By Ayo M. Akingbemi, Ph.D.
The idea of change suggests a desire to learn from the mistakes of the past in order to improve the conditions of the present. Change does not occur in a vacuum but reflects a determined effort on the part of a people to design a process that leads to improved conditions. Within the context of the desired change in Nigeria and in light of the persistent corrupt practices at every level of society, one must ask who and what is to change? Corruption, often seen as embezzlement of public funds and bribery seems to be the focus of change that most Nigerians seek. What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that corruption is symptomatic of a more fundamental problem, absence of the rule of law.
Recently, I suggested that the euphoria following the presidential election be tempered with a keen sense of responsibility and accountability at every level, if the change that the election represents is to materialize. But Nigerians seem to place their hopes for change on the new President to single-handedly turn the deplorable national situation around. This is an unrealistic expectation and a recipe for failure. What the President has is an abundant measure of self-discipline. This is what the country needs at every level. But this is not a transferable trait that can be copied on a floppy disc and uploaded, like a computer program, into others whose cooperation he would need to stem the tide. Neither can such self-discipline be copied and uploaded to the all of us. Nigerians by and large, must imbibe the same level of self-discipline, as their president, if the desired change is to materialize. Nigeria needs exemplary leadership at every level and good followership at every village and hamlet.
I recently had the privilege of spending eight weeks at home after two previous trips in the last year. It was an exploratory trip to see what opportunities are there to contribute to my native community in my post retirement years. After a few short weeks at home, it became crystal clear that eradicating corruption is going to be a long road to hoe. Most Nigerians belief that the change they desire is one that the other person has to make, rather than the one they need to make. The general perception is that the only groups that need to change are the political class and the bureaucracy. While it is difficult to argue that the political class and the bureaucracy need to be put in check, they alone are not responsible for the moral decadence that has gripped the nation. They are a reflection of the society from which they emerged.
Any casual observer can attest to the fact that ours is a country suffering from many intractable problems including absence of the rule of law, obsession with imported goods, and the worship of money. The celebration of overnight millionaires and billionaires with no verifiable income sources, and the constant allegations of embezzlement of funds by public officials, bear witness to the level of decadence to which our society has sunk. So, where must the change begin?
The Buhari administration has declared its commitment to putting the heat on those suspected of feeding at the public trough. At the same time, the dubious and duplicity of the average Nigerian deserving equal measure of attention, seem to go unnoticed and therefore unchecked. There has to be something at the core of our being as a people that makes us easily prone to greed and financial malfeasance of immeasurable proportion. The readiness to enrich oneself without regard to who suffers the consequence is an all too familiar trait of who we have become as a society. The Nigerian mind seems to be wrapped around one thing only, to be the envy of others, no matter how such status is attained. In the pursuit of the almighty naira, we seemed to have lost ourselves. In my travels in Lagos, Oyo, Edo and Ondo states, I observed with dismay some behaviors that bordered on the ludicrous. The level of exploitation to which the average Nigerian is subjected has become intolerable. Who is going to save us from ourselves? A few observations to underscore where I think we are:
Nigerians’ obsession with imported goods and disdain for locally produced items clearly demonstrates the absence of national pride. It is a large contributor to the problem of corruption for those who wish to maintain a foreign lifestyle while resident in Nigeria. The average Nigerian without regard to status is enamored with imported goods which are often much more expensive than goods produced locally. This is more evident among the so-called elites. To maintain the imported lifestyle of the European without the national pride of same, is an expensive undertaking driving the rent seeking and bribe seeking behavior of those charged with providing public service. We have become what Dr. J.K. Aggree warned against, the poor copies of Europeans, albeit with a weird twist. Let’s remember that the naira has suffered severe devaluation relative to most international currencies and that makes these imported goods very expensive. In order to afford the acquired foreign taste, most resort to unsavory rent seeking behavior.
In the pre and immediate post independence years, Nigeria was a popular destination for used clothing, mainly from Europe. Over the years, the appetite of Nigerians for the discarded housewares from the West has grown to insatiable proportion. It is not unusual today to find European second-hand items ranging from used clothing to shoes, curling irons, furniture, undergarments, and home appliances. It is as if we have become a dumping ground for items that belong in European landfills.
While it might be acceptable for this kind of business to flourish in an environment of poverty, it translates into some form of social malady when the same people who embrace European discarded goods, seem to have total disdain for brand new items made in Nigeria. This mentality is not unique to those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder but even more pervasive at the upper echelon of society. Most Nigerian elites resident in Nigeria have their medical files in the West and the Far East. Most travel abroad for their annual physical examination, while some go for issues as insignificant as acid indigestion. These so-called men of means fail to realize that the medical facilities they run to overseas were made possible by the sweat and investments of citizens of these countries. What’s keeping us from emulating that which is good in others and build such facilities in our own country?
In Lagos and Oyo for example, it was impossible to find leather sandals made in Nigeria. In fact, only one out of six shoe stores, fully stocked with made in China foot-wears, carried a couple of sandals made in Nigeria. The excuse was that nobody will buy them. A casual comparison shows the Nigerian product was made of pure leather as opposed to the manmade composition of the Chinese product. Yet, the average Nigerian consumer prefers to buy the imported to the detriment of the local entrepreneurs. If we fail to support locally produced goods, we’re driving the nails into the coffins of our local manufacturers. Must Nigeria remain a country of importers forever?
The Nigerian commercial lingo seems to be built around such objects as imported pre-owned cars from Europe and America, imported doors, Italian shoes, Austrian lace, Japanese cars and electronics, and everything else in-between. Considering how much of these goods we consume annually, why aren’t we making the investment to produce them domestically? Yes, the initial quality may not compare favorably with those imported, but we must take cognizance of the fact that overtime, the quality can surpass, or at least be at par with those made abroad. The countries whose goods we go to great length to procure today were the butt of inferior product jokes barely five decades ago. Let’s support our local manufacturers and challenge them to up their games in the quality of their products. We should be proud of made in Nigeria labels, if for no other reason than that they are uniquely Nigerian.
Loss of basic values and morals is another observation of a society that has lost its bearing. The only value that the Nigerian holds dear today is money and nothing else. All across the social spectrum, money has become an object of worship. It no longer matters the source of one’s wealth, as long as one has it. The idea of doing the least or nothing at all for the most money has not only permeated our social arrangement, but has become the acceptable norm. The notion of an honest work for an honest pay has all but disappeared from our social lexicon. No longer are our youths interested in equipping themselves academically or with marketable skills for the future. No, not when they can make a few hundred naira per day operating their own “okada” business, endangering their own lives and others on helmetless motorcycles.
Our so-called artisans are even worse. They no longer exhibit pride of workmanship, but charge exorbitant prices for the disgraceful products and/or services rendered. What perhaps is more appalling, is society’s acceptance of such behavior as well, “that’s just the way it is.” Everywhere, one finds people parading as skilled craftsmen who themselves should be in an apprenticeship training, but are reaping off unsuspecting customers without remorse. This is a personal responsibility problem that should be outside the purview of public policy. It is another form of localized corruption or fraud. All around, the term “barranda” has become part of everyday slang in the Yoruba language. These are charlatans parading themselves as skilled craftsmen going about to secure contracts they do not have the skills to perform. What is worse is that most of them have verifiable references, all for the sake of money. Requiring these artisans to be licensed in their respective trades based on both written and proof of concept testing, might be a good starting point.
The same moral decadence in other sectors has infected and led to the deplorable condition of our schools. Among the four states visited, we saw more than fifty schools and colleges. Judging from the apparent lack of maintenance of the building facilities and grounds, these schools are unfit for animals, and most definitely, unfit for humans. Most schools today have no windows or doors because they have no equipment or facilities to be protected. In the absence of educational and laboratory equipment, how and what are these students learning beyond rote memorization? How are they being prepared or equipped to compete in an increasingly technological world? It is safe to suggest that this same deplorable condition obtains in all the states. How can any learning take place on the premises of these neglected public and private educational institutions? Where is the institutional pride and where are the trustees? It is doubtful that any meaningful learning could be going on in these environments that are worse than cattle grazing fields. Are we so broke and money minded as to forget that any society that fails to provide opportunity for the mental expansion and elevation of its youth would have failed to provide for its own vital life force? Is the problem of overgrown vegetation and dilapidated buildings on our school campuses a job for the government? What is the role of the school administrators? What is the function of the local board of education in the case of public schools, or the board of trustees in the case of the private schools?
If we want change, we have to be the change. That change we voted for must begin now. President Buhari and VP Osinbajo may be able to fight to right the ship of state and recover some of our nation’s fortunes from those who have robbed us blind. Let’s us fight to rebuild and restore the moral compass of our individual communities starting with the family unit. No government can do that for us. Nobody will do for us what God has given us the ability to do for ourselves.
Let’s go back to what worked for us in the early years of our independence. Students were the custodians of their school campuses, working alongside the few paid facilities staff. Alternatively, today’s schools could invest in industrial type lawnmowers and a few buckets of paints to improve the physical appearance of their facilities. Of course, physical appearance alone will not transform our educational system. The latest result of the school certificate examination with only 38 percent of the candidates having five or more credits in academic subjects including English and mathematics, is an indictment of the level to which our educational standard has sunk. The required investments should be made in our university students and colleges of education to prepare teachers who are qualified to teach at the elementary and high school levels. The curricular should be beefed up both at the front-end in terms of teacher training, and at the back-end at the point of delivery in the elementary and secondary grades. Adequate facilities and equipment should be provided to prepare our youth for the careers of the future. This way, we will be equipping students with the skills they need to succeed in life and producing graduates who are not regurgitating information, but thinkers with problem solving skills.
Where do we start with the deplorable state of our healthcare delivery system? A quick glance at what passes for a hospital facility raises the obvious questions – what is wrong with us? Why are our people dying of curable and manageable ailments? Why should any Nigerian have to travel more than two hours to get to a hospital? Why are the few hospitals so ill equipped and most operating as nothing more than prescription writing clinics? Why are our medical schools so lacking in modern facilities that our graduates are finding it difficult to secure residency abroad? Why is it that the USMLE step examinations are being offered in Ghana and not Nigeria? Why should there be any local government area without a public hospital? All of these speak to the character of our nation and those elected to serve. Nigerians deserve better. Other less endowed countries have done well, why not Nigeria? Why are our so-called “big men” failing to invest in productive facilities and institutions that would contribute to improving the quality of life of the average citizen? Governments alone cannot do it. The private sector and foundations need to step up their investments in delivering world-class healthcare system to Nigerians at home.
Another problem generating structure is our money bag electoral politics and the mortgaging of the nation’s future. This perhaps is the genesis of our political problem. Nigerian politics has never been a contest of ideas or programs but a competition of who can dole out the most goodies in the form of cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and to the common folks, a few thousand naira to be shared by all. At the end of the day, the lucky ones might get NGN500 while most will get nothing. The successful politician, having bought his way into office has no obligation to those whose votes he bought to get there. As far as he is concerned, the money for vote transaction has been concluded, sealed and delivered. He has no sense of obligation to those whose votes he bought to get elected.
The first order of business for the average Nigerian politician is recovering the money he has spent to get elected. For him, it is an investment that must yield a profit. Any wonder that he does not see the embezzlement of public funds and bribery as sacrosanct? In the meantime, the electorates are looking for him to do something on their behalf. His willingness to bring home any bacon to his constituency depends on his sense of community and motivation for running for public office in the first place. The electorate should resist the temptation of being manipulated to sell their votes to the highest bidder. To do so is to give approval to the political office holder that it’s okay to err on the side of self-interest upon assumption of office. The practice of our electoral process must change to serve the public interest and not the personal and insatiable pecuniary interest of our political office holders.
If the anticipated change that the election of President Buhari represents is to materialize, it has to go beyond the prosecution of past culprits. There must be a mass evolution of the mind. Poverty can no longer serve as the basis for rent-seeking behavior. No longer should public officials, highly or lowly placed, be extorting excessive payment beyond the established price for essential utilities item, such as prepaid meters. The idea of being my brother’s keeper must translate into being my nation’s keeper. It is only when we’re willing to deal with ourselves with a dignified honesty that we can begin to lay the foundation for a lasting change.
We must realize that it is possible to find and fulfill our personal interest within the context of the communal interest. What does it say about us when a handful of people are living high on the hog, and the masses in abject poverty? As a wise man once said, development has to be a process that a people engenders based on the anvil of their historical experience. It has to be a process that gives them a sense of newness on their own terms. Our historical experience has at best been a checkered one. Let us collectively work towards a development process that will guarantee for all a sense of newness with improved quality of life.
As another wise man once said, our development and the change we seek has to be about people. When the focus of our development as a people is on money, goods, and things, our society can be poor even with the most opulent of material resources. But when the focus of our development is on people, their orientation and discipline, our society can be rich, even with the scantiest of material resources. Therefore, it is our orientation and discipline that will determine the mode and direction of our socioeconomic development.
Real and lasting change in Nigeria is possible. But each of us must begin by being the change we want to see in others. Nigeria’s future depends on it. It’s all in our hands. We have the power and resources to change our circumstances for the better. God will not do for us what He has given us the capacity to do for ourselves. The time for that change we seek is now. We must begin in earnest for the sake of the republic.
Ayo M. Akingbemi, Ph.D.