“A mere need in itself does not cause the wheels of change to spin in a peopled society; rather, the level of desire within that need does”
When I was young and living in Enugu, we used to go to a catholic church; one of the traditions of the catholic institution is the weekly or daily confessional (for those who have sins and crimes to confess to). As children, we were never really into confessions, though we did get into some pranks that required a visit to the priest. However, all such pranks and nefarious behaviors were considered forgiven without admonition, given our age. At these confessionals, it was – and still is – always the priest and the confessor in a secluded environment, devoid of prying ears and eyes. Though the sins and crimes being confessed to may have been witnessed by many, the need and desire for atonement is always personal and private – though it could be made public after the fact.
The decision to engage in activities contrary to one’s spiritual and moral norms is always a personal one; the decision to kill, steal or embezzle public funds, blow up a pipeline, to cheat, deprive or deprave, assault, collude to commit a crime, to forge official documents, or covet another’s property – human and material - are all singularly thought through in the deepest recesses of our souls. Same is the decision to consume illegal substances like drugs or alcohol, defraud the government, join a cult, manipulate election results, stuff ballot boxes, kidnap little children for domestic slavery, murder innocent people for money ritual or to harvest their organs, or simple things as looking the other way while a neighbor (in this case, anyone at any given time sitting, standing, or living close to you) is in the process of committing an act contrary to socially and morally acceptable norms. It could also be something as religiously debasing as a pastor or imam, preaching or practicing heresy in an attempt to impose his or her personal interpretations of a holy book on the congregation; promoting the commission of crime against another religion, culture, race, or ethnic group.
Though some may claim effects of external influence, or coercion, in their decisions, the fact remains that the final decision to engage in, or deviate from these norms, is yours as an individual. Some have blamed peer pressure or need to belong, long periods of unemployment, loss of employment, family responsibilities, family traits and characteristics (my father and grandfather were drunks and smokers), or the fact that government officials or politicians are all crooks, as reasons for indulging in criminal and other reprehensible conducts. The struggle in accepting these excuses lies in the fact that while everyone has been, or are still privy to all of them, not everyone indulge in criminal activities. So, while there are those who loot the public treasury on the assumption that some in government are doing the same, not everyone loots the treasury. The same applies to every criminal act in the book. If everyone who has, somehow, come under the pressure or influence of any or all of the above succumbed, then we all would be criminals today. So, again, the decision to succumb – and stay under any influence – is a personal one.
The decision to change from any or all of these evil ways is also a personal one. One may be encouraged or swayed, just as in the initial decision to commit a crime, by external forces like churches and other religious groups, morality police teams as exist in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, peers, lessons learned as consequences of criminal and immoral activities, tragic family events, and a realization that crimes really do not pay. The role external influences play in our decision to change our ways depends on the depth of our personal resolve to change. In most cases, we just need a little conviction that our decision to change direction is the right one, and beneficial to us, to our loved ones, and the society in general. Where that personal resolve is not deep enough, or we are just changing to please someone, get them off our back, or for the purpose of obtaining a particular favor, that change will not last for long. That is why we see alcoholics, drug dealers, and addicts relapse; pedophiles return to their old ways after release from prison, abusive spouses continue the same way with their next spouse, cigarette smokers return to their old habits after quitting, etc.
Change is real and effective if the decision is personal, borne out of a sincere conviction that one’s previous behavior was injurious, unethical, immoral, and devoid of any social benefit. That is why our prayers and confessions are in private, our acceptance of Christ is personal, and our pleas for forgiveness and salvation are done privately too. No one person ever goes before God to say “we” have sinned; it is always “I”. Yes, we may hear all the preaching and admonitions in churches and prayer houses, schools, our homes, and even from our friends; it is still up to us to decide to change, pretend to change, or remain the same. It is up to us as individuals to evaluate our personal lives and ask ourselves: how does my daily conduct impact on the life and conduct of my neighbor? How does it impact my family, village, community, state, and nation? How does my criminal activities contribute to the overall poverty level, social and moral decay, and political instability in the nation? It is a question for everyone to answer on their own, from the leaders to the led.
Recently, the National Orientation Agency in Nigeria launched a campaign termed “Change Begins with me”; the idea was to get Nigerians to rethink their actions, especially how it impacts the Nigerian nation socially, economically, and politically. The reaction from the citizenry was more of comical ridicule and disdain. In a nation where the leadership is seen as pathologically corrupt, visionless, clueless, and working against the overall interest of the citizens, this reaction was largely expected. Many suggested that change must begin with the leadership, and referred to stories of alleged looting of public funds running into billions of dollars over many decades as evidence; others lamented about a nation ran down to a Third World status by series of inefficient and ineffective leaders and politicians since independence.
While all these may be true – and, in some case, they really are in Nigeria – a few things remain indisputable: the leaders are selected from among the Nigerian populace; the people are complicit in the conduct of their leaders, either by their silence, acquiescence, or by their inactive participation in the selection process; also, given that the decision to engage in any activity, criminal or otherwise, is a personal one, Nigerians who have chosen to engage in immoral or criminal behavior of any kind cannot honestly point to their leaders as a reason. In the same vein, the leadership cannot justifiably blame their behavior on the nonchalance or criminal conducts of the citizenry.
So, to say that change must begin with the leadership is a misnomer; because, within the leadership, there are those who have not been corrupted or influenced by the moral bankruptcy of their colleagues. The same also applies among the citizenry, thereby reinforcing the theme of this essay that the decision to choose one way as against the other is a personal one. The fact that all 180 million Nigerians are neither criminals nor morally debased lends credibility to the argument that choices are individualistic in nature. If you steal because someone is said to have stolen, would you kill for the same reason? Will you offer human sacrifice to ritualists, inflate your company’s payroll, blow up oil wells, or tap into your neighbor’s electric or cable supply just because someone you knew or heard of did the same thing? If you have no moral or spiritual principle, you might. The instructions in the Ten Commandments is to be applied on individual basis, not collectively, that is why some kill and steal and others don’t.
If the leadership is to blame for the lack of principle, good character, spiritual conviction, and morality that currently pervade the Nigerian society, one would ask why the same accusation is not leveled against countries like America, UK, Germany, Canada, and The Netherlands, just to mention a few, where the leadership is exemplary but, still, have differing levels of criminal behavior among its political, religious, and social class. Not one criminal of any class in these countries has ever claimed they were emulating the leadership, even though there might be some in political leadership positions who have been caught with their fingers in the cookie jar.
A tale is always told of a housewife who, lacking the strength to push out her child, blamed it on the presence of her mother in-law in the delivery room. In Nigeria, we either lack the moral strength or are afraid to look inwards for solutions to our problems; we find a general excuse in the government. A ritualist, rapist, kidnaper, 419-er, armed and pen robbers, cultist, oil thieves, lecturers who prey on innocent students, economic saboteurs, office secretary who sells government properties, and medical staff who sell off hospital equipment to private clinics, all find it easily convenient to blame the leadership for their personal conducts and social problems; we refuse to acknowledge a correlation between their activities and the general social, political, and economic degradation of the Nigerian nation. We perceive every economic downturn as an opportunity to further bleed the country dry; every election cycle is presented as an avenue to loot the treasury, settle old scores with an enemy, and every contract is seen as a conduit to personal wealth.
Charity, they say, begins at home. If that holds true, and Nigerians want a better country, we must be the change we desire; and that change must come from us as individuals. Little drops of water make oceans, just as a collection of individual trees make a forest. When change starts with us individually, collectively the nation will change for the better.