Dr. Adetolu Ademujimi
Becoming independent of British rule has not yielded the anticipated ‘freedom’, in my opinion. With a surging population estimate of 220 million people in 2023 compared to her citizens’ count of 45 million in 1960, Nigeria has not only overtaken her former foreign masters in numerical strength (British population was about 54 million sixty-three years ago) but surpassed the perceived colonial ills.
Economic liberation and national esteem, which primarily propelled our forefathers’ struggle for sovereignty, are today homeless breeds among post-independent Nigerians. I have read that several parts of our national life recorded remarkable feats within the first 15 – 20 years post-independence before multiple factors brought our nations to its current knees.Alongside my colleagues at the National AIDS, Viral Hepatitis & STIs Control Programme (NASCP) Federal Ministry of Health and officials of the Abuja office of the United States Centre for Disease Control (US-CDC), I returned to Nigeria from an official trip to Lusaka, Zambia, around noon yesterday 30th September, 2023, with a nostalgic realization that my country’s 63rd independence anniversary was less than twenty-four hours away.
The 6-day tour was to understudy the copper-rich country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic response and compare notes. A direct Lusaka-Abuja flight that ought not to last more than 4 hours 5 minutes had taken my colleagues and I through Harare (our commercial flight had short stopover at the Zimbabwean International airport to drop and pick up passengers), then Addis Ababa (for a 12-hour layover) before its final descent into Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, clutching 23 hours of our precious time.
While at Addis Ababa, one of the attendants at the hotel we were lodged had asked “What country are you guys from?” I responded with half-sized pride; “Nigeria, the largest congregation of black people in the world”.
Like a ready-made google search engine, the lady swiftly volunteered two pieces of information compressed in one statement, “Your country has a lot of petrol, but your naira is not as strong as our birr”. With a phony smile, I requested she showed me a birr note as though I wanted to compare the ‘physical’ strength of the Ethiopian currency with that of Nigeria. I had exhibited this thoughtless action before realizing that her factual narrative, offered with innocence and sincerity, left an emotional smack on me about the shadows of my self-acclaimed giant of Africa, my dear country, Nigeria.
Trust me to reach for my phone to surf the internet, on the way to the room I was assigned, to know the United States dollar-to-birr exchange rate. I’m certain the hotel Wi-Fi could literally feel the rush through my veins as I typed the search words. Boom! 1 dollar equals 55 birrs. As I got on the bed, I cast my mind back to our Zambian experience, where we exchanged 1 US$ for 20.97 kwacha. Not done ruminating over Nigeria’s sorry pass, I reminisced over two striking observations made on the team’s 42-minute drive from Luska Provincial Health Office (LPHO) to Munyeu health post – a primary health facility located in a remote village within Chilanga district of Lusaka province – on Tuesday, 26th September: the absence of potholes on the single-lane road, and the presence of countless commercial farms with different signages sequentially lining both sides of this road.
“What has failed to work in Nigeria seamlessly functions in some parts of Africa that were once subjugated under colonial rule like us”, I said to myself. These countries may not have attained their full potentials but have consistently shown genuine intention for independence.
That an oil-rich country exports crude oil and imports refined products is a demonstration of other things except independence. Crude oil has been more of a curse than a blessing to this nation and the fact that the cumulative 2,920 days of public governance, running from 29th day of May in the year 2015 to 29th May, 2023 under the immediate past administration of Mr. Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR could not take save our refineries from redundancy is one shame too many. A butcher’s child without meat; a sewing machine that is itself naked. Musing over an enquiry on petrol price I had sought from Mr. Jonathan, the Zambian driver assigned to the visiting Nigerian team throughout the week, I would need economists to help juxtapose the findings with Nigeria’s current retail cost of gasoline. Mr. Jonathan gave a reply in the bus that “one litre of petrol in Zambia costs 29.4 Kwacha” (please use your calculator for the mathematics, like we all did). While it seems exorbitant when converted to naira, I reminded myself that Zambia, like most other non-producers of crude oil, is morally and logically correct to import internationally refined petrol for her local use and sell at globally determined market rates. Therefore, Nigeria’s dire situation of high energy costs to her citizens should not and cannot be analyzed like Zambia’s. There is no excuse for zero local refining of our crude oil (as at today 1st October, 2023), which would have brought the retail price of gasoline to a much lower level than it currently is.
Redundant refineries in a country on the list of top 10 crude oil exporters in the world are outlandish outcomes of unfortunate and unashamed thinking. Albeit he is out of office, Mr. Buhari’s parting gift box containing a corruption-riddled fuel subsidy regime and redundant refineries has left Nigerians dependent on importation of refined petrol. We are, today, bearing the brunt of his administration’s indecisions, indiscretions and inactions in this regard. To ‘clandestinely’ suspend subsidies by not budgeting for it within the period after his eight-year reign (from June, 2023) without resuscitating local refineries within the same period is an abysmal policy position I cannot fathom. Since John C. Maxwell tells us that “everything rises and falls on Leadership”, I blame former President Buhari squarely for this national and economic goof.
A sad consequence of the challenge just described is our weak currency. It is one bitter reflection of our far-from-independence reality because we depend majorly on importation.
How can a country’s local currency be strong in a globalized market when she is a huge importer of everything and lowly rated exporter of few things. With crude oil being the single item that earns Nigeria 75-80% of her foreign exchange reserves, should we not be tactical to conserve that store by putting to productive and effective use, our vast land, natural and human resources to create and recreate valued items for mass export? Short of being seen as a purveyor of evil prophecies, I make bold to say that five thousand naira may soon exchange for one U.S dollar should the “ruling class” (political, business, religious, traditional) keep exhibiting the deadly social sins enunciated by Mahatma Gandhi – Politics without principles, Education without Character, Wealth without work, Commerce without morality that do more to encourage selfish consumption and not selfless production.
Regrettably, at the receiving end of our failed self-dependence as a nation are the macerated masses who make up the “63% of persons living with Nigeria (133 million people) that are multidimensionally poor”. Democratically governed by a largely self-centered political class that thrives on the current over-centralized and dysfunctional governance structure, I cannot predict for how long their starvation would be. I would only continue to remind the political officer holders and bureaucrats that if the masses remain food-less, water-less, school-less, homeless, healthcare-less, credit-less, contraceptive-less, welfare-less, infrastructure-less, and helpless, we should be prepared for a long movie enunciated in the title of late Nelson Mandela’s “Long walk to Freedom”. Its heavy and damning price is that the ruling class will continue, over a protracted period, to jettison priceless peace for a restless reel.
Happy Independence Day, Nigeria. May the responsible majority truly find their independence from the irresponsible minority.
Dr. Ademujimi is a Medical Doctor, Health Finance Specialist, Author, Reformer, Coach, Public Policy expert and Social entrepreneur