By Olusegun Adeniyi
I visited Bayelsa State in January 2015 while Governor (now Senator) Seriake Dickson was planning his transition. My host had secured a 6am appointment with the governor, which I considered rather unusual. He explained that my attending the daily Christian morning devotional at Government House would make it easy for me to see Dickson following the session. So, by 6am the next morning, I was among the congregation, with everybody singing loftily to a medley of Christian songs. When Dickson danced into the venue with a tambourine, the tempo of the worship increased. Thereafter, the Governor brought the praise worship session to an end with a short prayer and announced: “The State memory verse”.
I was still trying to understand what that meant when the people around me chorused in unison: “Jeremiah 20 verses 11 and 12” and began to chant the Biblical passage which was recited three times. In the process, someone who saw that I could not follow handed me his mobile handset where the passage had been downloaded. It reads: “…But the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior; so, my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will fail and be thoroughly disgraced; their dishonor will never be forgotten. Lord Almighty, you who examine the righteous and probe the heart and mind, let me see your vengeance on them, for to you I have committed my cause.”
As I reflected on that recitation after the session, I was baffled not so much by the strange fact that the state had a Biblical ‘memory verse’ but rather about the choice of the text. How could the call for ‘persecutors’ to stumble, be disgraced and dishonoured reflect what Bayelsa residents would wish when the Bible contains numerous passages about people in authority and their own welfare? Evidently, the ‘memory verse’ was targeted at the governor’s enemies and the congregation corralled into adopting it. Such is the power of religion in the Nigerian public space that no government house is complete without a Church or Mosque (or both). Sadly, godliness is not reflected in the governance of our country at all levels.
Not surprisingly, religion was one of the talking points at the 2022 edition of ‘Platform Nigeria’ which held last Saturday in Lagos. In their presentations, both author and serial entrepreneur, Mr Kunle Soriyan and former National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) executive chairman, Dr Sam Amadi spoke to the issue of religion. Soiryan’s contention is that it will soon become extinct. “Faith and spirituality will expand but religion will die”, predicted Soriyan who canvassed the need for people to open their minds to knowledge.
Amadi, himself a pastor, cited personal examples to illustrate why we should not continue to mix religion with politics or public policy in Nigeria. At NERC, the practice he met was to recite Christian and Muslim prayers before the commencement of every meeting, as they do at the Federal Executive Council (FEC) sessions. He stopped it. “We have mosques and chapels in the building where anyone could go and pray at designated religious periods. But in official meetings, people should pray in their hearts. We start our meeting with national anthem where necessary. Otherwise, we go straight to business.” Interestingly, according to Amadi, instead of this policy being opposed, it was well received. “Even the most religious staff of NERC embraced it and didn’t find any bias or disrespect for their religion in that policy. This experience convinced me that government needs not get entangled with religious issues. Leave religion totally out of official government policy and programmes. Let the people worship God if they like and how they like.”
I will return to this issue in future but there is a growing consensus that religion has not been a positive factor in the Nigerian public space and de-emphasizing it is important if we are to make progress. But the interactions at ‘Platform Nigeria’ last Saturday were not about religion. Rather, the forum’s focus was how to reposition Nigeria for the challenges ahead. The lively session began with respected bureaucrat and DAI Country Director, Dr Joe Abah (who came clad in traditional Igbo ‘Isi Agu’ dress) sharing uncomfortable nuggets about our country as a self-appointed spokesman of the gods.
In using the power of silence and reflection to illustrate her point, the CEO of RadioNow 95.3FM, Ms Kadaria Ahmed emphasized that unity of purpose, as opposed to pulling in different directions, is what Nigeria needs at this moment. “You can’t have a nation unless we come together,” she said. Renowned broadcaster and communications strategist, Dr Victor Oladokun reminded us that nations are not built “by fate, accident, daydreaming or wishful thinking”. The future to which we aspire, he added, “was yesterday so we are already late” which then means we have no time to waste. “We must consciously design the future we want and work for it,” he admonished.
The futility of applying a plaster to a deep wound formed the kernel of the intervention by transformation strategist, Ms Alero Ayida-Otobo who called on citizens to “arise and stop making excuses” for our failings. The question posed by the founder & principal of Alder Consulting, Dr Leke Alder was ‘how do we create a better Nigeria?’ and he provided insights on what he believes we should all be doing. But it was the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs (NIIA) Director General, Prof Eghosa Osaghae who set the tone for the conversations by telling three stories in what turned out a day of interesting anecdotes. As I explained in my own presentation, stories have the power to connect reality with imagination, allowing us to learn from the achievements, failures and foibles of others. They also offer listeners diverse world experiences which can then shape, strengthen or challenge how they view the past or envision the future.
In the first story by Eghosa, he spoke of visiting a governor who claimed to have done so much for his people yet felt unappreciated. After listing his achievements, the governor reportedly asked, “What else do they want?” Eghosa said he replied by asking in return, “have you asked them what they want?” The governor, according to Egbosa responded: “We know what they want.” His second story deals with a drunkard who lost money and walked several metres away to a new location where he conducted a search. When asked why he was not searching where he lost the money, the drunkard reportedly replied: “There is light here.”
Egbosa explained the import of the two stories as they relate to governance and the state of our nation, as did others. But for me perhaps the best anecdote of the day was the one by our host, Pastor Poju Oyemade. In his opening remarks he called on whoever wins the February 2023 presidential election to assemble a pool of talent, even from outside their political party. Pastor Poju added that he understood the nature of the reward system in politics before sharing the story from a friend who defined a technocrat: “When I was an undergraduate at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, my roommate and I were cooking one day and a friend of ours came in and we shared our meal with him. But surprisingly, this friend of ours always showed up anytime we were cooking. It became obvious to us that his visits were not accidental, so my roommate described our friend as ‘a technocrat.’”
If we stretch the story to examine the Nigerian condition, the mindset with which most Nigerians relate to their country is not different. And successive governments shoulder a lot of the blame for that. The famous quote from the late President John Kennedy’s January 1961 inaugural address, charging Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” is a mantra many Nigerians like to mouth. Yet, our people have been led to believe they are not expected to contribute to building the collective good. Even as late in the day as it is, Nigerians are still being told that government is coming to take care of them. So, we are consciously building a ‘technocratic’ citizenry brought up on a culture of entitlement, even while resources are not there.
In his third story last Saturday, Prof Eghosa expanded on his thesis that “altruism, patriotism, loyalty and sacrificing for country have become outlier elements of citizenship in Nigeria.” He said we have unwittingly created a system where ownership and legitimacy remain highly contested while people come not to give but rather to take. Most citizens, according to Eghosa, “relate to the country only in terms of what they can get for themselves as individuals and the groups to which they belong. Our attitudes to payment of tax and even holding leaders to account reflect these fundamental tendencies. The country has no father or mother, and can be fleeced to death, who cares?”
Having perfected the art of detaching ourselves from the nation as a shared patrimony, we are yet to come to that special place where both the government and the people meet in an honest admission of shared responsibility for the challenge of national retrieval. This convergence requires leadership and political will and is difficult in an environment where there is a shallow understanding of the concept of nation building. This leads to an important question: Who builds a nation—an involuntary collectivity of citizens or an elite with a common vision?
This question was answered last weekend by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo at a public lecture to mark the 62nd independence anniversary. He argued that the story of successful societies is one of commitment and sacrifice by the elites. “Put differently, every successful society is the product of a conscious, elite consensus: the implicit and explicit agreements of the elite to change their societies for good,” said Osinbajo.
As we can see from other societies, nation-building results from a visionary leadership and an enlightened elite. They are held together by a consensus of irreducible minimal agreement and led by capable people who understand the virtues of responsible governance, sacrifice and trenchant commitment. This then leads us to another question: Does political opportunism create an enlightened elite?
The answer is simple. People do not follow those who cannot lead themselves out of a dark alley. Selfless commitment to the nation, knowledge of the land and its people, a non-materialistic desire to serve without asking to be served are the minimum requirements to galvanize the people to assume their role as change and development agents. Nigeria’s endless quest for credible leadership is caught in this web of elite selection crisis in politics, economics, bureaucracy and technocracy. And this brings me to the question of the moment: How do we escape the tyranny of ‘technocrats’—the food is ready brigade who populate our country?
That, precisely, is the historic conundrum of the coming 2023 general election.
Yesterday, I watched ‘Anikulapo’, the latest movie from Kunle Afolayan Production (KAP) on Netflix and I agree with those who describe it as a masterpiece. From the storyline to the screenplay, camera work and acting, the movie is simply brilliant. The lady who played the errant queen (Bimbo Ademoye) nailed her role, as they say. She is just too good! It is indeed remarkable that without support from government, our young men and women have succeeded in creating a vibrant music and entertainment industry with global appeal. To Kunle Afolayan, my congratulations!
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