Palatial residences in the midst of squalor

Casmir Igbokwe

First published in SUNDAY PUNCH, Dec. 13, 2009

 These are not the best of times for Nigeria. For almost three weeks now, our President, Umaru Yar’Adua, has been in a Saudi hospital. Surrounded by unofficial secret act about the true state of his health, Nigerians have resorted to permutations, rumours, lies and half truths to explain the circumstances of his ill-health. The refrain has been, “Yar’Adua will return next week; Yar’Adua will not return this year; Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan is not the acting president; no the VP is in charge; northern leaders back Yar’Adua; North shops for Yar’Adua’s successor…”

Amid these confusing signals, the nation remains like a plane without a pilot. There is no clear direction where we are going as a nation. Are we deregulating or still regulating the downstream sector of the oil industry? Should we or should we not expect 6000MW of electricity by end of December? Will the contractors handling our various road projects deliver soon or will they collect money and disappear without any sanctions? How do we create jobs for the teeming unemployed even when companies are relocating to other countries and new ones are afraid to invest? These and many more questions demand truthful answers and decisive actions from a purposeful leadership. But what confronts Nigerians daily is a potpourri of ludicrous actions and utterances that propel them into half-hearted prayers and other mumbo-jumbo.

 Let me make my points clear. Media reports last week indicated that the Federal Capital Territory administration was planning to build new residences for the Vice-President, the Senate President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and their deputies. At the completion of the buildings, the four presiding officers of the National Assembly are expected to relocate to Maitama District Extension of Abuja from Apo Legislators’ Quarters. According to reports, the sum of N1.5bn has already been budgeted for the design and construction of the residences. That of the Vice-President is expected to gulp N2bn.

Apparently to convince Nigerians that he has the general interest of the country at heart, the FCT Minister, Adamu Aliero, further told the Senate Committee on FCT that invited him to defend his 2010 budget, that he would build a five-star hospital in Abuja. This is to take care of public officials who go to foreign hospitals whenever they are sick.

Ordinarily, there is no problem if, for any reason, the powers that be decide to build new palaces or state of the art hospitals to take care of their high taste. But the pertinent question is, is this the right time to do that? Just as Aliero was reportedly making his plans known, a Human Development Report released by the United Nations Development Programme in Abuja noted that the number of poor Nigerians doubled in the last 30 years. Oxfam International estimates that out of about 140 million Nigerians, over 53 million wake up every morning not knowing where the next meal will come from.

 The UNDP’s Resident Representative in Nigeria, Turhan Saleh, brought the points home when he said the country’s macroeconomic performance had improved significantly since the early 2000s but that the proportion of Nigerians categorised as poor today was twice the proportion of those who were poor in 1980. Even as the privileged leaders think of moving from one mansion to another, millions of Nigerians are without a home. Some sleep under the bridges. Some sleep by the roadside, while some others have taken over abandoned public buildings in some cities.

 Two Sundays ago, I was at the NITEL premises at Cappa, Oshodi, Lagos, for a small function. I was shocked at the rot the massive buildings on the premises have become. Lying desolate, the houses have turned out to be a blessing to some hoodlums who have converted them to their own palaces. There are many other public buildings wasting away when millions of people are looking for where to put their heads in the night. Those who cannot stand the systemic rot at home have rushed abroad to encounter more problems. Last week, Libya deported hundreds of Nigerians for various immigration offences. In some other countries, many Nigerians go through hell to survive.

This is a country planning to buy four new executive jets for the Presidential fleet. The jets, estimated to cost about N31.5bn, are to replace another four in the fleet that already has eight aircraft. I don’t begrudge servant-leaders who decide to serve themselves first. My main concern is that when leadership seems insensitive to the plight of the led, there is bound to be some eruptions.

 All over Nigeria, people are visiting their pent-up frustrations on fellow citizens in different ways. We just recovered from the Boko Haram crisis in the North. In the East, kidnappers and armed robbers are having a field day. In the West, the killing of an Assistant Commissioner of Police and the attendant killing of a number of people in Ijebu-Ife is still fresh. In the South-South, some militants who claimed to have surrendered their weapons felt like testing their libido the other day by raping innocent students of the University of Port Harcourt.

Many of us seem to have sold the kindness and the emotional bond that bind humanity together. We rape without thinking of any repercussion. We kill without looking backwards. We covet our neighbours wives and property without blinking. And we bless our atrocities and heartlessness with insincere prayers. These are signs of a nation on the edge of a precipice.

 Sincere and committed leadership will go a long way in rescuing us from a total fall. That is to say that before our public officers start any new building project for themselves, they must complete abandoned low-cost housing projects in different parts of the country; before they acquire new presidential jets, they must ensure that a good number of people can afford bikes; before they build five-star hospitals, there is need to equip the primary health care centres in rural areas; and before they embark on their capacity-building trips abroad, they need to empower the masses with good jobs and other good things of life.

 Until these things are done, we cannot sing “Abraham’s blessings are mine” with confidence.

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