Without doubt, President’s Buhari’s speech at the launch, Thursday, last week, of the National Orientation Agency’s (NOA) new re-orientation campaign (under the rubric “Change Begins With Me”) was a period-defining event. There was, arguably, that quality to his speech, which rehashed the guff associated with General Ibrahim Babangida’s speechifying in the heydays of the Mass Mobilisation for Self-Reliance, Social Justice, and Economic Recovery (MAMSER — NOA’s precursor). Recall that one of the more enduring imagery from that earlier period was how, for our “today”, that generation of Nigerian leaders did gratuitously concede their “yesterday”?
But Mr. Buhari’s speech was more than a throwback. It is more, actually, than the many schemes the NOA has since revealed as part of its new political orientation campaign — to drive the campaign’s message across through use of multi-media platforms paid for by the private sector, reliance on the moral authority of traditional rulers and faith-based organisations to reinforce the same message, etc.
The president, in effect delivered a moral broadside across the bow of what remains of the national conscience. Given that the national character is in effect the aggregation of individual daily conducts, it is difficult to disagree with the president that our moral rebirth has got to start with each of us examining ourselves and re-orienting along new positive coordinates. This ought to be relatively easy to do. For instance, it cannot be that difficult for a driver on the 3rd Mainland Bridge to understand that when she stops to drop-off passengers on a route that busy, without getting on to a hard shoulder/designated drop-off point, the resulting tailback is an avoidable cost. Nor is that driver, who fed up with the resulting tailback, resorts to driving against traffic unaware of the risks he bears.
Or, how can we continue to arrive late for all events and yet expect our economy to be on time? Multiply the cumulative effect of a badly behaved folk, and you are likely always to arrive at a social and economic space like ours.
Still, whereas the president was on to something good in drawing attention to how our collective indifference to the many “commons” that unite us is a real and present threat to this country, his central narrative, that there is only so little that his government can do to change this space until each of us has completed his/her metamorphoses is preposterous.
In other to have a decent shot at winning, any programme designed to alter conduct and expectations ought to comprise a diagnosis of the behaviour patterns to be jettisoned. If I jump the queue, it might point to a character failure: impatience; and/or a complete disrespect for others. But often queue-jumping points to the sense of loss associated with failing to attain the goal at the end of each such queue. You could sermonise on the mutual advantage of discipline in this regard. Or get soldiers with sjamboks to keep queues proper. Or you could leave these symptoms alone, and look to the underlying cause of the scarcity that the queue is but a passing manifestation of.
However, the problem is diagnosed, a change programme will need a clear statement of the desirable goals; and then the implementation of a structure of incentives. The latter includes punishment for persons who persist in the undesirable behaviour patterns, and rewards for all that excel in upholding the new cultural values.
Essentially, the structure of domestic incentives describes the point at which individual values collide with that of the collective. It is an intersection that is properly the domain of the state. But what the president’s speech seems to have done, inadvertently, is to repudiate the traditional definition of the state as the instrument through which politics authoritatively allocates values.
Despite the president’s conviction on this, if we are to change behaviours for good in this country, then the filling station owner who illegally recalibrates her pumps in order to fleece motorists must have the rule book thrown at her. And the public official in the standards and measures department who fails to sanction persons deliberately skewing weights and dispensers in order to make more than legitimate commercial gain must be disciplined up to losing his employment. A reorientation of cultural values, thus requires an arbitrator to drive public behaviour in the desired direction.
These were the goals and function that we imagined we were voting in when we voted for Mr. Buhari’s “change” agenda.