After reading the speech Bill Gates delivered in Abuja that supposedly rattled off our leaders, I fail to see what he said that should be deemed controversial. Just to be sure, I read it twice and what I saw is a respectful engagement with Nigerian leaders. Gates came with facts and figures, and he demonstrated competence with his subject matter in a way that suggests that he is not a mere distant observer reading a lacklustre speech prepared by a detached aide. He appeared genuinely concerned about progress of Nigeria, and he magnanimously offered us his expertise and resources to be a partner in the growth and development that has long eluded us.
His observations are spot on, and they strike at the heart of human capital underdevelopment in Nigeria (and most African countries as well). Here is an illustration that buttresses his observations: In October, Gaje Zubairu, a 38-year-old woman from Katsina State gave birth to a set of quadruplets. Since the community she lived had never seen such multiple births before, she was celebrated for her biological feat. The same evening after the birth, one of the kids was snatched by death; Ms. Gaje herself followed some days later.
As the story unfolded, it turned out that the woman never attended ante-natal care while pregnant. Gaje and her husband were illiterate and too poor to understand why it was crucial. Two, she was malnourished throughout the pregnancy. Three, there were no clinics in the community where they lived, and when she developed complications during birth, they lost precious time while trying to get her to the hospital in the city. Four, she had had seven pregnancies before with her previous husband; the quadruplets made it 11 live births. She was also a grandmother of at least three children. Five, while the husband was a peasant farmer in his 40s, he already had four wives and 26 children before the birth of the quadruplets.
This story typifies the many problems of Nigeria: a population that is being rapidly grown without coordination, high level of illiteracy and its attendant baggage of overbreeding, inadequate health facilities, high mortality rates, and religious beliefs and poverty perpetuating poverty cycles. Gaje Zubairu’s story gives a human face to the morbid statistics to the data that Bill Gates reeled out when he criticised Nigeria’s human development index. Gates is someone whose philanthropy has taken him into the rural parts of Africa; places where even our leaders will not deign to go unless it is election time and they seek campaign photo opportunities. We can take it for granted that he knows what he is saying, and we can believe him when he says that he is committed to finding solutions.
After years of bringing powerful white men to Nigeria to say what we would like to hear, it is almost understandable why the one who did not join the rest of his ilk to parrot the mantra of “Africa Rising,” and raises a black power fist to celebrate us leaves our leaders unsettled. In March 2011 and February 2012, former US president, Bill Clinton, alone earned a total of $1.4m for what amounted to two days of speaking gigs in Nigeria. With that kind of amount (which would have been hard for him to earn even in the US), he brought what his audience would like to buy: his white cultural power and political capital. At the stupendous rate at which they bought his speech, he could not have rattled his sponsors or be heavy-handed in his criticisms.
Gates, however, is different from Clinton. According to Gates, he has invested $1.6bn in Nigeria, and when you are the one paying the tab, you have earned the right to make unpleasant observations. Nothing he said should be considered toxic even if the Peoples Democratic Party has now, hysterically, latched on to it to hypocritically heckle the present administration. Gates’ analysis, though refreshing, is not new. Nigerians have been saying what he said about prioritising human development to their leaders for ages. He talked about the high rate of maternal mortality, infant malnourishment and deficiency, lack of data to track progress, falling education and health standards, and overall, how to reverse the retrogression of human development index. Which one of what he said have they not heard before?
With a median age of 17.9 years, Nigeria’s future can do with the Gates’ kind of voice to amplify to our leaders the imperative of urgency in addressing our socio-economic and socio-political issues. The other part of the argument about human development is that we do not have enough resources to commit to our needs and that would also be true even if our leaders do not steal a dime. Nigeria, still reeling from the vertiginous effects of a post-oil price crash, has to deal with the reality of a burgeoning population and stretching her meagre resources to cater for the thousands of humans we produce daily adequately. We are too poor, too corrupt, too analogue to improve our fortunes. In 2017 alone, remittances to Nigeria from overseas amounted to $22bn. The national budget was in the neighbourhood of $24bn. This pattern has been consistent for years; it means that our country is not viable based on revenues we generate.
To add to our issues is the fact that our country has traditionally projected the future based on annual budgets and not a long-term projection that looks ahead for at least 10 years. The unstable nature of our politics conditions us to limit development to what is achievable in four years, a time too short to consolidate meaningful changes. What Nigeria needs to develop human resources includes a visionary plan that looks at what the country looks like now, questions what we want it to look like in another 25 to a hundred years, and designs how to stimulate the conditions necessary to achieve such a future. No, not another party manifesto that makes ambitious and empty promises but a multilateral plan that guides government’s regular conduct. Such a grand design will balance the necessary investment in human and physical development, and also be revisable according to contingencies to achieve the desired outcomes.
The truth stares us in the face: we are birthing many humans, but we do not have strategic development plans to provide for them. We need hospitals. We need health centres. We need to train health services agents and send them into the interiors where people lack birth control and excessively reproducing for want of other idleness. We need schools and more of them, more than ever. When we talk about schools, Nigerian leaders tend to think of universities, and that is why virtually every state wants to build a university. Lately, the Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha, said the state needs 20 universities to accommodate its growing population who need tertiary education. While university education is critical, a far more radical plan would be to provide elementary education that is both available to every child and qualitative as well. In other words, universities are not as urgent as primary schools.
Primary education is the foundation that needs investment, and not because it is not often prioritised, you have some children who get to university level who are barely literate, can hardly think critically, and cannot be said to have been educated in the true sense of the word. Gates was right that we are at a crucial juncture and if played right, our growing population can be our greatest resource. Yes, indeed. Nigeria cannot afford a population of malnourished people with deficient bodies and stunted mental acuity. A country can survive a nuclear bomb attack; no country in the world can survive the menace of a half-bred and half-baked generation.