“That night before the meeting, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, whom I had visited two years before, gave us a banquet in the hotel. Raja and I were seated opposite a hefty Nigerian, Chief Festus, their finance minister. The conversation is still fresh in my mind. He was going to retire soon, he said. He had done enough for his country and now had to look after his business, a shoe factory. As finance minister, he had imposed a tax on imported shoes so that Nigeria could make shoes. Raja and I were incredulous. Chief Festus had a good appetite that showed in his rotund figure, elegantly camouflaged in colourful Nigerian robes with gold ornamentation and a splendid cap. I went to bed that night convinced that they were a different people playing to a different set of rules.”
Thus, Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, describes one of the more memorable episodes of his visit to Nigeria in January 1966. A year after Singapore’s independence, he was attending a conference of Commonwealth prime ministers convened by the then-prime minister of Nigeria.
Confronted by the indignation expressed by some sectors on the rot that the country appears to be in today, it is hard not to recall this paragraph. The senate, for instance, has been the butt of jokes of late. The judiciary has been at the receiving end of claims that it is complicit in the takeover of the national space by corrupt practices. And the presidency has had its fair share of calls for the president to turn in his resignation, on grounds both of ill-health and incompetence. All of which suggest a serious erosion of national virtue. “Erosion” is the operative noun here. In conversations with the more impassioned of those who would force a change to the system now, there’s this sense of our having taking a turn for the worse at some point in our history. According to this telling, all of the new effort at reconstitution is naught but a process of returning “us” back to the straight and narrow path.
The heft of Lee Kuan Yew’s book, From Third World to First must have rivalled Chief Festus’ girth; but those 138 words are all that I usually remember of the book. “A different people playing to a different set of rules”! That is indeed what we are. What we have always been. I recall being similarly afflicted by Peter Enahoro’s How To Be a Nigerian.
Most of commentators on Nigeria’s malaise tend to date its antecedents to either of two events: the 1966 coup or General Babangida’s coup in 1985. Depending on whom you talk to, Nigeria lost its innocence on the back of either of these. A convenient narrative, really, for it shifts the blame away from “us”, civilians, to the consequences of the invasion of our space by a command and control military ethos, and the incompetent husbandry that was its handmaiden. However, not just is this telling of our story a huge lie. It is also a dangerous one. For, by externalising the causes of our venality, it has made it almost impossible to proffer meaningful solutions to it.
In the end, two challenges confront us as a people. First, how do we alter our DNA — this is where “we” turn a new leaf? And then how do we change the set of rules by which we have run this space thus far? Interestingly, both of these questions are entangled. The system of domestic incentives, by supporting values that the most “successful” amongst us live by — “my Mercedes is bigger than yours” — determine aspirations across board. So, there is a lot to be said for altering our portfolio of values and the reward and punishment infrastructure that supports these.
Unfortunately, both new sets of values and new structure of domestic incentives require a people to conceptualise them. How can a people currently easily suborned make their way to this vantage? Put differently, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? This is the question that I do not think that our current agitation over the mess that our political system is addresses. In a sense, we have not become any more corrupt. What has happened is that advances in technology, especially for disseminating information, have made reports of corrupt practices a staple of our daily lives. Not just do we get to be notified real-time, a lot more of us are apprised of these “untoward” happenings than used to be the case before.
We may, therefore, be nearing that point where the people may no longer live as they once did. Which explains the obstreperousness of our current indignation at how poorly our leaders have been conducting themselves. Still, there is this account of the causative factors for root-and-branch change that says that whereas the people’s discomfort with the privations they bear from the current ways of their government is necessary for change. The sufficient condition is that the rulers can no longer rule as they once were wont to.
Are we near any of these destinations yet?
I don’t think so.