By ‘Yemi Adamolekun
Of all the institutions of a democratic society, there’s none as formidable as an awakened and conscious citizenry — Shehu Sani
WHEN I started actively working on governance issues 10 years ago, it seemed that there would be a rational sequence of actions leading to holding public office holders accountable. People put themselves forward to serve and when they fail to deliver on their promises, refuse to serve or serve in ways that are destructive, we bring this to their attention, expecting them to realign. If they do not comply, we vote them out of office or use other legal processes to enforce accountability, including protests! It was very straightforward to me.
I would get so frustrated when talking to people about demanding better governance, because there was just very little or no interest in taking any action. Some did not know their rights, while others had the general understanding that government should serve them. Nevertheless, both groups felt helpless and by extension, hopeless. I initially could not understand it but as I spent more time in the advocacy space, it finally made sense.
It is actually quite simple. People cannot fight for what they do not know or understand; and for those who understand how a democracy should work, they think the opportunity cost is too high. Therefore, instead of deploying time, energy and resources to ensuring those who have the legal obligation and access to resources to scale results actually perform, we choose to solve the problems ourselves – we build roads, schools and hospitals; dispose our own waste and provide water, electricity and security.
We jokingly call it being a one-man local government and it technically seems easier than holding government accountable, but it is not. For one, it is significantly more expensive and as such, it cannot be scaled up. So we continue to scratch the surface and wail endlessly about the dysfunctional system that determines our standard of living.
I am part of Nigeria’s educated elite and I am grateful for the privilege. I was born in the small university town of Ile-Ife and spent a significant part of my childhood there. Ife was magical in many ways and the products of the university – both those who were children of staff and those who attended the university during the glory days of Nigeria’s tertiary education system are a testament to this fact, but that’s the subject of another article!
I have often wondered why Nigeria’s educated elite do not seem to believe in the concept of enlightened self-interest. Simply, enlightened self-interest is a philosophy in ethics which states that persons who act to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serve their own self-interest. It has often been simply expressed by the belief that an individual, group, or even a commercial entity will do well by doing good.
I went to a Federal Government college – I will not send my children there today. None of my friends who went to federal secondary schools sent their children there either. Instead, they are paying significant amounts of money to pay for private schools in Nigeria or searching frantically for forex at the official rate (black market is not beneficial when you are buying) so they can pay for school fees in nearby Lome and Ghana or far away Australia. We pay mobile police officers (Mopol) to ride shotgun in our cars for security.
An estate of 32 houses has 32 generators and 32 boreholes. You get the idea. We have not only convinced ourselves that holding our duty bearers accountable is not worth the time and effort; we have also managed to convince ourselves that collaborating with our neighbours is also not worth the time and effort. With a mindset like this, suffering is guaranteed and we do not need any external powers – local or foreign – to continue to make our lives miserable. This is aptly captured in this quote from Edward R. Murrow: “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves”.
In contrast to the role we play as citizens in keeping ourselves impoverished, and not in a financial sense, even though that’s the reality of most Nigerian citizens, our political elite have a different dynamic. They see the state as an asset to be plundered for their selfish interests and of course, there are no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. This set up has worked and continues to work very well for them.
They move between political parties at will, playing the ethnic and religious cards when it benefits them. An example of an expected outcome is that we watch a public official go to jail for stealing four million pounds (N2.14 billion at the official rate) from the state coffers, but not only is he given a hero’s welcome when he returns from jail, he is consulted on matters of the state. Again, the actions of our political elite will be the subject of another article!
I am intrigued by followers of both major religions who abdicate their responsibility to God in words and deeds. I particularly like the Christian slangs – God dey! God will do it! It is well! God is in control! There are endless prayer meetings and they keep disturbing God, who I assume is quite busy trying to orchestrate world peace, with mundane things like job requests or praying that there’ll be light when they get home. Meanwhile, the articles of their faith state in Psalm 115:16, The heavens belong to the Lord, but he has given the earth to all humanity.
I am saddened by generations of citizens who do not know their history – the struggle for independence; the role of our nationalists; the civil war, to name a few. In the words of Carter G. Woodson: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history”.
I am fascinated by entrepreneurs who invest the better part of their lives in building businesses in a country where the interpretation of the law depends on who you get as a judge and your lawyer’s connections. How do entrepreneurs build in a country that does not prioritise the education of its youth? Where are the graduates and technically trained workforce that you will employ to run these businesses? Even without legacy in view, the challenges of a large unemployable demographic are already obvious.
I “accidentally” joined the third sector space a decade ago, but it was not really an accident. My conviction and interest in a Nigeria that works for the benefit of all made it inevitable. A few days ago, my father shared this excerpt from my application to Brown University in December 1991 – “With a solid education, I plan to come back to Nigeria and be part of the generation that will turn the country around”. In 2011, 20 years later, I found myself leading Enough is Enough, EiE, Nigeria and now in 2021, a decade later, there’s still so much work to do! What are you doing to make Nigeria work for more of us?
I have chosen to be an active citizen, occupying the Office of the Citizen, which is really the highest office in the country. February 2021 marked my tenth year leading the EiE Team and on Tuesday, March 16, EiE turned 11! We marked both milestones on Thursday, March 25 during our monthly Thursday Talks programme. Thursday Talks, which started in March 2018 in partnership with BudgIT and the Future Project, is a monthly conversation with thought leaders, change agents and active citizens which aims to drive conversations around the demand for good governance driven by active citizenship. For the March edition, I spoke to Maupe Ogun-Yusuf (journalist with Channels TV) about my EiE journey. You can watch the conversation here – www.bit.ly/MyEiEJourney.
Adamolekun is the Executive Director of EiE Nigeria, a network of individuals and organisations committed to a culture of good governance and public accountability in Nigeria through active citizenship.