By Muyiwa Adetiba
My pre-Independence thoughts are hazy. Understandably so given my age at Independence. But I still recollect growing up with local police around.
They were well dressed in short Khaki with the baton at the side or in the hand. They were unobtrusive yet ubiquitous. I can’t recollect we kids, or in fact anybody, being afraid of them. The first time I recollect seeing the Mobile Police was during the famous ‘Wetie’ in the Western Region.
They appeared well-drilled in their formations. As for soldiers? Hardly ever. But then I was young and sequestered – hardly venturing outside my mother’s radar. Besides, Ilesha was relatively peaceful back in the days. People slept with doors open and two eyes closed. Farmers went to the farms unmolested and left farm produce by the roadside for bargain hunters.
Food was plenty but venison was rare. The point of contact for most housewives for meat was not the herder but those at the lowest rung of the supply chain- the ‘alapatas’ – who went from house to house. Cow-hide and organs were not the delicacy they are now. They were needed ‘protein’ for the lower-middle class.
Then there were people from ‘okeoya’ – literally meaning the upper side of River Niger – who had perfected the art of trading by barter. They brought suitcases and appliances in exchange for fairly used household goods. Trading by barter was a task for the initiated. Yet as hard as bargaining could be, abuses were rare and violence non- existent. Pre-Independence life was mostly outdoor. It was communal. It was respecting the other person next door or on the street irrespective of tribe.
As for infrastructures, the expectations were low but basic necessities were met. My primary school was a walking distance. The public tap was a walking distance. The church, our spiritual home, was a walking distance. This might be difficult for those much younger to believe, but I never heard of a generator growing up. Yet we had light to read with. The few tarred roads remained so. Those from the Public Works Department (PWD) filled pot holes before they became gullies. The intra and inter State roads were narrow but well maintained. Trains worked and they employed thousands. My belief at pre-Independence, and this extended to the early years of Independence, was that you could live your life without bothering about those at the centre.
Now, after sixty years of Independence, meaning sixty years of running our own show, we still can’t seem to get beyond promising roads and schools and electricity and trains. The soap-box promises of the Awolowo era in the fifties are still basically what our politicians promise today.The ethnic card the old politicians played is still being played except that we have now added the religious card. Meanwhile, the quality of representation; the character of political leadership; the motive for seeking public office, have changed significantly for worse over the years. The result is that the country is medieval in a digital age and sharply divided with it. Even the roads and schools and electricity and trains they met sixty years ago, have not been improved upon in relative terms. A classmate who has been living and practicing as a medical doctor in the UK for about four decades had this to say on our set platform last week. ‘Just been home. The metaphor I held in my mind as I departed is that of an enormous slave camp. Health, water, electricity, education are all a lottery stochastic existence for millions as determined for the few as is possible. Culture is the template on which history will keep repeating itself unless we change it. How dare the President spend our money on his health?’
His summation on Nigeria, the land of his birth, is as deep as it is troubling. Can we deny that Nigeria has become a big slave camp run by a few slave owners known for want of a better word, as the elite? Can we deny that the basic things promised in the Awolowo era are now as random lottery for as few Nigerians as is possible? And how would you feel as a Nigerian doctor who left his home and dear ones for the UK because of economic reasons seeing your elite including the President queueing up in UK hospitals for treatment? He left us with a solution though. We have to change the mind-set that that allows history to keep repeating itself; the ‘Rankadede’ culture that allows a few to manipulate and abuse our psyche.
Each time a Governor comes on TV to commission roads or bridges with funfair, I roll my eyes with ‘here we go again’. A serious government should not be celebrating the building of roads or schools. That should be a basic, routine stuff for Local Governments. Yet we have a culture that celebrates this mediocrity. We wear ‘AsoEbi’ to celebrate the commissioning of a 10 km road. At the end of four years, the Governor mounts the soap-box again promising four more years of asphalt deprived roads and chicken-shed schools and we clap for him.
Meanwhile his children are attending the best schools in Europe while he patronises the best hospitals. Nobody bothers to ask him how many jobs he created in his four years. Or how many people he lifted out of poverty. Or how he was able to grow the GDP of his State. Or how many foreign investors his policies were able to attract. Elsewhere, serious leaders grow the economy not unemployment. They promote equality, not serfdom. But here, our Governors don’t bother about local economy as long as money falls on their laps. They don’t care about promoting the ease of doing business or entrepreneurship as long as they can collect their allocation from Abuja. They don’t care about population control as long as it is politically expedient.
It is on this note if anything else, that I welcome the VAT interpretation of Rivers State. Whatever the outcome, and I don’t have the lenses to see the outcome, I see it as one way of jolting the Federal Government and constituent States from fiscal slumber. Let the States begin to look inwards. The more businesses the Governors can bring to their States and the more productive enterprises they can encourage, the more IGR and VAT they can collect. More importantly, the less youth restiveness Nigeria will have to contend with. And in line with my classmate’s injunction of changing the culture that allows history to repeat itself, this VAT interpretation is more than a way of pushing for fiscal restructuring. It is a way of looking at the mirror.
And in the words of Stevie Wonder, ‘Let’s get serious’. With governance.