by Olusegun Adeniyi
My pastor, Evaristus Azodoh is a retired army colonel and a medical doctor; in fact, one of Nigeria’s foremost consultant urologists. His experience and exposure, quite naturally, reflect in his exhortations. So, when last Sunday morning, he asked us at the Workers Meeting to pray what he prefaced as a “medical heresy” but spiritually important prayer, it was obvious he was concerned by the seeming hopelessness of the situation. His prayer point was for a divine intervention on the prevalence of all manner of cancers that is now ravaging the country.
Less than 24 hours after that prayer, Dr Chidi Amuta posted on an online platform to which I belong a short story in ‘The Economist’ titled “Fuming mad: the war on diesel”, which reveals why major towns across Europe are now charging diesel drivers 50 percent more to park their vehicles in the bid to discourage its use. “What if your major urban centres depend on millions of diesel generators for power? No wonder there is this epidemic of all manner of cancers”, Dr Amuta wrote in a pithy comment before he added, “Diesel is in fact less toxic in cars than from our millions of generators. Cars move around over wide open spaces. But the generators are fixed in place and have all of us trapped and poisoned for hours daily; so, the longer the hours on diesel generators, the worse for the trapped victims.”
In June 2012, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified diesel exhaust in Group 1 in its ranking of carcinogenic substances because it emits a lot of nitrogen dioxides into the atmosphere. Indeed, diesel exhaust fumes have been scientifically proven as a major contributor to asthma, lung disease and heart attacks. And in most countries where supply of electricity is not dependent on diesel like it is in Nigeria, there are increasing regulations to reduce, if not eliminate, the use of it to power vehicles.
However, in Nigeria, no house or company is complete without a diesel-powered electricity generator meaning that we have practically imported death into our households by virtue of our inability to organize ourselves. Since everything must flow from up to bottom, electricity, like most other public utilities, have to be supplied by the federal government which, even at the best of times, is notoriously inefficient. That way, everybody is now their own power supplier; just like everybody supplies their own water and run their own security outfits. Even with all the private schools around, there is hardly any family that does not engage in some form of home lessons for their children which means we are also running our own schools. The way we are going, everybody will soon begin to run their own hospitals.
Aside the waste associated with this situation of grand systemic failure, there are far reaching implications for a society where virtually everyone is running their own government. For instance, the sad part of our approach to the hopeless power supply situation and the mismanagement of our oil and gas sector is that hardly any administration has thought about their linkage to public health issues, forgetting that the driving force of any economy is the wellbeing of the people.
Even as European and American cities prepare to use taxation to outlaw Diesel engine vehicles, there has been no response from the Nigerian authorities on what to do about diesel automotive and generator pollution any time soon. In fact, the ability to afford a diesel generator has become a status symbol that separates the urban ‘wealthy’ from the mass of ordinary ‘I-better-pass-my-neighbour’ petrol engine generator owners. But the rich are poisoning themselves and everyone else because there is no one to protect all of us.
What worries is that our problems seem to be mounting without anybody responding to them. Just last Sunday, the United Nations estimates put our population at 190,594,019. We are breeding like rabbits without much thought on how we would take care of the people we are bringing into the world. With Nigeria now accounting for 2.55 percent of the world’s total population, comprising largely young people with the median age at 18, what future do we prepare for them?
Climate change, environment, a growing unproductive population etc. are some of the problems that should challenge those in authorities but these hardly attract any meaningful attention in a milieu where our lawmakers are no better than clowns churning out home videos. Yet, the dangers are there for all to see. For instance, Abuja has practically been on the boil for many weeks as a result of heat waves that defy even the most powerful of air-conditioners. And within a matter of weeks, we have lost hundreds of our citizens to meningitis whose spread has been aided by the oppressive weather conditions in many of the northern states.
Of course, Governor Abdulaziz Yari of Zamfara has been waxing spiritual on the scourge that has taken the lives of several people in his state where it all started. “People have turned away from God and he has promised that ‘if you do anyhow, you see anyhow.’ That is just the cause of this outbreak, as far as I am concerned. There is no way fornication will be so rampant and God will not send a disease that cannot be cured” he said on Tuesday. A friend said yesterday that the governor is very clever to have left out adultery, “which is what married people like him commit while focusing his libidinal exultation only on fornication”.
Yari’s intervention would have provided comic relief but for the fact that we are dealing with a national emergency situation. On Monday, the National Coordinator of the Centre for Disease Control, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu said the outbreak of the disease which started in December has spread to 16 states. While an official of the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHDA) has estimated that we would require $1.1bn to purchase vaccine for the immunization of 22 million persons in five states ravaged by the disease, Ihekweazu painted a gloomy picture of the financial situation: “The budget we have is like sending soldiers to the Northeast without guns.”
Ordinarily, there should be money for this kind of health emergency that originates from the environment given the constitutional provision for Ecological Fund. For instance, within a period of four years when oil price was high between 2011 and 2014, the sum of N245.7 billion accrued into the Fund based on 2 percent deduction from the Federation Account, on a first line charge. While the Fund is meant to provide “handy resources for amelioration of ecological problems such as soil erosion, flood, drought, desertification, oil spillage, general environmental pollution, storm, tornadoes, bush fire, crop pest, landslide, earthquakes etc.”, there is hardly any evidence of that.
In 2012, a Senate Committee uncovered a litany of unwholesome practices in the application of the Fund over a period of ten years. For instance, in 2006, the former Governor of Plateau State, Mr. Joshua Dariye, disclosed that he diverted his state’s N1.6 billion share of the Ecological Fund to the 2003 general elections campaign of the then ruling PDP. From road construction to fighting food shortages to “treasury management”, the Ecological Fund has been deployed as a slush fund by every administration in our country.
That Nigerians still take the environment with indifference accounts for why money constitutionally provided for such emergencies would be so cynically mismanaged; just as our country has become a dumping site for all manner of toxic wastes. A House of Representatives committee is currently investigating one of such cases in Koko, Delta State. While some unscrupulous community leaders are believed to be aiding and abetting the criminal dumping of highly toxic and carcinogenic wastes in their town for money, nobody should expect anything to come out of the House probe. It is a familiar story in Nigeria.
About three years ago, trucks loaded with waste allegedly from the then just reactivated Kaduna Refining and Petrochemical Company (KRPC) dumped their contents in an open field in the neighbouring Rido community. “It was when the air became hot like pepper as if tear gas was released that we became apprehensive”, said a representative of the community, Salihu Yahaya. Few days later, many of the residents who had been to the dumpsite to pick items, started falling sick and dying. Notwithstanding all the noise at the time, the House investigation came to naught.
It is unfortunate that we find it so convenient to condemn our citizens to avoidable calamities that governments elsewhere strive to protect their peoples from. But now that the issue of diesel is in the front burner, I hope it would set the authorities thinking of the dangers staring us in the face. But it remains baffling that on the bigger picture of environmental common sense, the attitude of most Nigerians and those who decide for us is a strange combination of ignorance and crass insensitivity fuelled often by primitive greed and outright stupidity.
May God protect us from ourselves!
The Essential Aliko Dangote @ 60
During the Christmas holiday in December 2010, I was with Alhaji Aliko Dangote in his Lagos office one afternoon when his phone rang. Given the way he was saying “Yes Sir, Okay Sir”, I knew the person at the other end of the line must be someone very important to him. The moment the conversation ended, Dangote said he needed to travel immediately to a particular state where a friend of his was governor. It was the father of the governor that he had just finished speaking to.
What was the issue? He said his friend, a second term governor at the time, and his father (now of blessed memory) were having a disagreement over the candidate to endorse as successor for the 2011 gubernatorial election in the state. Because it was an issue on which I had a fair knowledge, I tried to convince Dangote, who had apparently taken sides with the father, that the position of his friend made more sense, given the then prevailing political dynamics in the state concerned. But Dangote refused to buy my explanation because, as he argued, “this is not about who is right or who is wrong; we are talking about his father.”
Given the vehemence with which he spoke, I saw no point in any further argument. But just as I wanted to change the topic, Dangote held my hand and said something I will never forget: “Look Segun, let me tell you something today. All this wealth that I have, if it would cause a rift between me and my mother, let God take everything away.”
I was startled by the declaration and the solemnity with which he made it. And to the extent that the way we view the world and those around us says so much not only about who we are but also what we stand for, that episode made me to appreciate Dangote as a man who places family and human relationships above every other consideration. While he is not known for being very generous with his money, for which he has worked very hard, Dangote has enriched several lives with his uncommon commitment to friendship and enduring relationships.
As busy as he must be, given his enormous commitments, Dangote has not allowed his schedules to interrupt his relationships with those he considers as friends regardless of the standing of those people in the society. Whether it is in carving out time for catch-up calls or sending/replying text messages or visiting to attend important occasions, Dangote creates the time. I am sure there are hundreds of people in all strata of the Nigerian society who will readily attest to that.
For a man like Dangote, time is a precious commodity. Yet, he understands that his presence at important functions would mean more to the celebrants than his money. I am a beneficiary of this generousity of spirit as he has always identified with me whether in times of joy (like when he came to my Ajah, Lagos bungalow to attend the baby dedication ceremony of my son more than 13 years ago in October 2003) or in times of sorrow (like when I buried my parents in 2006 and 2011). I can also recall several other occasional visits to my house and I am aware he does that with several other people, regardless of whether they are rich or poor.
Mr Robert Ade Odiachi, who has known the man they call “Ali-Cash” since 1973, said what amazes him is the numbers of days Dangote spends in a year to fast and how he observes his prayers at every opportunity and with anyone and anywhere. “He stops the car at roadsides and prays with drivers and mechanics, looks for an open space in the middle of nowhere during trips and all incognito. For a man of his means, his humility can only be a gift from God”, said Odiachi.
However, what stands Dangote out in the national and international arena is his business acumen. For a man who started out as a trader in commodities in 1978, he has really done good. From sugar to salt to flour to fertilizer to frozen fish to baby food to poly bag to cement, Dangote was a major importer and trader of these commodities less than three decades ago. Today, he is a producer of those same commodities not only for our country but for the African market. What his story teaches is that there are enormous potentials in our country and that, even as tough as the business climate may seem, those who dare could still win.
Two weeks ago, the Minister of Solid Minerals Development, Dr Kayode Fayemi, on behalf of the Federal Government, commended Dangote for making the country self-sufficient in cement production. Against the background that just six years ago, Nigeria was one of the world’s largest importers of cement, buying 5.1 million metric tonnes annually, one can only imagine the implications of what Dangote has done in terms of foreign exchange savings. Besides, in year 2016, Dangote Cement exported 208,720 metric tonnes to Ghana; 104,907 metric tonnes to Niger and 52,120 metric tonnes to Togo thus totalling 365,747 million metric tonnes of cement exported out of Nigeria by the company. That is aside the cement factories in 17 other African countries and the coming one in Nepal.
Where most people see problems, Dangote sees opportunities and that is the difference between him and many other business people in our country. Having consolidated his business, Dangote’s current efforts are targeted at two areas: job creation and being a net importer of foreign exchange. In January this year, Dangote Group floated a $100 million truck assembly plant in Lagos in partnership with SINOTRUK, a Chinese firm, ahead of a $17 billion refinery, petrochemical and fertiliser plants also located in Lagos that would, when fully operational by 2019, have the capacity to refine 650,000 barrels per day. For rice, Dangote started the out-grower scheme three years ago and will go into milling by 2019. I also understand that he will soon venture into dairy farming in a big way.
I have heard about the ruthlessness of Dangote when it comes to dealing with competitors so I am sure there are many people out there who have a contrary view about him. But I am also certain that even his most implacable foes would agree that Dangote has added considerable value to our national economy. By dint of hard work and personal sacrifice, he has successfully turned a Nigerian name into a global brand.
In a piece I wrote three years ago, I alluded to the common narrative, especially by critics, that Dangote is a creation of the Nigerian State. But I also highlighted the simplistic nature of such assumption as I explained the Dangote story within the context of the Biblical parable of talents as told by our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 25: 14-30 which centred on a certain rich man who, before embarking on a journey, entrusted his assets to three of his servants. To one servant was given five talents; another two talents; and the last servant was given one talent. The master in this parable obviously knew that his servants did not have equal abilities but the way each deployed the asset and the eventual outcome is a study in faithfulness and industry.
The lesson of the parable, as I explained it, based on the thesis of one commentator, is that while we all begin from different starting points in life, it is not always what we are given that determines our success or failure but rather how we deploy such talents. That point was eloquently underscored by the late global icon, Mr Nelson Mandela of South Africa, who said most memorably to Vyonne Chaka Chaka, “It is what we make of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”
Therefore, if we take the Nigerian state as the distributor of patronage which we can then describe as “talents”, and we agree that Dangote started off with five, the fact also remains that there are several others who received one “talent” each and I am not even talking of those who (by virtue of holding public offices), gave themselves multiple ill-gotten “talents”. Now, the question then is: What have the others done with all that they were also given?
Former Cross River State Governor, Mr Donald Duke, who said he first met Dangote in 1978 (the year he started his trading in commodities), told me on Tuesday that he could still remember many young men who were Dangote’s business contemporaries at the time in Lagos, including those who had better prospects by virtue of their family connections. After reeling out a few names that I was hearing for the first time, Duke muttered: “only God knows where those guys are today so that tells you something about Dangote’s resilience”.
What that suggests is that majority of the people to whom the Nigerian state had bestowed “talents” at different times “buried” theirs, probably in pursuit of personal pleasure without adding any value to themselves or our society. By investing his own “talents” very wisely and taking calculated risks along the way, it is no surprise that Dangote succeeded where others failed. Today, the symbolism of Dangote as Africa’s response to the rise of wealth ambassadors in different regions of the world is a testimony to what can be accomplished by those who dare to dream big.
As Dangote therefore attains age 60, he deserves all the accolades that will come his way. To my recollection, the last birthday Dangote celebrated was on 10th April 2005, when he turned 48. Perhaps because the day fell on a Sunday, there was a birthday picnic at Alpha beach in Lagos that was organised by his staff (to which his friends were invited) where the poor and the rich mixed, played football and generally had a nice time together. I was there that day. As it happens, Dangote would be 60 this year on a Monday, so I doubt if there would be any such indulgence of a beach party. But wherever (and howsoever) he chooses to mark the day, he knows he has my best wishes. Always!
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija