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Friday, 9 August 2013

Time For Nigeria's ''Big Men'' to Give back to Society

By Zainab Usman

Nigeria's former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, recently announced that he is offering one undergraduate/postgraduate scholarship to young Nigerians, to cover study within Nigeria or in a foreign institution. The details of the scheme titled “Education Solutions” are available on his website here.

The scholarship scheme has been attracting mixed reactions on social media so far– applause and condemnation in almost equal proportion. Personally, I am very ambivalent about it. While I will not condemn it, I certainly think more can be done to improve education as a whole in Nigeria, through teacher trainings and workshops, provision of books and study materials, advocacy campaigns and so on, rather than giving out one scholarship. To be fair to the former vice president though, he has emphasised that it is a nascent, pilot scheme, and he does own one of the most reputable private universities in the country, the American University of Nigeria.

Ultimately, there is no harm in our former public officials giving back to society. Giving out scholarships through a competitive process that selects the best and the brightest and changes someone’s life positively certainly beats sitting idly about, making self-serving, inflammatory and polarising press statements threatening that “Power Must Return to the North or Else…” or “Power Must Remain in the South or Else…” whilst sitting on a huge mound of fortune that is either frittered away in obscene and vainglorious consumption, or that lies dormant in Swiss Banks, South African hotels, Malibu mansions and Emirati apartment blocks. Call it the lesser of two evils if you must.

Now imagine if more of Nigeria’s “big men” were to invest in education, advocacy, and productive enterprises at home. We probably wouldn’t be begging the Americans, Europeans and lately the Chinese to do OUR work for us: to come establish labour-intensive manufacturing firms on our shores. If only 10% of Nigeria’s $170 billion stashed in foreign accounts (these are 2003 figures, the current figures must be several multiples of this amount) were to be re-invested back home, the tremendous impact it would have on our economy is best left to the imagination.

I have argued severally that a lot of our former public officials need to make themselves useful. It has been 14 years since the transition to democracy. These 14 years have created many former governors, former ministers, former senators, former ambassadors and others who have held influential positions (I haven’t even included the titans of the military era). These are individuals with the resources and the clout to make a direct positive impact on their communities in numerous ways. A few of them have proceeded to establish consultancies, NGOs, think tanks or are still engaged in politics or policy. Some have chosen to retire in peace. Many others have temporarily skulked back into the depths of obscurity, resurfacing occasionally to rally young Nigerians to their ethno-centric, bigoted and self-serving causes.

There are so many productive ways to get involved.

One way is advocacy and enlightenment campaigns on leadership and good governance to ensure people at the grassroots stop selling their votes to the highest bidder.

Another is advocacy and enlightenment campaigns to ensure young women are enrolled and allowed to complete at the barest minimum secondary school education especially in the North East and North West.

A third could be the establishment of profit-making enterprises (if they can’t find competent local managers, they can hire qualified expatriates – there are many!) which will create value and jobs in their communities and make more money for them.

A fourth could be teaching and lecturing in many of our tertiary institutions that are wallowing in the dearth of expertise and learning equipment. Writing opinion pieces on the pages of newspapers is just not enough. Young Nigerians in tertiary institutions will benefit tremendously from the wealth of their experience in public service.

The list is endless. Most of them are influential. Many of them have the resources. Many of them can make a difference.

It is really tempting to dismiss Atiku Abubakar’s scholarship scheme or to question his motive. Indeed, one might even wonder whether the scheme will last beyond the 2014 elections primaries. Nevertheless, society will definitely benefit from more of the well-to-do giving back in useful ways that will make a real difference to people’s lives.


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