By Tabia Princewill
DURING French philosopher and writer, Ernest Renan’s famous 1887 lecture at the Sorbonne, my Alma matter, he asked the question “what is a nation”? He answered, “a soul”, a “spiritual principle”. What is the “essence” of Nigeria? What are our common beliefs, principles? Unfortunately, the answer to that veers towards the negative.
Materialism, corruption, insensitivity towards the plight of others, ethnic and religious intolerance, these are the things we share, as displayed most horrendously during these past elections.
Moving forward, not only is a healing process necessary, it is paramount we create new foundations for peaceful cohabitation and lay to rest our ethnic angst and division, so no one can ever find it so easy to stoke the fires of discord and divisiveness which clearly still lay dormant, ready to be reawakened. Cosmetic, surface measures such as federal character and zoning are out-dated if we are to create a modern Nigeria free of ethno-religious conflict and competition. We need policies that economically bind our identities and communities together and strategies that put Nigeria first by creating a cosmopolitan culture that teaches new values and mind-sets.
Right structural wrongs
This election is Nigeria’s reset button: we have an incredible opportunity to right the structural wrongs that have held this country back, to create a new identity for ourselves to positively influence our lives and livelihoods. We can transition from one failed social order, a system that benefits only the rich towards another more sustainable, more equitable form of government for the people. Nigeria can become an industrious society where cultural unity developed by new values taught in schools and exemplified by trade, can develop our workforce, making it dynamic, global-minded and cosmopolitan.
Simply put, Nigeria’s traditional identities in their diversity, as represented by the music, food, history and language of our various ethnic groups can, not only be a force for development, export and job creation, increasing Nigeria’s international prestige, but can also be the basis for lasting peace and understanding by emphasising existing trade networks and therefore creating new opportunities for the idea of one Nigeria to take lasting roots.
Natural resources alone do not make a prosperous country: Nigeria is proof of this. Rather, our culture, i.e. our behavioural patterns, our thinking and modes of self-expression, from the ways in which we communicate to the businesses we pursue should provide opportunities for personal and collective advancement, as only creativity can enable the sort of productivity that would allow Nigeria to compete in a world where economies are knowledge and service based rather than built on extractive industries. Nigeria embraced capitalism and profit making without government and policy-makers developing a Nigerian equivalent of the creative spirit and best practices behind Western capitalism, which enables development in the first place. Indeed, we want a modern economy and society but we have not imagined or creatively equipped ourselves with the culture that authorizes it.
Review of educational system
We need, for example, to assess the state of our unity schools and federal government colleges and more widely, review our educational system. Nigeria will not be truly functional and peaceful as a nation, until our culture consolidates into a model that can give rise to a “new Man” who will create and buy national products to enable the dissemination of local knowledge about the various people and cultures that make Nigeria.
Every Nigerian should be raised by the public school system as a manager of diversity, thus reinforcing the idea of citizenship, eschewing ethnic marginalization and embracing critical thinking to create culturally based economic activity to develop communities, local governments and states. Beyond the mere rhetoric of decentralization, a country must “encounter itself”, find common ground in a plural society and see business and entrepreneurship as a vehicle to change society. Let us take Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” concept, which transformed London into a global hub for business, music, fashion, media, art and design.
The new global economy is based on “content provision”, which in our country can create wealth and wellbeing using the individual skills, talents and cultural modes of our communities. Indeed, culture, fused with economic development programmes creates local and international tourism opportunities, world-class service industries (our food, music and ideas can create lifestyle product derivatives which both local and international markets would appreciate), media content (imagine if we invested in Nollywood beyond superficial ceremonies to celebrate actors and actresses). Transportation, hotels, restaurants and more widely, urban development is a product of culture seen as good business to foster understanding.
Inequality efficiently tackled
Ethnic, cultural and religious differences need not be a source of instability if inequality is efficiently tackled. Movement of goods and services should be facilitated based on what each part of the country can come to positively represent in both our national ethos and economy. If people are busy trading community specific wares and goods with other localities and regions, they come to know each other so well that the prospect of conflict becomes too cumbersome to entertain. A shared lifestyle and value system in Nigeria will perhaps take some time to evolve, but requires conscious planning.
To truly change Nigeria, perhaps even in the four years allocated to the incoming administration, policies must foster belonging, especially among the poor. What better way to do so than to use our traditional culture to help create local businesses, which strengthen communities and create a demand for local products. From community food systems and “civic agriculture”, that is food production linked to a community’s economic and social development, to “farm to school” initiatives where food purchasing and educational practices at schools connect communities, to commercialising traditional arts e.g. cane furniture which many Nigerians go to South Africa to buy, it is possible for Nigeria to be self-sufficient and for this independence to foster togetherness.Why shouldn’t Nigeria clothe Africa and provide it with lifestyle content and consumer goods? What is stopping Nigeria from marketing an “African way of life”, sold internationally? To do this, our policies must support both the use and modernisation of culture to create new cosmopolitan mind-sets and create lasting economic ties between communities.
National Orientation Agency
IT has been reduced to a paperweight political campaign tool, much like the Nigerian Television Authority. In today’s Nigeria, given our economic objectives and social imperatives, such agencies must be empowered to fully work with the Information and Communications ministries (why these are separate ministries is puzzling, given the cost of governance in Nigeria) to explain public affairs issues to Nigerians and truly carry them along with government reforms, beyond simplistic press conferences.
In fact, NTA could produce, with the depth of artistic talent in Nigeria, modern educating and entertaining series and documentaries to create a new self-image for Nigerians. Can our society embrace “change” beyond the slogan? Yes if we give ourselves the means of achieving these objectives by headhunting professionals and thinkers to head these agencies and by working closely with civil society.
Nigerian students and US Ivy league universities
NIGERIANS have lauded, over the past few weeks, the exploits of diaspora students who were admitted into all eight US Ivy league institutions. However, in our usual self-congratulatory manner, masking the issues at stake, we fail to ask the questions these feats raise: would these success stories have been possible if these children had not emigrated to the US and attended American primary and secondary schools?
How equipped is the average Nigerian primary or secondary school to prepare our children for global competitiveness, especially in low-income areas? If we are to have a fairer, more equal society then educational outcomes at primary level must be a priority. Otherwise we will continue, as we always have, like a ship without a rudder, going against the global current.