The 'single story' of a people, by the people

by Jibril Sado

In a thought-provoking talk she delivered in Oxford, UK, last year, celebrated Nigerian Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about how stereotypes or the perception of a situation based on only a peripheral understanding of that situation can heavily distort the reality of the situation. In the speech titled ‘The Danger of the Single Story’ Adichie also contends that lack of interest in establishing a more encompassing picture about a subject could easily lead to the painting of warped versions of an event, creating a one-sided storyline in the process. In other words, the complexion of history as perceived by different people at any point rests heavily with which perspective of a topic they had been feeding on over time.

It’s heartening that such a compelling subject matter should be broached by a daughter of Nigeria, a place whose people have for decades suffered gravely from the effect of different uncomplimentary ‘single stories’ about the people and their institutions. Sieving through pages of history, it is quite easy to note that one of the banes of the Nigerian society is the peculiar inflexibility or outright lack of will to take advantage of available socio-economic opportunities towards entrenching a saner socio-economic and political state of affairs. Hence the pervading socio-political lack of direction and economic backwardness for which the country has for decades remained the butt of jokes in the comity of nations.

In her speech, Adichie remarked: “Show people as one thing over and over again, and they become that thing.” This perhaps also raises the question of how to, for instance, avoid seeing a negative single story in a situation where a subject in question unceasingly confronts the observer with the unbecoming side of whatever the subject’s antecedents are. And a few developments in the country in recent times actually probe the obvious question of whether we are doing nearly enough to change some of the not-so-nice ‘single stories’ that abound about Nigeria.

Two examples from the past week, although not directly linked but by wider implication related, would suffice here. The first has to do with events at the ongoing FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Nigeria’s defeat in their opening game with Argentina was not even a problem. But what demonstrated the culture of unwillingness by most of our institutions to respond to available opportunities was the tame manner the far-from-super Super Eagles blew the chances they had to qualify for the next round. Firstly, in losing to Greece when they were well-placed to win or in the worst case scenario end the match in a draw, the Nigerian team failed to keep their destiny in their own hands. Then, in only achieving a 2-2 draw with South Korea in the final match when a victory of any margin would have been enough, the team also showed an alarming inability to utilize the lifeline Argentina threw at them (in defeating Greece). And the fact that the players created enough opportunities to win that match twice over if they had elected to, drives home the point even harder. In the end, it may be valid argument to point out that several other teams that crashed out at the same stage of the competition also all suffered from the same symptom. But it is also legitimate to argue that in the case of Nigeria, it is more symbolic of the fact that in most cases, even when it seems that the hard part is over, when it seems things can only hit a higher point, somehow, somewhere, someone, some people or some institution can be relied on to bungle things for everyone, pushing things to a new low. And what better flag-bearer for us in this regard than football.

That fiasco in SA invariably brings to mind a story of an opportunity missed in politics last week, this time right inside the hallowed chambers of the House of Assembly. Hundreds of printed pages and hours of radio and television airtime may have already been dedicated to dissecting the shameless violence at the House of Representatives on Wednesday June 23, 2010, over the N9 billion fraud allegations against the Speaker of the House, Dimeji Bankole. And there is certainly much more still to be said about it all. But in particular, it was another lost opportunity by representatives of Nigerian politicians to make a positive statement about themselves, an opportunity to convince a segment of the society that somehow, the political class has been victim to the single story all along, a story of lack of patriotism, immaturity, gruff and uncouth disposition and much more.

As those scenes played out, some students from a secondary school in Abuja who were on an excursion to the House witnessed it all. But for a group of pupils most of whom must be familiar with the words and footage of Lagbaja’s Surulere music video, the lyrics of African China’s Mr. President, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s songs, all in addition to generations-old tales of thuggish behaviour by the political elite even in sacred places like the House of Assembly, it was a validation of what should have, relatively speaking, remained a mere myth. And for the politicians, it was a big goof, certainly a missed chance to make an argument that somehow those sour tales are a product of sensational media reporting, the hyper-active imagination of human rights activists and even paranoid parents, guardians, aunts, uncles and what have you. It was their one huge opportunity to tell a section of a generation a more rounded story about the political class, but typically, they blew it.

So, if in future, any of those pupils decides that for whatever reason she would disrupt her History teacher’s next class and for that reason, goes to school, whistle in pocket, no one should be surprised where she got the idea from; if any of those pupils at the next argument with his peers, suddenly goes berserk, hurling every object in sight at his opponents, shredding their clothes, spewing invectives at such people and breaking a few limbs in the process, that pupil, in the words of a Whitney Houston song, shall have “learned from the best.”

And so between the Nigerian football team and the political class, the status quo persists – no interest in demystifying the inimical single story. If anything, it remains a tale of re-enforcing the story of squandering given opportunities – a mirror of the wider Nigeria since independence, since the oil boom, since the birth of our (pseudo)democracy.

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