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Service to country

Sometime in the summer of 2017, I attended an event at the University of Nottingham, UK, that was marketed as some sort of grassroots-level Africa-UK…

Sometime in the summer of 2017, I attended an event at the University of Nottingham, UK, that was marketed as some sort of grassroots-level Africa-UK Summit on African development. Despite the name, it turned out to be a largely Nigerian affair that was most likely no more than an attempt at political mobilisation on behalf of some Nigerian politicians then angling to contest the 2019 presidential election, which was then drawing closer. 

While these observations about the event hit me a bit at the time because I had paid £40 for attendance, plus the cost of train tickets from Norwich to Nottingham, it was still by and large a good event and I got a chance to socialise with other Nigerians even though it was during Ramadan. But more memorably, I met the late Nigerian musician and songwriter, Majek Fashek. In the few seconds I greeted and shook hands with him, his pleasant expression turned sour because, unable to contain my surprise and shock, I just kept asking those around, loudly and repeatedly, “Is this Majek Fashek for real?” He was the real Fashek, for sure, but he looked very different from the one I knew and saw performing on television while growing up. He looked emasculated, dishevelled, unkempt, and visibly sick, at least to me.  

My meeting with Fashek was quite brief. It happened only a few years ago, and he is now dead. But that brief experience has had a profound impact on my thoughts about Nigeria, then and now. At the time, I recalled the sad story of the late Nigerian footballer, Rashidi Yekini, who wore Nigerian colours, scored 37 goals for Nigeria, among them our very first goal at a World Cup, and ended his life and career in similar circumstances of neglect, even though the two cases could well have been very different. 

How could people like Yekini and Fashek end up the way they did? What is service to the country in the Nigerian context? What does it really mean for a Nigerian to “serve” her country? And what does a Nigerian who serves her country get from the country in return? 

Those questions remained with me for months on end and returned again last week when I read a story that the federal government has finally made good on its promise to the Super Eagles team that represented Nigeria at the 1994 World Cup, 28 years after the promise was first made. What kind of a country and government waits 28 years to keep a promise freely made to those who served it? What kind of society tolerates such a behaviour from its own government? And what does all this mean for the entrenchment of corruption in our national life? 

I don’t have answers to these questions, but it is perhaps even more important to first raise them as questions for our collective attention. On that, we might as well begin by defining what we mean by “service” to country. What does it really mean to “serve Nigeria, my country,” as our national pledge so loudly proclaims? This is where I find Majek Fashek’s case quite illuminating. As a national team footballer, Yekini was in fact a government employee in the same sense that a player for a football club would be an employee of that club in every sense. 

But unlike Yekini, Fashek didn’t play football for Nigeria, and his music was his own personal career. Still, there is a strong case in which by his music he was still serving his country since in one way or another, he contributed to the development of the music industry in the country, regardless of his own personal behavioural failings. 

This applies to millions of Nigerians who probably never worked for the government at any level for a single day, but who certainly served their country in their own ways. In fact, quite frankly, even just being a law-abiding citizen is a kind of service to country that the country must reward in return in some way, if for nothing else to encourage other citizens to be and remain law-abiding. 

My point is that, as a nation, we must understand “service to country” beyond merely those who work for or in government. Nigerians who distinguish themselves in any career, nationally or internationally, are also, by the same measure, serving their country and would need to be recognised and rewarded accordingly. 

This is the whole point of the National Merit Awards, itself modelled after the British Honours System in which the reigning monarch confers awards to deserving citizens, as our president does each year. It is sad, though, that in our case, majority of the national merit awards go to people in government. 

But even among those who work for the government in Nigeria, there are thousands who are quickly forgotten, leaving many to wonder if their service to the country, often lasting the best part of their lives, was a mistake. There are thousands of retired professors, doctors, teachers, nurses, diplomats, civil servants, and servicemen and women from the various forces whom no one remembers today in almost any form. And many end their lives in ways that we would not wish even for prisoners. 

As a society, we must avoid such wretched ends for the majority of our citizens, regardless of the capacity in which they served. 

In this regard, there are at least three things we can do. First, we need to review and reform our national honours system by taking it out of the hands of government, federal or state, and handing it over to an entirely independent body of Nigerians selected from various walks of life. This body can then draw up a whole set of new criteria for nominations and awards, which the government of the day can then confer. 

Second, Nigeria needs an effective National Security/Insurance Programme as a national pot of sorts to which all of us can contribute to, and from which all of us can draw upon at some point in our lives. Such a fund could be specifically for providing livelihood protections to say, orphaned children between age 0-17 who lose one or both of their parents and those aged 75 or over. 

Finally, we need to create spaces for those who have reached retirement age but are still active enough to continue working. Nigeria has too many people who have acquired experience in various walks of life, but who are likely to die with their knowledge because no one thinks they have anything to offer anymore, merely because they are retired. Needless to say, these insecurities contribute greatly to the entrenchment of corruption in our national life. 

Therefore, we need to open up spaces in the universities, government agencies, independent think-tanks, businesses, and more, for older but still active Nigerians to make a contribution to society before they reach the age of infirmity. 

Everyone should have a fair opportunity to serve, and every service should be duly recognised and rewarded. One might argue that where would the government get money for all these? And it will be a fair argument. But my answer would be that it is precisely because we don’t make and insist on such legitimate demands for everyone that a lot of government money ends up in private pockets.