One of the unintended ironies of the Coronavirus pandemic is that although it brings great suffering and death, it also presents an incredible opportunity to reimagine the world we live in, and to build a better future.
In Rivers State, we can not afford to miss the opportunity that this crisis presents.
As our forbears did after the Civil War, we have a chance to think and work together to recreate our State, from the emotional and psychological debris of this pandemic.
But this means that we must think critically and keep an open mind.
It means that our response to the pandemic must go beyond lockdowns, food aid and contact tracing.
We must also look beyond the pandemic, and ask: what should Rivers State look like after COVID-19?
Below are FIVE steps I think we can take to move Rivers State in a new direction:
Investment in Education
Whenever I think of Taiwan I have only shivers of admiration for the society they have built. This is a territory that has no natural resources. They have only typhoons, cyclones and earthquakes. The topography of Taiwan is so daunting that they import sand and gravels from China.
But through a massjve investment in education, Taiwan has emerged as one of the most technically proficient and dynamic economies in the world. Taiwan has the fourth largest foreign reserves in the world.
We can do the same in Rivers State. Our most vital resource is our people, not oil or gas or clay.
We can invest decisively and strategically in the education of our young people. And we can commit to do so now.
Although Taiwan is a territory of China, it thinks independently and thrives on its own genius. Although Rivers State is part of Nigeria, we can create a different destiny for our people.
If there is an oasis in every desert, Rivers State can be that oasis. We can rebuild a State that is modern, successful and properous.
We can begin now to plan to convene an “Education and Innovation Summit” for Rivers State.
The purpose of the Summit should be to work out the modalities for a comprehensive overhaul of the State’s educational curriculum, with emphasis on research in renewable energy, ICT, cyber law and security, medicine, engineering, artificial intelligence and robotics, mathematics, tourism, rural and urban development, agriculture, and civic education.
The target of the Summit should be to transform Rivers State into Nigeria’s innovation hub in 20 years.The Brazilians did exactly the same in Sao Paulo.
The Summit must consider a completely different and competitive pay structure for teachers, full scholarships for our students, and a plan for global educational partnerships.
The challenge of our generation in Rivers State must be to prepare our young people to burst into the new world as innovative thinkers and skillful citizens.
Focus on Agriculture:
Anytime I get the honour to talk to young people, I like to remind them that the Stone Age did not end because people ran out of stones. It ended because people invented metal and kickstarted the Industrial Revolution.
In other words, if you want things to change, you will have to do things differently.
Rivers State has some of the best soil patterns and wetlands in the world. We can grow most crops in the State, all year round.
If we develop the right plan, build committed partnerships with agro experts in Malaysia, Finland and Brazil, we can start an agricultural revolution in 15 years.
We can create thousands of high quality agro jobs, and make farming both prosperous and prestigious.
In addition to state farms, every sizable hotel, church and school will be required to own a farm, with land guaranteed by the State.
Health and Wellness:
The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of the critical importance of an effective health care delivery system.
In Rivers State, we need to develop a universal health care plan that provides medical cover for every citizen.
We will develop a data base, and Income earners will contribute to the scheme. But the State will provide medical cover for senior citizens and those who have no jobs.
The universal health care coverage may be called “RIVERS CARE”.
Once the political leadership on this policy is provided, the planning and implementation must be expert-led, with the broadest possible consultations and debate on the best mode of implementation.
We will have to completely rebuild our health infrastructure.
Rural and Urban Development.
One afternoon in Barcelona, in 2011, I walked into a city planning office. And was suitably impressed to see a plan of what the city would look as the population grows and the city’s demographics change.
We must cultivate a mindset for planning in Rivers State.
But more than that, we need to have a leadership that sees the State, not in its mutilated parts, but the vast beauty of its biodiversity and coastal character.
Rivers State has a lot in common with the Netherlands in terms of its rich coastal character and topography. But we are a lot less developed.
We can change all that.
In rural development, we could follow the example of Rwanda by building simple but functional model villages. And make it a policy to provide basic services in all our communities.
In urban planning, we need to develop satellite cities and a vibrant cluster of modern suburbs.
Finally, we need to start an important conversation on how we can identify and put forward the kind of leadership that can recreate Rivers State.
We have lost a lot of grounds, and our State has probably reached a point where even “good” governance will no longer be enough to turn things around.
We need a creative, modern, visionary and inclusive leadership in Rivers State.
Inclusive because, as Chinua Achebe once said, no monologue however brilliant can replace a dialogue.
Like the Taiwanese, we need to draw from collective genius of our people.
- Dr Austin Tam-George is a former Information and Strategy Commissioner, Rivers State.