“It is nice that the President’s wife is talking. I think she did well, and maybe, she should also have pillow talk with the President”
—Former President Olusegun Obasanjo
Wife of the President, Aisha Buhari, has shown a lot of courage in speaking truth to power. Herself being part of that power unit, she could be compared to a person who looks at oneself in a mirror once in a while as part of ingrained self-examination, in order to remain on the righteous path.
Although it has been a while now since she became known for saying it the way it is to a government which her husband oversees and leads, I only took particular interest in her truth-saying campaign a fortnight ago during one of the pre-inauguration events at the State House where she criticised the Federal Government’s “purchase of mosquito nets”. As an environmentalist, I know what is at stake.
Malaria is a major public health problem particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where it has major economic and health consequences. For instance, in 2015, there were 214 million cases of malaria worldwide, including 438,000 fatal ones; 90% of these cases occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, including more than 35% in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo alone. In Nigeria, it is endemic with more than 90% of our population at risk. Interestingly, the most recognised and cost-effective preventive methods against the disease are environmental related.
At the event, described as an Interactive Meeting with Women, the First Lady in clear terms, expressed reservations on the $16m counterpart fund expended by the Federal Government on the purchase of Insecticide Treated Mosquito nets for Nigeria’s anti-malarial scheme.
In her words, “I have heard about mosquito nets, Nigeria paid its counterpart fund, $16m. I asked them to give my own share of the net to send it to my village people. I didn’t get it.
“They have spent $16m on buying mosquito nets, I did not get it, maybe, some people have got it. But I feel that that’s my personal opinion, $16m is enough to fumigate mosquitoes in Nigeria. That’s my opinion.”
First of all, we must clearly recognise that there are two aspects to Aisha’s comment – which, by the way, carries so much weight in spite of her insinuating otherwise with her “that’s my opinion” anchor. The first side is the obvious meaning: the government is corrupt and wasteful. It spent a whopping $16m, as counterpart fund, in importing mosquito nets; and nobody has seen the nets!
The other part of the comment carries the hidden meaning, and it is as sad as it is ironical. The message is that eco-related matters are so vague and perceptively unimportant that the government uses it as an excuse to siphon the people’s commonwealth, right under their very nose. From mosquito nets to fumigation gear, every government in power finds an environmental excuse for corruption; the same way the ecological fund has become another term for official slush fund.
Seen in this light, people from my side of the world are as consoled by the fact that a sitting First Lady is waxing eco-friendly, as a slave on board a sinking slave ship is comforted by the captain shouting his navigation coordinates to a rescue frigate in the hearing of a pirate Armada. Give or take, the information becomes a tool for further oppression.
In a country where government officials are on the lookout for ideas to pad budget heads without arousing the curiosity of auditors, ‘fumigation’ could be used to replace ‘mosquito nets’ as another item for stealing public money. Let us not forget that some state governors come up with brilliant ideas on ecological vulnerabilities just to lay their hands on the so-called Ecological Fund. In fact, they sing and dance when Mother Nature happens to send a genuine ecological hazard!
Yet, it is a sad commentary on our governance consciousness and evolution that a project as rudimentary as distribution of Insecticide Mosquito nets project has zero impact on the nation’s social development landscape. Even more damning is the reality that this present government rode to the saddle of state power on the mantra of change. If a people-oriented programme as small as anti-malaria drive cannot be felt, then it should hide its head in shame.
The true change would have been in navigating the country away from the practice past governments used to rob us blind under the ‘ecological’ nomenclature. Then, the next level would have followed with instituting the relevant structures and upgrading the human capital to ensure the new trajectory is sustained.
That, I believe, is the spirit driving Buhari’s wife. For, no enlightened citizen would miss connecting the dots between today’s widespread corruption and the charade sold Nigerians as social solutions. Surely, the monies wasted in importing mosquito nets could have been used to fumigate the enclaves of the country with more visible impact. After all, the nets are not available for the people to use even when they have already being purchased by the government.
It is almost like a déjà vu; about 10 years ago, the Cuban government donated compact fluorescent lamps to Nigeria as counterpart funding for a national energy efficiency project, but the products were not seen. The project subsequently dissipated without achieving the required goals.
In a UNDP-sponsored pilot project, co-funded by the Cuban Government which supplied 1 million CFLs (worth $819,000, with Nigeria counter-funding of about $1.5million) for installation at various selected residential, commercial and public sites to demonstrate the benefits of using CFLs over old incandescent bulbs, the project was designed as among the lowest low hanging fruits in fighting climate change. It aimed to accelerate national initiatives to replace old bulbs with EE CFLs by overcoming market barriers in Nigeria and by setting international energy and performance standards in order to build consumer confidence. But, no one saw the impact, as the products were not on the ground.
What is more. Was it not President Muhammadu Buhari who asked former governments the controversial question: “Where is the $16bn budgeted for the power sector since 1999?” Now that his wife said she cannot see any IT-nets, let him speak again, and ask his own men, “Where is the $16m for mosquito nets?”
Of course, past Nigerian governments have also squandered golden opportunities to take Nigeria to the next level, ecologically speaking, but if the present administration wants to really take the country to the next level, it has to chart a new course and not toe the path of past eco-corruption. And in cases where past projects could be dusted up and reviewed, it must do so. This is because, whether we like it or not, Buhari’s wife is the mother of the nation. Now that Mother Earth is speaking to us through her, the government and the people of Nigeria have no choice but to listen.