(#NewLeadership Series with Chude Jideonwo)
I had to throw away the original examples I had used to drive today’s theme because in January something happened that drove the point home for me even stronger – one of those times when Nigeria, in spite of itself, manages to inspire you.
Here’s what happened.
There are very few people who read the news who haven’t heard about the Nigeria Police College in Ikeja, Lagos. Before January, this was just another victim of the institutional rot that defines public life in Nigeria. One documentary after, it had become a national symbol.
I will recap the story for you: On 18 Janury 2013, Channels Television published a documentary on its website about the college – it had secure unprecedented (for a highly secretive Nigeria, even miraculous) access to both the highest cadres of the police force and the college itself.
As a journalist, I have found myself addressing the issue of public infrasturture including the accommodation of those who rely on government for housing, and so it wasn’t a shock – but for many Nigerians, it was beyond scandalous, or outrageous. The kind of spectacle that leaves your voice dropped to a whisper.
In the documentary anchored by reporters Deji Badmus and Ayoola Kassim, the decay at the Ikeja post (referred to some as the premier police college in the country) was brought into sharp national focus.
Themed ‘On the brink of collapse’, it captured what a writer on YNaija.com, Bayo Oluwasanmi, described as “littered, jumbled, jambles, and ram shackled buildings… they (looked) fidgety, collapsible, rusty, dusty, and dying” and the library like “a stuffed flea market for used books”.
Students are herded into dingy classrooms with ceilings that are collapsing and with lecture rooms that also double as cafeterias. Of course, the classrooms are overcrowded, with students hardly able to breathe – literally.
Officers have broken down chairs and typewriters for equipment, and one of the building consultants noted “we have no learning facilities here”. The deputy commandant of the college nadded that “since the establishment of the college, there has been no development or renovation.”
There is, of course, no Internet, no ventilation, no fans in what passes as a library; books were last sourced in the 1970s. Male dormitories were built by colonial masters in the 1940s and have not been renovated or maintained since. No windows, no doors, no electricity, leaks everywhere; water on the floor.
“The students look like animals that are out of their cages for a brief respite,” another writer noted. “The dorm is adorned with beds propped up with bricksavoid falling apart. Blood-stained mosquito nets form mushroom-shaped clouds over student’s beds.”
The places where the smelly, dirty, feral beds are placed many of us wouldn’t even take a dump in. And of course, the toilets themselves looked abominable – “one can literally smell the oozing strench of hazardous fumes.”
The dormitories were (are) dilapidated and clearly not fit for human habitation, least of all for those who are later to handle guns with little supervision.
The college was built for 700 students. But it now accommodates at least 2,500.
The final humiliation is how they eat – from plastic buckets not unlike those used for ‘packing shit’ in the villages; and an eyesore emerging from those buckets and bowls.
Watching that documentary, it suddenly dawned on many why policemen constantly look angry, worn-out, frustrated, hungry, depressing and always looking for “anything for the boys”. To use a well worn Nigerian cliché – it displayed the “shame of a nation.”
The excellemt documentary subsequently went viral on social media, and by the next day had spilled over onto the headlines of newspaper, television and radio reports.
Without making any direct accusations or mounting a soap box, Channels Television made several eloquent points and posed several important questions: How did the N311 billion appropriated for the Nigeria Police Force miss this college? How was the N2.046 billion appropriated for police colleges and training institutions for a 3-year period from 2009-2012 spent? Even more to the point, for me, why was the Inspector General of Police- Mohammed Abubakar looking helpless (though credit must be given to him for his candour and eagerness to get help) with regard to the state of his own charges?
It drew attention to the general state of police officers across the country – many of whose residencies include open sewages, stinking gutters, broken staircases, damaged roofs and refuse dumps, according to a The Sun report in December 2012, long before the Channels documentary. The special report revealed similar circumstances covering the Police Barracks in Falomo, Obalende, Apapa, Ojuelegba, Ikeja GRA and Iponri – all in Lagos. Kitchens, toilets and running water were non-existent. The situation is the same across the country – from Abeokuta to Gwoza.
The documentary was stunning enough for the Commander-in-Chief of Nigeria’s Armed Forces to make an unscheduled visit to the Police College, Ikeja on 19, January, 2012.
Sadly, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan ended up making the unfortunate statement, “The documentary is a calculated attempt to damage the image of this government” – a distressing choice of words that sparked outrage across the country and made even supporters of the president do a quick take. But it didn’t matter: the point had been made, this cat was out of the bag.
Reports indicate that there will be action that will affect the Police Service Commission, the Ministry of Police Affairs, as well the Office of the Inspector-General of Police. The legislature through Usman Kumo, who is chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Police Affairs, also used the opportunity to re-iterate a point the committee claims to have been making for a while un-noticed until the Channels report.
But beyond the storm, this is the real beauty of the series of events: Channels Television didn’t do anything particularly out-of-this-world – it simply did its job.
Its reporters did not insult or demean the government; there were no accusations made, and no over-statements, no reaching for political leverage and no mis-information – it simply did wHat the media is supposed to do as an institution – present the truth fairly, truthfully and with depth; shine the light where others would prefer darkness, and empower the populace with the knowledge and information needed to make informed decisions, and provoke action.
First, it identified the issue. Then it unravelled the news – doing its homework thoroughly. Then, it went even a step further, taking active interest in changing the situation – ultimately the station signaled it was kickstarting a fund-raising drive following the immense publicity to rehabilitate the college and make an active difference; making the leap from investigative to developmental journalism.
Following the public outcry, the entire project now appears to have lost a bit of steam – the proposed forum and fundraiser have been curiously post-poned based on what some have called ‘political pressure’.
Maybe that is the case, and that would be sad. But with or without that event holding, Channels TV has done the nation a favour by playing its part – it has also done more for the cause of the students of the police college than a motley crowd of activists and commentators have done.
More importantly, it is not government or a part of government; it does not have a budget to actually change the situation of the college, neither does it have the authority; but it has the capacity to focus on the issue and make that change happen and brought that to bear.
The station looked at its own ability to drive change from their corner of the world and then did it to the very best of its ability, even in a country where it is extremely difficult to do that kind of journalism.
The lesson is how much we can do to change Nigeria by doing that which we are empowered or trained to do well – whether as audit firms supervising fuel subsidy payments, bankers interfacing on public funds, lawyers facilitating the cause of justice, musicians driving the issues, or even as street cleaners making out cities habitable.
In a ‘Change Agent in the Tax Office’, a Princeton case study made available online last year (and which should be one of the compulsory reading for change-makers in Nigeria), Ifueko Omogui-Okauru who was executive chairman of Nigeria’s Federal Inland Revenue Service made a simple statement that captured her drive: “To build Nigeria, we have to build institutions.”
The mistake we always make when we hear statements like this is that we immediately think of government. But John Momoh, who owns Channels Television, is not in government. We all need to understand deeply that institutions are both public and private – and the task of building them isn’t the government’s alone. They’re everywhere around us – they’re our collective responsibility to build.
Trade associations, the boards of non-governmental organisations, collectives, professional organisations and many more are supposed to be committed to building and sustaining strong institutions. We need to begin to take this responsibility seriously.
As Mr. Momoh has so eloquently shown us by deploying the immense power of his institution, we actually possess immense power to make government modify behavior and get better without calling anybody “stupid” or “clueless” or any other word from the roll call of hysteria that nowpasses for engagement.
Sometimes, it takes taking a deep look at what we are doing with where we are or what we have – and how we can constructively drive our agenda and achieve tangible outcomes. Sometimes, what we really need to do is to do our jobs well.