“The idea for which this nation stands will not survive if the highest goal freeman can set themselves is an amiable mediocrity. Excellence implies striving for the highest standards in every phase of life”—John W. Gardner
Muddle and mediocrity characterise the national spirit on Nigeria’s 53rd Independence anniversary, marked, low-key style three days ago. Mediocrity is the result of the lack of attention. It is a dilatory, hit or miss, sleepwalking approach to policymaking and implementation. Take random examples. Share certificates and licences were released by President Goodluck Jonathan to 14 generating and distribution companies on Monday as part of a long advertised privatisation of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, an institution that had long terrorised Nigerians with its combination of thundering incompetence and arbitrary billing system. But apparently, no one had given much thought to the terminal benefits of the workers of the PHCN; and so they erupted in protests threatening to scuttle what ought to have been a high point of the road map to enhanced power generation.
Government sets up new universities but downplays the welfare of the teachers resulting in a shutdown of universities stretching into three months with no end in sight. A final example: A fortnight ago, the nation’s gateway, the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, modelled architecturally after the airport at Amsterdam, Holland, succumbs to a protracted blackout lasting over four hours, with attendant, unimaginable confusion. Nigerian governmental and increasingly societal culture is fixed in the glorification of mediocrity and muddle signposted by the acceptance of low standards in governance, art, morality and what have you. Every sociologist, if our newspapers are to be believed, is a renowned sociologist even if he has contributed little or nothing to his discipline. Our public relations culture is drowning in celebrations of excellence of professional midgets and of politicians stealing the nation blind.
It bears noting, however, that mediocrity and muddle did not begin with Jonathan; its unfortunate entrenchment in the last couple of years cannot however escape notice. Federal character, ordinarily a sensible distributive policy in a turbulent federation such as ours has been perverted into, not just federal discrimination as Prof. Sam Oyovbaire once brilliantly observed, but into federal mediocrity. Is it not revealing that the advocates of Jonathan for 2015 Presidency are sidestepping the issue of governmental efficiency to zero in on the need to “reward” the South-South with a two-term presidency? The 1999 constitution and the doctrine of federal character in its Nigerian incarnation promote mediocrity in at least two ways. First, it excuses incompetence or shoddy performance by playing up turn by turn politics defined in ethnic or regional terms. Hence, a political office holder accused of corruption can divert attention from the issue by alleging that it is the Yoruba, Igbo or Ijaw who are hounding him out of office. Secondly, by limiting appointments to federal and state cabinets to members of political parties, our constitution more or less reserves executive responsibility for the nation’s second if not third elevens. Do I exaggerate? Hardly. In several democracies, including a few on the African continent, a woman and herone-year-old baby can go on the hustings, campaigning from door to door. But here, you need a militia armed to the teeth to even announce your candidature. Isn’t this why many professionals choose to stay out of harm’s way by avoiding the tinderbox of the political arena consequently starving that terrain of their expertise and character?
Mediocrity and muddle are the opposites of quality time and seminal interventions. They reveal a superficial, hasty and ill-thought out approach to governance and all else. Consider that as celebrated journalist and scholar, Olatunji Dare, recently reminded us, five decades after an American economist lamented “planning without facts” in an influential book on Nigeria, the World Bank is pinpointing the dearth of vital statistics on the country as a setback to development. Describing this lacuna as “the aeronautical equivalent of flying blind”, Dare wonders how a nation can win the race for ascendancy when it doesn’t know how many people constitute it, how much oil is pumped out of its shores or how many names on the electoral register represent real people. This opaqueness of numeracy and statistical blind spot, of course, make it easy for corruption to thrive since no one is sure exactly how much money has been stolen. Is it any wonder that accounts of government departments are not audited for many years and at another level mathematics as a subject is dying at all levels of our educational system? Given the scarcity of reliable data in our national life, successive administrations including Jonathan’s can be accused of pretended governance. Pretended governance is a phenomenon in which leaders make all the motions that suggest they are in charge but in practice know very little about what actually is taking place to the extent at least that governance is devoid of evidence-based policymaking.
To transcend mediocrity and muddle, the nation, its leaders especially, must spend quality time to ponder the nation’s problems, in particular the endemic issues of corruption, administering the terrain in an uncoordinated fashion, growing joblessness, escalating crime, dishevelled social services, absurdly high cost of governance, as well as ethnic and religious divisiveness among others. Having correctly diagnosed the problems and absorbed the lessons of previous failures, they must come up with creative remedies to the issues identified. For far too long, Nigerian citizens have been fed with a diet of slogans which did not improve their lives. A sampler: Green Revolution; Education-For-All; Vision 2010; Vision 2020; National Economic Empowerment Development Strategy; Seven Point Agenda, and now the Transformation Agenda. Part of the reasons for the manifest failure of these programmes is that they were ill-thought out, borrowed from other countries without any serious attempt to adapt them quite apart from the disastrous effort to carry through reformist policies on rusty, parasitic government machinery powered by you chop, I chop credo.
Mediocrity is ordinariness; it boils down to lacking in foresight, planning acumen, innovativeness and thinking outside the box. It is not the mental software that can carry us into the coveted club of late developed nations on the scale of the Asian Tigers. We must get back to basics as we appear to be doing in the ongoing commendable effort to institute a national dialogue to revalidate the Nigerian nationhood and the terms of association of the ethnic nationalities which comprise it. Provided it is not hijacked by power technocrats, it holds the promise of resolving some of the most urgent aspects of the national question. If we can thoughtfully extend that sort of fundamental rethinking into national planning, the adoption of development models which run contrary to the current Bretton Woods jobless growth model; restart our tottering educational and health infrastructure and do away with the culture of viewing political office as a permanent admission ticket to a life of unearned affluence, then we would have truly begun the transition from the entrenched mediocrity and muddle that have turned life in Nigeria into a nightmare for many and an updated version of what Wole Soyinka once referred to as “Wastrel Democracy”.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Nigeria Intel.