OUTSIDE THE BOX: TALKING ABOUT A REVOLUTION – BY ALEX OTTI

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Don’t you know

They’re talking about a revolution

It sounds like a whisper

While they’re standing in the welfare lines

Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation

Wasting time in the unemployment lines

Sitting around waiting for a promotion

Don’t you know

They’re talking about a revolution

It sounds like a whisper

Poor people gonna rise up

And get their share

Poor people gonna rise up

And take what’s theirs

Above are the lyrics of a hit song by Tracy Chapman, the Cleveland, Ohio-born musician who took the world by storm in 1988. Her music has remained evergreen even as she continues to sing at 55 and indeed, the message contained in the lyrics has continued to resonate even more as the world  sinks further into deprivation and widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots

More than 30 years after its release, it looks and feels increasingly like the song was actually a prophecy made for Nigeria. Recent happenings around RUGA, Fulani Herdsmen, Boko Haram, kidnappings, abductions, armed robbery, killings, ultimata and counter ultimata point in only one direction –  an impending revolution, even if it still sounds like a whisper. The situation developing in Nigeria is eerily similar to that captured by Gabriel Marcia Marquez, the Nobel Prize winner in literature in his book, ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’. It was about a certain murder that was about to be committed, which everybody knew was going to take place, the murderer announced to everyone that he was going to carry out the act, yet no one stopped him and he went ahead to carry out the dastardly act! My sincere hope is that it will not be the case with us in Nigeria.

Karl Marx was one of the greatest philosophers that wrote extensively about revolution. Marx is noted to have stated, ‘‘Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!’’. His thesis was that labour was the only real factor of production and that capitalism was all about the exploitation of labour. He went further to argue that there will be a point where labour will revolt and overthrow capitalism to usher in a more modern socialist system which would eventually give way to a more perfect system, communism. This forceful overthrow is what he refers to as revolution.  Recent events have shown that his theory has virtually collapsed as more and more of the world economies including China, seem to embrace Capitalism. One interesting point that he made was that out of self preservation, the bourgeoisie would continue to make concessions to the proletarians. To the extent that these concessions were being made, the revolution would continue to be postponed.

The more one ruminates over our country, the more one’s fears are heightened that we are headed in the direction of a revolution. The current challenges pointed out above may not necessarily be the straw that will break the camel’s back. One considers these challenges as the symptoms of a more fundamental problem. Like we posited in our last column on banditry, the root cause of the problem is illiteracy, which we are not in any mood to address and even if we were, the results would only begin to show after some years. Ignorance, hunger, disease, poverty, squalor, injustice, corruption and bad governance are all part of the symptoms . When fellow countrymen look at what they have to grapple with to earn a living and the apparent lack of care from the society, some of them resign to fate and become available for anything at all, from the profound to the profane. That explains why we are ravaged by one of the oldest forms of crime – robbery. The hopeless young people begin by picking pockets and graduate into armed robbery. Just as technology is improving everyday, crime also improves, such that a little pickpocket of yesterday may become the bravest kidnapper of tomorrow. To make matters worse, unlike Marxian postulation that out of self-interest, the ruling class ensures that the crumbs from their table are available for the proletariats, ours has become a society where the ruling class hijacks everything such that no crumbs are allowed to drop for the poor people. How then can we expect a peaceful society? We need to think again! The level of poverty has assumed such a dangerous dimension that we are now described as the poverty capital of the world. Yes, we hear the government wants to do something about it. With close to half of our people living below poverty line of less than N600 per day and with an estimated 6 people falling into this bracket every minute, our dream of pulling majority of our people out of poverty in a short while, will remain but a pipe dream. In the most recent data released by the Word Bank which essentially measures countries along human capital development indices, Nigeria placed 152nd out of the 157 counties ranked. We could only manage to be better than Liberia, Mali, Niger Republic, South Sudan and Chad which came last. Explaining further, the Word Bank stated “Human capital consists of the knowledge, skills, and health that people accumulate throughout their lives, enabling them to realize their potential as productive members of society. We can end extreme poverty and create more inclusive societies by developing human capital. This requires investing in people through nutrition, health care, quality education, jobs and skills.”

The issue of quality education cannot be overemphasized. Countries that have excelled did so by declaring total war on illiteracy. Good and relevant education will help liberate our people from poverty. We say relevant (some say functional) education because some education even though may not be entirely useless, may not prepare the recipients to secure or create jobs for themselves. Without going into the modern trends of today’s existence that requires so much of science and engineering, it would be nice to take note of the fact that our people, who by the way do not have jobs, do not come to mind whenever we are looking for people with skills. Visit building sites in the country today and notice that most plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, molders of plaster of Paris (POP) and such other jobs are not Nigerians. Citizens of Togo, Benin and other countries,  have dominated the artisan levels of Nigeria’s construction market. Ghanaians, before the recent improvement in their economy owing to visionary leadership which has reversed the GMG (Ghana Must Go) syndrome, were involved in a lot of construction sites in the country. This is also true of other African countries. Before someone gets me wrong, I do not have problems with our brothers from other African countries coming to work and earn a living in Nigeria. The point one is making is that Nigerian workers are said to be poorly trained and impatient for these jobs, meanwhile millions of them are earning less than N600 per day. Outsourcing is not a bad concept but it should not be done when there is spare capacity in our local industry.

Closely related to the above challenge is the inability of our leadership to expand economic opportunities and  improve the productivity level of our population. While we keep sloganeering about the diversification of the economy, the truth is that our economy remains highly dependent on oil. It looks like the more we talk about diversification, the more the economy consolidates around oil. Limited efforts are being made in the area of technology, innovation and creativity. So, it becomes some form of vicious circle where the population is poor and uneducated and because it is uneducated, it is mostly unproductive which leads to lack of capital accumulation and investment which in turn leads to low productivity which then reinforces poverty which in turn reinforces illiteracy. To compound the problem we have been faced with lack of good governance.  In fact, it would not be out of place to argue that what we have had in the last few decades have been very selfish leadership. Our leaders see their position as one to make money for themselves, families and cronies. They come with no vision of how to make life better for a majority of the populace. The lifestyle is simply annoying and it is done to “your face”. Their preoccupation is how to get close to the common pot and purloin our patrimony. That is why elections have turned into fierce warfare. Once someone gets into a position of leadership, he forgets from where he is coming. Just last week, a senior friend was telling me a story of one public officer who is responsible for several months of salary areas, having taken a chattered jet from Nigeria to a middle east country for a two weeks trip. You know how our leaders are always abroad in search of “foreign investment”. It doesn’t matter to them if the fundamental foundation to attract investments has not been laid. They forget that investments don’t respond to foreign trips and that the investors themselves have more information at their fingertips than those wooing them and would always go where enabling environments have been created. So, the chartered jet was parked in the international airport of the host country for the whole trip while the official frolicked. It didn’t bother him that parking fees, crew fees, accommodation, feeding and other expenses were running. Of course, go and check the state and you can be sure that the trip will not generate a dime in investments. The cost of the trip would certainly be borne by tax payers who continue to endure the profligacy of their leaders. Meanwhile, the authorities of the host country were miffed at the senselessness of the public official in running up such cost and would not even meet with him as a sign of disapproval of the visit. That was how my friend got to know as one of the people arranging the meeting related to him.

The story is also told of another public servant who used to go to Lagos by night bus before he forced himself on his people as leader, through election rigging. He now flies a private jet even when commercial flights abound. In his mind, he has grown beyond flying with the poor people, but then passes the cost which range from $15,000 to $30,000 (N5.4m to N10.8m) per trip to the tax payers. Legislators sit down and approve jumbo packages for themselves. Governors and Local Government Chairmen fix humongous but upsetting security votes for themselves. People in different positions create ways and means to deprive the tax payer of his dues by hijacking and expropriating the treasury. Because there is no money to fund modern education, their privileged children and wards are in schools abroad. Because only 7% of our budget goes into healthcare, medical tourism has become a big business in Nigeria. Because our industries are not producing much locally, we have outsourced our productive base to China and the likes and import virtually everything. Someone put it succinctly: Nigeria is a country that imports what it can produce and exports what it does not produce. Recall how the Abacha regime went to impose democracy across West Africa and you will understand. To add insult to injury, there is injustice everywhere in the land. People are denied of their rights to life, free of molestation and prejudice. Some of our leaders promote these by appealing to ethnic, religious and language sentiments.

Revolutions all over the world are started by actions like these. When poverty reaches a crescendo, when hunger becomes apparent companion of the grater majority of the people, when people can’t afford decent accommodation, healthcare, water and basic amenities become a preserve of the rich, and when the rich doesn’t care a hoot about the state of the poor; then know that the end is near.  We can pretend that all is well, but some of us know that it is a lie. We can build high walls thinking that they would protect us on the appointed day, but that would fail us. We can hire the best security men and state security forces, but like history has recorded, the day it would happen, the security men will turn their guns against their masters. We can segregate and live in “white man’s” quarters, but that would simply help the people to identify easily, where to attack first. We may purchase bullet proof vehicles but when it happens, it would be nice to realize that we cannot stay in those vehicles indefinitely. The private jets may not be able to take off nor land if the worst happens.

One thing that is sure is that things cannot continue this way. Something must give. We have said it in this column in more ways than one that our economy is gradually grinding to a halt. I hear we want to sell government property to fund the 2019 budget. That may help us postpone the doom’s day and probably, the revolution. But just like I told a bank that was selling properties to get by, time would come when it would have nothing else to sell and when that time comes, it may have to sell itself. We must make hay while the sun shines. We must avoid the impending revolution. If we don’t, we may not be here to tell the story. If we are in doubt, let’s ask the Egyptians, the Libyans, the Syrians and the former Hutus and Tutsis. Call me a doomsday prophet if you like, but do the right thing. If not, Nigeria’s case will be another chronicle of a death foretold.

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