The first challenge confronting those who want to renew Nigeria is not the pervasive dysfunction of its institutions or even the legendary venality of its ruling elite. It is actually the steely hardboiled cynicism, pessimism and faithlessness with which Nigerians regard their country’s prospects. We have basically relinquished our beliefs in the country’s future and have surrendered to the survivalist imperative of every man for himself. To many of its citizens, Nigeria is already a lost cause. This is the mentality that we must first tackle. Thus, we must first engage with the Nigerian condition in the psychic dimension, in the domain of thought processes, behavioural constructs, belief systems and ultimately, values. Consider, for instance, the ancient axiom, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” The ancients believed that there was a profound connection between hygiene and holiness. Some cultures interpreted leprosy as a physical manifestation of a moral and spiritual blight. In our indigenous traditions, environmental filth was repugnant and there was an emphasis on cleanliness. A filthy home or community suggested the presence of some moral muck, if not a deeper existential evil. By the same token, cleanliness, beauty, order and symmetry suggested ethical hygiene and were held to be the hallmarks of social decency and civilization.
We can apply the same logic with slight modifications to our contemporary circumstances. Whenever we see in our communities, filth, disorganization and disorder, we can take them as evidence that the state is failing in its moral responsibility to safeguard the citizenry from all forces and factors that impair a qualitative life. But it goes beyond that. Environmental chaos indicates the moral condition of the society at large. Heaps of garbage festering in the tropical heat of our cities and towns tell us that a people that can sustain such anomalies for so long even at grave risk to their health have been overtaken by a virulent apathy and selfishness. It is precisely these moral plagues that have hindered civil society and restrained the middle class in particular from the sort of civic engagement that the times undeniably require. For since the 1980s, we have responded to the deterioration of the state with a cynical self-centredness.
Our public schools fell into decay and we responded by building pricey private schools that three-quarters of the population cannot afford. Public healthcare collapsed and we established private clinics beyond the reach of three-quarters of the population. And those with loftier ambitions took to attending to their health needs abroad – an option not available for ninety percent of our compatriots. Among the bizarre consequences of this development is the fact that malaria still kills more Nigerians in the 21st century than any other disease. Vast numbers of our people cannot even afford the cost of malarial medication. Our roads collapsed and we responded by buying Four-wheel drives and exotic SUVs that most Nigerians cannot afford. Power supply diminished and we took to buying power generators to the point where Nigeria is the biggest importer of such machines in the world and emergency back-up generators are the defacto power supply infrastructure for most homes and businesses. Indeed, our entire economy is run on emergency generating sets. In short, as the state’s capacities and competencies have been degraded, more Nigerian families have become virtually self-contained, self-sustained micro-municipalities with each household providing its own electricity, water and security.
The ability to thrive in the teeth of infrastructural meltdown, to display flashy SUVs, patronize private or foreign clinics and private schools, are all pungent statements of class in a perversely status-conscious society. They also signify a profound rupture between the self and the society. The idolization and idealization of wealth, our remorseless pursuit of status symbols and conspicuous consumption to the exclusion of everything else has created a society rabidly polarized between haves and have-nots. The culture of privatized selfishness is sustained by a perverse theology that has gained ground since the 1980s and captured the hearts and minds of the middle class. The Nigerian dream propounded from the pulpits of popular spirituality and the cockpits of popular culture is of isles of affluence set in a raging sea of want and desperation – a situation in which the apathetic middle class is more at risk now than ever before.
More than two decades of flawed public policy have played their part. Social services were already in decline by the last days of the Second Republic when Lagos achieved global notoriety as the dirtiest city in the world. However, there remained a basic commitment, more in philosophy than in practice, on the part of the state to provide public goods. It stemmed from a tradition of state capitalism dating back to the First Republic. For all their political differences, the three patriarchs of post-colonial Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo apparently shared a similar economic vision of synthesizing free enterprise with an actively regulatory and entrepreneurial state. They left a formidable legacy in the form of cottage industries in the north, free public education that created a vast and vibrant middle class in the west and a manufacturing base in the east that was well on its way to rivaling the industrial miracles later wrought by the Asian tigers. Sadly, that particular course of growth was cut short by overwhelmingly adverse political realities. Two coups, a civil war and the oil boom which saw the emergence of a gargantuan federal administration that centralized power and economic resources in itself, halted the growth propelled by the old regions and enthroned a new developmental dynamic fuelled by federally-controlled petrodollars. Even then, the federal leviathan of the oil boom era did not jettison the tradition of state-led capitalism it had inherited. It simply supplanted the regions as the main driver of economic reality. Indeed, economic nationalism characterized the rhetoric and reality of the Murtala-Obasanjo era.
The decisive rupture came in 1986 when General Ibrahim Babangida introduced the Structural Adjustment Program, rolling back the state, cutting public spending, eliminating social subsidies and privatizing state enterprises. From then on, the notion of the state as the principal provider of public goods and guarantor of the common good died. SAP killed off the legacies of the patriarchs through its untrammeled deregulation of the economy, destroying the industries and enterprises established during the First Republic to drive national growth. The sturdy middle class that had been produced by the social engineering of the 1950s and 1960s was almost totally wiped out. But the consequence of SAP was not merely economic; it was also psychic, moral and psychological. Arguably, the forced retreat of the state from its role as guarantor of the common good helped to nullify the very concept of a public domain for which every citizen is responsible. Community values and civic solidarities were undermined by the nascent inequalities generated by the new economic order. Survivalism as a creed and ideology took over.
The shift was aggravated by the peculiar political realities of the time. A principal tenet of SAP was fiscal discipline – stricter protocols of accountability were needed to rein in the riotous proclivities of those in power and to avoid the sort of incontinent spending that had gotten the country into trouble in the first place. Yet, here was a military junta, accountable to no one and its powers guaranteed by its absolutist monopoly of the instruments of violence, executing far-reaching economic reforms. It was secure in its own infallibility while all the time conducting the plunder of the treasury required to nourish the piratical covenant that had brought its leading officers to power. It was a recipe for disaster as the state was simply being vandalized. Nigerians observed the farce and learned that the common good and the public interest, always questionable concepts at best of times, had ceased to exist. The concept of what the ancient Greeks termed res publica, “the things of the public” vanished from the Nigerian mind.
Since the Babangida years, the fundamental tenor of public policy has been of the neo-liberal persuasion. Succeeding governments have failed to bolster the regulatory capacities of the state and to restore its meaning as an impartial arbiter in the public square and the market place. They have failed to realize that the naturally uncontrollable enthusiasms of the free market must be reined in and complemented by the attentions of a state that is socially-aware and designed to promote the common good. In true Nigerian fashion, we have adopted free-wheeling capitalism without the regulatory safeguards that enhance open democracy and social justice. Monopolistic oligarchies and kleptocrats are now ascendant, shaping policies and politics that perpetuate the perversely disproportionate advantages enjoyed by a few at the expense of the many. The society that has emerged from this broth is one dominated by corporatist and political monopolies where agencies of the state are privatized by the powerful and where the distance between the privileged and the poor widens daily.
In such a society, the ideology of radical self-assertion takes precedence over the public interest. All that remains is the swinish scramble for wealth and power; a struggle for access to the national cake conducted with a Darwinian intensity. It is either this or a civic retreat into ever smaller enclaves where the security of the self is narrowly defined with no regard for society.
In the orgy of privatized selfishness and frenetic acquisition that has overtaken us we have forgotten a salient fact. No matter how private sector-driven a nation may be, if it lacks a committed corps of citizens who answer the call to guard the public square and serve the common good in all its ramifications, that nation will inevitably succumb to the forces of anomie. It is the notion of the common good, sovereign above all other motives and interests that informs governments, and preserves society from descent into a Hobbesian state of nature or in more contemporary parlance, the abyss of failed statehood. Ancient wisdom resonates with the urgencies and necessities of our time. Amos, a prophetic voice of Hebraic antiquity spoke of a day of judgment in which a man would flee from a lion only to meet a bear and would flee from the bear into his own house only for him to be then bitten by a serpent. In our context, this oracle, laden with vivid metaphors of danger, chaos and fear, conveys a most urgent truth. We can no longer escape from the deadly contradictions of an unequal society and a failing state by fleeing into the safe havens of an apathetic middle class existence. This much is evident.
Three decades ago when ultraviolent cults began to besiege our university campuses, the response was largely tepid. They were not our children, we thought, and so we did not care. The brigandage on the campuses seemed far removed from the hustle and bustle of urban life. Besides there were new private universities where we could send our wards and if necessary, they could always be sent abroad to study. Today, the miscreants have moved out of the precincts of the academy and into the larger society, mostly unemployed and unemployable, and have unleashed kidnapping and allied affronts on the society. We now increasingly find ourselves in a climate of fear and suburban terrorism. We live in fortresses behind ten foot high walls capped with jagged spikes, on grounds patrolled by private guards, augmented by fierce canines, and further secured by vigilantes contracted to compensate for the doubtful capabilities of a poorly paid police force.
But for all of our protective measures, we still do not feel safe. Relations between neighbours are marked by a mistrust and cautious distance. In many urban communities, the next door neighbour is a stranger. In our exclusive estates, gated communities and upscale areas, we have achieved the Nigerian dream of prosperity in the midst of plenty but it has come at an awful price. Consider that one of the reasons nocturnal fire accidents claim so many lives in middle class neighbourhoods is that firemen are often impeded in their rescue efforts by the very fortifications installed as safety measures. These fortifications often mean that firemen cannot swiftly gain access into burning buildings nor can the endangered occupants get out in time. The irony here is unmistakable. As we rack up individual successes in attaining material security, they exact a terrible toll in terms of the lack of public welfare, a general social insecurity and a sense of fear that isolates us from each other.
The road to renewing our society will start with modest steps, the first of which is the realization by the middle class who currently live in indifference and denial, that Nigeria is our collective responsibility. Our current way of life that sees us zoned out of the squalor of our environments and tuned into the delights of foreign lands via cable TV, the internet and our consumption habits, is unsustainable. We hope in vain for political change, if we are unwilling to mobilize for the cause. Thus, we must replace the current theology of self-aggrandizement and radical individualism with one of public-spiritedness, volunteerism, civic responsibility and social action. Reclaiming society from the clutches of anomie requires us to participate in public life at various levels. That may mean non-profit oriented social enterprises; businesses with a keen sense of the need to empower others and direct engagement in the political process. Renewal requires us to organize rather than agonize, to relearn the science and art of citizenship and rediscover the power of banding together for the common good. This is how national renewal will begin.
There is no easy road or shortcut to our objective. One generation ago, Nigerians dreamed of a messianic strongman that would come and rescue the nation from its self-inflicted ruin. It is unworthy to harbour such dreams today for we are in the epoch of citizens, not strongmen. The only force at this moment that will renew Nigeria is a confederacy of awakened citizens working as change agents in diverse spheres and at various levels in the name and spirit of a new Nigeria.