(135): Towards True, Practical Change [in Nigeria]
Muhammad Muhsin Ibrahim
[Appeared in Onumah, C. (Ed.) (2020). Remaking Nigeria: Sixty Years, Sixty Voices. Abuja: Premium Times Book. Pp. 340-345]
Recently, headlines and social media hashtags featured Nigerians in negative light. In both the USA and UAE, some Nigerians involved in online fraud were arrested. At the same time at home, Boko Haram resurfaced in Borno, in the Northeast, and expanded their operational theatre to neighbouring countries in the Lake Chad Basin. This further dented the image of the country. Add to this, the ubiquitous “Nigerian Prince”, the ever-present title in many email scams that have been traced to different countries in West Africa.
Unfortunately, after 60 years of independence, this is not a good time for the Nigerian identity, especially overseas. By default, we are suspects of potential online scam, terrorism, among other related crimes. It is not surprising, therefore, that some Nigerians outside the country lie about their nationality. But that is a reductionist, twisted, single-story of Nigerians. According to experts, Nigeria’s most valuable export is now its people. Many Nigerians in the Diaspora are not only highly educated individuals who earn legitimate money in their countries of residence but are also getting appointed as government officials in those countries. Thus, these few bad elements cannot represent the 200 million in Nigeria and the more than five million Nigerians outside the country.
This essay is not a defence of Nigeria and its citizens. People are responsible for their actions. It also does not aim to project any romantic view of the country. However, the facts mentioned above need to be known from the onset. Instead, the objective here is to celebrate the country at 60. Great Britain granted Nigeria political independence on the 1st of October 1960. Whether the country, like all other former colonial enclaves in and outside Africa, is truly and entirely independent is a topic for another day. Nonetheless, I believe that whatever and whoever lives for 60 years deserves to be celebrated. Nigeria has survived several serious challenges, including a bloody civil war (1967-1970). All lost for Nigeria to remain as it is today: one united and, hopefully, indivisible nation.
Nigeria is, undoubtedly, a great country of great people who have excelled in several walks of life globally. It earns the moniker, ‘Giant of Africa’ for that and more: biggest economy, largest population, among other stellar records, on the continent. Unfortunately, Nigeria has many problems and there have been debates about who should be blamed: the leaders or the followers. Or both. To answer this, we need to revisit Chinua Achebe’s argument. I think the argument should resonate with many Nigerians. In his influential book, The Trouble with Nigeria, published in 1983, the author attributed Nigeria’s failings to poor leadership. He noted that “A basic element of this misfortune is the seminal absence of intellectual rigour in the political thought of our founding fathers.” Some people have rejected this argument stressing that our democracy is still young. However, the length of our democracy cannot be an excuse for bad governance.
Whether Achebe and those who align with his argument are right or wrong, blaming Nigeria’s leaders, past and present, for squandering and embezzling oil riches and other resources the country has in abundance is commonplace. Yet, it is quite difficult if not impossible, to blame a single Nigerian leader for the country’s pervasive ills. The problem started a long time ago, way before the country’s independence. True or false, the problem exists, and it’s not getting better. It is exacerbating to a systemic failure, making it more challenging to pin down, not to talk of tackling it entirely. But, humans make or mar the system. No system exists in a vacuum. Thus, Nigeria’s is not beyond repair, and it is not the duty of the leaders alone to save it.
Achebe argued that as most Europeans would talk about the weather when they meet, Nigerians would likely talk about their country’s problems. He was right. As a Nigeria in the Diaspora myself, I have met several fellow Nigerians who, after exchanging greetings, talked to me about the country’s problems. Often, we blame the leaders as if we are entirely blameless. But, beyond the blame game, no one seems to care to ask what can we all do together to salvage our country from what the former American ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell describes as “dancing on the brink”? Here are my thoughts.
From the beginning, let us remember that the Nigerian public, especially the youths who make more than half of the country’s population, is an equal player in the situation the country has found itself. The leaders are not imported from any foreign country. They are members of our communities who attain power or some form of authority. In other words, we are the leaders of today, tomorrow and the future. Thus, we cannot always blame those in power and exonerate ourselves. If they fail, the failure is all ours.
In one of its efforts to change the whole narrative about poor leadership in Nigerian, the President Buhari-led government in 2016 launched a campaign tagged Change Begins with Me. Had it been effectively implemented, it would have been one of the best things to have happened in contemporary Nigeria. We would not have to complain about a lot of things today. However, due to our carefree attitude and the government’s lack of commitment, the campaign died. While many people have today forgotten about it, I believe it should be revived and re-launched.
The word “revolution” has a weighty negative connotation. It’s even more problematic to use in Nigeria, thanks to the recent encounter between an activist-turned-politician, Omoyele Sowore and the government. Nonetheless, it has other, less provocative meaning that I consider favourable. Therefore, we need to revolutionise our politics. Today, patron-client relationship, prebendalism, thuggery, among other similar themes characterise Nigeria’s politics. For this and more reasons, there is an urgent need to revolutionise the political dispensation for positive change to occur. There are several routes to take, but education is the surest one.
The education sector is the first and the best way to use to save the youth from falling for the machination of politicians. It is worrisome the way schools remain closed for many months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Federal university lecturers were already on an indefinite strike before the closure. Staff members of other institutes have unsettled issues with the federal government because of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), for which the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has also gone on strike. With COVID-19, the situation has worsened. It’s not the right way to go. Government could and should do better, for education is essential for the development of any country. Government and teachers at all levels ought to find better means of settling dispute other than industrial action, which has become so recurrent in the country. Always, students of the poor are at the receiving end.
A recent report by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) says that approximately 44.1 million Nigerians are either jobless or underemployed. This number is staggering and, thus, should scare any concerned Nigerian. Of course, the situation on the ground corroborates this claim. Many Nigerians, including some with PhDs, are daily searching for employment or a “better” job. There is a problem, however, with our attitude concerning employment. It is not always the government’s fault that there are no job opportunities in the land; it may be ours, a responsibility many do not want to take.
One of the most surprising things I have seen in Cologne, Germany, is how almost everybody works. In several classes that I teach, we discuss on immigration and unemployment in both Europe and Africa. I am always amazed to learn that almost all my students work either part time or full time, in different places such as public or private institutions, bars, restaurants, malls, and so on. People do not look down on others for doing any job. I wish our young men and women, especially those clutching certificates and waiting for the “perfect” government job could learn from this example.
Many young people in Nigeria, especially those with university degrees or other qualifications, do not want to do “menial” jobs. Almost everyone prefers a so-called white-collar job. Nevertheless, such jobs are not always there, particularly in today’s Nigeria. Sadly, we are in an era when getting a job – especially the kinds most youth dream of or prefer – is difficult. It is either you have an influential public officer recommend you for the job or you are asked to pay a bribe before you are considered for employment. The simple solution to the job crisis for the young people to learn to take things easy and humble themselves. My advice is, do not think too highly of yourself. Learn to maximise your potential. If you can do this, you can start something to sustain your life until something better comes up. A few years ago, I saw a master’s degree holder in the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, who sells snacks and drinks. This is more dignifying for her than asking others to give her money every day. I am sure she had to ignore a lot of gossips.
Politically, we must end the politics of patronage. In their seminal book, Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know, Campbell and Page (2018:115) argue that “Some politicians...have very little structure, relying on powerful patrons (“godfathers”) to help realise their ambitions. In the run-up to an election, godfathers can be a huge political asset, providing candidates with the financial and political muscle they could not otherwise muster”. Undoubtedly, patron-client politics is one of the drawbacks in Nigerian politics that has kept thousands of youth in perpetual bondage. I believe that only education and employment can liberate the youths and prevent them from being victims of godfatherism.
Nigeria cannot move forward without tackling corruption, which, according to an Al-Jazeera journalist interviewing President Buhari, has become synonymous with Nigeria. Without giving details to validate that disturbing description, I will refer us to Achebe once again. Achebe (1983:64) suggests that “... to initiate change, the President of this country must take, and be seen to take, a decisive first step of ridding his administration of all persons on whom the slightest wind of corruption and scandal has blown. When he can summon up the courage to do that he will find himself grown overnight to such stature and authority that will become Nigeria’s leader, not just its President, only then can he take on and conquer corruption in the nation.” The number one citizen of the country has to lead by example, for everything rest on his shoulder.
In as much as individuals are encouraged to shun corruption, bribery and other related financial crimes, the government has to come in to win the war. Unfortunately, however, corruption has been instituted in Nigeria, thanks to successive governments – civilian and military. Interestingly, when Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, the first president of the Fourth Republic, established anti-corruption agencies such as the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) and the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC). Years earlier, Obasanjo was instrumental in the founding of Transparency International. However, he and his successors have been accused of using the anti-corruption agencies to attack and muzzle the opposition. Campbell (2011:31), in another critical book entitled Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink mentions that:
The EFCC is capable of excellent police work. A U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations expert told me it was the most professional law enforcement body in West Africa. It was compromised, however, because it almost exclusively proceeded against Obasanjo’s political rivals and personal enemies while he was chief of state. Nevertheless, the EFCC was widely seen as a step in the right direction, and if its targets of prosecution appeared politically selected, few doubted their guilt.
It is hard to exhaust what needs to be done to put Nigeria on the right track. In summary, education, employment, ending corruption and, of course, ensuring security, should be the priorities of government. Several observers pointed out that in 1960 when it gained independence, Nigeria was at par with Malaysia, Singapore, Brazil and Taiwan. Today, these countries have gone way ahead of us. But, Nigerians can and should change the story, for our country is endowed with both natural and human resources to bring about true, practical change that will benefit the 200 million people that live in Nigeria from Aba to Zungeru, from Badagry to Yola.
We only need to be more committed, love one another, do away with tribalism, fanaticism, corruption and all other subversive tendencies. Let’s start now. This is what 60 years of independence should be about.