Across the road on the Marina, within earshot of the popular bukka “under the bridge”, the authorities, not too long ago, put a zebra crossing. And for good measure too. Such is the intensity of traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, at this particular intersection that this aid to the weakest of traffic participants looked like a godsend, when it was put in place. Since then, though, it has spawned countless sub-narratives. My favourite was told me several months back by a colleague who was almost run over as he made the crossing. On his snakebitten entourage was an Italian (one of the many engaged by Julius Berger on the construction of the new Central Bank of Nigeria building). Safely through to the other side of the road (past the danger of using the zebra crossing), the Italian turns to my colleague and asks “what’s with you people and road signs? Don’t you get what the zebra crossing is for?” My colleague’s reply was a gem. “No”, said he, “the zebra crossing is a cultural experience not yet fully internalised by us”.
He recounts that the Italian then nodded furiously. However, I am not too sure whether this was because he now got it, or in further bafflement. On my part, I admit to being constantly thwarted by road signs in this country. Or, better put, that I have been (and still am) troubled by other road users’ attitude to road signs. In part, I have often wondered how much of our poor road habits are cultural. Why stop at the “red” light, and go on “green”, for instance? It might just be that something about us would rather that we go on “red” and stop on “green” at traffic lights. And “amber”? Who knows, “purple” might just be the colour that “pauses” the Nigerian. And the risks we take on the road? How much are these correlates of our low life expectancy rates? Moreover, what is the proper response to a lot of drivers/riders’ insistence on driving (or riding) against traffic. Why criminalise this? Because Western practice says so? Or because everywhere that this rule has been “enforced”, it has proven useful for managing traffic?
The active noun here is obviously “enforcement”. To the casual observer, in those places where people obey the rules, it may appear cultural to do so. But in truth, rule-based conduct is the result of a clear system of sanctions and rewards consistently applied (over time) to infractions and compliance respectively. Some thirty years ago, driving in Ilorin, it was a given amongst my friends that any vehicle that drives through a roundabout without care for traffic on the left, invariably bears a Lagos license plate. It was unheard of then to break traffic rules with the impunity that I see today.
This same impunity confronts me each time I contemplate the face of governance. And now it no longer matters whether it is in the public or private sector. There is in every sphere of our organisation as a people, an exemption or freedom from punishment, harm, or loss enjoyed by those in authority that can only burden our aspirations for progress. Almost inevitably, concern with this leads to consideration of the root causes of the nation’s problems. A consideration borne out of the persuasion that if we get the response to this enquiry right, then proffering solutions will be a great deal easier.
A very intriguing book recently offered me one such solution. Apparently, what is failing here is nothing Nigerian. Instead, it is the system of management that we have opted for. This is not simply a question of blaming the principle of respect for private property. Even the very ethos that has evolved out of this principle is held responsible for our serial failure to find the right handle on development. By protecting the freedom of the individual, our present mode of national management violates a communal ethos that is natural to “us”. In addition, the incentive structures that have arisen on the back of accounting for the diverse costs of production (the price mechanism) do the “African way” an immense disservice. In other words, we who have held, and continue to hold a profane leadership and a prostrate followership responsible for our woes as a people do both the latter grave injury. They cannot but fail, given the management system we have chosen. Conclusion, we cannot modernise this country by westernising it. We may have to Africanise it.
Fiddlesticks? Not really. The petty literati once railed against the bourgeoisie from behind the Marxist-Leninist stalking horse. But once the relentless drive of history lifted the veil on that posturing, there were few ideological havens remaining. One lesson, however, was learnt: where Marxist-Leninism sought an almost scientific interpretation of history’s advance, the new “Africanist” perspective is sufficiently woolly to represent all things to everyone. Still, it stumbles on one very important definition: “Western”. All, you see, is Western that the Caucasian has found useful in all civilisations it has encountered.