These are the times that try men’s souls.
On 20th of October 2020, in a brave act of civil disobedience, some Nigerians refused to follow the curfew restrictions set by the Lagos State Government. In defiance, they sat-in at the Lekki toll gate, chanting the National Anthem and holding hands.
In what is now being described as a premeditated military exercise, armed security operatives of the Nigerian Army opened fire on these peaceful protesters.
As we call on the rest of the world to witness the state of our nation, we acknowledge that we are facing a harsh reality. The future of the country appears bleak, with nothing to offer but conflict and corruption.
It is not that this incident is rare in our national consciousness, not at all. We have seen Shiite executions in Northern Nigeria with greater casualties. Yet, close observers acknowledge that young people are now awake in a way that we have never been. We have made a decision. Our awakening sent us into the streets, and we now understand that we are fighting for our lives.
Ever since we gained that thing called independence, we have not been honest with ourselves. We have denied a deep truth. In this whole matter of democracy, we have continuously lied to ourselves, lied to each other and lied to history.
The truth is that this thing we do; it is not democracy.
It is not a form of leadership or governance either. Instead, it resembles a deeply normalised form of criminal mismanagement that we have adopted as our way of life. We live in a society where the government has been running a rogue, unchecked unit of police officers, unchecked by its very own laws.
In our self-deceit, leaders from all walks of life; religious leaders in our churches, political leaders in our assemblies and military leaders on our battlefields are deeply implicated. This is the country where animals have been accused of stealing taxpayer’s funds. Church leaders exploit the vulnerable through prosperity gospel, and the security agencies operate with impunity.
Over time, our leaders have made it possible to exist with very little output to show for themselves. In short, our leaders have made a habit of deceiving us, and we have let them.
But all this thinking leads us to a simple conclusion: there is a fundamental issue which faces Nigeria. It is not an issue that is unique to us, but it is one that we have allowed to fester, grow and occupy our lives. If we do not face this issue, we shall linger for decades through a series of painful and endless disasters.
Therefore, the purpose of this article is to highlight this problem and its solution as clearly and completely as possible. As we do that, let us be completely honest with ourselves and also answer two fundamental questions about where we are today and how we got here.
First, where are we? The unfortunate answer is that we do not know.
On some days, we feel like we are moving forward. Milestones like the peaceful transition of power from the ruling party to the opposition party after the 2015 General Elections, as well as smaller successes like the appointment of Amina Mohammed as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations sometimes have us convinced that we are on a forward march to progress. But these accomplishments can quickly mislead us.
Deep down, we know we are not in a democracy if we worry that the internet may be shut down. In a democracy, one arm of government cannot unilaterally topple the head of the Judiciary. The truth is that a real democracy does not look like what we experience; one where masked men blocked access to the nation’s legislative chamber.
In reality, we are somewhere in-between tyranny and democracy. At best, we are en route a democracy. What is the evidence? We have elections, but whether our votes count or not is often disputed. We elect leaders, but we struggle to remove them. We protest, but nobody listens.
Of course, tyranny, if that is truly where we are, will not be easily conquered.
We march on in the hope of a better future, believing that the longer our struggle today, the greater our victory tomorrow. But that is by no means assured. We may, like many other nations that have come before us, fail.
And it does not matter that we say we are not a failed nation. It doesn’t matter if we call ourselves the giant of Africa. All that matters is whether or not we show any significant markers of progress. This is hard to prove for a country that was just crowned poverty capital of the world.
So in the end, when asked where we are today, all we can really conclude is that we are not a democracy. We simply aspire to be one.
Now that we know where we are, how did we get here?
How we got here is the fundamental issue with the country, because it continues to persist. Chinua Achebe said it first when he argued that “the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.”
This publication agrees that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Nigerian character, the Nigerian air or the Nigerian soil. We are no more good, or less evil, than our counterparts across the world. It is just that our citizens live in the Nigerian context, and that context reframes their minds about what they should expect from society; they don’t expect much.
For instance, our leaders are unfamiliar with the basic principles of accountability, which is why the finances of our largest state economy are still opaque. They do not adhere to checks and balances, which is why the Federal Government ignores court decisions. And they do not communicate with the people, which is why we hardly hear from the President himself.
They have been made complacent by their unique brand of governance, which is why it was so easy to mishandle what started as a simple protest as it turned into a statewide breakdown of law and order. They are just not used to rising up to any form of real responsibility that delivers to the people.
Naturally, there are those who will argue that we paint a biased picture, but my desire is to be fair, and so I will engage with the possibility that we are wrong.
A competing narrative argues that the problem is the Nigerian people. The most popular version of this argument is that we are deeply unpatriotic and always looking to game the system.
It argues that apathy and an unwillingness to participate politically, especially at the grassroots level, are at the core of the Nigerian citizen’s flaws. Indiscipline and a desire to cut corners are second nature.
This shows when the elites shield themselves through private security, educate themselves in private schools and live a reality that is far removed from the rest of the country. The young people who are often apathetic, are distracted by mundane matters like social media and Big Brother.
Many of us should be familiar with this picture. Does it sound true or false?
Unfortunately, it cannot be true, because the truth of it goes to the very root of leadership. Leadership, by design, implies responsibility and a willingness or readiness to rise to the challenge. And if that is true, this failure on the part of the people is actually just a manifestation of the failure of its leaders. Its leaders have not risen to the challenge of educating its own people.
The thinking goes that when the people lose their way, leaders whose intention is really to govern must bring them back into the fold. In the end, we can only have gotten to where we are if we have continuously (s)elected a group of leaders who had no business attempting to lead us. We would argue that this is the truth, and that is how we got to where we are today.
So now, we have looked at where we are and how we got here. What solution can we consider?
In truth, our only way forward is a bold change. Ours must be a revolutionary generation.
For instance, in matters of public policy, we must accept a new belief that power belongs to the people, and we are the servants of the people. In matters of economic policy - science and industry must challenge us to build global solutions from local problems. In matters of social policy, we must revisit the structure of our society and adopt a less discriminatory approach to our differences.
When we advocate revolutionary thinking, it is not to be thought of as an opportunity for the most extreme or violent ideas come out on top. Rather, it is a time for common sense and collaboration to elevate our best ideas and our best people. This is the time where we take advantage of our demographic dividend and allow young people have a shot at national development.
Clearly, a revolutionary generation precedes significant changes, wide-reaching adjustments and new ways of thinking. Ours is a revolutionary time, and a golden opportunity presents itself in the form of young, politically active Nigerians who are ready to lead. Any truly progressive view of the years ahead must acknowledge the limitations of having leaders today, who led the 20th century.
All of this is a call to action for change today.
When you consider the events we have seen this year, nothing could be truer than the call for a revolutionary approach to governance. No other year in recent memory has been filled with so many twists and turns. We have not seen protests like we are seeing today since our democracy began. At least not run by this demographic and not with this resilience.
The big, important point to be made here is simply that the complete opportunity for revolutionary leadership is ours, young people. Like many great opportunities, it is one wrapped in difficulties and challenges. Some may even consider it impossible.
But in the end, if we don’t want it, if we refuse to take it, the responsibility of refusal is also ours, and ours alone. But if we do, then it is time to step up and fight for what is rightfully ours.
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