A Professor wanted to teach his students what he called an important lesson of life. After the day’s lecture, he seated them and gave each student a sheet of paper. He asked them to crumble their sheets into hard balls. He then placed a basket near his table at the front of the room and asked them to throw the balls of paper into the basket. As to be expected, the rate of success depended mostly on the proximity to the basket.
Those farthest from the basket needed more concentration, more awareness of the hardness of the ball and the direction of the wind. Those who had sporting skills like good hand-to-ball coordination, must have deployed them with varying degrees of success while those who were near the basket simply tossed them into the bin with ease. Those who went far off the mark were derided and jeered mainly by those near the basket.
At the end of the exercise, those who were loudest in condemning the fairness of the exercise were those who were farthest from the basket and whose throws went off the mark because of it. The happy faces were those who were near the basket and thus had a high degree of success. A more equitable arrangement would be to put the basket in the centre but that is not what life does.
The lecturer’s explanation was that by virtue of their education, especially tertiary education, they had been placed nearer the basket and therefore nearer the attainment of their goals in life. He urged them never to discount the power of education. But that they should not take the privilege it gave them for granted either. He then admonished them to be sympathetic towards the plight of the disadvantaged; those whose circumstances had placed them farthest from the basket, and therefore their goals in life.
Although the Professor used the parable to illustrate the value of education, this parable – like most parables—presents other takes as well. One take which struck me immediately, is about those whose birth and religion have virtually guaranteed the opportunities— education or otherwise—that literally puts the basket by their bedsides. These are the royalties, the elites, the untouchables. They abound anywhere there is a monarchy, the caste system, the class system, the religious system, the colour system. Which is about everywhere. The difference is probably that some societies have heeded the lecturer’s admonition to consider the less advantaged and are thus working towards a more equitable society by placing the basket within reach of more people.
Now think about Nigeria. Where have we put the basket? Many of us will readily agree that we have not put it in the middle where it is more accessible to the majority of Nigerians. Instead, we seem to have put it in a corner where only a select few have access to it. This easily manifests in the obvious gap between the privileged and the not so privileged; the elite and the talakawas; the very rich and the very poor.
And the scramble for that vantage position which will guarantee an easy access to the basket has been loud, indecorous, manipulative and sometimes deadly. Many have found themselves there because of the accidents of birth, religion and geography. Some by association to this group. Some through bloody coups and others still, through palace coups. One thing is discernible. The farther away our people are from the basket, the louder the cry for a more justifiable positioning of the basket. And those who for one reason or the other, have lost their privileged seats suddenly find their voices as they join the chorus of justice and equity.
When General Abdulsalami Abubakar handed over to General Obasanjo in 1999, the mood of ‘we are in power’ in Abuja shifted to the south. The swagger changed from ‘babanriga’ to ‘buba and sokoto.’ It didn’t matter that his kith and kin hardly wanted him as President. Suddenly the basket was nearer to us, the Yoruba. Even if it was more of perception than reality. And so we acquiesced. Our voices for justice became muffled. Later, the southern minority which had been restive during the tenures of Obasanjo and Yar’Adua, threatening incessantly to bring the country to its economic knees, suddenly found peace when their man Goodluck Jonathan became President.
They felt the position of the basket was now in their favour. Again the swagger changed from babaringa. The attire in town became ‘resource control’. The Ijaws felt they were in government. In reality, their South-Eastern brothers were the ones in power. They were the ones whose crumbled sheets found the basket at will. Then came 2015 and the positions changed; not of the basket but of the people around it. Babaringa became the new ‘asoebi’ in town once again. Hausa became the official language literally and figuratively. Then the cry from the southern parts of the country became plaintive. Cries of ‘resource control’, ‘devolution of power’, ‘restructuring’ now rent the air. The north which now believes it sits round the basket has in its unenlightened self-interest,remained largely mute. Unenlightened because the chair will revolve again.
In any case, these cries are manipulative and self-serving. Were the musical or magical chair to revolve south again, virtually the same people would occupy the vacated seats. The poor in the south would still be poor just as the ones in the north are poor today. This is because the basket has not really moved from the far corner it has been ensconced by the master puppeteers who have been controlling the affairs of our country.
Our selfish representatives fight to be moved near the basket rather than fight for the basket to be moved centrally where the vast majority of the people can benefit. Like the Professor in our parable told his students, education moves you nearer the basket. So does skill acquisition. So does merit. And finally, so does an inclusive government.
As it is now, the people who control access to the basket are few but powerful. They are in the north but not exclusively so. They are Muslims but not exclusively so. They are royalty but not exclusively so. They are past Presidents but not exclusively so. What binds them transcends all those boundaries. My guess is that they are not more than a score. They need to be ‘persuaded’ to move the basket centrally so that the average Joe can have access. Until then, the musical or magical chair will continue to favour whomever they choose while the country continues to under-achieve.