Utomi: Why Nigeria Underperforms

DECEMBER 2 was a remarkable day in many ways. It was national day in Dubai, and around the world many waited with bated breath for FIFA to announce those triumphant in the sweepstakes of the would be host of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals. As for me I sat for hours inside an aircraft at Heathrow Airport after a few days of amusement at how the British made much of the snowfall that the Chicago residents I would meet later that weekend would have considered quite mild. I eventually departed London and arrived Dubai in the early hours of December 3. All this while, I thought mainly of Nigeria and our continuing slide in the estimation of serious minded people around the world. The melancholy mood received further impetus from the book I read on the flight, Rob Yeungi's The Extra One Percent.

The weekend before, I had shared my thoughts on the possibilities for Africa at an event at the University Collage London. Images from that engagement followed me until we touched down in Dubai. At 3am there was huge traffic jam that stretched travel time from the major motorway to the Jumeirah beach location of my hotel from the usual five minutes to one hour. The young people of Dubai were celebrating national day until the dawn of the following day, in great revelry, standing through sliding roofs of their cars. Many draped the bonnets of their cars with banners bearing the flag of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the image of the amazing ruler of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed. If you have this level of success and transformation of a society in so short a time you have earned a celebration. I could contrast the spirit of those early morning hours in Dubai with October 1st as Nigeria celebrated 50 years, and citizens was save it as a government activity that sometimes was a bother and burden on the people.

As if this opportunity to see how success raises patriotic fervour in citizens was not enough, I finally reached my hotel and by reflex, turned on the television for news. Across the Gulf, the people of Quatar, were in wild celebration of success in winning the World Cup bid. A country of less than two million people, mainly guest workers living with 200,000 Quataris is had won the heart of FIFA. I did not have much time to think of my English friends who had been led to believe it was a cliffhanger in which Sepp Blatters casting vote would determine outcome in their favour for 2018. That they got only two votes did not seem quite as significant as watching the bright and articulate young Quatari Prima who led their bid team.

As he painted visual images of what the hosting rights would do for his country and how infrastructure would be transformed to make soccer in the desert bearable for millions of visitors I could not but think it was unlikely Nigeria could ever make a bid led by so articulate a person even though Nigeria can produce tens of the thousands of more articulate persons. The capture of the Nigerian state by a culture of mediocrity was immediately very obvious, as I reflected. It reminded me of a 1983 experience. He may not recall it well but the comment of Prof Onuora Nwuneli, former head of the department of Mass Communication at the University of Lagos has been ever fresh in my consciousness. Speaking to a young man he had watched on TV the night before, he said, with much affection, and a certain sense of sorrow, to the young man; "I fear you will have a miserable life here. This country despises articulate people". In the nearly 30 years since those words, every day seems to bear witness to the truth of those words.

Nigeria's continuous failing, as a civilization, attests to the consequence of such a culture. Every time I watch CNN, Market place Middle East I see very articulate young people from the Gulf States unfold their dreams; yet few of them are as articulate as the many Nigerians in that hall at the University Collage that I addressed in London; I am reminded of why Nigeria lies prostrate in an age of progress. The moment also reminded me of Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi's comments to me on return from the OPEC meeting as head of Nigeria's delegation in 1998. While some delegations like Indonesia had smart looking youngmen with laptop computers feeding information to the leader of their delegation, ours looked like orphans.

Some of the consequences of the way we are, were, incidentally well analyzed in Rob Yeung's charming volume on how small changes make exceptional people, the book I brought along for the London-Dubai leg: The extra one percent. Foremost of the eight capabilities of exceptional people in Yeung's framework was "Awe". This has to do with open-mindedness about new possibilities. Another capability is citizenship – the tendency to consider the broader impact of what they do and how it affects everybody around them. Yet another of the eight is visioning. Low citizenship in political actors, poor visioning and limited awe on the part of many who occupy leadership positions ensure that Nigeria continues to be talked about as a country of great potential with hardly any real progress. This is so evident in the cost of governance palaver and the reaction of the National Assembly to comments by the CBN Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. In trying to intimidate the Central Bank Chief they miss the point. It is not about the quantum of waste, five percent, 10% or 25% of the budget.

It is about the social justice of income distribution and about value added to the advance of the Common Good and the enhancement of the quality of life of most of society. It is evident that the Nigerian people are not getting value for the cost of its legislators. In serious democracies the benefit of the legislature is in the rigor which the "complex redundancy" it brings, offers. Few would argue that the National Assembly and our state legislators save enough costs in improved policy outcomes that can justify their cost to the tax payer who increasingly sees the politicians as an army of occupation. A few politicians of vision can change this. Which takes us back to Dubai?

The night after I arrived I was sharing pre dinner drinks on the sky light plat- form of the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel. From that 51st floor overlooking the city with the World's tallest building, the Busy Khalifa just to the side, one of the guests remarked how ten years ago he came to a nearby shopping area with a cousin visiting from the US; and the ruler of Dubai drove up. As he stepped out of the driver's seat of the Mercedes, The Pakistanis told his cousin that was the miracle worker. His cousin offered congratulations to the Sheik who calmly said we are only just beginning, just stay tuned. Our friend thought it was a little flippant then, but 10 years has shown how not flippant the expression of a vision can be. Why is a Nigeria with great endowments so much further behind. Each time I visit or stop over in Dubai, which is several times a year I am gripped by this puzzle.

What makes the Nigerian under performance so pathetic is the endowments are more than adequate to create a Dubai in each of Nigeria's six geopolitical zones. Unfortunately an anti-intellectual articulate-people despising political class has left a regime of mediocrity the legacy of these times. Then there is the failure of citizenship, a different kind of citizenship than Rob Yeungs. This is the traditional notion of citizenship as engaged members of community holding those in authority accountable. This is what makes government act in the interest of the people. But citizenship is not alive in Nigeria. People presume that showing no care to profit little gains and comfort zones offer security. As we go through these times described as a tripling point it is hard not to remember the elite of Liberia and Sierra Leone before the revenge of the poor. All paid dearly. How do you get those in pursuit of power to have a more people-centred conscience?

Professor Utomi is a political economist and politician.