Good evening, it is such an honour to be asked to speak to such a distinguished group of students, organisers and fellow speakers.
When I was much younger, I used to listen as my dad and his friends engaged in loud conversations. As I grew older, I too began to participate in conversations with my own friends. I noticed that most of these revolved around three topics: sports,, (mostly football), everyday events and the politics and economics of Nigeria.
I also observed several other things. First, everyone is an expert. This is why I feel like a football fan speaking at a convention of fans of my favourite football team. I expect that nothing I say will be new, but it should certainly generate discussion. Secondly, all the ills we discuss – corruption, armed robbery, economic malaise and election violence – have interrelated causes. Finally, Nigerians are very passionate; indeed sometimes, passionate arguments can be interpreted by non Nigerians as aggression. There is however an important question; are we passionate about our country, our place within Nigeria, or simply our own individual interests?
Let me explain. In 2014, Nigerians celebrated the centenary of our creation. This might have confused everyone else who had joined us in celebrating the golden jubilee of our independence in 2010, but as Nigerians, we understood the significance of both. As usual, both occasions provided much room for reflection.
The fact is that Nigeria is an amalgamation of several states, some large, others very small indeed. In such small communities, it was easier for the individual to be more powerful. The influence of an individual in a community of 500, 1000 or even 10000, with limited transport links to neighbouring communities is much greater than in a country of perhaps 160 million people with reasonable transportation and communication,. However, Nigerians seem to have imported 18th and 19th century attitudes into the 21st century. Insurgency, corruption and even election violence are linked by our feeling of individual self-importance, high above the national interest. A Nigerian wants to succeed, by hook or by crook, and limited success leads to increased ambition. A policeman who holds a gun knows that this is his route to power, so does an administrator in a university who holds the key to the admission of a student. In Nigeria, the term ‘local champion’ implies that a person is too insignificant to make a difference beyond his street. This concept even works with team sports. So often, international commentators remark that our football team is full of individuals with great skill when they are on the ball. However, they cannot play as a team. The explanation is quite simple: ‘I have the ball, it’s my source of power, so I use it’.
A while back, there was the concept of the national cake, loosely interpreted as our share of the resources of the country. I once spoke to Dai Davis, a Welsh man who had worked in several community projects in the Niger Delta. He painted a picture; imagine a small cake and everyone taking huge pieces of the cake. He suggests that this is what happens in Nigeria. His argument is that all countries experience some form of corruption,but in other situations, the cake is much larger, meaning that the amount taken by the individual is less significant.
Unfortunately, we do not consider the unforeseen effects of our actions, beyond immediate satisfaction and one upmanship. In Ola Rotimi’s brilliant play, “our husband has gone mad again” the main character suggests that national cake is too soft, we should call it national chinchin. This is presumably because eating chinchin produces a satisfying crunching sound that can be heard by your neighbours. However, if you maintain your power by foul means, you also perpetuate the lowering morale and moral standards within the country. Those who put guns in the hands of others and encourage them to beat up their opponents cannot collect their weapons back. As I already said, each person wants to have an instrument of power, so what do these thugs do with the guns? People are not just violent during elections, the violent are violent all the time.
To avoid election violence, each individual must want Nigeria to work as a country. This is not a narrowly defined kind of socialism. The truth is that in all successful states, individual interest may exist, but each person knows that it is in their interest for their country to work. In the Bible, Jeremiah advises Israelites in exile to pray for the prosperity of their country of residence, because “in their prosperity lies your own prosperity”. This is sound advice, even for Nigerians living in Nigeria.
It is however not enough. Everyone must also recognize that they have a stake in the success of Nigeria. This means that Nigerians should not accept anything short of their own entitlement to good government. In a country used to casual disenfranchisement, this may be a difficult concept, but every Nigerian who allows themselves to be deprived of their rights to an accountable government is gradually eroding their duty to their own country. The same is true in cases of corruption, heavyhanded police activity and anything else that makes the individual smaller than they should be. The truth is that those who acquire power fraudulently will not think of their fellow citizens, so ultimately, voters should not in any way encourage them to gain power. Furthermore, if I have a right to be treated fairly, then I must demand that right. If I have a right to know how politicians spend my country’s money, then I must ask them. If I don’t, there are only two other choices open to me; I could join the corruption or leave the country. This was why Andrew wanted to ‘check out’ in the famous 1984 television advert.
The strategy proposed is not governmental, it is individual. It seems to me that our idealism deserts us after our education. In the 1970s and 1980s, student union leaders would bring Nigeria to a standstill, demanding better standards from their government. Where are they now? I was priviledged to spend some time working with Mrs Hirat Aderinsola Balogun, about the time she served in the panel considering the eligibility of first and second republic politicians to participate in future civilian governments. I remember speaking to several friends, who were of the view that the same old politicians would come back to rule the country in the same old way. Several of those politicians are gone now; but in the end, we don’t need a change in generations, we need a change in attitudes.
This is why I’m so honoured to be speaking to you. I hope, fervently pray that you will be those who will bring the new attitude, strike the right balance between self intereste and national success. I pray that you will be the ones who, with a different perspective will change Nigeria into a country where election violence will be a thing of the past.