“Five more minutes, Mr. President.”
The president, who had been shuffling around some papers on his desk, glanced up at the prompt from the studio producer. As he leaned forward from the leather chair he was sitting on, he thought about the Easter speech he was about to give. He had scanned a copy of the document earlier, and as he had guessed, it was full of the usual empty platitudes that his speechwriters felt that Nigerians needed to hear at this time.
Even without trying too hard, he could easily recall some of the phrases… “This is a time to reflect on the state of the nation and renew our desire for progress…” “My administration is making great strides in ensuring a better life for all Nigerian citizens…” “With the help, hardwork and determination of all Nigerians, we will surely achieve our goals…” “God bless Nigeria.” He shook his head. If his speechwriters were going to write the kind of speech that he himself could have written in his sleep, maybe he should just sack them.
Let us see again what we have here, anyway. He adjusted his position in the leather chair, gathered the papers together and started reading.
“My fellow Nigerians, it gives me great joy on this occasion of Easter to wish you the sincerest of felicitations.
“On this most auspicious of celebrations, we should all look to renew ourselves with hope; the same hope that our Christian brothers and sisters are filled with, as they reflect on the salvation offered by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
“And indeed, there is hope. When I look at Nigeria, I see a nation of boundless energy; I see a nation of over one hundred and fifty million ideas, visions, dreams and noble aspirations. I see hard workers, I see dynamic businessmen, I see devoted family men and women, I see…”
The president’s voice trailed off.
Boundless energy? Visions? Who am I fooling, he thought.
“My fellow Nigerians, let me put it to you straight – Nigeria is completely messed up.
“You heard me correctly. From the top to the bottom, from the very high strata of leaders and politicians, to the lowest beggar on the street – there is rot, decay and corruption.
“Yes, corruption. You Nigerians are always complaining that I should fix the problem of corruption. But do you really know how difficult it is? And are you yourselves doing anything to help to fix the problem?
“For example, you complain that when you are driving on the road, policemen demand money from you. You lament about how when you go to your local government office to get a tax clearance certificate, you are also asked to settle the officials. But you do report these instances of corruption? Or you do just go ahead and pay up, thus encouraging the behaviour?
“Not that I blame you totally, my fellow Nigerians. After all, if you complained, what would happen? We have the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission. But is it really equipped to handle your complaints? When was the last time it prosecuted anyone? I have tried to push for it to be better staffed and for more resources to be provided, but the officials at the commission, the Budget Office and the Ministry of Justice give all kinds of excuses. They say that there are other competing demands for the government’s money. They say that it is hard to get competent people. They say that it’s taking time to get the equipment that is needed because due process must be followed. They say, they say… and in the meantime, the commission remains understaffed and woefully ineffective. Is it because they cannot fix these problems, or because they don’t want to? I cannot say.
“But you are not even interested in the petty corruption by police and government officials. You want the sacred cows at the top to be prosecuted and jailed. You want legislators, governors and ministers to know that they cannot get away with rampant stealing.
“I agree with you, my fellow citizens. I too would like jail any corrupt politician. But the reality is that first of all, I need evidence to prove that these politicians are corrupt. In the very early years of my administration, I wanted to push for a bill where each politician was required to list his assets, and if he could not show how he legally acquired them, he would be required to forfeit them. But you know what? That bill died a horrible and painful death in the House of Representatives.
“Even worse, I got a visit from several very prominent legislators from my party demanding that I should not attempt to pull such a foolish stunt in the future. If I did, I could expect impeachment proceedings to be started against me. I declared that I was clean, and they had nothing against me. They laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry, we will find something against you. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not; what matters is that it will get you out of office.’. I said that I would appeal directly to the Nigerian people if they tried that; some of them laughed even louder, others shook their head in pity. One of them said, ‘When we stick you with what we stick you with, these Nigerian people who you want to appeal to, they are the same people who will shout the loudest for you to be crucified.’
“Anyway, I have seen the truth of what they say. You Nigerians, you want to go to heaven, but you do not want to die. You shout against corruption, but that is all you are prepared to do – shout. So why should I put my neck on the line to battle corruption, only to have it chopped off and kicked around to roll in the dirt? Be honest – if I called out to you to protest an attempt to remove me for fighting corruption, would you come out on to the streets to demonstrate? Do you demonstrate against corruption even today?
“But let us leave corruption alone. What about power, some of you say? Even if politicians are corrupt, at least, you should be free to run your business and make your money by having electricity twenty four hours a day. My compatriots, again, I agree with you. I have been making strenuous efforts to ensure that we have uninterrupted power. Early on in my administration, I drew up a plan to get more private sector participation in the generation and distribution of electricity. The plan involved selling off the power stations and distribution companies to private companies so that those companies would now pour money into making power supply more reliable.
“Well, that was the plan. The reality is that nobody has come forward to buy these companies. The potential investors talk, but the sense I get is that they are scared of investing in Nigeria. Some of them tell me privately that they are not sure about the laws they will have to operate under, whether the laws will be upheld in the courts, whether they will have enough fuel to operate the power stations, what obligations they will have to existing workers, or whether they will be allowed to charge enough to make a profit. The officials at the Nigerian Gas Company, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission and the Ministry of Power say that they are working hard to address these concerns, but I do not see much progress here. Again, whether because they are unable or unwilling, I cannot say.
“And my fellow citizens, the truth is that the situation is not different for other areas, like health, security, agriculture, and so on. The problems are so big and complex, the resources are so inadequate and the staff are either so unwilling or unable to work effectively that sometimes, I just don’t know where to begin. And the problems are interconnected, too. I want to solve the problem of lack of electricity, but I cannot do so because I cannot guarantee security and rule of law. To solve the problem of security and rule of law, I would need to beef up the judiciary and the police, but I cannot find competent people here. To solve this problem of finding competent people, I need to solve the problem of a poorly educated workforce. To solve this workforce problem, I need to solve the problem of a failing economy, so I have more money to channel towards education. Then to solve the problem of the economy, I need to solve the problem of poor infrastructure, including of course, inadequate power provision, so that businesses can thrive.
“So you ask – if I cannot solve the problems, should I not quit? Well, first of all, I am still trying to solve the problems. For example, I am trying to get a system enabled whereby Nigerians can report corrupt practices via their mobile phones. I am also pushing for the publication via the internet of details of all contracts that have been awarded. This will enable Nigerians to monitor the progress of these contracts, and report back if they feel that there has been corruption in the way the contract is being executed. But for many of the reasons I have given, even this is difficult to do. However, there is nothing stopping well-meaning private individuals from taking on these endeavours, if they really care about preventing corruption.
“Secondly, if I quit, who do you think will take over? Do you think that I am going to be replaced by a saint? Let me tell you, when the party chose my vice-president, they chose someone who would ensure that would continue to be ‘business as usual’ for those who want to continue stealing money. As sad as it may sound, as bad as things are with me being president, if I was gone, it would be much, much worse.
“Some days, I regret getting involved in politics, especially with this party. Some days, I do think of quitting. I could be enjoying a peaceful life back in my village instead of having to endure this. But I think of the few honest Nigerians in my administration – yes, they do exist – who are also passionate about trying to change Nigeria for the better. I also think about those Nigerians who have done everything they can to live a life of integrity; they do not deserve to suffer more if I just give up.
“So that is it, my fellow Nigerians. That is the length and breadth of the matter concerning the country. I can only honestly conclude this speech by saying ‘God help Nigeria’.”
“Mr. President… Mr. President…”
The president jerked out of his daydream.
“Sorry, Your Excellency, we were prompting you to start with the speech, but you seemed to be thinking of something else. Should we give you a few more minutes to compose yourself?”
“No, Andrew, it’s OK. I’m ready.”
He sat up straight in the chair and straightened his tie. Then he stared straight ahead into the autocue with what he hoped was an inspiring, confident smile, and began.
“My fellow Nigerians, it gives me great joy on this occasion of Easter to wish you the sincerest of felicitations…”