[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f politicians are not tired of making speeches on Independence Day or such occasions, the public is weary of listening. In official circles, it may be a ritual performed with pleasure, but if it is being consumed by the public at all, it’s with great misery.
If the ritualists – or speechwriters as they prefer to be called – will pause to reflect on the growing gap, year on year, between what is said and what is done, it may just become clearer why the speeches are getting longer and the attention shorter.
Every year, for the last ten years, for example, we have listened, in spite of ourselves, to one politician in high office after another make national broadcasts.
Even when President Goodluck Jonathan could have been forgiven for not making a national day speech the year after militants bombed Eagles Square on October 1, he still managed to give a speech from behind the barricades inside Aso Rock, largely for the benefit of villa residents.
His predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua and his successor, Muhammadu Buhari, have spoken at length on October 1, but the sum total of their speeches has been as remarkable as water on the back of a duck.
On October 1, 2008, in his Independence Day speech, Yar’Adua spoke eloquently about his government’s seven-point agenda. Encouraged by an economy growing at 6.5 percent at the time and a robust foreign reserve, he ended his speech by promising that his government would do its best to achieve the MDGs within seven years.
He also said, “Fellow Nigerians, we have defined for ourselves a clear national objective to which we are totally committed: the transformation of our country into a strong, stable, democratic, and progressive major player on the global stage by the year 2020.”
That is next year. I’m not sure if his successors – both the one in his party and the one in the opposition that routed his party – ever heard of anything like Yar’Adua’s promise to remake Nigeria by 2020, or even the grand Vision 2020 that preceded it. Or perhaps they heard about it but are working with a different calendar from the rest of the country.
Whatever it is, because we just might be exactly where we are now in another ten years – or worse still, be in regression – it might be useful to tour a few African countries that have made significant progress in the last decade when we have been busy tallying empty speeches.
According to one ranking of the 20 best performing wealth (wealth defined as total assets owned by individuals in a country) markets between 2008 and 2018, published on April 19 by Visual Capitalists, five African countries performed well over the period.
While our politicians were making speeches the leaders of these other countries were apparently busy at work. Yet, if you looked at all the speeches closely, there was really no need to write a new one every time because one president’s speech could have been used by the next one, with very little changes.
Yet, in a decade of empty speeches and rising discontent, Mauritius is one of the five exceptional African stories. It has grown from a sprawling sugarcane farm and a tourist’s afterthought into an upper middle-income country. It has taken advantage of trade with the EU and the US and developed its financial and real estate sectors.
Mauritius is a multi-ethnic/multi-racial society. In spite of the potential setbacks of such a mix, however, the country has put its best foot forward, tapping the strength in its diversity. Its leaders have been focused in aggressively pursuing a set of consistent development policies and a largely dependable legal framework.
The result, over the last ten years, has been a stronger export market, remarkable increase in investments and tourism with a wealth market that has grown at over 124 percent.
Ethiopia has not been too far behind. When people talk about Ethiopia, they often obsess about state control of large swathes of the economy, and frequent internal unrest and external conflicts. That’s correct. You may even add that the country depends on the World Bank to fund its budget.
If, however, all you’ve been doing in the last 10 to 15 years is listening to Independence Day speeches by Nigeria’s politicians and filling the gap in-between by tracking which other country apart from Canada and Australia has easier immigrant requirements, then you may be forgiven for missing significant events in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s economy has been growing at 10 percent for the past 15 years and there has been a conscious effort by the government, after Meles Zenawi, to do less of what is better left in private hands, copying best examples from elsewhere.
Perhaps the most radical change will occur by the end of this year, when the government is expected to open up the telecommunications sector to private investment, modeled on the success story of Ethiopian Airlines.
While we have been reading about promises of industrial parks in our government speeches, Ethiopia has set up at least five industrial parks with a plan to add another 25 in the next six years. But even now, it’s a supplier to a few global brands including H&M, Michael Kors and Children’s Place.
Kenya, Ghana and Botswana are also experiencing varying levels of improvements in their wealth markets, ranging from 64 percent to 46 percent over the last decade.
It might appear strange that, warts and all, Kenya has been classified among the best performing in the last decade. Apart from the fact that the size of its economy is barely larger than the GDP of Lagos, Kenya appears to be cousins with Nigeria in tribal politics and prevalence of corruption.
Why Kenya? The size of a market matters, but quality matters also. And quality and power tend to go hand-in-hand. Unlike in Nigeria where billions of Naira has been poured into generating power with very little success, Kenya has a higher per capita electricity consumption and yet is still investing aggressively and productively in diverse sources of power, especially renewable energy.
Kenya’s Lake Turkana power farm (a 310MW wind farm), for example, is the single largest wind power farm on the continent. It was conceived around 2006, while actual construction started in 2014. Turkana was commissioned this year at a cost of about $680 million.
Meanwhile, we have been trying to find out just how much was invested in Nigeria’s power project and whatever the expenses – $16 billion, $6 billion or $3 billion – it appears it was supposed to generate more darkness or perhaps just a bulb’s worth of electricity.
There has been plenty of speeches of course, but none has yet brought us closer to light.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we have not made any progress in a decade or that things could not, in fact, have been worse. We’re just a long, long way from where a decade of eloquent speeches was supposed to have taken us.
Younger folks have stopped waiting or hoping. They are adjusting, creating their own world outside the hollow ritual of vain political speeches, with the help of social media. It’s not a perfect place, and as we have seen; it’s full of its own hazards. But with just one press of the button, users can “delete”, “reset” or “unfriend”, and start afresh if they don’t like what they see.
Where older folks used to line up on the streets and wave flags on October 1 or were forced by limited options to watch the national day broadcast on NTA or listen up on Radio Nigeria, younger folks use memes and avatars to create own alternative fantasies.
The promise of social media may be ephemeral – even fantastically vexatious – but at least users have some measure of control which they don’t have over politicians. Delete. Reset. Unfriend. Leave.
When Yar’Adua said this time ten years ago, that he would help to make Nigeria Eldorado in 2020, it seemed so far away. But here we are, just months away from 2020, still where we were when he made that speech.
Ten years from now when we look back at Buhari’s promise to lay the foundation to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty, would it be another chapter in the Book of Empty Speeches? Will his October 1 promise to provide “affordable and uninterrupted electricity supply in the not-too-distant future” be just that – a promise?
Or will his pledge to deliver key economic infrastructure such as the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Second Niger Bridge and Abuja-Kano Expressway, among other things by 2022 – three years from now – be just another footnote in the tales of time?
It has been predicted that global wealth would rise by 43 percent in the next decade, reaching $291 trillion, with Vietnam, a country devasted by war 44 years ago (and still gripped by war five years after Nigeria’s civil war ended), topping the rich list. I hope we won’t look back and find that we’re still trying to convert speeches to progress.
Azu Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.