Thursday, 10 September 2015

"The God of Small Changes"

Some of you may be familiar with Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s 1997 award winning debut novel ‘The God of Small Things’.
It is a charming story of how the small things of life can affect human behaviour. But here I want to examine how the small changes in a time of great expectations of CHANGE can make a big impact even in a cynical society like Nigeria where political capital and credibility are in serious deficit. And the quite significant thing in the small changes I am going to mention involve little if any financial costs.

It was my daughter who highlighted for me how small deficits can undermine great achievements. On a trip to Nigeria four years ago, her first since the age of four, we travelled to the village and later spent a night in a brand new hotel in Owerri the IMO State capital. On checking into her room, she soon rang my own room to complain about various items that were either not available or were very shoddy. Things like dirty towels, missing shower curtains were etc. I had noticed the same shortcomings in my room and concluded it was an exceptional oversight in what is clearly a spanking new edifice. But by the time we went for dinner in the restaurant that evening, it was clear that there was no oversight. The air-conditioning in the restaurant had broken down.

Nigerians, being past masters at suffering and smiling, were stoically, sweating into their bowls of soup, suffering but not smiling. After summoning the manager to enquire why a new hotel that must have cost the better part of N800 million cannot fix an air-conditioning unit that would cost no more than N18,000 to repair, the manager gave me the usual Nigerian substitute for service: sorry sir. After he left, my daughter leaned across the table, shook her head ruefully and said: ‘Dad it is a pity how easily Nigeria is defeated by small things.’ Over the years I had of course noticed how true this is. But I had not quite put it in the same turn of phrase. You only need to look around you to see that many of our troubles are often small issues and tiny problems that a little bit of diligence and attention to details will clear up in no time, but which left unchecked and untreated blow up into major catastrophe that in the end turn into a national earthquake in both its impact and cost.

I challenge you to take an audit of major public high-rise buildings in Nigeria and you will find that out of every four or six elevators only one or two are working, and the functioning one would be reserved for ministers and directors, the very public officers who have the responsibility for making sure that facilities work well. I recall visiting the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) headquarters in the Central Area of Abuja in the run up to the 2007 elections and only one of the four elevators was functioning and this was the very building where foreign dignitaries and press were on daily visitation, not to mention that the Commission, with a war chest of more than N50 billion, was not short of a naira or two, proof that quite often the problem is not money.

I will like to extrapolate this scenario onto the current challenge of Change which Nigeria has embarked on under President Muhammadu Buhari. And I would like him and his advisers to consider a range of small and costless changes which can have considerable impact both on the public perception of Change, in some cases save money, as well as lay the road map for meeting the more substantive challenges of Change. For a start, here is one little Change that will not cost Buhari or Nigeria a single kobo. As he prepares to announce his much awaited ministerial nominees, I suggest that the president should make a departure from the tired old way of his predecessors by presenting to the Senate ministerial nominees accompanied by their prospective portfolios, and not one whose functions are wrapped in mystery.

The obvious values of such openness is that both the Senate and the public can assess the cognate suitability of each ministerial nominee for the job for which he is being ‘interviewed’ on behalf of We the People of the Federal Republic. Buhari himself would at the same time demonstrate to the public that he has, ab initio, hired the right man for the job; a round peg in a round hole. We have in the past created the misleading impression that being educated in say medicine necessarily meant that a doctor would make a better minister of health than say a brilliant  and sagacious economist or historian. I know from experience in many successful democracies that this is most often not the case. So let the nominees prove to the public that they can offer more than a bundle of certificates.

I don’t know President Buhari personally at all or his reading habits. But if he is one of those Nigerian leaders who unabashedly boast that they don’t read Nigerian newspapers, then he should hear this. I suggest that he selects no less than three national newspapers which he should scan through at breakfast every day. US presidents read The New York Times, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, two papers from the East Coast and one from the West respectively, alongside their National Security briefings, every morning before they enter the Oval Office. There is no substitute for a leader briefing himself on certain issues in the media rather than receive sometimes doctored verbal or even written version of news and opinions in the media. Besides it has been known that some presidential aides who think they are smarter than a smart phone, those they call Villa Rats, have in the past plagiarised well intentioned articles and editorials and presented them to their president in a memo as their own ideas. And they are the same people who would present the authors of the stolen intellectual properties to their boss as ‘enemies of Mr President’! I am not suggesting that Buhari has rats or remnants of them in his presidential office, but he should not wait to find out. Unless Buhari has firsthand knowledge that not all press men and woman are fifth columnists or adversarial journalists on the payroll of his enemies, he is likely to fall victim to internal manipulation like some of his predecessors.

President Buhari should dispense with the wasteful and obsequious charade and parade of ministers and top government officials abandoning their desks to line up at the airport tarmac whenever the president is returning even from a four-hour trip to Daura! Let them sit at their desks and do the job they were hired to do. This kind of small Change can bring about the big Changes that can come from officials assiduously applying themselves to the challenges of Change. The most powerful president in the world is usually met on his return to Washington only by the commandant of the military detachment at the airport, even after Obama had travelled abroad for one week. Indeed in this regard, Buhari can also do away with the services of a uniformed Aide de Camp (ADC) who usually is nothing more than a ceremonial excess baggage. He is not the bodyguard of the present. That is the job of the SSS. As a colonial legacy, African presidents are still the only world leaders who drag along this ceremonial sinecure who do nothing more than pull up chairs and hand over speeches to their bosses at international conferences even when more powerful leaders who pack a nuclear punch are carrying their own briefcases and pulling up their own chairs, and the heavens have not fallen.

I do not think that anyone needs to suggest to Buhari to trim the fat of ministerial cars in ministerial pools. I don’t see why any minister needs more than three cars in his pool, including cars for his staff and security detail . Anything more is a return to the old profligate ways. Similarly the president does not need more than six cars in the presidential pool sensibly deployed.

I have repeatedly advocated that the federal electronic media FRCN/NTA/VON should be merged into one Nigerian National Broadcasting Corporation [NNBC]. Before they were split to create jobs for the boys they were one Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC-Radio-TV and External Service). Collapsing them into one corporation under a Group Chief Executive  as obtains in BBC, SABC and many others has obvious advantages, especially economic and organisational, and others  too numerous to state here.  Indeed Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) is a misnomer. The Authority traditionally is the regulatory body. The present regulatory body,  the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) should be renamed the National Broadcasting Authority [NBA] and could indeed be merged with the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) for the obvious reason that they are both regularly agencies in the business of communication.

Now the spat between the presidency and the press over the 100 Days syndrome was totally unnecessary, and the president’s men should recognise the kind of fight they are bound to lose. They should have known that whether Buhari promised a timeline of achievements or not, he would be assessed on the journey so far after 100 days. It is a global practice that began with the election of US President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1933. Roosevelt did not promise anyone a miracle in his first 100. But he had inherited an economy and unemployment in a parlous state, not unlike what Buhari met three months ago, that within 15 weeks he had rammed 12 Bills through Congress and a sense of stability was felt across the nation. A simple knowledge of this history was enough to let go, because whether he promised a miracle or not, the 100 day assessment was bound to happen. Indeed presidential spokesman Femi Adesina clearly respects this tradition when he briefly returned to his old job as a columnist with a piece he penned for THISDAY at the weekend titled ‘A New Sheriff in Town’. Indeed let me take this opportunity to admonish Femi, as his Egbon, that it was ill advised for a presidential spokesman to resort, in his case return to column writing to extol the achievements of his boss. It is an  own goal, an implicit concession that he had not effectively communicated the achievements of the new Sheriff to the army of State House correspondents who should be doing the reporting and writing the columns.
Also it would not be out of place to suggest to President Buhari that there are no Brownie points to gain in retaining the mouthful title of Special Adviser for Media and Publicity which he inherited from his predecessors. Since the 19th century, under President Abraham Lincoln, the spokesman for the most powerful office on planet earth has been called White House Press Secretary even when they had Cabinet rank. Nigeria began like that under President Nnamdi Azikiwe and Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa. But in our penchant for big titles that do not add value to our performance, we went for a mouthful! Not only does the title not add to the prestige of the position, it is not media friendly. Broadcasters have difficulty with it and have often abbreviated it to spokesman. Above all it is pure tautology. Media and Publicity are all about the press.

Finally I firmly believe that Buhari will face his greatest challenges not in dealing with the economy, Boko Haram, corruption or infrastructure, Herculean as these tasks may be, but in dealing with the character of the Nigerian, a character in which Change must happen if a new Nigeria is to emerge. Nigerians may live in compartments of middleclass and underclass. But there is a common denominator of bad behaviour, characterised by a ready disposition to cheat, lie, defraud their fellow citizens, and swear on the Bible or al Quran while doing it. Nigerians are by and large not trusted by outsiders in business nor do Nigerians trust themselves, for good reasons too. What my friend Pat Utomi calls the dangerous alchemy produced by the convergence of military rule and oil boom has resulted in a deeply morally flawed nation, one in which many honest people like Nigeria but loathe Nigerians. When faced with this moral morass some Nigerians will say God will do it. I say oh, no God has done all things for Nigeria. It is left to Nigerians to do their bit, for right from the Garden of Eden God involved man in his own salvation.

My great fear therefore is that while Buhari would, indeed should succeed in fixing the problems and challenges I have mentioned above, I seriously doubt whether he can fix the Nigerian. The president may be everything right now but he is certainly not a heart or brain surgeon because what the Nigerian needs is heart and brain transplant to produce Dora Akunyili’s Good People, Great Nation.

By Eddie iroh

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