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#ChangeBeginsWithMe And The Limits of Sloganeering, By Julius Ogunro

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When the people are hungry, and perceive the government to be insincere, partial and incapable of meeting their needs, it will be difficult for them to start processing sermons from it on how to be good citizens. They just want to get by, and if skimming the system a little will provide food on the table, they will do so. No amount of preaching from a false prophet will stop them.

Nigerians distrust their government. It is reason why all the past image or re-orientation campaigns launched by previous governments failed and why the latest #Changebeginswithme project may not fly. I should know. I was part of the Rebranding Nigeria Campaign launched by the former Minister of Information and Communication, Dora Akunyili in 2009 and the spirited effort to make it succeed. It did not.

The rebranding project was conceived by the late Akunyili as a platform to drive attitudinal change and values reorientation among Nigerians, with special focus on the youth and children. After numerous consultations with stakeholders, a brilliant logo and slogan, Nigeria: good people, great nation, which sums up the aspiration of the project, was selected. The vehicle for achieving Dora’s rebranding Nigeria vision were role models such as Soyinka, Achebe, GM Motors Nigerian designer Jelani Aliyu and a conscious retelling of the Nigerian story by focusing on the good and the beautiful. At the height of the campaign several rebranding Nigeria school clubs were launched and some state governments even launched similar projects of their own, with the goal of highlighting the best about Nigeria.

But in the end the campaigned failed woefully, in spite of the good intentions and unrivaled passion of the late Dora. The main challenge was that Nigerians distrusted the government of the day and many argued, as I can now say rightly, that our problems: corruption, inefficiency in the civil service, poor infrastructure et al., were real and would not go away by mere sloganeering but by deliberately addressing the issues involved. And those issues could only be addressed by the government when it changes ITS OWN values by punishing crime, rewarding excellence, and promoting merit; not by stylishly passing the buck to the people bearing the brunt of bad governance.

The argument was that the rebranding campaign was an attempt to paper over Nigeria’s cracks, and even though we pushed and argued for a change of attitude, in the end the campaign failed. Today it is largely forgotten. The best argument against rebranding for me was an article in which a writer used the analogy of a family that is hungry, sick and beset by other problems. The father of the house who has the greatest responsibility for fixing the problems, then gathers everyone – the mother, children, house help – for a meeting, but instead of providing real solutions, screams: “family, happy, healthy – and well fed!” The writer argued that that slogan would not change the material condition of that family. I agree.

Today not much has changed. This government rode on to power on the goodwill of the people and was offered as the panacea to all the problems besetting Nigeria, including tribalism, corruption, inefficiency, and insecurity, but more than one year in the saddle, it is yet to provide real solutions to the plagues afflicting this country; even more worrisome is the fact that there appears to be no clear strategy on how tackle the myriad of problems.

With the recession biting hard, life has become worse for the average Nigerian. The cost of basic food items such as rice and garri has soared. The minimum wage has remained stagnant at N18,000. The cost of Petrol (PMS) has risen about 60 percent since the inauguration of this government. Several business have shut down because of the inability to access foreign exchange or the unfavorable business climate. Unemployment and underemployment have risen. The people are tired, weaker and poorer, and therefore not in the mood for stories.

The truth is, the people watch their leaders, and know almost impulsively when they are sincere and working hard to fix their problems. When they perceive the leaders to be insincere, reorientation campaigns are seen as mere sloganeering and are complete wastes of time and money.

It is in this context that Nigerians have treated the #Changebeginswithme campaign with utmost contempt and derision. Some of the comments online would have been very funny, if they were not that tragic. Here are a few: “Spend the money used for the campaign on roads, power and infrastructure.” “How can somebody be diligent in the discharge of his/her duties when after 30 days of hard work, salary is not paid?” “How can you be at work early when you cannot transport yourself to work?” “Change should begin with Buhari because he has left Daura to Aso rock and things have really changed for good for him.” “Buhari and the legislators should lead the way by first slashing their salaries and other incentive to reflect the current economy before demanding for change from the masses.”

Similar commentary followed previous image or reorientation launches, indicators that the campaigns did not resonate with the people and were not owned by them. No one however can fault the good intentions of the promoters of the #Changebeginswithme campaign. The aim, according to report, is for Nigerians to be more patriotic and do things differently – obey the laws, pay their taxes, be good neighbours, stop jumping traffic lights, and so on. The objectives are laudable and the promoted values are necessary ingredients for the greatness of any society.

But the problem is with the government promoting such values while apparently shirking its own responsibilities to provide basic services and infrastructure, as well as to manage the commonwealth in a fair and judicious manner. There is no need to repeat here the negative issues around this government. When the people are hungry, and perceive the government to be insincere, partial and incapable of meeting their needs, it will be difficult for them to start processing sermons from it on how to be good citizens. They just want to get by, and if skimming the system a little will provide food on the table, they will do so. No amount of preaching from a false prophet will stop them.

In the US and more developed countries, the people are generally more orderly and organised. They behave well without need to be preached to. They love their national symbols, sing their anthem with great love and from the heart. I am sure they will not be as patriotic if they lived in an unequal society like ours, or one with a head-of-state seen to be kleptocratic – the typical Africa strongman. Here, a minister with about 10 cars in his convoy, living fat off the state will ask a worker on an unrealistic minimum wage to manage. And then preach to him on the benefits of a frugal lifetstyle!

The truth is, the people watch their leaders, and know almost impulsively when they are sincere and working hard to fix their problems. When they perceive the leaders to be insincere, reorientation campaigns are seen as mere sloganeering and are complete wastes of time and money.

Julius Ogunro, a communication consultant, wrote from Abuja.

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