by Femi Akomolafe
(Swans - October 5, 2009) "Nero fiddles while Rome burns," is a popular saying in the English language. Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus was the fifth emperor of the Roman Empire. Believed insane, he had some of his wives and mistresses killed at his whim. His mother (instrumental in making him emperor) suffered the same fate; she was executed for her criticism of his mistress. In the year 67, while Nero was fiddling away in Antium, two-thirds of the city of Rome got burnt.
Nigeria's president Musa Yar'adua is a modern day Nero. On the same day that another Islamic sect launched another assault of the Nigeria state Yar'adua embarked on a state visit to Brazil.
Apologists might say that there's nothing wrong with the chief of state going on scheduled journeys, but they will be missing some very important points, some of which are obvious to watchers of that unfortunate nation and had been pontificated in this very column.
Nigeria is an abnormal state where the machinery of government is dysfunctional at best. Yet Nigerian government officials continue to bury their heads in the sand pretending that all is well. They continue to confuse their personal well being with the state of their nation. That makes eminent sense when we consider the fact that they cannot distinguish between the state's treasury and their personal checking accounts.
The Nigerian minister of information continues to trot the globe trumpeting how sound things are in her utterly stupid "rebranding project." Good people, Great nation. That is the message the minister is carrying around the world. It is difficult to know whom the honorable minister is trying to fool. Okay, okay, large is one of the dictionary meanings of great. But if we choose to use ordinary meanings like powerful, influential or important, no one, apart from the bunch of deadly and insane looters in Abuja, will believe the lie that Nigeria is a GREAT country.
In all honesty, there's absolutely nothing great about a country that ranks seventh on the OPEC list yet cannot supply enough fuel to its citizens. There is nothing great about a country of one hundred and forty (140) million people that cannot generate enough electricity for its domestic and industrial use.
And in all honesty, the presidency of Yar'adua has been an absolute disaster. It is true that Nigeria has never had the good luck to be governed by a ruler with vision, but in sheer ineptness Yar'adua beats the former rulers, with the possible exception of Shehu Shagari, by a long stretch. It is true that Yar'adua's beginning was very inauspicious, but his two and half years in the presidency have revealed a man totally out of his depth.
With considerable fanfare Yar'adua told Nigerians that he was going to pursue a 7-point agenda with speed and vigor. Top among these is the vow to declare a state of emergency in the power sector. The generation and supply of electricity has become a major production in Nigeria with no one clued on how to resolve it. The last government of President Obasanjo claimed to have invested about US$16 billion in the sector in eight years, but like most allocations in the country, it has simply vanished into "money heaven" -- apologies to Mr. Madoff. Almost every Nigerian home now runs its own power-generating plant through generators. The attendant pollution is better left to the imagination. Many Nigerians go through life without tasting pipe-borne water. And corruption is so pervasive that it has simply become a way of life.
The presidency of any nation is supposed to be the moral compass of that nation. It is not an institution to joke about or trivialize. Yet Yar'adua has so utterly bastardised the hallowed institution that no Nigerian believes in the words of the president. Yar'adua has reduced the Nigerian presidency to a total joke that no one takes seriously anymore. Nowadays Nigerians yawn when their president comes to address them. This is sad for any nation, most especially for a country like Nigeria that calls for a firm, dedicated hand to guide it through its turbulent and very complex polity.
Amidst all the squalor all over the country, Nigerian elite, totally removed from reality, continue to beat their chests and give themselves kudos for a job well done. They continue to live and behave like they are in some cuckoo land where people exist in dreamlands. And the president is the leading act in this grotesque spectacle of chest-beating and self-congratulation. Yar'adua continues to operate like a hopeless leader without any idea what it takes to govern a nation, much less a complex one like Nigeria. And he continues to talk less and less sense.
In an interview last year with the prestigious Guardian newspaper of Nigeria, the president gave Nigerians his word that the country will be generating at least 6,000 megawatts before the end of this year. He did not equivocate; he did not qualify his assertion. In any normal country, when the president makes a declaration like that, it's taken as a gospel truth. That is so because the presidency is such an important institution that people believe that its decisions are announced only after the most careful deliberations. This is not the case in Nigeria. Since that declaration, the power generation and supply has grown increasingly worse. A few days ago, the minister in charge of the power sector came to out to inform Nigerians that the target given by the president could not be met. The questions beggared by the minister's announcement are (i) Is the president not serious at all, or (ii) does he not take Nigerians seriously to begin with, or (iii) what informed the president's confident pledge, or (iv) did the president do any homework or did he just conjure up some figures from thin air? No one is clued on how to answer these questions.
Take this for another example. The government of President Yar'adua announced an amnesty for the militant youth in the Niger Delta who have made life hellish for the thieving multinationals and their local compradors. Nigeria derives about 90-plus percent of her revenue from the Niger Delta. Operating somewhat like a colonial master, successful Nigerian governments continue to treat the Delta like a colonized outpost whose resources have to be totally and ruthlessly exploited. They continue to use the oil revenue from the Niger Delta to develop other parts of the country. In the 1970s, Lagos, for example, was transformed overnight into a modern city with tall skyscrapers, excellent flyovers, and ultra-modern highways. It was the oil that made the magic possible. It was also the oil revenue that allowed the Nigerian government to build the ultra-extravagant city of Abuja in Northern Nigeria as the new federal capital.
In the meantime, the lots of the people of the Delta were polluted creeks, with environmental devastation on a scale that simply boggles the mind. Today, the youth of the region are up in arms. What started as low-scale banditry has been transformed into a modern guerilla-cum-revolutionary movement complete with gun boats, heavy guns and the issuance of communiqué. No one took the Delta youth seriously until they started blowing up oil pipelines and loading bays. The Nigerian military, more renowned for heavy bombast than fighting capability or discipline, failed to curb the emerging threat. The cost has been devastating for the Nigerian state. Oil export has dropped to a third. From producing about three million barrel a day, the country's oil production has dropped by two-thirds, from about 3 million barrels a day to below one million and still falling. That still produces enough loot for Nigeria's otiose elite to share so that they can continue their wretched lifestyles. A governor of one of the northern states was recently shown on television spraying money at a party. His state is among the most backward in the land, yet he felt no compunction whatever to be seen obscenely displaying his looted wealth.
Nigerians were still debating the pros and the cons of the amnesty when it was announced that the government has made some very strategic decisions vis-à-vis the oil industry. One of them is a bill that would reform the industry. The other was the decision to build a university of oil technology in the northern city of Kaduna. Many Nigerians joined the Niger Deltans in questioning the sincerity of the government.
It's the oil, oil, oil, stupid! The Delta militants are fighting for control of their resources or at least to be allocated a fair share of the revenue, and yet Yar'adua criminally bypassed them to submit a bill to the national assembly without consultation with the principal owners of the wealth! The Deltans were not amused. Their governors, who had hitherto remained mute, were suddenly transformed overnight into fire-spewing revolutionaries. They joined the militants in denouncing the unilateral moves by the federal government.
The second point of building a brand new university of petroleum technology in the arid desert state of Kaduna also irked the militants and their state governors. The reason for their angst is easy to decipher when it's noted that (1) Kaduna does not produce a single drop of oil and it's hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest oil well. Students of the university have to be transported at enormous cost to the oil wells in the Delta for their research and (2) there is already an Oil Institute at Warri in Delta State (in the Delta region) that could have been easily upgraded into a university.
That is not all. In moves that suggest a virtual colonization of the oil industry by northern elite, it is pointed out that the minister for petroleum is a northerner from Kaduna state. The managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) is also from the same state. And so are most of the senior appointees of the NNPC. This untenable position would have been unacceptable to the northern elite. Yet it is this ludicrous position of collaring all strategic posts in the country that the northern oligarchists want to foist on their fellow country from the south that today derogatorily refers to the Nigerian government as the Federal Government of Northern Nigeria.
To emphasize the seriousness of their struggle and give teeth to their threat to up the ante in it, the Niger Delta militants blew up the Atlas Cove oil depot in Lagos. The garrison of soldiers and policemen guarding the supposedly strategic asset took to their heels at the approach of the militants.
Some elders of Yorubaland (Lagos is in the Yoruba part of the country) saw the attack as an affront and some Deltans living in Badagry (in Lagos state) were molested by irate Yoruba youth. The problems of the Niger Delta were suddenly transformed into an inter-tribal one with all the potentially disastrous consequences.
While all these fireworks were flying around, President Yar'adua cocooned himself in his Aso Rock Palace. There was not even a note of condolence from him to the victims of the Lagos attack. Not even a word of sympathy from the man who should be the father of the nation. And as though to rub insult on their injury, less than 24 hours after the attack on the Atlas Cove jetty, the president did what left many Nigerians baffled and many Yorubas up in arms.
What President Yar'adua did instead of condoling the aggrieved Yorubas was to give the Lagos State government a 14-day ultimatum over a legal dispute on local government reforms undertaken by the Lagos State government. To many Nigerians this was clearly the case of, to use a Yoruba proverb, Fi ete sile, ma pa lapalapa. The English language is ill equipped to capture the essence of African wise sayings but a rough rendition would be "leaving the substance to chase shadow."
It is actions like this that makes many Nigerians wonder if their leader is actually ALL RIGHT UP THERE.
Nigerians were still trying to digest that befuddling action by Yar'adua when it was announced that the president was embarking on a three-day state visit to Brazil. Nothing wrong in that per se, but official travels are totally out of place when the nation is literally burning. No, we are not talking about the Niger Delta area. Few hours before Yar'adua set out on his Brazilian visit, Muslim militants started another of their sporadic blood-letting in the name of their "peaceful" religion. A sect of militant Islamists that believes that any and all form of education is bad unleashed a reign of terror on four of Nigeria's thirty-six states.
Yar'adua gave a speech in which he ordered his troops to quell the uprising and promptly set off on his journey. Nigerians who recalled that the Chinese president, attending a summit in Rome, promptly flew home when riots broke out in a region of his country, did not hear a single word of sympathy from their leader.
A voice from Africa worth hearing... Femi Akomolafe asks you to make a donation to keep Swans going. Money is spent to pay for Internet costs, maintenance and upgrade of our computer network, and development of the site.