In this interview with Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf, Umez, who has been in the US since the mid 80s, speaks on the socio-economic crisis bedeviling the nation and also proffers some suggestions. Below is the Interview:
Yusuf: What do you think about kidnapping for ransom in Nigeria, and other related challenges facing Nigeria?
Umez: On April 5, 2010, I got a sad news from home (Nigeria) that a friend has been kidnapped, and that the kidnappers were asking for a ransom, in the sum of N20,000,000.00 $133,333.33). Obviously, vicious kidnapping for ransom is now added to the catalogue of Nigerian tragedies, e.g., concealing Nigerian money in foreign countries by some Nigerian leaders, massive unemployment, acute and chronic hunger, political victimization, galloping inflation, hyper 419, hyper corruption, failing institutions of learning, healthcare crisis, bad and dangerous roads, frequent power failure, scarcity and the rising cost of fuel, among others.
Today, life expectancy at birth in Nigeria, according to CIA, is 46.94 years. By comparison, Nigeria is no. 216 out of 224 countries. And, the percentage of Nigerians below the poverty line" is 70. For now, notice that Switzerland, one of the foreign countries where some of our leaders hide our oil money, has a life expectancy of 80.85 years, with only 7.4% below poverty line. Needless to say, some of us are saddened by all these negative developments in Nigeria, a country ranked so high in crude oil reserves among OPEC countries.
Yusuf: You mentioned some OPEC countries earlier, how does Nigeria stand among other OPEC countries?
Umez: In fact, some OPEC countries are not happy with Nigeria either – they have taken some notice. Accordingly, in November 2009, E. F. Arrundell, the Venezuelan Ambassador to Nigeria, had this advice for Nigerian leaders: "In Venezuela, since 1999, we’ve never had a raise in fuel price. We only pay $1.02 to fill the tank. What I pay for with N12,000 here (Nigeria), in Venezuela I’ll pay N400. What is happening is simple. Our President (Hugo Chavez) decided one day to control the industry, because it belongs to the Venezuelans. If you don’t control the industry, your development will be in the hands of the foreigners."
No doubt, the Hon. Ambassador made it crystal clear to Nigeria (a fellow OPEC member country) that leadership is parenthood. Just as parents take good care of their own children, leaders must take good care of their own people. In Venezuela, the Hon. Ambassador told them in a clear diplomatic language, we are taking care of our own people with our (Venezuelan) oil revenue. A billion naira advice — we must admit! While we read again, again and again of this golden advice from Hon. Ambassador, we must also consider again, and again, what it means to have a rich country’s president flown to another country for medical treatment. Put differently, how would the Saudis react if King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz flies to Nigeria for medical treatment? Or, in a more general sense, how would the citizens of other OPEC countries (e.g., Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, among others) react should their leaders fly to Nigeria for medical treatment? Specifically, will they just be quiet about it as Nigerians are – hoping that some "divine intervention" should one day build and maintain good hospitals in Nigeria? What do you think they would do? Indeed, where is the outraged conscience of our nation and our collective wisdom? Be that as it may, it is clear that the message of the Hon. Ambassador has been treated, as usual, with the normal dereliction: the message fell on deaf ears – plain and simple. There is no indication that Nigeria has decided to take control of its oil industry and revenue (in line with Mr. Ambassador’s advice). Fuel is still scarce in Nigeria; fuel price continues to rise in a country ranked among the top crude oil producers within OPEC countries; and some Nigerian leaders and elite otherwise referred to frequent flyers continue, as a matter of empty pride and hollow status symbol, to fly to foreign countries to open foreign bank accounts, and for medical treatment. What does this mean? What is the message?
Yusuf: You talked about the ‘frequent flyers’ — that is, some Nigerian leadershiding Nigerian oil money in foreign banks, what is the country losing by way of revenue due to looted funds abroad, and what are the implications?
Umez: Because the frequent flyers never think for one second of the tragedies and the shame their actions are bringing to Nigeria and Nigerians, it might worth their time to consider the message they are sending to Nigerian people: Fellow Nigerians, our people, you do not deserve solid banks and strong economy; Swiss people and their cohorts deserve solid banks and strong economies. As such, our oil revenue must be stolen from you and be deposited in foreign banks to grow greener pastures abroad. In addition, fellow compatriots, it is better that we, Nigerians, die at the age of 46.84 and Swiss people and their friends live up to the age of 80.86 because we are "the black sheep of the family" while they are the "white sheep of the family." So, our oil revenue should be wisely used by us to build and maintain excellent hospitals for "the white sheep of the family" in their "God’s own countries." And, bear in mind, fellow compatriots, we are not ashamed of the shame our action is bringing to you and Nigeria; get used to hardship, and do not say a word or else we will come after you! My good people, how did it come to this? At this point, let me put myself in the shoes of some frequent flyer. How will I feel, as a looter, watching my people dying of hunger and disease, with the full knowledge that I have stolen their billions of naira and piled them up in some foreign bank? How will I feel, as a looter, sitting in my mansion, looking at the hungry looking, malnourished, skeletal looking citizens of my country, being shown on TV for the world to see, when I know quite well that I have their billions of money buried in some foreign bank? Where is my conscience? Where is my sense of consideration for others – my own people? What brand of "pure water" am I drinking that will make me lose my own soul, and forget my own people only to feed those who consider me less human and inferior in the human race? There is a solution to the current tragedies in Nigeria? Yes, there is a solution; there is a way out. But before we examine that solution, we must make it clear to the younger generation that this present Nigeria used to be a great country – offering and fulfilling aspirations, dreams, and hopes of its citizens, in the early 70s to 80s.
Yusuf: You talked about how early 70s to early 80s was the era of great Nigeria - the era of "Giant of Africa," can you elaborate on this? How was that era better than Nigeria today?
Umez: In 1978, I was living comfortably on a salary of N94 ($0.63) a month as a secondary school teacher at Chukwurah High School, Onitsha, Anambra State. Mid 70s to early 80s, one naira was enough to feed a hungry man for a whole day in Nigeria. It was an era when a 30kobo plate of stewed rice would satisfy a hungry lady. In 1980, the exchange rate (naira – US dollar) was, on the average, 70 kobo to $1.00. Today, the exchange rate is N152 to $1.00. Should it be that way? To the "frequent flyers", it should be. To them, there is no problem at all; let naira continue to depreciate, after all, "their" money (stolen from Nigerians) is safe in some foreign banks. Between 70s and early 80s, motorcycles, we call "okada" today, were never a part of the public transportation. Today, Nigerian masses – young and old – now risk it all, and board "okada" as their means of public transportation. Why should it be this way?
Between 70s and early 80s, Nigeria education was super. In elementary school, children enjoyed learning, and learned substance. They were taught obedience, and they had good reasons to obey the laws of the land and the authority figures. Teachers instilled in students the spirit of healthy competition in academic works. Because of the high premium placed on education then, Nigerians were known all over the world as brilliant people. Some of us that came to the United States for university degrees in the early 80s quickly discovered that some of the courses we mastered in secondary schools in Nigeria were being taught to freshman level students in American universities. American Professors considered Nigerian students academically brilliant and very smart. Indeed, a lot of Nigerians got their B.Sc degrees in three years, and several Nigerian students, including yours sincerely, won all sorts of scholarships in American universities.
Those of us who attended high school in Nigeria in the 70s still remember the "Udoji Award" – the award that earned Nigerian headmasters (the elementary school Superintendents) free, brand new Passat cars, and earned secondary school Principals, free 504 Peugeot cars. Similarly, we still remember the Volkswagen "kombi" buses donated to all secondary schools in Nigeria then. We still remember, and will forever cherish our joy and happiness, riding those "kombi" buses to other schools for debating tournaments, football matches, and other extracurricular activities. Now, what is the status of Nigerian education today? From all indications, public education has been abandoned in Nigeria. Teachers are underpaid, and sometimes will not be paid for months. As such, schools are often closed for months because teachers are on strike. Today, a lot of school buildings have no windows and doors, and some buildings are worse than pigs’ house.
The era of 70s to early 80s was the era when Nigerians "hailed" Nigeria, their father land – the era of the "Giant of Africa." It was the time when "men were men," and "women were married to those men who really deserved them," so to say. Now, why was life more enjoyable in the late 70s to early 80s in Nigeria than today? The answer is glaring. Most Nigerian leaders then practiced "charity begins at home" by investing much of our oil revenue in Nigeria and in Nigerians. As such, Nigerian economy was strong, education super, and Nigerian currency highly valued in the world market. There were jobs in Nigeria then. Workers were paid well; no one was owed his/her salaries, and retirees got their pensions as and when due. Those Nigerians who studied abroad then had no reason to spend extra days abroad after completing their degrees.
Today, a substantial number of Nigerian leaders and elite are now frequent flyers tragically stealing and concealing Nigerian money in foreign banks, even though they know more than anyone that foreign leaders have no kobo in Nigerian banks and have no intention of opening any bank account in Nigeria; in fact, they are laughing at us.
Yusuf: Now, what are your prescribed concrete solutions to real challenges facing Nigeria?
Umez: Despite everything – economic erosion, capital flight, concealing Nigerian money in foreign countries, political victimization and assassination, staggering unemployment, galloping inflation, massive hunger, ‘hyper419’, ‘hyper corruption’, vicious kidnapping, massive despair and hopelessness – hope still lives on within some folks like me. That hope is the trust that people can (and do) change, especially when they really look at the shame their action is bringing to their own people, and their country. I do hope that frequent flyers (who are robbing Nigeria only to hide the loot abroad) can reflect upon the irrationality of feeding Swiss people and their allies when our people are starving, and the shame their actions are putting on Nigeria and Nigerians, and therefore start investing Nigerian resources in Nigeria as leaders are supposed to do. This should not be difficult to understand because even animals get this basic, elementary understanding that "charity must begin at home." As such, lions do not kill and leave their quarry for leopards to eat while lion cubs go hungry. Similarly, rats do not labour for squirrels.
My hope is also rooted in the fact that it is from the dirt and humus that green plants sprout into life. I can see some concerned Nigerians "sprouting" to turn Nigeria around. As such, I ask the administrators (States and Federal) to please look for these individuals, and make them a part of their administrations. Indeed, we are ready to serve our country if given the chance.
*Note: Dr. Umez is a Professor of Government, Lee College, Baytown, Texas, and the founder of Liberating the African mind, LAM, and Nigerian Leadership Council, NLC. His latest books include, Nigeria: Real Problems, Real Solutions, "Educated" to Feel Inferior, The Tragedy of a Value System in Nigeria: Theories and Solutions, and Your Excellency. These books can be assessed from his web site, http://www.lee.edu/faculty-pages/bumez/umezbooks.html. His contacts are as follows: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Phone: 832-731-7061 or 281-425-6368.