Pendulum: Tony Elumelu, the President Africa Needs Desperately

By Dele Momodu
Fellow Africans, I have chosen to address many of you gathered in Abuja today, at the instance and invitation of the Tony Elumelu Foundation. My sincere welcome and gratitude goes especially to the several African Presidents who have chosen to identify with the young entrepreneurs who are the future of our continent. By coming to support the enigmatic founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, you have all made a most powerful move towards empowering many of our brightest souls who wish to make meaningful impact in their societies but are incapacitated by lack of funding and a myriad of other challenges. Your support is as much an inspiration for them as the endowment, assistance and mentorship they receive from Tony Elumelu and his foundation.
Let me confess that I had always been of the firm belief and conviction that governments alone cannot solve the problems of Africa. The infrastructure deficits alone are so daunting that it is virtually impossible to have enough resources to tackle the suffocating burden of unemployment all over Africa. Indeed, there is nowhere in the world, other than the wealthy communist and socialist countries, that the largest number of the employed legion actually work for government and its agencies. However, we find that in Africa we almost expect this to be the case despite the paucity and impoverishment of most of our governments. Not just that, African governments are generally not equipped to create and distribute wealth. Where they possess the wherewithal, issues of corruption make it difficult to empower majority of those who need jobs desperately. There are other major afflictions militating against our young ones. The quality of education has dropped dangerously in many of our countries. Therefore, even if the jobs are available, many of our graduates are not employable. Those who have studied hard in our higher institutions opted for wrong subjects that may not readily offer them opportunities. They have not marched with the times and still study subjects suited for the 20th century when the rest of the world is already looking towards the 22nd century. The technologies of the 20th century have become poor and distant relations of that which is necessary to survive and excel in the 21st century, but we remain firmly rooted to those, archaic systems and technologies. Furthermore, even our artisans, who do not need university training but learn on the job as apprentices and interns are usually poorly trained and miserably equipped, because those they learn from are themselves poorly trained and ill-equipped.
African leaders need a quick rethink about the way forward for African youths. Tony Elumelu has offered the veritable template for them to follow. Just a few years ago, he established one of the most ambitious charities in the world by pledging the sum of $100m spread over 10 years to offer $10m per annum towards empowering 1,000 entrepreneurs. Tony was not seeking to be a Santa Claus, but a Good Samaritan with a conscience who thought and knew that the spread of poverty would always constitute a major threat to all. He has made good his promise by continuing his annual pledge.  We are witnessing today the launching into orbit of another group of direct beneficiaries of the Foundation and look forward to seeing the thousands more indirect beneficiaries of this worthy and noble cause. The seeds planted by Tony are already bearing fruits, not just for the entrepreneurs he has mercifully empowered but also his own foundation, with several international donors, including UNDP, the Red Cross, AfDP, Benin Republic and others queuing up to partner with one of the most reputable charities in Africa. Tony has even reached out to Washington and he is hopeful for a partnership with the White House in his bid to change the narrative about how to rescue Africa from the vestiges of poverty, wars and diseases. The best approach is to turn our huge and fast growing populations into successful entrepreneurs.

Dele Momodu with Tony Elumelu
Poverty alleviation is a necessity in Africa today if we truly want to live in peace and prosperity. Those of us who can, must strive to emulate the Tony Elumelu Foundation and create many more entrepreneurs who will themselves become mass employers of labour. For Africa to become great we must get our youths gainfully employed in 21stcentury activities and projects.
I felt that I should share this thought-provoking piece on Nigeria written by someone who has had the opportunity to serve in our country and thus observed us from near and afar! Princeton N. Lyman, the former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa, delivered a superlative speech on the panel titled “The Nigerian State and U.S. Strategic Interests” at the Achebe Colloquium at Brown University, USA.
Thank you very much Prof. Keller and thanks to the organizers of this conference. It is such a privilege to be here in a conference in honor of Prof. Achebe, an inspiration and teacher to all of us.
I have a long connection to Nigeria. Not only was I Ambassador there, I have travelled to and from Nigeria for a number of years and have a deep and abiding vital emotional attachment to the Nigerian people, their magnificence, their courage, artistic brilliance, their irony, sense of humor in the face of challenges etc.
And I hope that we keep that in mind when I say some things that I think are counter to what we normally say about Nigeria. And I say that with all due respect to Eric Silla who is doing a magnificent work at State Department and to our good friend from the legislature, because I have a feeling that we both Nigerians and Americans may be doing Nigeria and Nigerians no favor by stressing Nigeria’s strategic importance.
I know all the arguments: it is a major oil producer, it is the most populous country in Africa, it has made major contributions to Africa in peacekeeping, and of course negatively if Nigeria were to fall apart the ripple effects would be tremendous, etc. But I wonder if all this emphasis on Nigeria’s importance creates a tendency of inflate Nigeria’s opinion of its own invulnerability.
Among much of the elite today, I have the feeling that there is a belief that Nigeria is too big to fail, too important to be ignored, and that Nigerians can go on ignoring some of the most fundamental challenges they have many of which we have talked about: disgraceful lack of infrastructure, the growing problems of unemployment, the failure to deal with the underlying problems in the Niger-Delta, the failure to consolidate democracy and somehow feel will remain important to everybody because of all those reasons that are strategically important.
And I am not sure that that is helpful. Let me sort of deconstruct those elements of Nigeria’s importance, and ask whether they are as relevant as they have been.
We often hear that one in five Africans is a Nigerian. What does it mean? Do we ever say one in five Asians is a Chinese? Chinese power comes not just from the fact that it has a lot of people, but it has harnessed the entrepreneurial talent and economic capacity and all the other talents of China to make her a major economic force and political force.
What does it mean that one in five Africans is Nigeria? It does not mean anything to a Namibian or a South African. It is a kind of conceit. What makes it important is what is happening to the people of Nigerian. Are their talents being tapped? Are they becoming an economic force? Is all that potential being used? And the answer is “Not really.”
And oil, yes, Nigeria is a major oil producer, but Brazil is now launching a 10-year program that is going to make it one of the major oil producers in the world. And every other country in Africa is now beginning to produce oil. And Angola is rivalling Nigeria in oil production, and the United States has just discovered a huge gas reserve which is going to replace some of our dependence on imported energy.
So, if you look ahead ten years, is Nigeria really going to be that relevant as a major oil producer, or just another of another of the many oil producers while the world moves on to alternative sources of energy and other sources of supply.
And what about its influence, its contributions to the continent? As our representative from the parliament talked about, there is a great history of those contributions. But that is history.
Is Nigeria really playing a major role today in the crisis in Niger on its border, or in Guinea, or in Darfur, or after many many promises making any contributions to Somalia? The answer is no, Nigeria is today NOT making a major impact, on its region, or on the African Union or on the big problems of Africa that it was making before.
What about its economic influence? Well, as we have talked about earlier, there is a de industrialization going on in Nigeria a lack of infrastructure, a lack of power means that with imported goods under globalization, Nigerian factories are closing, more and more people are becoming unemployed. and Nigeria is becoming a kind of society that imports and exports and lives off the oil, which does not make it a significant economic entity.
Now, of course, on the negative side, the collapse of Nigeria would be enormous, but is that a point to make Nigeria strategically important? Years ago, I worked for an Assistant Secretary of State who had the longest tenure in that job in the 1980s and I remember in one meeting a minister from a country not very friendly to the United States came in and was berating the Assistant Secretary on all the evils of the United States and all its dire plots and in things in Africa and was going on and on and finally the Assistant Secretary cut him off and said: “You know, the biggest danger for your relationship with the United States is not our opposition but that we will find you irrelevant.”
The point is that Nigeria can become much less relevant to the United States. We have already seen evidence of it. When President Obama went to Ghana and not to Nigeria, he was sending a message, that Ghana symbolized more of the significant trends, issues and importance that one wants to put on Africa than Nigeria.
And when I was asked by journalists why President Obama did not go to Nigeria, I said “what would he gain from going? Would Nigeria be a good model for democracy, would it be a model for good governance, would he obtain new commitments on Darfur or Somalia or strengthen the African Union or in Niger or elsewhere?” No, he would not, so he did not go.
And when Secretary Clinton did go, indeed but she also went to Angola and who would have thought years ago that Angola would be the most stable country in the Gulf of Guinea and establish a binational commission in Angola. So, the handwriting may already be on the wall, and that is a sad commentary. Because what it means is that Nigeria’s most important strategic importance in the end could be that it has failed. And that is a sad sad conclusion. It does not have to happen, but I think that we ought to stop talking about what a great country it is, and how terribly important it is to us and talk about what it would take for Nigeria to be that important and great.
And that takes an enormous amount of commitment. And you don’t need saints, you don’t need leaders like Nelson Mandela in every state, because you are not going to get them.
I served in South Korea in the middle of the 1960s and it was a time when South Korea was poor and considered hopeless, but it was becoming to turn around, later to become to every person’s amazement then the eleventh largest economy in the world. And I remember the economist in my mission saying, you know it did not bother him that the leading elites in the government of South Korea were taking 15 – 20 percent off the top of every project, as long as every project was a good one, and that was the difference. The leadership at the time was determined to solve the fundamental economic issues of South Korea economy and turn its economy around.
It has not happened in Nigeria today.  You don’t need saints. It needs leaders who say, “You know we could be becoming irrelevant, and we got to do something about it.”
Thank you!
POSTSCRIPT: The conclusion of Ambassador Princeton N. Lyman’s speech has always been my opinion and position. Nations are never governed by saints, but by performers who may be crooked but are straightened out by strong institutions. We Nigerians, unfortunately, continue to delude ourselves that there are Angels and Messiahs who will help turn everyone into good guys while ignoring and neglecting the priorities of good governance like solid infrastructure, education, healthcare, rule of law, employment and so on. No individual or nation is built solely on the goodness or saintliness of the person or its citizens. Nations are built on competence, diligence, innovation, passion and vision. As long as we ignore these vital attributes and focus on irrelevances and frivolities we cannot progress to any level. If we continue with this mindset that has become almost all pervading in our polity, monumental tragedy is beckoning, sadly…

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