Today 1.6 billion Muslims all over the world celebrate Eid-Al Adha -the Festival of Sacrifice. Millions of Nigerians, Muslims together with their non-Muslim friends and family are celebrating Prophet Ibrahim’s faith and willingness to sacrifice his only son on the command of God. It is an opportune moment in the face of the immense challenges that we suffer as a nation to ask: can we give for the sake of the future? Are Nigerians capable of giving with the sense and fortitude that appreciates that the returns might not be immediate or direct but that for a certainty the investments will enrich us far beyond our circle of friends and family and find its way back to us? Can we appreciate that all of life is not a transaction where giving and receiving must be balanced before the 24th hour?
When I left my job in the private sector in 2012 to join civil society I moved with a sense of opportunity. I wanted to learn more about organizing around social issues and get closer to the public sector. After years of wondering why successive governments can’t deliver on basic rights of citizens and primary services required of any functioning state, I thought it would be better use of my angst and curiosity to work more closely with government from a relatively safe distance.
Needless to say, I took a massive pay cut. However despite the adjustments and the occasional pangs of loss, the experience has been nothing short of mind blowing and life altering. Not only because I am slowly learning to re-evaluate financial priorities and have met more wonderful people in the last 17 months than I have met in the last 5 years, but primarily because of two discoveries. The first is that Nigerians need to be paid to organize. I use ‘organize’ in the traditional sense i.e., to mobilize people around issues in order to bring about collective desired change. Civil society, political party leaders, academics, civil servants and Nigerians all need money to exchange hands before they will come together to talk about issues they supposedly care about. The cost of ‘transport’ is pre-eminent when people hear a call for action on the National Assembly’s waste or the non-implementation of the budget and the international donor agencies understand and reverently support this culture. The problem with this is three fold. It means only people with money can organize; every organized movement is suspect for being paid for; and the power of the collective voice of Nigerians standing for an issue is lost because we won’t do something for nothing.
The second discovery is less a discovery and more a reinforcement of a theory that I have tested a few times. Life has a way of balancing things out –when you do good, the universe will make things right. Even when unpleasant things happen, the natural order of things will reward you for your patience and good faith – it rarely happens exactly when and how you want it to; but it happens.
Giving to friends and family; beggars and the needy is commendable but it is not the type of altruism Nigeria desperately needs. It is the altruism of organizing, rallying, convincing, contributing to a cause and standing or sitting for hours. It is the inconvenient altruism – the painful sacrifices we need– not the ones that make you feel good or even slightly smug. It is the altruism that is time consuming, tummy twisting and where the benefits are not immediate.
Clichéd or not, there is strength in numbers. The reason why we can’t get the 1% in government to lift their diamond-studded boots from our necks is because our collective strength as Nigerians has been dispersed for the sake of individual N500 notes. A what-is-in-it-for-me culture will never be able to effectively engage with an extremely corrupt, unaccountable and disdainful government. Some might see this as an over-simplification of ‘Nigeria’s complex issues’ but the type of social and political investment required to fix Nigeria is the type that understands that the dividends of doing things the right way (long term vision, planning, faithful implementation, steady investment in social services, transparent electoral system and faithful account of public resources) might not come in the next 20 years.
Maybe it is harder to be altruistic when everyone is a local government unto themselves. Many must feel that since the country has done nothing for them it is hard for them to offer up anything – transport money, the muscles in their legs, the vocal chords in their throat or their tender skin to the sun. But if we can never think to do things for the sake of the future- particularly when the future of our own children are at risk – where is the faith in Nigeria and who will sacrifice for the common good?
In small things – stopping to help direct traffic on your way to work or in big things – sacrificing personal resources to work towards strengthening the accountability of government, there is reward in contributing to social harmony. This is simply enlightened self –interest; the type that recognizes that if my neighbor is okay, then my chances of being all right are higher.
Eid Mubarak everyone.