The tragedy of the four University of Port-Harcourt students lynched and later set on fire on October 6, 2012 in Aluu, a suburb of Port-Harcourt is one direct consequence of the many ills that afflicts the Nigerian society. Such ills in this case include the abject inefficiency of law enforcement and the collapse of morality in the population. But as simplistic as this may be, an even simpler causative was that out of the tens, perhaps a couple of hundred onlookers (as observed from the youtube video) of that horrific event, not one person stepped up boldly to challenge the evil course and attempted to stop the carnage. Even after the boys have been stripped and beaten to a pulp, and their heads smashed with bricks and other objects – at this point it is conceivable that at least one of them could’ve been saved if they got medical help – not one of the onlookers stepped in and say, enough! Of course we all know the ending, evil had a field day as the dying boys were doused and set on fire through the hands of a few while many more looked on.
Sadly, you can replay this scenario in any part of Nigeria and the odds are that the outcome will likely be the same. From the Nigerian societal perspective, the vast majority of the population is more likely to look the other way or simply ‘mind their own business’ in the face of stark injustice or wrongdoing as long as it doesn’t directly affect them. On the flip side, this onlooker mentality is actually not the norm in many other societies (I don't imply that any one society is perfect)! How did we get here? How did Nigeria become a nation whose soul has been virtually seared, losing its humanity, moral direction, and a basic sense of responsibility? The reality is, at the heart of the nation’s trajectory of decline are a minority of people, albeit a forceful and bold minority. We lost our way because the majority looked the other way for a myriad of reasons, as the few plundered the country and raped our collective conscience. We lost our way because the majority chose to bow down at the altar of fear, power, and material wealth that the evil minority has erected, instead of standing up for the higher values of truth, personal responsibility and social justice, on which decent societies are built.
It is not inconceivable that there’s at least one dissenting voice in Aluu on that fateful day. It is also not inconceivable that if the dissenter had intervened and spoken up with half the boldness of the mob leader, the boys might still be alive today. Who knows, a lone bold dissenting voice could have provided courage to a few other dissenting voices to not remain silent in the face of injustice. Haile Selassie, the former Emperor of Ethiopia said it clearly that, “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.” According to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a reformer and writer who led the 19th Century American women’s rights movement, “The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls”.
Re-awakening our sense of social responsibility is going to take more than the usual retort to ‘what the government needs to do’; it’s going to take us the people resolving to be responsible to one another. To underscore the power of one voice, I’m tempted to appeal to the idealism of many historical figures including Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and especially Queen Esther in the bible who despite personal peril, stood up, spoke up, and thwarted an evil plan when she risked her own life to reveal to her husband, King Xerxes, wicked Haaman’s strategy to murder the Jews. That one voice saved a nation. The reality is that most of us will never attain the combination of rare courage, clarity of vision, and personal discipline that marked the life of these historical figures. We can however resolve that each one of us will not stand by or look the other way in the face of injustice in our small spheres of life. After all, the only constituent part of any country that has the potential for good or evil is the people. If half of the currently silent majority will stand up and say, “Not on my watch!” to corruption, injustice, and all manners of social vices, it will be a new day in Nigeria.
Our political leaders, if they still care at all for the future of Nigeria, must seek to shift the current trajectory towards citizen-centred leadership and restoring the dignity of the individual. By restoring dignity to the individual, a nation gain more productive and loyal citizens; they in turn create an environment that promotes critical thinking, and a commitment to ethics and good social values. How to restore individual dignity? Well, this is my challenge to the billions-of-naira-and-dollar making/sharing/appropriating Nigerian political class.
Finally to my fellow citizens, don’t sit on your hands and let ungodly influences rule and reign in your street, town, state, and country. Silence is the same as passive agreement. Remember the Aluu 4. Be that voice.
┬ę October 2012. Kunle contributes this article from Calgary, Canada.