The recent 2015 Nigerian general elections amplified the.. powers (of the citizen) for me. Just like Nigeria had its ‘change’ in the elections and opened up a new vista of opportunity for itself, so has my own epiphany showed me that I can do more for myself and my country. Nigerians have to learn as I’ve learnt: government is not doing us a favour. It is our right to have basic amenities. We need to educate the people on the power of their rights. This is the essence of my turning point, knowing better, being better and ‘infecting’ people with this new beautiful knowledge…
We all seek ‘change’. A better, stronger and less corrupt Nigeria. A nation that functions and utilises its vast resources to empower itself. We look forward to a nation where all the citizens believe in themselves and in their government. This can only happen if we are able to rebuild the trust and belief we once had in our government and our leaders. Well, this is my view, at least, of the ‘change’ we were screaming for during this past general elections – to reacquaint ourselves with the Nigeria that strayed off the ‘-yellow brick road-‘.
We all want a Nigeria we can be proud of; a green passport we would no longer be ashamed of, but rather show off with pride; a country where corruption isn’t a way of life and where everyone still gets a bit of what they yearn for. We all want a Nigeria where the systems of fairness and justice reign; where we see ourselves as a big and diverse family – one united by love. These are not pure fantasies. We can make it happen. But it does start with all of us. And with you as an individual.
I have not always been keen about politics or how I am governed. I have not always felt the State had any relationship with what I make of myself. “Government” was a distant idea, and one that meant little or nothing to me. But now I see it differently. Just like Nigeria, I have had my own epiphany. Now I know that my life is intricately tied to the kind of government Nigeria has.
As a child, I grew up in a type of golden box – a safe and protected bubble, oblivious to the outside rough and tumble world of Nigerian hard knocks. I only knew what I was told – the basics; I was shut down if I dared question any new areas. I had no faith in our country – it seemed hopeless. I had heard of how corrupt it was, but that didn’t affect me in any way as I didn’t know any better. You only win if you knew the ‘right people’- it was the quintessential battle of the fittest. I didn’t believe anything could be earned on merit. There was no motivation to be better – at anything – because I felt my family was ‘connected’ and had the connections to ‘plug’ me in, regardless of my effort.
As I entered my early teenage days, I believed everyone in the North were Hausa Muslims and people in the East and South were Igbo Christians. I was born and bred in Lagos and I believed it was the only city that existed or (as I saw it) the only diverse city in Nigeria. The rest were most definitely villages, I assured myself. I was oblivious to the vast world around me.
When my father passed away, my mother decided that I abandon my (secondary) school studies in Lagos. She felt life outside Lagos would help me deal with his loss. I was ‘thrown’ to Langtang, Plateau state, in the middle of nowhere; a little town in a valley surrounded by the Pankshin/Shandam hills. The roads going up and down the hills were so bad and narrow I thought we’d drive off the cliff. I believed I was being exiled. I blamed the world for this misfortune. I rebelled in every way I could; I wouldn’t eat or follow the basic rules so I could be sent back home, but fate had plans for me. Everyone around me was patient and eager to correct me. There was no easy way out. It was time to learn and live life outside my little golden box. This was my new beginning.
To deal with my exile, I started playing basketball professionally. I got so good at it that I represented my school in competitions. I travelled across states and met a lot of people from all walks of life. I learnt culture on a whole new level. The different languages, indigenous foods, traditional dances, and so much to learn. “They weren’t all villages after all,” I eventually started telling myself with a smile. At that point I felt so proud to be where I was and blessed the forces that brought me to Langtang.
I realised Nigeria was bigger than the box I was raised in and I started to truly appreciate its beauty in diversity. But that didn’t mean I started to believe in its government. I still didn’t think I needed to work hard, because I felt I was already ‘covered’ and even if I didn’t turn out with the best results, I’d still get ‘placed’ in an office of my choice. University and National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) years passed swiftly with average efforts put into them (now I know it could have been better). Soon after graduating, I joined the family business (hospitality) as expected and started working luxuriously every day without understanding the true meaning of work as a manager; all I had to do was supervise and delegate. I thought I was ‘living the life’. Ignorance was so blissful.
My life seemed to run smoothly, but something was missing. I felt no fulfilment. I didn’t understand my purpose – what was I here for? What was I learning? Interacting with the outside world left me with one point – my life was yet to start. After this existential moment of self-reflection, I began to wake up every morning dissatisfied with my life. I started questioning so many things – how do I make an impact with my life? Is this where I want to be in five years? I wanted to make a mark in life. I didn’t want to be just another insignificant name. I asked more questions and I ‘picked people’s brains’ about their perspectives on life. I learnt that I still didn’t know much; I didn’t have a clue about the ‘real’ world. It was at that point that I made a startling discovery: I wasn’t comfortable with my luxury life anymore. I wanted more.
I found out about Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA)’s internship programme and I jumped at it. Finally, my opportunity to learn more has come. I can actually be face-to-face with real life issues. I can feel like a member of a team and learn in the process. I looked beyond the fact that it was an unpaid internship programme and focused on the value it would add to my newer career path (human rights and democratisation) and my experience in life. This decision to become an intern changed my life.
My family, by contrast, thought I was going crazy. My change of plans didn’t add up to them. They tried to talk ‘sense’ into me. The more I tried to explained or make them understand, the more they thought I had truly gone mad. They couldn’t understand why I would abandon my luxurious life for an unpaid internship. I was threatened that I’d lose all the luxury benefits. I was gripped by fear and doubt, but quite honestly, my inner mind felt right and at peace about my decision. My goal was way beyond luxury and I felt these were truly my baby steps to success.
I knew little and cared even less about political governance, elections and democracy. I was overwhelmed by my findings. I started doing research on democracy and accountability, which was my core purpose at OSIWA. Apparently, Nigerians are very content with just the basics. I used to think it was quite noble or humble for the citizens to be so understanding. No way!!! My theory has changed. I found out that we are content only because we feel we have no stake in government. If one doesn’t contribute to preparing a meal, one will have no say on how it is shared. You cannot complain. The same applies to Nigerians. If we don’t make efforts to be part of the governance process and decision making, we cannot complain about the outcome. If we don’t hold government accountable, nobody would! Government is there to answer to the people. It was then that I began to understand the powers of a citizen.
The recent 2015 Nigerian general elections amplified these powers for me. Just like Nigeria had its ‘change’ in the elections and opened up a new vista of opportunity for itself, so has my own epiphany showed me that I can do more for myself and my country. Nigerians have to learn as I’ve learnt: government is not doing us a favour. It is our right to have basic amenities. We need to educate the people on the power of their rights. This is the essence of my turning point, knowing better, being better and ‘infecting’ people with this new beautiful knowledge because I know there are a lot of people that still have the ‘mentality’ that I had. They need to know that being better is an individual decision that has a ripple effect on the country and the world in general.
Nigeria has had a reawakening, similar to what I just experienced. We got the change we asked for, though the work has only just began: new government, newer expectations. We can’t all shout “change” at the government and expect a miracle. We all have a responsibility to start the change we so much desire with the person in the mirror. I have just started my baby steps to change. Now, what about you?
Aisha Yusuf is an intern at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) Nigeria.