Independence day and ponmo controversy, By Reuben Abati

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Reuben Abati

It is a sobering indication of the state of the nation, that as Nigeria prepares to mark the 62nd anniversary of its flag independence on October 1, the dominant discourse in the land among young Nigerians, apart from politics, and the continued closure of universities centres around such annoying subjects as something called the Big Brother Naija reality show and its annual elevation of unseriousness into a creative endeavour, and the unarguably silly controversy over whether a major priority for the Nigerian government should be the need to ban the consumption of cow skin, better known locally among Nigerians as ponmo, kpomo or kanda. Arguments for and against the latter have consumed so much attention and energy in the last week in such an insufferable manner that recommends the whole exercise as a metaphor for the Nigerian condition.

But let us begin with Nigeria’s 62nd anniversary. It would be correct to say that we have never had it so bad. The independence anniversaries of 2020 and 2021 were observed against the background of the COVID pandemic and the international public health crisis which redefined our lives as citizens and as human beings. But there was hope that like all afflictions before it, since the pestilence of Biblical times, COVID-19 would one day be conquered and the world will regain its verve. It has not now disappeared completely, but indeed the world is alive again. As Nigeria celebrates its 62ndIndependence anniversary, we can joyfully look back on how our people survived the scourge, and can now openly sit together on Independence Day to reflect on the nation’s journey over the decades.

What we should be celebrating this year is the resilience of the Nigerian people in the face of afflictions – social, economic, governance and psychological. It is therefore appropriate that the Federal Government has chosen to hold a public lecture on the theme of “National Unity” on September 29. The hero of the story of Nigeria is truly none other than the common man and woman: the ordinary Nigerians who, since independence have been disappointed every step of the way by their own leaders. In 1960, as the British Union Jack was lowered, and the Nigerian green-white-green flag was hoisted to herald the birth of a new nation, Nigerians danced. School children marched to the sound of melodies of hope. The march was abbreviated, the dancing stopped; the walls cracked barely six years later.

A civil war occurred and for decades, military-controlled Nigeria, running a command-and-obey structure that further divided the country along the lines of ethnicity, geography and religion. Every measure that has been taken to reunite the country by the military and even their civilian successors has refused to work. Once upon a time, Nigeria was Africa’s richest and most beloved country, it soon became a shadow of its old self. In 2022, 62 years after independence, we seem sadly to have lost so much.

We once lived in a country where teachers, scholars, and students came from everywhere to study and work here. In my days as a young student, we had teachers from the UK, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, the United States, the West Indies and elsewhere who were happy to pursue their dreams in Nigeria. The country’s universities were among the best in Africa and the Commonwealth. The then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University – OAU) was rated as the most beautiful campus in Africa! The same university, along with the University of Ibadan, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and the University of Lagos (UNILAG) boasted of some of the best brains in their respective fields. Ibadan had one of the best science and research laboratories in Africa.

The university zoo was a tourist attraction. The country’s university teaching hospitals were so good, so well-equipped that patients came from as far away as Saudi Arabia to receive treatment at the University College, Hospital, (UCH), Ibadan. Today, all that is lost. Our hospitals, from primary health care centres to tertiary hospitals have become mere consulting clinics. All the animals in the Ibadan Zoo have either died or have been used to prepare pepper soup. University teachers have been on strike since February 14. In the last three years alone, Nigerian university students have spent more time at home than in school.

In the 70s and 80s, even the country’s secondary schools were rated among the best in Africa. Today, they have become the target of kidnappers, bandits, and rapists. When many old students visit their schools these days, they are shocked that a once beautiful citadel could become so terrible. A senior friend who visited my alma mater about a fortnight ago, called me frantically to tell me that he felt like weeping because he knew what the school looked like in those days. An old classmate of mine who was with him, and who has lived in the US since we left school told me not to worry. He said there was nothing anybody could do.

“This is not the school you and I attended, my brother”, he added. “Where is the government? If Nigerian leaders are not mad, sick and wicked, they would never allow this kind of thing to happen. Even if old students contribute money and re-build the school, who will sustain it? What do Nigerian leaders do with the education budget? In the States…” My old colleague has lived so long in the US, he obviously thinks the same standards can apply here. In those days, our teachers were proud of their chosen career. They were glad to help nurture the future generation. These days, teachers are so unhappy with their lot – no salaries, no promotion, no enabling work environment – they are not in any position to produce happy and capable students.

The oil boom of the 70s turned the fortunes of Nigeria around. The country became so rich, a former military ruler once boasted that the country did not know what to do with money. The emergent nouveaux riche became so wealthy, they left for Europe every Friday, after close of work, enjoyed their weekend in the most exotic haunts of London and Paris, and took the plane back just in time to be at work in Nigeria on Monday. There was Nigeria Airways: having some of the best-trained pilots in the world. Return ticket to Europe was affordable. Today, Nigeria has no national airline. Its aviation industry is almost dead. Only the rich can still afford to travel abroad, but not with that old frequency of weekly indulgence. Oil boom brought a culture of indolence and doom. The world is witnessing yet another oil boom today, as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war, but Nigeria is not benefitting from that. Its refineries are not working. Major oil companies cannot function because of crude oil theft and insecurity. The country cannot even meet its OPEC production quota. The country is heavily indebted. Its debt burden is more than the budgets of all the 36 states of the country in one year. Next year, the country may not even be able to fund any capital project!

For those who like to quote data, the statistics on the state of the nation are frightening: inflation: 20.52%, food inflation: 23.12%, unemployment: 33%, measured in the reality of staggering poverty and exponential rise in crime. From being a country of giants, Nigeria has become a country of desperate men and women, in whose hearts the fires of hope die-aborning. This is why there is a more strident call for change now more than ever. There are those Nigerians who continue to blame the colonial masters for all of Nigeria’s woes, and such persons recently used the occasion of the death of Queen Elizabeth II to voice out their grievances. Their argument is that the British left bad leaders behind and structured the newly independent Nigeria to fail, after looting our treasures.

The proponents of this argument ignore the fact that the British were colonial overlords in other countries too, where things work and progress has been made, and that the errors of our journey can be traced largely to the post-colonial leaders who simply replaced British colonialism with indigenous colonialism and fascism. It is therefore noteworthy that as Nigeria marks its 62nd anniversary, many young Nigerians are insisting that the country’s general elections in 2023 must provide a great opportunity for Nigerians to elect a new set of leaders who can make a difference, and stop the cycle of failure that seems to have become our lot. They want the glory of Nigeria restored. They are on the streets marching. They are in places of religious worship calling on God to come and help Nigeria as the people of Macedonia once cried out. They ask: why are we so blest, and yet so cursed? From whence will the messiah come?

Many people have had to leave the country to seek hope in other lands. I was at the airport a few days ago – quite unusually crowded – given the high cost of tickets. When I pointed this out to someone at the counter, I was told that most of the people boarding the aircraft to foreign destinations have no plans to return. The true heroes are the Nigerians who have refused to give up on this country and who still believe that Nigeria will be great again.

President Muhammadu Buhari will, of course, customarily use his Independence Day broadcast to reassure Nigerians at home and abroad that all is not lost. He will try to inspire the nation. He will tell us that his administration has laid a better foundation on all fronts and remains determined to deliver transparent and credible elections in 2023. He would most likely heap the blame for every problem on saboteurs and enemies of the people, who will be brought to justice before February 2023. He would also reassure us that the work ahead is a collective responsibility. It would not matter whether his listeners believe him or not. No President would use the occasion of the country’s National Day to accept blame for any omissions. For President Buhari, it would be his last Independence Day Broadcast as President. Expect some self-praise.

As part of the farewell, the organizers of the 62nd Independence Anniversary have also announced that there would be a National Honours ceremony. This should not become a jamboree or chieftaincy title ceremony whereby every senior government official who has served in the last eight years, as well as traditional rulers, party chieftains and wives and girlfriends of privileged persons, are the ones on the Honours list. There would be Ministers, Governors and political appointees all waiting to be decorated with medals for work not done. This year’s Honours List must convey a message of seriousness. Nigeria’s 62nd Independence Anniversary must not become another Big Brother Naija show! It must not come across like that distraction that I cited as the “ponmo controversy” – a classic case of blaming the victim and missing the point.

For the benefit of those who may not have followed the story, the ponmo controversy was triggered about a week ago when Muhammadu Yakubu, the Director General of the Nigerian Institute of Leather and Science Technology (NILEST) reportedly said his agency was going to propose to the National Assembly, a bill to ban the consumption of cow skin, because its heavy consumption is precisely the cause of the downslide in Nigeria’s leather industry. Cowhides that should be used by tanneries to produce leather, footwear, bags have been diverted into the food chain and turned into a special delicacy. Yakubu added that “ponmo” has no nutritional value. Nothing represents the lack of seriousness at the highest levels in Nigeria’s governance and democracy than this. Not many have heard of NILET or its DG, and then the first time, anything would be heard, the DG puts his foot in his mouth. His declaration is not based on any data. What is the amount of cow hide that has been smuggled into the food chain to threaten the leather industry? And who told him kpomo has no nutritional value? And why of all things, a government agency is talking about ponmo in this country today?

Mr. Yakubu should be reminded that ponmo, a regular sight at parties, usually marinated in well-curried pepper, is a gourmet’s delight particularly when the ponmo and the pepper touch the palate, the softer the ponmo the better, and best when supported with a cold glass of wine, or beer to wash it down the gut. It is a low fat, low-calorie food recommended for persons who want to lose weight. Dietitians tell us that “a 100 kg of boiled, thick cow skin contains essential amino acids, micronutrients and collagen – 224.65k calories of energy, 680g of carbohydrate, about 43.9g of water, 46.9 g of protein, 1.09 g of fat, 0.02 g of fibre, iron – 4.3 mg, magnesium -12 mg, zinc- 6.79 mg and calcium -6.1 mg.”  Food inflation has taken ordinary sources of meat beyond the reach of the ordinary Nigerian: fish, meat and other sources of protein have become so expensive. Ponmo is not so cheap either, but it is the only kind of meat that is still within the reach of the common man, their only hope of chewing something during a meal. Yakubu, DG NILET says there should be legislation to ban its consumption and further punish the poor and rob people of jobs. Yakubu is not recommending bills to initiate policies that will make foreign exchange available for the tanneries, access to necessary raw materials, development of the livestock sector to increase the supply of cow hide, training and research in the industry… no, he is blaming the victims.

He forgets that this country once had a thriving leather industry: Bata, Lennards, and flourishing tanneries in Kano, Kaduna…but even that failed because of this obsession with unserious matters by Nigerian leaders. The leather industry will not be revived by banning the consumption of kpomo. Wale Ojo-Lanre has dismissed Yakubu’s suggestion as a case of “shallow thinking, empty and gross laziness”. I agree. It is in addition, provocative. It could trigger a spontaneous million-man march in every state of the Federation, and evoke such anger similar to that of an old attempt to ban the sale and consumption of stockfish in Nigeria.

Nigerians deserve better leadership in 2023, a new cadre of governors at all levels who will focus on what is right, and learn to think straight.

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