Interventions VI: Nigeria: The Nightmare Scenario by Dr. Patrick Wilmot, jointly published by Bookcraft and Farafina is an elegant little red book, very pretty, and MADE IN NIGERIA (yes!), wearing a quality and pride of production that can compete with any book anywhere else in the world (yes!). It is a gorgeous little book; you hold the book gingerly and look around for a coffee table to display it on. You beam with pride and you crow to imaginary Westerners loitering around your hut: “You see this pretty little book? It came from my country Nigeria, yes! We have publishers there also, good publishers! We produce good things also, please write that down! Tell the world we are not just a nation of crass consumers! We are producers! Of books, no less!” And Professor Wole Soyinka the Great even wrote the foreword. Ah, to read a home-grown book. This reader settles down to read and swells with eager anticipation at Professor Wole Soyinka’s foreword to Wilmot’s book. The foreword is titled with Soyinka’s signature flourish – FLESHING OUT SKELETONS IN THE CUPBOARD OF HISTORY. Ah, the first sentence that hits your eyes is Soyinka-esque – long, tipsy, dense to almost unreadable and self-indignant in all its glory:
“Bit by bit, the pieces are coming in, to be fitted together like a jig-saw puzzle whose overall diabolical design has not been apparent to many, lacking only those segments that detail the twists and turns, the vertiginous cliffs and deadly slopes of a nation’s hidden geography, often without hand or footholds, the man-made obstacles and mined pathways along which citizens daily negotiate their lives, sometimes overcoming inhuman odds, more often sucked into marshlands, vanishing without a trace”. (p x)
Soyinka must be talking about Nigeria again. Oh Kongi! What have you done? Seventy eight words! In ONE sentence! Seventy eight words lurching about, drunken little warriors, pointing everywhere, and then clattering to an exhausting full stop. This reader groans aching all over from a literary hangover, reaches for a handful of analgesics, grabs a drink and settles down to a journey – this is going to be good.
So what is this pretty book all about? Who is Dr. Patrick Wilmot and why is he writing about Nigeria? Why should we care? Well, Wilmot is a Jamaican national who attended Yale (as he reminds us at every turn in the book, sigh!) where he got a bachelor’s degree, and Vanderbilt where he obtained an MA and PhD in philosophy. He was a lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria for 18 years (from 1970 to 1988) where he developed a reputation for radical politics and being a thorn on the side of the military. In 1988, the then Dictator du jour, General Ibrahim Babangida decided he’d had enough of Wilmot and deported him under disgraceful circumstances “for teaching what he was not paid to teach.” He was supposed to have been deported to Jamaica via London, but he ended up staying in London where he now lives. Apparently in 2006, he returned to visit Nigeria (and the scene of the crime) where he was treated to a tumultuous red-carpet welcome and accolades by his legions of admirers and ex-students (he alleges in his book and there are several fawning interviews of him by presumably his former students in the Nigerian press to confirm this).
This book Interventions VI: Nigeria: The Nightmare Scenario is inspired by, his treatment in the hands of the Nigerian military and that return trip to Nigeria almost two decades later. With the book, Wilmot attempts to come to closure on his adventurous 18-year stay in Nigeria, what happened to him in the hands of the military and what has happened to Nigeria since the nearly two decades that he has been gone And oh, what a book. What a god-awful book.
Wilmot’s book is divided into three sessions: Part One, Patrick Wilmot Returns, takes up half the book; Part Two, Murtala Muhammed, is a series of essays he delivered in February 2006 to mark the 30th anniversary of the assassination of General Murtala Muhammed; and Part Three, Planning for the Future is a series of forgettable essays on post-military Nigeria. The book starts with a startling and shameless admission by Wilmot that he was actively complicit in ensuring that the Nigerian civil war was a merciless turkey shoot by the Federal army against the Biafran citizenry thanks to the West seeing to it that Biafra was virtually unarmed against the Federal side. Listen to him brag about this anti-Biafra credentials while establishing his bona fides as a willing pawn in the hands of the royal scions of Northern Nigeria:
“I was invited to Nigeria by M.D. Yusuf and Mallam Aminu Kano after a group I worked with in Paris used contacts with intellectuals such as Jean Paul Sartre and leaders of the student revolutionary movement, to prevent France from recognizing the secessionist ‘Republic of Biafra’. Such recognition would have allowed the country to supply weapons directly to the rebels and encouraged other countries to do the same, complicating the task of the Federal side dramatically. Since I was only a student, those far-sighted patriots thought I could help transform ABU, the stagnant Euro-American dominated intellectual outpost in the North, into a dynamic African one.” (p 8)
Wilmot’s One-Nigeria credentials land him a wife from the North and a teaching job at Ahmadu Bello University, a job he held until he was forcibly ejected from Nigeria for Babangida’s interpretation of anti-Nigeria activities. So what went wrong? How did this darling of the North run afoul of his benefactors? Even by Wilmot’s own accounts he was a meddlesome meddler in Nigeria’s internal affairs. Reading the book, one imagines Wilmot as the Forrest Gump of Nigeria, a Jamaican national seemingly everywhere deeply immersed in Nigerian affairs, gallivanting in alleys that would have gotten a Nigerian shot. We learn from this incredible narrative how he somehow inserted himself into practically every important official Nigerian delegation overseas:
“In the years I spent in Nigeria I had been chosen for several Federal delegations to other countries and helped make Ahmadu Bello University a name in the world of learning. I believe I had gone some way to satisfy the hopes of Aminu Kano and M.D. Yusufu (sic) that the university would one day rival Ibadan.” (p 23)
His obsession with Nigeria’s fortunes did not end after his ejection; if anything, it intensified. Even after he had been deported, he claims to have had “sources” at every level of the government including the Nigerian SSS. He provides ample evidence of his active connection with the affairs of Nigeria from far away in exile up until the point of his return in 2006. This reader is forced to wonder: Why the obsession with Nigeria’s fortunes? With all this busy work, when did Wilmot have time to actually teach his students? No wonder his adversaries accused him of being a CIA agent. The deportation of Wilmot was a despicable act but Nigeria has to be one of the few sovereign nations whose leaders eagerly invite aliens into the innermost sanctum of the pantheon that houses their nation’s secrets. Wilmot has been living in England for some time now; it is a safe bet that he will never write a memoir detailing face-to-face meetings with European leaders; meetings that were so urgent he had to see them in their bedrooms as he apparently was in the habit of doing with at least one Nigerian client. England’s rulers hold their secrets and dignities very close to their vests and would never give them up to a mere academic, certainly not to a non-citizen. Wilmot by his own admission had the free rein of Nigeria’s halls of power and he is alive to talk about his experience blow-by-blow. He is a lucky man.
It is almost a cliché; in 1993, Abiola is said to have won the freest and fairest elections ever held in Nigeria. And then, General Ibrahim Babangida annulled it. Pandemonium broke out, Babangida stepped down, handed over to a puppet Chief Ernest Shonekan. More pandemonium broke out and another evil general Sani Abacha took over. Meanwhile, Abiola has fled to the West where he spends most of his time alternatively begging and hectoring Babangida and Abacha in a bid to regain his stolen mandate. All this with the help of several hangers-on including Wilmot. Readers hoping to sink their teeth into a book that delves into structural issues bedeviling Nigeria will come away sorely disappointed. Wilmot’s book is an intensely personal attack against his legion of enemies and most times even his fawning odes to his friends come across as insulting. His diatribe is enveloped in a strong shroud of narcissism. Even the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola unwittingly falls victim to Wilmot’s thinly veiled megalomania. Apparently Abiola helped rehabilitate Wilmot in London. He was put on the payroll of Abiola’s Concord newspapers where he wrote stories and was a columnist. He claims to have been Abiola’s speech writer and public relations aide during the period when Abiola was busy trying to reclaim his mandate. Perhaps out of gratitude to a former benefactor, he has also white-washed Abiola’s history and forgiven him his transgressions as one of Africa’s most powerful civilian generals, a man who generously bankrolled a number of military coups in Nigeria. Wilmot in his book reveals that in London, he is up close and personal with Abiola as he struggles to win back the presidency of Nigeria. He is there in Abiola’s bedroom as he makes phone calls to Abacha and Babangida accumulating empty promises from the two thugs that he would be getting his presidency back. The book is one intense farce but then we are talking about Nigeria’s leaders.
Wilmot’s relationship with Abiola as he narrates it makes this book a must-read for several reasons, none of them flattering to either Abiola or Wilmot. We learn for instance that Abiola was in the habit of speaking with Abacha and Babangida via speakerphone with aides present. And he liked to receive important visitors like Wilmot, in his underwear (Sigh!):
“Although he was among the most impressive dressers, the Chief was not shy at receiving people in his briefs. In Jamaica he was in his underpants when I told him my sisters wanted to greet him. He asked me to call them in but I would not allow my sisters to see any man but their partners in his underwear.” (p 60)
It is a comedy of errors and at the end of the book, this reader is almost relieved that Abiola never made it to the presidency. From reading Wilmot’s book, one gets the distinct impression that Abiola was caught between the demands of lunatic intellectuals (like Wilmot) and deadly buffoons in uniform (like Sani Abacha). In the end Abiola comes across looking like a stuttering invalid despite Wilmot’s best efforts to make him look presentable on the international stage (so Wilmot says. With a friend like this, Abiola did not need enemies!).
Wilmot is an unreliable historian. At the very least, he could have used a good copy editor. His book is rife with inaccuracies, embellishments and hyperbole. He claims to have been the brain-child behind the Reparations movement – a movement founded “as a means of righting the balance between Africa and Europe, not just in material but also in existential and psychological terms.” Yeah right, and Phillip Emeagwali is the father of the Internet. He claims that Ikeja International Airport was renamed after Murtala Muhammed the next week after the General was murdered in 1976. Actually, the Murtala Muhammed International Airport was officially completed in 1979. He moans the “slaughter of hundreds of students” during the ‘Ali Must Go’ demonstration. What the Obasanjo regime did to university students during the “Ali Must Go” riots of 1978 was dastardly but there were about a dozen deaths at Ahmadu Bello University. A few more were murdered elsewhere; however there were not hundreds of casualties. In any case, if Wilmot knew that Obasanjo was responsible for the deaths of “hundreds” of unarmed students during the “Ali Must Go” riots, why, according to his book, was he prepared to offer his services to this despot of despots when Obasanjo decided to run for the presidency in 1999?
With words dripping with unbridled condescension and know-it-all arrogance Wilmot systematically cuts down to size virtually every Nigerian that he comes across, save for Murtala Muhammed. It is all about him and there are few human beings alive or dead that measure up to His Eminence. Hear him on General Olusegun Obasanjo:
“[General Obasanjo] lacked the intelligence, compassion and common touch of Mandela, whom prison had transformed from a dashing liberation fighter into a world statesman… Obasanjo does not know that I was consulted when he was being considered for the job [with Transparency International], or that I endorsed him as alright by Nigerian standards. At the same time his principal backers were among the people who corrupted the nation, who had created the crisis afflicting it, and who sought a palliative rather than a cure.” (p 147)
Obasanjo is honest by Nigerian standards! Gratuitous insults like this (not aimed at Obasanjo but at Nigerians infect the pages of this book. Where is the outrage? Wilmot seems to be afflicted with a Messianic complex. Almost a decade after his former friends in the military ejected him from their space, he returns to Nigeria still seething with rage at their ingratitude. Not to worry, he returns to a massive hero’s welcome (if not in truth, at least in his dreams). It is now 2006 and Wilmot returns to find that he has adoring and apparently subservient former students everywhere he goes in Nigeria; at petrol stations, airports, bathrooms of the rich and infamous (he is always stopping to check if the bathrooms have water; nope, you got it right, there is never water!). They are so honored to be in his great presence they do favors for him (which he willingly accepts); he jumps queues for any and every inconvenience, he is parked in VIP lounges at airports and he gets upgraded to first class cabins and accommodations and they chauffeur him around as he hunts for his favorite Nigerian delicacy – suya. And he gets a 24-hour security detail presumably with a shrieking convoy to take him from worshipful masses to worshipful masses. For a reformer preaching justice, egalitarianism, order, blah, blah, blah, he is gleefully blind to the ethics of enjoying that which he rails against.
The greatest injustice that Wilmot’s book inflicts on Nigeria’s history is its revisionist history on the late General Murtala Muhammed. Murtala Muhammed’s crimes against Nigerians during the Nigerian Civil war are well documented and in today’s world, he would probably have been hauled before an international court of justice like Liberia’s Charles Tailor. They include ethnic cleansing in Asaba when he personally supervised the slaughter of hundreds of Asaba males, and bank robbery from emptying the vaults of banks of their cash. He was also a disaster in the war front; a Don Quixote so deadly in his poor judgment, the Biafran army made sure to eliminate hundreds of his solders. He was so bad he had to be recalled from the war front. It is true that when he became Head of State he loudly returned his ill-gotten properties and initiated a controversial war against corruption. It was long on drama and short on organization; to this day there are those who blame the state of today’s civil service on General Murtala Muhammed’s short reign. It is this man that Wilmot and apparently millions of a-historic Nigerians worship daily. I think it is unconscionable that an academic of Wilmot’s alleged stature would boldly erase this part of Nigeria’s history from the books. Instead we are treated to a most insincere hagiography of Murtala’s short life. Wilmot even has a most horrid poem that was “published worldwide” (an easily verifiable untruth) in Murtala Muhammed’s honor titled – Bloody Friday: Requiem for Muhammed. As a consequence, the reader is forced to endure outlandish predictions like: “If Murtala had not being murdered, it is my personal opinion that the continent would have been freed by now.” (p 85)
A quick digression: The Interventions series is the brainchild of Soyinka who provides the foreword to Wilmot’s book which is the sixth in the series. As Soyinka explains it, the rationale behind the series is laudable and one suspects that Soyinka is not going to be short of enthusiastic participants in what appears to have promise as an enterprising series. The good professor will however need to be more discerning and more discriminating in his choice of authors. Wilmot’s book has to be one of the most condescending, most patronizing, most disrespectful books ever written on Nigeria and Nigerians.
This reader oscillates between revulsion at Wilmot’s treatment by Babangida and revulsion at Wilmot’s delusion of grandeur as he compares himself to Che Guevera, Patrice Lumumba and Mandela (!). This book is a self-portrait of an enthusiastic self-promoter as he reminds the reader at every turn that he attended Yale and was school mates with George Bush, John Kerry, etc, etc. (p 13)
“I was an internationally known academic and author, the product of probably the most expensive education in the world, the winner of very expensive scholarships and fellowships. Yet here I was being treated worse than an animal by a corrupt third-rate military officer, a brutal semi-literate ‘intelligence’ chief and an obscure academic without a serious work to his name.”
Wilmot’s little red book hearkens to a time when poets and brutes in uniform cavorted around pepper-soup joints and plotted coups in the name of the masses and cavalierly rode Nigeria as if it was their okada motorcycle. Today, it seems lost on Wilmot that societies that thrive rely on sustainable structures, not individuals. You might even enjoy this book if you are prepared to endure gossipy crap like this:
“Abacha’s myth of infallibility was ended by a scandalous death, in the arms of foreign harlots, because most African women refused him anal sex to which he was addicted.” (p 140)
Otherwise, there is precious little that is remotely edifying about the book; instead what you will find instructive is the depths to which Nigeria has sunk.
There are occasional gems if you stick with the book long enough and you are not turned off by the relentless self-promotion. There are a couple of good essays. Wilmot is no fool. When he focuses on issues and strays from self-absorption, he can be almost impressive. His most disciplined work in the book is the essay, The Role of the African Intellectual. (p 100) It is focused and disciplined and worth the reader’s time. I would also recommend Politics for the 21st Century: How to Remake Nigeria. (p 90) However, even the best of the essays describe feverishly the situation; there are only half-baked attempts to dig deeper into the structural causes of the mess that Nigeria finds itself. Solutions proffered are sophomoric, dated and in some instances quixotic. An avowed socialist, Wilmot’s solutions to Nigeria’s dilemma are straight out of a peppersoup bowl of inchoate economic policies – a farcical mixture of socialist and capitalist tripe held together by angry riffs – a dated albeit quaint throw-back to the sixties:
“Anti-people programs pushed by neo-liberal forces in the IMF and World Bank could not work because they promoted mass poverty and prevented economic take off by constricting effective demand: people would have no money to purchase the consumer goods produced by budding industries.” (p 61)
One learns from Wilmot’s book that there are there are two sets of tyrants currently taking turns to traumatize Nigerians – the intellectuals who practice the tyranny of the pen, and men and women in uniform and agbada who bludgeon the populace into submission with their guns and their lies. Wilmot represents the worst of Nigerian intellectuals who are trained to lecture, not to listen to their audience. They stand on the stage like regal bullies and hector the dispossessed with boorish lectures on what is wrong with their world. One refreshing thing about reading this tired self-serving book is Soyinka’s quiet vision. Almost lost in the unnecessary opacity of Soyinka’s discourse (in the foreword and an introduction to the Interventions series) is his road map for sustaining living breathing ideas. At the back of the book is an essay by Soyinka that serves as an introduction to the “Interventions” series. That essay is a good basis for dialogue on ideas for attracting, recruiting and sustaining a national discourse on the way forward for Nigeria. I think that Soyinka should reconsider the role of the Internet in actualizing this vision; he seems ambivalent about the use of emerging technologies and tools on the Internet to propagate his ideas. He may well prove to be wrong. But first things first: Bookcraft and Farafina publishers must hurry and fin a really good editor with enough gumption and stature to stare Kongi down and chop his sentences into short, readable sentences. An onion doesn’t sting until it is chopped.
Wilmot’s enemies, and they are legion, are right; he is abusive, arrogant and extreme. His book is patronizing, condescending and innocent of rigorous scholarship – a long irritating baying at his moon. Heckling, petulant, aggrieved, too pissed off to engage in serious self-reflection Wilmot’s book finally succumbs to his lunatic rage and crumbles into wretched incoherence. Wilmot should retire to his council flat in London and never ever return to Nigeria unless he pays for an attitude adjustment. Nigeria is not a mute okada motorcycle that he can ride willfully. The good news is that Wilmot is not planning to retire to Nigeria anytime soon. In 2006 when he was asked if he will return he flicked off the idea, thoughtfully observing that Nigeria has not made any progress: “If you had good public transport, good health and education systems, maybe I will be back. But I can’t spend the rest of my life here.” If in the unlikely event, he returns with the same silly attitude, all of Nigeria should join the dictator du jour to deport him – this time, straight to Jamaica. For now, Wilmot should count his lucky stars: Winston Churchill once famously said: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” History will be kind to Dr. Patrick Wilmot for he has written it.