Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Nigerian Roadblocks

Roadblocks are found everywhere in Nigeria.. To travel by car in Nigeria means passing thousands of roadblocks set up by army and police.

Roadblocks are set up by closing a lane using a big stone or tree and then standing as menacing as possible showing your AK47, the weapon of choice in Nigeria. Since we drive cars marked “African Institutes of Science” and have guards with us we are most of the time allowed to pass. However, most Nigerians have to pay a bribe, locally referred to as dash to get through.

I found the left cartoon in Sunday’s Daily in Abuja, indicating that this is common practice. It points to a corrupt society which since independence always has ranked amongst the most corrupt countries in the world. Chinua Achebe, a very well known Nigerian writer writes in “The Trouble with Nigeria”:

“There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or air, or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example, which is the hallmark of true leadership.”

Nigerian history bears witness to this all-present and monstrous corruption: Abacha, who ruled as a military dictator between 1993 and 1998 and was known for the sunglasses he constantly wore embezzled near $1billion dollar of public funds. In 1970, due to the oil boom Nigeria was the 33rd richest country in the world. Under Abacha’s dictatorship it dropped to be the 13th poorest by 1997. After Abacha died a deal was brokered to end all criminal proceedings against Abacha’s oldest son in return for 80% of the stolen assets. About $770 million have since been recovered.

Another roadblock is the inadequate and intermittent power supply: only 10% of all rural population and 40% of all Nigerians have access to electricity. Neglecting the energy infrastructure Nigeria’s National Electric Power Authrity (NEPA) produces less than half of the possible capacity and power cuts are part of daily life. All computers and facilities at the African University need uninterruptable power supplies (UPS). Nigerians cynically say NEPA stands for “Never Expect Power Always”. In 2006 NEPA actually changed its name to “Power Holding Company of Nigeria” PHCN, which Nigerians say stands for “Problem Has Changed Name”.
Access to water is another problem. only 60% of all Nigerians have access to safe drinking water, in rural areas only 30%. Handcarts with water containers and bottles are ubiquitous. This leads to another problem: non-degradable PET bottles are dropped everywhere. If nearly 150 million Nigerians drop two bottles a day an environmental legacy is being created that will take decades to deal with. Public urination and defecation results in further health hazards and huge breeding grounds for mosquitoes, rats and cockroaches can be seen near garbage piles everywhere.

All this must be seen in light of the tremendous oil wealth. 95% of Nigeria’s export earnings come from oil exports, 85% of all government revenue is due to oil. Nigeria has proven oil reserves close to 40 million barrels. But this has not translated into a sustainable and health economy. Nigeria needs to build more oil refineries and stop exporting crude oil and instead sell more refined and value-added products. The oil contains very little sulfur impurities and is therefore very desirable on the world market. But again crime and corruption rule: Over 100,000 barrels a day are stolen shipped illegally out of the country. Pipelines in the Niger Delta, where almost all of the oil is found are taped and then left to leak creating an environmental disaster that makes the Gulf of Mexico look like a minor incident. This is happening since decades. Due to the mad rush for the ‘black gold’ Nigeria has completely neglected the long term economic growth of its manufacturing and agricultural sectors. You drive around and notice: it is green and very fertile – Nigeria could be the bread basket of sub-Saharan Africa. Instead it finds itself in a political, economical and environmental mess of epic proportions. What must grow in Nigeria with the utmost urgency and be recognized as its most important resource ahead of oil is an educated class of young Nigerians who will tackle these problems using technology and best practices in governance. This means creating a new culture. Plenty of raw material for this transformation is available : about 45% of Nigeria’s population is under the age of 14. The process must start now….

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