Development communication was my favorite course in the journalism school. I enjoyed the theories of development. From what I had learned, sensible evaluation of a society's development is possible after a period of about a decade. That is just what I did with Nigeria on a recent trip from the United States. It was tempting to look at aesthetic development, such as the millions of cell phones adorning Nigerian hands; but if one examines the fundamentals, Nigeria is on a spiralling backward journey. The basics are in a bad shape. Even under a democracy, Nigeria could not shed the garment of misrule. The stranglehold of military power brokers has not been loosened, and the attendant problems stick like glue.
It took all of 8 years and 8 months for me to return to Nigeria since I left for a new life in the United States during the Abacha years. Who would have thought it would take me this long to come back home? In fact, I had estimated ignorantly my sojourn abroad would be just for five years. However, that is another story entirely. For now, let's talk about my visit to Nigeria, nine years after.
My spirit was high, and I was excited like a little boy as the aircraft taxied out of the Newark Airport in New Jersey, even though I was departing from my dear wife and children for two weeks, the longest in all of my life as a family man. I longed to see the land of my birth, to see how far we have come as a people, and how things have changed in my absence. Above all, I was excited about seeing my extended family and friends.
London did nothing to dampen my spirit, as I made a three-hour stopover at the Heathrow Airport . The airport was lit and bustling with life, as many travelers arrived from, and departed to, various destinations. The T-Mobile Internet Cafe at the airport in London, where I sent email messages ahead of my arrival, was packed, while the phone boots were crammed with people like me making calls before arrival. I remained very excited.
During the flight to Lagos, I viewed thousands of miles of dry topography of the Sahara reflectively. I thought to myself how deserted and hopeless life must be for anyone who lived around this barren expanse. As we traveled south, the desert gave way to patches of, and then, bountiful vegetation. We circled Lagos to make the final landing and shortly after, the British Airways aircraft in whose belly I was coming home touched down at the Murtala Mohammed Airport . I was immediately overwhelmed with nostalgia, but suddenly transited to prayers to God for making me see this land alive. Lagos, here I come, I said to myself.
To what could I attribute my immediate disappointment as we filled the immigration queue at the airport in Lagos? Was it because I had been away for so long and had a fresh perspective that was not there before? There was something calming, inanimate and windless about the atmosphere. Unlike the other airports through which I had passed, there was an air of dejection and melancholy in Lagos. Some officials were dressed unprofessionally in slippers and other loose-fitting apparels, the furniture looked worn out and dirty, and there was only one belt dispensing passenger luggage. As I was about giving up hope of collecting my luggage, the belt ejected my two bags, which I quickly grabbed and raced towards the door to meet my brother, who had been waiting for two hours to welcome me home. The airport could not spoil my joy!
I was carrying a few hundred dollars to deliver for friends. My first impulse was to call their contacts and hand over the money in my custody without delay, in case my security was breached. My brother told me we needed to recharge his phone. I said “no problem, let's recharge,” thinking it was really good to be able to make mobile phone calls, a reserve of the rich under the military a few years back. Alas! We ended up buying two thousand naira worth of cards. This was not too affordable, I murmured, even as I observed that there were now N100, N200, and N500 denominations of the currency. The highest was N50 in 1996. The naira had devalued so drastically.
I had not seen much yet. The extent to which things had worsened became increasingly stark as we drove towards Iyana Ipaja on this hot June night in Lagos . There were no street lights, and Okada motorcycles were riding in every direction imaginable, oblivious of any traffic rules. Most cars' headlights were at best dim, the roads were tortuous, and my heart raced as my brother navigated the back roads of Agege to avoid traffic along the Abeokuta Expressway. By the time we got to Sango Ota, I had begun to wonder why Lagos should look like a war-ravaged zone when the world oil price was at an all-time high. Just what had been going on?
At Sango Ota, it took me several minutes to realize we actually had electricity. The light was so dim, it could not have been much different if we had the lanterns on. The lights were so bad, two of my brother's television sets got blown up by NEPA's electrical output within two weeks. Not far away in Ipaja, NEPA had disconnected thousands of customers in a blanket rave for three weeks, irrespective of whether they paid or not, just to make some debtors pay. And no one thought about suing NEPA for such a blatant disregard for the law. The only good deed from NEPA was to provide electricity to these communities for a couple of hours to watch the FIFA World Youth World Cup. Power generating sets had become an essential buy in Lagos . Almost everyone I knew had one. And they all certainly stored petroleum in their houses, in a city where fire fighters were virtually non-existent.
Early first morning, I walked around the neighborhood for a quick feel of the town. I noticed that most young people wore the uniforms of what I was told were private elementary and secondary schools. Upon this revelation, I visited a public primary school not too far away from the Temperance Farms, President Olusegun Obasanjo's home and business. What I saw was stunning: a school without a toilet, electricity or water. Its doors were broken, and the dilapidation drew tears. I felt the pains of those pupils and their parents, who were still trapped in those totally messed premises called public school. A picture of the school is now displayed on againstbabangida.com for all to see.
Public education is almost completely destroyed at the early levels. The extent to which the rot is setting in at the tertiary level is seen by the spate of licensing of public universities, of which President Obasanjo and his assistant, Atiku Abubakar, are direct beneficiaries. A couple of my lecturer friends at the University of Lagos informed me it would cost about N1.2million naira per student to attend Atiku's university. It would be in Atiku and Obasanjo's economic interest for the public university system to fail. The duo are a moral failure. Their fight for transparent governance parallels Abacha's fight for democracy. I saw university students in Lagos and Ile-Ife, and sensed there was not so much fun left in being an undergraduate on campus.
I set out in a Ford Scorpio car I had arranged through a friend to use during my stay on a trip to Ibadan and Osogbo. I drove through Abeokuta, Obasanjo's hometown. The only development that was noticeable were the various image-boosting billboards of the state governor. It took three hours of continuous driving to get to Ibadan from Sango-Ota. When I arrived Osogbo two days after, my spirit was slightly lifted. This was the only place I could manage to say experienced some measure of physical change in the period of my absence, although some people I shared this with in the town disagreed. The state secretariat had been completed - I heard, on the sweat of civil servants, who were either sacked or made to subsidize the construction from their paychecks during the administration of Governor Bisi Akande.
As I drove round in the next 12 days or so, it all came down to one simple fact for me: Nigeria had experienced little or no development at all in the past nine years. I did not get lost driving, not once, since everywhere looked the same, untouched by the hands of development. The cities and towns looked older like the people I know, and certainly worse from lack of maintenance. The motor vehicles, save for a newer model now and then mostly owned by governments and companies, could not have looked more rickety, frail and antiquated. I saw an ambulance and burst out in laughter as I thought about the risk of riding in it. People still went through hell to get to work and return home. The roads are definitely worse. No infrastructure could be said to have been completely rehabilitated. The pipe-borne water just rehabilitated in Osogbo before I traveled had returned to its erratic supply. You could not stop at traffic lights at night for fear of being robbed. The police, even the road safety corps, took bribes without shame or fear. One of them asked for a Glo recharge card as bribe in Apapa. Soldiers still set up road blocks to collect bribes from motorists. Civil servants slept on duty with careless abandon at the Lagos secretariat in Alausa, where I had covered two state governors as a newspaper reporter many years before. It was business as I knew it. Not much had changed.
If there was change at all, it was with the mobile phones. Every street corner had become a phone card recharge center. Street hawkers had a new item to sell. People were holding cell phones everywhere, which was not a bad sight at all. A new source of employment had sprung up. It was a good development, but how good? Most users were recharging the phones at the expense of filling their stomach. An average friend of mine had at least two phones and several sim cards, as the phone networks operated in utter unreliability with jammed networks at peak periods. I bought a card that would not recharge for over two hours. The mobile phone companies were milking Nigerians dry as they offered poor services at outrageously exorbitant prices they would not have been able to unleash on their home countries. I heard the phone companies had silenced government officials with free recharge cards for their phones. Smart fellows.
Mobile telephony was not the only development visible. There were Mr Biggs, On the Run and other fast food joints selling junk food at mouth-opening costs to their customers. While the rest of the world was doing away with junk food, Nigerians were just getting crazy about it. Those who could display the most fashionable handsets and eat at Mr. Biggs were the most hip in the society.
Every time I buy a consumer product, I do check to see where it was manufactured. More often than not, consumer products now come from the far east Asia, the Caribbeans or Egypt . Dell, Netgear and other major computer companies are relocating more of their businesses to India , Malaysia and the like. None of these international businesses come to Nigeria where affordable skilled labor is bountiful. Nigeria has a large population of English-speaking skilled professionals, an irresistible factor of production in the global economy. I have always wondered why these products are not being made in Nigeria.
The answer is not far-fetched. No one would invest in Nigeria on the account of Mr Biggs, V-Mobile or Glo. Simple things such as functioning street and traffic lights, motorable roads, community policing, electricity, drinkable water, a good healthcare system and an acceptable public education are the catalysts of development. Just like nine years ago, these infrastructure are in a deplorable state.
As I drove to the airport to depart, I saw a billboard soliciting Ibrahim Babangida's return to the presidency at Ikeja. I was quickly reminded how we got to this bad spot. Those who have stolen the national wealth are not satisfied with the much they have. They want more and more and more. No matter how much wealth a nation has, if the pilfering hands never stop working, there is never going to be enough left to to build the house. They know as long as they circulate their ill-gotten wealth, there would be hungry foot soldiers ready to do the dirty works. That Babangida is rehabilitating successfully is evidence nothing has really changed. Not him, not us, not our society. Things are still the same, folks!
Nigeria 's development has been arrested by myopic governance, greedy leaders, morally-unconscious citizenry, and a corrupt elite. Our country is starving for development. We have the power and ability. However, we are so busy punishing ourselves that we can't even see our failure clearly. After almost nine years of staying outside of the country, I could not say, in fact, we have made any real strides as a nation from what I saw. To those living abroad, who come back from Nigeria with the report that things are much better, I say you are so blind. The few people and places doing better are infinitesimal. If things are that better, why are you still shacking abroad. Nigeria is far worse than I left it almost nine years ago. It takes the ordinary eyes to see.