The Platform and One Discussion We Are All Avoiding
Every May Day, the Pastor Poju Oyemade-led Covenant Christian Centre, Lagos invites speakers of all shades of opinions to speak at a discussion programme, THE PLATFORM with the view to preferring solutions to Nigeria’s multifaceted problems. At every edition, speakers give brilliant speeches on how best to make the nation work. Speakers like Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Rev. Fr. Matthew Kukah, Governor Peter Obi, and persons of such ilk have spoken at THE PLATFORM on several topical issues from the economy, governance, etc. It’s difficult to see an edition of the programme without a controversial position or character on any selected national discourse or topic. Any curious observer will not fail to notice that most of the discussants speak so much about the problems in governments (federal, states, and local), institutions, systems (whatever that means), the Civil Service, etc, but not a lot of them made any attempt about the role of the citizens in all these. One begins to ask himself or herself if the citizens have any role in all these. This, interestingly, is a discussion we all are, understandably, trying very desperately to avoid.
Observing the challenges of adopting democracies in post-colonial African states, Professor Mahmood Mamdani - in his seminal work Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism – beautifully and boldly dissects the impacts of colonial mentality in reproducing “racial identity in citizens and ethnic identity in subjects” on the former colonies. Even though Professor Mamdani’s case studies are primarily in two Southern African countries - Uganda and South Africa – many of his thoughts are still being firmly reflected in Nigeria today.
The Colonial State in Africa did not hope to prepare Africans for citizenship. This made locals view everything “Government” with so much distrust. Public properties mean nothing other than “nobody’s business” or something to be looted at the slightest opportunity because of poorly defined ownership. An invitation to serve in public office is an opportunity to “partake in the national cake”. As Nigeria’s foremost novelist, Chinua Achebe, wrote in his No Longer At Ease, once a young (wo)man get appointed or elected into public office, he automatically begins to shoulder the responsibilities of his extended family, his clan, or friends who sees his or her appointment as their window to “take” their portion from state’s resources, rather than an opportunity to serve. Mr Obi (the central character in the novel), soon found out that the demands from his clan’s people will soon make him engage in corrupt practices as the Secretary of the Scholarship Commission in the Ministry of Education. After all, according to Achebe in A Man of the People, nobody wants to miss “their chance of getting …their share of the national cake…”
In all these, one will notice the patterns have been about what is to be taken from the state. The citizens feel a sense of entitlement without any corresponding value addition. Governance is an opportunity to “chop”, and not to serve. The recent spat between Festus Keyamo and Eedris Abdulkareem over the latter’s new song “Jaga Jaga Reloaded” shows how unapologetic many Nigerians see public service as a kind of empowerment scheme with everyone desperately competing for their turn or share.
While not saying Government officials shouldn’t be held accountable for their (in)actions or that our institutions need to undergo reforms, one thing we seem to always forget is that these officials who occupy these institutions are also citizens like the rest of us. These institutions or systems won’t run themselves. They will be run by officials who come from within and amongst us. These persons were brought up in the same society, environment, or conditions as most of us. They are not strangers or people from other planets. Getting elected or appointed into public offices won’t just suddenly change them into something they are not. The Professor who was recently caught collecting money to rig for one of the candidates in an election he served as Returning Officer, has probably cheated all his life undetected. If not, he couldn’t just have developed the cheating trait all of a sudden. No one teaches old dogs some new tricks. Old habits die hard. The Twitter influencer, who recently bagged a PhD, says “integrity doesn’t put food on the table or pay bills” because a virtuous woman returned money (running into millions) she found at an airport to the owner has probably lived his life believing cheating or gaming systems will be the best way to go. If we check properly, I won’t be surprised his doctoral thesis will be a huge academic fraud since he sees no problem with academic dishonesty. If these characters finding their ways into public offices, they will surely have no issues violating the Procurement Act in the contract bidding process in favour of their friends, families, or other close relatives since integrity “doesn’t put food on the table…” There are always clues if we are paying enough attention!
I have also read through the 1999 Constitution and say how well detailed the framers of the documents spelt out the rights of citizens from Sections 33 to 45. Something that is conspicuously missing in the same Constitution the Section dealing with the responsibilities of citizens. Even in Sections 25 to 32 where CITIZENSHIP is established, not a single mention of their responsibilities. Well, this can’t simply be an innocent oversight on the part of the framers of the Constitution. They are simply too aware of the kind of citizens we are. John F. Kennedy knew what he was saying when he said “… ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” during his inaugural address as the 35th US President in 1961.
We can talk (or rant) so much about how rascally public officials behave at every talk shows. We can talk about how “politicians are dragging us back” or how the nation is not working. We can speak passionately about how the devolution of powers will be the magic wand to solve all our problems. We can speak about how changing parties in government will be the almighty formula to all our challenges. We will keep leaving out the serious issues around the crisis of citizenship. How can the nation work when everyone just wants to “take” without giving back anything in return? A nation where people only talk about rights (getting) without corresponding responsibilities (giving back) won’t work. It’s like being employed in a company but just want to be collecting salaries monthly without giving much or anything in return. As noted by Frantz Fanon in his The Wretched of the Earth, “A government or a party gets the people it deserves and sooner or later a people gets the government it deserves.” It’s obvious we are avoiding this discussion but we will come back to it someday whether or not we like it. This will be part of my contributions to THE PLATFORM if I’m ever invited to speak!
Olalekan Adigun, a public affairs analyst, writes from Lagos. He tweets from @MrLekanAdigun