Saturday, May 21, 2011

Nigeria's 2011 Elections I: What Happened to the Love for Government Pikin?

Few weeks after the conclusion of Nigeria’s 2011 elections, the media has been flooded with news reports of the state funerals held in honour of the national youth corps members who were slain during the post elections violence. The thought is heart rendering as debates ensue as to whether or not the victims should be immortalized by naming a national monument after them, given national honours and whether the national youth service corps (NYSC) should be scrapped. While the federal government has announced plans to compensate the families of the deceased financially and otherwise, a lot of Nigerians insist that the NYSC scheme has lost its worth, stating that corps members have constantly been victims of ethnic and religious clashes over the last few years. They suggest that the recent killings are not a first but have only been accorded much attention because of number of individuals involved and the link to the national elections.

While I appreciate the sentiments and also question the success of the NYSC as to whether it has met it objective of national unity and integration, I recall that it had some merits and created some sense of pride back in the day.

We are told that the NYSC was instituted as a post-civil war initiative aimed at national integration and unity. The scheme is set-up in such a way that university graduates are expected to serve the nation for one year prior to securing permanent employment. They are posted out of their geo-political zone of origin to another zone to serve in different capacities largely as teachers with a view to reducing the level of illiteracy, bridging the manpower gap in the education sector, as well as in other endeavours. So, Southerns get posted up north and vice versa. Corps members learn of new cultures, psyches, languages, cuisines etc. and are better able to appreciate the lifestyles of people from a different geo-political zone. While a laudable initiative, the recent killings suggest that the initiative hasn’t quite met its objectives. However, it hasn’t been all bad.

Nigeria has six geo-political zones - the south-south, south-west, south-east, north central, north-east and north-west. I was born, grew-up and schooled in the south-south region of Nigeria. For my NYSC, I was posted to the south-west region and it marked my first time away from home and my family besides student vacations. And as a matter of fact, that is the situation with the average youth corps member.

As a youth corps member in 2000, I recall that we were fondly referred to as “Government Pikin”, were highly revered and cared for by the citizenry. Pikin in local parlance means child, implying that we were state property. I remember the first time I was referred to as a Government Pikin. It was mid-week and I had boarded a commuter bus from the NYSC secretariat where we had convened for the compulsory community development exercise popularly called CD. Fully clad in my NYSC uniform, I was beckoned upon to pay my bus fare and as I opened my purse to pay the fare, all other commuters in the bus reprimanded the checker (bus conductor as they are called in these climes) all chorusing “can’t you see that she’s Government Pikin?” Instantly, the checker apologised and moved to the next passenger. Though not a government pronouncement, it had become a rule that all corps members were exempt from paying transport fares and that was my experience throughout my national youth service. I was either never asked for a fare by the checker or there was always someone to remind the checker I was exempt. The NYSC uniform was known to open doors. It created a sense of pride and belonging for corps member and it was a good thing to be reckoned with! It gave the emotional value to education.

Four years later, my brother had an even more interesting experience. He was posted up north and to one of the states where the recent killings happened. He was well received as the new math’s teacher alongside other corps members. Being in a remote village, clean and portable water was farfetched in the real sense of the word. So the community rallying around to make the corpss member comfortable ensured that the school pupils (their children) fetched him water from the community borehole every day after school as well as run any other errand. They introduced him to the local delicacies and taught him their dialect. He returned home several months later very excited and grateful for the experience. Seven years later, we had this national crisis in the same vicinity and I wonder where did the love go?

The Lagos We Love

It was my first outing at an arts exhibition, only this time it wasn't about paintings but a photography exhibition. The finale of the Lagos Photo Amateur Competition themed – “Lagos under the Prism”. The competition commenced in October 2010 and was organised by the African Arts Foundation to mark Nigeria's 50th independence anniversary, although the finale held in 2011. The exhibition showcased the works of different people telling the story of Lagos from their minds-eye using still photography.

My choice for a winner would have been Benjamin Ofoesuwa as the green hue in his piece instantly hit me, and so much that I stopped to read the story. He celebrated the value of education and the drive of Governor Babatunde Fashola (BRF)in building Lagos into a mega city. With a wide grin, I was convinced that his piece was a winning creation. With my inartistic eyes, I would never have chosen the winning piece by Allwell Okpi titled – “Yes, I Live on Water”. For me, without his story, all I saw was the photo of a slum, not the Lagos I want to see. I was biased, so I walked past his piece severally without bothering to take a critical look. But when he was announced as the winner, I became curious and decided to go take an indepth look at his work and read the story behind his artistic creation. Allwell tells the story of the waterside properties in uptown Lagos and those of the poor. While the rich live in houses built out of concrete and marble walls alongside the waterside, the poor live in unpolished wooden houses built on stilts in the water. His story is about Makoko, a known slum in Lagos. Allwell says, though on water, people live here, make a living and manage to wear a smile.

Allwell's photo, puts Lagos under the prism and it is so true. It is the real Lagos but we shy away from it. His perspective is similar to that of Idowu Alaya whose piece I was endeared to because of my female instincts. Idowu tells the story of a girl no more than four years old feeding a goat in the semi-urban part of Lagos. Their stories are encapsulated by Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s “suffering and smiling” but it’s the Lagos we live in; it is what our cities truly look like after 50 years of independence, mega city or hinter land; it is the Lagos we love, our own New York, the jungle where dreams are made as Alicia says in her Empire State of Mind.

The event was an eye opening and gave me a true understanding of the phrase: A picture is worth a thousand words. It is ultimately the story you tell with it.

For those of us who work in Lagos Island and environs, ply the third mainland bridge, we catch a glimpse of Makoko daily. Nothing seems to change about it. It is Lagos but seems cut off from Governor BRF’s mega city plan.While we salute the efforts of Governor BRF, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Eko o ni baje o!