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How to drive real change in political, economic life of Nigerians, by Durotoye PDF Print E-mail
Written by Prof. Yomi Durotoye, Wake Forest Univ, North Carolina, US   
Apr 03, 2014 at 11:09 AM

Prof Yomi Durotoye
Prof Yomi Durotoye

• Sooner or later, we will get there

• We need grassroots reformation

Yomi Durotoye teaches at the Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, United States of America, where he is Coordinator of the African Studies Minor. The Okemesi, Ekiti State-born scholar, in this encounter with Kabir Alabi Garba in Winston-Salem, postulates how Nigeria can overcome the political and economic quagmire that has stunted its quest for development in all ramifications.

AS a political scientist and scholar, what is required to arrest the disorder and confusion in Nigeria’s political space and put the country back on the path of progress?

  Nigeria is not going to be like this forever. The reason is that I know where we came from. I am old enough to know when Nigeria was a very good place to be, when our moral compass was of the highest quality, when people did not know how to be corrupt. I grew up during that era.   

  Certainly, some people may say, the Finance Minister in the First Republic, Chief Okotie-Eboh, was corrupt because he did this or that, but for those who know and compared to what we have now, those guys were as honest as any politician you could find anywhere in the world at that time.

  For instance, my dad was a member of the Board of Western Region Housing Corporation when they were developing properties in Bodija, Ibadan and in Ikeja, Lagos. Because his day job was as a school supervisor, and because these guys did not know how to embezzle money, when they finished with the project in Bodija, the man (my dad) said he could not afford to buy any property there! He only had a street named after him. 

  After he died and while I was going through his files, I found that the man had opened a file for that honorific street name. For him, it was glorious and rewarding enough that a street was named after him. It did not matter to him that he did not have a piece of land in that estate even though he served as a board member when the place was being developed. That will not happen in Nigeria of today.

  My uncle, Chief J.O. Osuntokun, after serving as Minister in the Western Region from 1955 to 1966 when the coup d’état booted him and others out of office, did not have any significant funds or possess any significant property. My uncle had to go back to a secondary school to teach. This, after he had been a minister for 11 or so years! 

  Today, there is no minister in Nigeria, who will serve for two years, and thereafter need to go back to a secondary school to teach because he is unable to make ends meet! After a mere two years! People would scold and abuse him for his failure to loot and accumulate enough wealth to take care of him and generations yet unborn! 

  Right there is one of our major problems; that people will call him a fool for being honest. But the likes of the Osuntokuns are the ones we need to move this country forward. 

  Surely, in our recent history, our contacts with officialdom had convinced many of us that those guys I spoke of were the last breeds of real public servants; the emphasis is on servants. 

  The truth is, there are some of these types of guys who are presently serving. We just don’t have enough of them. We are decent people, really. Those that are messing us up hardly constitute two percent of the population!

  I know where we came from and I witnessed how the decay came to be. But would it be easy to reform and go back to how it used to be? Of course not! It is easier to destroy things; reconstruction takes much, much longer.

  I know it is going to be difficult, but we will get there. For me, we will get there when people say, individually and collectively, we have had enough. It is going to be that simple! But we are not there yet. 

  And it is interesting that many Nigerians, including some politicians, are making a similar statement. A good number of people are saying something to the effect that: “until Nigerians overcome their timidity, there would be no change”. I agree. 

  I am aware, though, that the changes some of these people are talking about are cosmetic in character. Period! The fundamental changes, such as they are, will not be delivered by our typical present crop of leaders. 

  Class suicide is never attractive to the beneficiaries of a corrupt system. Consequently, others will have to do it. For me, once the people collectively (not all of us, but a significant number of people) say, ‘we‘ve had enough, to hell with you’, that is when we are going to start the recovery, the renewal.

  I am sure Nigeria is going to get there, not only because of what I have just said, but because we have all it takes to make that country great. It is true that we are blessed with human and material capital. Petroleum is just one of the things we are blessed, or perhaps cursed, with. We have a whole lot of other materials. 

  Most importantly, we are blessed because of who we are. Nigerians, everywhere in the world, make their mark. Are you aware that out of all nationalities here in the US, we (Nigerians) record and register the highest proportion of college graduates and post-graduates?

  The census of all households was conducted all over America; Nigerians proportionately have more second degrees than any other nationalities in this country. That is how good we are! We have a group here called Association of Nigerian Physicians in North America (ANPNA); several other groups of professionals are everywhere in the US. 

  Any city in this world you go and can’t find a Nigerian there, you better pack your load and leave; the city must simply not be habitable! 

  Nigerians will go anywhere in the world to seek their fortune. Someone told me that some Nigerians live close to the North Pole. Our people are tough, they are goal-getters, and they are resilient. 

  In fact, our resilience is more or less becoming our weakness. Weakness because our resilience is being exploited by our leaders; they know we will cope with all sorts of challenges and consequences of bad governance. 

  We are a creative, hardworking and generally upbeat people. Unfortunately, these characteristics have worked to enable and sustain the existing conditions because we are so adaptable. Yet, I will argue, this same Nigerian character is what is needed to build a nation. Creativity, resilience, aggressiveness, goal-setting, and a high sense of self-confidence and pride.

  Some years ago, somebody published a report in a magazine (I can’t recollect the name now) about Nigerians, and the opening subtitle is something like, ‘Sakaraa’ (the writer gave the meaning of Sakaraa as bravado, confidence), but he said when he visited Lagos, he couldn’t figure out how Nigerians came to acquire such an attitude! Any nation that is going to prosper and develop needs exactly that self-confidence and energy.

BUT with all these attributes, Nigeria is yet to get its act together and harness these resources to the benefit of the country and its citizens; where do we miss the direction?

  I strongly believe that Nigeria will get there and all these people stealing money may even be able to still continue to steal money if they do the following: Provide the necessary infrastructure: roads, electricity, and water. Provide security for Nigerians; then move out of the way.

  Why? Because Nigeria’s case can be likened to an anecdote in a Yoruba fable of a lion searching for food. (The narration, which he renders in Yoruba, goes thus):

  A lion prays to God in the morning for food and that God should facilitate a face-to-face encounter between him (the lion) and the prey (food); and thereafter God should leave both of them alone to sort things out…. 

  You understand my point! “Oro Nigeria ni yen!” (That is a perfect similitude of Nigeria). I believe that if these leaders give us the infrastructure: good roads, electricity, water, and security, and get out of our way, we will make it. 

Who needs to get out of our way? 

  The insensate rent-seeking, corrupt and clueless political leaders and civil servants and similar officials in other government institutions; they are the ones that hinder national progress. They should get out of the way. 

  We will make it because Nigerians, majority of Nigerians, are very enterprising. We can create wealth by ourselves and for ourselves. Nigerians are that creative. That is why I am really confident that sooner or later, we will get there. 

When do we start the journey? 

  When our people say ‘enough is enough; get out of our way.’ That is when we are going to start.

Could January 2012 protest over removal of fuel subsidy be likened to your kind of agitation?

  It was a form of it. But the problem with that was that it was located only in Lagos and a couple of other places. The form it took in Ibadan was more violent and partisan. 

  But yes, if we took what happened in Lagos as an example of what we are talking about, oh yes, it satisfied that. I am not advocating violence! This thing can be achieved in a non-violent way.

  But, yes, what happened in Lagos was non-violent and is close to what I am talking about. Like the Arab Spring… when people become resolute and tell the government ‘enough is enough’ things happen.

  However, those who resist, or shall we say rebel, must be aware of potential hijackers during and after the mass action. 

  There are two other ways to achieve the change I am talking about. I will talk about these later.

  Somebody said something, and I think it makes sense. I think it was el-Rufa’i, but he was misunderstood; and he, I think, articulated what I have also said elsewhere: that if Jesus came down, became the Nigerian president, he would need more than 12 disciples; he would need about a million disciples to get his work done in Nigeria. These disciples will be needed at all levels and in all our communities and establishments. 

  I am not being irreverent; it is just to reiterate the point that unless Jesus comes through the minds of everybody and miraculously changes the minds of everybody, such that we all become law-abiding citizens and love each other, no change will come easily.

  But, hey, Jesus may yet do this in Nigeria on account of his unfathomable divine character. Short of this, I am afraid all this call for prayers would not change our situation.

  We have a Mosque and Chapel in Aso Rock; we have our most celebrated Archbishops, Imams, Overseers, Pastors and so on fasting and feasting with our Presidents! Show me the results on the ground…

  My thinking about change in Nigeria is this: we have to take care of the corrupt person that is very close to us. Let us find a way to make such people uncomfortable with their ill-gotten wealth. 

  Assuming in your locality, the councilor is the corrupt oppressor; let us deal with him first! The hyper-focus on Abuja will not get us anywhere. It is grassroots reformation that we need. 

  All of us know a number of previously unemployed or underemployed individuals nearby that somehow became Councilors, Commissioners, Ministers, or Directors in MDAs and within months started living large. We all know where the money came from. 

  How about challenging rather than hailing them when they come home? Why do we continue to hail them as “Honourables” and “Excellencies” when they are neither honourable nor excellent in their personal and professional conduct? 

  Gossips and shaming may not be effective social sanctions in our communities, as they used to be, but I bet we can still make them uncomfortable when they come home. The recovery should begin from our immediate environment. I believe that. 

  We should be able to somehow hold the councilors, commissioners, and government officials around us accountable before we move against others in faraway capitals and places. That is how it should be. 

  If each community actively cleans its surroundings of these leeches, discipline one another through social sanctions… we will incrementally change things. 

  Of course, I am aware that this is easier said than done. The persistent and decades-long poverty and victimisation that most of our people have had to endure have made us to singularly focus on basic survival and nothing else. 

  The notion of citizenship is now alien to a critical majority of our people. Under this circumstance, self-respect and self-determination have become casualties and docility toward authority figures has become the norm. 

  But then, the Yoruba, in their wisdom, have observed that the timidity of the sheep turns into aggressive self-defence when driven to the wall. As they say, “one day, one day, monkey go go market, he no go return.” 

  We need to liberate ourselves mentally to realise that no change will happen until we accept and fulfill the responsibility to make it happen.

YOU are familiar with political development back home, especially in the Southwest; what is your assessment of governance in that region so far?

  Another layer of analysis is that we shouldn’t generalise about the decay in Nigeria, because there are pockets of excellence in a few places that can be encouraged to be even better. 

  For example, I am impressed with the development in Lagos. People, who go to Lagos from here, praise the level of improvement that is going on there. Lagos is peculiar in the sense that the population keeps increasing, but it is still better run than many other cities and states in Nigeria that probably have just one-tenth of the population of Lagos. 

  Examples of pockets of excellence are found not only in Lagos, but also in Ekiti, Ondo, Ogun, and Osun States. Ibadan and Abeokuta are going through a remarkable renewal. In those states, we found leadership dedication and purposeful pursuit of set goals. 

  You may or may not agree with some of their policies but you will have to give it to them that they do have verifiable and thought-through policies. The performances in these places show that we can actually make incremental and significant changes by means other than peoples’ uprising. 

  It seems to me that this type of change and transformation started in Lagos and has spread, I am told, to many states around the country. Many of those who are following the Lagos example tend to focus on urban renewal. That is all well and good. 

  However, in order to substantially improve the living conditions of the citizens, they would need to implement people-oriented policies in all sectors: in education, health, employment, infrastructure development, recreation and so on. In this regard, Ekiti, Ondo, and Osun States provide interesting and credible road maps. 

  The lesson here is that we should not nationalise the rot and funk from Abuja. Certain positive changes are happening slowly at the sub-national level. Although we can’t begin to celebrate yet, these change agents must be encouraged to do more. 

How do we elect and protect these change agents? 

  To start with, we know the candidates; they live among us, and we know their antecedents. We have to make sure that the good or better ones are elected into office. This means that we have to resist the imposition of bad leaders and we have to protect those we think can do the job with massive voter turnout and an energetic and robust defence of the integrity of the electoral process. 

  It is our responsibility, as citizens, to defend our interests against those who will sabotage them “by all means necessary,” as Malcolm X would say. Good leadership will not survive if we failed to perform this role. 

  The long and short of what I am saying is this: we will not have good leaders and turn things around if we failed to commit and apply ourselves to the task. It’s on us. We cannot dodge it; it’s on us. 

  If a good leader emerged out of nowhere, such a leader will be eaten for lunch by these “killers of dreams” if we failed to support and defend him or her. The rogues will come in and mess things up and will be picking their teeth with relish when you are complaining. 

  When I hear some of these “killers of dreams” recommend that our salvation lies in constant prayers and fasting, I know they know that our piety is no threat to their hold on power. They know that they are sending us on a wild goose chase. 

  We need more than that. We need to be vigilant and active in the promotion and defence of our common interest. There is no other way. If we commit to this line of action, I am very optimistic that things will begin to positively change in leaps and bounds in Nigeria. Our creativity, energy, entrepreneurial tendencies, and the characteristic desire to succeed will see us through. 

  But we have to overcome the obstacles created by those insensate officials who are supposed to lift us high but are, indeed, holding us down.

WHAT can Diaspora Nigerians do to fast-track this change?

  There are many good things that our people are already doing. I know of some self-help projects being embarked upon by people here. Some doctors go to their communities in Nigeria, and for a week or for how long they stay, offer free medical services to their people. That is on-going. 

  Repatriation of funds is another thing. There was a recent report that suggested that repatriation of funds into Africa by Africans in the Diaspora, Nigeria inclusive, surpasses foreign aid. That is already going on. 

  Interestingly, people do not consider this activity as a critical contribution. As a matter of fact, it can be argued that repatriation of funds by migrants, who live abroad, is more effective than money that goes to government’s hands from aid donors. Such funds are often misapplied or stolen. 

  To the extent that what we call foreign aid are often concessional loans, we end up with a bloated loan stock and a frighteningly deepening level of underdevelopment.

  In addition, many of us, who relocated in the past 20 years, did so because of our children, and by so doing, we are developing a new generation of Nigerians, equipping them with needed skills. 

  In the recent past, during Obasanjo’s regime when the private sector was expanding, a lot of companies were recruiting their workforce from here in America, and other places - young, skilled, and well-trained Nigerians. 

  This process nearly caused a big problem and resentment between the homegrown graduates and foreign-trained professionals. The fact is that these young Nigerians, because of their training, exposure, and work experience, are generally more skilled and serviceable.

  I believe that when the opportunities arise, a substantial number of these skilled young men and women will go back and take up employment in Nigeria, just as it happened in the 1960s and 70s. 

  For example, my first daughter, who did postgraduate studies in Housing and Urban Development at the Wagner School in New York University, was in the process of going back to Nigeria before the financial meltdown of 2008. She is now a Senior Manager in a corporation funded by the Congress and the private sector. 

  Her younger sister is a Regional Manager and Vice President in a bank while their younger brother is in an International Commerce postgraduate programme. These young Nigerians are well-trained and they are acquiring incredible skill sets that the country can tap into when the time is right. 

  Believe me, there are lots and lots of Nigerian kids doing incredible things here. I mean incredible things. Guess what, most of them would love to come back home and contribute to the national development project. 

  I say all of this to buttress the point that we are raising professionals for Nigeria of tomorrow. That is going on right now.

Politically, what can we do? 

  I believe that you are as effective as your distance to the site of action would permit. Politically, given the nature of our politics at this time, if we are not at the location of action, there is precious little we can do. We will just appear to be complaining, and making noise.

How much impact can we exert on politics in this dispensation? 

  I do not know. I came here during the Abacha era. I joined forces with the Soyinka-led opposition group to contribute whatever I could. But we do not have that kind of situation now. 

  At that time, the political situation was dire and desperate and “Big Nigerians” were in exile, so, we could mount pressure from here. Now, the situation has changed and the strategies employed by the opposition against Abacha would not work at this time.

  I am not sure we can have direct impact as such, especially if there is no crisis of international proportion going on in Nigeria for which we can mobilise political opposition from here against the perpetrators of the crisis in our country. The situation is still desperate but it is unlike what transpired during the regime of Abacha. 

  Some of our people are going back home to take part in politics, but unfortunately, judging from what some of these people are saying, it appears that they just want to go back to join the gang of looters. 

  No question, one major thing that we can do is to go back to contribute our quota. Given the opportunity cost of returning to Nigeria at this time, many of our people are reluctant to take this step. However, for those of us nearing or are of retirement age, we cannot wait to go back.   

  Despite all the things people complain about in Nigeria, it is better to spend one’s old age in Nigeria than here. One of my older colleagues from our OAU, Ife days told me a few days ago, “Yomi, t’eyan ba ku s’ile yi, ko ni r’orun wo o.” (We will not make heaven, if we die here (America).

There is an irony, Nigeria’s educational system is rotten, yet high percentage of our best brains, scholars and professionals are in the Diaspora, especially in the US helping to build and develop other nations’ educational sector. Do you intend to come back home, to lend a helping hand in rebuilding the educational sector?

  Isn’t that a shame? Ile lo le’ni. Many of us are involuntary exiles and we lament the irony you identified. That being said, many of us would like to lend a hand or are actually contributing to the rebuilding effort in various ways. 

  I intend to return permanently to Nigeria fairly soon and pick up a teaching job in one of our private universities. As you know, I taught for many years in Ife. 

  However, public universities are a no-go area for me because of the perennial problem of industrial action. I have nothing against it as such, but at this stage, I need certainties in my work and holiday schedule.

  I am going to go to a private university and pick up from where I left in Ife and contribute other skills and learning that I have acquired since I came here 18 or so years ago. 

  Among other things, I will like to contribute to the development of international programmes in a university when I get back home. 

  I am the Director of African Studies programme here at Wake Forest University, and when we were debating the establishment of MoUs with some African universities for our Study Abroad programme, the first place I wanted to go was Nigeria. 

  Indeed, we signed an MoU with the University of Abuja, but the university could not come through. The effort was further complicated by the Abdul Muttalab “underwear bombing” event. I eventually had to take the programme to the University of Ghana and we have been running it for five years now. 

  Prof. Nuhu Yakubu talked to me last year about his intention to attract Nigerians in the Diaspora (he has been appointed as VC for Sokoto State University) back home. The VC of Kwara State University, Na’Allah, left Ohio and moved back with some people, including Egbon Abiola Irele…

But to revamp our educational sector… Professor Wole Soyinka said something a couple of years ago, which intrigued me. He said we should shut down the universities, shut down all the institutions for one or two years and then start the project anew. It sounds so drastic, doesn’t it? 

  Frankly, I don’t think he meant it to be a programme of action; rather, I think it was a manner of highlighting how horrible the situation is. No question, a total overhaul of the system is required… from primary schools to tertiary institutions. 

  We need to find ways to develop quality students and teachers. The way forward will have to be jointly developed by all stakeholders. Government alone cannot do it.

  I will not, therefore, claim that I have the sure fire answer to this problem. Believe it or not, in my view, this task is going to be more difficult to pull off than turning the Nigerian economy around or providing uninterrupted electricity supply.


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