Nigerians Dream of Egypt

Ask many a Nigerian what it would take to turn her country around, and you’re likely to get this answer: “Only God can solve the problems of this country.” The evidence so far is that God isn’t impressed. A people with the extraordinary natural resources and variety of human talent that Nigeria boasts has no reason to bother God for anything else.

This is apart from the fact that Nigeria’s crises are man-made, manufactured by the greed and criminal acts of those who pass themselves off as leaders – and often with the tacit connivance or permission of the rest of us. As I stated elsewhere, God is not going to build our roads, sweep Nigerian streets strewn with “pure water” plastic, provide funds for our schools, produce a sound healthcare system, prosecute the “stakeholders” whose specialty is to pocket public funds, restrain electoral officials who aide and abet the stealing of votes by politicians, rewrite the judgments of corrupt judges, edit the reports and opinions of suborned journalists, or stop the police from shooting motorists slow to produce that N20 collection at checkpoints.

When many Nigerians, in searching for a solution for their mess of a country, are compelled to scale back their gaze from divine heights, they are frequently seized by what I call a Jerry Rawlings fantasy. Simply put, this fantasy bears a hope that we would wake up one sunny day to the emergence of a made-in-Nigeria clone of the former Ghanaian military leader who, in an access of rage, tied some of his country’s former leaders to stakes and shot them.

There are Nigerians who (day)dream that some outraged and steely-hearted fellow – their own home-grown Rawlings – would arise from somewhere and, in a volley of bullets, cleanse their country of its execrable past and present misrulers.

Again, the Rawlings fantasy strikes me as a bit like the God solution. Rawlings could emerge in Ghana because certain historical circumstances in his country made him possible. He was a product of the Ghanaian moral and political climate. He arose at a point in Ghanaian history when the country’s humiliation was near-total, the masses of the people were not just dejected but also prepared to contemplate extreme action to reshape their shattered lives and pull themselves from the edge of a chasm.

Rawlings was far from a lone agent of history. He had around him a nucleus of, among others, the intelligentsia, workers, traders and student leaders who shared his idealism and revolutionary fervor.

At any rate, even as Nigerians celebrate Rawlings’ mini killing spree, many Ghanaians – including admirers of Rawlings – have developed a healthy dose of skepticism about that bloodlust. There’s little question that the event had a cathartic effect. In a lot of ways, it has come, unfortunately, to define – or to shadow – the career of a man who is far more complex, at once impressive and deeply flawed. The point is that there may not be a Rawlings anywhere in sight in Nigeria. And that, I daresay, is not a bad thing.

Nigerians don’t need a slaughterfest. We don’t have to shoot the men and women who have turned our lives into a horror reality show. A Nigerian Rawlings would spend too much energy and time processing targets. There would be several heads of state, a multitude of former and serving governors, a flood of local government chairmen, and an avalanche of ministers, commissioners, and special assistants. The sheer scale of the slaughter would scar the nation and prove counterproductive.

What purpose would be served by enacting such a gargantuan bloodbath? Is it to establish a deterrent effect? But there are, surely, less expensive ways of achieving this goal. How about prosecuting public officials who betray the public trust? How about ensuring that guilty officials serve long jail terms, like Bode George in a real prison, not in a hospital? How about insisting that the scandal called executive immunity be expunged from the constitution? Nigeria may be the only place where a man who’s committed a crime is shielded from prosecution because he occupies the governor’s seat.

When wiretaps revealed that Governor Rod Blagojevitch of Illinois was seeking to auction off Barack Obama’s Senate seat for cash, officials of the FBI did not wring their hands and say, “Oh, what a sleazy guy, but he’s protected by immunity.” No, they went to the man’s home, arrested him, put handcuffs on him, and then led him away. As he awaited trial, Illinois residents made it clear they didn’t want him running their affairs. They insisted that he resign. They didn’t call in a Rawlings to do the job for them.

How about each citizen deciding to be his or her own Rawlings? How about staunchly defending your vote against usurpers? Or reforming the judiciary, ensuring that only men and women of outstanding ethical funds and legal training are elevated to the bench? With general election nearing, Nigerians are being treated to judicial farce. Take the role the judiciary played in forcing INEC to register one set of political aspirants over another. The ease with which all kinds of miscreants obtained ex parte rulings restraining or compelling the electoral commission, ordering it to act in one way or another bespeaks a system where judges are bought and sold, more or less in the open.

Again, it is humans, not God, creating the mess, seeking to gain political advantage by crooked means – in order to pursue their crooked agenda.

After toiling, groaning and moaning through thirty Mubarak years, the people of Egypt last week said, “Enough’s enough!” Without a Rawlings in sight, the collective resolve, tenacity and dedication of ordinary Egyptians unseated a man who had stolen billions from their country whilst pretending he was God’s gift to the people. Mubarak had finalized plans to hand over the country he’d turned into a virtual shell to his son to proceed with the program of pauperization and exploitation. But the people of Egypt, sans Rawlings, rose up one day and asserted their sovereignty.

At first, Mubarak talked tough, vowed he would not go. But the people, buoyed by the triumph of Tunisians, stood their ground. One day, the embattled Mubarak sent his armed surrogates to whip and shoot the protesters. He must have reckoned that this action would frighten the crowd of protesters. The opposite became true.

The day after the assault, a larger crowd turned up. An American TV reporter interviewed an elderly man. He said he had not cared to join the anti-Mubarak rally until he saw the beating of protesters. “Then I knew I must come out here to join them and show support,” the man said.

Outraged by the assault, Shakira Amin, an Egyptian TV journalist, quit her anchor job in protest. She said she had to identify with her fellow citizens against a despot who required that she ignore the great uprising and instead read a depraved and concocted version of events each night.

A Nigerian friend asked if I thought the events that shook up Tunisia and Egypt – and now convulsing Algeria and Iran – could happen in Nigeria. I paused to weigh a response. In the end, I had to hedge my bets. Yes, Nigerians are capable of reclaiming their much-abused country from the thieftains who run amok, plundering, pillaging and laying waste. But they must first recognize two truths: that the Tunisians and Egyptians did it through sheer determination. If God and Rawlings were at Tahrir Square, they kept an invisible profile and let the Egyptian people do their stuff.

That’s an important lesson for us.

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