In a world dominated by instant communication and unregulated social media, the politics of who shouts loudest is increasingly the voice that is most widely heard, often with little or no reference to the facts. This is a dangerous formula, especially in Nigeria, where so many prominent people in politics and business have built careers on grand but empty gestures, of saying with absolute conviction, and banks of paid-for praise singers in tow, exactly the opposite of what they mean.
A lot of countries are grappling with how to balance the tremendous positive opportunities new technologies can give, with how best to protect our most cherished freedoms – of speech, assembly and association. Freedom of speech does not allow us to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded market. Nor should it include the freedom anonymously to fuel division and provoke violence to mask personal ambitions and career failings.
There has been a lot of attention on the record of our administration. President Muhammadu Buhari made three, simple promises to Nigeria: to tackle insecurity; to promote economic diversification; and to challenge corruption. The answers are more complex, and it would be a mistake to look for easy solutions. But consider where Nigeria was in 2015: violent extremists threatening to establish a bloodthirsty criminal state inside our own borders; even oil, our one export industry, in atrophy; and a Wild West casino culture in government, where billion-dollar contracts went walking with impunity.
Salaries, allowances and pensions of public servants remained unpaid for years. Funds that should have gone to support our soldiers were diverted into the swamp of a doomed political campaign. Contractors, godfathers and politicians helped themselves to billions and as a result too many of those on the front line and those they should have had the means to protect were killed.
These were all problems that this administration inherited, in many cases from some of those now seeking to return to power. Take the economy. In the boom years for oil in 2000-15, almost nothing was saved and almost nothing invested. We did not even pay our cash calls to our partners.
So, when the oil price crashed in 2016, we had no spare capacity to boost production, we had no buffer to limit the shock and no emerging industries to take up the slack. As a result, there were difficult choices. But we chose to focus on agriculture and revive the fertilizer industry, which in turn helped provide millions of jobs in rural areas, take the pressure of our cities and bring down our food import bill. We also made it a priority for government to pay cash calls and to become a reliable partner in the one industry that generates exports.
On security, we called time on the licensed protection rackets in the Niger Delta and now have a sustainable peace. In east, the siren calls of doom have been silenced. Violent extremists fleeing Iraq and Syria may be attracted to Nigeria, but we have reduced their capacity to that of a terror group that looks to steal and even blow up our children. Age-old tensions between farmers and herders, fuelled by the irresponsible establishment of unregulated militias, is being brought under control and long-term strategies for sustainable livestock and agricultural policies are being implemented.
There was pain. The legacy of corruption and incompetence on the part of some of those then in office who now criticise us made that inevitable. They dismiss real achievements and cold, hard data in favour of orchestrated campaigns to fuel sectarian division and social upheaval. But look at other high population density oil producers like Iran or Venezuela and see the kind of fate from which we have been saved by the choices this government made. The cult of Nigerian exceptionalism, the idea that nothing happens anywhere else in the world like it does here, does not stand up. We are where we are because of how previous governments have managed Nigeria. This government, the first to be genuinely elected with a real mandate, is delivering for the many, the only basis to strengthen our common wealth.
People are impatient and suspicious of government. After all the years of failure, they have every reason to be. In 1950, when our population was just 25 million, a government Economic Survey noted that “power is expensive, and labour relatively inefficient; these factors are likely to limit severely the possibilities of any large expansion of manufacturing industries for some time to come.” As President Buhari said, “Where is the power?”
But where others talked and shared out contracts, we are delivering on infrastructure, the building blocks for sustainable economic growth. Finally, there is progress towards Mambila, a hydroelectric dam that will add 3,050MW to the national grid – more than 50 per cent of our current generating capacity – will transform not only the eastern Middle Belt but the rest of the country beyond. At the other end of the spectrum, a dozen solar farm projects will change local communities across the country.
Key transport arteries are being renewed after generations of neglect. Financing is now in place for the Second Niger Bridge, a critical economic asset and a symbol of national unity, and for the congested death traps also known as the Lagos-Ibadan and Abuja- Kano highways. Railways forgotten for decades are up and running, easing pressure from travellers and freight on our roads. Cosy cartels at our ports have been broken. Our telephone companies are no longer a law unto themselves. Banks can no longer make a fortune out of sitting on government funds – your money.
There are no quick fixes to our condition. Effecting real change is unglamorous, painstaking and difficult. It does not immediately grab headlines or always yield instant results. It does not help that vested interests, looking to hang on to undeserved privileges, throw road block in the way. There is a minority that does not want change. Of course, they cannot openly say so, and instead claim to be critics of the very progress we are making that they have tried to thwart, and concoct crude fantasies of communal violence for which they blame government. Or complain about the slow pace of government when they have fought tooth and nail to delay, distort or dilute change.
Transition is unsettling. It is in the nature of the journey that we do not fully appreciate the destination until we reach it. But the deliverables are already there, and stacking up. Just because we have every right to be cautious of what our governments tell us does not mean we need to believe all the disingenuous or ill-informed messages we receive on our phones, often from anonymous forces with an agenda.
Nigeria has reached a defining moment. We have come a long way. The old order is terrified and will employ all the old tricks and new to pretend that this is not the case, and that instead it is they who have the solutions, when all too often they have been the problem. The current buzz in the communications industry is that elections are won on emotions, not policies or track record. But let us look at the facts, and the alternative – of a return to tried, tested, failed. Let’s not be fooled by the packaging, no matter how slick the meme, the post, the advert, and instead look closely at what is inside.
Like Nigeria, government is not easy. But if we are to have better, more stable and prosperous future, we have no choice but to move forward.
•Abba Kyari is Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari