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Nigeria: A foundation

By Hamilton Odunze
A FEW weeks ago at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was a panelist in one such dialogue where I uncharacteristically decided to do more listening and  note taking than talking.

I came to the sudden realisation that most dialogues about our problems as a nation start hastily and do not speak to the core of the issues. For instance, the uncontestable assumption that Nigeria is corrupt because of its inability to punish corruption seems to be only partly right. Recently, there have been many government agencies and organisations set up to punish corruption. How were they not able to punish corruption?

Another popular assumption is that leadership is the core of Nigeria’s problem. While I do not intend to diminish the importance of leadership in nation building, it remains critical that we ask some rudimentary questions. For instance, we must reflect on our values to determine if they support our dreams of good leadership.

If the basic foundation and the collective values necessary for good leadership is lacking, we can only expect ourselves to “reap what we sow”. In her book, The Challenge for Africa, Wangari Maathai writes: “Leadership is an expression of a set of values; its presence, or the lack of it, determines the direction of a society, and affects not only the actions but the motivations and visions of the individuals and communities that make up that society”.

I tie these issues (our inability to punish corruption and our apparent lack of leadership) together because I believe they demonstrate a foundational problem more than they demonstrate our collective ineptitude. In this article, I argue the same and also suggest ways of laying a new foundation.

While I recognise the difficulties inherent in laying a new foundation, I believe that, without it, the goal of a better Nigeria will be distant and perhaps unattainable.

Unfortunately, any real discussion about the foundation of Nigeria as a nation quickly morphs into a rabid and ferocious debate about its linguistic, geographical and cultural composition. While these are important characteristics of a nation, using them to bear out our problems negates the reality of modern and civil societies.

Modern societies are civil societies. They thrive on people’s willingness to survive regardless of their physical differences. A continued discussion of our problems in terms of our linguistic, cultural, and geographical differences is dangerous and, let us face it, archaic.

These factors are far from being our defining problem. In fact, diversity has proven to be strength in modern societies with civil understanding and a sound egalitarian foundation.

By the foundation, I refer to the spirit with which our country, Nigeria, and, on a grander scale, Africa, developed as an independent body. It is the motivation behind the people’s struggle for freedom and independence that shapes their society.

Therefore, I ask what the motivation is that is behind Nigeria’s and, in fact, Africa’s struggle for independence. Did our founding fathers set out to create an egalitarian society for their people? If they did, why is it that, a few years after Africa’s independence, dictators emerged all across the continent and set the stage for a new type of oppression? Africa has been awash with notorious names like Bokassa, Haile Salleisa, Idi Amin, Sankara, and Nguema.

These dictators then created the precedent for later dictators like Abacha and Obasanjo all across Africa. Africa’s founding fathers disempowered their own people so as  not to be held accountable for their actions. It is the disempowerment of the masses that has sustained our inability to punish corruption and hold our leaders responsible.
In the case of Nigeria, however,

it is arguable that our founding fathers may not have been outright dictators like Idi Amin or Bokassa, yet there is no credible evidence that they intended to build an egalitarian society where leaders are held accountable. On the contrary, an early civil war is evidence of their greed and desire for power.

Now, juxtapose our foundation with that of America, where Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “all men are created equal”. Even if this statement operates only in principle, the impact on generations of Americans and many to come is enormous. It shows that, from the onset there existed an intention to create an egalitarian society. This statement has remained the most important phrase in America’s democracy.

It shaped a collective consciousness that may not have even been noticeable when it was first written. People like Barack Obama would not have pursued their dreams but for the concept that all men are created equal. Any society established on such values will be able to hold their leaders accountable for their actions and subsequently develop good leadership.

The argument that America was once like Nigeria is laughable. It is akin to erecting two houses of equal structure with different foundations, but expecting the same structural integrity. Such an argument completely ignores the origin and foundation of both nations.

Nigeria needs a new foundation;  as crazy and as difficult as this idea sounds; without a new foundation, the Nigeria of our dreams will never materialise. There are many reasons why this proposition is difficult, but let me be the first to admit some of the obvious ones.

First, it entails struggling against a new form of colonization (neocolonialism), where the enemy is not clearly defined, or worse still, the enemy is your own kind and not a white European from across the oceans. Second, the accepted idea that one person or set of people would emerge as leader(s) and beat us all into shape is dangerous and preposterous. It gives us individual justifications not to hold ourselves to the same standards we expect of our leaders; thereby corruption becomes faceless.

We must lay a new foundation for Nigeria through self discipline, individual conviction, and accountability. With these three grand aspirations, we would be teaching the posterity that our founding fathers took for granted. Most importantly, when we personalize these noble qualities, we are, by extension, empowering others to hold us responsible for our actions.

Hamilton Odunze Co-Editor


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.