The danger of fending for yourself, By Femke Van Zeijl

This is not a society. It is a collection of individuals fending for themselves. Nothing truly binds them together.

A fountain of borehole water cascades down from my neighbour’s rooftop tank at least twice a day for twenty minutes. Watching this water being wasted so decadently in a world where fresh water is becoming a precious commodity that in time will be more valuable than gold upsets me every time. ‘Water is free’, says the Lagosian, and drills himself a borehole. Never mind the risks for health and environment. When I fulminated against this attitude, one of my favourite Twitter followers answered: ‘What would u rather he does, femke? Wait for pipe-borne water that NEVER runs?’ His response has been resonating in my mind ever since.


Often I have quoted the self-reliance and resilience of Nigerians as a positive trait. When something turns sour, Nigerians do not sit and wait for help. They create their own solutions, however crooked, barely legal, or inherently damaging these might be. They fend for themselves. I called this attitude creativity and sold it as a strong suit. After living in Lagos for three months, I am starting to reconsider.


Fending for yourself in the Nigerian context, means when the water pipes stop running, you do not hold the State Water Agencies accountable, but hire a borehole specialist that drills another hole that eventually will cause a landslide.


Fending for yourself means whenever ‘they’ve taken light’, you and your entire neighbourhood do not go to the PHCN office for a mass demonstration. Instead you endure the lack of electricity until you’ve saved enough Naira to buy yourself a pass-your-neighbour to join the concert of blaring generators as soon as the light goes off. Never mind the rising cases of asthma, lung cancer and other serious health problems because of air pollution.


Fending for yourself means sending your children away to a proper school abroad instead of insisting on quality education in your own country. The poor man’s kids can go and rot in the classrooms of the sub standard public education system.


Fending for yourself means when you suspect four students of stealing laptops and mobile phones, you go ahead and take up the role of judge, jury and executioner personally, because you cannot trust a law system that is rotten to the core.


The question in all these issues is simple: when did Nigerians stop being stakeholders in their own society? Their resilience to cope with a dysfunctional government has turned into complacency. Instead of demanding for change, acting for change, starting a revolution for all I care, the first thing that comes to the Nigerian’s mind when ‘the system’ fails him is: how can I (singular) get out of this? Not we. In the end, fending for yourself means just that: for yourself and no one else. Screw your neighbours, your countrymen, and the people who are worse off than you.


In the long run, this reflex in which Nigerians have trained themselves to perfection actually worsens the situation rather than making it better.


This is not a society. It is a collection of individuals fending for themselves. Nothing truly binds them together. It is the most dangerous condition for a state to be in. It is a recipe for implosion.

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