The question of the prime objective of a government has been subject to the various definitions and philosophers for centuries. Someone, understandably, believe that the role of government is to maintain order; others, enable the pursuit of happiness. Regardless of whose philosophy of government you follow, it is abundantly clear that the Federal Republic of Nigeria has, by every possible metric, failed to reach either objective.
There is little need for grand analyses, the failure is evident on the streets of Lagos, where the ratio of beggars to cars is 1 to 10, it is evident in the infrastructure, where 180 million Nigerians share approximately 3000MW of electricity, it is evident in our failing criminal justice system, where thousands of Nigerians have been stuck in prisons for years (decades for some) while awaiting trial.
Perhaps the Nigerian public contains the strongest evidence of this failure. In the economic capital of the country, the Lagosian appears to have a better life than most other Nigerians. However, appearances can be most deceitful. He must tackle the greed, the perpetual insecurity, the corruption of the state and the ineffectiveness of many public institutions and if it is a woman? Her problems are multiplied tenfold. In the south east, one charlatan after another rises from the previous’ ashes looking to fill and Ojukwu-sized hole, a wary North perpetually fitting its Sauron on that region.
The political battles have ravaged Nigeria since 1957 and resulted in a civil war, more than a dozen coups and attempted coups, the deaths of millions of Nigerians and the near segregation of the people amongst regional lines. The constant political battles have stretched the average Nigerian’s emotional range to breaking point so much so that our capability for hope seems irreparable, battered to the point where we actively discourage hope in others. A few months ago, I was driving on Mobolaji Bank Anthony road in Lagos on a particularly heavy rainy day. The rain and wind played familiar symphony that day and woe betide the one caught in the storm. On this particular day, while stuck in the resulting rain-traffic, I happened to momentarily direct my gaze to the side of the road where this apparently deranged man was getting absolutely hammered by the rain. Compassion washed over me and I genuinely considered getting out and giving him my shirt and maybe, driving him to somewhere warm to stay.
But I didn’t do it.
I know I should have done it.
I know I should have stopped to help.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I did what most Lagosians do when confronted by the opportunity to do good, the traffic moved and so did I.
Arriving in the comfort of my bed, my thoughts were filled with concern for the man I saw. Was he okay? Did he catch a cold? Shit, I hope he doesn’t catch pneumonia. I had not yet come to terms with why I did not help, but the emotions soon hit me and I cried, frustrated by my cowardice and weakness. My verbal self-lashing was a poor attempt at redemption. My weakness was evident and I was unable to summon even just a modicum of decency to help another human being.
The tears have flowed a lot easier since then. The most recent prompted by Simi’s excellent album and the smile of a beggar child on the streets of GRA, Lagos. She smiled, a massive toothed grin plastered across her face, as she leaned against the body of my car, and asked for money.
“Uncle, please. God bless you”.
I made *that* hand gesture, known to all, the “I don’t have money” hand gesture. But they are resolute, and she was no different. I was about to ignore her till the light turned green before remembering that, in the backseat, I had some bread rolls and margarine that I had bought from a supermarket, so I hurriedly reached to get them, rolled down my window and gave them to her. Her eyes immediately widened and her smile was indescribably beautiful. I felt no relief, only sadness and fear. What have we done to her?
In many countries, poverty is a crime and governments create policies to wage a war on poverty. In Nigeria, however, the poor are criminals merely because they are poor, a dispensable tool for politicians, a persistent ‘problem’ for ‘urban’ governments and a necessary but mostly invisible evil to the general public. Everyday, we harden our hearts to the cries of the beggar girl outside our windows, or the hunger you see in their eyes.
We hide our contempt under different guises, “they’re using children to get money, I won’t give them”, “they’re all scammers, I’ve seen this one everyday this week”. We conveniently forget the fact that it is the state of the society that forces many of these people to resort to begging and that some have never even contemplated the possibility of any other life.
“Aunty please, God bless you. Aunty, please, please.”
Sometimes, the cries become unbearable, even to the most seasoned of apathetic drivers. How often do you determine the worth of a person in those few seconds that you do decide to give? “1000 naira? Ahn, who has 100naira abeg, I don’t have change”.
So, yes, I cry. Because, now I can see and the weight of responsibility is the price for clarity. Some of us never even contemplate these things , I certainly have not always thought about them, as members of the working and middle class, we have other priorities; go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, c’est la vie. For the 54 million strong middle class, we barely have to tackle our own problems much less the problems of another.
“The Nigerian dream is to make enough money to not have to deal with Nigeria’s problems”. — the Nigerian dream
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and a pursuit of Happiness”. — the American dream
Nigerians constantly do the most unseemly things merely to survive. Whether it’s walking to and fro inbetween oncoming traffic from 8 till late selling packaged sausages or carrying around a brush and water just to wipe windscreens so they can get 50/100 naira just to get something to eat. This gnaws at me everyday, how is this acceptable? Is this our status quo? Everyday, millions of people are reduced to living like canines because the institution we set up to protect the weak has failed woefully. Women are selling goods across open gutters, exposing themselves to all sorts of health risks and the government has the audacity to collect levies from these women?
It is these words from the American Declaration of Independence that created the mold of many democratic governments across the world.
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” — excerpt from the American Declaration of Independence
Democracy is crafted on these ideals, that the gauntlet of responsibility is thrust squarely on the people for whom the republic was crafted. The ensuing despair that follows this realization is normal. Much earlier in my life, when I first read these words, I immediately fell into a cold sweat. It was at that point that I realized the true potency of the words, “Ignorance is bliss”. I could no longer use my ignorance as an excuse for my non-chalance towards the government and sure enough, I had an opportunity to exercise this new knowledge as I saw a police officer beat a man within an inch of his life, and after he was done? He laughed. Nigeria instills a starting disposition of cynicism in almost everyone and it is perhaps a necessary tool for the survival of the vast majority of the public, and despite the new found knowledge that I had found only a night before, I was rooted firmly in place for the bloody spectacle.
So I struggle in my inadequacy sometimes, it feels like pointless. Throwing off the shackles of despair has been an arduous journey and there are nights when you feel the enormity of the task. How does one change the mindset of 54 million people? I have not yet received an answer yet but I do know that we must divest self from this narrative and pursue with a holistic mind.
There are 70 million Nigerians that live in abject poverty and cannot pursue this task for themselves, we fight for them. The millions of children, unborn, produced by our generation to whom we will be held accountable, we fight for them. The 1.2 billion strong population of Africa who face similar political circumstances and so dearly want things to change, we fight for them. The entirety of the black race that has suffered unimaginable pain at the hands of our colored caucasian, arabian and asian brothers, the black race whose dignity has been battered at every turn for centuries, we fight for them.
Does fear grip you at the thought of facing down the barrel of a gun of a soldier who has no qualms with killing you? It grips me too but I am aware of my fear and constantly fighting mental and physical battles to overcome it because when the time comes, and it will come, actions must back up. For now, I watch the flickers of light flash across the distant night sky and hope.
How do you think we can change Nigeria? Are you willing to die for the motherland? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.