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Must We Talk?

Love Nigeria or leave her. That was the message in a Federal Ministry of Information car sticker in the eighties which I found rather off-putting. But in the light of our current situation, I think it is time it was brought back.

These days, there is hardly anybody who doesn't have a negative thing to say about Nigeria yet our country has given much more to many of us than we have given back. People like me (son of a subsistence farmer and carpenter) would never have had university education if it were not tuition-free; there are many of our nationals whose families are domiciled abroad and funded from income made in this country; without mortgage, full-time salary earners in the private and public sectors are either buying or building houses for themselves with wealth that could only have been generated in Nigeria!

However, we all agree that the system is not working for a great majority of our people and now the pressure is gradually coming home to bite everyone. The evidence is there in the dilapidated roads which even the exotic vehicles must travel; it is there in the semi-literate job applicants, products of ASUU's endless strikes; it is there in the incessant power outage; it is there in the daily plane load of our sick people, all India-bound even as many of our unemployed youths are becoming citizens of what Sam Omatseye described as the "alternative societies", a one-way ticket to despair and hopelessness.

Today, there is hardly anybody in our country who is not angry about the situation in which we have found ourselves, but nobody is accepting responsibility because the other person (or the other ethnic group) is to blame. When stripped of all pretensions, that is what informs the perpetual agitation by some people for a "Sovereign National Conference." It is behind the arrogance of those who want to cut off every other person from "their oil"; it is the reason why some of our compatriots would use the burial ceremony of an iconic figure to exhume the content of a long-forgotten "declaration"; and it is what provides the logic for the mutterings of the closet supporters of Boko Haram. Yet, there is hardly anyone or any ethnic group that can claim innocence in the gradual but sustained degeneration of our country over the last fifty years.

In the piece I did to mark Nigeria's Golden jubilee in 2010, I likened our situation to the Yoruba folklore of three famished brothers eating from the same plate of food that is not enough to satiate their collective hunger. Apparently losing out in the game of greed, the first brother remarked but to no one in particular: "you are eating too fast". To this the second brother responded: "so you saw him". The third brother completed the farce: "That was exactly what I wanted to say"!

I am aware that there are those who genuinely believe that many of the contradictions that have combined to hold our country back from peace and prosperity could be resolved through a meaningful national conversation. In a way, I also believe that we need to talk about our country but where I differ from most people is on the essence and structure of such engagement. Our problem is neither religion nor ethnicity but rather their manipulation by those we have put in charge of our affairs. That explains why at a time you expect honest introspection on the part of the political elite, all you get is polarizing rhetoric which is now pushing our plural society towards its delicate fault-lines.

Yet nothing has exposed the problem of our country as eloquently as the 2011 tax figures released last week by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) Chairperson, Mrs Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru, perhaps the most effective reformer in the public arena of the last couple of years. She is a quiet and dedicated professional with consistent commitment to excellence. Notwithstanding all her efforts, the 2011 figures reveal that only N1.51 trillion was collected as taxes from non-oil sources in our country. The breakdown: N663.02 billion from Company Income Tax; N659.15 billion from VAT while Personal Income Tax contributed a mere N43.47 billion.

The extrapolation from the figures is that outside the rent from oil, all the revenues generated from Nigerians last year is still far below what was handed out to some marketers in the name of fuel subsidy payment! We definitely cannot run a nation like that. How can we spend almost two trillion Naira to subsidise the consumption of a single item when all the taxes we could generate within the same budget year is 1.51 trillion Naira? We must interrogate such irresponsible national behaviour that informs the total neglect of agriculture and has made us a net importer of everything we used to produce. Our pathetic lack of productivity has been exposed by the latest National Bureau of Statistics report which is very damning about the state of our nation with regards to poverty index. What is, however, revealing for me is not so much the statistics on poverty by the government agency but the one depicting our population growth in the last century, beginning from 1911.

I have in the last couple of days taken time to study population figures in several countries in the last 100 years and the annual growth rate is mostly between 1 and 2 percent except in the Nigeria of the last 50 years. In 1911 for instance, our population was 15.9 million, ten years later in 1921 it had become 18.7 million, an increase of 2.8 million. In 1931, the figure had increased by 1.3 million to give us a population of 20 million. Instructively, all these were consistent with the global pattern. The next census took place 21 years later in 1952 by which time our population was 30.3 million people. But from that period, things changed.

With independence and its politics, the 1962 census gave us an extra population of 14.9 million people, thus pushing the threshold to 45.2 million. A year later (when another census was conducted) an extra 10.5 million Nigerians had been manufactured to give us a population of 55.7 million. Ten years later in 1973, another set of 24.1 million Nigerians had come on board to make 79.8 million. There was no census until 1991 when our population was put at 88.9 million. The census that would follow came in 2006 by which time (within a period of 15 years), another 51.1 million Nigerians had been added to the population data to make 138 million people. Four years later in 2010, eight million were added and the projection today is that we are 160 million people!

The implication is that between 1911 and 1952, our population grew from 18.7 million to 30.3 million, an increase of 62 percent in 41 years. But between 1952 and 2010, a period of 48 years, the same population grew from 30.3 million to 148 million, an increase of 388 percent! If we will be honest, population is relevant in our country only for distributing resources and for electoral manipulation. East, West, North or South, census figures are always padded. How can we sustain a system based on such transparent fraud? We need to wean our nation of the distributive politics of oil rent that is at the root of corruption in our country, including in our politics. We conduct a gubernatorial election where voters don't turn up and the president rationalises why, but when the results are released, about 75 percent of registered voters are deemed to have "voted".

In every other country except Nigeria, the campaign narrative is usually framed around what each candidate would expect of citizens by way of taxation: either such policy would disadvantage the rich or it would be more tolerant of the poor and the middle class; but the expectation is always certain: everybody must bring something to the table. In Nigeria, when our politicians mount the campaign rostrum, they don't demand anything of us (the people) yet would promise to provide education, health and all social services free of charge. They know they are lying; we know they are lying; and they know that we know they are lying. Yet if people do not pay taxes, they cannot hold leaders to account; if votes don't count, leaders will have no incentive to perform. How then can holding conferences, sovereign or otherwise, fix any of these problems?

My question for those who are calling for a "Sovereign National Conference" is: Will those to attend be selected by a conclave of some elders or will they be elected directly by the people? If we go by the democratic choice of election, we will come up with delegates not much different from what we currently have in the National Assembly. The people calling for the SNC can be broadly categorised into two: those who genuinely believe in restructuring the country so we could maximize our potentials and those who simply want to negotiate ahead of 2015. But the real talk we need to undertake is to tell ourselves the home truth: We cannot continue like this and expect any genuine transformation. What we need is responsible citizenship where everyone pays his/her taxes and accountable leadership that works for the country.

A former Super Eagles coach, Berti Vogt, said Nigerians spend most of their productive hours attending seminars, workshops and conferences "and the rest in prayers, yet at the end nothing works". So our problem in this country is that we talk too much, it is time we began to work for the advancement of our society. Committees upon committees, prayer sessions upon prayer sessions, reports upon reports and yet what are the results? I think we should get serious about the challenges we face as a nation and find honest ways to deal with them. There is enormous strength in our diversity. If we get our acts together Nigeria definitely will be more than the sum of its parts.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 23rd February 2012

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