In the first part of this article last week, I wrote about what I consider to be the two faces of Nigeria. On the one hand is the disgraceful face put forward by the most visible/public elements of our infrastructure â€“ roads, airports, railways, etc â€“ especially at the federal level (unto whom much is givenâ€¦)
On the other hand is the idea of "Nigeria Rising", evinced by the steady stream of Nigerians returning to the country from the Diaspora.
The return home is of course part of a wider African Renaissance, happening everywhere from Accra to Mogadishu to Juba to Lagos to Nairobi. It is now noticeable enough to warrant newspaper and magazine features, a "Move Back To Nigeria" website, and even a mention in Chimamanda Adichie's latest novel, Americanah (the fictional â€˜Nigerpolitan Club', formed in Lagos by a band of returnees).
Six years ago, the opportunities for these "repats" lay mainly in banking and telecoms, oil and gas, and government. Today, people come home wanting to build artistic careers or advocacy campaigns, launch new companies (focusing on everything from e-commerce to micro finance to online learning to recycling to internship placements), and even run for public office.
There are now more opportunities than ever before, some of them from the government (there are indeed some bright lights and inspiring stories from those traditionally depressing realms). You can apply for a YouWin grant, or aspire to be a "Nagropreneur". There's the TechLaunchPad initiative from the Ministry of Communications Technology. There's also the Bank of Industry managed Entertainment Fund, and any number of local and foreign venture capitalists and private equity funds keen to put money into smart ideas.
App contests, film competitions, writing workshops and festivals, home-grown musicals, arts auctions â€“ it is now quite possible to aspire to lead a life focused on creating art and technology.
And these opportunities are very much open to those who stayed home as well. For the middle-class, it's an exciting time to be alive and Nigerian. (Further down the ladder, I'm not sure there's much to be excited about).
It is definitely something worth interrogating; the surge in interest and excitement in Nigeria, considering that power supply has not yet improved appreciably, the roads are not safer, the hospitals not more capable of saving lives, the police not more capable of protecting us, and broadband paradise still no less a mirage today than yesterday.
But a renaissance is here amidst us, no doubt. That much we can all agree on, whilst we debate the reasons and triggers for it. Next year, Nigeria will be hosting the World Economic Forum on Africa for the first time ever (Abuja), as well as the World Book Capital (Port Harcourt).
The nagging question is this: How do we tame the dichotomy between that flowering of "Nigeria Rising" â€“ very real even if still largely impressionistic â€“ on the one hand, and the equally vibrant flowering of "Nigeria Decaying" (the stubborn, shamelessly dysfunctional state of public infrastructure) on the other hand? (Let me state at this point that I realise that on the one level, there’s a simple and logical connection between the two faces: there’s so much opportunity because there’s so much dysfunctionality!)
How do we deal with this surreal picture: A country headed in two different directions at the same time; a country that makes rushing back home to pursue life and big dreams, and rushing out to pursue a decent death (in a foreign hospital, for those who can afford it) equally fashionable?
The answer seems obvious. We need to start focusing on proving to ourselves that Nigeria can work at the most basic and visible level: that of public infrastructure such as roads, railway lines, airports, hospitals. The boost in self-confidence from achieving success at that will provide the impetus needed to tackle the more complicated aspects of our national disaster.
The problem with the Federal Government is that it is too half-hearted, too easily satisfied with mediocrity, in its approach to infrastructure. This government is too caught up in its shrill cries of transformation to realise that what is happening, from the point of view of the average Nigerian, is FAR from transformative.
When we see transformation, we will know it. Ask them about successfully completed ambitious road projects and they shove a few meager efforts at you, expecting high praise, and throwing tantrums when they fail to get it.
The reality is that the closest thing to transformative infrastructure projects is happening at the state level: you will need to go to Abeokuta, or Uyo, or Calabar, or Lagos, or Kano, or Ado-Ekiti, or Port Harcourt, to see anything that looks like ambition at play. Compared to this, the Federal Government is fast asleep, and deluded to boot.
Policy and legislative "reforms" often take time, as we've seen from the long and difficult journey of the power sector reforms, to cite one example. And while they are happening the people do not recognise that anything positive is happening. They will remain critical of the government, accusing it of doing nothing to make life easier.
What any sensible government therefore ought to then do is work hard at two levels: Combining the slow, painful, takes-time-to-see-the-positive-results work of sector reform (power, banking, oil and gas, civil service, etc) with the quick-wins and instantly-visible work of ambitious construction projects. This of course requires hands-on commitment from the "Ogas At The Top" (the President and his cabinet); the political will must not only be present but must be seen to be present.
In the case of our own Federal Government, on many fronts, real ambition has been elevated to the realms of rocket science. Which then explains why, as someone put it, we have a Federal Government shamelessly boasting about things that should better be left to local governments to take pride in.
Going by that theory of ambition, real transformation at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport would mean unveiling plans to build a new terminal, instead of thinking you're doing us a great favour by awarding repainting and re-flooring contracts.
Real transformation would mean starting work on building a small independent power plant for the airports, instead of spending $4m buying cars. (From my calculations, $4m should be enough to build a small gas-powered power plant that will provide more than enough power for the Lagos airports complex â€“ MMIA, MM2 and GAT).
A brand new terminal or power plant would have been a win-win scenario. The airports would gain a power plant, and witness an end to the embarrassing failures of diesel generators that regularly throw them into darkness; the authorities would get a chance to come across as being ambitious and visionary in a clime starved of such.
And, quite importantly, since it would involve layers of contract awards â€“ considering the Nigerian context; that contract padding is a routine practice everywhere across the public and private sectors â€“ those behind the construction project would still be able to make/steal some cool money from the deal.
It's not rocket science, as far as I'm concerned. But no. They chose the least publicly useful and most inane way to spend $4m worth of aviation money â€“ buy cars. Obviously, they chose that because all they were thinking of was the ease and speed of making money.
I have a dream, that one day, Nigerian public officials will, faced with making a choice between various options to award inflated contracts, make their decision not merely on the speed and ease of personal gain, but also factor in such considerations as "lasting legacy", "ambition of vision" and "maximum public benefit".
In other words, in the face of finite resources: A new, "this-cant-be-Nigeria" road or flyover instead of new official cars or official jet; a brand new, jaw-dropping hospital or housing estate instead of a new "state-of-the-art" Government House.
That sort of publicly beneficial ambition is the way to go, in my opinion; and the best way to improve our chances of closing the yawning gap between the two faces of Nigeria.