This is the text of a talk delivered by me at the International Conference of Nigerian Students, at the University of Hull, on the 4th of April 2009
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I would first like to appreciate the organisers of this conference for giving me the privilege to speak at a conference where men and women of great standing have so ably spoken. I hope that I will be able to justify the confidence which they have placed in me.
I have been asked to speak about Nigeria, a country for which I have a great love for, notwithstanding the fact that it is the only country that I have. I do not wish to dwell on Nigeria’s problems of which it is accepted they are many, but on the strengths of this great nation.
I have lived in and travelled the length and breadth of the country, to the North-central, South-east, South-west, in all, about 16 states of the federation. I have been amazed at the beauty of Nigeria, the deserts in the north and the forests in the south. The mountains that surround my house in Lokoja become enshrouded with clouds in the aftermath of the rains making feel the reality of paradise on earth. This beauty has moved me to emotional and poetical heights, but remains unmatched by the true worth and value of Nigeria which is its resourceful people.
Each of the over 150 million citizens of Nigeria is a uniquely and exquisitely crafted living-breathing wonder of the world. Our boisterous nature is untamed by the vicissitudes of life that characterise Nigeria. And these problems are myriad. I wish to submit that we focus mostly not on the problems of Nigeria but on the manifestations of these problems. We vilify a system which is solely a reflection of what we have become. Like every force or instrument in existence, a human being can be used for evil or for good. The difference between a person and an instrument is that a person has a choice. A choice to accept what can be called the norms of our society or to decide to buck the trend and take a different direction down the path less travelled and make a difference.
As citizens of Nigeria, we owe a responsibility to ourselves, each other and to generations yet unborn, to make the right choices. The choices we make today live long after we die and have more impact than we can ever foresee. For example, a poorly taught class may result in substandard educational products, who will in turn build bad roads causing death to many, or manufacture toxic goods. A hospital partially equipped due to mismanaged funds will ultimately cause the death of thousands. If the way I live my life will cause someone to die, then I prefer not to live. Furthermore, we cannot absolve ourselves of guilt by declaring that we ourselves have taken no part in the odious practices of corruption, for evil prevails when good men do nothing.
You may well ask me then “What can I as only one person do against the overwhelming tide of degradation that seemingly besets Nigeria?” I would reply there is unimaginable strength in the power of one person. The most popular example will be that of Rosa Parks whose defiance in the face of overpowering and accepted injustice led to the civil rights movement of the sixties without which Obama would not have become president of the United States of America. Her defiance was fuelled by an attitudinal change engineered by Martin Luther King Jr. in a little Baptist church in Montgomery. Dr. King preached a change in attitude that was translated into action and triumph of the human spirit. This singular act led to the election of Obama as the first non-white president of the USA – one choice whose effect touches us all.
My message is this, we all need to see Nigeria as our responsibility, not that of those who hold leadership positions but are not actually leaders. Nigeria is our responsibility – yours and mine. A country’s leaders come from among its people. There is no corrupting device at the gates of Aso Rock or the government houses that liberally dot the landscape. A good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit. Neither is this the time for a blame game. It is futile for us to point fingers accusing whomever of starting the corrupt practices. Each organisation in Nigeria, no matter how small has become a microcosm of government, marred by shady financial dealings, nepotism and vice.
Our national politics is incoherent. While many ‘good’ people refuse to have anything to do with politics which is debased as immoral, politics is left to those who do not mind the supposed immorality. It is our collective responsibility to see that our country is run well. We have a duty to vote, a duty to consciously decide who and who not to vote for based on the merits, and not a decision-making process energised by nepotism. Unfortunately, this duty is not helped by the fact that our politics is not based on ideological lines but on ethno-linguistic lines. While we have politicians who remorselessly make campaign promises of road-building and job-provision. This absolutely irritates me. It is his duty to ensure that roads, hospitals and schools are built, jobs are created, and students funded. What he is reading out is his job description and not a manifesto in the true sense of the word.
Many of our problems have resulted because we are still in the process of nation-building, when most other non-African countries have been extant for countless years. I must urge you to remember that the strong and working political structures that existed in pre-colonial times were disrupted by an arbitrary interference whose sole aim was to enter the hinterland to extract natural resources as demonstrated by the two parallel railway lines running from the South to the North of Nigeria. These two railway lines represent the failings of the colonial forces; not improving or building on that skeleton represents ours.
However, we must keep in mind that nation building is a long and arduous process that takes time and commitment. Rome as they say was not built in a day. Actually, I learnt that it took a millennium for Rome to achieve its height of glory. Nigeria will soon be 49 years, a mere babe compared to Rome in its splendour. Our commitment to Nigeria should go beyond what we can get from the treasury, but should extend to leaving a legacy for our children and their children after them.
Apart from an overall attitudinal change which can be achieved without resort to external forces, there are other changes which I would like to see in Nigeria. One of them is the making of history mandatory in primary and secondary schools with emphasis given to pre-colonial history. I studied history in school and had my eyes opened to the complex political structures and rich culture of the pre-colonial communities in West Africa. I think this has contributed to my love of Nigeria and Africa. You cannot have pride in what you do not know. Most countries ensure that school boys and girls have knowledge of their country’s history. You cannot have pride in something you do not know. You cannot have a sense of direction if you do not know where you are coming from. I have been appalled by the incalculable number of times detrimental fallacy about pre-colonial Africa has been spouted to me as gospel and fact.
I would also like to see a situation where research is carried out on the pre-colonial socio- political structures of governance in West Africa and Nigeria. We live in a pluralistic world where African views and practices are relevant and should not be ignored. I would choose Yannibo over the Shakespeare that was forced on me. Systems of government should evolve within the community by collective will and should not be forced on a people.
Another change which I would love to see is a transformation from our mono-export economy. Our dependence on oil has stifled our development potential. This unnatural dependence has caused agricultural and other mineral resources to be ignored. To illustrate this point, I would take you back to where I live in Lokoja where on a mountain about 30 minutes’ drive uphill lies miles and miles of unmined marble – sitting on top of Agbaja in plain view. Who knows what we would find it we bothered to look!
Countries in Africa which are not blessed with natural resources have turned to other sources such as tourism for revenue generation; while countries with rich in mineral resources have descended into bloody wars with or without the assistance of the global powers. Like my grandmother would say, the man who has a cap has no head, and the man who has a head has no cap.
Attention should be given to the tourism industry. Great strides can be made from small gestures. As my favourite TV show – the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – illustrates, it could take a 2-hour TV show for lots of people to know where Gaborone is. Unfortunately, we have not taken the opportunity which hosting of sporting events has provided us to generate tourism revenue. Instead, many are concerned with eating the national cake. But I fear, there shall be no national cake to eat till we take the time to bake it, rather we will continue stuffing ourselves on tasteless flour and raw eggs which only make us sick.
The future of Nigeria lies in our hands, we are more than able to deliver a viable nation to the next generation, but desire must meet with capacity and be multiplied by the right attitude. Let us make the right choices that would keep Nigeria in peace, that would keep the children of Nigeria hopeful and ensure the greatness of Nigeria.
Sometimes life can be likened to music. If you sing a singular note for a long time – one minute, five minutes – it becomes boring. It is the change that we listen for. Nigeria has been singing a singular note for 49 years and generations of unborn Nigerians are listening for the change in our music. The choices and the changes we make today will make them dance or weep tomorrow. Let us make those changes and sing a song of victory and not a funeral song. The changes we make can affect the people around us in a ripple of ever widening circles, but it starts with the first drop in the water. We are the change they are listening for.
I believe in the promise of Nigeria. Nigeria is not the malfunctioning leaders in Abuja and the state capitals neither is it some ubiquitous but nebulous system. Nigeria is the towns and the villages. Nigeria is its people, fierce, proud, lively, resilient, unshaken by strife and despair, ingenious in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition. We are Nigeria. I hold out the promise of Nigeria to you today pleading with you to believe in this promise. It is a light with I urge you to pass on to all around you. Your candle loses nothing when it lights another. Let us light up Nigeria with our dreams, our hopes, our lives and our successes.
Eyes are focusing on Nigeria, ghosts of the past and spirits of the future and people all around the world. It is our change that they listen for.