Friday, July 25, 2008

A one-year holiday for everybody

A RECENT suggestion that Nigeria should take a one-year holiday in order to put its house in order seems to me an acknowledgement that the nation's problems have reached a point where redemption is impossible. While a prolonged holiday would be out of character but still appreciated by many tired workers in the country, the idea of a yearlong holiday is, on the surface, a simplistic and defeatist way of trying to dig a nation out of its predicament.

The idea of a long holiday should not be dismissed outright. It has merits. It is possible that a long holiday would drag the country out of its current state of ennui and back onto the path of sustained socioeconomic development. An extended vacation could infuse in political leaders the foresight and wisdom they lack at the moment. Indeed, there is the possibility that a lengthy holiday in Nigeria would inject sufficient adrenalin into workers to the point where everyone would be itching to return to work to raise productivity levels.

There is also the likelihood that an extended vacation would restore confidence in our public institutions, namely hospitals ill-equipped to diagnose and treat sick people; primary and secondary schools where students are getting the message that it is more valuable for them to play in the streets and stay at home rather than be engaged in studious assignments at school; public transport system that serves nobody but the interests of the bureaucrats; and other sick public services that continue to gulp budget money without showing signs of recuperation.

The idea of a prolonged national holiday should not be understood in its literal sense. It is understandably a metaphor for hopelessness, lack of vision and lack of political and economic leadership. As a colleague described it recently, Nigeria is facing some form of social instability. Perhaps there are valid reasons for the idea of a national holiday.

Some people have even suggested that, in light of the enormity of the problems that confront the nation, re-colonisation might just be the right pill to solve those stubborn problems. The suggestion might be offensive to some people's sense of political independence and nationhood but, in some respects, the idea is not completely out of place. We are already living a new form of colonial experience anyway. This is why. When a president visits a European nation and pleads with his hosts to come solve his country's problems, you wonder what that president was elected to do for his country. In the past, this kind of behaviour would have been labelled colonial mentality or inferiority complex. Today, in a slightly polite manner, let's call it neo-colonial mindset.

You don't hear Chinese leaders, Indian leaders, Malaysian leaders, Thai leaders or Singaporean leaders go overseas to beg their host countries to come to their aid and develop their countries. Perhaps we need foreign workers to develop Nigeria, so that when the expatriates are busy at work appropriating our national and natural resources in the name of development, we can afford to go on sleeping.

Across the country, you get the feeling that everyone is tired. Many people are tired of working in an environment that discourages hard work and rewards criminality. They want a holiday. Some others are tired of listening to political leaders belch recycled ideas. They want a break from the past.

Lowly rated workers such as primary and secondary school teachers are doing their best to train our children but their efforts go unrecognised and under-rewarded. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has been on strike for four uninterrupted weeks and there is no indication the industrial gridlock would end soon. Unfortunately, primary and secondary school students have become the fall guys in this labour dispute. What is at stake is not only the ability of the government to resolve labour disputes in a timely fashion but also the ability of NUT to advance the interests of its members in a sensible and logical manner.

As primary and secondary education remains in a state of disrepair, health workers have also flagged their intention to go on strike from July 30. Apart from health workers and members of the NUT, there are a couple of other organisations and unions that are either currently on strike or have marked a date to start striking. All these strikes constitute evidence of industrial disharmony. They tarnish rather than dignify the image of the Federal Government.

There is hypocrisy everywhere. Politicians promise many things and achieve little. Many of those who were appointed at federal and state levels to serve the society now enjoy being served by the society. It's a delightful role reversal. Federal public servants, including ministers and state commissioners, talk about their commitment to improving the lot of the people but they work very hard to enrich themselves and impoverish the people, by illegally diverting funds allocated to their ministries and departments.

Religious leaders preach about the kingdom of God but they secretly chart their easy passage into the kingdom of the rich. In this nation of pastors, some self-styled preachers carry the bible in the day but sexually defile their female followers at night while others turn into armed robbers. At level of culture, traditional rulers refer to themselves as the custodians of social and moral values but they continue to desecrate the institution they represent by conferring ludicrous chieftaincy titles on the highest bidders -- well known criminals and jail-birds.

We live in a society where those who mock and violate the laws are venerated while those who obey the rules are scorned. We have laws quite alright but many people seem determined to scoff at the rules that were fashioned to guide social and moral behaviour in public and in private. May be that's why we need a lengthy holiday to revive our values.

In the past couple of years and indeed most recently, a handful of former presidential assistants and ministers have been taken into custody and charged with corruptly enriching themselves. But, at the state level, we are not seeing similar efforts to hold former and serving commissioners and special assistants accountable for their financial misconduct. Financial investigations at the state level lack the forensic detail, intensity and commitment seen at the federal level. Or, are these public servants so "clean" that they are without blemishes?

Are former and serving state commissioners and special advisers as meek or modest as they appear to be? While some former state governors are fighting to clear their names from profound allegations of corruption and abuse of office, some others are busy plotting how to enrich themselves in the knowledge that they will emerge from prison with their loot intact and their bank accounts untouched. This practice makes a mockery of the fight against corruption.

In various parts of the country, counterfeit drug merchants have continued to play hide-and-seek with Dora Akunyili's National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). But we must be grateful to NAFDAC for what it has achieved so far; that is, a significant reduction in the volume of fake and counterfeit drugs in circulation.

We have problems galore, some of them self-inflicted. Prior to the establishment of NAFDAC, reputable and disreputable pharmacies as well as itinerant medicine dealers were operating freely with a lot of counterfeit and expired drugs. But it would be na?ve to argue that NAFDAC has eliminated fake and counterfeit medicines from our streets. We still have them. Here is proof. You buy a pack of over-the-counter tablets from a local chemist to relieve headache but you end up aggravating your health because of the poisonous substance in the fake product. How do we explain this level of criminality in our society? In an attempt to make quick money, desperate men and women are engaging in the deliberate production of poisons in the name of therapeutic medicine. A prolonged national holiday seems to me the best solution to all these problems.