(Text of a talk given at ICONS held 10th-12 June 2016, De Monfort University, Leicester)
Every Nigerian is a uniquely and exquisitely crafted living-breathing wonder of the world. Our energetic nature is untamed by the vicissitudes of life that characterise Nigeria. Our sense of humour is consummate and unparalleled, if in doubt check out my personal favourite website Zikokomag and every other iteration of Naija-dedicated social media. We are the definition of industry. We thrive like a cactus. Remember a cactus has adapted to grow succulently in the desert, it blooms and flourishes and uses thorns to repel birds who would dare take advantage of this adaptive skill. Like cacti, survival is hard-wired into the Nigerian DNA.
My experience as a Nigerian has meant that I am here because I stand on the shoulder of giants. I stand on the shoulders of parents who never allowed me to give an inch – if I got 9 out of 10 on a quiz, my mother would ask me if I had eaten the remaining one mark. I stand on the shoulders of teachers and lecturers who made do with absolutely no resources and very little or no salaries to impart some knowledge and a lot of perseverance, note of caution, never test the patience of a Nigerian teacher. I stand on the shoulders of fellow Nigerians whose stories fill me with pride, whose stories challenge me to be better, who have gone ahead to do things we never dreamed possible.
So today I want to tell you a story of change. I am privileged to tell you a story of a figuratively tall giant. I love stories, stories define us, give us a sense of history, represent us, give us a template for the future and therefore empower us. So I bring to you a story of my grandfather and what he taught me about change.
My grandfather has always been my inspiration. His name was PA John Aremu Cole. He was born either in 1909 or 1910 in Koro-Lolle in present day Kwara state; he died in 1999. He was the kind of person who would reply your letter with corrections of your mistakes. He had quite an interesting life and I remember asking him what made him so. He said the turning point in his life was when he was given a wife. As was the norm, when he was in his late teens, sometime in the 1920s, he was presented with a lady from an appropriate family who he was meant to marry and produce sons to farm the land. He did not think this would be a good idea. He told me that he did not want to be exactly like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him. He wanted to be different, he thought that there was more out there, more to life.
So rather than take a wife, he decided to walk from Koro to Ilesha, to the teacher’s college there. He walked for 2 weeks. 140 km/90 miles. For those of us who have done their Youth service – imagine doing an endurance trek every day for 2 weeks! My grandfather spent a few years in Ilesha, graduated from teacher’s college and then went back to what is now the Kogi/Kwara area as a teacher/headmaster and principal, something those who gone before him had never been, or never dreamed to be. This is his story. This story drives me. This story is my secret weapon that I take out when the battle is fierce, when I am discouraged, when I doubt, I remember my grandfather’s journey. And I will tell you why.
The theme of ICONS 2016 is ‘Opportunities and Legacy.’ A legacy starts with a dream. A legacy is a story. To have a legacy we need to take opportunities to change our dream to into reality. So what does my grandfather’s legacy teach me about change? The concept of change is very interesting. Change, they say is the only constant in life. Sometimes I feel that as Nigerians we think the concept of change came down with yesterday’s rainfall, but every transformation and movement, political, cultural, sociological, personal or national has been predicated on a platform of change, from the Alexander the Great, the Bolshevik Revolution, American war of independence, the World Wars, decolonisation, to the personal things, going to school, getting married, getting a job. We change because we want something different, we change because we want something more. To change means ‘to make a material difference so that the thing is distinctly different from what it was.’ I also find it interesting that the definition of change could be positive or negative – all that is needed is a distinct difference. A billionaire that becomes a pauper has changed too. The key to success, personal or national is harnessing the power for positive change. Anytime I think about change I think about my grandfather and the lessons his life taught me.
The first thing I note is that change is disruptive. To change we do not put more effort in the same thing, we need to do things different, we need to do things differently. The internet was disruptive change. Mobile phones were disruptive change in the early part of the 21st century in Nigeria. If you are going in the wrong direction you do not run faster, you get off the path. So we need to take personal responsibility. Because, change starts with dissatisfaction. Anything you are willing to tolerate cannot be changed. What we cannot put up with, we eventually repudiate.
Secondly change is individual. You can only become something you have an aptitude for. I studied law because I believed this was my passion. I was pushed and prodded to do medicine. Many patients should be on their knees thanking whatever deity they worship that I do not have charge of their health. I may be called doctor, but I will do you absolutely no good as a physician. Change starts from what you have, what is in your hand, where you stand now, what you are. Some people know that famous quote by Pablo Picasso, ‘My mother said to me, “If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.” Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.’ You are the only person that can become the best you. You can only be second best at being someone else, at being what you were not made to be.
Change is imaginative. Change means having a dream. A dream is a vision you have in spite of what people are telling you and how things seems. Having a vision in spite of your circumstances requires imagination. A dream without imagination leads to an existence rather than an experience. A dream requires you to push the boundaries. Therefore the potential for change is limitless, because we are only restricted by our minds. If your concept of change is based on what other people have already done then that is a bandwagon. French businessman James Goldsmith said: ‘If you see a bandwagon, it’s too late.’ For change to be successful, it has to be innovative, it has to be something new, it has to be something needed, something necessary.
Change is persistent. Which is a polite way of saying being stubborn. But you cannot give up at the first hurdle. My grandfather walked for two weeks, without the benefit of a map, or satellite navigation. He went into uncharted territory, slept in the darkness, relied on the kindness of strangers, only with the vague and uncertain promise of some school at the end of it. We cannot afford to give up. We cannot afford not to try. Of course there are so many things that will try and kill your dream. The dream snatchers and dreamkillers. But stand up to them and tell them ‘No.’ tell those dream killers ‘The only way you will take my dream is if you prise it from my cold, dead fingers, and even then you will have to cut off my fingers, for they will be closed in a fist, a fist of persistence, a fist of power!’ We have nothing to lose. We can only regret what we fail to do. Anything we do that fails teaches us something.
Positive change adds value. Change must be assessed in terms of people rather than naira and kobo, pounds and pence, dollars and cents. You have to think legacy at all times. We often complain that our elders destroyed our country before we were born. I fear that our children will say worse about us. My grandfather left me no money, or wealth or houses, just a few books. But my inheritance is strength of character, mental fortitude, love of humanity, joy. I am my grandfather’s legacy. I am here because he trekked, I am here because he seized an opportunity for change. That is the price of originality. You are unique, the value you add stems for being the best of yourself that you can be. Do not let anyone use a label to limit your originality. Do not put a price tag on success. The funny thing about money is that money is a world class sprinter. If you chase money, you will never overwhelm it, you may be able to catch at strands of its garment, but you will never subdue it. But if you chase originality, money will come for you. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs are good examples of this. When money chases you, it will surely overwhelm you.
Change is risky and sacrificial. As a child I used to climb trees. Don’t let these fancy clothes deceive you, fruit trees, cashew trees, guava trees, you could mostly find me near the top of them. I risked life and limb for fruit that was slightly fresher than the ones near the ground. The idea of low-hanging fruit in a business sense is a low risk opportunity. Note that this is still risky. However, in business and in life you need to risk big to win big. Albert Einstein said ‘A ship is always safe at the shore – but that is NOT what it is built for.’ You were built to me more, you were built to leave a glorious legacy. What you hold back will do you no good. We need to go for it.
However change is informed. You cannot place bets on a whim. Which is why gambling makes no sense without a system. My grandfather did not wander aimlessly into the sunset. He had a plan based on information. Information is vital to change, because it transforms our thinking. Many times we see information as a source for answers, but we also need to be asking the right questions. Being informed means that change is controlled, it is organised, it is not merely reactive. We cannot become all that we can possibly be if we are moved by every alteration on the horizon. We cannot be like a leaf tossed by the wind. We need to be constant, we need to be unmoved in the face of incredulity, despite the whispers of those who do not believe in our potential. And the only way to be this confident is to have a plan that is informed and creative, a plan that is audacious.
There is one more lesson that my grandfather taught me about change I will come back to that in a minute. Let’s take this change locomotive to Nigeria. I need to point out that everything I have said about change thus far can be applied in a personal but also in a national and supra-national context. Effective and positive change in Nigeria has to be disruptive. We need to change direction rather than driving further into perdition. We need to be dissatisfied with the state of Nigeria, I will say that we are slightly upset at this point. We lash out at fellow sufferers and leave the culprits of our malaise untouched. The change that Nigeria needs has to be unique to Nigeria – we are an incomparable nation; we cannot copy any other country’s path. We need to engage our imagination. Think about how Nollywood and stand-up comedy in Nigeria grew out the adversity of the 90s. Our leaders have as much power as we grant them. We need to be informed. The purpose of education is not to give us answers, when we do not know the questions to ask. Many people would tell me that Mungo Park discovered the River Niger, but those who fished and bathed in it daily, never reported it missing. Many people hailed Ellen Sirleaf Johnson as the first woman leader in Africa, but Queen Amina was leading her people into battle in the 1500s, in the 1400s Emotan helped the Oba of Benin to reclaim his throne and long before TV programs such as ‘spooks’, ‘suits’ and ‘homeland,’ became a thing, Moremi Ajasoro was an undercover agent and helped deliver her people. A people who do not know where they are coming from will find it difficult to find direction. Political and historical amnesia or ignorance is a cankerworm destroying the opportunities of Nigeria’s people.
Therefore, I am passionate about the reintroduction of history into our curriculum, the decolonisation of global and national curricula, the revitalisation of the agriculture industry and the creation of a tourism industry. But change has to start from the individual. 180m changed Nigerians cannot be led astray by a fantastically corrupt leader – whoever that leader is. 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 logic and not emotion, a duty to remain consciously engaged with the political process in an objective and logical way and not be emotive and tribal. For far too long our politics have been run on the fuel of ethno-linguistic fury. Our politicians irrespective of ethnicity or religion or political affiliation remain fused at the top of our socio-political structure into one mass of intractable hold on power, while we aim poisoned arrows at our fellow sufferers. Because ultimately we are Nigeria. Nigeria is not our disreputable politicians in Abuja and our state capitals neither is it some indefinable and malevolent system. Nigeria is her cities, her towns and her villages. Nigeria is her people, fierce, proud, lively, resilient, unshaken by strife and despair, ingenious in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition. We who are brighter than sunlight, darker than midnight. We who step out into the mysterious, who laugh in the face of resistance. You and me, we are Nigeria.
Finally, my grandfather taught me that change is impossible. When I was in primary school if a teacher asked us ‘what is 5 minus 10?’ or 3 minus 6, We would all yell ‘IMPOSSIBLE!!’ When we went further in our education we learnt that there were negative numbers. So this is my definition of impossible – impossible is a word used to define a problem to which a solution has not yet been found. We are the solution to our quest for personal change, we are the solution to Nigeria. Because we are impossible. Most of us should not be here. We should have fallen prey to the high infant mortality rates that stalk Nigeria, we could have fallen prey to the insidious killer mosquito, which we live with in quiet acquiescence; the inescapably malevolent killer Nigerian roads which swallows its victims whole did not destroy us; the armed highwaymen uniformed and non-uniformed have not ended our dreams; the arbitrary education system spewed us out, damaged yet defiant, the pervasive violence is our system may have scarred and maimed us, but we are still here. And Nigeria is still here. Despite the logic that says we should no longer exist, we do. Every equation says we are impossible, yet here we are. In 2015, hordes of international journalists flew into Nigeria with bullet proof vests and flack-jackets waiting in unholy glee for the inevitable catastrophe that never came. Because we are impossible.
My grandfather taught me that change is impossible, but thankfully, so are we.