Friday, May 29, 2009

Rescuing the Renaissance Generation

There are many of us who believe that the emerging generation of Nigerians (the post-oil boom generation) is summoned by historical circumstances and providential necessity to construct a new Nigeria. However bleak our national condition might be, we have the potential to become the renaissance generation. We could go down in history as the generation that turned back the tide of decay and set this country firmly on the path to the greatness for which she is so clearly ordained. Our time could become a definitive dateline in the calendar of Nigeria’s odyssey.

Some of the portents are auspicious. There is a rich vein of discontent waiting to be tapped for this purpose. There is also a capacity for strategic fraternity and solidarity partly evidenced by the popularity of sites like Facebook and the connectivity made possible by the internet and GSM telephony. There are embryonic intimations of a nascent social order – a more cosmopolitan outlook, defiant of customary prejudices, divisive tendencies and sectarian polemics – a proudly pan-Nigerian identity construct is slowly emerging from the rubble of sectional politics and it is refreshingly different. This is the face of the generation that will save Nigeria from itself.

But the renaissance generation itself must be rescued before it can undertake to rescue society. A calling to national renewal will count for nothing if we fail to answer history’s summons. The real question is: Does this generation care enough about Nigeria to invest in her redemption? The answer, based on available evidence, is probably not. The Nobel laureate and social critic, Wole Soyinka once famously described his generation as “the wasted generation” for its pitiless squandering of Nigeria’s opportunities for greatness. We run the risk of going down in history as the generation that didn’t even turn up for the nation-building enterprise; an absentee generation of runaways made infamous by our dereliction of a historic duty.

Thirty years ago, young Nigerians could be found at the frontlines of social and civic engagement. Their voices were strident in the public arena. It was youths that protested and forestalled the Balewa government’s proposed Anglo-Nigerian defence pact; it was youths that launched the Ali-Must-Go protests during General Obasanjo’s rule and the anti-SAP demonstrations during the Babangida years. It was young Nigerians that founded the Civil Liberties Organization and the Constitutional Rights Project among other groups that were to form the spine of the civil society’s anti-military resistance. Our national anthem enjoins us to always remember “the labours of our heroes past”. Indeed the exploits of the great nationalists of yore, Azikiwe, Awolowo, Aminu Kano, Herbert Macaulay, Michael Imoudu did not come at the crest of old age but in the prime of their youth.

Today, Nigerian civil society is in a kind of suspended animation and is badly in need of fresh blood and youthful vigour to pilot it in new directions. Part of the problem is that the culture of civic participation was virtually destroyed during the eighties and nineties when the trio of military dictators – Buhari, Babangida and Abacha undertook the most comprehensive subversion of civil society in our history. Our generation which grew up during military rule and has only a fleeting acquaintance with democratic culture needs to learn the principles of civic participation. This is important. Our experience of power and governance was of the buccaneering variety rendered by military regimes. This experience frames our modes of engagement in the public space. The utility of violence among young people under the auspices of campus cults, militant groups and other conclaves is in a profound sense, the legacy of military rule – a consequence of the militarization of the public space.

This is only half of the problem. Nigerian youths are more likely to be found today in religious gatherings, crusade meetings, sports viewing centres, beer parlours and clubs. If this generation is to fulfil its calling as the renaissance generation, then it must itself be delivered from the opiate of sterile spirituality and the entrancement of an increasingly bankrupt popular culture. The evidence suggests that a cynical dumbing down of a generation is in progress. Consider that by all accounts Nigerian youths are in poor shape bent double under the yoke of mass unemployment and mass unemployability. Examination scores of secondary school leavers have been plunging steadily for more than a decade. The failure rate is currently over 70 percent. From all indications, ours is a generation with few or no prospects. Yet we are plied relentlessly with a panorama of activities and images designed to distract us from reality. This goes beyond the habitual failure of government. Even the private sector corporations ostensibly imperilled by the growing shortages of skilled manpower are the biggest promoters of an increasingly widespread culture of mindless entertainment.

A cursory perusal of the fare on television yields images of able-bodied youths in dance-a-thons, sing-along contests, and various reality shows that tend towards hedonism. Everything on air points towards a celebration of frivolity and a trivialization of the challenges facing young people in this country. Let us remember that Nigeria suffers severe limitations in basic literacy and numeracy. Yet there is a fastidious lack of investment in the intellectual capacities of our youth. Programmes that promote intellectual armaments are jarringly absent. What passes for entertainment is hopelessly low-concept. Our youth programmes feature an unhealthy fixation on physicality. If we are to think of the brain as a muscle that is toned with exercise then we must agree that our popular culture exercises every muscle but the most important one. About the most cerebrally tasking thing on Nigerian TV right now is the game show, Who wants to be a Millionaire?

On the other hand, there is the disturbing obsession our young people have with religion. I am not by any means proposing atheism; spirituality is a fundamental part of humanity and at its best is an agent of renewal and progress in society. But I fear that our youths are now largely under the thrall of personality cults masquerading as religious movements. Nigerian popular theology is intensely materialistic, promotes immediate self-gratification and is devoid of a social conscience. The Marxist definition of religion as an opiate is mostly true in Nigeria. It should not escape our attentions that the religious boom that multiplied churches and mosques in Nigeria occurred within the context of urban decay, economic recession and the collapse of our communities. This is no coincidence. As people have turned to religion, they have withdrawn from the public arena.

What would happen if the multitudes that turn up with alacrity at the sundry crusade grounds and prayer camps developed the same commitment towards renewing their communities? What if the young, upwardly, mobile and apathetic congregants of the so-called mega-churches in our urban areas repented of their existential cluelessness and were mobilized towards activism in the public square? What if religious leaders of different persuasions adopted a social and moral consensus to publicly interpret their faiths in terms of civility, courtesy, charity, good works, community service and social renewal? Imagine if pastors and imams mobilized their flock towards constructive ventures in the public space rather than destructive ventilations of angst in riots and inter-religious clashes that scarify our land?

If we cannot even imagine these occurrences or can only do so with great difficulty, then we must quickly reach the right conclusions. First, religion as we know it in Nigeria is under-developing our society and far from being a redemptive force is largely an escape hatch from reality, a fount of denial and a zone where civic irresponsibility crystallizes into pious hypocrisy. If the potential for a national renaissance is not to be aborted in our time, we must emancipate those of this generation that are now being anaesthetized into indifference and narcissistic individualism in our religious theatres.

Secondly, the tone and tenor of our popular culture must change. Private sector companies must devote their resources to sponsoring intellectually-stimulating fare as against the celebration of raw animal physicality of youth. We live in an age of brains not brawn and we must commit as a society to developing our intellectual armaments. Put another way, if we educate our children so that they can find a cure for HIV/AIDS, discover cheaper alternative energy or develop ways of renewing the vast areas of our country now being devastated by desertification and erosion, it would make a far greater impact on our social and economic reality than sponsoring them to contest in the World Street Dancing Championships or in international beauty pageants. We will not progress as a nation on the basis of how many street dancers and beauty queens we have.

We must realize that whereas the developed countries of the world are rich enough to afford certain levels of indolence, Nigeria is simply not in that league and can ill-afford leisurely idleness. The problems facing us are daunting enough – they require seriousness and rigour not frivolity and banality. They require focus and commitment not the portfolio of distractions offered by a bogus spirituality.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

NIGERIA NEEDS REBOOTING NOT REBRANDING

Everyday across Nigeria, on at least half a dozen or more occasions, one occurrence elicits wrathful oaths and unprintable profanities from people of both high and low breeding. It is that moment when a power outage cuts short work, leisurely activity, a football game or something as serious as a surgical operation. At such times, whether with a scream, a groan or a sigh, the word “NEPA!” escapes our lips like an expletive directed at the air as if invoking some spiritual entity. NEPA is Nigeria’s National Electric Power Authority, and arguably no organization in the world attracts the same unanimity of public odium. What is interesting though is that NEPA ceased to exist several years ago. The organization that has been in charge of our power supply for years is the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN). Not that it matters. For over two decades, power supply in Nigeria has essentially fluctuated between erratic and non-existent. Consequently, the rebaptism and change in nomenclature has made no difference.

NEPA’s ineptitude is so seared into the Nigerian consciousness that nothing short of a revolution in PHCN’s service delivery will redeem its reputation. NEPA is a compelling example of the staying power of a negative brand and is especially relevant to the Yar’Adua administration’s current campaign to rebrand Nigeria. With typical Nigerian superficiality, government spin doctors have reduced national branding to sterile sloganeering: “Good People; Great Nation.” Professor Dora Akunyili, the minister of information and the chief apostle of the rebranding campaign has attacked her assignment with customary gusto. She has been making the rounds on the local and international media to vociferously argue that all Nigerians aren’t fraudsters and to condemn the delinquent minority whose vile acts have given the country a bad name.

But in fact her campaign misses the point. The social theorist Marshall McLuhan coined what we might regard as the cardinal principle of branding when he said: “The medium is the message.” Professor Akunyili while entirely justified in her vilification of fraudsters is mistaken in casting them as the archenemies of the Nigerian brand. The people whose acts cast the most doubt on her campaign are none other than her fellow travellers in the current administration. It is the government itself that is doing the most to discredit the rebranding exercise. President Yar’Adua’s lack of leadership, his government’s failure to move beyond a now esoteric seven-point agenda and urgently invest in the critical sectors – power, energy and public infrastructure, constitute the most potent blights on this rebranding campaign. Add to this the administration’s apparent indebtedness to corrupt politicians, its disgraceful hounding from office of an anti-corruption czar in violation of his statutory tenure and the president’s refusal to repudiate the electoral heists perpetrated by his party, the Peoples Democratic Party. Akunyili may find it easy and convenient to inveigh against faceless fraudsters but if she is truly interested in tackling the biggest fraudsters in Nigeria, she needn’t look further than Abuja. Half of our national budget goes towards maintaining our public officials. Their wage bill last year amounted to 1.3 trillion naira. A member of the National Assembly earns more than the president of the United States. At the same time, members of the National Youth Service Corps who are expected to serve their country often in indecent conditions and in remote locales receive a paltry N9, 775 as monthly allowance. Last year, a proposal to increase the allowance to N20, 000 was shot down in the National Assembly. Meanwhile the national minimum wage is N11, 130. The Nigerian Labour Congress which is campaigning for an increase in the minimum wage has observed that between 2006 and 2007, workers’ salaries were raised by 15 percent while those of political office holders were increased by 800 percent.

A more cognitive government would have recognized the connection between high unemployment and crime. By one estimate, 40 million Nigerians are unemployed. The fraudsters that Akunyili has had cause to condemn belong predominantly to the demographic bracket of the ages of 20 to 35 years. This is the bracket that supplies most of our teeming army of unemployed youths, as well as the militants and brigands that are often used as cannon fodder by political operatives. Confronted by mass unemployment and the growing spectre of mass unemployability owing to the collapse of public education, the government’s most imaginative response has been “Good People; Great Nation!” The PDP’s only contribution to the debate has been its announced readiness and intention to rule Nigeria for sixty years.

Let’s be honest. As of now, the Yar’Adua administration has no moral right to preach probity to Nigerians. It isn’t the acts of a few delinquent fraudsters that impugn the national brand; it is the piracy of a delinquent political elite and the continuing culture of impunity, hypocrisy and graft in high places, which in turn feeds graft in the lower places. None of the high ranking politicians and officials implicated in bribery scandals involving Siemens and Halliburton have been exposed. The corruption cases brought by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) against some governors, among them the president’s known political associates, have conveniently vaporized. The EFCC itself has been neutered and is steadily sinking to the same operational efficiency levels as NEPA. Just this April, a report on Nigeria in The Economist portrayed the stark reality of Nigerian politics as “back-room deals that ensure that the top job alternates between the elites of the largely Muslim north and Christian south: a “gentleman’s agreement” to allow the ungentlemanly feasting on the country’s billions of dollars of stolen and mismanaged oil resources. Nigeria is still one of the world’s most corrupt countries.” This perception of Nigeria in the west has nothing to do with 419 and neither stale slogans nor hackneyed preachments will alter this perception. That President Yar’Adua and his administration are supposed to be symbols of the Nigerian brand readily makes this rebranding campaign an unqualified farce. The medium is the message.

As for Professor Akunyili, we may well be witnessing the self-immolation of one of the country’s most capable public servants. When she agreed to become one of the public faces of the Yar’Adua presidential campaign in 2007, many Nigerians excused her involvement with the PDP as conscription rather than a voluntary inclusion in the party’s gravy train. By assuming such a high profile in the campaign, she was, it was felt, lending her public reputation to a presidential campaign of such unhygienic provenance. (In retrospect, we might surmise that she was simply staking her claim to power in the nascent presidency). To Nigerians who had fallen in love with Akunyili following her impressive crusade against fake drugs as the nation’s food and drugs czarina, it was almost as if she had been abducted by the PDP and forcibly deployed to the frontlines of their electoral campaign. If this is so, then she may now be a victim of Stockholm syndrome, the peculiar neurosis that causes abductees to identify and bond emotionally with their captors and adopt their causes. Little else can explain her acceptance of a brief that requires her to defend an administration that is indefensible on many counts.

Had she defined herself solely as a minister of information, then perhaps her position, however much of a disservice to her person it is, would have been tolerable. Akunyili remains quite popular with many Nigerians. And Nigerians are very forgiving of public figures that they love and very understanding of their frailties and errors. But her insistence on the role of the chief apostle – as a medium of a government that really has no message, strains credulity. This role calls for a dangerous level of self-righteousness because it involves preaching to the disillusioned on behalf of the irredeemable. To say that Akunyili is throwing stones from a glass house is an understatement; her very pulpit is an Aegean stable. At the moment, it doesn’t look as if Akunyili will leave government with much of her reputation and stock of goodwill intact. This is the price of yoking her personal brand to a political brand that was always suspect at best.

This brings us right back to the subject of rebranding. No amount of re-baptisms and changes in nomenclature can transform NEPA’s image in the national consciousness. Like the police, the customs service and much of Nigerian governance, what is needed isn’t rebranding but rebooting. Serious exemplary leadership can change the tone of these organizations and infuse our institutions with a new spirit of excellence and service. This will happen only when the right balance is struck between rhetoric and purposeful action. So far, the Yar’Adua administration has simply dished out bankrupt rhetoric and has demonstrated a pitiable lack of ideas and political will.

In the final analysis, whether Nigeria is advertised as the “Heart of Africa” or simply a “Good People” and a “Great Nation” is inconsequential. No amount of creative sloganeering can challenge the reality that greets visitors and citizens at our airports, the filth on our roads, the impunity of law enforcement agents, decrepit infrastructure and allied evidence of a broken system. Given the scale of these challenges, the rebranding campaign is a criminal waste of funds. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, a future administration will find it useful to prosecute those who are now conspiring to squander much needed resources on a pointless rebranding exercise.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Time Has Come

Leadership is the greatest need of the hour in Nigeria. Across the land, at all levels, with the exception of very few bright spots, there is a debilitating absence of direction. Our leadership meltdown is not restricted to the political realm; religious leadership has been equally abysmal. There are few genuine role models and exemplars of what is good. Our society is descending into chaos. The times recall lines from W.B. Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming: “the best of all lack conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The situation is bleak and everywhere there is a deficit of common sense and character; a yawning absence of courage and conviction.

There are things that need to be said and there are things that need to be done. The saying must often come before the doing. A declaration of alternate possibilities – a strident insistence that things do not have to be like this – must precede action. There are those who will say that talk is cheap. Indeed. But when people steadfastly refuse to voice the obvious, then clearly truth has become expensive. Someone must utter the truths which we as a people fastidiously avoid confronting. We must speak truth to power.

As Thomas Paine said, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” These are not times for regurgitating stale clich├ęs and rehashing the expired rhetoric of our superficial public conversation. These are not times for apathetic self-involvement punctuated by beer parlour lamentations and living room histrionics. These are not times for mundane pursuits. On the contrary, the times are crying out for fresh thinking. These are times to dream boldly and to dare in like spirit. We need to reason deeply, to brood over the issues and our roles in resolving the crisis. The deep-rooted malaise of our society requires solutions conceived from the very depths of our consciousness. Only the deep can call out to the deep. In other words, the customary shallowness which attends our public discourse must be discarded.

The prophets of old heard from heaven and sought to align their societies with the imperatives of providence. If we could hear from heaven today regarding Nigeria, I do not believe that we would hear the poetry of comfort and impending bliss. We would not hear the sound of an abundance of rain coming forth to end a season of national drought. We would hear instead a summons to responsibility; an invitation to begin to re-imagine and reinvent the dysfunctional conditions that we have grown distressingly accustomed to. We would hear a call asking us to seek our roles in a nascent and as yet embryonic movement for national renewal. I believe that that we would hear this call framed as a query: “Who shall we send and who will go for us?”