By Femi Odere
A section of the Nigerian media gave a significant amount of coverage to Governor Aregbesola’s recent tour of the United States. The governor was in that bastion of democracy to sell his state to international investors and articulate the accomplishments of his government to that segment of the international community. But most importantly, his special appeal for assistance to Nigerians in the US Diaspora in growing his state’s economy is, to me, the most laudable. In his presentation to a segment of the Nigerian community both in academe and the general Nigerian public in the US, the governor reportedly made it known that his state is serious in tapping the knowledge base of Nigerian professionals and ready for business in growing its economic, thereby creating jobs for the teeming employment seekers in the state.
While it can be said that Governor Aregbesola is not the first governor from the State of Osun to have made a trip to the United States since the beginning of the fourth republic looking for investors, his tour of the United States this time is particularly unique because of the incredible government innovation that gave birth to that technological tool for learning in the state’s secondary schools known as “Opon Imo” (a learning tablet). It’s probably the first time that a state chief executive in Nigeria (known as one of the countries of the world as the backwater of civilization, despite its abundant richness in natural and human resources), would go to the most developed country of the world with something of real substance to offer as this modern-day technological invention, other than the usual cultural artifacts and natural resources that they have no clue how to convert into finished products for their people’s wellbeing. The second leg of governor Aregbesola’s US tour, which was to sensitize the Nigerian Diaspora to the possibilities and the opportunities that the State of Osun offers if they set up shops in the state, is of particular importance to me.
As one of those Diasporic Nigerians who has spent more than a quarter of a century living in the United States but now just beginning to retrace his steps with a view to playing a role in creating jobs for the youths of society in my own small way, I sense that Governor Aregbesola passionately believes, just as I do, that a nation’s economic salvation and its growth squarely rests on the shoulders of its citizens (both at home and abroad). A nation that fails or unwilling to critically engage its populace in the arduous task of nation-building in which its people can engage in legitimate economic activities and thrive is eternally doomed to be hewers of wood and drawers of water for other nations. And it seems to me that this is where Nigeria currently belongs, and has always been since the civil war. A nation’s real growth and development must of necessity be anchored by its citizens. They’re the ones who must do the heavy lifting in terms of putting the nation’s economy on the right trajectory of growth before any meaningful foreign direct investment can take place. This, I hope, is the thinking of Governor Aregbesola in his quest to engage the Nigerian Diasporic community especially from North America to assist in growing his state’s economy.
As a member of the Fourth Estate in the US with more than two decades under his belt, having published a newspaper and magazine, hosted a TV program(me) that interviewed and chronicled the accomplishments of upwardly mobile Nigerian professionals and entrepreneurs in various fields, as well as an erstwhile US Liaison to the House of Representatives Committee on Diaspora, it saddens me when I think of the huge Nigerians in the Diaspora, most specifically in the United States whose knowledge, skills set and other resource endowments are just wasting away in a foreign soil. They are withering because their leaders are either unwilling, intellectually lazy or have no idea how to massively harness the material and intellectual resources of this critical mass for the development of the country.
As someone who has already acquired a reputation for being a serious, well-focused Nigerian governor who charts his own course and does not follow the beaten path, I will submit that governor Aregbesola should push the envelope of this Nigerian Diaspora-assisted developmental initiative a lot further and harder. The governor should follow up this recently concluded US tour with a more practical approach and strategy in really making sure that his state comes into the consciousness of Diasporic Nigerians when they’re thinking resettlement or investment in Nigeria, even before they think about Lagos. Nigeria is for the most part still a primitive society and the constituent parts, the states, are by and large vast ‘desert’ landscapes devoid of any serious economic activities, with the exception of the Lagos metropolis. It can even be argued that whatever exists in form of economic activities are still on the subsistence level. Ironically, however, it’s a country that has just about all the building blocks for development but seems to have intentionally put itself in shackles as evidenced in its archaic laws, systems and processes, dearth of leadership, an anti-growth constitution, among others but that’s a different matter altogether.
As someone who has been in the country for sometimes now, having travelled (mostly by road) to some of the states in the federation, most especially to most of the nooks and crannies of some states in the southwest, and having spent four solid months in Osun State, the potential for growth in these states, and Osun in particular is mind boggling and very huge that you could slice it with a knife. The State of Osun is especially strategically positioned in the southwest. She has the wherewithal that can leapfrog her into modernity within a relatively short period of time, say ten to fifteen years from now. What the state needs (like Nigeria) is only the right and purposeful leadership, which I must say without fear of contradiction that the people of the state now have in the person of Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola.
The State of Osun, just like any state in the federation, has most of the resources required for generation of goods or services; and they’re generally classified into four major groups: (1) Land (including all natural resources), (2) Labor (including all human resources), (3) Capital (including all man-made resources), and (4) Enterprise (which brings all the previous resources together for production). Probably with the exception of enterprise which is only in availability on a very primitive and subsistence scale, Osun has the first three in relative abundance. What’s needed, it seems to me, is focused and aggressive state economic policies in all ramifications that will inject life into these factors of production. It should, however, be mentioned that Governor Aregbesola has rightly identified agriculture, and has formulated a robust policy around this particular economic activity, as the first template of economic growth from which all other drivers of the economy could gain full throttle. As the first prong of the governor’s agricultural policy is gradually and meticulously being implemented by re-directing the educated youths into farming, what should be the second prong of this policy, it seems to me, is the conversion of agricultural produce into processed foods for domestic, regional and international consumption as well as by-products. This is where Nigerians in the Diaspora should, and of necessity play a critical role in the governor’s agricultural equation.
Governor Rauf Aregbesola was reported to have gone to some universities in the United States including the prestigious Harvard and that foremost African American ivory tower, Howard, to speak to Nigerian professionals in academe. Rather than trying to talk these professionals into coming home (which most, if not almost all of them are most likely not going to do anyway because they’ve simply surpassed their country, not to talk of their states, in all material, intellectual, productive and professional indicators of human growth) this crop of well-educated, upwardly mobile professionals would be far more useful to the state if the right formula could be put in place in harnessing their knowledge as to how the state’s natural resources can be turned into finished products. One of the ways that they can also be seriously engaged in state building, it seems to me, is in strengthening the state’s economic policies to making sure that they are not only enduring but meets international standard and best practice in order to be taken seriously by international investors. As a third world country, Nigeria lacks the knowledge as to how virtually most of the things that enhances people’s quality of life are produced. Also like all other underdeveloped countries in black Africa, her leaders are ignorant or have very little understanding of the global economic matrix in which their country is only an appendage in the entrenched global economic scheme of things regardless of her resource endowment. It’s therefore my opinion that only her Diasporic First Eleven who are privileged to have taken a peek into or are in the loop of the global economic system, in conjunction with the right political leadership, can come to her rescue in order to prevent her from going under eventually.
It’s disheartening from the way most of our rulers approach the business of governance in a leisurely manner that they are completely naïve as to how the global economic cards are stacked against them and their people. Aside from rigorous research, practical policy and position papers that our Diasporic brethrens should be saddled with which should be scrupulously geared towards growing the economy and compete with the rest of the world, Governor Aregbesola also should, as a matter of policy, have Think Tank organs in the industrialized countries whose task will be to interface with targeted individuals with high business knowledge who can turn a stone into bread, as well as medium-scale corporate entities. These Think Tanks should also have the wherewithal to gather the kind of information that can leapfrog the economy in accordance with the state’s economic blueprint.
The earlier we realize that we must compete with the rest of the world the better for us. No country is altruistically going to invite you to the dinner table without a demand. And this demand can only manifest itself through serious competition and that other nations know that you have a clear idea about what your interests are and you’re serious about their pursuit regardless of whose nation’s horse is gored. Otherwise we will continue to be in the kitchen cooking the food, and not even be privileged enough to serve what we cooked. This has been our fate and that of black Africa. A true leader dedicated to the welfare and wellbeing of his people should be very upset that eighty percent of the sugar consumed by his people are imported when there’re plenty of arable land to cultivate sugarcane. A true leader with genuine desire to make a difference in the lives of his people should have sleepless nights knowing that more than ninety percent of its processed foods are imported and his nation state is a dumping ground for all kinds of substandard and fake products from Asia and China that kills his citizens on a daily basis. Why should a country still be importing transistor radios in the 21st century when a secondary school student in a developed clime can make a radio? Most university undergraduates in Electronic Engineering can make TVs. A teenager with inclination for automobile can put a car together in his parents’ backyard. What says the State of Osun cannot become another manufacturing hub in the southwest outside Lagos and Sango-Ota in Ogun State with its flat and arable landmass which is suitable for agro-allied industries, among other things? It already has a rail (although archaic) infrastructure that it can leverage on in drawing factories into the state. Who says there cannot be a company’s plant somewhere in Osun where its finished products are transferred by rail to Lagos for further redistribution to the rest of the country, the West Africa sub-region and other developed countries?
As stated earlier, Governor Aregbesola should push the envelope of this quest for the growth of the state’s economy a lot further. His government should maintain physical presence in the developed countries of North America by establishing Liaison Offices in some strategic cities. A stand-alone agency for Diaspora Affairs or one that’s subsumed within a ministry should also be established to collate the activities of these Liaison Offices for the governor for his prompt and swift attention. Appointed representatives of these offices will constantly be in the business of selling the state and sharing government policies and information with Nigerians in the Diaspora so that they can key into any of the government’s economic policies to engender economic growth. They will be the face of the government of Osun. They will seek invitations to the meetings of various Nigerian ethnic groups, their socio-cultural and professional events in order to articulate the policies, accomplishments and the areas of critical needs of the government in its economic transformation agenda. The Nigerian Diasporic community is of the belief that their leaders are just a bunch of clowns who talks a good game when they’re on a visit only for them to be chronically inaccessible once they’re in Nigeria after they might have taken them on on their words. There are tales of woes by Nigerians in the Diaspora who had come to the country at the behest of some governors or his aides only to have gone back after more than a month just waiting to see the chief executive when the initiative in which the visit was made in the first place would have benefitted the state far more than the visitor.
Just as governor Aregbesola has cleverly been providing free transportation to Osun Indigenes and other Lagosians to come to the state to see their loved ones and also indirectly spur the state’s economy during major public holidays, the government can also play host to Nigerians in the Diaspora when there’s a major influx of Diasporic Nigerians for the Christmas and New Year festivities. They should be invited to spend as many days in the state as government guests to just move around the state to see what kinds of cottage industries they can set up. One can always see much clearly if one is on the outside but looking in. During the four months I spent in Osun, I have seen three distinct private-sector driven business ideas that, if allowed to come to fruition in the state, will not only generate hundreds of jobs for the people of the state but also increase significantly the government’s internally generated revenue (IGR). These are ideas that probably would not have materialized if I have not been physically present in the state, driving through one town to another.
There are thousands of retired Diasporic Nigerian professionals or on the verge of retirement. All these people probably want is to be able to give back in some way to their fatherland, most especially to their states and communities. But unfortunately, they have not seen their government with any seriousness or willingness to engage their services and knowledge, even for free. A Nigerian professional who retired as a top Electrical Engineer after more than two decades at Commonwealth Edison, a major electricity generating and distribution company in the Mid West region of the United States, who, incidentally is from Osun narrated his disappointment as a US Liaison to the House Committee on Diaspora how he was casually dismissed as unserious when he told some government officials of his willingness to provide electricity, using what he called an unconventional method, for his small village of less than a thousand people at no cost to the government during the Oyinlola administration. For this gentleman, I know for sure that he has what it takes to generate electricity and can afford to do it for free because his pension and other retirement benefits are enough to still live comfortably in the US let alone Nigeria.
Somehow I have this strong feeling that the State of Osun can be an economic test case as to how a state with very little in terms of federal allocation can be economically self-reliant where what comes into its till from Abuja becomes very insignificant in the state’s revenue generating chain. All the ingredients for growth in this state of the virtuous are available, including leadership, which has always been the bane of Africa’s economic renaissance. Governor Aregbesola must not look back in his unflinching quest to make Osun a socio-cultural and economic poster child of Nigeria and indeed, black Africa.
Femi Odere is a media practitioner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org