Wandering in the wilderness
The week that President Muhammadu Buhari and his entourage stepped into China, the Chinese government made a major announcement about football. Yes, football. It wants to become a world football superpower by 2050. Yes, 2050, that is 34 years from now. It plans to get 50 million children and adults playing the game by 2020. It also plans to create one football pitch for every 10, 000 people by 2030. It has also drawn up an elaborate short term, medium term and long term plan for the achievement of its overall objective by 2050.
In FIFA’s ranking, China is ninety something out of 209 nations. It has qualified for the world cup only once, in 2002, when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the event. In that tournament, China finished 31st out of 32 teams that participated. The country’s football loving President, Xi Jinping, wants China to be a force to reckon with in the world of football, the world’s most fascinating game. For him, it is not about football per se. Success in football has wide ranging political and economic implications. So why should the world’s second biggest economy not key into it? So far only eight nations in the world have won the world cup. So why shouldn’t China be numbered among them, Xi Jinping asks himself.
But this piece is not about football. It is about how nations plan to succeed. China’s ambition lies 34 years away yet it is ready to mould the building blocks now and begin to lay them on top of each other until the architecture of its ambition is fully built.
During Yakubu Gowon’s era, we used to have well designed and articulated development plans which were rolling plans developed in, I think, five year segments. These plans were constructed by a small group of brilliant men we dubbed superperm sects. The list: Allison Ayida, Ahmed Joda, Ime Ebong, Philip Asiodu. I doubt if we have had any development plan since then or have we? The architecture of future success is built long before that future arrives. That is the way to succeed. I wonder whether our leaders agree with that. We shall return to this shortly.
Israel is a country in the desert but it has overcome drought and has reached the status of a nation with water security. Looking outside Israel, what you see around its neighbourhood is brown vegetation. The vegetation in Israel is green thanks to its drip irrigation programme. Its creativity derives from the need for self-preservation among hostile neighbours.
For its energy needs, Israel has been importing gas and resorting to alternative energy sources especially solar energy. It is only recently that gas was discovered some kilometres west of one of its well known cities, Haifa. In fact, one of its former Prime Ministers, Golda Meir, once said jokingly: “Moses dragged us for 40 years through the desert to bring us to the one place in the Middle East where there was no oil.” Without oil, Israel has survived. With its creativity, it will thrive now that it has discovered gas in abundance or won’t it?
In his book, Future of Freedom, political commentator, Fareed Zakaria, argues that wealth in natural resources hinders both political and economic growth. I agree. Nigeria is a stinking example, which makes Nigerians wonder whether the discovery of oil in Nigeria is a blessing or a burden. Many are likely to argue that without oil there would not have been the high level of corruption that has occurred in Nigeria since independence but this is not correct. Corruption occurs in direct proportion to the level of resources available. They say that there would not have been the high level of ghosts that occupy our payrolls. The growth of corruption in Nigeria is exponential probably because as the saying goes “appetite comes from eating”.
Israel is, like Nigeria, a country of diversity in ethnic and religious terms. It is not hobbled the way Nigeria is by its own self-inflicted wounds. What works for Israel is meritocracy. What hobbles Nigeria is mediocrity. We worship faithfully at its altar and that makes it difficult for us to achieve our manifest destiny, whatever that might be.
The story of the Holocaust is perhaps the worst narrative of horror. But it has its upside too. After the extermination of six million Jews, and the rise of Nazism, about 1500 Jewish scientists fled Germany and found chairs in the academia in different parts of the world. They now constitute a significant chunk of the most distinguished scholars in the world today. In the late 80s, Soviet Jews mainly scientists, mathematicians, engineers and doctors migrated to Israel. Between 1990 and 1997 more than 700, 000 Soviet intelligentsia also migrated to Israel. Today, they constitute a part of the thought leaders in Israel and those who are doing amazing things in the Israeli economy. Every day plane loads of rose flowers are hauled from this desert territory abroad for sale. The neighbours just look in amazement and scratch their heads. Our scientists are abroad in their thousands because we do not seem to value them here. Yet we have so many problems that can engage them profitably.
When I went to the United States in 1977 for a course, I met several accomplished Nigerians in various fields who were treated like royalty. I met some Nigerians at the Houston Space Centre, met some heart transplant surgeons and sickle cell anaemia experts. I engaged each of them in a conversation and the reason they remained in America was not even the issue of remuneration. It was that they had modern equipment to work with and the operating environment was just right for work. Some government officials in Nigeria have been calling on Nigerian experts living abroad to return to Nigeria. Do we have modern equipment for them to work with here and do we have an appropriate work environment to tempt them to leave where they are and come here? Will we pay them their salaries when they are due? Will they find petrol for their cars or will they sleep at the petrol stations overnight? Will Federal Character let them do their jobs or will they be told that there is no vacancy for their states?
One of the reasons Nigeria is not able to think and to solve its problems the way Israel has done is that we have not ever been afflicted by any adversity. During the civil war, there was no starvation in Nigeria, only in Biafra. While Nigeria had petrol in abundance Biafra had to refine its petroleum products; while Nigeria could easily import its arms Biafra had to make its own guns, its “ogbunigwe” and various other ammunitions it needed for the war. The adversity Biafra faced led to its creativity. And when the war ended, what did we do with those scientists who made those wonderful inventions? We threw them away. All the appeals made by forward looking people for the Gowon government to assemble those scientists and challenge them to refine those inventions fell on deaf ears. If they had been assigned to improve on what they did in Biafra it would have meant that the Igbos are more brilliant than other people in Nigeria. Creativity lost. Politics won.
Let’s go back to China and its plan to make the country a football superpower by 2050. Is there any plan we have in Nigeria on anything-electricity, water, education, agriculture, industrialisation, transportation, hospitals – that goes beyond 2019? In Nigeria, the only thing we plan for is election. When we win it, we then plan for the next one. We never think of what to do with the trophy we have won. We only think of how to capture the next trophy. And that is because the manifestoes of our parties contain next to nothing tangible. That is why you cannot even distinguish one party from the other except their names and their symbols.
In the Second Republic, we knew that the UPN stood for free education while the NPN talked of qualitative education. What did you get as the distinguishing feature of the PDP during the last campaign? Continuity. And from the APC? Change. But what are those? Just labels.
What we need despite the presence of several parties, are national benchmarks based on the nation’s goals. If President Buhari chooses to call a conference of all the parties and other stakeholders it should be possible to agree on these goals and benchmarks in every area of our national life. Once these are approved any party that wins the election at any time will have to adhere to those goals and benchmarks. Planning will therefore be easy and achievements will also be easily measurable.
If Buhari wants to stand out from the pack of leaders who were largely just warming their chairs in Nigeria, he must have a plan based on agreed national objectives. Without a plan, we will just be wandering in the wilderness, as we have been doing these many years.