culled from GUARDIAN, August 17, 2005
Many years ago I made a commitment, part of relief for the debt I owed a society that helped me discover myself. It was to strive, as best my abilities allowed to unearth those things that defined the Nigerian condition in which human progress has come much more slowly than elsewhere, in spite of resource endowments. The deal was to use whatever I learnt to initiate action, for change even if small and only within my limited space.
I have come up with a few factors I consider definers of the Nigerian condition and have done a few things in response to the covenant I entered into. Last weekend a completely new variable which I had always seen but never managed to pay much attention, jumped to the fore of my consciousness. It is the death of a sense of outrage, or even discomfort with simple disorder, in contemporary Nigerian culture. It happened as I set out with some young men and women under the watchful eyes of two remarkable senior citizens, Ambassador Segun Olushola and Mr Henry Onasile to clean up the garbage dump on the Eric Moore median, where the road forms a T with Bode Thomas Street in Surulere, Lagos. How did we get here?
We got there because the factors I thought were responsible for human advance were policy choices made by a society, the state of their institutions, the quality of human capital, the level of entrepreneurship, contemporary culture which affects all the other variables; and leadership, which shapes that culture. Given these variables I decided years ago that in my engagement with society the top priorities where values of young people, and entrepreneurship development. My assistants have known for years that if I had choices between obligations these two came tops. In March of last year we founded a Centre for Values in Leadership (CVL) with the aim of building in young people leadership skills derived from broadening their knowledge base and their sense of service, the capacity to give of themselves sacrificially for the good of others, and to develop habits of advancing the Common Good.
To build that habit of service, every month the whole club goes out to clean up some sore sight. It began with the Ijeh garbage mountain near Obalende. It was so bad it looked like a mission impossible. But CVL got the co-operation of the local government and its chairman Dr. Folarin Gbadebo-Smith. The Lagos State Commissioner for Environment Mr Tunji Bello also showed up to physically scoop garbage with us. To show the young professionals of the CVL Club that there are still role models among older Nigerians we invited some public-spirited friends of some accomplishment.
The first month ECOBANK Managing Director Mrs. Funke Osibodu joined us in cleaning up. The next month First Bank Managing Director Moyo Ajekigbe showed up with his executive team. As I filled bags with garbage I was approached by a resident whose "bukka eatery" was about to be overtaken by the advancing tons of filth that made it impossible to walk past without placing a handkerchief over the nostrils. He wanted to know what problem I had at home that would make me leave the comfort of my home so early on a Saturday morning to do the kind of thing we were doing. I tried to persuade him to join but he asked how much we would pay. He proved to be a useful example to club members not to let others affect their resolve.
With some help from DFID, the British foreign aid agency, which helped the local government to support our work the mission impossible became possible after heavy equipment made dozens of truckloads of garbage easier to manage. The garbage is gone. As we search for a company that can come in to partner with CVL to turn what was the ultimate health hazard into a garden, the monthly effort moved to Surulere. The idea is that a cell of the club will keep a watching brief on the search for beautification partners.
I grew up not far from the Bode Thomas/Eric Moore intersect where we flagged off the Surulere campaign. In the 1960s when I lived on Adeniran Ogunsanya and its environs, Bode Thomas was the end of the world. Eric Moore Road as it is today did not exist then. When we came to play Table Tennis at the Barclays Bank sports ground just by this road junction it was haven of tranquility and order. Then it became a Boulevard of sorts. What we met last Saturday was an unbelievable eyesore. It was not so much in how high the refuse piled or in the height of the weed running down this median that coursed through a middle class residential neighbourhood into an industrial estate, as it was in the kind of garbage we found.
Most of the hundreds of black cellophane wraps in this dump were human waste. We tried to speculate on how they got there. A member of CVL board who worked on my gang suggested that the absence of public toilets may influence the decisions of night guards and such other neighbourhood service providers to relieve themselves into these bags and toss them onto the median.
I was frightened, not just amazed, that middle class people could live just across from such threats to their health and remain unperturbed. It occurred to me then that one of the biggest threats to progress, which is part of the challenge of extant culture in Nigeria, is how we have become unshockable, how so easily we adjust to what was unacceptable the day before. Why do neighbours not stand up when certain acts are defacing and degrading the neighbourhoods? Must governments intervene on every issue? Why is it that in most societies the quality of the neighbourhoods keeps going up while in Nigeria we have continuous decline? After all this is the most self serving of actions, to protect the value of your property and the quality of the environment around you. The Nigerian experience as tragedy of the commons writ large is now troubling beyond the ordinary.
The men and women who drove by in their Mercedes Benzes as we tried to clean up, and who cast questioning glances at us, in many ways represent the trouble with Nigeria just as the residents of Eric Moore Towers and companies which received flyers from CVL Club members inviting them to join in the exercise, but did not bother. But I was justified in my preaching to CVL Club members that Nigeria is full of good and committed people was justified by those who stopped to ask what was going on. Chief Segun Olushola whose residence was several hundred meters down the road was first to arrive at 7:30 am. One Peter Nwaochei, a Rotarian who was driving by proved faithful to the 4 - Way test when he pulled up and asked what was going on.
On being told he said that was where he belonged and suspended his morning mission. Also curious as he drove past was Segun Runsewe, head of the National Orientation Agency. He was so excited in finding out what was going on and wondered why there wasn't massive media coverage of the effort. We told him it was now a monthly routine. He pledged to get back to the team. One food packaging company down the road committed to supporting the beautification of the median. Maybe it will become a true boulevard with trees, gardens and chairs for rest, some day soon.
The challenge of the Nigerian restoration, I often say to the young men and women of the CVL Club is finding thee well meaning people who make the majority of the population, getting them to shed the toga of helpless victims and building circles of engagement for progress. Invariably they will touch those who have lost a sense of outrage and individual action to affect their space could follow in ways that result in circles of redemption. There is plenty of hope out there and much to hope for.
Professor Utomi is of the Lagos Business School, Pan African University.