Shaping the future (and the Nigeria) you want, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe
Okey Ndibe

It’s customary to mark the beginning of each year with prayers for ourselves and good wishes for our closest friends and relatives. Some pray for health, for wealth, for professional accomplishments, and for such social dividends as loving relationships and blissful marriages. But we go beyond these decidedly personal dreams. We wish for our leaders to rise to our expectations. We hope that our country would be rid of corruption. We pray that the poor should find food to eat, that our hordes of unemployed graduates should find good jobs, and that Nigeria may be a less violent place. And we wish for fewer deaths on our roads, in our ill-equipped hospitals, and by Boko Haram.

In that spirit, I’d like to wish my readers a blessed New Year. I hope that your deepest, best dreams come true in 2013.

But there’s something better, much better, than extending these good wishes to you. It is this: to challenge each and every reader to imagine a better future – and then work to achieve it. All too often, the dreams that excite us are within grasp. They merely demand that we invest time and energy in order to translate them into reality.

Achieving any kind of change, but especially positive change, is hardly ever a passive undertaking. Change depends on action and demands much more than wishful thinking. It requires a readiness to transform ourselves, to shed negative attitudes, and to do what it takes.

People are apt to understand this connection between action and achievement when it pertains to their personal aspirations. Think, for a moment, about the people you know who became excellent medical doctors, inspiring teachers, first-class architects, outstanding writers or extraordinary musicians. Often, they started dreaming at quite young ages about what they wanted to be when they grew up. And, having identified their goal, they spent a lot of time preparing themselves. They read tomes of books in their desired field or practiced and practiced until they attained mastery.

Many (perhaps most) people understand that hard work is significant for success in personal pursuits. Unfortunately, when it comes to social aspirations – for example, the lessening of poverty or corruption – many of us lose sight of their deep personal role. My message to my readers today is simple: each and every one of them can – and must – learn the art of being change agents. If we want a better Nigeria in 2013, we had better get cracking to achieve it.

Each year, I get invited a fair number of times to talk to Nigerian groups in different parts of the world. What strikes me about my audiences is their depth of outrage at the level of corruption in Nigeria. Hardly do I meet anyone who rises to defend the country’s sorry state and shape. Instead, they regale me with sad, saddening stories about their humiliating experience as Nigerians. There are the ubiquitous narratives of run-ins with bribe-guzzling officers of the Nigerian police or customs. There are stories about the virtual absence of decent hospitals back home. And you hear about the ghastly, potholed roads, and about governors who do relays abroad to buy up choice real estate and to deposit more loot in foreign banks.

I make a point of asking my Nigerian audiences to pause for a moment and think about the kind of Nigeria they’d like to see. The answers I receive are often as varied as the number in the audience, but certain ideas stand out.

Some want political parties to choose candidates with impressive ethical credentials – and then they want credible elections. Some want the Nigerian police and customs to cease their harassment of innocent citizens. Some wish that governments at all levels would be accountable to the people. Some want to see an end to Boko Haram’s incessant, hideous killing of innocents. Some desire a Nigeria where electric power is regular, citizens are spared the plague of armed robbery, and healthcare is both effective and affordable.

These are ambitious goals, especially given where Nigeria stands at the moment. Even so, they are feasible goals. Two elements are required to achieve these goals. One is a huge, dramatic shift in the way Nigeria’s public officials think and act. No question. Instead of acting like Frantz Fanon’s “contemptible fools” all-too willing to betray their generation’s mission, public officials ought to realize that the soundest policy, everything considered, is to serve the public good.

But I’m willing to argue that the second element – the force of individual resolve and personal example – is just as important. It behooves citizens, especially enlightened ones, to conduct themselves in ways that are consistent with the society they envision.

Let’s take one example: corruption. This pathology thrives in Nigeria, I suggest, because too many citizens have accepted the logic of its inevitability and vitality. Nigerians complain about the ever-present police road blocks on highways where officers hound motorists for hand-outs. We complain, but too many of us also confess to helpless participation in this rite of harassment. We’re not in the least elated by the extortionist scheme, but we perpetuate it by quickly dipping into our pockets to extend cash to the road-blocking officers.

Yet, part of the solution is for good men and women to refuse to feed a practice they find unacceptable. We must be prepared to say no! We don’t owe a kobo to police officers, and we should not permit them to intimidate us into parting with our cash.

Of course, saying no won’t be an easy walk. Let me illustrate with a personal experience. In 2002, I was driving a relative’s car to a meeting with an editor in Lagos when the police stopped me at the busy Oshodi hub. They demanded the vehicle’s registration, and I provided it. The most senior officer asked that I open the hood of the car. He peered into it and then strode over to tell me he suspected the car stolen. I replied that I had not stolen the car and I was certain its owner did not steal it either. The officers’ demeanor suggested that the whole game was about haranguing me to give some money. I was determined not to go there. I demanded that they take me to their station and have me booked if they really believed I was a robber.

Instead, the four officers took turns persuading me to “settle” the matter there and then and move on. They sought to shake my stubbornness with horror stories of what would happen to me if they took me to their station. “Dem go so beat you, your mama no go know you again,” one said. I calmly retorted that the police had no right to beat a suspect; their job was to arrange my arraignment.

To shorten a long story, they kept me at Oshodi for an hour and forty minutes. Thanks to their abuse of power, I was extremely late for my meeting. Of course, I was irate throughout the encounter, even though I maintained an exterior calm. In the end, the commanding officer resorted to abuse. “See this one,” he told his subordinates, sweeping me with his eyes. “Make ’e carry him wahala dey go; ’im head no correct!” He and the other officers guffawed at the rustic insult.

It was bad enough that men paid by the public to enforce the law would seek to harass an innocent citizen with spurious allegations of theft. But I was more troubled, still, by the response of many friends as well as my students at the University of Lagos, where I was teaching at the time as a Fulbright scholar. Most harped on the delay that I suffered, and said I should have quickly offered twenty or a few more naira to continue on my way.

I found the counsel that I should have bribed the officers rather sickening. I could easily afford handing out fifty or a hundred naira, but the principle of not offering bribes was quite important. The police would take notice if more and more citizens declared their resistance to this culture of handing money to uniformed extortionists. Besides, there was something wacky about rewarding four officers with cash for accusing me of driving a stolen car! Finally, if the officers believed the car was stolen, why were they willing to let a potential thief go scot-free?

Instead of sitting around this year and hoping that others will make our wishes come true, let’s all resolve to be the change we dream and desire. Doctors should resolve to make the care of patients the core of their practice. Teachers should resolve to prepare well for their classes, and to refrain from selling grades for sex or cash. Police officers should enforce the law, not use force on law-abiding citizens. Students should apply themselves to their studies rather than buying good grades. Civil servants should be both civil in mien and ready to serve; they should be at their desks instead of dawdling about. Drivers should not take to the wheels after drinking themselves to stupor. Parents should teach their children, in words and deeds, that good conduct is its own reward. Legislators should think about ways to use the instrument of laws to improve society. Judges should resolve to consider cases on their merit, not on the strength of the cache of cash from well-heeled litigants.

If we make these individual acts of resolution to do good rather than ill, we are bound to come ever closer to the kind of society we can be proud of. I wish you a New Year in which positive change takes shape in your imagination and then flowers in your conduct each day.

Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe

(okeyndibe@gmail.com)