My weeklong visit to Nigeria last week was enlightening. Here’s one of the clearest things I discovered: that most enlightened Nigerians are deeply dissatisfied, indeed troubled, by the state of affairs in their country. Those I talked to included men and women who, in the going parlance, “are doing well.” Despite their privileged circumstances, they were in no haste to sugarcoat Nigeria. They knew, deep down—and freely admitted it—that Nigeria is a dysfunctional space. Over dinner at a restaurant, one entrepreneur who runs a highly successful business told me that Nigeria is one of the few places in the world where one could wake up with N50,000 to one’s name and then go to bed with a million dollars in the pocket.
“I don’t kid myself,” the man told me. “Nigeria can be a lawless country. When I first returned [from the US, where he trained], I argued with a group of friends who told me that a day would come when a reckless driver would smash my car—and I would just drive on. I said, not me. But do you know that somebody hit my back recently and I continued to go on my way. I mean what can you do to the man? First of all, he bought his driver’s license, even before he could put a car in gear. Second, chances are that the driver who hit you has no insurance. So what are you going to do? If you’re stronger, you can slap the driver once or twice. If you call the police, that’s a big mistake. The police will simply seize the opportunity to milk you of money.
“So the question is, would I choose to live in this country if my business wasn’t making so much money? Am I crazy?”
The businessman and many others were aware that the vast majority of those who presume to run Nigeria either have no inkling of the responsibility of leadership, or are too busy gorging to care. Another businessman told me that the recent sharp drop of the naira was not wholly a consequence of policies put in place by President Barack Obama and America’s European allies to punish Russia for its acts of expansionist aggression against Ukraine. “The truth is that the naira is falling because politicians are mopping up billions of dollars for next year’s election. So, those who want to win or retain power by all means are causing this hardship for people like me.”
Given the deep current of political disaffection I detected in Nigeria, I had expected to see new, outside-the-box thinking about the way forward. Instead, I was confronted with a paralyzing sense of helplessness. I found that Nigerians, including those one expected to know better, were trapped in a conceptual political mindset in which only two parties—and, by extension, two paths to the future—exist in the Nigerian universe. Those two parties—and paths—are the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC).
In conversation after frustrating conversation, one had a hard time nudging Nigerians to release themselves from their binary entrapment in order to see a third way. And yet, to hear them speak was to realize that there was no doubt in their minds that the two parties whose fortunes and prospects alone excite them represent dead-ends. As I argued last week, the PDP and APC are kindred spirits, two parties beset by ideological aridity, and most of their most prominent figures fueled by the same contemptible idea that politics is, above all, a means for accumulating riches. Why else do they hire thugs, kill or maim their opponents, betray all lofty principles, submit themselves to the most diabolical rites? It is certainly not to serve Nigerians.
If the two parties jostling to define Nigeria’s future are essentially ideologically similar and deeply pathological—and I insist they are—then why don’t we unshackle ourselves from their stultifying reins? That was the question and challenge I put to many a friend or fan I met last week in Nigeria.
Their responses were interesting. Some offered the pat retort that the PDP and APC alone have the “structures” and cash to dominate Nigerian politics well into the future. Some said Nigerians were far from ripe for issues-driven, exemplary leadership. Some said there was no cure for the festering sectarian and ethnic wounds in the Nigerian body politic.
I countered that the so-called structures are overhyped, that the two parties (or their past incarnations) dominated Nigerian politics on account, largely, of their wizardry at rigging and looting—compounded by the failure of enlightened Nigerians to rise to the occasion. I contended that a commitment by the country’s enlightened sectors to fight for Nigeria’s future would neutralize cash, one of the main weapons deployed by the PDP and APC.
Time is running short, but that’s no reason to throw up our hands in surrender. If anything, the shortness of time lends urgency to the task. Last week, I told an audience at the Ake Book Festival that the Nigerian state had animalized the Nigerian. Nigerian streets and highways have few public toilets, which means that many Nigerians must pee and defecate in the open, as animals do. More than fifty years after Independence, most parts of many Nigerian cities still lack access to pipe-borne water. As a result, some log about a strong bodily stink, as do some animals. Workers’ salaries often go unpaid, or are paid several months in arrears, as if the workers were beggars, subject to their employers’ philanthropy.
I believe that too many Nigerians resort to ethnic baiting precisely because they are so thoroughly impoverished, so ground down, that they must find somebody else to blame. Part of the mutual suspicion between Muslims and Christians arises from the same toxicity of lived experience. The main instigators and profiteers from Nigeria’s malaise thrive when their victims are too engrossed in ethnic and religious hate to recognize their common foes.
I say let’s go beyond this facile notion that we must choose only between the PDP and the APC. There are lots of other parties out there, some of them founded by progressive and visionary Nigerians. Rather than be detained by the real or ostensible odds and impediments, the enlightened political elements in Nigeria should adopt one of these marginal, fledging parties, and turn it into a vibrant and vital third force in the 2015 elections. It’s going to be arduous, demanding a re-orientation of the pauperized and desperate Nigerians. But it’s a challenge that the class of enlightened Nigerians should not easily ignore. A party that offers a strong critique of the current diseased politics symbolized by the PDP and APC, and puts forward a set of principles for transforming all aspects of Nigeria, is a winning formula.
Nigeria needs to be rescued from the tyrannizing hands of the PDP and APC.