How do we give every child an education? No, how do we give every child the best education there is?
What policy or policies would best ensure the highest economic growth rates and lower population growth?
How do we improve healthcare?
How do we ensure maximum employment, so that all who are able to work can look after themselves and their families?
How do we collect taxes of those who work, ensuring that everyone pays their fair share? How do we deploy government revenues to serve the best purposes of government and the interest of the people?
How do we build and maintain the infrastructure that is needed now, keeping an eye on demographic trends to ensure that what we build now is not obsolete by dawn?
As a people, what is our unique contribution to humankind, and how can we get better at it?
Around the world, these are some of the questions that peoples and cultures ask themselves. To find answers, they engage their best minds.
In Nigeria, we are talking about cattle. Public responsibility for private cattle.
But one month ago, President Muhammadu Buhari took a step towards statesmanship when he announced an ambition to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in 10 years.
He cited the achievements of China, Indonesia and India. “We (also) can do it.”
Those three nations are among the very few with populations larger than Nigeria’s. Since 1990, China has lifted over 800 million of its people out of poverty.
According to the UNDP Multidimensional Poverty Index 2019 published last Thursday, in the 10-year period between 2005/6 and 2015/16, India also lifted 271 million people out.
To clarify the true image of poverty, UNDP now measures by the term, “multidimensional poverty.” This drills beyond finances into such factors as lack of clean water or electricity, poor health or malnutrition, poor quality of work and limited education access.
India’s progress contrasts with that of Nigeria, which became the world’s poverty capital in 2018, with an estimated 87 million people—about half of her population—living on less than $1.90 a day, affording to the World Poverty Clock (WPC).
The problem is that not only did poverty seize hold of Nigeria, WPC projected that the problem was mounting quickly—at the rate of six persons per minute—and would grow worse by 2030 when the population surges to about 263 million.
Apparently concerned that he be seen to be saying something, Buhari affirmed that like China, India and Indonesia, “countries characterised by huge burdens of population,” Nigeria could triumph as well.
“With leadership and a sense of purpose, we can lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in 10 years,” he declared.
Nigeria has never lacked bombast in leadership. Remember that in 1979 as military leader, Olusegun Obasanjo promised: “Nigeria will become one of the 10 leading nations in the world by the end of the century.”
At his inauguration as civilian president 20 years later, Obasanjo decried the widespread cynicism and total lack of confidence in government on account of what he called the bad faith, deceit and evil actions of recent administrations.
“Where official pronouncements are repeatedly made and not met by action, government forfeits the confidence of the people and their trust,” he stated.
“One of the immediate acts of this administration will be to implement quickly and decisively measures that will restore confidence in governance.”
Similarly, at his inauguration in 2015, Buhari drew attention to his oath which he said he intended to keep, and that he intended to serve as President to all Nigerians.
“I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody,” he famously declared.
Those remarks followed the “My Covenant With the Nigerian People” he had published just days before the election, in which he acknowledged the widespread lack of faith in government.
“I know, however, that what we require to revamp our economy and rebuild our country is our ability to galvanise all our citizens to believe once again in their government, in their country and especially, to believe in themselves… The leadership that I will provide will be built on this critical awareness. I intend to lead with integrity and honour and commit myself totally to everything that is of concern to our people: security, employment, health, education, good governance and others.”
And yes, Buhari also pledged to deliver a Marshall Plan on the insurgency, terrorism, ethnic and religious violence, kidnapping and rural banditry, vowing that Nigerian children would never again be slaughtered or kidnapped at will.
Perhaps most of all, Buhari called the people the nation’s “greatest asset.”
He declared: “My commitment is to invest in our people and ensure that they have the opportunity to achieve their full potential and enjoy the full benefits of their citizenship, regardless of their religion, region, ethnicity, gender or disability.”
Sadly, it is from that imperious height that in 2015 that we are now in the realm of cattle, and whether they should be put ahead of people.
I fully agree with Buhari that Nigeria can lift 100 million persons out of poverty in 10 years. But in what shop do we buy the “leadership and a sense of purpose”?
In the 10 years in which India was pulling its population out of poverty, taking advantage of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Nigeria was also pledged to the same scheme. But Nigerian leaders mistook talk for work. It is now four years since the MDGs were succeeded by another 15-year plan, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), on Buhari’s watch.
Oxfam ranks countries on their commitment to reducing inequality, based on social spending, taxes and labour laws. In a ranking of 157, Nigeria comes last.
Oxfam also publishes the Commitment to Reducing Inequality (CRI) Index, because 193 national leaders promised in 2015 to reduce inequality as part of the SDGs.
In the report, published last Tuesday, Oxfam declared that governments in West Africa are the least committed to reducing inequality. Coming last: Nigeria.
The conundrum is that what Oxfam calls commitment is exactly what Buhari calls “leadership and a sense of purpose.”
Commitment is not a speech. It is not a bunch of clichés reported to, or at the United Nations. It is the kind of dogged daily sweat and toil of focused policy implementation by which some nations shed social and economic slavery, while others assume it.
I do not disrespect cattle or those for whom they are an asset and an economic lifestyle. But we must never put them ahead of human beings or the country. Gunslingers who put guns before human life attract only conflict and bloodshed as there will soon be far more AK47s in the bushes than cattle.
Leadership is not easy, which is why successful leaders hunt far and wide for the best brains and hands. That is what true service is all about. It cannot be about one sorry, narrowly-defined objective.
You cannot build the whole by dividing it. Nor can you achieve the biggest of dreams things by thinking the smallest of thoughts.