Opinion: The Year 2021: What Next? By Reuben Abati
By the time we meet again on this page, right here, this very space, it would be a new year, and it is just so amazing that that is the way of the world. A year begins. It ends. From January to December, we go through the same cycle, inexorably. And as I look back, what I remember is a year that whizzed past just like that. But it was a bad year for many, and for Nigeria, whatever the vuvuzelas of the corridors of power may say. The year 2021 will be remembered by Nigerians also not so much for the tragedies that it brought but for the anxieties that it leaves behind about the immediate future. No year in recent times has left us with so much uncertainty, anxiety and doubt.
As 2022 knocks on the gates, I, let me speak for myself, remember 2021, as the year when Nigeria failed to deal with the challenge of insecurity. Things just got worse on that front. In Northern Nigeria alone, more than 600 schools were shut down. Children were abducted from schools. The government had no clue. And as the year ends, the insecurity situation is compounded, lamentably by high inflation, unemployment rate, an army of disgruntled, dispossessed and unhappy youths, a security architecture that serves only the purpose of high-ranking state officials who go about in convoys of shame, an economy that is wobbling, silly public officials who think that they can do whatever they wish with stolen funds, and governments at all levels that cannot be too bothered. The latter are waiting for the next budget and the opportunity to award more contracts.
The Nigerian elite as always has not been able to forge a consensus about the past, the present and the future, leaving the people, these long-suffering people of Nigeria in a lurch. One Nigerian newspaper tried to review the year 2021, and searched far and wide for a person of the year and came up with the damning declaration that nobody was worth the honour of being declared Nigeria’s Person of the Year. I thought that was rather thought-provoking. In a country of over 200 million human beings, not even one person was considered good enough to be praised or vilified. Many years ago, we chose the common man, the Nigerian, as The Guardian newspaper’s Person of the Year, for his resilience, courage and commitment in the face of difficulties, but it looks like not even that common man is good enough anymore.
But should anyone be surprised? These days, some newspapers are so silly they even choose those we regard ordinarily as “”money-miss-road” as Men of the Year. I remember 2021 as the year in which something went terribly wrong with us. Pipeline explosions, Market fires. Sharp rise in suicide cases. Needless loss of lives. Lies. Lies. Lies from official quarters. And by the way, 2021 was the year the Nigerian Government at the centre locked people, young people out of Twitter. In June, they banned access to Twitter- the major micro-blogging site that provides many Nigerians opportunities not just for social interaction, but also business. Government says Twitter wants to ruin Nigeria, but as the ban continues, nobody is sure anymore whether the problem is really Twitter or a disregard for the right of the average Nigerian to the freedom of expression.
And on top of that was COVID. In fairness to the Nigerian Government, the Presidential Steering Committee, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) as well as agencies in some of the sub-national units focused heavily on vaccinating Nigerians against the virus and on generating awareness. The clumsiness that we witnessed in 2020 with regard to Nigeria’s management of COVID-19 improved a bit, such that by the end of 2021, both the NPHCDA and the NCDC can begin to award grades to states of the Federation. But on the whole, the news is very bad. In the face of OMICRON, Nigeria is having an OMICRONOUS end of the year. The guys at the NCDC tell us that recently there has been a 500% spike in COVID cases in the country. Nigeria is effectively in a Fourth Wave. But do the people care? No. They don’t.
In Europe and elsewhere, restaurants, bars and events centres are empty. Travel and tourism bookings have been cancelled. Business chieftains in England are asking the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak to do more for the hospitality industry beyond the one million pounds that he has promised. In many parts of the world, Christmas was cancelled, and where it was kept alive as in England, there are fears about what may well happen in January. In Nigeria, we seem to be somewhat insincere. Before Christmas, the Federal Government had advised churches not to exceed 50% capacity at Cross-Over Services on December 31. The people were told to stay at home, avoid crowded gatherings and observe all necessary guidelines and protocols. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Nobody listened. Over the weekend that just ended, Nigerians were out there, celebrating the Yuletide. Every event centre was filled to capacity. It was difficult to find seats at restaurants. To worsen matters, even the Federal Government declared free train rides! What kind of government tells people to avoid crowded places and yet gives them free tickets to go about like smallpox?
I think Nigerians are tired. Their government is tired. COVID-19 has stretched us to the very limits. But unfortunately, we have not done enough. Morocco holds the best record in Africa in terms of vaccination. Out of a population of about 38 million, it has vaccinated over 23 million. Nigeria wants to vaccinate up to 55% of its eligible population by the first quarter of 2022 but there is no concrete evidence to show that the country has the capacity to do so. Already we have missed the 40% target set for the end of 2021, with only about 2% of the population fully vaccinated so far.
Our risk communication strategies are also weak and ineffective. The average Nigerian believes that COVID-19 is a “white man’s disease and burden” and that government officials are using it to steal public funds. When you try to argue with them, they would tell you pointedly that they know health officials, and fine-girl contractors, concubines of men in high places, who have built houses from COVID contracts. Enough said on that…Let us remember the dead. In 2021, many died, persons of influence whose lives enriched others: Cicely Tyson, Alhaji Lateef Jakande, Prince Tony Momoh, Pastor Temitope Joshua, Yinka Odumakin, Sadiq Daba, Sound Sultan, Rachel Oniga, Prince Phillip, Robert Dole, Colin Powell, DMX… May their souls rest in peace….
But I guess it would be fair to say that the year 2021 was not entirely gloomy. There were amazing individual stories. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala emerged as Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), a great achievement for Nigeria. Chimamanda Adichie, Burna Boy, Davido, Wizkid, Tems… continue to demonstrate the beauty of individual talent and the richness of Nigerian genius in the creative industry. Burna Boy won the Grammy award in the Best Global Music Album category…We can in fact, conveniently put together a list of 50 Happy Stories of 2021: in the United States, Kamala Harris made history early in the year as the first female, first black and first Asian-American Vice President in US history. The United Nations declared 2021, the “Year of International Peace and Trust”. I am not too sure about that, though. Where is peace in the world? In Afghanistan? Or Northern Nigeria? Where is trust? Emma Raducanu, 19, won the US Open, the first British woman to win a Grand Slams singles title since Virginia Wade in 1977. Max Verstappen of Red Bull, won the Formula One World Title 2021. Lewis Hamilton, seven-time world champion, the Mercedes superstar, was so unhappy, he unfollowed everybody on Instagram. He got Knighted though. Lionel Messi, 34, took the Ballon D’Or, a seventh record time! As the year draws to a close, Pfizer and Merck have come up with two antiviral, oral pills, Paxlovid and Molnupiravir respectively, that have raised hopes afresh about the treatment of COVID-19 and indications that science may well be ahead of the pandemic in the long run.
But Nigeria’s problems are bigger than the pandemic. The big problem we face as Nigerians is the uncertain note on which the year ends. The big question is: what will the year 2022 bring? I don’t know many Nigerians who can answer that question. We are ending a year, but we are going into the next one as a major guess work – a year of ifs. What if the COVID-19 pandemic gets worse and Nigeria is not prepared? What if inflation goes up, beyond current levels? What if the Buhari government decides to remove fuel subsidy and life just goes round the bend? I was asking someone the other day and I was told the cost of a cow is now about N270, 000! Cow. Common Maalu, that we used to buy for N80, 000, and we say we still have an economy? A bag of rice is now beyond reach. Tomatoes. Onions. Pepper. It is no wonder that people are easily irritated these days. The year ahead is also the year of politics. Both at the Federal and sub-national levels, our political leaders are most likely to be distracted. We don’t have an agreed electoral framework yet, and so the new year would begin with all of that unresolved matter of the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021. And who will be Nigeria’s next President? There is definitely no emerging consensus in that direction. Nigeria’s future, as the year 2021 ends, is clearly uncertain. The year 2022 remains at this moment, a great unknown.
Sonny Odogwu, Access Bank And N50 billion Debt
Many years ago, I sat in the office of a big man who shall remain nameless- and he expressed serious concerns about what would happen after his demise. He had not yet put a succession plan in place. He did not like the fact that his daughters seemed to be doing better than his sons, and how the daughters, smart as they were had ended up in the hands of husbands he thought were completely unserious and the threat that unserious sons-in-law can pose to a rich man’s estate. He was worried about the future. Big men; big problems, I thought. What happens after a man is dead and gone?
I remembered him last week as I read the story of the matter between Chief Sonny Odogwu’s survivors and Access Bank over a matter of a N26.22 billion loan which by the effect of a judgement debt secured by Access Bank against two of the late Chief Odogwu’s companies – Robert Dyson and Dicket Limited and SIO Property Limited, and the beneficiaries of his estate, had now been placed at over N50 billion. Access Bank, plaintiff in the case, claimed that it granted various credit facilities to the late Chief Odogwu’s companies for the construction of Luxury Hotels and Apartments. The Court found in favour of the plaintiff and granted an order that the collaterals, that is security, for the said loans/facilities should be sold. There were other specific orders. The defendants took the matter to the Court of Appeal. Access Bank wants to enforce the judgment of Court. On December 20, ThisDay newspaper reported: “Access Bank Moves to Claim Late Sonny Odogwu’s Properties Over N50bn debt.”
It was the N50 billion that caught my attention. I have always been suspicious of Nigeria’s big men. Many years ago, when the Assets Management Company of Nigeria (AMCON) published a list of Nigeria’s most notorious debtors, I was shocked to find that most of the people on the list are those persons Nigerians call big men and women: the same ones that reporters struggle to praise to high heavens, media houses celebrate them and innocent people like me refer to as innovators, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, Nigeria’s diamonds… we write glowing profiles about the icons, the movers and shakers, the shapers, the titans of industry…but what that list exposed was that there were actually very few authentic rich people around. I asked: how can you be so heavily indebted and claim to be a big man? How do you sleep at night? That AMCON list settled the matter for me. Nobody should be called a rich man except you know how much he is owing the banks! Too many people in Nigeria going about in flowing gowns, disturbing traffic and snatching people’s girlfriends, with borrowed money! I was educated however by some people around me: that it is okay to be a chronic debtor and be a big man. Something like: Nobody uses their own money to do business. To do business, you borrow money. Interest rates can go up. Investments can fail. It is not every businessman that takes a loan, and deliberately wastes it.
Chief Sonny Odogwu was a man of great enterprise, and talent who helped to create strong legacies in the insurance business in Nigeria, industrial relations, real estate and hospitality. He was also the publisher of the defunct Post newspaper. He was also a strong community leader. He created jobs, touched many lives and carried himself with untainted dignity till the end. What the Access Bank case shows is that he left unfinished business behind. And it doesn’t seem to be the kind of unfinished business that honours his legacy or memory. The Ide Ahaba Sonny Dike Odogwu, CFR, was a glorious son of Asaba, and one of the best ambassadors from that community. The beneficiaries of his estate owe him a duty to preserve his memory and honour. If there is money being owed, just obey the courts, and let the living learn to build their own legacies. There are strong lessons to be learnt from the Sonny Odogwu business case study about banking, relationships, and succession. Above all, Access Bank owes a duty to protect depositors’ money!