Convening the shame club
Let me not lie. I am reluctant to turn on the news these days. Reason is simple. Shame seems to get the better of me each time I do. Feeling safe, from thousands of miles away in Hanoi Vietnam, barely four days from the pain of watching Ethiopian simultaneously board three flight to three Nigeria cities of Enugu, Lagos and Abuja, as I watched a lineup of more than a dozen Dream Liners and other new Aircraft taxing to takeoff while returning from a trip to South Africa. I thought I could watch the news from Asia when three days after the South African trip I returned to South East Asia. But as they say, you can run but you cannot hide. CNN focused on Nigerian women being trafficked and my WhatsApp featured videos of Nigerian slavery survivors recounting their ordeals in Libya. At the Airport as I waited in the lounge in Lagos, to board a flight to the Middle East and connect to Vietnam, a Soap Opera on Maina, Pension Funds and the Ghost Reinstatement was running on TV with top government officials playing themselves. Or was it reality TV. I wondered how anybody in authority or any concerned citizen could actually go to bed and get a good sleep. The long shadow of shame seemed to hang over the land like a solar eclipse was waltzing through.
I am so confused these days. But the live telecast was running pari pasu with more revelations of cash stashed in a corruption round–robin that has left the citizen non-plus. Do I dare to add the many advances of the people of Vietnam who came away from a long war that Americans remember as their first ever defeat in war and how seeing that made me feel sad about Nigeria’s post-civil war story? What is more amazing about the catalogue of offerings in this Bazaar of shame is that we seem like helpless spectators even ready to applaud but for some merciful figure who has tied one of our arms, creating the challenge of how you clap with one hand, in this suspended animation of this Theatre of failed dreams. Our courage seems to have taken leave of us. I want to scream; Nigeria, courage … be not afraid; but sometimes I fear they are saying to me are you not tired of worrying and being concerned, did you not say we have lost sense of shame before. Then I see Flickers of light in the ocean of darkness and wonder if hope can be recalled from leave even though it went AWOL.
What hope tells me is that liberation is possible. But those seeking to be available as change agents must seek new ways and cost aside old prejudices, especially those shaped by extreme partisanship and ethnic prisms. Really truly, if some, perhaps among the powerful, have lost a sense of shame, the majority must want to salvage the future for their children. The shame this silent majority feel, as they watch yesterday’s basket case countries become today’s champions of progress, is how it is possible to continue in the paths of perdition we have seen did not work yesterday and somehow expect to work today. The bottom line is how much we need to take personal responsibility for redeeming our dream of the Nigeria our founding fathers were raptured into in the onrush of independence. The courage of the moment is the courage for personal accountability, way beyond the courage of speaking truth to power. So how can we, as individuals, find the courage to stop the corruption that is eating away at the possibilities of growth and development in Nigeria. How can we find the courage for personal responsibility to end the famine and starvation in the North East of our country which the Chief Executive of Oxfam talked about on BBC Hard Talk. From where can we find the courage to prevent legislative duty becoming warrant for extortion so bad some companies are choosing to leave the country rather than continue to succumb to blackmail. Where do we find the courage to reject money and vote for the right candidate? These are burning questions for the exercise of personal courage.
I began scribbling these comments in Ho Chi Minh City a day after a speech in Hanoi in which I tried to encourage Vietnamese importers of Cashew Nuts from Nigeria that they could optimize on the benefits of international trade if they set up processing plants in Nigeria instead of exporting Raw Cashew Nuts from Nigeria, processing them in Vietnam and exporting the processed Nuts into Europe. This Food Company Chief Executive I was meeting with in Ho Chi Minh City reacted to my remarks with the story of his experience. He recalled why he built a factory elsewhere in West Africa after he arrived and was given a shake down at the airport in Lagos which cost him USD 3000. He was also eventually duped USD 70,000 by people introduced to him by government officials. Yet few of those officials at the airport link the lack of quality jobs for their cousins who graduated six years ago, to their conduct. In the same vein how do we come to terms with legislators working on facilitating the ease of doing business on the one hand, then daily sending letters inviting the private sector executives to probe into one thing or the other and shaking down the managing director. One Ambassador showed me evidence of two companies from his country opting to leave Nigeria for such intimidation. I have in fact now learnt that the National Council of the Manufactures Association of Nigeria is planning a demonstration of CEOs carrying placards in front of the National Assembly. They are warning that legislators are killing the economy by routine extortion from business.
But there is one piece of evidence of who can be held to account for the state of investments and employment. This and my Vietnam experience suggests that to blame are some who have failed to take personal responsibility for our troubles. Prodigals must come back home if the dire straits of our country travels will be navigated to safety. The courage we need is courage to realise that we truly must work, as Ghandi would say, to be the change we want to see in the world. It is not enough to play Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden after they have eaten the forbidden fruit. It is much too easy to blame the woman you gave me. He, after all, had been of good behavior until the woman was convinced by the cunning serpent to taste and offer her husband. To begin to take personal responsibility is to also begin to recognise that Nigeria is on the precipice with many challenges but also with tremendous opportunities. To cash in on the opportunities rather than lament the failures will require that we stop hiding behind partisan Togas. Most Nigerians belong to no parties and are entitled to a decent world in which serious issues are reduced to partisan name calling.
But we need courage. I ask, be not afraid, if you want to save the future for those children. We cannot carry on as we are doing.
Utomi is political economist, professor of entrepreneurship and founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.