By Kunle Ajibade

The British academic, rabbi and author of The Politics of Hope, Professor Jonathan Sacks, observes that community is society with a human face. It is larger than the individual but smaller than the state. According to him, “it is where problems are best understood and solved, where individuals not otherwise politically engaged can be enlisted in the service of others”. Sacks goes further to say that the neighbourhood, the parish, the congregation, the youth club, the town union, the professional body, etc, are where people experience directly and immediately the power of working together to achieve what none of us can do alone. In the same vein, Tip O’Neill of the US Democratic Party who represented Boston districts in the House of Representatives for 34 years and served as Speaker of the same House for ten years once said: “All politics is local.” It is local because the majority of informed citizens in their immediate neighbourhoods know when their politicians are serving them and when they are not. Woe betides any politician in the US who doesn’t listen and act decisively on the complaints of his constituents.

In the US, UK, Australia, Canada and South Africa, community organising is regarded as a capacity building process from the bottom up. Because of its importance, numerous books have been written on it. To mention just a few: Collective Action for Social Change: An Introduction to Community Organising by Aaron Schutz and Marie Sandy; Let the People Decide: Neighbourhood Organising in America by Robert Fisher; We Make Change: Community Organisers Talk About What They Do and Why by Kristin Szakos and Joe Szakos; Small is Beautiful by EF Schumacher; and Defending Community Organising by Ben Smith. In those countries, as you all know, loyalties to their communities, sport clubs, schools, hospitals, bookstores, cultural and political institutions are always on full display.

Kunle Ajibade

Kunle Ajibade

Between 1880 till date, the history of community organising has gone through many significant phases. From organising immigrant neighbourhood in urban centres through civil rights movements, anti-war movement, anti-apartheid movement, women’s movement, feminist movement, the Arab spring movement, down to occupy wall street movement, and other movements. Citizens UK, for instance, has been promoting community organising in the United Kingdom since 1989. It is a reputable alliance of community organisers and leaders. Citizens UK recognises that communities can empower themselves when they come together to compel public authorities and businesses to respond to the needs of ordinary people. The following are the objectives of Citizens UK:

‘‘To organise people through the places where they have regular contact with their neighbours – faith institutions and workplaces and educational establishments. Our experience of practising broad based community organising across the UK has confirmed for us that the threads that once connected the individual to the family, the family to their community and the community to the wider society are fraying and in danger of breaking altogether. We believe these strands, connections and alliances are vital for a healthy democracy and should be the building blocks of any vibrant civil society. We believe in building for power which is fundamentally reciprocal, where both parties are influenced by each other and mutual respect develops. The power and influence that we seek is tempered by our religious teachings and moral values and is exercised in the fluid and ever-changing relationship with our fellow leaders, allies and adversaries. We value and seek to operate in the public sphere. We believe that UK public life should be occupied not just by a few celebrities and politicians – but also by the people themselves seeking a part of the action.’’

We gather on its website that Citizens UK has set up the Institute for Community Organising as part of its Centre for Civil Society established in 2010 in response to growing demands for training. In the same year it held a General Election Assembly at the Methodist Central Hall Westminster with 2,500 people from member institutions. The event was three days before the election. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown as the leaders of the three main political parties were present at the event. Each candidate for Prime Minister was questioned on stage concerning his willingness to work with Citizens UK if elected. Each agreed to work with Citizens UK and come to future assemblies to give account of work achieved. When London announced it would bid to be the host city for the Olympic Games in 2012, Citizens UK swung into action to ask for things of benefit to Londoners if the bid was successful. It demanded affordable homes for local people; that money from the Olympic development should be set aside to improve local schools and the health service; that at least 30% of jobs should be set aside for local people; that the Olympic Delivery Authority, the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games and the Olympic Legacy Company work with Citizens UK to ensure that these promises are delivered.

Those who have read Barack Obama’s carefully crafted memoirs, Dream From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance will recall that when the then 22-year old Obama finished his first degree in Political Science and International Relations at the Columbia University in New York, he worked as a community organiser in Chicago. He worked with other organisers at Developing Communities Project between June 1985 and May 1988. They helped to fix run-down schools, parks and black housing estates. They also helped to stop gang wars by the black youths. It was tough but they persisted. The experience would stand him in good stead as a law student in Harvard University where he became the first African-American to edit that university’s prestigious Law Review – he also was the first African-American to become the president of the same Law journal. The experience helped him during his campaigns for senatorial seat in Chicago. It helped immensely during the campaigns for the presidency of America. Obama is still very proud of his community organising experience. When some Republican candidates during the presidential campaign for his first term in office mocked his community organising days, his own campaign outfit retorted that Jesus Christ himself was a community organiser! And they proved it. Obama was merely building on the great traditions of community organising of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, among others.

It is to the credit of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People that they drew on the inspiring examples of the non-violent community organising strategies of some of the famous civil rights movements when they launched their justified campaign against the maltreatments of Ogoni by the Federal Government and the oil companies in the Niger Delta. With a very articulate leadership whose robust arguments were unassailable, the cause of Ogoni was immeasurably served. The Ogoni Bill of Rights which Saro-Wiwa wrote was sent to the international community. All the accused in that bill of rights had to explain themselves. The genocide that Saro-Wiwa and the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People pointed out may not have been completely redressed but they managed to bring to the attention of the world the injustice of an oil bearing community that gets nothing in return. The Cuban July 26 Movement which overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista would not have had the audacity to liberate Cubans from political oppression and economic exploitation if Fidel Castro, Ernesto Guevara and other leaders and mobilisers had kept silent in the face of tyranny. Will South Africa not have remained a killing field and a country of apartheid minority rule if Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki and a host of others had not energised the African National Congress to struggle for a multi-racial democracy? Are there, or are there not, some useful lessons for us in all these? Leaders in communities ought to be positive forces of history and agents of change.

There is no country without its own share of problems. The so-called civilised countries of the world have their own uncivilised conducts. The difference between those countries and our country is that while we generally spend our energy agonising over our problems, they spend their own time, resources and energy to find solution to their problems. While we tend to settle for make-shift arrangement, they prefer lasting solutions. Most of the time, we plan for ten years, while they plan for 100 years. In those societies, an older generation believes that it owes the next generation a key to the future. Here the older generation stupidly creates more problems for the new. If families and communities are raised on a diet of vices, we should not expect the country at large to be virtuous. We should not expect leaders thrown up by such communities to have any sense of obligation to the country.

In our various communities, in our neighbourhoods, we experience many selfish, greedy and incompetent leaders and followers; we experience insecurity, failed infrastructure, epileptic power supply, bad schools, bad hospitals, kidnapping, unemployment, and lack of faith in the country. We have laws but we obey them selectively, if we are not outrightly breaching them. Our country must be the only oil bearing country in the world where its people pay through the nose for fuel and suffer periodically for its scarcity and hoarding. What is certain in our country is uncertainty itself which puts a lot of people in a permanent state of anxiety. The sanctity of human life in our country is constantly and recklessly violated. The inequality in our country is so pronounced now as a tiny few have cornered the wealth meant for the majority. So many citizens are now alienated, living like slaves in their homeland. The roads in your neighbourhoods are bad. Instead of organising to compel the government to fix them, you prefer to buy more sports utility vehicles for yourself and family members to absorb the shocks on the roads. People who have a sense of self-worth will not do that. Schools in your communities are bad. Instead of joining others for mass action to fix them, you prefer to steal to send your children to schools abroad. We are so good at lamenting in this country. When light is taken in our neighbourhoods you hear the shout NEPA! And it all ends there. When we can’t complete the calls for which we are charged, we will just say ‘network failure’ as if that will put an end to the rip-off by the GSM service providers. Avoidable tanker accidents occur on our expressway, burn down people and their vehicles, and the rest of us resign to fate and say, it’s their destiny. Just like that! It ends there. We move on as if nothing has happened. This rubbish must stop. With this kind of attitude, modernity will continue to elude us. Barbarians will remain kings in our country. I can go on and on. One good way of stopping this drift is to learn to build caring communities – communities where we will have concerns for one another.

For our country is underdeveloped not because we don’t have brilliant people, not because Nigeria does not have abundant material resources, but because of our obsessive tolerance of foolish behaviours. We refuse to use the potent power of the collective to call our rulers to order. Why can’t we organise and demand for welfare programmes for the army of unemployed youths and other vulnerable people in our country? Why can’t we organise effectively to demand for cheap and affordable transportation system? Why can’t we insist on proper accounting from our leaders? If we don’t take ourselves seriously, the rest of the world will continue to treat us shabbily. To guide our steps as we rise to the challenge of community and national responsibilities, we surely need leaders with courage, wisdom, emotional intelligence, and core principle; leaders who will see the good in others, who will quit when it is time for them to do so, who will know when to say no. In Mandela’s Way, Richard Stengel wrote that Nelson Mandela loved to listen, that he loved to summarise and loved to mould opinion and steer people towards an action. The Mandela’s model of leadership, in the words of Stengel, “is better expressed as ubuntu, the idea that people are empowered by other people, that we become our best selves through unselfish interaction with others”.  That is the kind of leadership we need.

Finally, let me reiterate the kernel of my argument: that we will not have a good society if we don’t wake up to our obligations as citizens by getting ourselves organised in our communities for good causes. If you allow your inalienable community power to be taken away, you have no right to complain that your interests are not well served by your enslavers. I believe that we can, in unison, move mountain if we put our minds to it.

– The 1st Adewale Adesanya Memorial Lecture delivered on 13 March, 2014 by Mr. Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor, TheNEWS/P.M.NEWS at NECA House, CBD, Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos.

First published in TheNEWS magazine