Rephrasing Our Development Debate (1)

By Mfon Offiong

Our development discourse to me is bereft of certain ingredients that I consider to be fundamental to progress. If I may ask, have we as a nation made any critical attempt to define what we mean by development? Are we talking about the development of the human person or physical infrastructures or both? What really constitute development? I turned to my dictionary for an answer. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English for Advanced Learners, New Edition, has seven meanings for it namely: 1. Growth; 2. economic activity; 3. event; 4. new plan/product; 5. improvement; 6. building process; 7. housing/offices. From the above meanings, I think the first, second and sixth fit into this discourse. The first, growth, is defined as ‘the process of becoming better, stronger and more advanced’. The second one, economic activity, is ‘the process of increasing business, trade and industrial activity’ while the sixth, building process, is described as ‘the process of planning and building new houses, streets etc. on land’.

When we use the word development here in Nigeria, what do we really mean? Do we mean the first definition, the second or the sixth? It is a given that we often imply the second and the sixth because what we regularly hear about development in Nigeria is: The building or reconstruction of schools, hospitals and roads etc.; the effort by government to ensure that sectors such as power, transport, energy, telecoms, broadcasting etc. are working efficiently either through direct intervention as an industry player or regulation of private sector operators.

The question on my mind is basically about the first meaning of development which is growth – the human aspect of it. Has the Nigerian person as a human being become better, stronger and more advanced over the years? Why doesn’t this aspect feature prominently in our vocabulary or lexicon of development? That is, the pursuits of making the Nigerian person become better, stronger and more advanced morally, intellectually and socially.

A friend once engaged me to manage an infrastructure project for his firm in the Nupe speaking part of Niger state in 2013. As a self-styled social scientist with journalistic instinct, in spite of the tales of insecurity in the Northern part of the country, I did not decline because it will afford me the occasion to know the people better. I stayed in the community for seven unbroken weeks. I realized from my interaction with them that it was customary to marry up to four wives according to the tenets of their religion (however, it must be noted that the religion did not give a blatant cover to everybody to go on ahead and marry as many as four wives: I’m informed that there is a proviso that anyone who want to embark on such, must be economically buoyant to maintain the women and should treat them equally).

Most of them ignore this admonition. As a result, it is typical to see a young man in his early 30s with no stable source of living wage married to two women with as many as eight children. Infact, there seem to be a competition among men as to the number of women they will marry and the number of children they’ll sire. One man I spoke with gleefully said he will like to have up to 50 children. He was not alone.

A driver taking us (I and a friend) from Lapai to Suleja also expressed the same desire. He was quite honest and we got a lot of information from him. According to him, he has two wives and is planning to marry another one soon. He confided in us that he had divorced his first wife for insubordination which would have made his current wives three. We asked him why he wants to marry another wife. His reply was that he can’t sleep with any of his wives when they put to bed until after two years. This is because according to him, if he sleeps with them while they are still breastfeeding, the child will get sick and probably die. He added that the women will not even allow him to touch them (I verified these assertions to be true from a reliable and independent source within that culture and in that location). He therefore wants to marry because his first wife is nursing a baby while the second one is pregnant and added that he has their blessings to marry another wife.

We asked him how he will be able to take care of these women and the children they will bear. His response was that God will provide. He said that God gives children and therefore will provide for them. We tried to make him understand that the number of children one has is within his control. We also asked him if he will send any of his children to the university. He replied that if the first finish secondary school, he will take care of the rest or better still the children can take care of themselves.

The above is about the intellectual development of Nigerians. These men with such views will father children and leave them to roam about without proper care, nurture and direction. Does the government know about this? What is it doing to educate and enlighten people with such views in an organized and coordinated manner so that they can have the right kind of orientation? I have not seen or heard of any, yet we talk of development?

To validate the assertions made above, the excerpt of The Guardian Newspapers of Tuesday, July 23, 2013 report titled, `Residents lament demolition of houses in Dutse’ by John Akubo is quite instructive. The extract goes thus, “Following the massive infrastructural development projects being executed by the Jigawa State government to give the capital, Dutse, a befitting status with many of the township roads being reconstructed, the government has embarked on demolition of structures, which has drawn the ire of some residents… one of the affected persons, Babangida Mohammed…told the Guardian that about 70 Almajiris living with him in his five-room apartment, which has been demolished, are now sleeping in an open space…Alhaji Mustapha, whose house was also partly destroyed…in tears, told the Guardian that his toilet and living room, which he shared with his two wives and 14 children, have been pulled down.”

to be continued.

Mfon is a Management Consultant based in Abuja

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