Nigeria 2015: making tomorrow’s history today

Unlike my previous posts, this (and subsequent ones) will be brief and to the point. And the point in this article is what each and every one of us must do today to secure his/her place in tomorrow’s history. By tomorrow, I mean 2015. It is no longer news that the year is viewed with foreboding by practically every Nigerian. Signs of anxiety are palpable. The US it was that first foresaw our country going down under in 2015. The worst-case scenario has since been sketched on our mind. Preachers in churches and mosques make the epic challenge that we face next year the center-piece of their sermons. The pundits never cease advising us to brace for the bumpy ride ahead. Hash-tag “Nigeria” and the other words you expect to pop up before your very eyes are “2015”, “election”, and “trouble”.

If anyone thinks that Nigeria’s 2015 history would be written one second after the make-or-break year, s/he is sadly mistaken. The choices that we make either to act out or rewrite the doomsday script are already being noted for posterity. Make an unguarded, devil-may-care statement today, and history’s discerning eye is already trained on you, scanning the odious data coming out of your mouth and storing it in a secure hard drive. Promise one thing one minute and do another the next, but do not expect history to ignore the perfidy or to delete it from its memory.

History will of course understand that our stations in life matter in the choices we make. What a ‘big man’ can break with a gentle touch or body language may require more than the physical exertion of a thousand lowly placed men to bend. It is for this reason–the reason that fingers are, as they say, unequal–that I have decided to split today’s theme into two. The first part (meaning this article) will interrogate the opportunities which the average citizen has to prove the doomsday prophets right or wrong. The article, among other things, challenges the popular belief that the ordinary wo/man in the street is totally powerless. The second part will come next week when I shall, God willing, address the question how the pillars of our society, the ‘big wo/men’, hope to make, and effectively, write their own history.

It is fair to ask why I am starting with ordinary citizens when the power to change their material condition lies elsewhere, notably, in the hands of the makers and shakers of society. Would it not be more realistic to leave ordinary citizens out of it and categorically hold those controlling the apparatus of power responsible for whatever goes wrong in our lives? What can the urban unemployed or the rural poor do to influence the course of history? Since when have the votes of the people decided the outcome of electoral contests, or their voices heeded by those in authority? Even highly educated segments of our society–university professors, low- and mid-ranking civil servants, opinion leaders, members of the Fourth Estate, bishops and imams, and the like–can only tag along once the rulers make up their minds to proceed in any particular direction.

Unfortunately matters aren’t that simple. I would not be writing this article if the situation is that clear-cut, with the powerful commanding and the powerless obeying. The binary view of power does not capture or explain the all too frequent interdependence between and among elements making up our society. It is pretty much settled that the weak cannot face life’s challenges without encountering the visible hand of the strong. What is less obvious is that the power of the rulers will be of no effect without the explicit or implicit consent, acquiescence, and/or outright collusion of ordinary citizens. The god-father that is intent on spooking his opponents will not handle the task himself; he will outsource the mischief-making to thugs, mostly other people’s children. The candidate who is desperate to be returned unopposed will not personally kidnap his/her rival, but would rely on errand boys (who are not his/her children) to do the nefarious deed.

Regardless of the substantive but latent power of the people, the myth of the almighty ruler persists. The reason for the average citizen’s enduring feeling of powerlessness is not far to seek. Having been re-cycled from one generation of rulers to another, we Nigerians have come to believe that power is the monopoly of whoever manages to seize it. It is this belief that underpins our tolerance of despotism and impunity. Except in a few cases, the tradition that has developed over the years is for prominent members of a regime to take personal possession of the sovereign powers of the state and to exercise these powers without answering to the people. The same tradition expects the rest of society to equate the rulers’ commands with Divine decrees and to obey them without question. This was understandably the case under the military. The practice, or should I say, the endurance of tyranny, has curiously survived under, and has been exploited by, the succeeding civilian administrations.

The citizen’s failure to question the prevailing socio-political order has proved detrimental to the cause of good governance. By treating the rulers’ directives as sacrosanct, we have only succeeded in piling up lifeless, personality-dependent, corruption-prone, and pliable structures, but have failed woefully in transforming the structures into time-tested, mandate-driven institutions. To no-one’s surprise, we are yet to–after more than six decades of existence as a sovereign nation–point to one institution of government that is capable of standing up to strong personalities or of staying focused on the discharge of its statutory mandate. It does not matter whether the institution is the Nigerian Police Force/NPF, the Independent Electoral Commission/INEC, the moribund Nigerian Airways, or the now disbanded National Electric Power Authority/NEPA. It also does not matter how many times these structures changed their names. None has to-date proved resilient enough to resist political encroachments on its statutory authority or to attain consistently high performance/customer satisfaction standards.

The structures have failed to mature into institutions simply because those working therein have either failed to discharge their basic obligations or have actively participated in external subversion of their agencies’ authority and underlying values.

Any effort to salvage (rather than wreck) public institutions must of necessity start from within. Fortunately, the majority of those working in these institutions (at the senior, intermediate and junior levels) are citizens of our country, not aliens from outer space. It is obviously impossible to list all the officials or their institutions. However, for the purpose of the 2015 history that is already in progress, I would like to single out the officials of INEC, the Nigerian Police, the State Security Service/SSS, government-owned electronic and print media houses, the National Youth Service Commission/NYSC, and local government administrations. If these and other agencies’ officials are to be benignly viewed by history, they should, in all they do, diligently abide by the universal public service principles, notably the principles of non-partisanship, impartiality, anonymity, professionalism, and integrity.

Although I shall, in my next post, say something about the Rivers State Police Commissioner, Mr Mbu, I cannot help noticing that the strictures on political neutrality and anonymity apply directly to him. As a career official, he is obliged to demonstrate the highest standards of impartiality and, as specified in public service codes of conduct worldwide, to refrain from commenting publicly on issues of a political or quasi-political nature. In this respect, I would like him to refer to the AU Public Service Charter on Values and Principles as well as Nigeria’s Public Service Rules.

By the way, Commissioner Mbu does not have to heed my advice. Assured of high-level political backing, he may continue flouting public service codes of conduct with impunity and in utter disregard of history’s verdict. However, his subordinates can only ignore the advice on professionalism at their own peril. The subordinates must know that if a superior officer issues a directive that is patently partisan, unlawful, unethical, outside the scope of a post’s authority, or a combination of these, they, the subordinates, are perfectly within their right to advise that a decision be reconsidered or, in the alternative, to demand that their dissent be noted for the record. If the superiors are effectively sucked into the political patronage net or are otherwise compromised, the subordinates have an obligation to safeguard the interest of the nation. They can start by insisting on, and sticking to, due process, and by ensuring that all transactions, including monetary transfers, are properly documented. Ask other public administration scholars or practitioners. Their advice on how to handle similar situations will not be different from mine.

The injunctions on impartiality, anonymity, professionalism and due process are not limited to the police. They apply equally to the staff of INEC, SSS, NYSC, NAFDAC, NDLA, the Federal Capital Territory Administration, the National Petroleum Corporation, the Central Bank, state-owned television and radio stations, and the miscellaneous public service delivery agencies. Each and every career official must realize that s/he is appointed to a post for a purpose and with clear job descriptions. The basic obligation of any civil servant is to serve the People rather than the person of the ruler or his household. The civil servant must also know that with the obligation to serve comes the attendant accountability. When the chips are down, the incumbent of each post will answer for acts of omission or commission perpetrated on his watch—that is, for acts perpetrated with his knowledge and implied consent. No official would find solace or exoneration in the plea that s/he is acting on “instructions from above”.

It is not just those in public employment that need to take a pro-active view of their civic responsibilities. Their private (as well as non-profit) sector counterparts should equally be aware of the risks they run if they acquiesce with anarchic social behaviour or remain complacent in the face of misrule. If the more enlightened members of our society (like teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, business entrepreneurs) know of relatives that are being recruited as political garrison commanders’ foot soldiers, now is the time for them to pull the less-informed, nay, erring, family members by the ear and drum sense into them. Civic education is a shared responsibility, more so, as it rarely forms part of the regular school curricula. At a time when a minor act is capable of setting off negative chain reactions, it is incumbent on us all to add being one another’s teachers to our responsibilities as our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers.

Cultural organizations (like the Arewa Consultative Forum, the Ohaneze Ndigbo, the Afenifere, and the Ijaw National Congress) have a major role in civic education. However, they must first desist from attacking one another, and instead aim their salvos at the enemies of a prosperous and stable Nigeria.

I have alluded to a category of “ordinary citizens” that we can count on to shame the 2015 doomsday prophets. Indeed, the really “ordinary” citizens are those at the bottom of the social ladder. This is an eclectic group comprising skilled wage earners, the rural and the urban poor, unskilled, low-income labourers, unemployed school leavers, market women, urchins and “area boys”. These are the citizens who see themselves as too powerless to change “the System”. Strange as it may sound, the proverbial “ordinary man” is more than capable of complicating or curing our maladies. Among the “ordinary citizens” are computer whiz kids, street-smart cyber scammers, Internet “area boys”, cultists, perpetrators of violent crimes, vote-rigging agents and ballot snatchers.

I doubt that the few with Internet access would be inclined to act on this message, or take the trouble of passing it on to those operating far from the Information Highway. In any case, I respect anyone’s right to question this article’s underlying message, especially, the accent on a proactive view of history. The really “ordinary” citizens will undoubtedly find it difficult buying into the idea that they have a latent energy ready to be channelled to a good end. They will ask, and rightly too, whether anyone ever gets rewarded for a good deed in Nigeria. They will also demand to know where I expect them to find the power or energy needed to activate this so-called good deed.

Honestly, I have no answer to either question. I cannot guarantee that a reward is waiting for whoever makes the right choices today in order to ward off tomorrow’s Armageddon. I cannot point to a specific part of any person’s body from where to harness the power or energy to make good. However, I can say without any fear of contradiction that the law of karma is inescapable. The cosmic account will be reconciled one way or the other. If you are a witness to, or an active participant in, our country’s dismemberment today, be assured that you will somehow get what you deserve tomorrow. Even if, as an “ordinary citizen”, your name does not appear in any of the history books, the choices that you make will from now on be recorded in your own personal hard drive. No history can be closer to home than that!

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