Thursday, March 29, 2007

We. The People.

Twenty years ago, Dele Olojede was in Nigeria, a reporter for the independent national Concord newspaper, whose editor spent two weeks in detention without explanation from the government. He became one of the founding writers at Newswatch magazine, whose editor, Dele Giwa, was killed by a pipe bomb in 1986—"by military intelligence".

In April 2005, Olojede, by this time a former editor of Newsday, was named
co-winner of the Pulitzer prize for international reporting, becoming the first African to win journalism's highest honour.

In October 2005, he spoke at the NLNG Grand Award Night, in Lagos...

"A debilitating lack of self-confidence, I think, characterizes today’s Nigerian, having seen his country go down the tubes whilst in the custody of rapacious rulers, and with his own active connivance or apathy. This condition sometimes manifests itself in a prickly defensiveness. I often have friends of mine lapse into such grand statements as, “that’s because you don’t live here,” as an all-purpose dismissal of an argument whose uncomfortable truths they cannot logically avoid. It is manifested in the irrational xenophobia exhibited by many against, for example, South Africans doing business successfully in Nigeria.

But this defensiveness cannot conceal the facts of Nigeria’s condition today. By all objective measures, the country is far poorer-- $350 billion in oil revenues later—than it was 40 years ago. Its moral foundations have cracked wide open, a society whose core values matter far less today than they did four decades ago. Its schools and hospitals 40 years ago were far superior to its schools and hospitals today. Its bureaucracy was more meritorious and far more efficient than it is today. Its elite was far more self-sacrificing, certainly, than today’s elite, whose behavioral patterns bear striking resemblance, if I may be direct, to a swarm of locusts. Nigeria in 1960, as we all know by now, was ahead on the development curve than Singapore or Malaysia or the Philippines or South Korea. Nigeria’s life expectancy has fallen—FALLEN!!— a full decade since the early 1970s, to just 43 years, according to the latest edition of the United Nations Human Development Index, which measures these things. What this means is that I have already lived longer at my age than the average citizen of this nation can fairly be expected to live. The average Nigerian now lives only half as long as the average Chinese or Japanese. We have become a poster child worldwide for fraud and corruption. We are clearly traveling down an escalator that is going up...

.... The necessity of creating a true Commonwealth in our country cannot be overstated. And its legitimacy is conditional on the citizens having come together to devise the rules of engagement. We can already see one of the most appalling consequences of an imposed constitution, one that places a class of politicians above the law of the land and basically grants them blanket immunity, even when they brazenly steal the family silver. To place anyone above the law is to debase the law itself, and invite the creation of a locust culture, where the swarm of the political elite is engaged only in plundering as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and for as long as possible...

... The good society [which we seek] will be built, as it has been built elsewhere, by men and women who act, who take it upon themselves to sacrifice a little bit of their individual pursuits for the common good. The new society will be built by teachers who teach, doctors who actually treat, lawyers who fight for justice and the rule of law, bureaucrats who manage efficiently the commonwealth all the while resisting the lure of the easy money, leaders who actually lead, and do not expect that a criminal is worthy of being protected from the law by some perverted notion of executive immunity. And yes, this good society will in large part be built by citizens who understand and accept the responsibilities of citizenship...

... After years of corrosive military dictatorships and their attendant caprice, as well as the general dissolution and greed of a thieving political class, the Nigerian today feels so battered and bruised that he appears to have lost all sense of how to be a citizen. I have been following with some interest a simple but important exercise by the Ministry of Finance, which uncharacteristically for a Nigerian government agency actually is promoting transparency. The ministry periodically publishes in the newspapers a complete list of revenues allotted from the federation account to every single state and local government throughout the country. So if you live in, say, Isukwato-Okigwe local government area of Abia State, you can tell from the newspapers that your local government received 500 million naira last month for the administration of its affairs. The question that faces us is, how many residents actually take the trouble to demand that their councilors account for how the money was spent? Did it go toward fixing the broken windows in local schools? Or paving the rutted neighborhood roads? Or reactivating a long dormant waterworks? Or purchasing supplies for the local health dispensary? My guess is that many citizens do not bother, thus signaling their leaders that they do not have to be accountable at all.

The same is true in virtually every important respect. Most parents do not get involved in their children’s schools or hold teachers and school administrators accountable for the proper education of their children. They ask not why our highways are death traps. They witness fellow citizens illegally expropriating public property for private use and they consider it normal, or at least acceptable. They appear to believe, in fact, that rulers have an entirely free hand to do anything whatever, including commit grievous crimes and recognize no difference between public funds and their private spending. The rulers—we must of necessity avoid the term leader, which connotes purpose and service—have naturally taken as much liberty as the citizens are willing to give them, and then some.

The citizen has become praise singer and court jester, obsequious, slavish, bowing only to wealth and position. We have become Fela’s parody of the “government chicken boy.” Our praise singing culture has reached new depths of perversion, with music extolling the supremacy of anyone with money no matter how accumulated, with newspapers and magazines dedicated only to the chronicling of the comings and goings of the elite, with our so-called kings and paramount chiefs bestowing chieftaincy titles on anyone ready to pay-- with such feverish abandon, in fact, that one of our big men apparently has more than 600 of them! The age of Simply Mr., which The Guardian newspaper so valiantly sought to champion more than 20 years ago, has passed into oblivion. We forget that the number of chieftaincy titles we acquire does not in any way equate living the good and useful life. To quote Aristotle, “honor seems to depend on those who confer it rather than on him who receives it, whereas our guess is that the good is a man’s own possession
which cannot easily be taken away from him.”

We are ruled no longer by poorly educated men with guns, but the Nigerian remains wary of his freedom. To paraphrase Rousseau, freedom is like a lovely meal of pounded yam and edikai-ekong, but very difficult to digest. That the citizen in Nigeria today lives in relative freedom does not mean he knows what to do with it. In fact, one often gets the impression that many Nigerians would rather not be free, scared as they are of freedom’s responsibilities. They grumble and complain about the flagrant inequities and outright robbery that unfold daily in full view, and they shrug and hope for some divine intervention, and fail to act to shape their own destiny.

I have been looking out of the window in hopes of catching sight of this divine intervention, but perhaps my sight is poor. There is no cavalry out there riding to our rescue, ladies and gentlemen. We must face the cold hard fact that the world owes us nothing, and those who are not prepared to function in it will fall farther behind and become slaves to other races of men. It is neither fair nor unfair; it is just the way it is. As the line goes in the Merchant of Venice, “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano…”

The task before us, then, is not only simply to reform our political system, but fundamentally to learn how to be citizens all over again...

...The Americans have this wonderful preamble to their constitution, a statement of their ambitions as a nation. Its phrasing is elegant and soaring. It rallies the citizens around a common purpose. “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” That’s right, a more perfect union, a recognition that the task of improvement is never concluded, that a society must constantly strive towards the goal of insuring the common good.

Are we the people here gathered, pledged to end the culture of greed and avarice that we have allowed to grow, like cancer, on our nation’s soul?

Are we the people here assembled ready to take charge of our own destiny, set our shoulders against that boulder, and start the hard tasking of rolling it uphill?

We the people, are we pledged to forsake purely personal advantage and hedonism, and seek ye first the common good?

We the people, are we prepared to work tirelessly for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Are we, the people, willing to set ourselves high standards, rather than constantly seeking the lowest common denominator? Are we willing to create the republic of ambition?"


The full article is attached below. It touches on everything - the loss of our ancient society premised on honour, the absence of trust, the impact of an illegitimate government, the misuse of religious faith, the erasure of the past and all its lessons, poverty and its destructive characteristics. If you're unable to download the attachment, you can click here.

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