On the few occasions when President Muhammadu Buhari has addressed Nigerian issues directly, without his aides ventriloquising his words, his thoughts have been revelatory. The picture of him that emerges in those moments is not always pretty. He comes across as inflexibly self-righteous, a former dictator with sanctimonious views that remain unreconstructed. Lately, the President delivered a speech in Abuja at the inauguration of the misbegotten national re-orientation campaign tagged, ‘Change Begins with Me’ that demonstrated why he too needs the change he preaches.
I have written about this non-initiative called “Change Begins with Me” before. I argued that the project is going to be another waste of time and resources. The obsession with the moral revolution of Nigerians that “Change Begins with Me” preaches did not start yesterday, every government since Shehu Shagari has done something similar yet they failed to inspire an ethical refashioning in Nigeria. Rather than our governments engage the question of why previous programmes collapsed without achieving results, successive governments merely re-introduce another variant and expect to get a better result.
Buhari’s speech at the orientation programme gives an inkling to the mindset that underwrites all those programmes and why they have never succeeded in reforming Nigerians’ character. At the occasion, Buhari resorted to the same old moan: Nigerians are responsible for the failure of their country because they are undisciplined. Giving his version of the famous John F. Kennedy quote, he asked us not to ask his administration about the change they promised us in 2015; rather, we should question our ethics to see what we have done to bring about change. Without a moral re-armament at the individual level, there can be no build-up of character necessary for social reformation. He therefore asked us to change our ways; we should merely look to improve the country in economic or social terms but through our individual acts. These acts include interpersonal and social relations, including “change at home, change in workplace, change at traffic junction, change at traffic lights…”
This is quintessential Buhari speaking with the same mindset with which he superintended an autocracy in 1985 and ran the country aground. He has barely changed from that headmasterly attitude that drove him to make ruinous decrees that clamped down on press freedom, punished people to make them form orderly queues, and retrospectively executed capital punishment despite pleadings by local and international organisations for him to be humane.
More than 30 years after, Buhari remains wedded to self-righteous and archaic ideas of social regeneration. He still believes that social reforms can be engendered by asking people to improve on their morals, and which will ultimately translate into larger social good. The point Buhari makes about personal ethic sounds good on the surface but its simplicity betrays his understanding of social reformation processes.
First, contrary to what Buhari says in the quote attributed to him in the media reports, personal and social reforms in a country are, in fact, a theoretical exercise. The kind of improvements that he preaches does not start by using soldiers to whip people in line neither are they sustained by noisy campaigns that tell people they are the change they want to see in the world. Developed societies that have managed to curtail innate human unruliness and marshal collective energies towards productivity did not just wake up one day to witness social transformation neither did they achieve it by merely deciding to act right. Their social revolutions and modernity started with philosophy, abstract thinking, and a culture of writing that made a relentless critique of the social order.
When Buhari goes to London for medical tourism and sees how their society works in an orderly fashion, he probably presumes that things work over there because westerners unexplainably love their country more than Nigerians love Nigeria. He thinks if Nigerians stopped asking his administration for the change they promised in 2015 but instead display a similar commitment to their country, we too will eventually build a modern society. He has held these thoughts for as long as possible, and he needs to evolve in his thinking of social reforms.
Unlike what he presumes, however, the law and order that run the western societies is a product of abstractive and theoretical exercises produced by generations of philosophers, thinkers, and writers who have pushed the horizons of thought. You cannot study how developed western and Asian societies managed to create ideas around both mundane and complex social and political activities without finding thought at the base. People simple-mindedly reduced theories to the realm of things that are impractical and vague; ideas disconnected from realistic processes. However, that is where the human imagination has produced most insights that enabled social flourishing. If Buhari thinks that personal and social reforms can be de-anchored from theoretical exercises, then he has it upside down.
Second, refurbishing social ethics by asking people to change their behaviour is a sheer exercise in futility. Developed societies motivate social reforms by first providing the conditions that make lawlessness unnecessary. They do not just tell people to join a queue in public places; they make waiting processes efficient enough for people to know that standing in a line might not take more than 30-60 seconds of their time. There is a predictability to social processes and which in turn encourages good behaviour. Those who live in a society where the technology is guaranteed to work have less motivation to run the red light.
Third, developed societies do not just surrender social mechanisms to the people’s innate goodness. They also preempt the human tendency to violate rules and procedures for whatever reasons by making sure their retributive processes work. There is nowhere in the world people will not want to misbehave if they can get away without any recompense.
Fourth, efficiency and order are reproductive attributes. Order gives birth to more order, and the culture of efficiency motivates every member of the society to want to keep things working for the benefit of the collective. If Nigerians are cynical about the changes in ethical culture the government has been preaching since forever, it is also because they have yet to see what would be different. Most Nigerians are surrounded by such dysfunctionality. There were born into a Nigeria that has never worked, and when they are asked to improve on their character for the sake of the national good, they have no frame of reference that can serve as inspiration or motivation.
How do you tell people who attended public schools where they sat on the floor that it is their attitude that is impeding the nation from progress? How do you say to those who go to rundown hospitals that Buhari himself will not touch with a sterile glove that the kind of change they need is neither economic nor social, but personal change of behaviour? How do you convince civil servants who are just being paid the backlog of their salaries now that an election is looming that their character is what has been wrong with the country all along? Why shift the weight of moral responsibility for the change you promised them away from yourself?
If there is anything that needs to change in the current dynamic, it is Buhari’s mindset. What his government did between 1983 and 1985 did not work and repackaging it in 2018 is not going to make that much of a difference. Yes, Nigerians can do with changes to their personal and moral ethics, but the solution is not to dragoon or emotionally blackmail them by telling them their behaviour is what is wrong with the universe. Buhari’s attitude to Nigerians too needs to change to one that makes effort to understand the nuances of Nigeria’s social issues before proffering solutions to them.
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