I am in no doubt that general conditions in the country today are worse than they were several years ago. It is not just that governments across the three tiers are more louche. Even though, this in itself is simply unacceptable. It is just as much a matter of roads going so bad, travel on them becomes an act of faith. It is also about a constant state of blackouts, which then turn brownouts into occasions for much mirth-making. Unemployment, on the other hand, is at levels that can best be described as intolerable. Vagrancy? Armed robbery? Rampant acts of terror? These (derivatives of our youth having so much time on their hands and very few constructive avenues to deploy this through) have become the new scourge of private spaces, where once your neighbour’s party on the occasion of a new birth was the most trying affront to shared spaces.
Thirty years ago, I swear, not just were these parameters qualitatively different! They were far better. The public works department (later the ministry of works and housing) did not embark on a road project without extensive soil sampling and detailed testing across the planned route. Roads were thus easier on the steering wheel, and took far longer to burst out in the vicious acne that our roads are pockmarked with today. ECN (NEPA’s first incarnation) was sufficiently customer-savvy to announce its maintenance schedules well ahead – on television, on radio, and in the local newspaper. And the poles through which the last mile of electricity from the mains got to our houses were numbered, ensuring that if at the end of the planned maintenance, somehow light didn’t come on on schedule, you could call ECN/NEPA, and maintenance men, ladder and all, they’d show up in a matter of minutes. Life was predictable!
Imagine my mortification, then, when just last week, in discussion with a much younger friend, this arcadia was challenged with more passion than I was familiar with! Her argument that over the period since my halcyon days, and now, the trend growth rate of the economy has moved up was well met. If one can account for how subsistence, rain-fed agriculture could drive such sterling growth rates for so long, then, a lot of our current problems would emanate precisely from our inability to democratise the gains from this higher growth levels. Not just have the gains been privatised by an increasingly smaller elite, but in most cases, they’ve been moved off-shore, ensuring that the much bruited about growth has happened without significant evidence of economic development locally.
Within this construct, it makes sense that Porsche (the luxury car maker) would open its first showroom in Lagos in this century, and not in mine. Although, there is an understanding within which this development testifies to a new found affluence, this it does only in a negative sense: reinforcing the fact that less than 1% of our compatriots may properly enter this showroom. Indeed, less than 25% of us spend up to N320 naira a day on basic needs – inclusive of the needs of our spouses, children, and innumerable hangers-on!
It was harder, though, to ignore the net welfare gains from access to the mobile phone (dismal services and all) by the three-quarters of our nationals who subsist on less than US$2 daily. Come to think of it, in those days when a little over 500,000 Nigerians had access to and use of those black (and some off-grey) rotary-dial analogue phones, what were the options before the rest? Travel? This must have been burdensome, even with the railways working at full tilt. Post offices? Snail mail, was of course slow, and would have taken its toll on businesses. Add to this, the fact that, today, television and radio run 24-hours, and that the media have on-line presences that are updated real-time, and it is impossible to see how “yesterday” could have been better off with television (black-and-white) coming on at 5.00pm, and stations closing just before 12.00am. Multichoice and its satellite-TV based offering may not have a look-in here, for less than 100,000 households have access to this platform.
Clearly, therefore, in a world in which the GSM-based mobile phone is as ubiquitous as it is today, and with Nigerians some of the largest users of the mobile Internet, we exaggerate a great deal, all who claim that our “yesterday” was head-and-shoulders above “today”. More appropriate to argue instead that our sense of “yesterday’s” trajectory should have seen us further up the development path than we currently are. Put this way, “we” are right to disparage the “gains” that “today’s” youth revel in. They are too small crumbs off a table from which far richer pickings were promised!
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