On the Origins of Change

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 “Ebi kìí wonu kóròmíì wobè” (It is pointless preaching to an hungry man) – A Yoruba saying

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but their social existence that determines their consciousness”– Karl Marx in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

It is, perhaps, safe to assume that the consultants to Information Minister Lai Mohammed must have dug a bit into history before framing the latest campaign: “Change Begins with Me.” If they did they must have foundout why past campaigns of national mobilisation hardly workedand slogans of national orientationsoon became unsustainable.
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The nation’s socio-political history is replete with campaigns, slogans and rhetoric of change to better ways. It is 46 years that the last shot was fired in a tragic civilwar with thefollowing sloganfrom federalside:“To Keep Nigeria One is a Task that Must be Done.” Today the separatist impulse is prevalentmore than ever before in parts of the country. Ethnic and regional champions are fundamentally questioning the structure of the federation. Underlying issuesof injustice and underdevelopment have been eclipsed by worsening insecurity in the Niger Delta.So the simple lesson of history is this: mere slogans are not enough to keep a nation united. Material conditions need to be created andstructural tasks have to be performed to achieve the desirable goal of unity.The same point could be made of subsequent campaigns and slogans. During the Second Republic, the government of President Shehu Shagari proclaimed an “ethical revolution”. The military regime of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari launched the War Against Indiscipline (WAI) 32years ago. Mass Mobilisation for Self Reliance, Social Justice, and Economic Recovery (MAMSER) was established by the military administration of President Ibrahim Babangida in the liberal bid to recast the Nigerian political economy. There was also the less remarkable “Not in Our Character” campaign of the regime of the maximum ruler, General Sani Abacha. The feeble attempt by President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration to promote Nigeria as the “Heart of Africa” was, perhaps, the most recent attempt to experiment with national character and orientation.

The basic flaw of these efforts at forging national orientation was the mismatch of the objective and subjective factors of change.You don’t change a society by merely moralising (worse still with a tinge of hypocrisy); you haveto do something about the social structure.
Different factions of the ruling class in power have been separating the moralquestion from its material basis. And they expected a “revolution” or “reform” to happen. They have been reveling in optical illusion. This, of course, should not be a surprise. Successive occupants of political offices in Nigeria have never been dialectical in thoughts and action. Hence their campaigns have suffered from the limitations of superficial bourgeois solutions to deeply structural social problems.That is why a sociological critique of WAI could be reformulated to examinethe present “Change Begins With Me.” For instance, in a 1984 newspaper article entitled “On the Theory of WAI,” this reporter questioned the material basis of that moral war. For instance, it was posited that without well-managedpublic toilets soldiers wielding whips would not be a definitive solution to the problem people urinating carelessly on the road. The same argument could be summoned to query the new campaign. At least, Buhari promised to keep the nation secure, revive the economy and tackle corruption. The grim statistics issuing from official sources suggest that the condition of the poor majority is getting worse. In fact, Buhari himself has used the word “doldrums” in talking about the economic situation. That is even scarier than to talk of a recession!

This is, therefore, not a suitable context for the leadership to be passing the buck of change to the people. For instance, change does not begin with a young graduate that has been unemployed for years. Change should begin with a leadership that promised change by displaying a greater competence in economic management for the purpose of job-creation. You don’t expect change to begin with the hapless head of a family who watches as his children go to bed without dinner. It is more meaningful to expect the change to begin with theagricultural “roadmap” of government actuallyleading to food security. It would be more difficult to mobilise a man on empty stomach for change.It is the responsibility of government to create the conditions for socio-economic actors to operate in their legitimate quest to meet their needs. Change cannot begin with a people with increasingly limited access to basic needs such as food, water, healthcare, basic education and decent housing. The leadership preachingchange would rather find a better audience in a people that could take basic needs for granted.

To be sure, the debate is not about the imperative of change in the Nigerian condition. The unanswered question is about how the change should originate in the present socio-economic and political context.

Individual citizens arenot expected to be part of the change as isolated biological specimens. The expectation of the change of the individual isin a social context. In this wise, the individual is expected to be play a role in the change process as a member of a national community. Some commentators on the Change Begins With Mehave referred to the famous quotation from the 1961 Inaugural Address of President John Kennedy in the United States. Kennedy said inter alia: “…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Again, Kennedy is often quoted out of context. He was speaking to a post -War II American nation in which members the baby boom generation were becoming teenagers. America provided that generation with a basis to look at the future with robust optimism. The American teenagers of 1961 had a material basis to look forward to adulthood with decent jobs and just wages; retirement plans and basic needs of food, water and housing could be taken for granted. And that was eventually happened. Kennedy was speaking to an America that could go to war because of the security of a citizen. The country had already done something for the citizens before Kennedy asked the citizens what they could do for their country. Contrast the American teenagers of the Kennedy days with the Nigerian teenagers of today in terms of the material basis for hope. The typical Nigerian teenager is not assured of quality public education and primary healthcare. The generation before him graduated into joblessness. Here we are talking of the generation that constitutes the majority of the population.This isthe generation thatought to be a sure target of the campaign for national rebirth.But the job would be made more difficult because the nation has abysmally failed members of that generation on all counts.

All told, what should be the origin of this promised change?The first step is to give the direction of the change. Now that is squarely a function of leadership. So, the change should begin with those who elected to lead the people on the path of progress. There should be no ideologicalbuck-passing in this process.

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“The change should begin with those who elected to lead the people on the path of progress. There should be no ideological buck-passing in this process”