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To communicate real change

By Alabi Williams
18 September 2016   |   4:00 am
Like they say, a lot of water has passed under the bridge and it is difficult to quantify what had been lost since our dear country commenced the journey into infamy. Elder citizens, who lived and witnessed ‘when there was a country..


Like they say, a lot of water has passed under the bridge and it is difficult to quantify what had been lost since our dear country commenced the journey into infamy. Elder citizens, who lived and witnessed ‘when there was a country,’ never stop to regale us with how good things were in their days. One common refrain is that we were once a very special people, with due regard for values. From different accounts emanating from different geo-political zones, we are told that Nigerians didn’t use to steal because the cultures of our people detest stealing. It was an odd thing in the community to be paraded as a thief. Traders put their wares by the roadside and go elsewhere to attend to other chores. Buyers pick whatever they wanted and leave the exact amount by the wares for the owners to pick.

Public life was equally sane. Workers earned their wages and they managed their lives without looking outside their means. In those days, which people of our age group can also remember, it was easy to communicate our collective ethos to the public and send messages of patriotism across. It was easy to tell Mr. Andrew not to go anywhere, but to stay and contribute to salvage Nigeria. It was easy to communicate issues of public health and general wellbeing of citizens centrally, and people would key in without disputations.

Today, things have changed considerably in our country. You can no longer sustain a two-way conversation because Nigeria has lost bearing as a country. The more the Police parade robbers and petty thieves, the more their numbers swell. Even after some states have made laws providing capital punishment for offences of kidnapping, the more new recruits are daily opting for that line of trade. Drug barons are on the prowl, looking for desperate couriers to hire, even to countries where the offence attracts capital punishment. Even death is no longer a frightening deterrent. In those days, we were taught to write essays about ‘dignity in labour,’ but not any more. People want to reap where they did not cultivate. Theft in public office has become so commonplace it no longer rankles.

Nonetheless, President Muhammadu Buhari, on September 8, summoned courage to flag off a new national orientation campaign of change, having the slogan ‘Change Begins With Me.’ Buhari, during the campaigns, had promised to return Nigeria to the path of discipline and truthfulness. A disciplined and truthful people will record far less of the vices that have crippled the country. As military head of state between 1983 and 1985, the military government, which he headed launched the War Against Indiscipline (WAI) project, which every child of school age then was part of. We were taught to exercise discipline at public places. If we did that, chances were that we were not going to seek undue advantage. We were to stay on queue, arrive in good time for events and be truthful citizens. If we were truthful, we would not take what did not belong to us. Even when we picked books and other writing materials that did not belong to us, we were told to return them.

Those of working age were told the virtues of punctuality. It became a public rule to arrive early to public functions and to offices. The queue culture became manifest in banks and other social events. The success of WAI then was unmistakable, especially to those of us who were of critical learning age. It didn’t matter to us that it was a military regime with coercive powers that was in place; we simply felt we were in a society that needed to do things right. Rights activist thought otherwise. They felt there were other ways of instilling discipline in the public space. They thought it was an abridgment of the fundamental freedoms to enforce certain codes that were not strictly criminal. Behaviorists also have their preferences for teaching and imparting discipline. But generally, WAI was not a failure. Maybe it was so because the polity had not degenerated.

But based on WAI’s limited successes, some good Nigerians were convinced the return of Buhari could also restore some lost national values. And at the flag off of the ‘Change Begin With Me,’ President Buhari was of the view that the derailment in ethical values is connected directly to social crimes of whatever hue, insurgency, economic sabotage and corruption. Perhaps, he is correct, if he were to be looking for immediate causes. But a more critical appraisal of the national derailment he talked about could accommodate far more fundamental reasons beyond issues of ethical disorientation.

To begin with, we can hardly talk of a country today, whereas, during the WAI era, we could still proudly talk of a country. During those days, Nigeria was a relatively safe place, and wherever you were, you were at home. There were no excesses of religiosity and life-threatening fundamentalism that now bedevil our country. It was easy to sing the national anthem and believe it, without feelings of betrayal by its contents and the reality on ground. When the civilian regime of Shehu Shagari was not getting it right during the Second Republic, citizens yearned for help and got it in the hands of the military. At that time, even though our health institutions had become mere consulting clinics, as the soldiers told us, they still treated the worst of our ailments. We did not expend scarce foreign reserve in the service of health sectors in India, Germany and Saudi Arabia.

We didn’t have the kind of geo-political agitations like we have today. We didn’t even have MASSOB or IPOB. We didn’t have militants in the Niger Delta. The only people who troubled us were those doing illegal oil bunkering, and they were summarily dealt with as economic saboteurs, not resource control agitators, who are asking fundamental questions about equity and justice. We didn’t have Boko Haram threatening to excise a portion of Nigeria via jihad. We didn’t have a troubled Northeast as we have today, where life is short and brutish. We had a society and it was possible then to communicate change and be believed.

The point is that, the psychological impact of a failing state on the behaviour of citizens is so strong it can create dissonance in a time of reorientation. That is why many do not want to hear about the change Mr. President is talking about. Those who want to hear can no longer hear well because the economic noises have deadened their ears. To communicate change at times like this requires a very painstaking approach and it will not happen in a day, or one month. It is not an event to be done within a year or four years. The President admitted much, when he said: “We are under no illusion that the changes we seek will happen overnight, but we have no doubt that the campaign will help restore our value system and rekindle our nationalistic fervour.”

For that reason, a more diverse and inclusive approach would have made more sense in the launch of ‘Change Begins With Me.’ The slogan is fine, because that is a good way to carry all of us along, but not in any manner that shuts out critical segments of our polity. It would have made more sense, if the President had brought on board stakeholders from all the geo-political zones, including those who gave him five percent of votes in the 2015 elections.

It is a time to heal Nigeria and move forward in unity and progress. It is also time to attend to those who are aggrieved and fashion out better ways of accommodating all in project Nigeria. The fastest way to achieving that is for the President to purge himself of an old mindset. A president who is of the strong belief that only a set of people from a particular place are fit to be in his kitchen cabinet is not ready for national re-orientation. A president, who sends youth corpers to tell their brothers to forget Biafra, less than two weeks after launch of ‘Change Begins with Me’ is also not ready for the change he preaches.
Yes, we need change, but to communicate real change should manifestly begin with Buhari!

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