Nigerians old enough to remember the Gowon era must be familiar with this famous statement – ‘the problem with the nation is not money, but how to spend it’. Today, a look at the paltry state of salary arrears in 23 of the 36 Nigerian states has put to question the validity of this statement, and the availability of easy money for many Nigerians.
Since the discovery of oil in commercial quantities in January 1956 at Oloibiri, Bayelsa the Nigerian governance discourse has been dominated by the concept of ‘sharing’ the ‘national cake’. This is because the impact of oil wealth has created a fundamental change in the mindset of many Nigerians, and the Nigerian dream has been reduced to the simplistic struggle of trying to get a ‘share’ of this ‘national cake’. Yet before delving deeper, one must first address what is meant by this.
What is the national cake?
Nigeria’s ‘national cake’ is a disfigured shadow of the American dream. It represents the opportunity to seat at the table with the elite – politicians and businessmen alike, closest to the money, and access wealth relatively easily. And it does not just end there. Nigeria, with its ‘bring your own people’ culture, further embraces sharing these opportunities by extending to those closest to you – a synonym for institutionalised nepotism. Thus, the national cake is a reference to an ease of access to wealth, which owned by none, should belong to all, but is limited to a few.
Originally, the national cake was representative of Gowon's mentality, which has guided economic, political and business activity in the country – leveraging our oil wealth for the benefit of those around us. Arguably, it has now evolved beyond just oil money. All opportunities are now included, whether public funds, the Federation Account, government contracts, government appointments, elected offices or security votes, these are all part of our new national cake. So the idea is even simpler now – any opportunity to access funds, with little accountability, but unlimited financial opportunities, is a part of the national cake.
Therefore, our economic model is built around this simple idea, of high reward and minimal effort – as long as you are in the right place at the right time. For example, the monthly oil proceeds of the Niger delta, combined with company taxes and VAT, and all other import duties are paid into the central pool of the Federation Account, and every month, all those who can, attempt to collect their own ‘share’ of this ‘national cake’.
So where does this leave the nation?
Nigeria's ‘national cake’ has caused as many problems as it has solved.
Economically, the dependency on oil wealth has been normalised by a refusal to expand into other raw materials, agriculture and manufacturing. Today, Nigeria is a nation of traders, importers with little focus on value creation and dependency. At the same time, it has created a nation of rogue entrepreneurs, who demand not a share of a day’s worth of hard labour, but rather a cut of any lucrative venture, coupled with an opportunity to walk off without due accountability for delivery on the agreement or project ventured into. A rise of the middle-man culture, if you like.
Politically, ‘sharing’ is as much a feature of our governance as stomach infrastructure. It is the easy way to placate the polity and fellow politicians. When the National Assembly is not ‘sharing’ principal positions, the Federal government is ‘sharing’ fiscal bailouts to the states. This is further manifested in political concepts such as ‘resource control’, ‘revenue allocation’ and ‘zoning’, which have, in the hands of our more skilled politicians, become rhetorical euphemisms for sharing the national cake.
Socio-culturally, over time, the national cake has reached the common man. To him, it is a rat race to secure access to public funds, which are then converted into individual assets. It has evolved beyond oil wealth, and now penetrates the mentality of the every day Nigerian. Many Nigerians will work hard to build a skillset in the oil & gas industry, not with a view to improving productivity, but rather to get an opportunity to dip where other successful wealthy men have dipped. The integrity of hardwork loses out to the expediency of easy money.
That being said, some believe there is hope. Among the more optimistic Nigerians who believe President Buhari is the answer, a return to conventional hardwork, reduced leakages and less opportunity for graft may reduce the number of those looking for ways to slice the cake, and replace them with those willing to contribute to national development.
Yet, as Nigerians, we know this is unlikely to change soon. The battle to overthrow the former ruling party was laced with a last minute scramble for the national cake, as sitting public officials raided national coffers to put their interests in front. Consequently, the coffers are now empty, and as President Buhari said yesterday, an impression has been erroneously created that we are a rich country, but looking at the economic profile of the country today, you will see that this is necessarily not the case.
Perhaps if Gowon’s words no longer hold true, the scramble for the national cake may become a relic of history, as people find more legitimate ways, to make ends meet.