“When stuck @ a low equilibrium level of performance, the same-same solution will not work. You need a shocker to rupture the stagnation. Find the shocker and go for it”! Oby Ezekwesili
If you listen carefully, you will observe that the same promises made today have been made during campaigns in the 1979, 1983, 1999, 2003 and 2007. Yet, the world is changing fast and with it, new challenges (or opportunities) and also new ways of tackling development issues.
For all our talk of building infrastructures, tackling corruption, improving our healthcare and educational services, there is still a lack of innovative ideas amongst our leadership and even the rest of Nigerians. Most solutions being offered are solutions that belong to the last century because we do not innovate or better put, do not see the need to think of new ways to solve our problems.
According to former Nigerian Minister and current World Bank Vice President, Oby Ezekwesili, “Every great performance in life first starts with great ideas. As it is with individuals, so it is with nations. It is in the realm of ideas of that leaders espouse the kind of nation they really want to lead their citizens to build and bequeath to future generations.”
But, why is ideas lacking amongst Nigerians? Why do we not place on premium of ideas & innovation? Why are we brain dead?
Nigerian Culture & Education: I believe the biggest obstacle to creating a nation of ideas & innovation is our culture & education. The African culture places a lot of emphasis on authority, which is in itself it’s not a bad thing. But when authority, as it’s seen in our culture, is someone who is absolute, the environment of encouraging people to express themselves becomes non-existent.
The African culture inhibits any idea or concept that challenges the set ways of doing things and anyone who seeks to challenge the status quo is seen as a rebel or showing disrespect to authority. When this happens, you hear the initiator or fans of the idea say something like ‘we love the idea but we don’t want to show disrespect to our elders’.
The product of our culture is our educational system that makes the teacher an absolute authority. The outcome is students who are raised with the notion of never questioning the wisdom of the teachers. Those who dare are punished or even ostracised and sometimes seen as devil possessed.
The effect of this culture mindset on our human development is the production of a people who rarely think outside the box and therefore, people of low expectation. Whatever we achieve, we celebrate (& rightly so) but do not seek to press on to see if we can do any better – breaking new grounds.
After all, our culture & education points to a destination where a child goes to primary, secondary, university and after graduation, he or she gets a good job, gets married, takes care of children & aged parents, provide parents with befitting burial and when its time, retire to the village. Our culture wrongly teaches us that life is a destination and not a journey, as a result, we stop developing ourselves (our potential, character and understanding of our community).
The other damage caused by culture & education is the influence of parents in dictating the careers of their children. Many parents consider success to be someone who graduated as a Lawyer, Accountant, Engineer and Doctor. Even till date, we are yet to fully place other careers at the same par with the ones just mentioned. It is so bad that some politicians who belong to these ‘privileged’ professions consider that as the main criteria for elective offices and that is a shame.
My late father (he was a great man) was so keen on my studying Law and as much as he meant well, it was not what I was passionate about (still not passionate about it 23 years after). When I objected, it didn’t please him and after several ‘discussions’ he reluctantly allowed me but I know many other Nigerians are not as fortunate. Many are not encouraged to follow their passion & develop their ideas. Also, many parents are really seeking to live out their own unfulfilled dreams through their children. This hinders the manifestation of the person’s unique true life gift.
Not only are children not encouraged to follow their passion, our culture and education does not encourage the asking of questions. Whenever we encounter a problem, it is seen as a disrespect or arrogance to ask sufficient questions on new ways to solve the problem besides the usual method. The result is most Nigerians are not people we ask questions about their lives, their communities and their nation. Without the ability to ask soul searching questions, we cannot develop responsibility and without responsibility, we cannot create accountability, solutions or ideas.
In my view, the worse effect of culture and education is the belief that those in authority always have the best solutions. So, whatever they tell us is not to be questioned but believed to be the best solution. I believe this is why Africa produces dictators in families, schools, workplace and government. You’ve got to consider yourself a god if ALL you think & say is considered the wisdom of God and anyone who questions you is considered an ignorant & unappreciative person, who is not able to come up with better ideas. This is how most of us Nigerians think and act. We & our leaders do regularly come in contact with people who have better ideas but we consider our ideas the best option and usually the ‘adviser’ prefers to be silence (killing the spirit of ideas generation) and not ‘rock the boat’ & be called an enemy. He or she will then likely become a sycophant.
The other outcome of our cultural mindset is ageism and intolerance. Most Nigerians like to make reference to their seniority but we know that the age of a person does not mean autonomy of ideas. Also, we have little or no tolerance for people with opposing view because we consider ours the ‘wisdom of God’.
Consuming Mindset: With our type of culture & education, it is no surprise that our society has a consuming mindset. After all, we are content to graduate from school, get a good job or business and spend our income purchasing innovations from overseas. It is no longer news that Nigerians are one of the leading shoppers in places like Dubai, London, Paris, Milan and New York. We would not ask ourselves how we can produce our own products that reflect our peculiarity. Rather, we buy almost everything foreign and if it weren’t for the fact that we were brought up on our delicacies & dialect, we would have abandoned these too for foreign food & dialect. It’s that bad.
In several instances, the item we import has its original raw material from our backyard (we even import items like toothpick). We don’t see it as a problem because we think we have the money to purchase it, even when it is sold to us at 10 times the original cost. Sometimes, it is even a status symbol and the clothing sector is a good example of this. Almost everything we consume in Nigeria is made or developed outside Nigeria.
Not only do we consume material things from overseas (even second hand goods) but we also consume foreign ideas as well. We don’t bother to stress our brains because we can simply take an idea that has been applied in another society and apply in ours. Our leaders believe it’s the best option and the people think, if the leader says so then it is so. This development is so sad because many ideas that are imported do not fit into our unique Nigerian situation and the same Nigerians who import and/or implement these ideas are the carriers of the unique Nigerian ideas.
Yet, Nigeria has unlimited and untapped resources, more than the Western nations. Not only that, we have a large population of human beings created by God with unlimited potential (both the educated and the uneducated Nigerian). I believe some of the ideas that the world is yet to see lies within the untapped potential of the typical Nigerian. But as far as he is content consuming products & ideas of foreign nations, he can’t ask question and create unique & peculiar ideas of his.
The consuming mindset is so dominant in all facet of our society from sports, entertainment, fashion, politics, religious practices, economy, commerce and governance. It goes as far as a situation where we now consume technology and the manpower (the workers) for that technology from overseas. In the process, we are losing out on both technological advancement and skilled employment for our people.
With this mindset, we are no way ready to build our nation. As Oby Ezekwesili puts it, “The wealth and poverty of nations inexorably depend on their domestic productivity and relative competitiveness.”
Copy Mindset: We do not only have Nigerian culture & education and consuming mindsets as hindrance but there is the problem of our copy mindset. So lazy are we in consuming other people’s products that we seem so content to copy ideas, concepts or products like for like without even attempting to modify what we copy. At least the Chinese and several nations modify these ideas or products to make it better or suit into their peculiar needs.
Most ideas are not necessary new and when met with an innovative mind, it opens doors to better products or a new solution. We all observe that once a new innovation comes out whether it is a Flat screen TV or Smartphone, Car, iPad, Microwave or any other product in any field, firstly the product is not exactly a complete innovation but rather a significant improvement or a new use for an old technology. Secondly, it is common for the competition to join the bandwagon and produce various modified version of the product.
So, there is nothing wrong in innovating from an existing solution or idea but in our case, we rather prefer to copy with no modification. Partly due to our culture of not questioning existing things and partly due to our contentment (consuming mindset) to use whatever we see without the desire to improve upon it.
It is common place to see one idea or business or product that hits the market, to be replicated everywhere with little or no attempt to improve upon the original version. I recently observed two presidential TV adverts on NTA with very similar themes and also, we all know of several advertisements, music, movies, clothes, business model, products, etc., that have been copied like for like. The similarities can get so embarrassingly close and it’s a great shame to a nation with great minds but mostly brain dead.
Stale Minds: One of the products of having leadership filled with a generation that should have long retired is the production of stale minds & ideas in position of authority. As stated already, when these people in authority speak, their words is seen as the wisdom of God and this culture of stale ideas is replicated in all levels of society, hindering the fresh ideas of the younger generation. Brian Houston, the Pastor of Hillsong Church (Australia’s largest church) said “One IDEA could change everything, but stale minds won't produce fresh ideas, & tired eyes won't see new insights!” Stale minds and tired eyes are mainly those of our older generation who are still keen to keep hold of our destiny & dictate the direction of our nation. Not only are they so far behind the fast pace in which the world is moving, they are hindering the production of innovative ideas amongst the next generations. This is the generation that is always quick to call someone a small boy or girl because they believe age is the only guarantee for great ideas and that is totally wrong. Incidentally, the younger generation (especially the 18-35 years) are the foundation for innovative ideas.
Short Termism: This mindset counts in a small way. In a culture that does not encourage a long term approach to doing things because it views life as a destination rather than a journey, we abhor long term planning. When we do not think long term, we will not undertake an intensive planning process and with no elaborate planning, there is little or no need to invest sufficient time dedicated to ideas and innovation.
Here is a society that likes to talk about ‘arriving’. When a man graduates from university, gets a job or set up a business (most likely a like for like copy business model), gets married, have some children, send them to good schools and then society says he has arrived. This is how most Nigerians view life and this destination thinking is a short term approach, which is why there is little consideration to exercise our brains (why bother when we’ve arrived!). When we begin to think about life as a journey that is much more than what we achieve for ourselves but rather the difference we make in society, we will begin innovate. The huge need in our nation will compel us to generate ideas.
Knowing what is holding us from becoming a people of ideas & innovation, how can we change this?
Change Absolute Authority: I believe the family is the primary cell of any nation and any change must start in the family. As head of the family, Fathers are the most influential figure in the home. Therefore, it mainly the role of fathers to develop a new culture where children are encouraged to express themselves, think outside the box, be adventurous, contribute ideas in family discussions & activities, made to feel they have the ability to do whatever they set their minds to do and be supported to pursue any career of their choice.
When we have children growing up in our homes with such mindset, our schools will see an increase in the number of students who ask questions & demand answers, explore new ways of tackling school work and most importantly, begin to develop their passion. It is never too early to start.
This will transform our schools into early innovation & ideas centres (not just a place to cram and get As in Maths, Science and English). It will make our teachers work harder to meet the increased demands of the students and even parents will be transformed when creating this new environment in their homes. The younger & older citizens in our nation will be impacted by this change.
Absolute authorities must be replaced by learning authorities in all walks of life – in our workplace, business, churches, mosque, schools and government. We need to see people as creation of God and whether educated or not, we all have God given abilities, capabilities, talents, passion that makes us unique. That uniqueness must be encouraged and tolerated because when more people fulfil their potential, it would lead to the development of our nation (benefitting us all).
May I note that Nigerian men especially need to do a lot more to deal with absolute authority model they inherited from their fathers and are actively practicing today. I speak from my own experience as a father where I am committing to a lifestyle of studying to counter the know-it-all attitude in me.
Improve Reading Culture: A key source of ideas is from books and this could be autobiographies, technology books, books on innovations of products and methods, etc. We have to become a people that not only read books but encourage our children & people in our circle of friends to develop a reading culture. There is no great leader/innovator in history who did not price the act of continuous learning and they studied even into their retirement. We must imbibe this culture as well.
It is crucial to our development to have private initiatives supporting the government efforts in setting up libraries and equipping them with relevant books. I say relevant because most of our libraries are filled with books that no longer relevant or up to date.
May I reiterate that we replace the absolute authority with learning authority mindset to avoid hindering the implementation of what we’ve read or the scope of what we do read.
Invest in Technology Villages: We need both private and government initiatives in setting up technology villages where innovators (educated or uneducated) can be mentored to develop their ideas. Such villages should be available in all 36 states and the FCT, with sufficient funding to enable enough activities & scope is undertaken by the innovators.
Develop Long Term Mindset: Every Nigerian should play a role in creating a long term approach mindset - an environment where we plan for personal and national issues with a long term approach, encourage proper deliberations, undertake research and gain inputs from diverse but relevant sources. It is this mindset that will encourage ideas & innovation because we will not be seeking solutions that apply today only but that which will be relevant in the future.
This future thinking approach will also encourage patience in ideas that do not materialise immediately. As we know, for most created things or concepts, there has been numerous failures and challenges encountered before success was achieved.
Messaging: Messaging will create a can do attitude amongst Nigerians and we can even develop a slogan – Nigerian solutions for Nigerian problems. This campaign would require both government and private support to ensure widespread success.
Activities under Messaging should include Communications, Modelling (exhibit innovation in and through our lives) and mentoring (mentor innovation amongst a particular group). Again, this is a role every Nigerians must participate in both in private and public live.
Shift focus from self to nation: The story of any innovator is a normally of story of someone who is seeking to impact an idea or develop a solution that is bigger than them. It is this motivating factor that gets them to persevere against all odds, have a long term mindset, undertake the required study & training and undertake the right messaging.
Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. is an excellent example of an ideas man who shifted focus from self to the nation by pursuing an idea that was bigger than him. He paid the ultimate price but he had already received a vision of what the future will look like and that gave him encouragement to persevere and implement the innovative ideas.
Until we shift our focus from ourselves to development of our nation, all our efforts to create a nation of innovation & ideas will fail. Essentially, ideas people and innovators are primarily about changing their society for the better and not about self-glory.
An ideas illustration: Many Nigerians are not aware that it was an innovative idea to use beautification of places like Oshodi by the Fashola government to influence human behaviour. Donald Duke had applied it in Calabar during his tenure as Governor and it had a very good result. Just by cleaning up a dirty & stinky environment and replacing it with beautiful lawns, trees and flowers, changes peoples’ behaviour. They drive their cars better, speak positively and are less likely to urinate or litter when in such environment. This is an innovation designed not only to serve its purpose of making the area look nice but also to create positive behaviour in Nigerians. This is called ‘Tweaking the Environment’ to create change and I recommend the book by Chip & Dan Heath on ‘Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard’ to learn more.
When we see a rise in innovative ideas, our schools (primary to tertiary) will become innovation centres; our police will developed new ways of tackling crime; our manufacturing sector will expand thereby making us an exporting nation, with more jobs for the people, more taxes for government, less consumption of foreign products and more use of Nigerian products; our government will apply new solutions to our infrastructures challenges (transport, energy, healthcare, education, etc.) and we will introduce new ways of conducting our democracy (including elections) and many more benefits.
Whilst we are focused on the April elections, we must recognise that the lack of ideas and innovation is not a political leadership problem but a national problem. Therefore, every Nigerian must take responsibility to create an environment different from our current one and for a nation with such a huge population, no provision of infrastructure can deliver from us from underdevelopment, if we do not become a people of ideas and innovation.
It is important to note that people of ideas see opportunities in every problem. Every solution (whether technological or a method) came out of a need to confront a problem. So, it’s time to stop complaining only about our problems and to start thinking & implementing ideas to those problems.
Compared to the Western nations, Nigeria and Africa is a virgin land and to avoid having to come under economic slavery (where the Western nations & China provide the finance & personnel for our major projects as we’re beginning to see), we must take the lead and the only solution is to create an environment where the Nigerian leadership and people produce & implement innovative ideas on daily basis. I reiterate, this is not a government led initiative but citizens led which of course will include Nigerians in government. It’s time to put the nation first in our thinking.
Bobby Udoh is a nation-building evangelist and the founder of Nation Arise, an organisation dedicated to the mobilization of every Nigerian through the gospel of nation-building. Read more articles on his weekly blog – http://nationarise.wordpress.com/