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The easiest way a government and a ruling political party can dilute the faith, the confidence, and the authority placed in them by the people is to undervalue the citizens and to assume that civil society is naive, easy to fool, uncritical and always willing to accept half-truths. Unfortunately, every government and every political party that controlled power at the federal level since independence made this fundamental error of judgment.
Prince Tony Momoh, a leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), exposed the mindset of the current government and APC leaders when he answered questions, relating to the state of the nation and the way the government has been grappling with socioeconomic problems. These appeared in an interview Momoh granted to Vanguard. The interview was published on Sunday, 2 October 2016.
Momoh might have emerged from the interview feeling good about himself and the smart way he answered most of the lightheaded questions put to him by a journalist, who obviously did not do any research prior to the interview. You don’t need to be a journalist to understand the kind of questions that citizens would like to ask any top leader of the APC or the Federal Government, particularly in light of the serious challenges facing the nation. Unfortunately, the interview lacked depth, focus, a clear structure as well as analytic insights, precision and thoroughness.
In response to the first question, Momoh said: “Nigeria as a nation is highly stressed and Nigerians as a people are under stress and that stress can only be cured through attending to the causes of the stress.” There is no question that Nigerians are stressed out, angry and disappointed with the state of the economy and their cascading living conditions. People are also disappointed because of poor governance and inability of the state to deal with their worsening situation.
Momoh committed the first blunder during the interview when he tried to attribute social, political and economic problems to global events. He said: “When you look at what is happening in Nigeria economically, even in the area of security and politically too, they are signs of the time. In other words, they are worldwide.”
The answer is not only weird and far-fetched but also misleading. How, for example, did global events contribute to restlessness in the Niger Delta that preceded the global financial crisis and the sharp drop in oil prices? How did the world encourage Nigerian leaders to mismanage and embezzle the country’s internally generated resources? How did the global environment aid widespread corruption among political and business leaders? How did the international community discourage our leaders from focusing on and enhancing agricultural production? When did the world advise Nigerian leaders that it is cheaper, easier and more economical to import food from overseas countries, including the import of non-essential items, such as toothpicks?
These basic questions and more have exposed the half-truths in Momoh’s attempt to link socioeconomic problems and poor management of the economy to global events. It is unnecessary for state officials and party leaders to assume the citizens are foolish, unsophisticated and gullible while government officials have monopoly over public knowledge.
When Momoh was asked about the causes of the stress that Nigerians are experiencing, he fastened himself to that jaded, unpersuasive line that citizens are suffering because of the downward trend of the global economy. His words: “The causes of the stress in Nigeria, let us take economy, is that we are not in charge of the price of oil. It is a world event. Unfortunately more than 80 per cent of our income comes from oil and this oil, the price of it in the international market, is less than $40 barrels a day and the production of oil, about two million barrels a day, has reduced to less than one million barrels a day because of the Niger Delta Avengers’ destruction of pipelines.”
Everyone knows the price of oil has tumbled at the world markets but Momoh still found value in blaming poor economic indices on falling oil prices. Momoh should have explained the government’s alternative plans for reviving an economy that has passed out. As far as economic performance goes, every government is expected to have a ready-made emergency response plan (something like a ‘Plan B’) to enable it to respond promptly to sudden changes in international financial and economic systems. Every government is expected to plan for the future; it should not rely on a policy that is at odds with economic realities at the global level.
I was mystified when Momoh referred to the “massive output” from agriculture in the northern parts of Nigeria. He said: “If you know the massive output we have from agriculture now in the North, you will wonder why we did not do so years ago.” This is inconsistent with the reality on the ground. If agricultural production in Nigeria has risen to such a “massive” or substantial level, why are many people famished? Indeed, why is Nigeria spending billions of naira to import food from overseas countries? Momoh’s statement, I am afraid, was not based on sound logic and unblemished argument. Nigerians are not a bunch of gullible people politicians can feed with misinformation.
Perhaps, the most contemptible statement that Momoh made about the situation in the Niger Delta was when he said: “The people of the Niger Delta feel marginalised. They quarrel about ownership of oil wells. They quarrel about the neglect of the communities. They are even asking for the control of the resources there. Then again they are also asking for the restructuring of the country. Those are what they believe will solve the problems of denial, the problems of deprivation. But that is from their own perception and so, as far as they are concerned, there is injustice if what they are asking for is not done.”
Momoh went off the mark on this one. Although he is from the Niger Delta, he appears to have misread the situation in the region. He does not seem to understand that years of injustice, neglect, maltreatment, pauperisation and marginalisation of people in the oil producing areas of the Niger Delta were not invented. They are based on the people’s lived experience and not on mere perception. The people’s reaction is based on decades of unparalleled hardships caused by environmental damage, poverty, oil pollution and government apathy.
To suggest, as Momoh did, that the genuine grievances of people in the Niger Delta are founded on mere perceptions is to show total disrespect to the region that produces the nation’s main foreign exchange earner – oil.
Additionally, people in the Niger Delta have mounted a sustained campaign for self-government because they feel they have been excluded from the Nigerian state despite the fact the region produces enormous wealth for the nation. For this and other reasons, there is understandably deep-seated anger in the Niger Delta. The question that Momoh should grapple with rather that avoid is: Why are people in the Niger Delta so annoyed with the Nigerian state and political leaders?
The people are very angry because they believe they have been abandoned by Federal and state governments because they have tolerated their conditions for too long. Leaders of militant organisations that have emerged from the region want the government to understand their problems and to accord to them national recognition and a share of the resources that are produced in their soil. These demands, in my judgment, are not too difficult to negotiate with the government.
I am not sure what Momoh intended to achieve when he made statements that are not in accord in with reality. For example, he said: “For the first time, there are no fuel queues. And when there is power, nobody will say there is no power. When the roads are done, nobody will say there are no roads. When there is no water and boreholes are drilled, you can’t say you have no water.”
A closer examination will show Momoh has exaggerated the situation and wrongly accused the people. He failed to acknowledge that ordinary citizens appreciate the government when the government is doing the right thing for the nation. When Momoh said there were no fuel queues, he was being economical with the truth. I have seen queues in petrol stations in various parts of the country. Momoh was also incorrect when he implied that citizens do not acknowledge achievements by the government. For example, when there is improvement in electricity supply, people speak frankly about that development. When government repairs bad roads, people admit the government is doing well to renovate the roads. People are charitable enough to praise the government when there is reason to do so. People also criticise the government when they feel the government has abandoned its obligations to provide for the welfare and wellbeing of citizens.
Taking the change ideology of the government to a critical level, the journalist asked Momoh whether anything really has changed since the government was inaugurated in May 2015. To this question, Momoh replied to my amazement: “People are changing without knowing it”. I couldn’t hold back my cynicism any further. I responded: Really? Is this how you can underestimate the capacity of citizens to make good judgments about their own conditions?