Nigeria: Of known and strange things

Just how popular is President Muhammadu Buhari and how has the public perception of him changed in the past two years? The answer depends on who you ask, which political group such a respondent aligns with and what other side of the divide the person belongs. In Nigeria, we tend to gauge our leader’s popularity on the (often) hired crowds that troop their rallies and their electoral results. In the age of the New Media, another means of assessing the direction of public sentiments is to analyse the responses of commentators to news articles and editorials. Without a scientific polling of public opinion, however, what we have are mere speculations. In the case of Buhari, one can never be quite sure how much he is still being loved by his faithful who treat him like the long-awaited messiah.

Elsewhere, polls are regularly conducted to measure how a president’s popularity has fluctuated due to the consequences of their policies. For instance, Germany’s Angela Merkel’s popularity ratings dipped last year due to the terrorist attacks that took place in her country. Germans blamed the rise of Islamic terrorism in their country on her immigration policies and it reflected in the polls. Again, the United States’ Donald Trump’s ratings have tanked lower than any president in American history mainly due to his perceived incompetence and the chaotic White House administration he oversees. In Nigeria, one wonders how much public perception of Buhari has shifted since his sickness and how much that would factor in the 2019 electioneering. This gap in knowledge is one of the many things one takes for granted one certainly knows about Nigeria but in the absence of data, they are, in fact, strange.

There are other things I am curious about and may never get an answer. We seem to take it for granted that most Nigerians vote based on ethnicity and religion but what percentage are those who do(not)? For those who do not subscribe to such primordial sentiments, what are the anxieties that rule their electoral choices? The infrastructure to measure public sentiment on a national scale is scant, and as a result, Nigerians are hardly ever polled during and after election campaigns to get a feel of why they make what choices. Political parties and campaign teams in Nigeria must rely a lot on their instinct.

As 2019 draws closer, Nigerian media and the so-called thought leaders are throwing up familiar names as the possible replacement to Buhari. The choices barely reflect the enlightenment one would expect Nigerians to be reaching for after their 2015 misadventure. One is justifiably suspicious that the advertised candidates were selected based on their religion and ethnicity probably because it is taken for granted that there are no other overriding concerns or social agenda that drives Nigeria’s leadership choices.

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Beyond the assessment of qualitative facts is the necessity of illuminating quantitative data. It is doubtful Nigerian leaders even have an idea of the national population. Even the figure the media cites regularly ranges from 150 million to 190 million. Such level of uncertainty is expected. When was the last time Nigeria conducted a credible census and how regularly are the existing figures updated to reflect the changes in our population? Nigerian census figures are steeped in politics, and our failure to begin to acquire reliable data to plan and project hurts. If we do not know the country’s population, then how do our leaders plan and implement their policies?

A nation should have a definitive idea of the number of children born daily to be able to forecast the facilities that would be required to be provided for them as they grow up. How many schools will they need and at what stages would they need it? How many hospitals? What other social infrastructure will be required and how do we sustainably provide them? A nation should be able to proactively plan for the citizens, from the big things to the seemingly minute details.

The planners need to be able to strategise, minding details that range from the future employment of the growing population to the number of cars that will be on the road when they would have attained a certain age. With a grasp of population growth patterns, the country can project how many people will travel on the roads that currently exist, how regularly the roads will need to be upgraded, how much waste they will generate, and even how they will be discarded.

In short, a country should have an informed knowledge of its composition, denominated in facts, statistics and data. There are times I have searched for certain information on Nigeria to make some claims. I have wanted to know how much Nigerian women earn relative to men and the factors that account for the disparity (if any exists). I have wondered how many cars are in Nigeria, their average age, and the amount of carbon they emit into the atmosphere. How many generators presently exist in Nigeria and what are the short-term and long-term implications of having so many of them? How many houses are in Nigeria and what is the percentage of ownership to rental? How many homes have access to the internet and how much does the family need to earn to procure this facility? How much do Nigerians spend yearly on tourism to other countries? So many questions that one thinks one knows the answers to them but, no.

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Our lack of respect for facts and figures signposts our habit of underdevelopment. In Nigeria, public officials and individuals mindlessly throw figures all over the place. Whether it is the APC propagandists claiming they have saved Nigeria some $2trn (or N2tn) from corruption, or other citizens bandying around the impossible figure of a public official that stole $90bn, we are an illiterate society when it comes to grasping the basics of statistical integrity. The last administration was particularly fond of bandying high figures of growth and development it had achieved even when the average Nigerian on the street could barely make the connection between the touted data and their living conditions.

Once, I was with a friend in Lagos who drove me around in her car. I noticed she occasionally ran the red lights and when I asked her why she did so, she told me she could not afford to wait for the light to turn green otherwise she could be jumped by armed robbers who typically lurked by, waiting for compliant drivers like her. After that time, I was prompted to start timing how long the red lights in Lagos lasted to know if her impatience was warranted. To my surprise, there did not seem to be a consistency in the pattern of how and when the light changed. Typically, traffic signal engineers spend months and months collecting data on the flow of traffic at peak and off-peak hours to regulate how and when the light would change so motorists would spend the least possible times at traffic intersections. How many states in Nigeria that launch traffic lights with fanfare go through that level of rigour in planning and improving services once those lights have been installed?

For us to become a modern nation, we need to develop a culture of accuracy whereby we know things in details and not rely on mere instinct or our spontaneity. We need to plan our cities, our lives, ourselves, our habits, our nation, and our future. Modernity and its innovations are calibrated on a culture that counts and accounts, we cannot expect to seamlessly participate in a global culture that has already standardised cultural and technological product without developing the habit of knowing the fragmented details of social behaviour in Nigeria.

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