Burden of an Unpassing Past

by Anthony A. Kila

There is a consensus in the corporate world that Africa as a whole and Nigeria in particular, is the market of the future. Most researchers and investors agree that Nigerians, for example, just need to be informed about the existence and quality of certain goods and services and demands will come from individuals and private organisations.

These observers point out that whilst consumers in the West are now moving towards spending more of their income on satisfying their wants and less their needs, in markets such as the Nigerian market, the wants and needs of consumers are in a rapid and parallel growth and still have a lot of scope for further growth; Nigerians, they remark, are far ahead of their public institutions and governments.

These were some of the convincing points presented and commented during a recently concluded forum of international investors, manufacturers, service providers, bankers, consultants, regulators and academics in the City of London (UK). Participants were there to deliberate on the challenges and opportunities of investments and possible partnership with Africa and Asia. As chairman of one of the sittings, I stirred the colloquium towards the Nigerian case and contributors were quite glad to oblige my request.

Equipped with data and testimonies these observers came up with the profile of the Nigerian consumer: a very modern person. The Nigerian that came out is a brave, proud inventive individualist, with a high dose of entrepreneurial spirit, (s)he is open to innovation, happy to embrace change, very motivated by compensation and not averse to risks; (s)he is of course also very prone to spending. Figures of the import and sales of electronic and communication gadgets confirmed this trait. The market loves all these and barring factors such as instability, certainty and rule of law, fear of fraud and the rest, business developers agree Nigeria is the place to be.

These modern features that the market finds very attractive in the Nigerian consumer are however lacking in the ways and lives of the Nigerian peoples when analysed as socio-political subjects. Rather, Nigerians seem to be socially and politically more influenced by the past than motivated by the future. The average Nigerian does not appear to feel like a citizen of a modern state nor does (s)he appear capable and willing to apply available modern resources and rules of engagement in the social and political sphere.

It is worth adding immediately here that this sway back is not a conscious appreciation of tradition, or an organic sense of history, rather it is more of an atavistic trait that interestingly collides constantly with the more conscious desire to be modern and a certain inclination to consider history useless, obsolete and to regard local tradition as crude or primitive. The latter inclination is slowly waning but alas the market offers mostly charlatan and parodies of Nigerian arts, tradition and history. A random look at the home video, music, fashion and herbalist industries with their misplacement of mythical and legendary characters, misquotations of proverbs, misuse of slogans, and inapt attires and settings will tell you more than I can say.

Most Nigerian citizens originate from nations that have been for centuries ruled by kings and chiefs, their professional and age groups were managed by leaders with paternal and maternal titles and status. This feature is epitomised by the Yoruba nation, but even the Ndigbo that were once renowned for their republican structures have caught up and now seem to have more chiefs and kings than the Yoruba. Rulers and aspirant rulers understand how much Nigerians are laded with the past and they exploit it for their own ends.

Imagine just a Mr something aspiring to be Nigerian president; that is simply not possible for now. Nobody will take him serious, his party will let him know he stands no chance; they will not even listen to him. In fact, out of all the candidates cleared by INEC to contest the last presidential elections not one is without a title. I was hoping to count on a Mr Galtima Baboyi Liman, to be the exception that will prove the rule but they now call him Alhaji. Are you asking who Galtima Baboyi Liman is? That is part of what can happen when one aspires to be president of Nigeria without a title, most pragmatic candidates have at least two titles.

It is easy but wrong to conclude that the attention if not obsession for titles is just a Nigerian craze. In those parts of the world where rulers and leaders appear to be content to be known as merely Mr and even be called by their first name, it is not a sign of humility or sobriety but an adaptation to the times they live in. The English title, “Mr” originates from Latin the ministerium and it was used to indicate the office of man, the French monsieur, the Italian equivalent, Signore, and the Dutch version Mijnheer are variations of sir, master or even Lord. These titles were reserved for a few in the past, one had to earn them; they are now however open to all as part of the style and rights of a modern democratic society. These societies look into the future and are now living a post-modern culture; the future is hence to drop titles completely. It is cool to be simple. Nigeria on the other hand is looking behind into the past for presentation and legitimation hence the need for titles.

The Nigerian state itself is quite young, created just ninety-three years ago and gained independence merely forty-seven ago. One would expect it to be automatically modern but this is not so because Nigerians were onlookers when their country was being coined. Let us face it, even our independence was a battle of a few and the international atmosphere and pressures of post World War II did more to provoke Nigerian Independence than most Nigerians did. To compound it all, the first Nigerians to manage the Nigerian state were certainly not the part of the few that wanted independence. How do you manage what you did not crave or plan for? The process that led to the formation and independence of Nigeria has left the country with leaders without internationally tested esteem or credibility and with citizens without a Nigerian ethos. These unresolved issues of the past are still a burden today; it is a burden of an unpassing past that corrupts the present and threatens the future.

The military have not helped matters with their interference in politics. After occupying power for decades, they were not able to provide good roads, stable power and water supply. With all their decrees, immediate effect policies, automatically suspended announcements and militarization, all they did is to leave the country with weak institutions and without an independent and robust civil service. Records now show that they are as corrupt and petty as the politicians they forced out of office. Apart from the suspension of the rule of law and an atmosphere of uncertainty, part of the damages the military has left include numbing the civil society, domesticating a middle class that rather than revendicate its central role and rights in a modern state was forced to (and too easily succumbed) conforming and prostrating for privileges. Today we have citizens that can rarely look into the future in terms of creativity, merit and competition, the trend is to look for contracts, contacts and miracles.

After eight years of civilian administration and as we move into another round of elections and transition, the past is still heavy. Most Nigerians are still yet to come to terms with what it really means to be part of a modern world, many are still yet to grasp the essence of being a citizen in a democratic state. Put two or more Nigerians together and listen to them talk about the past elections, what you are likely to hear is what was being said during the days of the Babangida- Abacha regime: “will the elections hold?” Convince them the elections will hold and they will start to analyse who they think will win and why. Like slaves and colonies or subject of a despot, Nigerians still find it hard to say elections must hold because our constitution says so and because it is our right to have elections. They find it hard to say this is the person I want to win because they are not used to voting and do not believe their votes will count. Like onlookers with nothing at stake they say what we have is selection not election.

Unlike the Nigerian consumer that will discover what is best and go for if it even it involves some risks as a modern rational independent dynamic person, the Nigerian citizen is still crushed by the burden of an unpassing past that does not allow people to say enough is enough; I am free now; this is what I want and these are my plans to make it happen.

Even many of our intellectuals and other elites are still not bold enough to take a clear stand; they do not feel it is their duty to guide others. They too, like caddies on a golf course and the servants of the 1932 Gosford Park attentively watch the game others play. They completely identify with Obasanjo against Atiku or vice versa, they predict what will happen and wait to see who was right or wrong forgetting to play their own part. A part, history has shown, is imperative for a modern democracy to work.

Our democracy is far from perfect, most of our rulers and those who aspired to lead Nigeria were less than impressive, they were mostly men proud to be referred to as other people’s boys. They were mostly products of an inglorious past. We the people however have to make this past past.

You may also like


Chike August 21, 2007 - 11:02 am

Yes this is a brilliant piece. Nigeria is blessed with brilliant natural and human resources; Dr Anthony Kila is one of them. I have two questions for him however.

1 Will he be ready to leave his comfort zone and take positive action in Nigeria?

2 If he gets to the position of power, will he remember all these things he is writing now?

Julius August 20, 2007 - 3:20 pm

Excellent piece Mr. Kila. In my opinion the bottom line of what you've written is that Nigerians should stand up and DEMAND for their rights.

Rita August 16, 2007 - 11:03 am

Well done.

Dr Kila has written some very good words here but the problem is with Nigerians and hope with Nigeria.

observer August 16, 2007 - 9:16 am

we pray, but we need to engage the system with all its imperfections. God bless Nigeria!


Leave a Comment