The engineering of change

I’m very much interested in how societies change, over time, for better or for worse. How for example did Nigeria become a country of 419-ers, or Yahoo-Yahoo youths? How did we manage to become a country that, as a friend of mine pointed out over the weekend, successfully divorced morality from religion? How did religious fundamentalism, Islamic or Christian, come to grip Nigeria with such ferocity. What were the social, cultural and economic conditions that induced these shifts? Has it taken something in the Nigerian DNA, or in the physical environment, or in the attitudes of the country’s leadership, to engineer the country we have today?

My musings on these themes of societal engineering have taken on added vigour in the last few days, after a recent trip to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It is unlike anywhere I have ever seen. By African standards, Rwanda is nothing short of a miracle. Under President Paul Kagame, the country has done a massively impressive job reinventing itself along a path that boldly leads away from the unspeakable horrors of its recent past; a three-month stretch in 1994 in which close to a million of its people were shot or hacked or bludgeoned to death by their fellow Rwandans.

The visitor will immediately be struck by how clean Kigali, a city of three million persons, is. It will all make sense when you realise that plastic bags (“nylon”) have been banned in the country since September 2008. I was told that visitors’ bags are sometimes searched at the Kigali International Airport, and plastic bags confiscated and replaced with paper ones. It is a blanket ban, covering the manufacture, importation and use of all non-biodegradable plastic bags. And you can see some of the effects of this as you move around Kigali. There are no blocked drains, as you would find in Lagos or in any other Nigerian city.

Plastic bags were not the only thing the government moved firmly against. “People in this country loved spitting in public,” journalist Fred Mwasa told me. “We’d ask ourselves, are Rwandans ill?” Today, the country has been purged of that bad habit. Of course, long before Rwanda, Singapore (which many leaders, including Babatunde Fashola and Kagame, proclaim as a model) banned littering, spitting, and even the selling of chewing gum, and fines people for not flushing public toilets.

Kigali is often described as “the cleanest city in Africa” and in 2008 was awarded a UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour Award – the first African city so honoured – for its successful transformation into a city “symbolised by zero tolerance for plastics, improved garbage collection and a substantial reduction in crime.”

The city’s streets are all lined with sidewalks and drainage. The City Council has also been clamping down hard on noise pollution.

Rwanda’s environmental ambitions are captured in a “Clean Rwanda” Initiative that is itself part of the country’s “2020 Vision.” The difference between them and us is that they are taking the steps to make their dreams come true, not waiting, like us, for what the late Chinua Achebe, described in The Trouble With Nigeria as “the cargo-cult mentality that anthropologists sometimes speak about – a belief by backward people that someday, without any exertion whatsoever on their part, a fairy ship will dock in their harbour laden every goody they have always dreamed of possessing.”

The closest Nigeria got to that firm hand of progressive discipline was when Muhammadu Buhari took office as the Head of State. (Ignore the striking semblance between Buhari and Kagame – both tall, reedy men with faces set in a default smile-free mode). Buhari, supported by his equally unsmiling deputy, Tunde Idiagbon, set to work attempting to instil discipline in Nigerians, a people for whom, after four years of useless governance by politicians, life had taken on the form of free-flowing “anyhowness”.

Their signature programme was the War Against Indiscipline, which sought to inculcate in Nigerians the habits of good behaviour, like queuing, and cleanliness. Not surprisingly, Nigerians weren’t impressed. Some of the resistance is understandable: the means of enforcement – whip-wielding, frog-jump-inducing soldiers – were seen as draconian, and often quickly crossed the line into outright abuse. Ibrahim Babangida, who deposed Buhari in a coup 20 months later, wasted no time dissociating himself from Buhari’s “Dis’plin” agenda. Under the live-and-let-live atmosphere of Babangida the Benevolent, things quickly proceeded downhill.

There is no doubt in my mind that Nigeria needs a firm hand; government at all levels that can set out laws and ensure there is enforcement by everybody, regardless of social status or party affiliation. One of the things that ended up undermining the Buhari government’s attempts at instilling discipline was the widespread belief that some people were above the law, as the suitcases-presumably-full-of-currency scandal of 1984 appeared to demonstrate.

Again and again, the people I spoke to in Kigali told me that no one is too big to face censure in Rwanda. Journalist Mwasa told me that between 2003 and 2005, an anti-corruption clampdown sent a lot of Kagame associates and kinsmen and government insiders to jail or exile. The fact that Kagame did not spare his own people from facing the heat did a lot to inspire confidence and “cool down ethnic temperature” – people could not in all honesty accuse the President of a biased or ethnically-motivated sense of justice.

Mwasa added that the sense of ‘it’s our turn to eat’ (the fitting title of a book on Kenya’s ill-fated anti-corruption battle, by British journalist Michela Wrong) was once very strong in the country, even after the genocide. “It’s our thing; our cake” is how he summed up that mentality, recognisable in Nigeria in the form of cries of “our son/daughter” and “our oil” and the endless tantrums thrown against “marginalisation.”

The Rwandan government’s steps to break those destructive attitudes appear to have succeeded. Today, Mwasa tells me: “There is no company or institution I can go to and say, ‘this is exclusively for this ethnic group’. People have developed a sense of competition; (regardless of anything) they can compete and be hired.”

The truth of that is obvious in the ranking of Rwanda on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (2013), it occupies 49th place (fourth in Africa after Botswana, Cape Verde and Seychelles), compared to South Africa’s 72nd and Nigeria’s 144th positions.

Kagame’s pluses are his ambitious vision and the political will to follow through to implementation. There’s no doubt that he has a clear picture of the sort of development he would like to see take root in Rwanda – a country in which, on account of its infrastructure, security, transparency and human talent, it is easy to do business. But beyond this vision, it is his skills as an implementer that makes all the difference.

“He takes decisions no one else can take,” Mwasa told me, adding that it is that quality that makes him the divisive personality he is; a man about whom no one can be indifferent. (Kagame’s critics, and there are many of them around the world, insist he is a dictator with a murderous intolerance for criticism and dissent).

Reform is never easy. Vested interests will rise and do everything to block progress that affects them. The reforms in Rwanda didn’t happen without resistance. But what appears to be the game-changer is the attitude of the Oga(s) at the Top. How willing and committed is s/he to seeing the reforms happen, to keeping the lines of communication with the people fully open, and to demonstrating that the law will not be bent for anyone?

And it’s not every time that the vested interests have to be fought to standstill. Not every time fight, sometimes collaborate, as we would say in Twitterese. Rwanda made things easier for potential vested interests to adapt to a post-plastic-bag age by providing incentives to support existing producers of plastic bags to make the shift into the production of recyclable bags, and into recycling.

Opening alternative doors for the vested interests makes it easier for them to cope with the pain of closed ones. It’s why I see nothing wrong in Nigeria encouraging diesel merchants to buy and own privatised power plants. If properly regulated, that way we give them a chance to transit from profiting from the failings of Nigeria’s electricity system to profiting from its success.

It’s similar to what I hear Durban did in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup. In the face of taxi drivers’ opposition to the construction of new bus lanes, the city government took a group of the “toughest and roughest” drivers to Colombia to see how taxis co-exist side by side with BRT lanes. That trip reportedly made it easier for the drivers to buy into the plan. Lagos too has pulled off some smart moves like that – allowing the National Union of Road Transport Workers to own part of the BRT system. By giving them a stake in the progress, there is little incentive to sabotage it.

My overall point is that change is possible, anywhere, at any time. It depends on how badly we want it. This Wednesday, October 15, has been designated “Horn-Free Day” in Lagos State, to kickstart a campaign against sanity-destroying noise-levels in Africa’s most populous city. At a recent ‘Lagos Drivers’ Appreciation Day’ event, Governor Fashola spoke about his vision for a quieter city and enjoined Lagosians to play their part in making this happen. With car horns, it may be difficult to enforce compliance, but in other things like noise from religious houses and outdoor parties, some form of strict enforcement and penalisation is badly needed in this city. And this must be done transparently, without fear or favour, the great underminers or reform.

It remains to be seen how the Lagos Horn-Free Day will play out. Will Lagos drivers – and especially the okada riders – successfully resist the urge to keep their hands off their car horns for an entire day? Wednesday, here we come…