System Failure in Nigeria
President Obasanjo was stunned by the failure of the aviation industry. Two local airlines crashed within the space of two months. His apprehension was aggravated by the fact more accidents are about to happen given that Hajj airlift was about to start. He called a stakeholders meeting in the aftermath of the accident. But before the meeting could hold, the President sent the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Transport and his Director of Planning, Research and Statistics on indefinite leave. Few months earlier, he fired the Minister of Aviation, Isa Yuguda, because, as some reports had it, cows were found trespassing into the Port Harcourt Airport runway. There have been calls on the President to fire the present Minister of Aviation after the recent crash. But, expectedly, the President restricted his anger to the two victims of the Ministry of Transport. Fate wanted to test his temper again when another Bellview plane narrowly escaped another accident in Accra.
The recent crashes were not the only symptoms of system failure in the aviation industry. Thirty-eight crashes have happened in the past twenty years, an awful statistic for low traffic airspace like ours. So appalling is the failure that the country whose civilian transport aircrafts were over forty around 1980 saw the gradual dwindling of their figure to only one!(if grammarians will permit me that tautology for the sake of emphasis). And since the system is completely rotten, incapable of regenerating itself, the national carrier was privatized, like other failed parastatals of government, dispensing with the burden of keeping a skeleton alive.
But even within the transport industry, aviation does not stand alone. The Nigerian Railway Authority offices all over the country have functionally become pension collection centres only. Structurally, their buildings and coaches have become museum articles for the amusement of our school children, not for the safe travels the common man once enjoyed when he left Port Harcourt for Gusau or Maiduguri for Lagos. Today, he is forced to consign his life to the custody of reckless drunkards on wheels of our so called luxurious buses who on many occasions have caused mass deaths and suffering to their passengers.
On shorter distances, the common man is packed like sardine into a station wagon that is over twenty years old, driven by an ignorant villager. The law of accidents in Nigeria is to each according to his capacity. The numbers are different but the percentage mortality is the same. An aircraft carrying 110 people kills 103, a luxurious bus carrying 70 kills 64, while a station wagon carrying 10 kills 9. This is what we see daily on our roads.
The few lucky Nigerians who have personal vehicles are not safe either. They have to contend with terrible roads, with pot holes that can swallow the entire car especially in the eastern part of the country, and with the terrible state of other vehicles and with grossly incompetent drivers. Your prudence is not enough, for you must watch the approaching vehicle and always pray that it comes to pass safely.
If he is going within town, the common man is likely to ride a commercial motorcycle called Okada, (or Achaba as it is popularly known in the North) and run the risk of losing his life entirely, a limb, or, if he is lucky, return home with few bruises on his face and ankles. If you don’t hit the Okadaman, the Okadaman will hit you. Either way, you will undergo your worst nightmares because his colleagues, who will encircle you within seconds, will insist that it is you who was at fault. Do not argue, just agree; otherwise you will get lynched, for reasoning is not the trade of an Okadaman. So high is the frequency of their accidents that in most Nigerian towns, whole wards are dedicated to them in our hospitals.
Undoubtedly, the picture of our transport system that we have painted is a horrific one by every definition. No body is safe, neither on air, nor on road. So far, in the past thirty years, statistics of accidents have shown that over 150,000 Nigerians have died in accidents. And, mind you, these are the officially reported cases only. The number of unreported cases could be more, given that Nigerians generally believe that police worsen cases; they hardly solve them.
I doubt if the effort of the President will yield much, not even in the short run. Some signs of commitment and improvement may be shown initially, as does a patient after taking Paracetamol. But as the President returns to the political boardroom where he will once again be preoccupied with his third term agenda and the aviation officials responsible for the lapses return to their corrupt habits, we will also return to the same position of danger.
The Minister of Aviation, granted that he is serious about improving the safety of our air travels, is heading a corrupt system that is rotten from top to bottom. Airlines will always seek to cut corners as officials remain ever willing to accept bribes from them. Without belittling the efforts of the President whom we expect to fold his arms, the problem, we must emphasise, goes beyond changing a minister, a permsec or a director. It is a system that has failed, I am afraid to say, that can be resuscitated only with a combination of competence, ingenuity and great determination.
Governance in Nigeria is at its ebb. This is the position I have maintained for several years. What we said about the transport sector is true of every organ of government, if you exempt few places like EFCC and NAFDAC that are lucky to have leaders of unquestionable commitment and competence. How good is our education, security services, law enforcement, health care delivery, and so on? They are in structure, content and performance as terrible as our domestic aircrafts.
Successive governments have institutionalised mediocrity and penalized merit. As a result, the whole system is ravaged by incompetence and corruption. Nobody, except few, is ready to do his job the right way. Every procedure is flouted by the active connivance of the official overseeing it.
Let us take the transport sector once more. Very few drivers, if any, got their driving licences by passing a driving test. What then will stop a driver from causing an accident if he is not properly trained to drive? And what is the fate of passengers if majority of our drivers have got their driving licence by the back door?
Again, no vehicle is properly inspected by the vehicle inspection officer (VIO) before it is licensed; all the government officials are interested in is the revenue that will accrue from the issuance of the licence. Majority of VIOs, Police Highway Patrol and Road Safety Commission personnel stop vehicles on highways only to extort money, not to check the condition of the vehicles or their passengers. In spite of these personnel, thousands of Nigerians have lost their lives to trucks plying at night without any rear light, overloading, worn out tyres, driving shaft and rods, etc.
How can a country that chooses to so blatantly flout operation procedures that are religiously followed by all civilized nations fail to record the highest per capita accident rate in the world? It is clear that there is a direct correlation between our position as one of the most corrupt countries in the world and our high accident rates, just as it is in Bangladesh, Egypt and many Latin American countries.
I have noticed, and said it many times, that once something goes wrong, hardly could it be corrected in this country. Once a bad culture is introduced into an organ and some people start making millions out of it, never will the problem to be rectified. Take the railway for example. The luxurious buses and trucks owners will do anything possible to undermine government’s effort to resuscitate the railways for the fear that their businesses will be in jeopardy. It is a matter of survival, they will argue.
Fertilizer is another. As late as 1986 any farmer could just work into the nearest fertilizer depot and purchase any quantity he needs at the price of N7.00 maximum. But soon corruption became the ruling philosophy of the then government and the Presidency developed the penchant to control every bit of our resources. This led it to institutionalise the policy of allocation. Fertilizer started to become scarce, then hoarding started, then smuggling and finally, fertilizer became a hot cake, a means to earn millions. The Presidency was using it as a weapon of political settlement. All efforts to sanitize its procurement and distribution failed. The subsidy had to go, and National Fertilizer Company, NAFCON, was privatized.
Then the refineries. Ordinarily, a refinery is just a factory where a product is produced using crude oil, which we have in abundance. Everything was working until the bug of allocation hit the downstream sector of the petroleum industry in the late 1980s. There were struggles for allocation involving prostitutes – both political and biological, many politicians, some traditional rulers and businessmen. These allocations were usually diverted to the so called independent market. Out of the principle of allocation, the government scores political goals, the beneficiary earns millions, the official releasing it gets whopping thousands, and the purchaser earns still more by selling the product at a price he determines.
To compound the problem, after the refineries broke down, importers came in, and billions are turned over every quarter. Never will these businessmen sit idle and see the refineries repaired. Through this syndicate, the problem that started in the late early 1990s has remained with us to date. In a nutshell, the nation has failed to sustain what individuals have easily sustained all over the world.
What we said of our railways, fertilizer manufacturing and distribution, refineries and fuel scarcity could also validly hold for every organ of government as we said earlier, including the aviation industry that is now in focus. Thus, we have enough evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that governance in Nigeria is suffering from a system failure.
Since the mid-1980s, successive Nigerian governments have accepted the idea of privatisation. Government has no business in business, they say. This idea, which is sponsored by the IMF and World Bank, is based on the philosophy that, universally, the public sector is a bad manager of business. So if there is any avenue for investment, its rightful occupant is the private entrepreneur. This neo-capitalist construction provides an escape route to governments, who do not have to bother with fighting corruption in its midst or with providing services to their people. It also provides those in government with the opportunity to buy these companies at give away prices. The fate of citizens is thus consigned to the ruthless machinations of the businessman, whose only objective is profit. Details of my analysis on privatization can be found in my earlier article, Dear Nasiru El-Rufai.
Without renouncing its merits, privatization may not be the only answer to our predicament, though Obasanjo seems too fixated on it. In the aftermath of the recent air crash, he threatened to bring foreigners to manage the aviation industry if Nigerians fail to manage it well. Some scholars have long been professing the doctrine of re-colonisation. I disagree because I believe we have still not exhausted other avenues.
Our primary problem is management, as Margaret Thatcher once said. We have terribly bad managers who have reached the peak of mediocrity. If Obasanjo is to appoint ministers, for example, he requests the governors, or his party, to send a list of candidates from their state. The list is never a merit list, but one roll of sycophants and party stalwarts. This is a call to ‘chop’, not a call to service. How can the President expect such people to serve when they are busy ‘chopping’? That is why he failed in his effort to revive NEPA, despite the promises of the late Bola Ige.
And the civil service operates in such a way that people lower than the position of the minister – the permsec and directors – are not appointed on merit, but on their duration of service. Everything is bastardized. Here too, only sycophants will rise easily. The person at the bottom who ascends faster is that who forfeits part of his salary to his superior, or brings ‘returns’ regularly, not the one who sticks to ethics or civil service regulations. In the end, the minister, even when willing, finds himself dealing with subordinates brought up in the culture of crass materialism. The same thing happens in the appointments of managing directors and other board members of government parastatals.
The only option is to rationalize appointments, basing them purely on merit such that only the honest and competent could reach the top. Anything less will not work. Once this is done, material progress will be recorded. I will not hesitate to cite the examples of NAFDAC and EFCC. The lady at NAFDAC, Dora, has proved that a competent and determined leadership is all we need to achieve good results. Ribadu on the other hand, would have tamed corruption. Once such a leadership is allowed the free hand to operate – and I wish Ribadu too will be given that – great strides will be made. This country is not bereft of honest people; the elite are only scared of them. The memories of Murtala and Buhari are still fresh in our minds. That is why whenever we make the mistake of bringing their likes into the system they become our nightmare.
In conclusion, I will appeal to all those in position of authority to understand that our problem lies in whose hands they repose our trust. On the one hand, if they rest it in the wicked, nothing good will result, for he will not pursue the right or force his subordinates to choose the common good. If, on the other hand, they are competent and determined, so much will be achieved in a short while without resorting to the defeatist option of re-colonisation.
As this appeal is not likely to be heard by those who matter, we have to contend with the impossibility of a competent leader that will resuscitate our railways and sanitize our government. Since God has commanded us to travel and seek for his bounties, we must appeal to Him for our safety as we travel on air for pilgrimage or business, when we are at the mercy of ‘night flight’ bus drivers and also when we sit behind the Okada motorcyclist. May He grant our appeal. Amen