Forgive me: A letter to my unborn son

Dear son,

I’m writing this letter to explain a few things about the country you will grow up in, and among other things, apologize. I’m apologizing, not for bringing you into this world, but for the thought that you may be born into this country of your father. Since we began thinking about having you, our toughest decision has been if we want you to come from the same country as your parents. You may not understand why we are afraid of having you be born in our country, we know you would love to be, but at the end of this letter, you will understand.

Please do not be too confused, if a few of the stories you will find in this letter do not make sense, because the country of your father makes no sense, even for people as old as your daddy, or even much older.

You really must understand that you must keep strictly to your birth schedule, to allow us prepare adequately for your birth, including getting your mum to hospital and making sure she is well tucked in and ready to go. Of course you will need to give us a bit of additional time to bring extra diesel to the hospital, just in case. You cannot try any foolish tricks like coming early, or being born while your mum is still home, because (you won’t believe this either) much as you think this is 2012, we still do not have ambulances running here. The doctors here are also really bad, so we need to ensure your mum gets to the fancy hospital we specially paid for.

Since the day the doctors said we could, we have been looking you up through fancy hospital screens. A few weeks back, your mummy had a scan to check if you had any defects. We found none. I’m not sure you like it. But you should understand this is a critical – and that you’re lucky we can even do this in your daddy’s country. these simple scans cost so much, you would never believe it, but again, that is because you’re lucky. Many children in the country are born without even seeing a hospital, and some die with their mums as they are being born.

It’s difficult for me to explain how bad healthcare in this country is, until I tell you that your daddy’s brother died a few years ago from cancer. The oyibo doctors in London said he would have been saved if he had seen a doctor earlier. But he did see a doctor, the ‘best’ neuro guy in the country who insisted it must be anxiety that caused his headaches – maybe exam fever. But your uncle was a scholarship student, and made 8 As in his SSCE, despite writing some papers from the clinic. It wasn’t exam fever; it was the beginnings of the tumor, which later killed him. We have taken our healthcare to extremes since then, because the doctors in your daddy’s country must be feared, and treated with extreme caution.

Every couple of hours or so, I’m sure you notice the place goes dark for a minute or so. It’s NEPA! They’re either coming or going, and the ‘gen’ has to take over. Those weeks when the light didn’t flicker? Oh, your mummy was in America, or Europe I think. Believe me, you’re lucky your light only just flickers. Your mates all over the country see a lot worse – it stays dark for days, then it flickers, then goes dark again for days. No, dear boy, these people don’t like staying in the dark, but the people your daddy and his friends helped put into power, the people half the country queued in the sun to put into government, decided it would be best they stayed in the dark, so they can be proud owners of Porsche Cayennes and Swiss bank accounts.

It’s your education that scares me most. I do not even know where to begin to explain this topic to you. A few days ago, the government people came out to say that in some states, even the big teachers who should be teaching children cannot read. They cannot even read this letter you are reading! So your mummy and me are setting up a fund for you, so you can go to a good school, and when you’re old enough, send you to a country where you can get quality education. The thing is, even the expensive schools we will be sending you to are only slightly better than public schools in other countries.

After the many years of tough schooling you will need to go through, believe it or not, you will have to put your dreams aside, everything you had wanted to be, for one year, so you could go count cattle in a remote village. This, my dear child, is called serving your country, without which you may never get an establishment job, or a chance to aspire elective office in your fatherland. It could get worse, if the government people decide you should take a break from counting cattle and come help with elections – well, your future country people who do not like the person who won the elections could come and kill you and your friends, just because you are ‘serving’.

There is good news though. Your daddy’s country has the happiest people in the whole word. In spite of all the struggles, we still try to be happy, and throw owambes to celebrate anything we can celebrate. Recently though, the owambes have been moved indoors, because some of your daddy’s country people got really angry and are now bombing anyone who gathers in crowds larger than three. They also bomb schools and places of worship, but it’s schools they must really be angry at, because their name means “School is Bad”.

But you’re lucky – your dad can even afford to think these thoughts. Many children who are coming in your batch, waiting to be born here, will not have the opportunity to be thought of in these terms.

So, dear boy, you see why I started out apologising to you. You see why your daddy’s friends say that this is not a country? It is a country by name, yes, but everything that should have made it a country has found a way to not happen. Yes, we are thinking that maybe you should be born away from this country of your fathers, but if you are born and find that your passport is Green, we plead, dear son, that you forgive us.


Infrastructure: How Government can actually contribute to local economic growth

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In 2009, as the recession was gripping the world, I was on an unusually difficult road trip through Germany. The trip was difficult because the German Autobahns, famed for their lack of speed limits, were not very pleasant to drive on due to huge construction projects going across Germany. I remember how a 20 minute drive into Koln took two hours, because between the icy rains, the construction, and the weekend return of workers into Koln, traffic had backed up miles outside the city.

The question then was, why would the government put so much money into building up already great road infrastructure, especially as Germany was headed into the recession? It was simple, really. Infrastructure projects tend to transfer monies from government reserves into the economy, most times quicker than any bailouts could. It’s one thing to bail banks and corporations out, which puts money into the pockets to very rich people, with the hopes that they would hire more, and it’s another paying for visibly beneficial infrastructure projects, which puts the money directly into the pockets of blue collar individuals who are the bread and butter of the construction industry. This model works even better in Germany, which is built on generations of family-owned companies.

So how does this work in Nigeria?

If you think of large scale infrastructure projects in Nigeria, you’ll think of road construction, and Julius Berger in the same breath. Well, this is where the problem lies, and it has nothing to do with Julius Berger’s abilities as a builder of fine roads. In fact I love JB, but JB (or any other big construction company) revenues will go to big stock holders, and every kobo going to JB stock holders means a kobo off the streets. The question is, how do we invest in infrastructure, while also making sure the billions get to the local neighbourhoods?

Roads built in Bassey’s backyard

Let’s face it, the big airport road in Abuja is not going to reward any poor people, so our focus here will go to the local roads Governor Akpabio is building in my home state. On my last visit to Akwa Ibom, I missed the proverbial old tree to the grandfather’s house so many times, the new roads became a nuisance – but one thing was sure: a lot of infrastructure investment was being made. But again, the builders were the big construction companies. The local people loved the roads, but the roads do not address the immediate economics needs.

So here is one way out: Bassey, the village brick layer, helping build the road to his village, and earning from it.

The government could do what is being tried in the oil industry, building a local content component into every road construction contract in their states and local governments. If you are building a road in Shagamu, a percentage of input into that road is set aside for the local people. The government could assist the community, and work with the construction companies to train local people on construction needs and practice, and help the local people form cooperatives who are assigned contracts for supplying much needed services to the construction companies.

Even more practical, the government could change the road construction methods, from asphalt to brick pavings, which allows more participation from local people. In this scenario, Julius Berger is still awarded the contract, but the bricks for constructing the roads is built by to local people.

How does this work?

Contracts! The government structures the contracts such that JB is only responsible for building the roads, but buys the bricks for paving the roads from local people, who are trained by the project on how to make these bricks. In fact, the government could go as far as having the paving to be done by the locals under JB supervision.

It comes to the question: how would quality be maintained?

Training is a big component. JB trains locals on making road building bricks a few months before construction is set to begin, government works with local banks and chiefs to provide seed funding for interested entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs, based on training and supervision from JB, build bricks to JB specification. This is similar to what the local content practice in the oil industry is, where the OilCo trains and supervises local contractors on project execution.

In order to ensure that local entrepreneurs are faithful to the task, JB will only accept bricks from suppliers if they are up to standard. If you want your bricks bought by us, Mr. Bassey, your bricks have to be up to standard. When Mr. Bassey realizes that he has to make his bricks solid enough for JB to buy, he will make them solid.

Now we can think past when the road construction is done, and Mr. Bassey had made a decent income from making paving bricks, to when he realizes he has a viable skill and can set up a small workshop to make bricks for the roads to the next village, in cooperation with Victor, who comes from there, but doesn’t have the means…

What’s NYSC Good For? Absolutely Nothing!

Believe it or not, all these guys are graduates, and under 30

What is the value of NYSC for young Nigerians today? ABSOLUTE NOTHING!

Before anyone goes into the argument of how it provides first time job opportunities, national integration, economic benefits etc, I’d like to point out that if graduates didn’t have to wait for an NYSC posting, they would have started job hunting and placements form the final year of university. National integration? This is not 1970. People are traveling more, watching more TV, listening to radio across the country; the internet is bridging a great deal of integration gaps. And by the way, decades of NYSC has not integrated us any more than before then.

The economic benefit of NYSC is a myth. N18,000 monthly is just minimum wage, the equivalent of unskilled labour! If these graduates were employed, they most likely would have been better paid.

The average wait period for an NYSC call up is about 6 months. In most cases, this is time spent doing nothing but wait. Because a lot of graduates think it’s illegal to hold a job without NYSC discharge, they just wait, while their brains rot.

This week, some smart young men with full time development jobs realized that the new NYSC rules require them to serve in rural areas only, and that on top of that, they can only teach.

Because these guys managed to get full time jobs in this difficult market, it’s easy understand their horror, that even if they got posted to Lagos, they could not even be pulled in to continue their jobs, and their employers may have to lay them off. Suddenly, because some rocket scientists at the NYSC headquarters had a brainwave, hundreds, if not thousands of young Nigerians have had their life plans made for them, with them being the losers.

In the past, one could at least get posted to a good enough company to get decent exposure, or a company which has recognized talent could pull in a graduate pre-NYSC, and simply get them to serve on the job. But now, that’s about impossible.

Of course, if NYSC rules allow private schools to get postings, it could open a door for my uncle who owns a small private school to request for corps members, who just happen to spend a lot more time at my office, but the big IF is if private schools will be in on the NYSC party.

One day, some genius in the education, youth or planning ministry will wake up and realize that Nigerian graduates are not competitive because instead of getting sharp for the market after graduation, the spent their most significant post college years waiting for a posting that turned out to be a waste of time.