The such an educational level would lead to general efficiency. It would lead to the employment of more people and all the abandoned jobs will be filled, reduce corruption; encourage accountability and other regulatory reforms that would lead to efficiency and affluence.

This was meant to be an education scheme for everyone in Nigeria. It failed not because it wasn’t good nor well-intentioned. It failed for political reasons. The Federal Government had established a matching fund for states for universal basic education. Many states forged the numbers of students in school to benefit from the granny.

Others claimed federal funds for establishing almajiri schools; others claimed money for establishing iterant schools which they claimed followed cattle traders as they moved from place to place in the itinerant Muslim schools. The upshot of all these activities is that Nigeria has the largest number of uneducated young people in the world. Again education was an abandoned project.

We had Unity Schools that were supposed to enable people from different ethnic groups to mix and live together. It was meant to reduce tribalism and entrench Nigerians. It worked for a few decades and died.

Even in the Universities, the Vice Chancellors were mandated not to work in their state of origin. They were posted all over and none worked in his state of origin but now we have in Ibadan people who are demonstrating that the next Vice-Chancellor must come from Ibadan.

The same agitation is going on in Ife. Now tribalism has reared its ugly head in academia. The Military was able to implement these Nigerianness measures but now it is a huge loss that ethnicity has taken even stronger root, especially for these appointments in that the Federal Government has the sole responsibility.

Federal Government set up a tree-planting scheme, but it failed. It was abandoned. The Federal Universities are looking so dilapidated today and in a worse situation than the State-owned universities

Dr. Cole, OFR , is Nigeria’s former Ambassador to Brazil.

-The Guardian