Carrington’s thought-provoking convocation lecture

This year, the 29th convocation ceremonies of the University of Ilorin attracted a colossus in person of the former Ambassador of the United States to Nigeria, Mr. Walter C. Carrington, as convocation lecturer. Widely known and admired in Nigeria for his roles during the heady days of General Sani Abacha’s military dictatorship and the post-June 12, 2003 debacle generally, many people from far and near looked forward to listening to the lecture of the scholar-diplomat-activist, endearingly called “Omowale” (child returns home) in some circles in Nigeria.

Mounting the podium on October 21, 2013, Mr. Carrington told us the home truth in his well-received lecture, “On the Dawn of Nigeria’s Second Century: Challenges to a New Generation”, and proffered solutions to some of the current challenges facing the nation. It was especially refreshing to this writer that unlike some foreign analysts whose crystal balls could only see an apocalyptic future of another war or break-up, Mr. Carrington is optimistic that Nigeria will survive and overcome her current challenges.

Facing the gorgeous graduands, the former Executive President of the African-American Institute gave a message of hope: “I speak to you young people as an octogenarian optimistic enough to believe that I will still be around to see Nigeria become the fulfillment of Delany’s dream of a great African state to whom the world must pay tribute”. As a matter of fact, Mr. Carrington averred that Nigeria, with diversified economy, among other things, can meet her ambitious goal of being “one of the world’s twenty most important economies.”

To get our bearing right and get to where we desire, our in-law (being married to one of our sisters from Edo State, Dr. Arese Carrington, about whom he spoke glowingly) emphasised the imperative of curing the pervasive “Dutch disease”, a condition “whereby other sectors of the economy such as agriculture and manufacturing are relatively ignored,” as a result of fixation on oil.

“At Independence in 1960, Nigeria’s annual agricultural crop yields were higher than those of Indonesia and Malaysia. Today, they have dwindled to half as much. The fact that Nigeria’s current yield per hectare is less than 50 percent of that of comparable developing countries dramatically demonstrates how much Nigeria has abandoned its once promising agricultural sector….Diversification is urgently needed to make the country less vulnerable to downswings in petroleum prizes. Even when the oil prices were historically high the national employment rate, instead of falling, rose from 21 percent in 2010 to 24 percent in 2011,” Mr. Carrington said, describing the situation of things we experience as a “cruel irony”.

Apart from diversifying the economy, another recipe for national renaissance from the diplomat’s perspective is the need to arrest the scourge of poverty and unemployment. On poverty, he enjoins us to ponder on what he called our perplexing paradox: “Africa is the world’s richest continent in terms of natural resources and yet by all measurements developed by the United Nations, its people are the poorest. In terms of education, health and most standards of living they lag behind the rest of mankind. Why, oh why, should this be so?” he lamented, giving us the grim statistics of our situation.

“The latest Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Program better known as the UNDP was released in March this year and lists the world’s 46 lowest ranked countries. 37 of them are in sub Saharan Africa. All of the bottom 26 are African with the single exception of Afghanistan. All rate lower than Haiti. Out of 187 countries surveyed, oil producing Nigeria is 153, the lowest, by far, of any non-African member of OPEC. Indeed, with the exception of Angola (which ranks 5 places higher than Nigeria) all other members, including war ravished Iraq (107), are included in the rank of the well developed. Your neighbor, Niger, has the dubious distinction of coming in last,” he said.

On unemployment, while lauding the rich human capital resource base of Nigeria that is unmatched in Africa, the Associate of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute, Harvard University, regretted that “over twenty million young people between the ages of 15 and 35 are unemployed,” a situation that makes many Nigerians flee abroad where he admitted they are excelling. “I have said many times to American audiences that I regard Nigerians as the most accomplished immigrant group in the United States. What made Nigeria the country that I looked up to for so long was the fact that it produced some of the most educated, most talented black people to be found anywhere on earth.”

However, despite the achievements of Nigerians at individual levels, the bane of the nation lies in “the omni presence of corruption and the growing absence of insecurity”, two impediments Mr. Carrington said Nigerians in the diasporas cite for their refusal to return home. He therefore charged Nigeria to find a cure to the “corrosive cancer of corruption” in her body politic just as he commended and congratulated the Vice-Chancellor of his host University, Prof. AbdulGnaiyu Ambali, on the Anti-Corruption and Transparency Monitoring Unit of the University, which two months earlier presented a booklet. He disclosed that the Vice-Chancellor’s address is one of the best he had read while he recommended the motto of the University, “probitas doctrina” or character and learning, saying it is befitting for the whole nation to adopt.

Mr. Carrington condemned the “ancient patriarchal customs” in Africa by which women who constitute 70 percent of economic activity own “a paltry two percent of the land and are woefully under-employed in the formal work force”. He lauded the current Administration of President Goodluck Jonathan for having done better than his predecessors in empowering women in the top ranks of his government and urged Nigeria to improve on the current 33 per cent of women employed in the formal sector. He also added that Nigeria must to impact more strongly on the African economic scene. “Africa’s success is crucial to Nigeria’s own. Even if it accomplishes all of its 2020 goals by 2050 it will still be difficult to long prosper as an oasis in a desert of impoverished countries.

As Nigeria approaches her second century, the advice of the former ambassador, for those who have ears among our leaders, is that we diversify our economy, refine and process our natural resources at home, solve the “persistent problems of electric power and infrastructure” and eliminate the scourge of poverty. “One of the most important challenges your generation faces is to find ways to address continuing inequality so that all Nigerians are able to benefit from economic growth,” he stressed.

As the lecturer seemed to have said all that is needed to actually transform our nation beyond the realm of empty sloganeering, we can only ignore the caring Carrington’s lecture to our own peril. It is worth reading, digesting and implementing.