I’ve been trying to avoid writing this post for about two weeks, hoping that the impetus for it would have dissipated and faded into memory. However, the nagging feeling is still there, so I’m resigned to sharing my thoughts. Part of my reluctance is that I feel I may have covered some aspects in previous posts: ‘Self-hate: real or imagined?’ and ‘Just another Naija day’.
In ‘Self-hate’, I had mentioned the contempt some leaders in post-colonial societies have for their subjects, as they gather the countries’ scarce resources for themselves while dispensing sub-standard education, healthcare and other vital services to the masses. And in ‘Naija day’, I described the frustrations and joys of living in a dysfunctional society. I guess there are similarities but this is more about taking control in the circumstances.
I returned to Nigeria a little over two weeks ago and attempted to slip gently into the system, trying not to notice things that I hadn’t experienced for at least a month or so. But they were hard to ignore, especially when there was no apparent reason why they had to happen. Let’s take the simple matter of luggage delivery. After disembarking, clearing immigration and collecting my bags within 30 minutes at 6 different busy airports, why did I wait for nearly 2 hours for the same procedure to occur at Lagos International? Considering that we landed at 5am and were the only flight being processed, it was perplexing that even flight crew and upper class passengers had to wait for at least an hour.
It’s not that the delay was particularly unusual – it has happened many times before. In fact, it’s far easier to remember the three occasions that baggage has arrived in a timely manner at that airport – that’s three times in the last six years or less than 10% of the flights I’ve been on! What struck me was the complete lack of an explanation, apology or any other communication, save for an annoying recording welcoming us to Lagos every twenty minutes. I know I should be used to it, but somehow my tolerance had been lowered by the quiet efficiency and reassuring messages I had been experiencing in other environments. Translation: I had been away too long.
By the time I got to Calabar a couple of days later, things were even worse. The city had been in darkness for three weeks and there was no running water, unless you had your own borehole. OK, so that’s a long time to go without electricity but, again, I have experienced similar blackouts before. What was amazing was that no one seemed to know why. No explanation from the power company, no government statement, no media frenzy. Just a calm indifference to the plight of the suffering. Those who could afford it simply fuelled their generators, cranked them up, pumped water from their boreholes, bought more buckets and carried on, unquestioningly.
The day after I returned, power was restored for 3 hours and the following night for 12. By the next day, hand-delivered bills arrived! I was fascinated by their audacity. And yet, no written apology or explanation for why October had been so dark. If you live outside of Nigeria, you will find this quite unbelievable – because heads would have rolled, apologies would have been made, bills would have been discounted and the minister for utilities would have made a statement. If you live here, you would have been amazed if any of that had happened.
This leads me to wonder: which comes first – accountability to the public or the expectations of the public? Which creates the other? Let’s go briefly to another developing country and look for clues.
When I arrived in Jamaica a few weeks before, the island was coming to the end of a very long and devastating drought. With almost no rainfall for months, water restrictions were in force and everyone was concerned. However, there were media reports daily about the crisis, with the minister and the Water Commission issuing regular statements about efforts being made to improve water supplies. There was plenty of public debate about measures the government should take to prevent a reoccurrence; and, most importantly, there were daily notices on radio, television and in the newspapers, advising when water would be turned off in different parts of the island. For those communities with no water at all, tankers would truck supplies in. I heard no complaints.
Conversely, there was a spate of unexplained babies’ deaths in a Kingston hospital and there were loud calls for the health minister to resign or for the Prime Minister to sack him. Both were savaged in the media, the ruling party dipped in the opinion polls and the PM’s popularity sank to an all-time low. In both cases, their ultimate crime was a lack of communication and an apparent disregard for the public they were elected to serve. It will be interesting to see if either recovers for next year’s general election. Already, there has been one casualty – the CEO of the hospital has resigned.
It is clear from the Jamaican examples that public expectations can keep politicians and providers of public services in check, especially if aided by a vigilant and independent media. However, in Nigeria, the public has been battered into submission by decades of military rule, autocratic leadership, vindictive governance and a submissive media that dances to the tune of the highest bidder. I find it fascinating that the underlying problems in each country are so similar, but the responses to them are as different as night and day.
As Jamaica grapples with its issues, I’m always optimistic that they will find a way; because civil society and the media never stop pushing back against the dark forces of corruption and declining values. It appears, for now, that they can hold back the tide. Here in the motherland, a glimmer of hope has arrived in the form of a new president, hell-bent on prosecuting the most prolific looters of the public purse, reining in corruption and restoring Nigeria’s image abroad.
Even as I hope that he succeeds, I pray even more fervently that the citizens of this great nation-in-waiting begin to expect more from each other in every sphere of life – at the airport, in the supermarket, with our utilities, at government offices, in restaurants and hotels, and at their children’s schools. They should start asking for the manager, complaining to the owner, letting staff know they deserve better, and stop excusing mediocrity at work and celebrating it in public life.
You can never get more than you expect in life. Your expectations determine your outcomes. They limit what you are prepared to tolerate. They shape your very future.
Expect more. Demand more. And always believe that you deserve more. Your very life depends on it.