Saturday, 19 September 2009
WHEN Amara Nwakpa and a group of his associates decided to start the campaign for Nigeria to have stable electricity supply, many people thought it was just another attempt to ‘shine’. But with more than 15,000 Facebook friends, and hundreds of young people passionately preaching the message, it seems like this project has touched a raw nerve. But will anything come out of it? We sit the youngman down mto a chat:
Who are those behind Light up Nigeria – and what do they do?
Over 19,000 Nigerians at home and in the Diaspora concerned about the development of Nigeria and willing to do their bit to improve conditions in the country. We expect everyone to be behind the campaign, as it’s a problem that affects us all.
How did this idea emerge?
The idea evolved from a discussion among young Nigerians on twitter about what we can do to contribute to a better and more prosperous Nigeria.
Did you imagine it would gain such traction?
Within the first few hours after we coined lightupnigeria on twitter, we knew we had happened on a great idea; however, we were quite pleasantly surprised by how quickly other Nigerians responded to the idea and wanted to be a part.
What do you think is most responsible for the reception?
I think the timing of the message and its presentation played a great role. Nigeria is at its lowest ebb of power generation, everyone is feeling the squeeze more than ever. We also think there are a lot more people than we think who are waiting for an opportunity like this to make a difference in this country.
This isn’t about NEPA or PHCN at all. PHCN, or more precisely, the 18 or so successor companies, are only part of the power supply ecosystem in Nigeria . This is about governance and the citizen’s role in making it deliver tangible results. Maybe you wanted to ask ‘Why Electricity?’
Evidently, you are against the president’s seven point agenda?
Definitely not. No one who wishes Nigeria well will be against the 7-point agenda. We all want those things in there: Food security, Education, Power and Energy, Transport infrastructure, Security etc. and if all things were equal, there shouldn’t be a reason why we shouldn’t be able to achieve them. However, LightUpNigeria is our own contribution to the National dialogue. According to several polls (one was conducted by NNNGO for instance), 95 per cent of Nigerians believe that, of the seven points in the agenda, Electricity infrastructure should be prioritised. Even government agrees. The problem though is, their efforts haven’t yielded any results, hence the campaign.
Some of your collegues in ten campaign are outside the country – how can they possibly connect with what’s going on here?
Of all the African communities in the Diaspora, Nigerians abroad are perhaps the most connected to home. Being out of the country doesn’t mean they are disconnected from the problems caused by the lack of constant electricity supply. It is a problem that has constantly affected Nigeria for decades and has gone worse. Some of them have memories of it and feel a patriotic sadness that it is yet to be solved. Some look forward to returning home and would like to invest in advance for a better Nigeria. The fact that it is now a trend for Educated Nigerian professionals to return to Nigeria to participate in the economy is evidence of the fact that though they are abroad, most Nigerians still have their heart at home.
There’s a perception that some of you are comfortable young people with too much time on their hands — what do you say to this?
The perception is wrong, however even it were correct, it is irrelevant. Getting involved in making your country a better place isn’t suddenly going to be less significant just because you are young or you have free time. In fact, we would encourage every young person with free time to join the movement. If we all spent our free time going above and beyond our civic duties to build this country, we’d probably be hotter than Dubai, and I don’t mean temperature-wise!
Some may ask – why not some more pressing issue facing young Nigerians, you know, like the ASUU strike?
The ASUU strike is an important issue and I guess a solution to it would probably involve comprehensive reforms within the entire education sector. One could point at other sectors too and make a case for attention there too. But I think Nigerians overwhelmingly agree, after all said and done that this issue of electricity needs to be given priority.
Have you been able to translate your online presence to the mainstream media?
Apparently, this interview is for mainstream print media, so I guess if it made it to print, then there is already empirical evidence as to how the campaign has transitioned into the mainstream. However, prior to this interview, it had already been on radio in some major cities and on television. A few weekend newspapers have run editorials and articles on the subject too. We intend to blanket the media, so we would consider these, baby steps!
So what is the long-term practical plan for this project?
The plan is to engage Nigerians in a structured dialogue, using every medium — electronic, print, physical — about what needs to be done to guarantee constant electricity in this country, to power our homes and our economy. The objective is to get the Nigerian citizenry to the point where we can boldly make specific demands of our Governments and ourselves to ensure that our desire for constant electricity is fulfilled and sustained.
Do you honestly think that this can bring change?
I think so, with all honesty. Every great change started with a movement. We have repeatedly looked outside of ourselves, hoping that a messianic leader would come and lead us to the Promised Land. I think we are now beginning to realize that things don’t change that way. Real change comes when we look within and each of us finds the strength to change ourselves and that which is around us. We are not deluding ourselves that this will happen overnight. But it has to start sometime. This, I think, is the beginning of that revolution.
People seem to think there is a rally on October 1, is this so?
No, not anymore.
A rally was initially intended, but based on feedback from supporters and volunteers we have agreed that the time isn’t right for a rally yet. We will continue to build the support networks necessary to sustain the movement for the length of time that is required to achieve its objectives.
A lot of people are gearing up for it though — won’t it dampen spirits if they heard it wasn’t happening after all?
We certainly hope not. The movement isn’t about just a rally. It is actually more about building a positive network of people who are determined to evolve a consistent and committed string of actions that will cascade into affirmative nation building behaviour and national ethos. Whereas people are eager to see large physical manifestations like rallies, we believe they will understand that great things also start small.
So what exactly will be happening in its stead?
There are a lot of things happening in its stead. We are piloting town hall meetings as platforms to engage people and spread the nation building paradigm that the campaign is about. We are connecting with like-minded individuals to expand the network. We are working with groups that already have events planned who want to feature the theme as part of the events.
These town hall meetings, how are you going to dispel suspicions that it is a social affair?
I don’t think it will matter if it’s a social affair or not. The discussions at the town hall meetings will be responsibly moderated, we will do our best to ensure that the right mix of people attend and the resolutions and outcomes of each town hall meeting will be available online both for further deliberations and possibly to guide other groups who want to host something similar.
Back to social networking, where this all started: there’s a perception that people on facebook and twitter are always ready to join a group with a click – how can you generate enthusiasm and transfer it beyond facebook?
Most people underestimate the power of social networking sites. It takes a lot of commitment to be active on a social network and most of the contents on those sites are generated from offline activities. I think the best example of how sites like facebook have been used to galvanize real results was the last election in the United States where the Obama for America campaign successfully leveraged it to win an improbable victory. We are learning from that example and we hope to accomplish something similar.
Now, you have said this is not just about young people – but can you really get older people to take this seriously and how do you intend to achieve that?
Older people want change too. They want constant electricity, just like the youth. They might be more skeptical about whether it can be achieved, but they will take seriously any movement that shows consistency and resonates with some of the fundamental expectations they have. We are taking our time to break down the ideology to the simplest and most practicable forms possible. We believe that this simplification will help make whatever actions we evolve consistent and sustainable. We are taking time to consult people, individually and as groups to assimilate as much as possible the essence of our common national expectations in the cause for this movement so that it will be easier for the average Nigerian (old or young) to be aligned with it.
Don’t you think many Nigerians believe that nothing can ever change in this country? Definitely there will always be pessimists but a lot of people are also desperate to see change. They just want change they can believe in and this is what we are trying to achieve.
How do you intend to generate grassroots participation – or is this only for a certain cadre of Nigerians?
This is still work in progress but this is definitely not for a certain cadre of Nigerians only. In fact, the town hall meetings we mentioned earlier are actually well suited for grassroots participation. There is nothing exclusively elitist about a group of people who live in the same vicinity using a couple of their regular social gatherings to discuss the electricity issue and make progressive resolutions that, given support, will be accessible to many.
What is your personal motivation for doing this?
Patriotism. The love of country. The longing for a better future for coming generations, where our children will only read the words “Up NEPA” in history text books.
How do you intend to fund this?
Right now, volunteers are funding their involvement from their own pockets. Though we have received support in kind from a few organizations, we expect concerned groups and organisations to support the efforts of the movement and we will continue to actively court this support. It doesn’t necessarily have to be financial.
If you don’t get enough support for these efforts, what would you do?
Keep going till we get enough support!
Do you honestly see Nigeria changing? How will that happen? Yes. Nigeria can and will change. It will take a critical mass of key people who understand where we are coming from, how we got where we are and what steps need to be taken to get us re-orientated. Then we need to take those steps consistently and without personal aggrandisement. Ultimately, this is our mission.
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