By Donu Kogbara
Last week, I recalled Alhaji Atiku Abubakar saying, when I interviewed him many years ago that he regretted the fact that it was very difficult for average citizens to survive or thrive if they didn’t have access to influential people who were willing to help them and that he would be very happy if our society eventually evolved to the point where the government provided safety nets that would enable everyone to get what they needed and deserved.
I have already applauded Atiku for being the only Nigerian VIP I’ve met who has described the personalisation of patronage and welfare as undesirable; and I would like to dwell on this issue at greater length in today’s column.
The widespread dependence on personal contacts in this country has many negative implications. It damages us psychologically. It puts too much power in the hands of people who are in strong positions and are often prone to rampant megalomania and cruelty.
It prevents talented folks who aren’t well-connected from forging ahead. It undermines our economy. It is a serious social problem.
When intelligent and honourable people who can contribute so much are relegated to the shadows or fringes simply because they don’t have godfathers to whom they can turn, the nation is deprived of valuable human resources.
When a child who could have become a great engineer, footballer, nurse, artist, entrepreneur, tailor or whatever dies or cannot fulfil its potential because its parents could not afford to pay for education, vocational training or medical treatment and didn’t have any relatively affluent friend or relative or mentor from whom they could collect assistance, a terrible tragedy has occurred.
Nigeria is full of rogues, sadists and incompetents who are doing very well within various contexts – universities, the civil service, the political arena, the armed forces, hospitals, etc – ONLY because they had access to someone who had clout and was willing to empower and protect them, often for dubious reasons.
There are so many women, both married and single, who only wound up in privileged positions because they don’t know the meaning of sexual morality and slept their way to the top. There are so many men who were exposed to enviable opportunities solely because they had thuggish, corrupt auras and were lucky enough to bump into bad Big Boys who were looking for partners-in-crime.
If your main ambitions in life are to rig elections or force yourself on populations or steal as much as possible or philander endlessly or kill whenever you think you can get away with snuffing out someone you don’t like, you will elevate dodgy and destructive characters above the decent and productive!
There are so many folks of both genders who have no discernible skills and whose only credential is the fact that they are shamelessly sychophantic or come from a tribe that happens to be reigning in a particular environment.
I once came across a major dignitary who informed me, after he had had too much to drink, that he frequently helps people to secure key posts because they are so daft or cowardly that they can be easily manipulated!
When a governor selects a moron or cultist to be your local government chairman simply because the moron or cultist is his cousin or his girlfriend’s brother, you can kiss goodbye to any development or peace in your area.
The thing that annoys me most about these unworthy beneficiaries of patronage is that they occupy slots that should have gone to infinitely superior candidates who may not know anyone important but are so smart, honest, innovative and courageous that they could – if they had been assembled into a crack team by a far-sighted and selfless leader – have dragged Nigeria into the 2lst century.
And it’s not just on a highly visible macro level that we suffer because of the unmeritocratic and irresponsible manner in which patronage is all too often distributed. Plenty of seemingly minor jobs are not as minor as they look and when they go to the wrong people, havoc or paralysing hopelessness can descend on village or township schools, health centres, PHCN outlets, etc, etc, etc.
And while we are being tormented and held back by inadequates, more capable types are languishing uselessly in the soul-destroying, confidence-undermining and mind-numbing hell that is long-term unemployment…or simply engaging in dreary income-earning activities that are way beneath their capabilities.
Nigerian government officials need to be less myopic, less selfish, less nepotistic and less cronyistic. They must face up to the challenge of ensuring that more above-average people who can add value get their feet on the first rung of the ladder…and are enabled to climb as high as they can.
And the government doesn’t just need to encourage those who are especially clever or skilled. It also needs to take good care of the weak and forgotten.
There are quite a few charities and kind-hearted individuals in Nigeria, but they cannot help everyone who needs help, so they make decisions on the basis of the answers to questions such as: Who seems more likeable, who seems more needy, who speaks your language, who belongs to your church or mosque. And so on.
But it isn’t acceptable for the destinies of the many to depend on the whims and subjective judgements of the few, however well-intentioned the few may be. Most welfare initiatives should be objectively administered by government.