By Sonala Olumhense

(Dedicated to Pat Utomi and the volunteer efforts of his Centre for Values in Leadership)
How does Nigeria change for the better?

The following represents my heartfelt response to this question. Nigerians-the parents, must take Nigeria-the baby--and nurture it. I speak not of the nourishment of "words," if that were possible, but of action.

Every Nigerian knows what is wrong with Nigeria. We are never speechless when it comes to analyzing the failures of our country and pointing fingers. It is when it comes to taking action, or speaking out, that we seem to disappear; unless Nigerians accept that the responsibility for remaking Nigeria is too important to be left to others, our country will not flourish.

Nigeria runs a system of government founded on the assumption that those that who wish to rule do so with the endorsement of the people. In other words, leadership must be voted into office.

For the citizen, there are thus two levels of responsibility involved here. The first is to participate in the election process, including exercising the vote. As we have seen repeatedly, this process can be contentious, and it may be defrauded, but that is the system, and you cannot change or sanitize it by staying outside of it.

This is where the second level of social and political responsibility comes in for the citizen: to insist on participating in the process in between elections. This is the level in which Nigerians have failed the most in the last four and a half years. We seem to think that once we have cast our votes, or observed others doing so in our self-defeating cynicism that we do not believe in the process, our job is done.

Until Nigerians understand that what they do in between elections is as important as casting their ballot at the polls, we will continue to wallow in poverty and underdevelopment, while other nations move forward. What a student does in the examination hall is important, but it is what he does in his preparation that determines whether he passes, or how well.

What is to be done? The principal challenge is to be determined to participate in political activity, because even if you do not, those activities will take place in your name, with your money, and often to your detriment. In effect, by failing to participate, you are asking others-waving your signed release-to do with you as they please. That has to be the most grievous kind of idiocy there is.

Think about it: somebody is going to represent you, anyhow. That means that the policies that govern and regulate your life and society as you know it, are in his hands. If you do not show enough intelligence to be a part of it, to ensure that he is hearing your voice in his heard, he reaches the conclusion that you are a bigger fool than he had imagined.

This is why it is critical that whoever enters office is made to understand that you (and yours) exist; that is why you must continue to stand up and raise your voice loud enough; that is why you must make him understand and that he is present--and speaking, and being paid--at your instance, not his. If you cannot make him understand this, he will go off on his own, and like a hunter's dog at a hunt, chase the game for himself.

Today, if you were to look around, you would observe that virtually every dog is chasing his own game. To be complacent when your own dog is growing big enough to eat you is the final symbol of surrender, and of slavery.

The Nigerian must begin to change his fortunes one dog at a time, beginning with himself. When a politician wants office, and is working hard to win your attention, please do not deny him. But he must be stopped from doing all the talking. He must be asked questions, including how often he intends to report back to the community, should he win. He must be asked how he actually intends to fulfill his campaign promises-print his own money? He must be asked how honest he is, and whether he intends to serve, or expects to be served. Of course he would tell you he was born to serve; in which case he ought to be asked his record of service. If the dog is not challenged, remember, he claims the game.

At this point, remember that he will answer all your questions; he will try to provide responses that will pry your votes from your grasp. Tell him you might vote for him if he has proof of his character, beginning from how he is financing his campaign. He needs to prove to you not only that he is worthy, but that he understands he must subject himself to your scrutiny.

For far too long, Nigerians have not taken the opportunity offered by our democratic experiment to ensure that their leaders understand they are to be found on the service line, and actually providing service.

The future of Nigeria rests in the citizen speaking out; in his joining hands with others to attack specific public issues or crusade on their behalf as a community. If homes, and neighbours, and wards, and streets, and areas, and villages speak with one voice-refusing to be bought off-they cannot be frustrated or resisted for long.

The Nigerian citizen must go further. It is not enough to blame the government for everything, including problems that the citizen is creating, or solutions that he can provide. Often in Nigeria, problems are manufactured or compounded by the indifference of the citizen, on his tendency to sacrifice the societal good for his selfishness. This sometimes explains why, even when we succeed, we cannot breathe good air, or drive our expensive cars on good roads, or live in a home that does not resemble a prison, or avoid garbage on the streets.

The government ought to fulfill its role, but unless the citizen is committed and responsible, the government never will be. The citizen must speak, but although his words are important, his attitude and his actions are even more so. There is no use blaming the government endlessly when the citizen is ready to lie and cheat and steal the moment he feels nobody is watching him.

The Nigerian must recognize that until he is able to look beyond himself to the common good, he is a fool. No matter how rich or successful he thinks he is, he will never enjoy the respect of the world. It is as simple as that.


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