“Ask not what your country can do for you; rather ask what you can do for your country.” That was John F. Kennedy, President of the United States of America, shortly before he was slain by an obviously demented fellow by name, Oswald Lee, in 1963.
Twenty years later, December 31, 1983, Lagos, Nigeria. Muhammadu Buhari, a gangling General of the Nigerian Army, said: “This generation of Nigerians and, indeed, future generations, have no other country but Nigeria. We must stay here and salvage it together.”
Were Americans lacking in patriotism at the time Kennedy made that iconic statement or was he simply calling for more sacrifices and patriotism from his fellow Americans? It could have been more of the latter, as Americans have always loved, almost fanatically, their country warts and all. Americans anywhere proudly declare to everyone’s hearing: “I am an American.”
But you couldn’t say the same of Nigerians at the time Buhari made his broadcast. It was in the days of the “Andrews,” who were checking out in droves from our shores in search of greener pastures. It was the period when things had become almost grounded as a result of the profligacy and prodigality of the Second Republic politicians. It was the time when every and anything that could go wrong had gone wrong in our polity, and the military, led by Buhari and his unsmiling partner, Babatunde Idiagbon, had come in, to restore discipline and reason. It is a different story how the successive Nigerian governments became not much different from the men they kicked out. The tale of the ruination of Nigeria’s economy and polity, which we haven’t quite recovered from, is known too well to Nigerians to bear repetition. But that is not the subject of this piece.
Thirty-three years after, 2016, Buhari tells his country men and women to unite, as one to make Nigeria great once more, by flushing out indiscipline, corruption and other ills that make us not the giant, but almost the laughing stock of Africa. He calls the new campaign: ‘#ChangeBeginsWithMe.’ Unlike his earlier attempt at ‘whipping’ Nigerians into line in the 80s, which was dubbed ‘War Against Indiscipline,’ WAI, this new initiative, the initiators say, dwells more on persuasion rather than coercion.
But there are similarities and dissimilarities between the two programmes. Firstly, this new initiative is coming at a time many Nigerians are fast losing faith in their country. With job losses, hunger, anger, militancy, crime and all whatnots hitting hard, it is not too difficult finding reasons for the frustrations. Secondly, corruption hasn’t exactly been dealt the death knell, despite the attempts to cleanse the land of the evil of the malfeasance by the current administration. This then means the change campaign will find a lot to do in attuning the citizenry away from the putrid life of graft and drift.
It tells the citizens to be the change they seek in the country. It tells us to do the right things; to say the right words; to shun the wrong things; to support the government to achieve great things, to make the country great.
Ordinarily, these shouldn’t be difficult for ordinary Nigerians to imbibe. We are, as a similar campaign once rightly affirmed, good people. But bad leaders have sadly governed us over time. And that’s where the new change campaigners will find the toughest nut to crack: How to convince the majority that change begins with them, when over the years and even now, with some government officials, they can’t find much change. To change things, those at the helm of affairs must believe and act change, that’s when change will automatically flow down.
It would not be the first attempt at attitudinal change of Nigerians. Second Republic president, Alhaji Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari, had what his government called ‘Ethical Revolution.’ But it was a record-setting revolution at plundering by that republic. Onyeka Onwenu, the notable singer, had to produce a documentary called ‘Nigeria: A squandering of riches,’ which captured the profligacy of that government despite its ethical revolution mantra. Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, a professor of literature, also came up with his own satirical work,’ Blues for a prodigal,’ to lampoon the government.
Then, Buhari came with WAI. Lauded by Nigerians, its major drawback, its critics assert, was its coercive component, which eroded the otherwise good side of the frontal attack on the twin ills of indiscipline and corruption.
General Ibrahim Babangida had MAMSER, acronym for Mass Mobilisation for Social and Economic Research. It was a populist programme, which sought to change negative attitudes of the citizens by persuasion through elaborate campaigns via the mass media. Headed by the master of grandiloquence, Prof Jerry Gana, the programme was loud in its propaganda and precepts, which not many Nigerians connected to, largely because the administration’s footsteps didn’t match what they were asking of the people.
The General Sani Abacha regime called its own change agenda, War Against Indiscipline and Corruption-WAI-C, and was headed by Babangida’s MAMSER chief, Gana. From what we hear and read about the legendary Abacha loot today, WAI-C of that government must have been a cynical mockery of Nigerians and Nigeria, at what the dark-goggled General must have thought was a fruitless and futile attempt to curb corruption in the land.
President Olusegun Obasanjo had his ‘Heart of Africa’ project, which also included ‘Nigeria Image Project.’ It was not as loud as others, and went out in a whimper. It was not until the coming of Prof Dora Akunyili with ‘Nigeria: Good People, Great Nation,’ that a serious attempt was made to rebrand the country. It was overwhelming and captivating. It grabbed national and global attention. But, with the salacious tales of greed, graft and general indiscipline, pervading the governments that sang ‘good people, great nation,’ many agreed that Nigerians were a good people, but not exactly a great nation because of its bad leaders. End of story.
What have I been driving at? Genuine and lasting change can only happen when those who lead it, live it, by their actions, not words alone. That is the challenge of change.
Another point: The leaders and the led have a stake in the change agenda. But because leaders are so-called, they must take the lead. As I have stated in this column many times, Nigeria’s problem, apart from corruption, is basically, the issue of attitude: Attitude to life. Attitude to public office. Attitude to wealth. Attitude to nation. Attitude to governance.
The politician, who wins election to the National Assembly sees his new position, as one that should automatically enhance his material status. We have seen some people who took night bus to Abuja to partake in the democratic process, suddenly jump into obscene wealth, landed properties and exotic cars in the nation’s capital. We have seen mansions spring up in villages without commensurate labour by the new ‘noveau riches,’ beneficiaries of democracy dividends. In our country today, political offices have become the shortest route to El Dorado. If elected officials don’t see public offices as service to the people, rather than their stomachs, we won’t witness much change.
The civil service is generally rotten: Workers work at their own pace, without a sense of duty or purpose. For many, resumption time is generally anything from 9am-10am and closing can be anytime from 2.30pm-3pm. In some other instances, many don’t even bother to show up. Yet, the government must pay them wages for services not delivered. That attitude must change, if change must be meaningful. Public sector agencies like water board, PHCN, are something else. What we have are competent and incompetent workers with poor attitude to work. We have other areas like Customs, Immigration, Police, among others, whose work ethics need urgent change if Nigeria must work. Even the media, my constituency, will benefit from change. We should start beaming powerful searchlight on crooks and other scoundrels in power, if Nigeria will move forward, to borrow the street lingo. If thieves know they will be exposed by fearless media, they will think twice before dipping their dirty fingers in the collective till. We surely have a lot more work to do if we want profound change in our country.