by Our Editors
Look at the headlines.
The fuel queues back in a big way, Lagos roads on perpetual lockdown, Shiite Muslims protesting the senseless killing of hundreds of their own, Nnamdi Kanu and his IPOB co-travellers shifting from the fringes of society to its frightening center, oil prices on a downward slide most of the year, the Naira in a free fall like we haven’t seen, one more state finding it cannot pay salaries, and the sickening revelations from the Dasuki scandal.
And these are just the physical problems.
The deeper problem however lies beyond the tangible and the visible. The psyche of the average Nigerian has been conditioned to game the system. Of course.
A culture of excellence and dignity in service has been replaced by mediocrity and get rich quick schemes. For far too long, what has been regarded as exemplary in Nigeria is legally or otherwise outsmarting others to get to the finish line first, no matter who is maimed in the process.
Which is why the heart-warming story of Citizen Josephine Ugwu – the 36-year old staff of sanitation concessionaire Patoville – deserves to be told, and then retold.
It is a simple story: Ugwu who was posted to the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos showed up for work as usual on 23 January 2015; to discover a bag left unclaimed at the end of her shift. It had 12 million naira. In cash.
So Ugwu did what came naturally: she took the bag to airport security.
It wasn’t the first time.
Within a space of five days in December 2014, Josephine Ugwu had found and quietly returned several amount of monies running into millions to their rightful owners. Her story picked up steam in the mainstream media due to the sheer unlikeliness of it.
In places where values are entrenched and human beings are treated with dignity, her story wouldn’t be a big deal. It shouldn’t be a big deal.
She would be on a minimum wage salary in the least and the basic social amenities that are the rights of a citizen would be taken for granted. She would only be doing what was expected of her or anybody else for that matter: the right thing.
But in Ms Ugwu’s Nigeria, where her monthly take home salary for a daily 12 hour shift was barely 8,000 naira, such an act is actually extraordinary. Extraordinary because it is rare.
Extraordinary because, this is after all a country where exemplary is a man who rightly admits electoral defeat as if he constitutionally had a choice not to, and in choosing to, is believed to have blessed the nation with his benevolence of spirit, of camaraderie. Indeed, that man even made our list of 10 nominees for this year’s prize.
Where impunity is sometimes the norm and acts of sabotage are institutionalised, even rewarded.
In many ways, Josephine Ugwu is symbolic of the common Nigerian who has had nothing in life handed to them. Orphaned in infancy at the age of eight months, the native of Obokpa, Nsukka Local Government of Enugu state was dispatched to Onitsha to earn her keep as a house help. Far removed from government support, she struggled to put herself through school and eventually earned an OND from a private polytechnic.
Ugwu found work as a casual staff at the Akanu Ibiam International Airport Enugu but was laid off after some time. She moved to Lagos where she stayed at first with a friend, and then in a room provided by her church. Ugwu has worked with her present employer for four years now.
As a reward for her honesty, Ugwu was promoted to a supervisor level at work, a position that comes with a monthly salary package of 20,000 Naira.
N20,000 can’t buy you an air ticket from Lagos to Benin today.
How Nigeria still has models like Ugwu is a miracle of humanity: we do things that are so heroic, they make us teary. We do things that affect our self-interest because we can be dignified, when it matters most.
It should warm your heart and reload your faith in country that, in a society desperate for role models, it is Average Josephine that has stood up to be counted just by doing the right thing in a world where it is easier and more acceptable to do otherwise.
She stands in contrast to the Nigeria she lives in. To its governors and commissioners, to its presidents and ministers, to its chief executive officers and executive directors. She stands as a rebuke to them and as a symbol of what can be. She stands taller than Nigeria’s former National Security Adviser and his band of alleged brigands, sharing the commonwealth without conscience. She stands taller than the senators who abandon their over-paid duties to stand with their soiled president. She stands taller than bank executives and governors who look the other way as their country is looted empty, so they can keep their miserable jobs.
And the outpouring of love and respect for Ugwu throughout the year is proof that Nigerians know who is worthy, truly, of regard.
It is the global tradition, everywhere from Lagos to Los Angeles, for Person of the Year prizes to be given to the powerful and the influential – those with the capacity to amplify the prestige and significance of this annual prize. They are seen as more capable of influencing nations and societies, of changing people and systems.
We buck that tradition, hallowed and efficient as it is, because for once, it is crucial to direct Nigerians to what we can be rather than what we are. To who we can choose to be like rather than what we see. To aspire to the return to the basic dignity that makes us patriots, that makes us citizens, that makes us human.
For reminding us of this, we cannot thank Ugwu enough.
She has underlined the dignity of the average Nigerian, proof that genuinely decent people remain ready for service to a potentially great nation, confirmation that dignity remains in honest labour.
Josephine Ugwu isn’t just a casual role model to be celebrated today and forgotten tomorrow, she is that rare human being. She is a symbol that we can be better. That we should be better. That we do better.
She is also the Y!/YNaija Person of the Year 2015.