Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Bonds of Freedom

It is the hubris of a generation to think itself set apart; to assume that its nation’s history begins and ends with it and that it can therefore single-handedly decide the country’s fate. As a society this has been and remains our greatest transgression. Pundits and critics fill the news pages and airwaves with summary dismissals of Nigeria’s prospects as a nation. Others flippantly propose the dissolution of the country without considering what is at stake. We are obsessed with merely momentary episodes of our history or with the peculiar inconveniences of our own time, when we should concentrate upon the entire fabric of our national existence. This inability to see the big picture is our greatest undoing. Wisdom tells us that each generation is part of the existential continuum of its nation and therefore part of a larger story. Our time is only a chapter of the national odyssey. Understanding that we are part of an epic narrative gives our lives purpose and meaning, and enables us to overcome the existential challenges confronting the society. We call this taking the long view.

To begin with, nations are not presented gift-wrapped by historical circumstances. They are built from the ashes of transience and adversity by people who deign to forge a collective destiny. The blueprints are in the dreams and visions of our founding fathers and mothers – the ancestors of our political genealogy. Without an understanding of where we are coming from, we will be unable to see where we are going. In our past, we will find assets and resources with which we can more accurately chart our course. The dreams and visions that ignited the Nigeria’s beginnings were neither local nor petty. They were illustrious. We find them in the poetry and prophecy of luminaries like Marcus Garvey and WEB DuBois who dreamed of an African civilization that would manifest the glories of the black race. Nnamdi Azikiwe spoke of the renascence of the African spirit – a New Africa of which Nigeria would be centrepiece and capital. By and large, these were dreams that possessed our founding fathers. The values of the renascence would be liberal democracy, community, justice and freedom. Other dreamers envisioned a republic in which Africa’s triple heritage of western civilization, eastern civilization and indigenous values would be harmonized in a symphony of social and spiritual wisdom. This was to be and remains Nigeria’s manifest destiny in the comity of nations.

As Frantz Fanon said, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it.” It took a generation of anti-colonial agitators and nationalists to end colonialism and win our independence as a nation. It took another generation of pro-democracy activists and campaigners to terminate military dictatorship and earn the country another opportunity for democratic rule. The historic mission of the present generation of Nigerians is to recover the old dreams and interpret them anew in our own time. This is the post-oil boom generation that was born into the twilight of the Nigerian promise, came of age during the dark years of military misrule and now bear the brunt of pervasive dysfunction. This is also a generation that has largely succumbed to cynicism, apathy and despair. For them, there are only two imperatives – the necessity of an emergency exodus in search of greener pastures abroad or fatalistic resignation to the dreariness of life in a failing state. But there is a third option.

We have moved beyond military dictatorship into a more ambiguous era, when berets and swagger sticks have given way to Babanriga and briefcases. In this age, the false god of military Messianism – the idea that soldierly strongmen can miraculously transform our society – is rightly dead. The golden calf of oil wealth as a magical cure all for all our ills stands similarly discredited. New ways, means and strategies of seeding change are required. In politics, this means building a vibrant civil society, engaging actively in civic life and public service. In culture, it means crafting ideas, art, songs, myths and stories that can stir the soul to greater heights of virtue and nobility. In business, it means shifting from the rent-collecting contractor mentality to a culture of wealth creation, vocational excellence and authentic entrepreneurship that will widen the circle of prosperity in the land. In faith, it means translating belief into social action; into acts of courage, conscience and compassion in the public square and in the marketplace. By getting involved in any of these domains, we become active participants in the processes now shaping the future.

Our national anthem speaks of a Nigeria as “One nation bound in freedom…” The imagery of the bonds of freedom is profound for it implies that freedom carries certain restraints. Freedom itself imposes a set of responsibilities on us and defines the ways and means by which we may pursue and apply it. Keeping an eye on the big picture is to recognize that a society’s progress in freedom is piecemeal. Each generation must expand the borders of freedom, deepen its meaning and pass it on as an inheritance to their children. For the nationalists that fought colonialism, freedom meant relief from British rule and the right to self-determination. For the pro-democracy activists that challenged military dictatorships, freedom meant an end to the reign of fear and the oppression of jackboots, and the right to choose one’s leaders. For us, freedom means entrenching democracy, justice and equity and defeating the forces of graft and kleptocracy. It is our generation that must take democracy beyond nominal voting rights to the liberalization of opportunities for health, wellbeing and happiness for all regardless of creed, ethnicity or gender.

Taking the long view of our nation and our place in the scheme of its destiny is to accept that accomplishing these objectives is necessarily a generational struggle demanding investments in sweat, blood, toil and tears – the symbolic elements of redemptive suffering. Sceptics might question if all or any of these lofty dreams can be achieved. The point is that the struggle for freedom is a chain and each generation is a link in that chain. Our ancestors in the struggle did not realize all of their dreams but they ran their race and passed the torch of liberty to their children. Every generation is meant to realize more fully the promise of what its forebears sought to accomplish. For us too, the important thing is to run our own race and to leave a legacy of hope for our children.

Predictions of our impending and inevitable national doom are not cast in stone. Nothing about our future as a society is settled yet because the key determinant of civilizational destiny is human agency and moral choice. Human beings through their actions or inactions, choose the fate of their societies. It is within our powers to choose life or death, order or chaos, redemption or perdition. It is crucial that we discern the choices facing our generation at present. Our children will surely have their own problems – this is the way of life – but what matters is that we work to give them a richer freedom and a more edifying reality than the one we know today. Posterity itself compels us to do this. To betray this calling is to transgress against the future and to commit cosmic treason. These are the bonds of our freedom.

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