Some eight years ago, the University of Maiduguri found me worthy to serve as its 18th Convocation lecturer.
The topic was "the place of Nigeria in the global village". Initially, it didn't strike me as a difficult subject because the question whether Nigeria should be ranked among the rich and developed nations or among the poor and underdeveloped entity should not be hard to answer. But then, several issues troubled my thought process. Nigeria is obviously not supposed to be counted among poor countries in view of her immense wealth.
After all, a former Head of state had reportedly said that the problem of Nigeria was not how to make money but how to spend our massive wealth. At the same time, it appears irrational to describe Nigeria as a rich country when its average citizen lives on less than one American dollar a day. The nation has neither an official airline nor any aircraft that can be described as new.
Our domestic aircrafts are occasionally unable to land in our airports due to bad weather but foreign airlines always land in the same airports and during the same period.
When a Nigerian aircraft crashes and it happens quite often, we are usually only able to send its black box to other countries for scientific analysis although the findings are never disclosed perhaps due to operational reasons.
None of our universities is rated among the best even in the poor continent of Africa. Our public power supply has remained epileptic since the British colonial masters left us in the dark more than half a century ago. Our top most leaders are the only ones that are assured of good health care in other countries.
We are a democracy that is yet to apply the same technology for voting that is currently in place worldwide hence an election day in Nigeria presents a war scenario with a standby army and police formations that take sides with the highest bidder.
After thinking of many other issues which made the list of our woes seem endless, I recalled the finding not too long ago by one amorphous body that Nigerians are a happy people. Oh yes, Nigeria is made up of a set of determined people who before the advent of this century, had planned to end our woes through a pragmatic programme known as Vision 2010 by which every Nigerian was to get all the good things of life. Indeed, we have since arranged to be among the 20 most developed nations of the world in year 2020.
Thus, to write off Nigeria as a poor country is probably inaccurate. Rather, a truer assessment of our nation is that, as in many things in which we are neither here nor there, Nigeria is both rich and poor. She is wealthy but poor hence she is a rich nation among the poorest countries in the world. Thus our economic status is like our politics which President Babangida rightly found as far back as 1989 to be 'a little to the left and a little to the right of the centre'. In retrospect, I feel fulfilled that at the University of Maiduguri Convocation in 2004, I was unable to locate the exact place of Nigeria in the global village. Today, it is clearer to me that because wealth can sometimes be destructive, Nigeria is suffering from petroleum mentality- a mindset for squander mania which rationalizes big government, poor service delivery, greed, poverty and inequity.
Because Nigeria collects ample revenue from God-given petroleum resources to which it invests nothing, it sustains an exorbitant cost of governance with bloated bodies like a cabinet of 43 Ministers whereas a prudent nation would not go for more than half that figure; an unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy where the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and that of the Head of Service have 12 Permanent Secretaries at 6 per office. So, what can petroleum not make us do?
Last week, the constitution of a new Board of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) which strangely included one of our Benin brothers unusually excited some of us. Our joy had nothing to do with just his membership of any board because such things do not really impress our people. We are a liberal and accommodating tribe and although we account for more than half of the population and landmass of Edo State, the Governor does not come from among us.
We are also neither the Minister nor the ambassador; we are nothing but a sleeping giant and we care not; provided those in power can take care of us. Our joy therefore was that someone we know has moved into the board of the almighty NNPC- a body that is so lucrative that the take-home pay of its newly recruited staff competes favourably with that of a Senator.
Who does not like the NNPC when petroleum, its main product is not only indispensable, but instantly translates anyone who gets it into wealth?
During the last fuel subsidy protest, the people of Bayelsa did not join the rest of us not because their son is the President but because everyone was struggling to get a piece of a subsisting trade. According to media reports, the NNPC mega station opposite Asokoro Housing estate in Yenagoa, the state capital, only sells kerosene to their 'registered' customers who buy over 20 jerry cans of 20litres each at N2, 500.00 and resell at N3, 000.00 just by the side of the station's gate
There are many other examples which confirm that in Nigeria, petroleum is our king. Its big operatives were originally described as an invincible cartel before the security agencies reportedly earmarked 6 of them as the main culprits. If as we hear, oil bunkers operate in the dead of night, that the Otedola/Lawan saga took place around the same time seems to fall in line.
In addition, the only reason why there has been so much debate on the case is because it concerns petroleum. If it was about another sector, the suspect would have been arrested at the point of the crime since the amount involved was supposedly marked money. Similarly, the giver would not have been given the opportunity to show the nation his camera shots of the entire episode.
The larger society would only have been hearing whatever both parties were saying in court and not at press conferences and another public hearing. But there is hardly anything that cannot happen with petroleum.
Only last Monday, the Presidency was forced to alert the nation about a fake version of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) when the real PIB was not ready. In view of the ingenuity in the petroleum sector, government had to introduce security marks in the real PIB which included the Coat of Arms of the nation as well as signing across each page that says the Petroleum Industry Bill for 2012.
Who says petroleum is only a blessing?
Tonnie Iredia Writes