Nigerians ought to be having an urgent, indeed fundamental, debate about the very direction of their much-troubled country. Instead, I fear that too many of us are content to frolic as Nigeria burns, to engage in lazy bandying about of pat, tiresome phrases and omnibus stereotypes.
I saw a particular example during a recent speaking visit to Sussex University in the UK on November 3. A Nigerian student at the university accosted me as soon as I arrived at the venue of my talk. He professed to be a follower of my column. And then he let me know that he had come specifically to debate me.
“What are we debating about?” I asked.
I was astonished by his assertion. First, his claim that I was sympathetic to the APC was demonstrably false. I’ve written no piece that could be remotely mistaken as pro-APC. On the contrary, I have consistently stipulated that the APC, in ideological and other respects, struck me as—at best—PDP lite. I had stressed that fact in several columns. And I once made the point to Kayode Ogundamisi when he interviewed me on BEN TV in London. The APC’s broom, I said, was no remedy for its ideological vapidity.
Somehow, however, my would-be interlocutor had cast me in the APC camp. When I asked how he’d come to his wholly untenable conclusion, he pointed to my criticism of President Goodluck Jonathan.
Quite apart from the falsity of his claim, the more disturbing implication, for me, was the student’s supposition that the real debate Nigerians ought to have is one along the lines of PDP and APC. That so-called debate is a distraction.
As I contended in the opening paragraph, Nigerians have profounder questions to ponder. The first, inevitable question has to do with whether the contraption called Nigeria should continue to exist. Anybody who thinks that question is settled is either self-deluding or dishonest. Nigeria is far from a firm idea. Yes, there’s a territory that answers to the name, but there’s nothing yet like a Nigerian identity or spirit.
There’s no better time than now to commence the debate about Nigeria’s continued corporate existence. And if Nigeria must remain one, then all of us hoarded into the space called Nigeria must decide on what terms. It is silly to persist in proclaiming the creed that Nigeria is not open to negotiation. The reality is that even ethnic identity—which has always seemed far more organic and stable than the idea of nation—is deeply contested and contentious.
One has only to glimpse any Internet forum devoted to Nigeria to realize how violently fractious the country is. The way Nigerians savage one another across ethnic, religious or state divides is nothing short of scandalous. There’s no demeaning epithet that Nigerians don’t haul at the construed “other.” The verbal dehumanization reaches sometimes rises to such a scale that one has little difficulty picturing the horror of Rwanda in Nigeria. Come to think of it, the Biafran horror preceded Rwanda’s—and perhaps, in some ways, shaped it.
Apart from coming to grips with the question of what we must do with the current burden called Nigeria, Nigerians ought to grapple with the undeniable crisis of underdevelopment. Let’s suppose that a majority of Nigerians end up backing the idea of Nigeria remaining a territorial entity. Then it must fall on Nigerians to decide how best to anchor the rapid transformation of all aspects of their lives.
My Sussex University “debater” wanted to convince me that Mr. Jonathan has succeeded. As proof, he reeled off some “facts.” Nigeria, he said, had overtaken South Africa as Africa’s largest economy by Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The president was building some federal roads. Some ghost workers on federal rolls had been unmasked, and removed from the payroll. Trains were now running from Lagos to Kaduna and beyond. Etc, etc, etc.
To his list, I juxtaposed mine. Nigeria’s healthcare system is so scary that no Nigerian governor, minister or president would consent to being admitted for treatment in any Nigerian hospital. The quality of education in Nigerian public schools—from primary to university—is on the whole so ghastly that pupils and students at all levels are victims, not beneficiaries, of something misnamed education. There’s hardly any government-owned Nigerian university that has a library worthy of the name, much less a fully equipped lab. Most of the country has no trash disposal system, so that major cities as well as smaller towns are often eyesores, (mis)decorated with roadside refuse heaps. Power supply in Nigeria remains a scandalous crisis, despite massive expenditure and a program of privatization. Too many Nigerian roads, including those that connect different states, are in deplorable condition. Too many men and women indicted for corruption—even convicted—are ensconced in public office. Some 200 Chibok girls remain captives of an Islamist group that has declared them less than human. Major swathes of the northeast of Nigeria are in the hands of Boko Haram insurgents.
The point, I told the student, should not be whether Mr. Jonathan has failed or not. He has not succeeded. But to say that doesn’t mean that any of the APC aspirants is going to succeed. He’s a victim of his limitations, but also—of even greater import—he’s operating in a political culture tailored to produce failure. Above all, Nigeria ought to create a different culture. It must become a society based on laws, with consequences for those who disregard the law—or be NOTHING at all. A different, positive political culture and ethical atmosphere would not solve all our problems. But they would ensure that Nigerians merely contend with the personal failures of elected officials, without the additional fertilizer of a pathological political and moral environment.
What kind of nation are we when government officials claim that they know the sponsors of terror, but insinuate that the financiers are too big to be arrested? It’s either the officials are lying or—if not—that Nigeria is a jungle where grand criminals are above the law.
Nigeria’s elite should be leading the debate for the country’s transformation. Instead, some of the most vocal among them help to perpetuate the impression that it’s PDP or APC, automatic ticket or no, Ijaw or Fulani, Christian or Muslim. And they certainly enable the political parties to get away with failure to define their ideological positions, their diagnoses of the country’s crises, and their prescriptions for the way forward. We’re all caught in the symbolism of the broom or the din of a so-called transformation agenda that needs to be transformed from fiction to reality.