By EdoAbasi Ukpong
By far the most apt comment on the present devastating covid19 pandemic is Andrew Yang’s – ‘the world is witnessing 10 years worth of change in 10 weeks!’.
In Nigeria as indeed in the world at large, we are still coming to terms with changes that are being forced on us and waking up each day to new realizations and fresh realities. My dear country Nigeria has grappled with socioeconomic development and has fallen well short of its potential and indeed failed a majority of it’s people. There is no agreement (not surprisingly) on the causes for our failings but Covid19 has perhaps laid bare a few inconvenient points.
The scourge of the pandemic has frightened humanity into the realization that cooperation and collaboration are essential to success in every aspect of life. Sadly and as I have posited ad nauseam, the dearth of a culture of cooperation and collaboration is the root cause of our stunted progress as a nation and I will explain. There is an adage that says ‘if you want to go fast go alone but if you want to go far, go with others’.
I have a small farm in my ancestral home in Akwa Ibom that employs 6 young men who all live in the homestead. A couple of years ago I sat down and advised them on the benefits of communal living in terms of cooking together and buying things in bulk and even kickstarted with the donation of a bag of rice and several bags of ‘pure water’. Fast forward to the present, where I have been living with them for 7 weeks. What do I find? My good friends have all acquired their own portable gas cookers and so the compound can boast of 6 of them and all cook differently in their own pots and take daily trips to buy items from the local market.
It gets to the ridiculous extent that my friends all go out at around the same time to perhaps buy bread and I’m wondering why one of them doesn’t just volunteer to collect money from everyone else and buy six loaves of bread instead of 6 trips for 6 loaves!
The whole jarring discovery quickly flashed my mind back to about 15 years ago when I was working closely with a Chinese client. I was aghast when the MD decided to rent a palatial residential building in Ikoyi for himself. I need not have bothered, in a subsequent visit to the residence I discovered that the MD was living there with all the staff (over 10 and senior staff) including the cook who was responsible for their daily ‘feasts’. It now all made so much sense because I imagined the cost savings as opposed to if they had rented 10+ flats in Ikoyi!
Still in the same Lagos, stories abound of residents in gated estates with common facilities refusing to pay their share of levies imposed to maintain common facilities and services. At times the estate association executive embarks on locking the gates against defaulters and often you find a resident drive up in a N50 million car and is prevented from driving out because of a debt of N50k annual dues!
What kind of person in his right senses will neglect to pay for essential services he is enjoying? Some will even rather spend money to sue the estate association for infringing on their rights to freedom of movement. What about the right of his ‘neighbours’ to expect everybody’s cooperation? Sadly this is an example of the pervading atmosphere of crass selfishness.
Back to my village which measures about 700 meters in length on the major road. Within this space there are 14 different church buildings! The near empty halls on days of worship is clear evidence of excess capacity. This is illustrative of how as a people we have lost the spirit and sense of cooperation needed to see the big picture. Rather than cooperation we have unhelpful competition. So rather than Christians pulling resources together to establish churches with optimal utilization of space, everybody is establishing their own ’empires’!
As a people we seem to have adopted selfishness as group ethos and the overriding individualistic motivation has generated a crazed quest for us to outdo our ‘neigbours’ and in the process we have shut out the possibilities of more efficient and productive deployment of our individual resources that come with collaborative venturing. This selfish and thoughtless ‘I pass my neighbour’ syndrome is so prevalent that an analysis of the overall national loss occasioned by the wastage and lost opportunities implicit in the malaise will be mindboggling.
We are all so guilty of the selfish approach to life and I do not exonerate myself. The 4 storey building that houses my law firm once had 4 different tenants. So at a time we had 4 diesel generators whereas we could have cooperated and jointly installed a single generator instead of fighting for installation space and multiplying noise and pollution levels not to mention other cost saving opportunities we missed.
Where the ‘I pass my neighbor’ mentality has really hurt us is the consequential promotion of a culture of mindless acquisitiveness. A maniacally frenzied quest to outdo the ‘neighbor’ has completely blinded those with the financial wherewithal from seeking opportunities for productive investments of their excess money. Rather the excess money is spent (wasted really) on acquisitions or pursuits that do not add any value to meaningful development. I do not seek to demonize materialism but I think we can all agree that at our level of development, the frenzied focus on materialism is ‘putting the cart before the horse’.
Societies are developed by productive contributions from all and sundry. So we have people owning 30 luxury cars, uncountable number of super expensive wristwatches, yachts, empty apartments in different cities locally and around the globe – all a result of a vision that originates from the sole life ambition to outshine the next man and unthinking of the opportunity costs of the crass waste of resources. So my point and hope is that the covid19 pandemic and more importantly the resulting and still evolving economic and sociocultural disruptions will open our minds to some evident truths. We the economic elite, especially, do not have any real need for most of our proud acquisitions and we must have discovered that these items are not only ‘non-essential’ they’re truly meaningless. We must also be discovering that we all need each other to survive and I have seen hitherto selfish people buying self protection and food items for their ‘neighbours’ as a result of that realization. We are realizing that the money spent on erecting tall fences to screen off our ‘neighbours’ does not offer the protection of a collaborative ‘handshake’.
And overall that our penchant for divisive machinations is not to our overall benefit. Most painful is the realization that most of the resources deployed in these mindless acquisitions and wastages are obtained from our commonwealth and mostly through unproductive and unfair means.
From a single source, $40 million worth of jewelry has been recovered, can we imagine that this is just a fraction of the totality!
Hopefully we are now realizing that this visionless ‘wastedemic’ accounts for all the factories, hospitals, jobs that we lack and now so badly need. And hopefully nobody will respond to the $40 million example with ‘is it only Deziani, what of Ganduje?’ because it is that narrow mindedness that has put us where we are today and having seen that it is not a good place to be, we need to, as a people take advantage of the current forced circumstances, move collectively to the much better place that lies ahead. And hopefully we are realizing that we can only get to that much better place in an atmosphere of entrenched community spirit.
Let our focus on outdoing our ‘neighbours’ transition to focusing on what we can do with our ‘neighbours’ for a stronger, more habitable and more productive ‘neighborhood’. Afterall it is we the people that will develop our country, by ourselves and for ourselves.
EdoAbasi Ukpong is a legal practitioner and a commentator on contemporary issues.