Poor Citizenship Is A Huge Part Of The Problem With Nigeria – By Chidubem Len Anyanwu

Eight-year old Balazy gets his own back on the photographer by taking her picture himself.



In just about 24 hours, Nigeria will take a big step in its democratic journey with the inauguration of Muhammadu Buhari as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Republic. By the way, I have referred to the President-elect by just his name without the title of General in keeping with his recent pronouncement that he be referred as such. This, of course, is a good thing and is consistent with the man’s ascetic style in contrast with the current ugly culture of excesses in Nigeria.  All that said, the problem with Nigeria is larger than any one man or presidential inauguration and will not be significantly resolved without addressing our collective bad behavior as citizens. Show me a country that is working (in terms of socio-economic performance) and I’ll show you a country with a more disciplined and responsible citizenry. It is also a well known fact that for democracy to thrive, its roots must be continually watered with a disciplined, active, and responsible population.

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People are too quick to abridge Nigeria’s problem as one of corruption and by this they mean official corruption. The word is so loosely and widely thrown around that it is possibly the most recognizable word in the country.  The sad truth, though, is that seeing Nigeria’s problem in terms of just corruption is too simplistic. Obviously, things are more complicated than that. But, even the corruption problem itself thrives on our poor collective citizenship.  Let me explain, with just a few exhibits.

I just returned to the United States from Nigeria after a visit with my aged mother and I can tell you that there was bad citizenship everywhere in the country. To explain this better, it might help to start with when I arrived Nigeria a few weeks back.  By the way, this experience is hardly unique with this particular trip. It’s been that way for a long time. Anyway, as soon as the plane began to descend into the Nigerian airspace, there was a palpable change in behavior on the part of the Nigerian passengers vis-à-vis how they behaved outside of Nigeria (the U.S. and Europe, for example). The conversations got louder and as soon as the plane touched the Nigerian ground and while taxing on the runway, they started to disengage their seat belts and began to get up. It was as if they were about to dash off a molue. Of course, the pilot had to stop the plane and yelled out over the loud speakers for people to seat down until the seatbelt signs were off. It was so embarrassing and should be, but I did not see that on the faces of the misbehaving passengers. They acted like it was no big deal. Then, as we disembarked into the airport, people started cutting lines. Some of the travelers, who were apparently above the law, wouldn’t even stay in the line at all. Their “boys”, some of whom were the same immigration agents whose job it is to enforce the rule and maintain order at that point of entry into the country, would unabashedly escort these “seemingly above the law” passengers past the immigration counter altogether.  Albeit that there has been some improvement at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in terms of aesthetics as well as passenger and luggage processing, the overall atmosphere there remains chaotic and is filled with a high level of indiscipline.

Now, compare this entire experience to what happened when we touched down in Atlanta (and that could be any city in the U.S.) on my way back to the states. The difference in behavior, on the part of Nigerians, was like night and day. They were much quieter. They followed all the rules to the letter. By and large, they exhibited exemplary citizenship vis-à-vis other nationals from the time the plane landed and throughout their processing out of that airport. It is really true that Nigerians are some of the best behaved set of people, outside of Nigeria. This is exhibit 1 of my contention here that our poor citizenship in Nigeria is providing the nourishment for what is wrong with the country.

Exhibit 2:  Back to my arrival part of the trip in Nigeria. After I got out of the airport I expected to see little or no traffic on the streets considering all I was hearing about the fuel scarcity that was said to have paralyzed the country. There was nearly the same amount of traffic as usual. So, I asked my driver where and how all those people on the road were getting their fuel. He said they were all buying it on the black market, at crazy prices like 300, 500, 700, and even 1000 Naira per liter. 1000 Naira (versus the official 87 Naira) per liter? Regardless of what has happened to the Naira-Dollar exchange rate, 1000 naira per liter of petrol is serious money, any day. The truth is that Nigerians would complain to each other and then readily patronize the black marketers, thereby feeding and sustaining the craziness. Now, I have heard some commentators say that people have no choice but to buy at such exorbitant prices. Yes, I have heard that argument but I don’t agree with it. I think this was what the great Fela characterized as “suffering and smiling”.  Be that as it may, no other country on earth would allow a fraudulent and greedy cabal of oil marketers and their backers to hold a whole country hostage like these thieves do on a perennial basis. The people of that country would stage a massive protest that would shut everything down. In Nigeria, on the other hand, the people would clearly suffer, loudly complain, and then proceed to tolerate (and even implicitly support) the nonsense. This is poor citizenship of high order.

Exhibit 3: On the roads, fuel scarcity or not, drivers take the act of lawlessness to an out-of-this world level. They drive on the wrong side of the road and, many times, backwards with reckless abandon; and the worst offenders of this lawlessness?  Wait wait for it: that’s right, those very important people who are seemingly above the law, aided by the country’s law enforcement agents, also called the police. The police aid this open violation of the laws by looking the other way when the violators are these “special” people or by serving as escorts for them.  This is behavior that these individuals know is wrong and would never dare to exhibit when they are outside of Nigeria. Some years ago, a governor of New Jersey (Jon Corzine) was stopped and ticketed (well his limo driver was ticketed, while the governor was in the car) by a lowly New Jersey trooper for speeding on the New Jersey turnpike. It didn’t matter that the governor was rushing to an important state meeting. The message in this case is that no one is above the law, not even a governor.

Exhibit 4. This one is short and simple. Bribery is corruption in another name, right? Well, I doubt that many people will disagree with that. But, is it not us, the citizens that give the bribes? Elementary economics tell us that demand and supply go hand in hand.  So, to get to the bribery equilibrium, you need the supplier of the bribe to come together with the demander of the bribe.

I could certainly go on and on with exhibits of our poor citizenship, but that is not the main purpose of this brief undertaking. The point is that a genuine re-orientation of the citizenry must be part of the way forward for Nigeria. The hard fact is that not much will change in Nigeria as long as citizens remain docile about and generally accepting of the ills perpetrated on the country by corrupt government officials and others. By the same token, not much will change in the country as long as citizens remain undisciplined and unwilling to follow rules that are necessary for effective implementation of policies and programs.

This is not to say that the situation is hopeless.  It is not.  Fortunately, the incoming government of Muhammadu Buhari can in fact set the country in the right course here. I am confident that this can happen, going by the man’s reputation as a serious leader as well as recent subtle signals that he has been sending about how he might govern as president of Nigeria. He seems to me, for example, to be the kind of president that would tell his presidential driver to obey Nigerian traffic laws while he is driving him, just as he rejected the offer to be picked up in a Rolls Royce while on a recent visit to the United Kingdom; and just as he reportedly traveled in the economy section of a British Airways flight back to Nigeria just before his inauguration as President. Simple actions like that can be huge in setting leading examples for everybody else. Genuine leadership need not be about long generic speeches and feel-good words. In my estimation, concrete actions and model behavior on the part of the leader can be produce better results. It can even be as simple as body language. Just an anti-corruption demeanor on the part of the president can be enough to make the presidential cycles highly uncomfortable for corrupt-minded individuals and this can quickly begin to permeate the entire system, making it less conducive for corruption.  To be clear, the kind of exemplary leadership from the pulpit that I have described here should not be seen as a substitute for serious anti-corruption measures, including severe punitive punishment for those found guilty of corruption to visibly align government backing with biting. Rather, it should complement the anti-corruption measures; thereby constituting a holistic and possibly more effective approach to making the desired change.

So, there is hope. But, make no mistake about it: turning around the rot that is Nigeria today will not happen absent of the re-orientation of the population toward good citizenship, as I have attempted to show in this piece.


Dr. Chidubem Len Anyanwu is Senior Professor of Economics and Management Consultant in New Jersey, USA



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