By Ayodele Aderinwale*
Many years ago, I had a rather interesting conversation with a slightly younger colleague. We were generally talking about the Nigerian society but more specifically about leadership values and ethics in the country. One thing that struck me during that conversation was the confidence with which the colleague argued that when a person tries to do the right and proper thing in Nigeria, the system consumes him or her. In very clear terms, he said, “Oga, no matter how hard you try, Nigeria will defeat you”.
The refrain rings in my head every time I see the system approximate, if not annihilate, a few promising stars as they emerge from the abyss of misconduct. I have watched, in amazement, the senseless looting and corruption that characterize our system. Like many people, I am angry and worried that such a potentially great country like Nigeria could be crippled by its very own leaders.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, a trend has emerged in which the individuals who so brazenly loot our common wealth become deified, adulated and celebrated as demi-gods. Thieving in the name of man and in the name of God is almost attaining status of a shared national value. Maybe D. O. Fagunwa saw into the future and was referring to Nigeria of today in one of his expeditions.
In recent times, there is hardly a day that passes without news headlines bearing stories of corruption, theft or misappropriation of public funds in one institution and sector or the other. If it’s not oil merchants and their government cronies sucking our nation dry in the fuel subsidy scandal, it is vultures feeding off the entitlements of pensioners or stock exchange executives living large off investors’ funds in the capital market scam. It seems the new refrain is my vulture, like appetite, is bigger than yours!
To the rest of the world, Nigeria is one huge scam. Our image as a country seems to be far from redemption despite the hundreds of millions we invest in projects like Rebrand Nigeria. Regardless, I still see hope in the emergence of a greater Nigeria tomorrow.
A couple of weeks ago, the action of a rather strange fellow buoyed my waning hope, re-invigorated my beliefs and re-affirmed my suspicion that the problems we see today are actually problems on the retreat and not on the advance (apologies to Museveni).
As Americans would say, Salami Lateef Ibrahim was an Average Joe, working his hours at Nigeria’s busiest airport, Murtala Mohammed International Airport, as a cabin cleaner for the Nigeria Aviation Handling Company (NAHCO). He probably didn’t earn much in salary and allowances. Perhaps his needs and responsibilities required a lot more than his earnings could meet. He certainly could use an extra buck or two.
Ibrahim was at work cleaning the cabin of a KLM aircraft when he found a bag containing 25, 000 British Pounds and 5, 000 Euros, an equivalent of N7.35 million. The story goes that instead of helping himself to the money, Ibrahim handed it over to security operatives to locate the owner. Media reports indicate that, for his act of honesty, Ibrahim got a handshake from KLM executives and the sum of N3, 000 from the owner of the found money. Ironically, it is another airline, Turkish Airline, which rewarded Ibrahim the most; with a return ticket to Turkey!
Some commentators have argued that Ibrahim was duty-bound to return the money once he found it so his action was no big deal. I too agree it was dutiful to return the money. But I do not agree his action was no big deal. It has to be a big deal if not a bigger deal.
We live in a Nigeria where mediocre performance is celebrated as stellar performance; a country where slightly above average performance is hailed as unprecedented and described in suffocating superlatives and deafening adjectives. We live in a Nigeria where public morality and ethical standards have become so low that at times it is easy to conclude that they do not exist. It just has to be a big deal in a Nigeria where the Dana plane crash is attributed by all commentators to unethical conduct and some form of conspiracy between owners of Dana airlines and Aviation officials. No one is willing to admit for one second that it might not be due to some form of real or imagined misconduct. We are in a Nigeria where today the values have completely atrophied that sinners have become saints and saints suffer perdition.
In another clime, another time, another place where positive values and virtues are the norm, what Ibrahim did would be ordinary conduct of an honest citizen. In that case it might not really be a big deal. However, this is not the case in Nigeria. In fact, I make a big deal of it for a couple of additional reasons.
First, the honesty exhibited by Ibrahim on this occasion was not a fluke. Reports indicate that on two previous occasions, he had found valuable items while discharging his duties as Cabin cleaner and handed them over to the appropriate authorities. In one such case, we are told, the security operative to whom he handed over the money he recovered ironically attempted to keep it hidden from the owner. Ibrahim revealed the matter to other authorities who recovered the money. With this latest act of honesty, Ibrahim proves his character to the world and should be very publicly commended.
Second, Ibrahim is an oasis in a desert of corruption. Honest, hardworking Nigerians of his kind are endangered species in a country where ill-gotten wealth is celebrated and people are given a feeling that they must make money by whatever means regardless of whether it is illegal or dishonest.
Third, we are a nation that is short of real positive heroes. We need to identify and celebrate ordinary people doing extraordinary things. We need to have our icons of hope. We need them as a counter to the burgeoning population of anti-heroes.
In the course of my work, I constantly interact with the emerging generation of Nigerian leaders; the upwardly mobile generation of young professional leaders, on a regular basis through our capacity building programmes. What I find most disturbing in the course of interaction with our young leaders is that there are not very many publicly celebrated examples of honest Nigerians they can learn from. This is not to say there are no honest people in Nigeria. Instead, it exposes our failure to identify, celebrate, and promote people like Ibrahim who exhibit acts of honesty; who have the potential to give this country a better image than what is has now.
What amazes me is that despite the obvious lack of recognition and encouragement, people like Ibrahim keep being who they are. People may never hear of their honesty and transparency but they are honest and transparent anyway. They may be few but they are in every sphere of our national life.
For instance, in 2001, at the commissioning of the Africa Leadership Forum secretariat in Ota, one journalist displayed professional integrity. I was intrigued by his professionalism and probing further I found that this reporter had a track record of integrity. Previously, he had rejected money from a governor as well as other prominent personalities for which he was given verbal and written commendation. Not many people would have known of this fellow at the time but his character stood him out. Today, he is the Editor of one of the leading newspapers in Nigeria.
There are several honest Nigerians who are hardly ever acknowledged and celebrated as characters and exemplars worthy of emulation. It would, therefore, seem that they are extinct. This is why we must make a big deal of what Ibrahim did until it becomes a well-known story in Paris, New York, Accra, Frankfurt, Beijing and elsewhere. Celebrating our honest citizens is the sure way our image can be improved and values preserved. It is the only way we can encourage more Ibrahims.
It is highly unlikely that our politicians will celebrate him. The Nigerian Civil organizations probably acting in concert with some of our development partners so inclined should, therefore, lead the campaign.
I believe it is in our enlightened self-interest to identify, promote, celebrate, protect and multiply the several Ibrahims in Nigeria. We must protect and encourage them and the values they represent.
As a first step in this direction, we should inundate the office of the secretary to the government of the federation of Nigeria with our nominations insisting that Ibrahim be given a national honour. After all he is probably more deserving of the honour than some of the people we have awarded the honour and will award the honour in the future.
In addition, we should mobilized to celebrate Ibrahim as an icon of hope by erecting a massive billboard in front of the secretariat of his local government office. Similar billboards should be erected in his village and his state’s capital city. It may sound like overkill, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Such a reward for his action will inspire others like him who have the mind to uphold positive values but are afraid to because no one recognizes them.
For the long term, this civil society intervention should include an awards ceremony where credible Nigerians will be honoured and celebrated. Such awards must identify and celebrate the otherwise unknown citizens whose acts of integrity and honesty seem to go unnoticed.
Yes, they belong to a silent minority and it may even seem a bit unattractive to root for them but if we must repair this country’s image; if we must hope that the successor generations will have any values at all; we must urgently begin to give this minority group a voice. We must begin to build the movement of social change around them.
All over the world, national re-orientation is a slow and painful process. Some of us in the civil society have committed our lives to it. Sometimes hope eludes us and our optimism begins to wane. But at our dark hour, a person like Ibrahim comes along and shows us that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Nigeria will be great again if we find ways to inspire our young for greatness. In that short period between when he found the money and when he returned it, Ibrahim showed us the path we must take. But if we are to make our destination, we must set out now.
*Mr. Ayodele Aderinwale, MFR, is the Executive Director of the Africa Leadership Forum (ALF). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org