By Sonala Olumhense
It is unclear to me why Nigeria invited Microsoft chieftain Bill Gates to an “expanded” National Economic Council meeting in Abuja last week.
He appears to have inflicted considerable embarrassment, dismissing the government’s economic template as being incapable of moving Nigeria forward.
Commenting on the “Role of human capital investment in supporting pro-poor and economic growth agenda,” he told the Muhammadu Buhari government to invest in Nigerians, principally.
Nigeria, he said, can achieve the ‘upper middle-income status’ of such countries as Brazil, China and Mexico, but that would depend on the “choice Nigerian leaders make.”
Mr. Gates was speaking in Nigeria two months after it was announced that his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had undertaken to pay off a $76 million loan Nigeria obtained from Japan in 2014 for the fight against polio.
Mr. Gates’s hard-hitting comment may have been expected, as Mr. Buhari himself did not attend the event. No African leader wants to be told to his face, particularly by his guest, that he does not know what he is doing.
Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who chaired the meeting, spoke for 22 minutes, and he appeared to have aimed his comments at the foreign visitors. He stressed the ‘commitment’ of his government to education and health, citing several recently-identified young Nigerian inventors.
But he also revealed that the government really does not know what it is spending on health and education, or where it is spending it. It is the first time since the civil war that a Nigerian government has made this confession about policy implementation, measurement and reporting.
The Vice-President said the government now wants “to dimension what exactly it is we are spending on education and healthcare so that we can spend smarter, because in some cases we find overlaps, and in some cases, you find that there is [no money] going there whatsoever…”
By making this admission, the government confirms what we already know, and the nature of the problem. It is not that there are no words in Buhari’s Economic Recovery & Growth Plan (ERGP) about human capital, and that is not what Mr. Gates was implying. Words have never been in short supply in Nigeria; the point is that they often mean nothing.
What we have is a philosophical problem, and no government since independence illustrates this any better than the Buhari administration. That problem is that words or policies are normally more for election and public relations purposes, not development.
That is why the ERGP was launched in 2017, rather than 2015 when the government took office and might have made an impact.
And the reason for this is the question of political sincerity or commitment. Nigeria is not one, but two countries: Country Something and Country Nothing. The power elite has no commitment to the people.
The principal enterprise of Country Something is to preach, not perform. It makes all the right sounds but throughout its tenure it helps itself, not the people. That is why the Buhari government may pretend it does not understand what Mr. Gates was saying on Thursday.
Think about it: the entire business of the NEC took place in the fortified confines of Aso Rock, attended by the political and business elite whose children often do not attend Nigerian schools. That is Country Something.
And remember, Aso Rock used to have a front-rate hospital, to serve Country Something. Now, the hospital exists in name only, run into the ground. When the president, his family or top government officials need medical care, they flee Country Nothing.
Examples of these double standards-of what I call Microphone Champions-are everywhere. During President Buhari’s recent visit to Benue State, for instance-a trip he took only because of massive public criticism-he expressed surprise the Inspector General of Police had flouted his two-month old instruction to relocate to the state to handle the insecurity.
“I am getting to know this at this meeting,” he told the traumatized people of Benue. “I am quite surprised.”
Really? How does a president not know for months that his top policeman, who lives in the same capital city and supposedly briefs him regularly, does not live in the city?
And then, to distract from the focus on him, the IGP ordered the withdrawal of over 150,000 policemen and women providing security for private individuals throughout the country. It is an open secret that many relatives, girlfriends, concubines and drug-dealers, enjoy this privilege.
But that order lasted only three days before the IGP placed it on hold, deploying all kinds of excuses for the benefit of Country Nothing.
Consider also that VP Osinbajo himself, at another public event last Monday, again criticized the Goodluck Jonathan administration.
“In one single transaction a few weeks to the elections in 2015, N100 billion and $295m were just frittered away,” Osinbajo said, repeating a claim he made in Lagos in October 2017.
On that occasion, he said: “Weeks before the 2015 elections, the government then, gave out N100billion in cash and $295m in cash ostensibly for security within two weeks.”
Last week, he was swiftly challenged by the PDP, and by former Jonathan aide Reno Omokri, who urged him to substantiate the allegation.
The entire world knows that the Jonathan government was corrupt. Indeed, that is one of the reasons that Buhari won the presidency.
What nobody knew was that the Buhari government would find time only for rhetoric, but not the courage to substantiate its assertions or prosecute those responsible for them.
It is important to keep in mind that, ahead of his “Bill Gates Speech” last week, Osinbajo also stated that “$3 billion was frittered away in one single policy” by the Jonathan government.
“We can’t talk of the Nigerian economy without talking about the blight that was caused years ago by people simply stealing the resources of this country,” he affirmed.
These words come from a government which has been in power for three years, armed with the mandate to fight corruption and rebuild the economy, but has chosen to invest in excuses.
Does anyone recall presidential candidate Buhari in 2015 railing against the vast executive fleet of jets, citing the annual “billions of Naira” in maintenance and operational costs?
Among others, at a Town Hall meeting with Nigerians in the UK, he pledged he would fly commercially, citing the practice of the British Prime Minister. Buhari said he would bring back Nigerian Airways converting “all the aircraft in the presidential fleet into the Nigerian Airways and within a year increase the fleet to about 20.”
He continued: “What is the difference between me and those who elected us to represent them? Absolutely nothing! Why should Nigerian President not fly with [the] Nigerian public?”
Three years later, we can answer the question, and say the difference is that there are two countries. In one of them, people are so powerful they walk on the clouds. They mistake words for achievement. They believe their own posturing.
That is why they cannot understand what Mr. Gates meant when he described the most important choice Nigerian leaders can make.
They are microphone achievers.
• Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense