As the Nigerian nation marks the sixtieth anniversary of its independence, it is a good time for introspection.
That the African continent as a whole has been bedeviled by atrociously poor leadership is a regular subject for discussion in beer parlours, as it is in the hallowed halls of academia. The African leadership environment is not just populated with past ogres such as Idi Amin Dada with his colourful language, his casual brutality and his simple-minded understanding of “Nationalism”. Or Mobutu Sese Seko, of whom the less is said, the better. In contemporary times, Presidents are awarding themselves endless terms in office, and leaders, bereft of basic trust among their people, are suspected of facilitating hidden ethnic agendas.
It is difficult to see hope, but it is necessary.
In the analyses of the failed and failing states of Africa, not a lot has been said about the role of the citizens themselves in bringing things to such a sad pass, or what they could do to help kick-start a process of genuine redemption.
And yet the failures that are decried in leaders in the public space are exhibited every day in the lives of the ordinary people. People lie and steal without the slightest compunction. Citizens behave without the slightest consideration for other people. Driving on the Lekki-Epe expressway is like going to war. Young and old, men and women, in lumbering SUVs move dangerously to block the nearest car from getting past them as if their very lives depend on it. They jump into other people’s lanes rudely. As soon as there is the slightest slowing of the traffic, instead of waiting in line, every car coming from behind forms another lane, and yet another. In the end, a road designed to carry two cars abreast now has six ‘lanes’ of tightly-squeezed cars, trying to outdo one another and all tensed up to avoid collision.
It is possible to discern the psychology and prevalent moral tone of a nation from observing the social behaviour of its people on the roads. Fela Durotoye has a video in circulation which describes his experience after stopping at a red traffic light in Lekki. He was suddenly assailed by the loud honking of the car behind him. The driver, a lady, was swearing at him and urging him to go through the red light. When the lights eventually changed, she was still visibly sore as she zoomed off.
The most prevalent oppression in Nigeria is not rich people oppressing poor people. It is poor people oppressing other poor people. Rich kids accused of being “yahoo-boys” and frog-marched to the nearest ATM by “officers of the law” to empty their bank accounts don’t suffer compared to poor road sweepers who are arrested by the same “officers” for “wandering”, slapped around, threatened with guns because they have no money, and bundled into unmarked vans to spend months or years “awaiting trial” for “wandering”.
Nigeria’s values are in shambles. It is an uncomfortable way to live, and it is an impossible material on which to build a thriving, peaceful, productive and progressive nation. The efforts of even the most unimpeachable leader, were such to exist, becomes like the drama of Don Quixote, tilting vainly at the windmills.
The same failure of values permeates every aspect of the psycho-social life of the country. People are said to have sold fake COVID-19 results to international travelers, despite the danger to public health.
Nigerians are among the most religious in the world. Even the “officer” dragging the dreadlocked youth to the ATM to extort money is a devoted ‘elder’ in his white garment church. The lady in the SUV abusing Fela Durotoye for stopping at the red light may have been on her way to Bible Study in her Church. The man selling fake CoVID19 results is a devout and generous donor at his local mosque.
The psychology of religious devotion in Nigeria is focused on “prosperity”, overcoming “enemies” and “making heaven”. The need to love one’s neighbour and do public good irrespective of what is happening around is not a strong part of the message.
The question arises – How do you begin to repair Nigeria’s values morass?
Better leadership and restructuring of the social space to have more equity, transparency and a level playing field in the nation would certainly help. On the other hand, setting up more government agencies like KAI and WAI to mouth slogans may just be more “jobs-for-the-boys”. There is a lack of trust in government, and the prevalent sense is that everyone has to fend for themselves as best they can.
The failure of Values needs to be seen by Nigerians as an “illness” that could well be terminal. That insight is the first step to healing. Next, everyone has to “own” the problem, and the responsibility for solving it. Children must be taught virtue from the cradle and shown daily demonstration of it in the lives of their parents. A new code, not just of enforcement, but of self-monitoring, needs to be mainstreamed into the social space.
The people’s deep commitment to Religion could be mobilised in this existential battle. The focus could expand from just a narrow self-centered quest for “Prosperity” and “Heaven” to include providing positive influence and improving the condition of humanity at large. Pastors and Imams could insist that their members live by example. Religion would then be truly righteous.
Newspaper columnist Tunde Fagbenle has set up an NGO named Values Volunteers of Nigeria, focusing on advocacy and influencing school-age children positively. Other people could contribute by setting up structures and making themselves exemplars, starting from their homes.
The goal of building a great nation will daily get farther away from realisation unless a start is made immediately to reclaim the best of the lost values in Nigeria’s rich and diverse cultures, such as the attribute the Yoruba know as “omoluabi”.
Happy birthday, Nigeria.