Growing up with parents and guardians who had a keen interest in politics and governance (both national and international), and who engaged us (as young as we were then) on political issues, had a significant impact on shaping our minds and ideas on politics, governance, and what kind of country Nigeria should be. Some of us grew up with stories of Nigeria’s significant place in the African continent, how it is regarded as the “Giant of Africa”, her role in international politics – her significant role in ending apartheid rule in South Africa, her peacekeeping role in Liberia, her significant contribution to ECOMOG, a West African peacekeeping force that has played a critical role in restoring relative peace to conflicting territories across the West African sub-region, etc – and how important she has been in relations between Africa and the rest of the world.
Despite Nigeria’s many glaring challenges, there was always a belief that the country would someday reach its full potential. And after the little progress made in various sectors between 1999 and 2007, it was only a matter of time. With consistent efforts to improve on the 1999-2007 records, there was little doubt that the country’s days in the wilderness were numbered. Many began to have dreams of a Nigeria where water “from the state agency” runs in your tap at home, where good roads lead to your home, where you never have to worry about electricity supply, and where proper town planning creates a beautiful environment, where school-age children are in good schools, where you do not have to suffer and die due to; illness, financial incapacitation, lack of well-equipped hospitals, and/or negligence of unmotivated healthcare workers, and where you do not have to spend even a day extra to earn a world-class 4 years degree.
A country where you can travel to its nook and cranny, and at any time you want (without worrying about being kidnapped or killed by violent non-state actors or their unprofessional colleagues in various security agencies). A country where any child could dream to be anything and have a realistic chance of achieving it – as long as he/she is willing to put in the effort, a country where the youth is guaranteed opportunities and old age is guaranteed security, where parents do not have to make children their retirement plan. A Nigeria whose many ethnic groups evolve to become a “Nation”, one where ethnic and religious lines are blurred, where a citizen is more Nigerian than Hausa, Igbo, or Yoruba, a country where merit supersedes all other considerations. A Nigeria where state governors do not celebrate “paying civil servants’ salaries”, where citizen-leader relation is one of trust and mutual respect, a country that can stand as equals with any other on the international stage.
Unfortunately, socio-political events since 2007 have made these dreams seem more like illusions. The current reality of the country makes it seem like these are no longer valid dreams, that this ideal society cannot be achieved within the geographical space called Nigeria. But we must not resign to fate, especially in the build-up to the 2023 general elections. We must not accept that surviving is enough. Irrespective of the winner of the 2023 presidential election, Nigeria needs to find its way back to the path of visible steady progress. To do that, we must create a national orientation that equips citizens with the history of the country, at least from the amalgamation of 1914. A national orientation that equips citizens with relevant knowledge of their fundamental human rights and their rights as citizens of Nigeria, and also their civic obligations. Obligations like obeying laws, conducting themselves in ways that promote the peace and stability of the country, payment of taxes, and protecting public infrastructure, among others.
Nigerians must realise that they are not to worship public officeholders and that they are not to be scared of their so-called representatives. They must be made to know that relations between citizens and public office holders should be based on mutual respect. We must create a new political culture that edifies. The enigmatic former Director-general of NAFDAC, late professor Dora Akunyili, recognized this need for reorientation when she served as the Minister of Information under former president Umaru Musa Y’aradua. With her project tagged “Nigeria: Good People, Great Nation”, she sought to create among Nigerians, a mindset of responsible citizenship, which she believed could transform the country and bring out the potential of its people in doing great things. It is unfortunate that successive governments have not been keen on this much-needed reorientation.
The place of a sound education cannot be overemphasized in the building of a country. And education here is not just about people going to school, it is more about the kind of schools they are going to. The sight of the infrastructural decay in Nigerian public schools will hurt anyone who truly cares about the well-being of this country. We regularly read and hear reports of schools without chairs and desks for students, schools where students sit on the floor, schools where examination questions are written on the chalkboard because there are no provisions made for printing relevant papers, and schools where classrooms are without windows, doors, and even roof. It then becomes wishful thinking to expect properly equipped laboratories in these schools. But without laboratories, what sort of science is being taught to these innocent students?
Science is a field where theoretical ideas must be tested and verified through practical application and processes, but without the required laboratories, how can these students have a proper understanding of what science is? A simple conversation with the teachers in our schools will almost make one cry for the future of the innocent students being taught in these schools. Teachers who can hardly express themselves in correct grammar, and whose knowledge of their chosen subject will leave you wondering how they got the teaching job in the first place. Not long ago, the Kaduna state government dismissed thousands of teachers because they failed the test conducted by the state government to test their knowledge of the subjects they teach. If a teacher cannot demonstrate knowledge of his/her field, what then is there to teach students?
Our education sector must be reformed, not only to ensure that students are taught the proper things in various fields of study and in an ideal learning environment but they must be taught to know that knowledge is not static and is never complete. In other words, it is a continuously changing process, and our students must be encouraged to use their minds, question things, and explore ideas that spring up in their minds. This is how the body of knowledge is developed, it is how new ideas are added to previously existing ones, and it is how society advances. It is by being open to new ideas that we can move from “what is” to “what can be”. This is how various discoveries and advancements have been made in the history of man. An integral part of this reform of our education sector must include a new political culture, which revolves around “service to the country”.
The role of politics in the life of a country is unrivaled. As a matter of fact, everything – good or bad – in a country is a direct result of the kind of politics in the country. Vernon Van Dyke, in his definition of politics, said politics is the struggle among actors pursuing conflicting interests on public issues. From this definition, Dyke limits politics to the public realm, and while his definition is correct, politics is not restricted to the public realm, as it takes place everywhere, including in the private sector and even in our private lives. But that’s not our focus here, our focus is on the struggle among actors pursuing conflicting interests on public issues. The interests of political actors are the basis of any outcome of political activities. The interest of the founding fathers of the United States of America was to build a country that can reach its full potential and become unrivaled on the international stage. Their interest was for the country, not for themselves, and that interest for the country shaped their actions and inactions that birthed an America that has been the greatest country in the world in the last century.
The interest of Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues was what enabled them to create a Singapore that is today one of the most thriving countries in the world, and in the space of just about fifty years. The interest of Chinese leaders was what enabled them to build a China that is today the second largest economy in the world, the manufacturing hub of the world, where the largest percentage of world manufacturing takes place. And these things are not without impact on their people. Due to selfless politicking and love for the country, the Chinese have been able to lift more than 700 million people out of poverty in under fifty years. That is more than three times Nigeria’s population. These leaders have been able to do these things because they recognize that no country can be great without its people and that their own greatness as individuals becomes even more profound with the number of lives they are able to impact positively. In Europe, there are numerous examples of similar accomplishments. Even the Arabs are not left behind, for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is an example of what greatness can be achieved if people are responsible, and there are visionary leaders who are deliberately governing their country.
In a recent speech delivered at the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) conference in Lagos, Nigerian writer and author of the critically acclaimed book “Half of a Yellow Sun”, Chimamanda Adichie, decried how young Nigerians today do not have heroes to look up to in the country. This is a very sad thing, really, as it reflects a complete mess of our public space. While heroes are not restricted to the public realm, it is usually the primary space where young people look for positive examples. Adichie mentioned the former Director-general of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), late professor Dora Akunyili, and her exploits at the agency. Akunyili’s dedication to sanitizing the Nigerian Food and Drug industries remains unrivaled, and even in death, she is still being celebrated for distinguishing herself in public service.
Nigeria is in urgent need of public office holders like Akunyili, people who recognize the privilege of being in public office and recognize the pride of being agents of positive change in their country, people who derive their relevance from improving a lot of the country’s citizens, instead of the naive idea of serving their personal interests. Nigeria needs political actors who care about their names and what history will tell about them, people who see the folly of neglecting the country’s health sector while running abroad for the slightest of ailments. People who see that true wealth is built through hard work, investment, and consistent efforts, instead of naive embezzlement of public funds. People who derive joy from building functional institutions, people who continuously strive to make life easier and better for the most vulnerable in society, people who know that lasting wealth is built when the majority have, and people who are mindful of the obligations of their office, and for which they are being paid by the taxpayers. Nigeria must create a political culture of ideas, love for country, and responsibility.
However, the job of creating a new political culture cannot be done by public office holders alone, every citizen must play his/her own part in this cause. We must begin to do the right things, even when we are not being watched. We must consistently demand that public office holders do their job, and stop celebrating petty things like payment of salaries. It appears that Nigeria’s next president will emerge from among Peter Obi, Bola Tinubu, and Atiku Abubakar. Of the three, Peter Obi is enjoying unusual widespread support as a third force, which is a good thing for our democracy. But while polls put him in a lead, he and the others must be interrogated on their plans and capacity. Their ideas and plans on subjects like Restructuring, Resource control, True Federalism, Petrol Subsidy, and other important issues must be made known to Nigerians. There have been enough repeated tales of the woes of the country, it’s time for ideas to address these woes. The 2023 general elections present us an opportunity to begin to right the many wrongs of the country, we cannot afford to let it be business as usual. And irrespective of whether or not our desired candidates win in 2023, we must continue these conversations.