Jega’s Misstep and the Nigerian Conversation

by Okey Ndibe

I was in a hotel room in Edmonton, Canada last Saturday when an early telephone call startled me awake. The caller turned out to be a friend from New York City. “Have you heard about today’s elections into the National Assembly?” he asked. I hadn’t heard. “They were cancelled,” he said, to my utter amazement.

As it happened, I was in Edmonton at the behest of Nigerian Advancement Institute (NAI), an NGO established by a group of enterprising Nigerian professionals to pursue robust democratization and development in Nigeria through the formulation of policy options. NAI had asked Pius Adesanmi and me over to be guest speakers at a colloquium scheduled for later that Saturday. The organization had proposed that we discuss the topic of “Nigeria and the Democratization Imperative in a Season of Popular Uprisings”.

Imagine, then, the chaos of emotions I had to wrestle with on learning – a few hours before our talk – that Nigeria had recorded a false start in the first nation-wide election that Attahiru Jega, the chairman of the country’s electoral commission, was to supervise. That failure, and the sense of foreboding that it engendered, colored the presentations.

INEC’s wretched opening act is bound to fertilize the widening suspicion that this year’s elections are headed for failure. Indeed, as I told the colloquium, there’s something fundamentally untoward about an electoral system that’s gobbled gargantuan funds and yet is susceptible to the kind of logistical snafus that aborted last Saturday’s polls. Yes, democracy doesn’t come cheap. But democracy is not simply the sum of periodic elections. Nor does it make sense to permit the ritual of voting to constitute a profoundly oppressive financial burden on a people who lack the most basic things that a human, every human, should be entitled to.

Worse, the Nigerian political space appears rigged for criminals. I doubt there’s any other country in the world that allows legislators to cart home the kind of scandalous payment enjoyed by Nigerian “lawmakers.” And what do they produce in return for all that cash – as much as three times the annual package of the US president?

This year’s polls are holding in the shadow of popular uprisings. It’s as if we all woke up one day to discover anew – and in Tunisia – the power of people’s power. We have seen such revolts upend long-entrenched regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and now on the cusp – with the help of firepower from the US and its NATO allies – of sacking Muamar Gadhafi from his Tripoli perch.

Many Nigerians watch these dramatic events with a mixture of curiosity, envy, even incredulity. The central question that quivers on many a Nigerian lip is this: Could a revolt happen in their country? What would it take to shake the Nigerian populace from its seeming lethargy and to ignite it with the combustive power to rise and say “No!” to the forces and interests that hold their country in bondage and to condemn them to abbreviated dreams?

The truth is that popular uprisings have been operating in Nigeria long before a young man’s desperate act of self-immolation gingered the Tunisian people to sweep Ben Ali from power. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), for one, has been carrying out an uprising. So – for that matter – has Boko Haram, a group whose violence and rabid anti-Western rhetoric derive from their conclusion that criminals have hijacked and refashioned the Nigerian space. So, nobody should entertain the illusion that Nigeria is somehow inoculated against the kind of events that shock dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya – even Cote D’Ivoire.

I got into trouble with some people over last week’s column titled, “Time to Destroy the Nigerian Temple?” In the essay, I pointed to my exchanges with a longtime friend who chastises me from time to time for writing about Nigeria in a way that demonstrated that I took that political expression and entity seriously. Even though these are not his words, it seems as if this friend accuses me of being obsessed with chronicling the affairs of a corpse.

There are moments when I sympathize profoundly with my friend’s posture. Nigeria exasperates and confounds me – there’s no question about that. I often describe the country as an idea conceived in hope but nurtured into hopelessness. Clearly, it is a dismal space, rife with narratives of failure in all the departments that constitute arenas where serious nations prove themselves. If the vast majority of people who occupy political offices in Nigeria ran their families the same way they run Nigeria, their own wives, husbands or children would not hesitate to drag them before a firing squad. If they were employed to run private concerns, their conduct – if they brought to bear the same ravening attitude, self-aggrandizement, disdain for planning and worthy goals – they would be fired and handed over for prosecution in less than one week.

Yet, once installed in public positions – as president, governors, ministers, commissioners, legislators, local government chairmen, whatever – these inept men and women begin to bask as if they were not only geniuses, but the very mentors of the Albert Einsteins and Nelson Mandelas of our world.

I happened to be visiting Nigeria a few years ago when one of the state governors marked his birthday. Birthday wishes to this man filled hundreds of pages of Nigerian newspapers. The paid adverts, doubtless placed by the governor’s grubbing coterie and colluders in his highly profitable money laundering business, could have driven a monk either to rib-cracking laughter or homicidal rage. The governor was pumped up with such words as icon, genius, outstanding, towering, God-sent, philosophical, philanthropic, avatar. A few of his giddy friends went as far as claiming that the governor had “redefined governance” – without pausing to define where governance stood before and where, specifically, their man had taken it. Others crowed that the governor had “totally transformed” his state and “delivered ALL the dividends of democracy.”

I invite you to imagine, for a moment, an innocent and credulous visitor to Nigeria who reads these encomia and becomes enchanted by them. Let’s say, then, that she decides to visit the state where this Olympian governor struts his stuff. Within minutes – no, seconds – of landing, our hitherto enthralled visitor would be disabused. She would see streets decorated with smoldering, stinky hills of refuse, a landscape littered with “pure water” plastics, roads that are gutted and rutted, homes as well as government offices that reek because there’s no water to flush toilets, schools with leaky roofs, their libraries bereft of books, hospitals that lack bandages – forget about any diagnostic tools. Then, approaching the governor’s abode, the adventurer would behold a sordid marvel – a grandly coquettish and obscenely huge structure, as if built to accommodate an entire village, not one family. If she happens to be ushered into the presence of the governor, she would find him attended by a retinue of court jesters, currying crumbs from his opulent table with words of richly marinated flattery, and he, the object of unctuous veneration, would gloat and glow, as self-conceited as the best of them in history.

My guess is that this visitor would go from astonishment to epiphany in one quick, seamless moment. She would discern that this depraved figure has indeed “totally transformed” the state into a zoo for the lowliest of animals; that he has redefined governance as a self-serving, self-interested phenomenon. She – the visitor – would finally le

arn that the governor, who in all likelihood stole the election, was delivering “dividends” to himself, his family and his small circle of friends and flatterers – everybody else be damned.

The current cult of mediocrity that’s triumphant in Nigeria is awfully irritating. Even so, it is not, I insist, sufficient grounds to jettison that geopolitical entity. My suspicion is that the cry that the division of Nigeria is the answer issues from the throats of elites who don’t reckon that the achievement of nationhood within ethnic boundaries is bound to be as laborious, frustrating and exacting a struggle as the fight to achieve a Nigeria that responds to our aspirations.

The haste to exchange Nigeria for a presumed ethnic nirvana is, I sometimes suspect, driven by reluctance to engage in the kind of tough and desperate but ultimately rewarding war to identify, combat and vanquish the coalition of forces that conspire to keep most Nigerians at an animal level of existence. One doubts that those who bear the harshest brunt of misrule in Nigeria fantasize about swapping one oppressor – from a different ethnic group – to an oppressor who speaks the same language and eats the same food.

Besides, Nigeria – contrary to what some Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa tend to think – contains hundreds of languages and cultures. How many nations, exactly, would we wish to realize from mutilating the Nigerian space? Three? Thirty? Three hundred?

There’s no question that Nigeria must be re-negotiated. Its constitution is an enabler of serial abuses – including the tyranny of Abuja over state capitals and the federalization of resources that ought to belong to states. That’s why Nigerians ought to look beyond Mr. Jega’s elections – even in the unlikely event that they become exemplars of credulity. At the conclusion of the elections, Nigerians ought to start a serious conversation about the meaning and direction of their country. They must work out for themselves the terms for sustaining a union.

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