Symbolism with Simbo Olorunfemi
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Every nation of note is powered by a body of values around which the entity revolves. They serve as pedestal upon which the citadel of nationhood rests. These values are ingredients for forging national character while serving as moral compass for the citizens. With values as mirror, one can easily gauge the propinquity between the desired and the realities that confront the nation. One would think that the fundamental place of values in nation-building will necessarily commend itself to ‘developing’ nations. Rather, the debate has been about which ought to come first between strong leaders and strong institutions. It often presents itself in the same shell as the classic chicken and egg conundrum. Which one comes first?
Which one ought to come first – strong men or strong institutions? Can we have strong institutions without the backing of strong men with the audacity for tall dreams? How strong can institutions really be in the face of strong men determined to subvert the system? Will strong men even allow strong institutions to thrive? Can a place of coincidence be found between strong men and strong institutions?
Barack Obama made a famous intervention in his 2009 Accra speech. He submitted then that Africa does not need strong leaders but strong institutions. Yet, in that same speech, Obama saluted Ghana’s leaders – Jerry Rawlings and John Kufuor – for the wonderful institutions they built in Ghana. Was he not indirectly making a case for strong leaders? Was that not an argument that new nations need strong men to be able to build enduring institutions? Stretching this will again lead us in the direction of the chicken and egg puzzle.
Again, we never seem to be able to conclude on which one comes first.
Can institutions, of their own, evolve into restraining mechanisms with blind capacity to restrain strong men from the path of perfidy, even without the enablement of leaders who are above board? Will leaders who drive the path to national transformation still be humble enough not to mistake their strengths and vision as indication of their own infallibility and immortality? The answer to that is all over us – the African continent is littered with cases of strong men of yesterday, who overdosed on their own saliva and choked on their dreams.
However, the fate of Africa seems to lean in the direction that we just might be engaged in the wrong debate over strong leaders and institutions. What comes to the fore from the failure of governance all around us is the neglected place of a strong value system in nation-building. Indeed, can the journey to nationhood really start without a concurrence from the society, bold enough to power the process with strong values? Is good neighbourliness not the missing software with which we can deliver top-rate governance to engender development in our land? Perhaps, some of these answers are too obvious and simple for us to take them seriously. Could it be that the erosion of our values is at the root of the ills that plague our land?
No doubt, the challenges that confront Nigeria are well documented – incompetent leadership, weak institutions and failure of governance at all levels. Nigeria now regularly features among countries seen as “just territories, not real states that can take care of the fundamental needs of their population.” And it is not difficult to see why that is the case. How do the people of Chibok or Mubi relate with the fact that the primary role of government is the security of lives and property, in the face of their experience? It can only appear to our compatriots forced out of their places of abode, with their innocent children in the custody of terrorists for over six months that governance has since gone on vacation in the land. Who can fault that when the President cannot even see through one minute of silence for the fallen children of Potiskum?
But beyond the incompetence on the part of our leadership and the systemic failure so apparent, the greatest challenge facing our nation today is the lack of an agreed code of conduct. We have lost a sense of appreciation for the right values. We are no longer able to tell apart what is right from what is wrong. Declaration for political office takes precedence over sobriety over loss of lives. Yet in the face of evil staring us all in the face, it is difficult to rally popular support for change among Nigerians. Ethnic and religious bigotry now dominate our thought, discourse and relationships. Pseudo-intellectuals deploy manipulation and fear, across the media, to engineer hatred among the people. The country sits on tenterhooks, rocked to and fro by those bent on pulling it further apart.
Some excuse the challenges facing the country to the circumstances of her birth, the imperfections in the constitutional make-up and the cleavages occasioned by ethnic and religious differences. But it is not that simple – what we get is largely a factor of what we make of what we have. Some Nigerians seem to believe that all that is wrong with the system is the absence of ‘true federalism’. But Prof Adele Jinadu argues otherwise. There is no such thing as ‘true federalism’, he says. Federalism is always a product of negotiation by the people involved and not some legal construct, cast in stone, to the pleasure of all the components of the federation. The problem with Nigeria is our fixation on the less important things and a confrontational rather than conciliatory approach to politics.
That we cannot agree on the simple things and carefully bargain our way out of the difficulties we are faced with is evidence of how far off we are from the values that help with forging nationhood. We complain about the state of the nation, yet we cannot rally around alternative propositions with prospects of leading us in another direction, without pandering to ethnic and religious prejudices. Merchants of evil are trading on fear to keep the nation grounded, while they stash away a future exclusive to their households. Yet, we watch and pray.
We have failed to bring about change, not because we are unable, but simply because we are not willing to. The system has conspired to thwart meaningful efforts to throw up strong men and institutions that could have helped have been compromised. We have no backbone of strong values to guide us, as we strive for change. Without a regeneration of the value system, we might just be striving in vain for our strong men who would make our institutions strong for the future we so desperately desire. But where do we even start, when we cannot properly observe a minute of silence for children felled by terrorists, on account of failure of governance?