Of Lincoln and Slavery: Nigeria’s Moral Wars By Johannes Tobi Wojuola
Speech given by Johannes Tobi Wojuola Esq. at teh UNESCO Club Forum, 14th July, 2016, University of Abuja
A couple of weeks ago, Welms Thomas, your President buzzed me to invite me to speak at today’s event. He said I could choose a topic of my choice; it was a blank cheque and I loved that opportunity. Because, coincidentally, I was reading Harold Holzier’s book: How Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in America – and I wanted to share some wisdom I had learned from it.
Lincoln happens to be one of my favourite icons to have graced God’s green earth. I see him as the common man: the everyday man who like every other suffers from his imperfections and foibles and does not pretend to be perfect; but rather does all that is within his means to do good. Lincoln was also a believer in the Almighty and trusted God passionately in the affairs of his life.
These and many more endeared him to me. He is seen as one of America’s favourite Presidents.
Let me give a brief history of the man Lincoln and probably the greatest thing that he did that makes him the anecdotal reference for today’s conversation: his ending of slavery in America. Afterwards I will attempt to juxtapose this with current moral realities and the burden of changing our value system in Nigeria.
Lincoln was the everyday American of his time. He was from a religious family, and a very modest background. Born in 1809 in Kentucky, at a time and place where slavery was perfectly legal and its morality was not yet in question.
He grew up to develop a conscience and value system opposed to the norm of slavery then. In fact at some point in his life he found it very hard to believe he was in the right – but he reflected always to remind himself that there was no moral, humane or ethical justification or the evil called slavery.
In the course of his life, he became a politician – using the gifts of oratory and brilliant writing to push his ways through America’s political glass ceilings. After several election losses, he was elected president of the United States of America. At that point he had a platform to cast in stone his moral ethos and to be now called the liberator of Slaves in America – well, after God.
Before winning his election, he took every opportunity to speak against slavery – and in fact that was how he became popular – he called for debates; he held symposiums and wrote speeches on this rather unpopular topic – one which almost 80 percent of his audience would have been guilty of. He was popularly unpopular.
But with time it was certain he was winning the moral war. His party was now renowned for its anti-slavery stance. He was converting many believers to toe his line of thinking: that indeed slavery was a moral wrong and an aberration of human conduct and action; that the founding fathers of America did not conceive that in their land, some would be deprived of freedom to life, of liberty and of the pursuit of happiness.
Through his constant conversations and engagements on this issue – he compelled a societal conversation and a reflection into the rectitude of slavery. And now that the opportunity was before him as President he employed every machinery of politics, of wisdom and intellect to forge a change in the fault lines of the conversation on slavery.
Lincoln came at a time, when America was losing not just its political soul, but its moral heart. But he significantly chose not to leave things the way he met them. He changed it at every opportunity he had – and that has made all the difference today.
I liken President Buhari to Abraham Lincoln in many ways – they share an abundance of similarities: in loosing elections before an eventual victory; in the challenges of uniting a dividing nation and especially in the mandate of correcting a moral deviation that seems to have been etched as the norm.
Lincoln had slavery to deal with – and he did that accordingly. Today, President Buhari has corruption and its every vestige to deal with. He became president at a time when the menace of corruption had eaten too deep into the fabric of the Nigerian society.
Corruption may seem to be over-flogged, everyone is talking about it and the discussion has become boring it may seem. But it isn’t. It has become part and parcel of the lives of many, if not all Nigerians.
Most Nigerians expect the President to do the job of cleansing alone. But that expectation is as good as sending a General to war without his army. Change is started by one man, but it is won by all. Sadly, his fight will go its own long way to stem several sharp practices, but a real and total win would only come when everyone puts their hand to the plough. There is only one Buhari. There is only one Abraham Lincoln. But can we multiply them?
On the highway, I see how drivers beat the red lights as if it were just a decorative rainbow hung above every road junction; I am at malls and offices, and security men hail me: “chairman, your boy is loyal” – soliciting for tips; when a Nigerian is stopped by the Police for wrong doing, his customary options seem to be either of two things: to give a bribe, OR, to call someone in a high office. Most often than not, he goes scot free with either option doing the magic; we borrow, and we do not return; the trash bin is empty but the walkways and gutters are flooded with refuse; the internet is a garbage site – literally – sleaze and squalid content has been let loose by us on that platform; stealing of public funds – both by government officials and sadly, elected student officials … the list is not exhaustive.
Before the fangs of corruption took a grip on our society, the system was working: there was constant electricity, constant water supply, Universities were functional – literally speaking – libraries were regularly updated, there was food subsidy on campuses, several scholarship schemes and working medical facilities, there was law and order everywhere.
This system today has been destroyed by corruption. And sadly those who fueled the decay were those who benefitted from the hitherto functional system – they had scholarships, jobs upon graduation, free meals in school, bursaries, etcetera.
The President may fight the war head on – but if we don’t join the army as co-fighters, it would be at best a charade. Not because he is not sincere and dogged about this, but because we the followers have not bought into the vision.
Today, morality is at its ebb. We are seeing and experiencing a new low in our value system; some of us may complain about it, some may have acquiesced with the system: if you cannot fight them, join them.
It is up to our generation to re-work our mindsets and fix the now eroded value system. The war against corruption will first be fought and won in our minds.
I do not believe the members of UNESCO Club stand with either the complaining most or thecomplacent many. A club with strong values and principles as those Welms has shared with me can birth a hundred Buharis and a hundred Lincolns.
I mean men and women who dare the entrenched norms when they are blatantly wrong; I mean men and women who say no to ill-wealth and fraud; I mean young adults who do not complain about the problems but proffer and administer solutions to the problems.
Slavery was the order of the day in the 17th Century America – but the collective will of some who knew and insisted on what was right set a nation free from that curse.
Abraham Lincoln, leader of the Republican party at that time, and then President died ultimately for this cause – but today, his name is cast in gold and honored above his colleagues for standing for what was right and speaking out in the times of odd.
The slavery we face today is the moral perversion we see everywhere – at every point of our daily lives – and the question I ask is thus, how many of us would be willing to give up something dear and do the uncommon – to give up our stand with the crowd, our popularity, our money, or like Abe, in the extreme, our lives – to blaze an unpopular trail and stand for what is right and proper in our society.
The Burden of change is not on the shoulders of the President alone, my dear friends; it is on you, on every one of us in this room. And we must begin to play our individual parts now or watch our society perish before our sight – Edmund Burke summarizes it in these words: all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Thank you for the kind privilege of having me here.
God bless you.