Yes. Leadership has failed. But pointing upwards is the laziest way of explaining what is wrong with Nigeria.
I hated the piece I wrote last week. Don’t get me wrong, I am not taking back what I said in ‘The danger of fending for yourself’. ‘This is not a society. It is a collection of individuals fending for themselves’, I wrote, fully aware I was putting my head on the chopping block. Nigerians – however critical of their country themselves – are not very generous in granting an outsider the right to criticise. So after publishing I prepared to be ostracised. Instead last week’s article got many serious comments, on the site as well as on Twitter, going much deeper than just mere acclaim or dismissal. For that, I feel honoured and humbled. And I feel obliged to respond in equal sincerity.
I hated the piece I wrote last week. I lost sleep over its ramifications for this new country of mine that I have come to love so much. Worrying about its future, I lay awake for many a night after writing it.
I arrived in The Netherlands yesterday, back for a short while to MC a conference on the economic prospects of the African continent. As the plane dived into the blanket of clouds covering my country of birth, I thought of Nigeria. How I used to admire the resilience and creativity of Nigerians fending for themselves.
In the soggy quarter of Okobaba, where the inhabitants have claimed land from the Lagos Lagoon by systematically dumping saw dust into the water, there is no government presence to speak of. Still, there are primary schools. In a joint effort, the residents have built wooden classrooms on poles and some out of work teachers in the community volunteered to teach the children, getting paid whatever the parents can miss that week.
The residents’ committee of auntie Feyi’s street in Bashorun, Ibadan, was called into existence in the nineties when armed robbery was rife in the biggest indigenous African city. Their first decision was to install gates at the street’s entrances to keep unwanted visitors away at night. By now, the committee also collects money for people who have fallen gravely ill and mediates in neighbour’s quarrels.
Some comments to my article pointed out that Nigerians have not been stakeholders in their own society since colonial times. I agree colonialism robbed the people of their birthright to decide on their own destiny, with devastating effects that can hardly be overestimated. I do not think however that society ceased to exist with it.
A community starts in the smallest entity: with yourself, in your street. The examples of Okobaba and Bashorun show that the Nigerian talent to fend for yourself can also turn into a communal effort, for the benefit of society. Something James Agada also pointed out in his comment: ‘Growing up in my village, the roads were communally maintained, the streams were communally maintained.’ I still feel the Nigerian talent for self-reliance can be a force for good. But I could not agree more with Toyin Olaleye, who said: ‘Nigerians need to figure out how to fend for ourselves and still keep our fellow neighbours in mind.’
Opting out of society is certainly not the answer. Nor is blaming politicians for everything that is not well in Nigeria. Yes. Leadership has failed. But pointing upwards is the laziest way of explaining what is wrong with Nigeria. After all, don’t these leaders come from the ranks of society? The ones who shout loudest now to protest against the government’s wastefulness and corruption are the first to step in and act just as badly when they get the opportunity.
As I am contemplating all this, the clouds give way to the grey autumn sky over the Low Countries. I look down at the neatly staked out pieces of land: the lining of dikes, the polders. It reminds me of a sociology lecture at university. There is nothing noble about having public facilities, the lecturer stated. He took The Netherlands as an example. With one third of the country below sea level, the Dutch needed to cooperate with one another in order not to drown. Floods do not discriminate. The rich drown just as easily as the poor. And sewage in Dutch cities was not installed until the rich realised their children were dying from the same diseases as the poor caused by poor hygiene in the streets.
Basically it is well understood self interest, rather than some sort of selfless altruism, that makes citizens come together and organise a better society for all.
Translated to the Nigerian present, it would take the rich to realise they would be better off with constant electricity, better infrastructure and proper health care for everyone. The problem is that these days, technology has given the filthy rich so much more to work with, it might take a while for that realisation to sink in. When you can afford a helicopter, why worry about the state of the roads?
Follow Femke on Twitter @femkevanzeijl
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.