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COUNTRY: NIGERIA. CHALLENGE: EDUCATION. THIS ESSAY: SOLUTIONS.

FIRST OF ALL, AN INTRODUCTION

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” While Neil Armstrong may not have had it in mind, those words of his, uttered upon landing on the moon, succinctly describe the potential of education in the life of every individual. Any girl, boy, woman and man can rise from the throes of benightedness to the fore of a productive, successful life when initiated, so to speak, into the knowledge enterprise – that is a coinage which, in a nutshell, connotes data mining, organizational learning, and intelligent applications. It is part of an ecosystem that embodies and captures the full essence of education: literacy and skill-acquisition.

In post-colonial Nigeria, the bureaucratic structure for this educational ecosystem has always been in place. We have a school system tailored to sync with the three-tiered British model of primary, secondary and higher education. In the past (circa mid-nineteenth century) the management of education rested exclusively with the foreign missionaries. Now, government plays a bigger role, rendering education as a social service; and there is a burgeoning pool of private stakeholders at all tiers.

Furthermore, there have been frequent reviews of the educational apparatus in this country. The minders of the education industry have often enacted well-intentioned programmes ranging from the Universal Primary Education of 1976 to the Universal Basic Education of 1999. More recently, the government of Osun State launched a well-received information and communication technology scheme fittingly dubbed “Opon Imo”, which in literal translation means Tablet of Knowledge; and the administration of Kano state, in partnership with the federal government, has in a daring move proposed to review the Almajiri system of education. The goal of these schemes and many others has been to ensure every Nigerian child has access to quality education.

While the programmes highlighted in the paragraph above and many others that have been exploited have had success to certain measures, there are still unbecoming deficiencies prevalent in the Nigerian educational system. Some of these shortcomings are conspicuous (inadequate funding and its ramifications; overlap of roles of federal, state and local governments; indiscipline of students and tutors etc) but, perhaps, it is the less obvious ones which, however counter-intuitively, have dragged us back these many years: the misconception of what education actually is; the emphasis of standardised tests over inane talents; the polarizing concept of science vis-à-vis the non-science disciplines; the glorification of a harmonised national curriculum over personalised, niche-centric course content and so on.

In this essay I shall highlight specific solutions to both the conspicuous (extrinsic) problems of our education system and the less apparent (intrinsic) ones; but pay special emphasis on the latter particularly because even after we may have solved the problem of funding, discipline and every other well-publicised predicament, education may still lack something integral: An individualised, niche-sensitive platform for fertile minds. This, I reckon, is the fundamental tenet necessary for Nigeria to bridge the gap in literacy and skills.

SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS EDUCATION?

I must concede that I have already committed a blunder in my introduction and I daresay that it is peculiar to most of us: There is a widespread misconception that education is limited to the formalised, classroom-situated, and syllabus-organised Western approach. This notion is the most besetting stigma that must be taken care of before we explore the means of improving the broad spectrum of education.

Experts in the field generally agree that there are three forms of education in Nigeria: Indigenous (apprenticeship), Qur’anic, and European-style educational systems. They differ uniquely in design, method, curriculum, and regulation but that does not necessarily make any one better than the others. Furthermore, there are overlapping elements of each one in the others. So, rather than denounce any of them, there should be recognition, accentuation and appreciation of the specific needs each genre serves wider society. With this understanding in mind our goal must be to accelerate their potential to help respective scholars meet the niche for which they are being educated. For instance, in Nigeria the “professionals” who fix our cars when they are broken are usually not university-trained mechanical engineers. Instead, they are roadside auto-mechanics who have undergone an apprenticeship program that may have lasted for anything between 6 months to 7 years. To suggest that this form of education is any less significant than the equivalent – yes, equivalent – obtained at orthodox tertiary institutions is as narrow-minded as it is non-pragmatic.

So, alloying these three forms of education under a singular umbrella how does one properly define education in the Nigerian context?

There are standard dictionary definitions but I am particularly drawn to that of Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, who famously described education as “the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” This curtly captures the exploits that educated persons can achieve. The Apollo 11 mission which I alluded to in my introduction was a culmination of an educational process or, as I have already described, the knowledge enterprise. When that space shuttle landed on the moon it portended a remarkable change in how we view the world. This is an element of what Mr Mandela had in mind. However, as well-meaning and utilitarian as this definition is it does not quite cut the full array of the entire enterprise of education especially in the Nigerian context.

There is a general consensus that education shapes the mind. So it is not inappropriate to consider the merit of education from that mindset, no pun intended. Cognitive scientists often refer to education as mental mind-making, or more technically, “cognitive cartography”. In this regard, education is essentially crafting a pathway for a mind to follow and to roam. This definition fittingly co-opts the dual elements of standardised learning and unmitigated creativity. It also enmeshes the core features of the various forms of education which we have in this part of the world.

SCATHING FIGURES

UNESCO published a fact sheet report on education in Nigeria as at 2010. In a nation bereft of such data this report was, and still is, a timely score sheet of national performance. The first fascinating figure in that report was 61%. This number represented the literacy rate (the percentage of the population above 15 years of age who can both read and write) in Nigeria as a whole. That was three years ago but in that interim there has really been no deliberate attempt to improve that figure which, relative to the 88.8% attributed to Namibia or 86.4% held by South Africa, is quite low.

However, this number does not tell the complete story for two diametrically opposite reasons. Firstly, a nation like Zimbabwe had a phenomenally high literacy rate of 90.4% yet this is not commensurate with the economic fortunes of the country. Not that economic prosperity is the ultimate scale to measure the relevance of a literate population but as the figures for Scandinavian countries suggest it should be a reasonable parameter. Secondly, while 61% implies that more than half of Nigeria’s population are literate there is a lopsided dichotomy between the literacy rates in the north and south of the country. The report suggested that 72% of primary age children never attended school in Borno State (located in the Northeast) compared to the 3% in states in the southern zone. This stark lopsidedness is a big challenge which portends – and is already posing – serious problems for the northern region.

Another grim deduction from the report is a steady decline in primary school enrolment between 2006 and 2009. The figure gradually rises around 2010 but not to the 2006 level. Considering that elementary education is the most primal of all the respective tiers it must not be taken for granted and strategic steps must be taken to ensure this happens. I shall come to that shortly.

Finally, many policy-makers often make the mistake of comparing the Nigerian situation with those of other countries with significantly higher literacy rates. While the 100% literacy rate of a country like Liechtenstein is worthy of emulation I have always advocated a homegrown approach to improving our scholastic lot. This is chiefly because of the individuality of each nation. Nigeria is unique with respect to its own culture, population, challenges, myth and so on. To blindly adopt a model that worked for another country without paying attention to the peculiarities of our society will be a major misstep. For instance, Liechtenstein, unlike Nigeria, is not faced with the issue of Almajiris. The sentiments attached to the concept of religious education require tact dissimilar from what a Liechtensteiner will be used to. Still, there are ample lessons to learn from the educational models of other countries.

FROM HERE TO THERE: CONSTRUCTING THE BRIDGE

Broadly speaking, the answer to our educational needs is not reform. Sir Ken Robinson in a speech delivered at a TED conference famously said, “Every education system in the world is being reformed at the moment [but] reform is simply improving a broken model.” This resonates as true in the Nigerian situation. In a bid to effect reform several changes have been made to the Nigerian educational system. Most interestingly, there was a transformation from the 6-3-3-4 system to the 9-3-4 platform and subsequent changes have followed. Therein lays the major challenge: thinking that reform will better the system. Rather than paper over the cracks on the wall we should be drawing a unique master plan and laying new bricks.

So, to bridge the literacy and skill gap the approach should not just be a routine and massive enrolment of pupils into schools. Yes, that would help somewhat, larger percentage of us will own certificates; but that will not serve the broader goal of adopting the knowledge enterprise to build a society up-to-date with modern realities. So, how do we get from here (a nation with 61% literacy rate, large number of out-of-school youths, unemployable graduates, and conservative academic goals) to there (a nation where all minds are groomed by an educational model that emphasizes the uniqueness of each individual to add value to society)?

CUSTOMISING AND ACCENTUATING EACH FORM

In the Nigerian context, the first step in bridging the literacy and skill gap is highlighting and purposefully pursuing the merits of the different genres of education particularly that of the less conventional forms.

Indigenous education will continue to be relevant because it serves the purpose of providing hands-on training for the apprentices. In this regard it is most suitable for vocations like fashion design, electrical studies, auto-mechanic training and, more contemporarily, information and communication technology. The list is not exhaustive. While we often label it under informal education in certain respects we can inculcate elements of the formal one into it. To begin with, there should be emphasis on laboratory work fine-tuned for this genre. Typical vocational training involves an apprentice dutifully watching his or her master and then practising over time. What laboratory work will do is allow the apprentices explore beyond the scope of what his or her trainer can cover. It takes away limitation and imbibes creativity. The consequent result of this is innovation in technique and approach to solving problems in that particular field.

Also, there is the need to have some regulation, again, fine-tuned for the context of indigenous education. Thus, unlike stiff conditions needed to run a university, for instance, prerequisites to run a confectioneries training school might just be limited to registration with a licensed body that sets necessary standards for work condition, safety, and relevant terms.

For Qua’ranic education there is need for greater scope in its content – and this is one area where we have to be mindful of the peculiarities surrounding Nigeria. Calls for outright ban of Almajiri education are well-intentioned but, in my book, the programme requires a revolution which can retain the core element of religious instruction but nick out the unsavoury vagrancy associated with it. In addition, the scope should be wider than just teachings from the Holy Koran. Elements of apprenticeship and formal education should be inculcated into this scheme such that pupils add practical values beyond religion to their respective lives and wider society. Thus, new schooling facilities should be developed, vocational aspects of a wide array of endeavours will be taught by well-trained practitioners. Furthermore, there should be standard regulation by a government agency. Islamic aspects of training may be handled by seasoned clerics but for other skill-acquisition courses relevant experts should approve and recommend the study. I have already said education is conditioning of the mind and as such training exclusively based on religious doctrines helps in moral upbringing but might not be able to condition the trainee’s mind to function in secular purview of life.

Steps by the present Nigerian government to review the Almajiri education are being carried out in good faith. It is my hope that those students are taken off the streets and given a thorough training that will enable them ‘graduate’, and then eke out a decent living by applying the skills acquired.

Formal, European-style education has been standardised over the years. There is usually a curriculum that tries to cover the entirety of a discipline. There are subtle areas where the modus operandi should be altered but generally formal education at primary, secondary and higher levels already have an enviable standard.

TEACHERS IN THE REAL SENSE ARE THE BRIDGE.

Educationists emphasize the big role of curriculum and course content. It is standard practice to have a list of areas where students are expected to have reasonable knowledge of. For formal education this knowledge is judged by standardised examinations, for non-conventional forms of education there is lesser emphasis on examination. In trying to bridge the gap between literacy and skill for Nigerians through education there should be increased emphasis on the teacher rather than the course content and examinations. I will explain.

While we are using the expression “bridge the gap” in the metaphoric sense, in the real world it is a teacher who actually builds that bridge. Education, in an arguable sense, is a means to an end. Teachers are the purveyors of that means. If our teachers are already lacking in competence there is no way we can expect to have products of their teaching brimming in competence.

Many times when minders of education in this country have spoken of the need to restructure the sector there is usually minimal emphasis on the quality of teachers in the schools or workshops. I should be quick to point out that it’s not just the quality of the teachers that matter; their motivation is also crucial.

People wrongly look to the scientists and other pioneers of technology to seek out a picture of what our future will look like. That is a blunder. If you want to know what society will look like, or, for that matter, what society will be like ask the teachers. This is because the future of a nation is not determined by the quality of its technology or the size of its external reserves but by the sheer quality of its human resources. It is our teachers who determine this quality. The most important members of society that will safeguard our future are not the politicians but our teachers.

In Finland, a master’s degree is a requirement to be a teacher. They have recognised the fundamental role tutors play in education and have enacted that comparatively high standard. For the Nigerian context, a master’s degree will be no less a significant boost to education but is not necessary a panacea to lack of quality teachers. It is one thing to know and have specialised knowledge in an academic field; it is another thing to know how to pass on that knowledge. A person may be a good scientist but not necessary a good teacher.

Rather than advanced degrees, the emphasis should be on colleges of education. I think the most mind-blowing transformation our education sector can have is make training at a college of education mandatory to become a teacher; and – here’s the best part – this training will be after NOT before a previous graduate training in a specific discipline at a university, polytechnic, technical school or school of theology. In this sense, colleges of education will function as institutions to earn higher diplomas.

Let’s pause and think. I have already posited that not all graduates are good teachers. Therefore, if we really value the quality of knowledge our young minds will be receiving from teachers we must emphasise thorough training for the purveyors of that knowledge. Already, many universities have faculties of education where people are trained to be educationists but to be honest this does not quite meet the niche of being a platform of training people who can transmit knowledge.

In this regard, the current operation where members of the National Youth Service Scheme are deployed as teachers is a major disservice to education. The argument is not even the credential of the NYSC teacher but their lack of training in the unique art of knowledge transmission.

Teachers understand their pupils better. They know the subjects where individual students are not quite good at but there’s even more: teachers can groom individual talents, and personalize course content. This way we do not just have students who learn by rote, enrol in disciplines because of improper guidance, cram to pass examinations but those who have been educated to function in the particular niche that suits them best. That is how they will be best prepared to render value to society upon graduation.

THINK OF EDUCATION AS AN INVESTMENT

At an address delivered in Abuja in 2010, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova quoted a Chinese proverb: If you are planning for a year, sow rice. If you are planning for a decade, plant trees. If you are planning for a lifetime, educate people. This statement cannot be any truer in Nigeria.

The United Nations has recommended that 26% of national budgets should be devoted to education. As laudable as that is we must look at the Nigerian context. At undergraduate level I attended a university where emphasis was placed on infrastructure. Roads, street lights, recreational hotspots and several other capital projects were the major projects the school administration ring-fenced the bulk of its budget for. I will not go far as to suggest those projects were unimportant but in the larger scheme of things when we advocate for a national budget for education to be 26% we must wonder how this money will eventually be put to use. While roads were being constructed our laboratories were lacking in fundamental apparatus. So, it is very important that Nigerian government follows the guideline of the UN – as a matter of fact, considering the size of our population that 26% may even be too small – but the main challenge is the budget of the budgeted 26%.

The key consideration in the allocation of funds for education is getting our priorities right. In this regard there must be understanding of how capital-intensive certain projects are and non-capital-intensive others are. Also, there must be a renewed emphasis on research and development. Education is a dynamic endeavour. It must adapt with the times and as such, up-to-the-minute research must be done to ensure we are not teaching students how to manufacture VCRs when the world has moved on to blue-rays.

Another chunk of education budget should be for rewards of teachers. Very frequently in Nigeria we have union of teachers at all the educational tiers protesting poor pay. The truth is that there is solid justification for their protests. In my point on teachers, I spoke about the need for motivation. Salary is a huge motivation. The minders of education must pay particular attention to the remuneration meted out to teachers understanding that these teachers will ultimately determine the future of our country.

Still on this point, we must note what I have already emphasised time and again: the non-conventional forms of education are no less important than the westernised types. In discussions of funding we must not neglect the indigenous and theological training. In this regard, it will not be untoward to provide financial relief for establishments that run apprenticeship schemes. This will enable the trainers to accept more applicants and also fund the laboratory-like work which will enable creativity and, consequently, innovation. Indigenous and other non-conventional forms of education help draft the teeming population of people who might not be able to get a formal education or do not even fancy it.

DYNAMISM: DESKTOP COMPUTERS TO LAPTOPS TO TABLETS TO MINITABLETS TO WHO KNOWS?

In trying to bridge the literacy gap we must ask ourselves what parameters should be used to describe literacy itself. In this age of e-communication and internet the stereotypical definition for literacy changes every day. However, we can simply define a literate as someone who possesses the ability to read, write and handle the operating system of a computer. This definition might change tomorrow with the invention of newer technologies, who knows?

The purpose of learning and garnering skills is to add value onto society. In this age of sweeping cultural changes, there is very limited use of any knowledge or skill if it is not integrated with appropriate technology. In this regard information and communication technology stands out. From retail services to high-speed rail transportation the role of ICT cannot be waived.

Minders of education must fully integrate ICT training into every academic programme for all forms and tiers of education. If we are educating people to actually function in society then they must grasp the knowledge, however basic, of use of computers. As an example, it is not enough to understand the textbook explanation of stereochemistry; three-dimensional graphics depicting atomic orbitals and so on eases assimilation of this knowledge. Also, a roadside mechanic will benefit immensely from the numerous applications on digital devices that measure the velocity of a car relative to carburettor efficiency. To balance things up, the job of a Muslim cleric explaining the subtle changes in Arabic spellings over the years will be rendered easier with computer models. I could go on and on.

In this regard, a number of state governments in Nigeria are already enacting strategic policies to meet up with the times. Worthy of note is the Opon Imo programme by Osun State which I have already alluded to. Senior secondary students are freely given hand-held tablets on which a number of electronic textbooks and relevant software have been installed. The prime benefit of this scheme is early exposure to state-of-the-art technology.

As enviable as these schemes are I remain an Oliver Twist with petty grudges. Certainly, handing school kids computers is good but then what? Do their teachers even know how to handle these gadgets? Will there be constant high-speed internet to enable access to up-to-the-minute information? The governments introducing computer training to curriculum must not stop at this hand-out there should be proper integration of use of computers to classwork. Projectors must be installed in classrooms, electricity must be constant, internet access must be available lest those gadgets become gaming platforms for bored pupils.

Once upon a time, we could have an education system of mere books and other page-flipping textbooks. That time has passed. In the dynamic world we live in at the moment knowledge of ICT and ICT-related programmes is mandatory for all and sundry but most particularly to those who we are grooming to be future leaders, teachers, pharmacists, auto-mechanics, Olympiads, bead-makers, fashion designers, Imams, missionaries etc.

LITERACY AND SKILL: CUDDLING BEDFELLOWS

Phillip Emeagwali, the famous Nigerian in diaspora, once told the story of Al-Khwarizmi, the great Islamic mathematician. Al-Khwarizmi was on his way to Mecca when he saw three young men crying. He enquired why they were in that state and the eldest answered, “Our father, upon his death, instructed us to divide his 17 camels thus: To my oldest son I leave half of my camels, my second son shall have one-third of my camels, and my youngest son is to have one-ninth of my camels”

“What then is your problem then?” Al-Khwarizmi asked.

“We have been to school and learned that 17 is a prime number that is divisible only by one and itself and cannot be divided by two, three or nine. Since we love our camels we cannot divide them exactly,” they answered.

Al-Khwarizmi thought for a while and asked “Will it help if I offer my camel and make the total 18?”

“No, no, no,” they cried. “You are on your way to Mecca and need your camel.”

“Go ahead, have my camel and divide the 18 camels amongst yourselves,” he said, smiling.

So the eldest took one-half of 18, or nine camels. The second took one-third of 18, or six camels. The youngest took one-ninth of 18, or two camels. After the division, one camel was left: Al-Khwarizmi’s camel, as the total number of camels divided among the sons (nine plus six plus two) equalled 17.

Al-Khwarizmi asked, “Now can I have my camel back?”

The moral of this story speaks for itself. The three young men were learned; they had academic knowledge of the limited divisibility of prime numbers but they lacked the skill of application. This problem is not limited to mathematics or science-related disciplines. In Nigeria we suffer a huge deficit of skill of application largely because our minders of education have, over time, come to underpin the utmost importance of examination results based on theoretical knowledge over on-the-field application. This merely encourages bookkeeping because pupils are rewarded for verbatim regurgitation of course content.

In bridging the literacy and skill gap we must not assume that a singular course of action will simultaneously help both causes. Increased enrolment of students in institutes of learning does not necessarily mean we will suddenly have plenty innovators, creators, thinkers and fellows willing to look beyond the course note. There must be stimulus to help students think beyond the curriculum. I have defined education as crafting a pathway for a mind to follow and to roam. The “follow” part potentiates literacy while the “roam” part provides room to explore beyond the classroom, curriculum or scope of study. We must teach our students to follow instruction but we must reward rather than punish – as is currently the case in many institutes – the scholar willing to question the status quo. That is only how we can push back the frontiers of knowledge and also add value to the immediate society.

BY-LAWS

While we already have the Child Rights Act on paper there is still a major challenge of its implementation. Our law-makers have done their bit with that piece of legislation. What is left is the will to carry it out. We need leaders who will purposefully ensure that the Child Right Act is implemented to the last full stop in Nigeria. Every child deserves an education. Their minds are fertile grounds. We will solve a lot of future problems if we sow in those ‘grounds’ the right seeds that will blossom into lush flowers of fresh minds.

FINALLY

For most of the problems we have in Nigeria – economic, political, technological etc – we are quick to blame it on bad leadership. As convenient as that is we must realize that our future will even be worse if we do not mould future leaders with the right set of learning, tools and skills. It starts with bridging the literacy gap from 61% that it currently is to 100%. It can be done. Simultaneously, we must bridge the skills gap from what it might be (there is no datum but it is most likely lower than 50%) to 100%. Again, it can be done, and must be done!

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A LEGAL WRONG OF 2011*

In November 2011, Nigerian senate and legislative house, packed with saintly men and women whose names are prefixed with ‘Honourable’, passed a new law which understandably did not shock most Nigerians. Rather, some people celebrated it, while others, busy with their daily struggle to survive, stroll along indifferently. I think I may classify myself as part of the latter but I reckon it is about time we give everything a rethink. Mistakes are made but some mistakes can easily be rectified. I speak of no other but the decision of the legislature to condemn any person involved in same-sex matrimony, people we generally call homosexuals, to 14 years imprisonment ; and 10 years incarceration for attendees of such a union.

Perhaps you are nodding your head in disgust or muttering to yourself “I thought this issue is done and dusted with.” Well it actually is, the same way slavery was before Abraham Lincoln came along. I do not mean to equate slavery to homosexuality. They are most dissimilar. However, we can always draw historical inferences from the past. The ground on which the punitive law was passed in Nigeria last year was largely moral. Nigerians, split between two religious groups, pride themselves in a religiosity that sometimes tethers along the brink of extremism. At the time the motion was moved certain law makers were quick to condemn the act of homosexuality as an iniquity which is against the tenets of our culture and norms. Our forefathers would shriek at the thought of two men kissing at the market square but good legislation is not based on popular opinion – or the take of our dead ancestors for that matter. In this age of knowledge and enlightenment we would naturally expect that seated members of both houses of parliament, largely celebrated as secular, would put sound reason and debate before the creeds of any ancient doctrine.

Secularism. It is on this principle the Nigerian 1999 constitution was founded; and the arguments for it continue to be made in every quarter. Once upon a time, Naira notes had Arabic inscriptions on it which many non-Moslems frowned at. Arguments were put forward about how unrepresentative such insignia was. Most recently, the Central Bank of Nigeria introduced a concept called Islamic Banking and again this fuelled furore in public circles. In the same vein, we are still embroiled in arguments over whether churches should be taxed or not. We should not be surprised; after all, even so-called established democracies are grappling with similar problems. In the United States of America the choice to allow prayers in public schools is still a moot point conservative and liberal groups wrestle over. So, we expect even more wrestling in budding democratic systems as ours. Rather, we have allowed ourselves become passive conservatives. Consequently, any issue which deviates from the central creed of either Christianity or Islam creates uproar. As a result, our legislators make it a point of duty to enshrine any issue which both religious groups mutually agree to with maximal pomp and flagrance. Same-sex romance so happened to be the unfortunate victim of this hypercritical and hypocritical collusion.

So, let’s be objective. Members of the major religious groups generally interpret their scripts to condemn homosexuality as a damnable sin. Of course, there are outliers: certain churches have joined same-sex couples in holy matrimony. Also, there have been reports of male priests who secretly molested boys in a sexual manner. But these are outliers, the exception rather than the rule. So, it is received wisdom in our faith centres that homosexuality is sin, classified in the same category as prostitution, theft, fornication amongst many others. We are then forced to ask why we do not single out every offence unanimously agreed by both religious sects as sin and formulate bills condemning them. The reason is not far-fetched. In the ensemble of our senators and representatives neither the bible nor the Koran is used as a guide book. If that were the case every meeting of parliament would be no more than a beacon of religious bickering. Instead we let the facts stand for themselves. We hear the pros and cons of arguments and subject recommendations to vote. This is what democracy is about. Bearing that in mind we know at least two things went amiss in the homosexuality debates. First, we were hypocritical. Why does homosexuality get singled out of the many excesses in our society? Is it because the people who are involved are a minority? Aren’t minorities supposed to be represented in a democracy? These are not rhetorical questions in a society where the moral fabric has been eaten up by corruption and the Machiavellianism of our politicians. Till date we still wonder who was behind Okija shrine which was littered with several human body parts but our security agencies are all around idling in desperation to incarcerate soul sisters making out. Nude pictures of certain Ogun State law-makers apparently committing sins punishable by both God and Allah does not seem a feat worthy of a bill but two innocent people expressing their affections the best way they know how should be damned in a law embossed on the pages of our constitution. How hypocritical! If we are to use the benchmark of the bible, for instance, then certainly it is the first person with no sin who has the right to stone a homosexual with such a punishment! Our law makers, with their infamous atrocities, have no right to call anyone a sinner – or, advocate for a punishment – using the Holy Books as a standard!

Secondly, we were hypercritical. We never really debated the pros and the cons. To begin with, not every argument is about pros and cons. Introducing 5000 naira note is a matter worthy of arguments of economic merits and demerits. The best argument, if it gets the most votes, should win – and no one should complain. However, we cannot put homosexuality on the same pedestal as debates for new currency denominations. When the subject is punishing a lifestyle that has been adopted by two consenting adults, the argument cannot be concluded by “the ayes have it!” Certainly, the ayes will always have it considering we still live in a society where it would take the guts of a schizophrenic person to openly declare he or she is gay. We see it as a Western thing that is unacceptable in Africa. I disagree with this viewpoint but for the purpose of this argument let us assume this is the case. We would then have to list the other traits of Western influence and either condone or condemn them. Whether we like it or not we are becoming westernised in our ways. Our girls wear skimpy dresses, feminine apparel seeks to expose maximum cleavage and our men are having their ears pierced. At what point then do you draw the line on westernisation? Is it when men make marriage proposals by falling on their knees? Or is it when women decide to have children by in vitro fertilisation? The truth is culture is dynamic. It changes from time to time. Nigerian society once condemned females wearing trousers and slacks, now it is the norm. Unfortunately, our law makers have drawn that hypothetical line for us and homosexuality does not make it which is sad because those of us on the streets know how the trend is gathering pace. (Being a medical professional, many of my patients confide in me and I can attest that homosexuals come from practically all walks of life.) It will only be a while before one of our legislators finds out his child is gay and then be forced to have the child remain in his or her closet or banish the child to a lifetime of hatred – and yes, 14 years in prison.

In conclusion, homosexuality will always be a controversial issue; it still is everywhere. However, the correctness or incorrectness of the act should not fall under the prerogative of our secular law as long as no one is hurt. If not we might soon force our legislators to enact a law banning oral sex and masturbation too. At best, it comes under the purview of religious doctrines. Clerics should – if they so interpret their respective Writs – preach against it and if the homosexuals retain the lifestyle then they are just like any other ‘sinner’ who attends church or Jumat service. Spending 14 years in prison will not make a homosexual change, in fact, it even encourages that way of life but that’s not even the issue.

*This article by Folorunso David was first published by Rise Network in The Guardian Newspaper.

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PRICELESS OFFICE HOLDERS

Tafa Balogun has an extensive biographical page on Wikipedia. So does Robocop, the police cyborg that formed a crucial part of my childhood couch potato years. Fifty years from now we’ll probably remember both Tafa and Robocop by only Wikipedia entries that can be tweaked by any faceless junkie doodling around the internet. However, for Robocop it won’t matter. We could always download reruns of scenes of him promising to deal with bad guys and him actually doing it with his semi-automatic rifle. For Tafa the situation is a little different. Google search engine will probably still hold records of his crimes while at the helms of affair at Nigerian police. This shall be his legacy, his lasting testimony for all posterity to remember him by.

Not everyone of us live our life constantly thinking about what society would think of us after we are dead, buried and forgotten but for policy-makers, our dear political office holders, it should be a source of daily meditation and self-reappraisal. This is not because politicians are different from the rest of us but because, collectively they ultimately shape and direct the course our future shall take. When Lagos legislators make it mandatory for our kids to learn Chinese the implications extend beyond their lifespans; when senators pass bills that allow for the creation of new states the effect does not die with their generation. At every point in time our political office holders must live with the consciousness that the good and evil men do always live after them. Unfortunately, Nigerian politicians from their attitudes cannot be bothered.

Some time in 2011 there was a well-publicised spat between erstwhile presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. One called the other a fool. The other replied with a similar expletive. If anything that high-level bandy was reminiscent of the sort of ribbing we traded as pre-schoolers but that was not the lesson I took out of it. Looking at both men, it is incontrovertible they are both essential elements of Nigeria’s history. We cannot discuss Nigerian nascent history without referring to the duo but in what context? Mention IBB and many Westerners are quick to bring up the annulled elections of 1992. Mention OBJ and people of Benue state will refer to the atrocious killings of civilians during unfettered military raids. I have used two negative examples for both IBB and OBJ. They do have their positives but it takes a greater stretch of imagination to remember them. I shall, however, not forget the bogus headline that read ‘OBJ AND IBB TRADE WORDS’. That, for me is a lasting legacy for both leaders.

OBJ and IBB are now retired – so, I presume – so the message of generational modelling should be directed to the present pool of politicians we have in the land, from the executive president to the local government councillors. Many of them have ventured into politics as a career, a profession. So, a senator will tell you he is a politician with the same air of professionalism as a resident doctor introducing himself. This may be the bane of society: Political leaders who have sworn to pursue their profession with a devil-may-care aggression which soon gives way to open malpractices and closed consciences. Remedying this is not an easy task. A career in politics is a luscious offer when you hear that a Nigerian senator pockets close to N30 million every month. Which resident doctor earns that much?

There is a way to turn things around. It is audacious, but I shall suggest it nonetheless: stop paying the politicians. No basic salary, just a puny allowance on the same scale as a middle-tier civil servant. I hear the mumbling: “It will not work! Do you really expect Nigerian senators to reduce their own salaries?” Well, all naysayers will have a valid point but at the end of the day we must accept two things. One, the current cost of Nigeria’s democracy is unsustainable. Two, and more relevant to the objective of this article, is that only persons genuinely willing to serve Nigeria and leave positive footmarks in the sands of time will embark on the political journey of servitude to Nigerians. Recently Uruguayan president was tagged the world’s poorest president.  It’s not a reputation to envy but place it alongside statistics that suggests it takes just five procedures and seven days to start a business in Uruguay; its economy is the 29th freest in the world in 2012 (compared to Nigeria’s 116th position). Emulating this Uruguayan narrative is almost a taboo discussion in our elitist circles but the facts speak for themselves.  Chances that it ever happens are slim but if ever that slimness is a mere 1% we must dedicate our resources, zest and QWERTY keyboards to bringing it to fruition.

Our political office holders must understand that they are not elected to enrich themselves. Rather, they are sacrificing their own convenience to serve Nigeria. If Nigerian  graduates can dedicate one year of their life mandatorily serving Nigeria with less than N20,000 as a monthly allowance why not a person who voluntarily comes out to render service to his motherland. Things should change. Our politicians should serve the millions of Nigerians – for free. Perhaps, their legacies will then become timeless positive changes to the Nigerian landscape and not just one-page Wikipedia entries.

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THE ‘CLUELESS’ SHOE NO LONGER FITS HIS EXCELLENCY

I take no pleasure in insulting Mr Goodluck Jonathan. The story of his ascent to the presidency when isolated from his performance so far in that office is one that has the semblance of Old Testament rhapsody (reserve your Hallelujah for later). Some people extend that analogy further to suggest that he is God’s anointed one – with an eponym and a grass-to-grace story that overwhelmingly match, most Nigerians were coaxed into voting him in 2011 without actually parsing the facts. Two questions: First, how do you isolate a man’s deeds from his personality at the polls? Second, does God really hate us that much as to anoint and then impose (?) a clueless – I shall come to that shortly – leader on us? These questions, however relevant, have the sour taste of the proverbial spilt milk. For now, I am saddled with a contemporary bother, one that hinges on semantics but is at the same time frightening.

I pride myself in an etymological pastime so early this year I tried to find out how Mr Goodluck Jonathan’s critics collectively decided to adopt the word ‘clueless’ as his most unflattering moniker.  I wanted to know who first used the adjective, who next used it and how it caught on with other Nigerians. My research is on-going but besides my collection of newspaper clippings, bookmarked internet pages and random discourse with self-styled pundits it is no more than a pastime. However, in pursuing this harmless and purely academic endeavour I realised we have been wrong all along. We have been fooled to disguise our president’s true nature with a mild description that doesn’t even scratch the surface.

A relevant digression:  As an undergraduate pharmacy student I had a lecturer who always held her shoulders high – both figuratively and literally. She never really stood out in my regard or disregard until I noticed a pattern with her. Whenever one of my classmates made a ‘mistake’ of asking a relevant question which she was unsure of; instead of politely admitting that she did not know the answer and promise to get back to him or her later (we’re all humans, aren’t we?) she would go into overdrive, filibuster about the effrontery of the student to have asked the question, lambast his or her sartorial taste and when she’d spoken at length without any reference to the hanging question she would move on with the lecture. Covering her ignorance with her arrogance was her default way to overcome the distress of her cluelessness. Except for the ‘her’ that last statement may as well be referring to a certain Goodluck Jonathan. After all, if the shoe fits he might as well wear it. But my assertion is borne out of mundane reasons.

First, there is the issue of the police college in Lagos. Without the unbiased reportage of Channels Television the college and its decadence would not have got the deserving attention it did in national media. How does Mr President react to all this? First and very much to his credit, he visited the college in the wake of the report. Second, but disgustingly out of sync with the first, he implicitly blames Channels Television and the party officials of opposition parties for the calamities that have befallen that citadel of police-training. My reaction was a thought-out-loud bollocks. Pardon my French. I simply could not put one and two together. Could our president be the king of dimwits? More pertinent to this write-up, this episode illustrates lack of clues but more so trademark arrogance that belies the barefoot-to-Versace story which we all ate during his presidential campaign.

Second, there is the issue of University of Lagos. Renaming a federal university that was founded by the provisions of the Nigerian constitution to something you thought of after having your morning cereal is a storyline best suited for an episode of Tinsels. Still it happened that on a day most ironically set apart to mark the end of military-style autocracy and unilateralism Mr Goodluck Jonathan announced a change of a university’s name without following due process. For days students of the university protested around the Yaba suburbs of Lagos and we thought His Excellency the Name-Changer would realise the folly of his action. No he hasn’t. Rather he has apparently denied the institution the right to host its annual convocation ceremony until the name change is implemented. You still call him clueless? All I see is arrogance.

Fellow Nigerians, while it does not detract from his overall cluelessness, we are dealing with the most arrogant president in the history of Nigeria – arguably, of course. Again, I do not take pleasure in insulting our president but it would be tomfoolery to analyse his overall personality and not point out his flaws. Cluelessness I can deal with relatively (again, we’re all humans, aren’t we?); it’s the arrogance that is eating me up. An arrogant president would not have the modesty to ask his critics to proffer solutions in times of national crisis; would not listen to the voice of better reasoning because the speaker is from another political party; would not see fellow Nigerians as equal; would not heed the warnings of time-tested experts seriously. An arrogant leader would only do one thing: lead others blindly in a headlong rush to failure. (As an aside, I did ace the course that arrogant university lecturer took me thanks to textbooks). It may count as insulting to classify Mr Goodluck Jonathan as arrogant but the truth needs to be said: Better a purely clueless president than one who alloys it up with arrogance. You may now shout Hallelujah.  

Folorunso David can be reached on twitter @funsodavid

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LAMIDO’S 50%: AN ILL PRESCRIPTION

I trained as a pharmacist so I often question my ability to hold a candle to the likes of Sanusi Lamido when matters of economics are concerned; but the incontrovertible truth is that I am a Nigerian, presently resident in a rural community in Edo state. I watch as the local government divides allocations from the state every month then wait for the next instalment of this monthly bread. It’s a routine that’s unbearable to watch. The truth is Sanusi Lamido did have a point when he implicitly asserted that the cost of running government is expensive. The fundamental flaw in his narrative was hoping half of all government employees get sacked. Government austerity delivered via reduction in government size may have some initial benefits such as redistribution of tax payers’ monies into the economy but the fundamental concept of demand and supply and the Nigerian milieu absolutely negates these merits. This means that if civil servants get sacked, and consequently become unemployed the prevailing economic assumption is that more money gets pumped into the private sector via borrowing; investment in production is spurred; the sacked workers are absorbed into the private sector; and the labour balance is maintained.

That last statement may be wordy but I think it does summarise Sanusi Lamido’s viewpoint. However, using my local government as an example we must understand that Nigeria’s economy is presently stunted by two key factors and Lamido’s prescribed form of austerity cannot assuage either. The first is fiscal fraud. The second is gross under-estimation of unemployment rates.

First, corruption. In my local government monthly allocations are allotted based on the discretion of executive council officers. This includes the elected local government chairman (or as is now norm in many states, a caretaker chairman), his team of councillors, head of service and departmental heads. Other ancillary officers are usually part of the ensemble. The prevailing modus operandi is that funds are first allotted to recurrent expenditures like salaries, allowances, gratuities etc. After this cut only a fragment is left for capital expenditure. The temptation many such councils face is whether to defalcate the money or use it judiciously. Many times they blend both alternatives. This means that spurious contracts are awarded and shoddily done by members – or family members – of these executives. The presence of EFCC and ICPC at local levels is negligible so the matter gets forgotten. This is not essentially a failing of an economic principle as much as it is an evidence of corroding moral values. For now I shall stick to the economics purview.

Secondly, there is a big problem of documentation in Nigeria. We do not have figures that specifically show that 40 or 50 or 60 per cent of Nigerians are currently unemployed. My empirical guess is that the actual figure hovers around 30%. That figure is a conservative conjecture nonetheless it is abysmal considering that David Cameron gets pilloried daily for unemployment rates of 5.5% in the UK. The question then is if for a nation of 140 million with close to 42 million being unemployed the most prudent economic move would be to further cut more jobs in the civil service? What Lamido and his zealots may not understand is that for many parts of Nigeria including where I currently live the salaries of civil servants is the life blood of the economy. I was born in Lagos. I spent my first 18 years in the city but while Lagos may be a shining beacon of capitalist success we cannot necessarily extrapolate it’s example to other parts of Nigeria on two counts. First, Lagos has a man power no other Nigerian state can boast of. This man power is specialised into a plethora of industries hence diversity of ecomony is feasible. With my community in Edo state this is not true. Currently the population of the entire local government stands at 150,000. There are only about 7 doctors – only two of which work independently of government –  and until recently I was the only pharmacist. This is a reflection of other professions. Qualified personnel are few. The only people traders count on to patronise their goods and services are largely the civil servants. Sack them and you create a mess considering the now available funds would go to the private pockets of the politicians. Secondly, Lagos has the infrastructure many states of Nigeria can scarcely boast of. This is the same sentiment I share when the case of cashless banking was being canvassed by the same Sanusi Lamido. Where I live there is no ATM. I usually spend 30 minutes on the road to get access to an ATM.

My concern is not the personality of Mr Lamido. I can see beyond his oft-displayed affectedness but I certainly think his years away from a typical Nigerian rural community has distorted his empirical reasoning.  Also, Mr Lamido does not practise what he preaches. Reports suggest that he has increased the staff of CBN by as much as 50% since assumption of office. Coincidence of figures? What we need in Nigeria is extensive wealth redistribution. Salaries of political executives should be halved instead. Emphasis should be on capital projects like roads, houses, and tourist centres. Education is also important. Interest rates should be reduced so private persons can borrow and fund their respective business. If the CBN will play any role in improving the Nigerian economy it will be via regulation of borrowing costs, interest rates and foreign exchange rates. Austerity at face value is promising but considering the Nigerian factors at play it is not the best road to take

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LEAD POISONING AND REPORTAGE

Once in a while I check up on Nigerian dailies. I’ve become attuned to the new age of digitalisation so I find flipping through the spread sheets of a physical newspaper rather anachronistic. I’d rather just whip out my samsung note, go online and get the gists from across the federation. The only snag is that the culture of online media is yet to catch up with the routine of media house publishing. As a result headline news on the web-pages of Nigerian newspapers are not updated as regularly and judiciously as they should causing one to wonder whether they fully comprehend the meaning of the word ‘news’. This tardiness from local reporters always prompts me to check the web-pages of foreign news outfits like Reuters and BBC. I do this out of frustration rather than a craving for the exotic. Usually I’m enthralled to find news items about my country. The irony is that such features are sometimes not even reported by local media – online or on print.

One such story is that of lead poisoning in Zamfara, a state in Northern Nigeria. Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reports that more than a thousand children are affected. In fact, in 2009 about 400 children died of lead poisoning in Zamfara. The scourge is linked to gold mining from ores which have substantial amounts of lead. Children are particularly at risk. It is also linked to the socio-economic status of the region. Since the price of gold increased in the international market more and more people are risking their lives for the business of mining. But it comes at a cost. Lead poisoning leads to serious nervous system defects. Also, death is not uncommon.

So it’s almost like being caught between a rock and a hard place. It is amidst this impasse that government should really step in and that’s what MSF is advocating. So far, government’s response has been half-hearted. They have begun a clean-up but this started only after immense pressure and the unsavoury publicity of the 2009 deaths. So if that is what goads them on why not have more of such publicity? Our media houses, however, seem not to notice and it’s hard to blame them with all the distraction and drama of Boko Haram in the north of the country. I reckon, however, that it’s environmental menaces as this that actually feed such radicalism amongst many northerners. Mounting poverty, disease, and neglect from government leads thousands into the hard life of mining. When they fall sick due to the hazards of mining and are unable to continue that trade organisations like Boko Haram seem like a worthy resort. Other connections could be made between poverty and terrorism but that’s not my immediate focus.

MSF has done a job of highlighting an incipient crisis. Who carries it on from there? Nigeria Medical Association? Maybe. The media, however, have to put emphasis on issues as this. Lead poisoning in Zamfara is like a time bomb – both literarily and figuratively. Our government places onus on only what is being talked about by pressmen while conveniently ignoring other issues which are no less pertinent. I see coverage of the entertainment industry, sometimes splurged across full pages of our dailies. This, in itself, is not bad in but at times when more pressing issues are on the horizon represents a misplaced sense of proportions that plagues the press today. What makes the front pages is usually determined by the mix of urgency, demand, and importance. News-worthiness however cannot be ring-fenced around those parameters at all times. Journalism serves a bigger duty other than a commercial enterprise. When we speak of transforming our nation the newsrooms have a role to play. Consequently, any transformation we speak of shall of necessity begin with our equivalent of Fleet Street. This is regardless of what form the news comes – in print or on an LCD screen.

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NGOZI’S MEAT, NIGERIA’S POISON

My elementary maths certainly disproves the notion that two wrongs don’t make a right. After all, multiplying two negative integers only yields a positive one. However, on an issue that pitches my self-interest as a struggling Nigerian with the self-interest of the honourable minister of finance, arithmetic has little to with the schematics of right and wrong. As such I have to be forward with this: I am selfish but so also is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala!

By now it’s no longer news that she’s been endorsed by some African nations for the presidency of the World Bank. While this would be big for her ever-rising career, the big ask is where her decision places us, Nigerians, in her scheme of thought. First of all, let me place myself in her shoes. However uncomfortable her stilettoes may be, the fact remains that when you commit your allegiance to a cause you should see it through – to the end. As a personal decision it is in the best interest of her curriculum vitae to take the World Bank offer but that would only mean that the cheap talk of letting go of her position in Washington to serve her motherland, fight corruption and lift the nation forward with her Ivy League ideologies was all a blithering rant. Service to Nigeria, then, must have been no more than a fill-in-the-blank stopgap to bigger roles. But ‘bigger’ is not always ‘better’ as any economist will tell you. She must recognise the anticipation and glad hand with which her appointment to the ministry of finance was met across the federation. For the most part Nigerians were very pleased. Some even said that was the only sensible appointment Mr Goodluck Jonathan made in his cabinet. We were even willing to indulge her tardy resumption to the executive council while she claimed she was clearing her desk in the US. At the induction ceremony Mr Jonathan was practically drooling with joy at the fact that she accepted his offer to work with him.

It’s been about one year now and the one tangible – and I do not use that word lightly – effect that we can experience from her tenure is higher price of petroleum products and a consequent inflation in market prices of most commodities. Early this year, this led to a string of protests across the nation which some chose to label as ‘Occupy Nigeria’. The protests may not have had the exact trappings of Occupy Wall Street but it certainly would have begot mock feeling of déjà vu to Mrs Okonjo-Iweala. The World Bank may not be directly responsible for the economic slump in the West but as people gathered in the streets of Manhattan the difference between investment banking and capital banking was vague, very vague. In large part, I reckon the removal of fuel subsidies, the brainchild of Ms Okonjo-Iweala, was a well-meaning attempt to rid the nation of a major source for defalcating government money. Having said that, it must also be put in context that such a policy is not one whose impact can be seen in the short term. It requires patience on the part of Nigerians, a message the Minister has been apt to preach on numerous occasions. If anything then we expect that the mastermind waits out the ‘patient phase’ of her policies along with us. It’s been only four months and now what? She bails. Apparently, her itinerary says her next port of call is the presidency of World Bank. That leaves us to wonder if she is no more than a raking opportunist, pursuing a personal project to expand her legacy. I am also forced to consider the viewpoint of a former boss of mine, very opinionated, who asserts that Westerners take the ‘weak’ amongst us, Africans, and give them mouth-watering appointments while they call the shot from behind the scene. As wild as that may sound, a minister leaving a job after making some potentially atrocious reforms only lends credence to that viewpoint. Ms Okonjo-Iweala must realize that Nigeria has always had a problem with continuity. As leaders change so do their policies and focus. For Ms Okonjo-Iweala, corruption is best tackled by removing fuel subsidies; to whoever replaces her it might be the reverse. Wouldn’t that be taking one step forward and two backwards, even as the man on the street struggles to understand why sachet water is now N10?

Then I am curious. Who in Nigeria recommended Ms Okonjo? I was very aware of the campaign by many groups on twitter and facebook clamouring that Barack Obama chose Jeffery Sachs who seemed to have a credible academic and practical standing. I had my reservations about Mr Sachs but none of it was related to the fact that he was going to be bailing out on a commitment he had recently made, not especially one that would directly impinge on the wellbeing of an entire nation. With Ms Okonjo it is vague. I’ve long known an Okonjo-Iweala-For-President group on facebook but I am positive the target is Nigerian presidency not the World Bank’s. Headlines suddenly sprouted talking about Nigeria and South Africa (a member of the famous BRICS) having a joint candidate in the person of Ms Okonjo-Iweala. Soon there was talk of Namibia, the African Union and a league of other people endorsing her candidacy. While that must be all too fascinating and enchanting for Nigeria, a country which still prides itself in Emeka Anyaoku’s headship of the Commonwealth of Nation, we must ask Nigerian leaders and led what their take is on this. Should they be negatively stunned? Yes, if you asked me. Her appointment last year came with a lot of drama. There were insinuations that Mr President indulged her tad too much. Certain reports suggested she was effectively in charge of the executive council, calling the shots on how funds should be ring-fenced even as other ministers sulked. To such ministers her departure might very well be greeted with good riddance but to Mr President this must be betrayal. For a zoologist, the intricacies of the economics parlance of government bonds, interest rates, and so on must have been a little abstruse. Ms Okonjo-Iweala broke it down in simple tenses and policies and, coming from a World Bank veteran, it just had to be right, no? So his reaction to her candidacy must be disgust. Yet, ironically, Nigeria first endorsed it! Mr President had to have presented her as ‘our’ candidate. She is jilting him and he isn’t lovelorn? Surely, he must believe a Nigerian heading the World Bank would portend better lot for Nigeria  – and, surely, someone dear to the president must have convinced His Excellency of such gibberish.

Now, it’s not that we don’t have a replacement for Ms Okonjo-Iweala. Nigeria is blessed with many captains of industry, who could fittingly serve as minister of finance. Additionally, many Nigerians would gladly accept her resignation letter. I just think it’s selfish that a nation invests so much trust and aspiration in a person and at the next sight of a greener pasture she leaves – or indicates an intention to leave – them in a lurch. It must be said that Ms Okonjo-Iweala is only here to fast-forward her career. The chance that she actually gets the job is slim – very slim going by the status quo of World Bank appointments. The American choice would most likely get the job but the episode would have taught us a crucial lesson that Ms Okonjo-Iweala has her mind resolved to help Nigeria but not her heart.

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