Africans“… are just like children…They are always either laughing or quarreling. They are good-natured and passionate, indolent, but will work hard for a time; clever up to a certain point, densely stupid beyond. The intelligence of an average Negro is about equal to that of a European child of ten years old. A few, a very few, go beyond this, but these are exceptions…They are fluent talkers, but their ideas are borrowed. They are absolutely without originality, absolutely without inventive power. Living among white men, their imitative faculties enable them to attain a considerable amount of civilization. Left alone to their own devices they retrograde into a state little above their native savagery.”
The above excerpt is culled from By Sheer Pluck, a fictional account of parts of the Ashanti war, written by George Alfred Henty. If you are an African and you are livid, so incensed that you want to find Mr. Henty and strangle him for denigrating your people, please hold your wild horses. Mr. Henty died in 1902. The book was published in 1884.
I felt the same outrage when a young National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) member wrote the above quotation on the classroom board of my English Literature class several years ago. Dele Momodu, now the publisher of the Ovation magazine, was that Corps member. Although he was assigned to teach Yoruba at the Oyo State College of Arts and Science, Ile-Ife, Momodu occasionally volunteered to help the English Literature students who were about to sit for the A-Level, General Certificate of Education (GCE) and the West African Examination Council (WAEC) examinations. I copied down the quotation and the author’s name, and then searched (in vain) all over the Universities of Ife, Ibadan and Lagos’ libraries for the book. The popular Odusote Bookshop in Ibadan did not have it either. But I kept the quotation and the name of the author memorized. A few years later, I walked into a small bookshop in Baltimore, US and bought the book for $6.
I have probably read the book no less than ten times since 1988, and each time I read it, my blood pressure rises. But my anger is no longer directed at Mr. Alfred Henty. I am angry at my African leaders. Or should I say, my Nigerian leaders, since “charity begins at home.”
Today (Feb 8, 2007), I watched CNN’s Jeff Koinange’s report on the Niger Delta crisis. I was overawed by the bravado, the audacity, of the militants in that part of Nigeria, as their speedboats patrolled the waters of the Delta areas. Yes, PATROLLED! Guns – all kinds of guns – blazing in the sun. Mounted on tripods were .50mm caliber machine guns, and behind those guns were masked men, in broad daylight, yelling instructions to Koinange’s camera crew. They escorted the CNN reporter and his crew out of the waters and into the woods where they paraded over 20 hostages, mostly foreigners. In front of the cameras, they danced, taunted and threatened their hostages, fired “celebratory” rounds off their weapons and sent messages to the Federal government. Did Henty say something about “native savagery” above?
My co-worker, an American Caucasian who watched with me in my office, asked if the Niger Delta was on the verge of declaring independence from Nigeria. My stomach turned. I told him the people he saw were freedom fighters. “Are they fighting for freedom from the Nigerian government?” he asked. “No!” I retorted, clearly getting a little agitated. This guy could not sense that I was too embarrassed to answer his questions. “Well, if they are freedom fighters, somebody must be oppressing them” he continued. I let that slide. “And look at that armada in the waters! They have to be the law in that country, or that part of the country. And that is if they are still in Nigeria.” Finally, I asked him if he had read Henty’s book, By Sheer Pluck. I wanted to know if this was a calculated effort at continuing the humiliation of my people. He said he had not.
I swallowed my pride and explained to him that even though the militants had not formally declared an independent state, they were pretty much in control of that part of the country. I reminded him of a similar news item that we both heard not too long ago about kidnappings and ransoms in the oil-producing areas of Nigeria. I shamefully admitted to him that Koinange’s report was largely true: that the Niger Delta was a destitute area even though they produce virtually all the wealth of Nigeria; that drilling for oil in that part of Nigeria has made large-scale or even subsistence farming extremely difficult, and fishing nearly impossible; that oil companies care very little about the lot of the people of that area; that while our new capital, Abuja, and its residents are embodiments of grandeur and resplendent opulence, the Niger Delta and its residents, on whose back Abuja rode to prominence, are embodiments of squalor and stunted growth; that the good people of the Niger Delta tried “civilized” manners to draw government’s attention to their plight, but they were either carted off to jail, shot or hanged; that the people then resorted to “armed insurrection” under the canopy of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), kidnapping “high value” expatriates in the hope that their home governments would pressure Nigeria to look into their plights; that soon, Nigerians’ ingenuity took over as copycat kidnappings became rampant and everybody in the Niger Delta was now a militant or kidnapper, or both.
I explained to my co-worker that what we both saw on CNN was a microcosm of the Nigerian society at large – the absence of government, the absence of authority.
Whenever I look up the meaning of the words anarchy, confusion, chaos and pandemonium in my dictionary, it is always illustrated with a map of Nigeria. Everybody is in charge there. Nobody is in charge there.
Just as the militants in the Niger Delta have taken the law into their hands, so have the rest of the country. As I type this, no one is guaranteed electricity in Nigeria, unless he/she has a personal power generator. No one is guaranteed water unless he/she has a personal borehole or well. Dusty, muddy and bumpy secondary roads are the norm while highways are death traps. Those who manage to build a house must erect a high fence with electrified barbed wires, and hire security guards out of fear for armed robbers. Armed robbers rob with impunity. They attack banks in broad daylight, bringing with them their electric saws (for cutting through metal doors), and portable power generators to power their saws.
Teachers, in public schools, report for work only when they so wish. Most of them have a second job (usually in a private school) somewhere else. Students report to school only when they wish. While the male students could be seen at Internet cafes during school hours (perfecting their Internet scams), their female counterparts are either roaming around the cities looking for men, or busy “sorting out” their teachers. Doctors, in government hospitals, also report for work when they chose to. Most of them, like teachers, have a second job at some private clinic, to which they refer their patients. You do not go to the hospital in Nigeria to get well. You go there to die. Is this not a throw-back to George Alfred Henty’s 1884?
The absence of order; the absence of authority; the absence of government could not be more patent. Last December, just a few days before Christmas, Nigeria, an oil-producing nation, suddenly could not supply fuel to its filling stations! By the way, that fuel scarcity is still raging as I type. I thought it was child’s play. Christmas came and passed. No fuel. Sallah came and passed. No fuel. New Year came and passed. No fuel. On December 20th, 2006, I bought fuel in Ibadan at N65 per liter, its normal price. By December 24th, fuel was N100 per liter if you could queue up for a few hours. If you did not want to wait, you could get fuel for N120 per liter. And even at that pri
ce, only a very few filling stations had fuel to sell. Of course, public transportation fares shot through the roof. Families that had planned to travel home (wherever home was) had to reconsider. Prices of foods and all manners of goods went up, including my very dear Gulder beer!
Not once did any government official showed a dint of anxiety. No one struggled to calm the citizenry. No one apologized and promised to do something about the fuel scarcity. It was as if there was no emergency. I bought newspapers, listened to the radio and watched the television. Once, the headlines were about the explosion in Lagos, occasioned by sparks from people scooping fuel from a vandalized pipe. But most of the time, the headlines were about president Obasanjo and vice president Atiku at loggerheads.
In Oyo State, my state, (and Ibadan, my home town in particular), governor Ladoja and his deputy, Alao-Akala dueled, with godfather Baba Adedibu fanning the embers of anarchy. The chamber of the House of Assembly was taken over by supporters of Baba Adedibu and Alao-Akala, with trash strewn all over the place, while the police watched with their guns slung over their backs and their arms akimbo. I could not help but remember Henty again: “…They are always either laughing or quarreling… Left alone to their own devices they retrograde into a state little above their native savagery.” It was reminiscent of the Old Oyo Empire times, when Alaafin Abiodun and Bashorun Gaa were in charge. Eons ago, I might add.
Those in positions of authority; the so-called elder statesmen, have frittered away their opportunity to govern. They rule (or rather, ruin) instead.Fear, anxiety, anger and frustration were palpable. There was no sign of government anywhere. I tried to make the best of the situation as usual. You could not visit Nigeria from the US or Europe and expect things to be like they were in Europe or the US. That would be asking for something akin to utopia. You could not (and should not) underestimate our capacity for retrogression. You have to be realistic and understanding when trying to analyze Nigeria. But that understanding was stretched to the limit when, after I was attacked by armed robbers (a detailed account of which was published on this website a few weeks ago), the police demanded and received from me money to buy fuel (in order to be able to investigate the robbery), and phone card money (in order to be able to call me with updates on the case). I am the last guy to bribe anyone, but when the police officers showed me their dilapidated vehicles with their empty tanks, and I could not find a single phone line, let alone telephone boxes in their station, I had to help out a little bit. The police officers used their personal cellular phones for official duties!
Who is in charge in Nigeria?
In the early 80s, I attended a symposium (one of several, of course) at the Trenchard Hall of the University of Ibadan. Invited speakers, notable social critics of that time (I remember Femi Falana vividly) poured their vituperations on the government of the day. Some of them struggled to find some of the most flowery and bombastic language with which to make their point. When it was time to ask questions, I asked the organizers why the symposium was held on the University of Ibadan campus. Why not take this symposium to Dugbe, Oja’ba, Mokola, Molete or Oopo Yeosa – places occupied by many of the down-trodden? And if those were too far for comfort, I asked, why not take it to Agbowo, right outside the UI gates?
One of the speakers asked me what the difference was. I explained to him that their speeches, brilliant as they were, were exercises in futility as it would seem that they were preaching to the choir. I explained that if they took their arguments to the real marketplace, toned down their vocabulary a bit, or even spoke in the vernacular of the area, they might move some people to action.
I reminded them of the Sunday forum that the late Dr. Tai Solarin used to have at Campos Square, Lagos, in 1980. In his khaki shorts and short-sleeve shirt, he mounted a make-shift platform from where he railed against the ineptitude and profligacy that bedeviled the government of Shehu Shagari and his NPN party. At first, there were only a handful of listeners. Soon, the place was packed full, hours before he arrived. Many Sundays, I traveled all the way from Ilorin, Kwara State, to be a part of it. He spoke in broken English so as not to speak over the heads of his listeners. He communicated.
Back then, in 1980, we had fuel scarcity. It was so bad that people stored gasoline in their homes, occasionally triggering explosions that killed them and members of their families. We had food scarcity. It was so bad that people queued for rice, milk and sugar. We had electric power outages and shortages. People lit candles, left them unattended, burned down their homes. We had bad roads. They were so bad that your heart was in your mouth any time you or members of your family traveled. We had armed robbers. They were so bad that they sent advance notices of their intent to rob your neighborhood, and as promised, they came in dozens.
Of course, Solarin was arrested, released and re-arrested several times. He had limited resources. He did not get the financial backing of any wealthy Nigerian. In fact, none wanted to be associated with him. Soon, the Campos square idea, modeled after the London Hyde Park speeches, fizzled out. The result was that every body that he touched (including myself), went back to what they used to do – fold their arms.
And what do we have today, nearly 30 years later? We have the same malaises and the same absence of leadership that have plagued our nation. You can not look at the Nigerian political landscape or its economic landscape and make a rational, logical deduction for tomorrow. Will there be an election this year as scheduled? Will someone really take charge of that country? Will we continue in this vicious cycle for the next 30 years? Will we continue to validate George Alfred Henty’s opinion about us? I hope not.