Between ‘Change’ Sloganeering and Real Change (1)

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Ernie Onwumere
As Nigeria celebrates its 56th Independence Day anniversary, there are bound to be mixed feelings on how well the oil-rich Africa’s most populous black country has fared. Has the country today evolved into a true nation state beyond “a mere geographical expression” as defined by the late legendary Obafemi Awolowo? Is Nigeria’s progress commensurate with its age of independence? Are Nigerians happy and proud of their country today?

Certainly, the assessment of Nigeria’s progress at this point in its history would be predominantly unflattering, considering the current realities of harsh economic recession confronting the citizenry. There is hunger in the land, and there is anger too. Businesses are either struggling to survive or they are dying. Civil servants and private sector employees are all languishing in their impotence to make ends meet. And hyperinflation bites everyone harder by the day. In short, there is widespread public discontent with the state of our affairs and the government of the day is at the centre of it all.

Nigerians from all walks of life are pointing questioning fingers at the Buhari APC government and demanding to know when the promised change for the better will come. We are all familiar with the electoral wave of populism that brought the current government to power in 2015, after 16 years of the previous ruling party – PDP. The APC government infectiously warmed its way into the hearts of most PDP-weary Nigerians with the campaign mantra of “Change’. That ‘Change” promise came in diverse expressions. There would be no more public corruption. Boko Haram would be a thing of the past. Poverty would give way to prosperity. Jobs would replace joblessness. The Naira would be equal to one Dollar. There would be a new Nigeria of our dreams. And so, some of the Nigerian electorate, also enamoured by the vaunted personality of President Muhammadu Buhari as ‘Mr. Integrity’, voted for the glittering promise of “Change”.

Now, more than a year after the Buhari government took over the reins of governance, the promised change has become a mirage. Almost all campaign promises by the new government have failed to materialise. As the economy goes into dire recession and the national condition becomes harsh and gloomy, with Nigerians lamenting everywhere, the APC government decided it is time to launch a new national attitude repositioning programme called Change Begins With Me (CBWM). At its launch in Abuja, Buhari challenged Nigerians to embrace CBWM by changing their ways and attitudes from social vices like indiscipline, corruption, and so on, if they want to experience the change promised by the APC government.

Naturally, CBWM launched to nationwide criticism and derision as mere sloganeering with no bearing on their fundamental existence. Many Nigerians are aghast at not only the wrong timing of the launch of CBWM at a time of unprecedented hunger and economic gloom in the country, but are also miffed by the idea of the government shifting the responsibility of effecting national change to the citizenry. Who promised Nigerians a change for the better in the first place? Is it not this current government? Now, instead of the APC government effecting the change in socio-economic lives of Nigerians as promised, it is asking the people for behavioural change! If there should be a national attitudinal change at all, shouldn’t it start from the top with a responsible leadership that would inspire the citizenry? The present government-people disconnect is nothing but aggravated confusion and convolutions about the concept of change.

Indeed, the idea of change as an electoral promise should go beyond empty sloganeering. It should go beyond being a fanciful buzz word bandied around for theatrical national reorientation. Change as a promise of a newly elected government in any society should translate into transformation of the conditions of the people for the better. It should be all-encompassing by touching all ramifications of a nation’s life, politically, socially, ethically, educationally and economically. We can draw examples from advanced democracies of the world.

For instance, President Barack Obama came to power in America in 2008 on the campaign premise of change too. But the Obama administration went beyond the mere promise of change for Americans. He instituted key policies like affordable healthcare, tagged Obamacare, a national health insurance scheme that guarantees accessible quality healthcare for average and underclass Americans; an auto bailout that helped steer the American economy out of a recession; and a major foreign policy shift that made America less war-conflicted and more diplomatic, among other change-driven policies. Going from North America to Asia, we also have another inspiring example in Singapore, where the idea of change became a real-world transformational experience orchestrated by the government of visionary Lee Kuan Yew.

Today, Singapore has been transformed and repositioned from a Third World country into a well-developed First World nation. The same repositioning reality has happened to other advanced Asian nations like Taiwan and South Korea. In all the foregoing countries, their leaders inspired their peoples with real vision translated into positive action, not mere slogans. But back home in Nigeria, our national repositioning or attitudinal change campaigns have never gone beyond mere rhetoric with every successive government.

Over the years of our history as an independent country, we have had diverse national reorientation campaigns that have failed to turn Nigeria around for the better. There was War Against Indiscipline (WAI) during first coming of Buhari. Yes, WAI was a success to some extent in the aspect of instilling discipline, order and other virtues in Nigerians, but the effect did not last not only because the then Buhari government was overthrown, but also because attitudinal change was being whipped into Nigerians by military fiat instead of being ingrained in them by acculturation.

Next, we also had MAMSER which was an acronym for Mass Mobilisation for Self-Reliance, Social Justice, and Economic Recovery as an exercise in political orientation in Nigeria undertaken by President Ibrahim Babangida. Some of MAMSER’s key ideas were to reorient Nigerians to shun waste and vanity, shed all pretences of affluence in their lifestyles, propagate the need to eschew all vices in public life, including corruption, dishonesty and abhor malpractices, ethnic and religious bigotry. MAMSER failed because the Babangida government itself acted contrary to the ethos of the change it expected Nigerians to embrace.

Also following the MAMSER effort was another take on national value reorientation by a notable Nigerian, Prince Tony Momoh, former Minister of Information and Culture during the Babangida government. Dubbed “Letters to My Countrymen” and published in 1993, Momoh communicated extensively through the mass media to influence Nigerians to develop a sense of honesty, critical self-appraisal and to properly place themselves in the realm of national value system change. Whether the epistolary approach of this private Nigerian social crusader succeeded in changing Nigerians for better or not remains to be seen.

In later years, Nigeria had seen such other flashy national rebranding campaigns, like “Nigeria: Heart of Africa” and “Good People, Great Nation” launched by the Obasanjo and Yar’Adua/Jonathan administrations, respectively. Did these rebranding campaigns succeed? Of course, not. They were only whimsical sloganeering initiatives that did not touch base with Nigerians, not to talk of galvanising them to better attitudinal change. This brings us back to the same problem with Change Begins With Me campaign of the Buhari government.

In fact, when we look critically at all the national rebranding campaigns of successive Nigerian governments till date, the same problems always set them up for failure. One, there seems to never be deep, thorough thinking going into all the rebranding initiatives beyond sugar-coated sloganeering to make Nigerians feel good that there is a new government in town. Two, reputable Nigerian professionals in branding business are rarely consulted and engaged from the initial stages of a rebranding campaign conceptualisation. Three, there is no sincerity of purpose in government behind the reorientation campaigns as leaders themselves with their contrary lifestyles do not inspire Nigerian citizens to change for the better.

All said, the Change Begins With Me campaign of today simply cannot fly unless change begins first from government leaders themselves. The Buhari government must fulfil its promise of change to Nigerians and urgently steer the people out of the current economic hardship. Sadly, our situation in Nigeria today is worse than that of an Andrew checking out as depicted in a popular TV promo of the 1980s.

In the promo reflecting realities of that time, an adventurous young man named Andrew was fed up with the Nigerian economy and decided to leave the country for good. Clutching his bag and strolling to the airport, he echoed his frustration: “Hey men, no light, no water, no job…I’m tired of this country…I’m checking out.” Of course, some desperate, frustrated Nigerians are already checking out of this country or out of this world. But must we all check out before we experience a real change for the better?

––Onwumere is a brand management consultant at Remark Consulting, Lagos.