Opinion

Tolu Ogunlesi: Big Ideas For A Big Country

Sam Nda-Isaiah is running for President, on the platform of the All Progressives Congress. The pharmacist-turned-publisher-and-entrepreneur is pushing a campaign message of “Big Ideas.”

In his presidential declaration speech, delivered last week in Minna, he announced he was “waving the scroll of BIG IDEAS – big and bold ideas that will move our beleaguered country into the league of First World nations.” He went on to say: “If we must remain the biggest economy in Africa, then, we must have the biggest seaports, the biggest banks, the biggest airports; and we must, by privilege and reason of location, be the aviation hub of Africa.”

In my column of Monday February 3, 2014, ‘Preparing to be left behind’, I wrote about Nigeria’s “tyranny of low expectations and high mediocrity” and how “we are cavemen with eyes on the ground, dancing around small fires, while the rest of the world is laying claim to real estate on the sun.”

Working on a large canvas seems to be a taboo around here. China is building highways and high-speed rail connections and power plants with a pace and ambition that seems fuelled by steroids. India, no less chaotic a democracy than us, has now sent a satellite to Mars. Meanwhile we can’t even manage to send someone from Lagos to Ibadan in one hour (ask those who travelled that road on Saturday).

The vision of many of our politicians stops at the level of the personal, sadly. It is exclusively about ego and personal enrichment. I have no problems with seeking some measure of self-benefit; it is only human. The problem I have is that with our politicians it almost always ends there, on the ‘what’s-in-it-for-me-level.’

And this is where the Big Ideas message is significant, because it forces us to look outwards, towards the future, towards lasting impact. Not every time me; sometimes, my country. It is not enough to have the biggest political party in Africa, we must match it with developmental bigness. Even if Mr. Nda-Isaiah does not succeed in his mission to rule Nigeria, it is my hope that his insistence on Big Ideas will raise the level of the debate around the 2015 elections and our expectations of our leaders.

Which takes me to Akwa Ibom, where Governor Godswill Akpabio, apostle of ‘Akpabioism’ and evangelist of the gospel of ‘Uncommon Transformation’, hosted the world last week at the opening of the brand new 30,000-seater Akwa Ibom International Stadium.

I saw bits of the event on television, and I have seen the photos from the stadium. It was a spectacle. I could imagine the pride that Akwa Ibom indigenes felt, seeing their state attracting all that positive attention, especially at a time when national enthusiasm is ebbing, on account of the insurgency in the northeast.

Of course there are people who might want to ask: Is this what Akwa Ibom needs? Why a stadium?

I think I can offer answers, and make a convincing argument for the stadium project. Let’s start with what a stadium like that (described by Ghanaian Football Association Vice President Fred Crentsil, as being of “the same standard” as Johannesburg’s Soccer City, which hosted the finals of the 2010 World Cup) offers: opportunities for talent development, and tourism.

The facilities in that stadium could easily become the platform for the creation of a new generation of sporting talent in Nigeria. The world is full of examples of how a single piece of infrastructure can produce world-altering impact decades down the line. The Bill Gates story is only one example; how early access to significant computing power (in his secondary school) helped draw out and develop his flair for programming. It’s time to start thinking of the sporting geniuses that this new stadium will produce – if, of course, Akpabio’s successors have the good sense to not abandon the project.

In terms of tourism, it is a shame that a football-obsessed country like ours has done nothing to exploit its commercial potential. Interestingly, soccer was one of the things that Mr. Nda-Isaiah said in his declaration speech. “One of the very big ideas that we intend to work is the creation of a soccer economy. Nigeria has talent and Nigerians have passion for the game. There is no reason we should not profit from this as so many other countries do. We can organise ourselves to achieve this easily.”

A stadium like the one Mr. Akpabio has just built, if well maintained and managed, could easily become the fulcrum of a grand national sporting development agenda. Already Akwa Ibom has an airport (with a vision “to be the leading privately operated airport in Africa”), and a world-class hotel and golf course (Le Meridien Ibom). Sensibly connect those assets and you’ve got a potential crowd-puller on your hands.

Third is the psychological boost a project of that kind brings to the people of the region. I did notice, on the day of the opening, Akwa Ibom people making interesting comments along the lines of how Governor Akpabio has brought “pride” to the people.

Nigeria, like everywhere else in the world, is steeped in ethnic stereotype. The Yorubas are the slothful and fun-loving ‘tribe’, with no stomach for wahala; the Igbos (everyone east of the Niger who’s not “Ijaw” or “Calabar”) are loud, stubborn, and money-obsessed; the Hausas (i.e. everyone from ‘the North’) are Islamic extremists with daggers beneath their gowns and a generally dim view of women; the Ijaws are alcohol-loving fishermen, and, lately, militants. And then the Calabar (the generic term for Cross River and Akwa Ibom indigenes) are the nation’s houseboys and housegirls, the hewers of wood and drawers of water.

These are images that have been reinforced over the years, especially in Nollywood. It also hasn’t helped the state that Evangelist Helen Ukpabio has risen to global fame with her witch-hunting targeted at children in Akwa-Ibom and elsewhere.

Now think about what those big projects in Akwa Ibom – airport, stadium, highways, hospital-in-progress – are doing to those sad stereotypes.

Now you can start to associate Uyo with sports and holidays, and someday, perhaps even medical tourism. I have been to Uyo twice, and I can tell you it is a great holiday destination. Quiet, calm, serene; the potentials are limitless. Now imagine what that means to residents and indigenes of the state. And so when a friend of mine posted this message on Instagram to accompany a photograph of the new stadium – “not slaves anymore” – I had an idea of what he meant; the pride he felt.

It’s the same scenario with the launch of international flights (Emirates, currently) from the Enugu Airport. To residents of eastern Nigeria it is a hugely empowering statement; the fact that you don’t need to first make your way to Lagos or Enugu before travelling abroad; you can, from “the east” travel abroad directly. There will no doubt be people who will be voting for President Jonathan solely because of that. His government, through Princess Oduah has ‘opened up’ their city, and that is enough.

Speaking of which, former Aviation Minister Stella Oduah showed a semblance of big-ideas thinking with her airports upgrade project. For the first time in years our pathetic airports were getting attention. But the shoddiness of the work done (against the backdrop of the budgets reported) undermined the entire project. This we can put down to overwhelming greed on Oduah’s part; the same greed that manifested in the BMW scandal.

Now I don’t think anyone can accuse Governor Akpabio of leaving behind shoddy infrastructure, which is a good thing. (The economics of the projects is another matter entirely, of course; we’ll leave that for another day).

I’ll close with more of Mr. Nda-Isaiah’s words. In that February 3 column I referred to earlier, I quoted him (I had recently attended a forum in Lagos at which he spoke about his ambitions) as saying: “This is a time for big ideas and history-changing endeavours.”

How can anyone disagree?

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Article written by Tolu Ogunlesi and published with permission from the writer, On twitter @toluogunlesi and Culled from PUNCH

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