In a simple but bold symbolic gesture, President Goodluck Jonathan last week made a powerful statement that could positively define his administration if followed through. At the federal executive council, he ate from a loaf of bread made of 40 percent cassava and 60 percent wheat contents. It was produced by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Ibadan.
While offering a slice of the bread to Vice President Namadi Sambo, the president said: “When the Agriculture Minister brought some samples to me about a week ago, that is the only bread I have been eating. I think it is proper for us in Council to formally present this bread to Nigerians. I have been eating this bread for the past one week and I will continue to eat only this bread until I leave State House. We must encourage what we have. Other countries that became great did not wake up one day and become great. For us to move forward, we must also tame our exotic taste. Some of the things we bring from outside are not as good as what we have within our country.”
There are several profound messages conveyed in that gesture. That the president would personally cut a slice for his deputy inside the Council Chambers conjures an image of public service. That he would be eating the ‘akpu’ bread as he pledged means he intends to lead by example. And I have not heard him make a more powerful statement than his evocation on the need for Nigerians to begin to take pleasure in what we produce. When you take everything together, you have a president who has an idea of what leadership is all about; a president who wants to do the correct thing and who is desirous of making the requisite sacrifice. This is the Jonathan many Nigerians yearn for but hardly see.
When taken with the patriotic decision to call the bluff of the British authorities on the Arik Air slot controversy at Heathrow Airport (even though a cynical friend of mine would argue it is all about a ‘neighbour-to-neighbour’ compensation for the hefty campaign donation from Mr Johnson Arumeni-Ikhide), then one can begin to show more faith in this administration. Because what the two decisions signpost is a vote for made-in-Nigeria products and a determination to defend the interest of local entrepreneurs. By saying we need to curb our exotic taste, President Jonathan is echoing Chairman Mao telling the Chinese that if they could not produce what they wear then they deserved to go naked. You need only to visit Grand Square supermarket in Abuja at the weekend to see how our people queue to buy very expensive loaves of bread! Nigerians indeed need to be told some home truth about our proclivity to consume what we do not produce while abandoning what is ours even when they are of superior quality.
One of the things I kept emphasising while in Aso Rock was that the job of a president is not to be awarding contracts. The real job of a president is to inspire his people through words and deeds. The example I often cited is that of former Brazilian President, Mr. Lula Da Silva, who came to office with a promise to fight poverty and reduce inequality. After a cabinet meeting, he led an unscheduled visit to one of the worst slums in Rio de Jenario to show his cabinet members the ugly face of poverty. He spoke to ordinary people, shook their hands and promised to spend every day in office trying to uplift their welfare. That initial gesture not only made a significant impact, it helped to define his presidency such that by the time he left office, he had become one of the most popular leaders in South America.
Given the good governance deficit in the land today and the notorious fact that majority of our citizens are without jobs with daily existence becoming increasingly difficult, I am aware that Nigerians are more interested in quick-wins on substance. But Nigerians also want a surefooted president who can inspire them to big things. That, I guess, is what President Jonathan is doing with the message he sent out by saying he would only be eating the ‘cassava bread’ for as long as he remained in Aso Rock. The problem, however, is that a president who wants to inspire his people to be buying made-in-Nigeria products cannot afford to be sending mixed messages. Unfortunately, in certain respects, President Jonathan’s actions do not match his powerful words.
Nothing demonstrates this more than the Daily Trust story last week that between January and October this year alone, the Federal Government has granted rice and import waivers amounting to about N150 billion to 10 companies. Against the background that customs duties on imports serve not only to generate revenue but also to protect domestic production, you wonder how Jonathan’s ‘akpu’ bread will survive in the face of a possible waivers for some fat cats who could then bring in wheat for a more delicious bread that would by implication be far cheaper!
The Daily Trust story, which is yet to be denied, quoted a government paper which reveals that a company named Connotation Concepts Limited which registered its business as “books and stationery stores” secured duty waivers to import refined palm oil worth billions of Naira this year alone. “On June 1, Connotations got four waivers to import palm oil amounting to N233 million, N233 million, N21 million and N67.4 million. Also on June 10, the government approved for the same company N110 million. Four days later, it secured another four separate import approvals totalling N1.3 billion. On July 27, it was granted seven import permission totalling N1.2 billion. All these came with waivers of taxes.”
By granting indiscriminate waivers to the tune of billions of Naira so his friends could import palm oil and other such products that we have in abundance in Nigeria, it is evident the president has clearly subverted his own message. And it is this disposition that makes many Nigerians to distrust government and its policies knowing that while they bear heavy brunt, some others would be feeding fat on their misery just because they are connected to the seat of power. That is also why it has been very difficult to sell the proposition for the removal of fuel subsidy even when there are compelling reasons to do away with the fraud.
At a time we really need job-led growth and distributive justice, bold statements like the president’s pledge to continue to eat ‘akpu’ bread is significant but it cannot go with rent seeking behaviour which is still being encouraged by government at all levels but more especially in Abuja. At such a desperate economic time as we are in today, every government decision must come with salient questions: how does this translate to more jobs for the millions of our youth; how does this put food on the table of Nigerians; how does this empower the generality of our people etc?
I am of the opinion that the president has made a powerful gesture by encouraging Nigerians to begin to eat ‘akpu’ bread. He can follow this through with a policy initiative that will not only benefit our farmers but also encourage adding value to cassava, one of the products that is uniquely Nigerian and which we have in abundance. But beyond that, his words must begin to match his deeds. Creating a few waivers-billionaires who have no visible means of livelihood and contribute nothing to the economy amid millions of impoverished Nigerians is not just the right way to go. Time is, however, still on his side to decide what kind of president he wants to be. Will someone please give me a slice of Jonathan bread?
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 8th December 2011