It must have been around 1984 that Wole Soyinka declared his generation, ‘the wasted generation’. The 1986 Nobel Laureate in literature had accused anyone who was 40 years old or over, of belonging to a generation that wasted the opportunities to take the country to greater heights. I was then a 22 year-old young man, and my generation and the one following us were perhaps expected to correct the errors of the ‘wasted generation’.
A quarter of a century after, members of Soyinka’s ‘wasted generation’ are paradoxically today held up as the only true heroes and heroines the country ever produced. Similarly, the society that the Nigerian wordsmith riled against at that time is today benchmarked as the country’s golden era. Meanwhile, Soyinka, at 75, is still very much in the trenches.
In 1984, at about the time that Wole Soyinka unveiled the ‘wasted generation’ thesis; celebrated novelist Chinua Achebe published the well-received slim book, The Trouble With Nigeria. For Achebe, who is generally regarded as the father of modern African novel, the trouble with Nigeria was squarely a failure of leadership.
I was a final year student of political science at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, when The Trouble With Nigeria was first published. The book sharply divided our class. At issue was whether the trouble with Nigeria was really that of leadership or whether it was systemic. The orientation of the class was overwhelmingly Marxist, so the system argument got a good hearing. Some argued that even Achebe himself had bought into the system argument through the Obi Okonkwo character, in No Longer At Ease (1960), Achebe’s sequel to Things Fall Apart (1958).
In the novel, the portraiture of Obi Okonkwo was that of a very independent-minded – man at a time when individuals were subordinated to their communities in Igboland, and the elders were revered. Though he was sent to England by his community to study law so he would handle their land cases on his return, Obi Okonkwo chose to read English. On his return, he again disappointed the entire community by arriving at his reception venue in simple T-shirt when every one had expected him, a returnee from England, to dress in the best suit money could buy. As if to add insult to injury, while the secretary of the town union thrilled the audience with the “English that filled the mouth”, Obi Okonkwo only spoke the ‘is’ and ‘was’ type of English. Additionally, Obi Okonkwo decided to marry an ‘osu’ (a social outcast), which was an abomination among his people. He also refused to use his position as a senior civil servant, to ‘fix’ jobs in the civil service for people from his village – as was the norm in those days. Obi Okonkwo simply did not want to have anything to do with the prevailing nepotism and corruption. Yet, despite being morally upright and independent minded, Obi Okonkwo, was eventually forced by pressures and survival imperatives to take bribe – and was caught, meaning that in No Longer At Ease, the trouble with Nigeria was systemic, not leadership.
Though many in my class in those days believed that the trouble with Nigeria was systemic rather than leadership, we also agreed there was a conundrum: if the Obi Okonkwo complex showed how system dynamics could corrupt a good man, what would then be required to change the system? It is like the argument of whether the chicken or the egg came first.
A quarter of a century after our argument about The Trouble With Nigeria, the ‘systemic problems’ we talked about had degenerated into ‘system collapse’, and talks of Nigeria being either a failed or failing state. As for leadership, while Achebe implied 25 years ago that the trouble with Nigeria was that of poor leadership, today, with President Yaradua hospitalised for an indeterminate duration in Saudi Arabia without reportedly formally handing over power to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, many feel the country has no leadership at all, not to talk of whether it was a poor one or not.
Understandably, pessimism seems to have taken over in the country – with the negatives seemingly growing in their grotesqueness – armed robbery, kidnapping, joblessness, corruption, ethnic and religious chauvinism etc. The problems in the country, as real as they are, however mask some grounds for optimism:
One, despite the current challenges, the possibility of the country breaking up seems more remote now than ever. The federating units, despite the occasional grandstanding, appear to have accepted their marriage of convenience with one another. There is a feeling that most Nigerians would in fact feel diminished were the country to break up.
Two, despite our problems with elections, it is highly unlikely that the military can successfully intervene in Nigerian politics again. Freedom of expression is for instance today enjoyed on a scale never before seen in the country. It is easy to forget that as recent as 1984, we had a decree (Decree No 4), which prohibited criticisms of public officials – whether such criticisms were right or wrong – if such would embarrass the government of the day. Similarly while the crisis generated by the 1983 elections provided the ammunition for the military to strike, in 2007, despite the shoddiness of the elections, no one dared suggest that the military should take over.
Three, in the current global recession, we are actually doing better than some countries in the West. For instance, despite talks of Sanusi’s revolution in the banking sector, no Nigerian bank has collapsed – thanks in large part to the bank consolidation exercise. In the US, 133 banks or an average of 11 banks collapsed every month this year. In the UK, the official cost of bank bailout by the government is £850bn. Similarly while only a few years ago, you would need to spend hours in our banks to even withdraw you money, these days you have ATMs, credit cards, online banking and even international transfers that are successfully effected within 48 hours.
Four, while the country undoubtedly faces numerous challenges, it is likely that some of our frustrations may actually be the result of rising expectations or improvement in reporting systems. For instance though statistics show the incidence of corruption is increasing, I remain unconvinced that the current crop of politicians are more corrupt than the 1960s’ politicians we like to regard as heroes – if we consider the stupendous wealth and property most of them accumulated during their time. Similarly, while we are right to complain about epileptic power supply, we seem to forget that there were many parts of the country without even electric poles by the 1980s. And even at UNN in the 1980s, it was not uncommon for us study with lanterns.