Even by the standards of a loquacious people such as we are, strange bombast and inflated rhetoric borne of economic adversity, define and defile the political terrain. Stung by relentless criticisms of poor performance on the economy, President Muhammadu Buhari has allowed himself the costly indulgence of dismissing all previous leaders as having achieved nothing. In his words, “I want Nigerians to realise that what this government inherited after 16 years of the PDP government was (sic) no savings, no infrastructure, no power, no rail, no road and no security”.
There must be better ways of depicting a country which only recently slipped from Africa’s largest economy to its second largest, and which Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, recently described after visiting hi-tech start-ups in Lagos, as possessing the potential to shape global affairs. Buhari’s sweeping put down of 16 years of emerging democracy illustrates the distemper of the times. Citizens trapped in the frying pan of economic vicissitudes, underlined by galloping inflation and arrears of unpaid salaries throw pellets of rebuke at the President; Buhari berates past leaders, and we all are caught in a heat wave of bashing, substituting for calm analysis and informed conversation.
It is in this context of too many criticisms chasing too few edifying truths that we must situate the rapid fire shooting down of the “Change Begins With Me” campaign launched last week in Abuja by Buhari. Even before Nigerians have had time to properly digest the objectives, in my view inspiring, of the campaign, a volley of harsh words conveying contempt showered the initiative. Leading the offensive is my colleague in The PUNCH commentariat, Abimbola Adelakun, who thundered last Thursday, “Dear Lai, Change does not begin with me” (The PUNCH, September 8, 2016). Adelakun whose take resonated well with the public, argued that “Change does not begin with the average Nigerian. No, it begins with those who promised us change a year ago”. She went on to say that the campaign is “a diversionary tactic, a propaganda vehicle for paternalistic pontification by a hypocritical lot”. Other columnists, a little less severe but equally biting, asked whether attitudinal change was the change promised by Buhari when he campaigned for the Presidency.
As the diatribes increased, it became clear that several writers saw the programme as a “419” substitute for the change in living standards promised by the All Progressives Congress. In short, a noble, and in my view much needed value change campaign had been shouted out of court by a citizenry reeling from the pains and throes of economic doldrums.
To carry the debate further, and beyond its current fixation with the performance of the government on a nose-diving economy, it is important to restate that an agenda to restructure the nation’s values constitutes an adjunct of genuine political reforms. The pity however, is that its timing is inauspicious, to the extent that it fails to factor that it would have been better received if the government had been more successful at economic turnaround. Indeed, last year, the acclaimed governor of Lagos State, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, called for an ethical rebirth, pointing out that he had created the Office of the Special Adviser on Civic Engagement, in order to press home the need to complement ongoing renovations in Lagos with citizen buy-in. Nobody thought that such a talk was a waste of time or an effort to hoodwink the masses, partly because Ambode has been pushing the frontiers of innovation and purposeful governance in Lagos since he assumed office. In the case of the centre however, it will appear that many of our columnists are reacting, perhaps over-reacting, to the economic turmoil and the lack of visible progress in broad areas of governance.
The lesson is clear: People in the troughs of despair, preoccupied with existential crisis are not the best candidates for exhortations on moral rehabilitation. For, philosophers recognise situational ethics or bounded rationalities, in which the actors write their own rules and moral codes, based on the exigencies of survival in life-threatening circumstances. That granted, somewhere down the road, when there is more pleasure, this country must confront the phenomenon of an emerging uncivil society. There are acceptable modes and genres of protests and coping mechanisms, just as there are uncivil and fracturing ones. The citizen who decides to make away with railings hewed from a newly constructed bridge, in order to make a fast buck is obviously imperilling our collective future. In the same way, widespread dereliction among workers in the public and private sectors, points to dangers of extreme types of behaviours and attitudes. To put it squarely, at what point does the freedom or laxity of an individual become a societal menace and dangerous abnormality? In this respect, the mushrooming of fake drug barons, kidnappers, pipeline vandals, murderous herdsmen, freelance robbers wielding automatic weapons, and sundry crooks making a living in the interstices of a poorly policed society point to the short and long term consequences of growing incivility.
However effective a government gets, it cannot singlehandedly, and without reference to a collaborative society deliver benefits in the face of so much negation. A case in point is the scorched earth tactic of the Niger Delta Avengers, who have chosen as a vehicle of protest, destructive methods that will do great harm and cause grievous setbacks not just to Nigeria if it continues to exist in its current form, but to their own very communities, even if those communities become part of a new country or better still, enjoy more autonomy in a restructured Nigeria.
This columnist is hinting here at the wider issue of defaults in our citizenship which prefers to enjoy rights without responsibilities or obligations. Caught in a similar dilemma, South Africa a few years ago, launched a Bill of Responsibilities Campaign aimed mainly at the youths. Part of the Preamble to that bill states that “I appreciate that the rights enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa are inseparable from my duties and responsibilities to others. Therefore, I accept that with every right comes a set of responsibilities”. Nigeria, marooned in the shadows of an underperforming government and an inclement syndrome in a part of its civil society, certainly needs the “Change Begins With Me” campaign. As previously argued however, the message is unlikely to be received in a situation where it is seen as a manipulative tactic to create excuses for non-performance. Perhaps, it would have made more sense if as part of the change agenda of this administration, it had instituted a revolution in values to undergird its reforms. For obviously, every revolution must have its green or red book, from where it draws inspiration, legitimise its actions, and espouses its vision of a good society. That this was not done at inception is to be regretted but we must be careful not to throw away the baby with the bath water.
Government should bid its time and target an upturn in the economy, engineered by it, in order to reintroduce the important subject. Finally, those in government should set the example by pruning costs and tastes in order to elicit the value change they demand.