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Who will bell the cat: Creating an opportunity society

By Tabia Princewill

BY now, most Nigerians know whom they will vote for. I would thus like to start a conversation, which is bigger than people and parties. It’s a conversation about social norms and our values as nothing we do happens in a vacuum. We all agree that things must change in Nigeria, but how does change occur?

There is first and foremost one major concept which must be enshrined, perhaps even in the constitution and that is, the idea of an opportunity society, without which, all of the reforms Nigeria needs would be for naught.The American ethos is based on the idea that any child, no matter his or her background, can achieve whatever dreams and ambitions if he or she is willing to work for them.

In Nigeria, the “reverse American dream” as I call it, holds sway. Many public office holders and business people in Nigeria today do not come from rich, prosperous homes. So, on the surface, if one takes this “shoeless legacy” into account, it appears opportunities do exist for underprivileged kids as Nigerian presidents, governors and pastors’ humble beginnings are often public knowledge. However, being formerly poor in America or in any other society, is not enough of a pre requisite to guarantee success in any given field.

One must work for it, one must earn it and that is the basis of the opportunity society. Unfortunately, as rich and powerful as many of Nigeria’s newly made elites are, one cannot hold them up as role models, due to the dubious ways in which they acquire their new status. In any case, success in Nigeria is often simply about being at the right place, at the right time.

That in itself is the antithesis of an opportunity society where talent and work define merit rather than opportunism, connections, sheer criminality or varying degrees of “goodluck” which to many, has proven to be a disaster.

Opportunity society

Why is the opportunity society so important you might ask? Why can Nigeria not continue to reward hustlers and opportunists? Are opportunists not just capitalists, i.e. people who are able to compete better? I answer with a resounding no.

All competitions have rules, especially because the market is free and the game is democracy; yes, the contest is open to all but competition, above all, means selection based on ethical criteria: the best man gets the job, the best product wins, no matter where it is from.

For most Americans, economic empowerment is a right almost as great as the right to life itself, much like the pursuit of happiness, as enshrined in the US Constitution. It matters less that there are such huge gaps between rich and poor so long as there are opportunities for everyone’s advancement within the society. Sadly, our understanding of democracy and its workings put us very far away from this ideal of opportunities for all.

How are opportunities structured in Nigeria? How does one gain rewards or attain one’s goals? Certainly not by working hard. It’s both unfortunate and revealing. This is the true cost of corruption: in the UK, a shopkeeper’s daughter, Margaret Thatcher, became prime minister. She gained admission to Oxford and the rest is history. In Nigeria, a former hairdresser, Patricia Etteh became speaker of the House of Representatives. You might say that is the Nigerian dream. Except that “the dream” in other climes, does not involve being embroiled in corruption scandals.

For the dream to truly work we must demand and expect more moderate, less ostentatious behaviour from public officials, it must also become the norm for Nigerians to be content with what hard work can afford them. But this can only happen if the opportunity structure, or the chance to gain rewards within society is shaped differently.

It all starts with very simple things: seeing a person punished for deviant acts tells society that such acts are unacceptable. When a thief is judged and sentenced in accordance with his crimes, culturally, we affirm that stealing is wrong. When we throw him an “owambe” party to welcome him back, we do the opposite. Right and wrong must be clarified again in order for us to move forward. In fact, this clarification can serve to unify society and therefore promotes social change: it often just takes one person to change the course of history.

When Rosa Parks showed defiance by refusing to give her seat to a white passenger, in accordance with segregation era law, she didn’t just show grit. She changed America forever by forcing the wider society to reflect and consider alternative norms and behaviour patterns. So who, in Nigeria, will bell the cat and force the most recalcitrant among us to consider that no one is born to starve, to die or have their dreams taken away from them before they can even try to make something of themselves?

There is no such thing as “born throway” as the First Lady, Patience Jonathan, so inelegantly put it, there is only failed leadership. Who will reform and rectify the Nigerian dream of an opportunity society, where one is not blocked by ethnicity and religion, where one can find legitimate means of achieving success, without strain to one’s morals and beliefs? Who will attract and reward the talent needed to develop this country, thus eschewing archaic discriminatory policies?

Winter of discontent

They say writers take pen to paper because the disconnect they feel between themselves and the status quo reflects the divide between society and progress. I write because I march, PVC in hand, to demand that this society and its leaders, does right by me and those like me who believe that to progress, society must challenge itself to excel. As our winter of discontent blazes, Nigerians are prepared to work for a new country where citizens are rewarded because they are either highly trained, or have something to give, not because they have godfathers, or because they are well connected. Change, my friends, is upon us.

Who is afraid of EFCC?

THE incomparable Femi Fani-Kayode has advised both General Buhari and former governor, national leader of the APC, Bola Tinubu, not to fear the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) if indeed they are “clean”. This was in reaction to claims by the APC that the Federal Government intends to use the EFCC to arrest APC leaders on false charges.

Ironically, APC supporters believe fear of prosecution for corruption is the motivation behind the PDP’s electioneering tactics, as the First Lady herself stated she does not want to visit her husband in jail. If the EFCC is indeed the “big bad wolf” of Nigerian politics, one must wonder why it has been reduced to tackling petty crimes rather than the high profile cases it was designed to prosecute. However, the EFCC’s workings should not become the equivalent of reality TV, where convicts’ public humiliation would be seen as blood sport. Nigerians should be more interested in the possible developmental uses of recovered funds.

But for this to work one would need more transparency. After all, who really knows the fate of the assets recovered by the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), from failed banks for instance? Recovering funds from one corrupt individual to simply end up giving them back to another has become the norm in Nigeria. Yet another area where change is needed.

Lee Kuan Yew

THE  founding prime minister of Singapore passed away last weekend. He’ll notably be remembered for creating an efficient, uncorrupt civil service, managing the tensions of a multi-ethnic society, giving the best, most talented the opportunities to work and create a more prosperous society.

Singapore today, is where Nigeria could have been, had we benefitted from honest, conscientious leadership. Mr Lee wasn’t a democrat, in fact, he created a single-party state, proof that what matters most is not one’s past or outward appearance but what is inside, the will to do right by citizens.


Disclaimer

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