A few weeks ago we celebrated Democracy Day in Nigeria. It was also the 365th day anniversary of Goodluck Jonathan as President of that “geographical space” called Nigeria, as the Sage from Ikenne dubbed this nation many decades ago. Within that week, so many issues came to the fore regarding the future and destiny of this nation. Personally, I believe that that event offers us an important opportunity to talk about the future of our country. In 1993, General Ibrahim Babangida, then Nigeria’s ‘Military President’ (quite an odious title) annulled the presidential election adjudged to be the most free and fair in Nigeria’s political history. At that same time, similar events happened in Burma and Algeria. In Burma, elections were held in May 1990 in which the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), founded by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi won an overwhelming victory, carting over 80 percent of the seats in the national assembly. There was general agreement that this was principally a triumph for Aung San Suu Kyi, a foremost Burmese pro-democracy activist and human rights defender.
Probably, the military regime allowed free elections because they expected a very different result, a result which would somehow have provided the legitimacy they needed to retain power. The dilemma of such regimes was demonstrated – trapped in their own lies. At any rate, the junta refused to accept the election result. The election was in effect annulled. In 1991 when Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, she was under house arrest in Burma. Her husband, Michael Aris, and her two sons, Alexander and Kim had to fly from London to Oslo to receive the prize on her behalf. The Burmese people only got a right to vote in November 2011.
In Algeria, in 1989, the government hitherto run by the National Liberation Front almost as a one party state, decided to open up the political space and allow the formation of Parties and new elections. In June 1990 and December 1991 the country conducted Local and Legislative elections which were massively won by the Islamic Salvation Front. The establishment refused to accept the result of the elections. As such, on January 11, 1992, the military staged a coup and sacked the government of Chadli Benje. Algeria went into crisis leading to a low intensity civil war between the government forces and members and sympathisers of FIS. In the six or so years of fighting which ended in 1998, over a 150,000 lives were lost. In 1999, the country conducted elections in which Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika won. Till date, he is the President of Algeria.
I have cited these two instances to help us remember that Nigeria is not the only country that has had its elections annulled by a military regime. From 1993 till date, Nigeria has had seven presidents—Babangida, Shonekan, Abacha, Abdulsalam, Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Goodluck. Yet, even Burmans and Algerians that had their elections annulled at about the same time as ours are not as unhappy and angry as Nigerians are. And certainly, Burma and Algeria are definitely not worse off than Nigeria is. So, what is the trouble with Nigeria?
It is already about 30 years since Professor Chinua Achebe published his 67 page monograph The Trouble with Nigeria in which he argued, with the opening words of that book, that “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.” Achebe noted that it is difficult to point to one important job in Nigeria that is held by the most competent person, something he painfully describes as the cult of mediocrity of intellect and character. In Achebe’s opinion, “We have displayed a consistent inclination since we assumed management of our own affairs to opt for mediocrity and compromise, to pick a third and fourth eleven to play for us. And the result: we have failed and will always fail to make it to the world league.” Those who are lovers of football know that a good team is always constituted by eleven best players. When Achebe says that in Nigeria leadership has always been in the hands of the third and fourth eleven, we can imagine what he is saying. And that is the plain truth.
For too long, our country has been training people who only know how to keep the routine going; people who can answer questions but don’t know how to ask questions; people who are experts in maintaining what has been handed on to them without adding any value; people who can fulfill goals but don’t know how to set them. We have simply been training technicians and not leaders. What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers—people who can think for themselves and formulate a new direction for our country, a new way of looking at things, a new way of doing things. In other words, we lack people with vision. Several thousand years ago, the writer of the biblical book of Proverbs warned, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 28:19). We can already see today how a country that lacks visionary people is gradually teetering on the precipice of disaster.
I can assure you that there are a lot of educated people in Nigeria who don’t know how to talk much less to think. We are a country so richly endowed by God and Nature, yet lacking the leadership and imagination to pool and harness our God-given human and natural capital for the good of our people. People who mistake talking for thinking and confuse thinking for talking have become the lot of our nation. Everywhere today, talking has become the only viable industry that has come to define our nation. Perhaps, nowhere on the surface of the earth do we have a people who have an endless capacity for chattering like Nigerians. Yet, our talk, talk, talk has done nothing other than compound our problems. Discourse on critical national issues has been hijacked and terrorized by a class of crass, incompetent and inept people who have nothing to offer. Talking has become the trademark of our democracy and in a society like Nigeria where freedom of speech has become a cheapened commodity, people say very often more than they actually mean. Freedom of speech has essentially become the freedom to talk nonsense, to insult people’s sensibilities and to impugn others. We seem to have also lost three highly cherished values connected with constructive engagement in speech —decency, discretion and discernment. Any Tom, Dick and Harry can wake up today and insult the President over sundry issues. What we as Africans cherish as respect for elders has been lost. In democracy, gerontocracy matters less before the men and women of today. They call that freedom of speech, the freedom to talk to others or to talk on others indecently.
I am not saying that this is principally the trouble with Nigeria. I am saying that in a society where the rules of constructive engagement and effective human communication has been overtaken by animalistic tendencies, there is not much to expect in terms of the people’s capacity to apprehend the forces undermining the realization of their destiny. When our language is bereft of shared meaning, communication simply breaks down into something similar to an extravaganza of barking dogs. There is perhaps no better place to observe this thrusting indiscipline characteristic of Nigerians than on the roads where rudeness, noisiness and frenetic energy all conspire to describe a land of inchoate randomness. Any foreigner visiting Nigeria for the first time can immediately say what Nigeria is like from the bazaar of mad, chaotic and anarchic rattling resplendent of traffic on Nigerian roads.
I dare say that freedom of speech is not freedom to insult others and to talk nonsense. It is freedom to constructively engage the other, to listen, to talk and to make meaning. That is why what we say, who we say it to, why we say it and where we say it are important values of freedom of speech. They may sound trivial, but they are the building blocks of the v
alue we call freedom of speech. Freedom of speech rests on the foundation of shared meaning— that I am able to effectively pass a message to another person and then listen to hear what the other person has to say. Freedom of speech implies freedom of silence. Speech and silence go together.
Pope Benedict XVI explains the connection between these two freedoms of speech and silence with great profundity in his Message for the 46th World Communications Day last month that I cannot attempt to add or subtract from his ideas. He says that: “When word and silence become mutually exclusive, communication breaks down, either because it gives rise to confusion or because, on the contrary, it creates an atmosphere of coldness; when they complement one another, however, communication acquires value and meaning. Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible.”
“It is often in silence, for example, that we observe the most authentic communication taking place between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions and body language are signs by which they reveal themselves to each other. Joy, anxiety, and suffering can all be communicated in silence – indeed it provides them with a particularly powerful mode of expression. Silence, then, gives rise to even more active communication, requiring sensitivity and a capacity to listen that often makes manifest the true measure and nature of the relationships involved. When messages and information are plentiful, silence becomes essential if we are to distinguish what is important from what is insignificant or secondary. Deeper reflection helps us to discover the links between events that at first sight seem unconnected, to make evaluations, to analyze messages; this makes it possible to share thoughtful and relevant opinions, giving rise to an authentic body of shared knowledge. For this to happen, it is necessary to develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds.”
The difficulty with our situation in Nigeria has always been the fact that everyone is an expert in the problems of Nigeria and is also convinced of the fact that they possess the solutions.
Just take a look at our schools. Our educational system today is creating a permanent underclass of graduates who are naive and lack a sense of vision, focus and direction in life. We have educational institutions that have lost the ability to groom, train and develop healthy, smart, creative, visionary and capable citizens who can hold their heads high and prove the stuff of which they are made anywhere in the world. We are producing graduates who spend more time arguing about Nigeria’s problems rather than deliberating on how to fix them. An entire generation of Nigerian youths has been grossly mis-educated because funds meant for their education have been stolen. I am certain that nowhere else in the world do we have a nation tolerating the theft of its precious resources in broad day light with nothing happening to the thieves like in Nigeria. According to a former military Head of State, “A day in the office, as far as the general public is concerned, often means eight hours of converting public funds to private purses. Few societies seem to reward embezzlement with ‘honours’ as does our own.”
Today, we have the misfortune of seeing the gradual liquidation and systematic decimation of our precious human resource, our young children. Before our very eyes, our children, our future, are wasting away. We now live in a country where our youths are increasingly becoming martyrs-in-waiting and no longer stimulators of innovation, creativity and imagination. When our young people are preparing for their funerals instead of their future, it is a sure sign that we as a society have lost our way. For many decades, we have been raising young people who pass through schools where they receive education that is no longer morally and intellectually fit for human consumption. And yet these are the people who hold the keys to the future of Nigeria. When will our governments and leaders realize that there can be no future for this country if young people are not carried along?
What frightens me the most is the abuse of our generation of children in the name of education. We have teachers that cannot teach; lawyers that cannot write simple sentences; doctors that are glorified butchers and ‘poets’ that write incomprehensible books and sell them to ‘universities’ as required text. The cycle is vicious and unsustainable. Today, everybody is running a private mini-government that bypasses the common good and undermines the constituted form of government. When the roads are bad, we buy a 4-wheel drive. When there is no water, we employ our own private mairuwas; when there is no power supply, we import our own Mikano generator; when there is acute security problem, we employ our private guard. In this kind of situation, we think that the best thing to do is to set up a private government that satisfies our own immediate personal needs to the disadvantage of others. That we have learnt to live without a government does not make it right. To be sure, our problems in Nigeria are not peculiar. What we lack in relation to other nations with similar problems as ours is the sheer will and commitment to do things the right way and to insist on it. One remarkable thing I have learnt from studying the histories of nations and peoples that have attained greatness is that they…. As the perceptive and influential British journalist said in her speech at Nigeria’s 51st independence anniversary in October 2011, “Societies only make substantive change when their members insist upon it. You have to want it.”
We must start holding our leaders accountable. Accountable stems from demand. No politician or public official will be accountable out of the goodness of his heart. We must demand it. But again, we must ask ourselves: What is it about our society that is making us generate leaders that we don’t want? In truth, only Nigerians can decide the course of this magnificent, vibrant and overwhelming country’s future. If our foreign friends promise to help us, let us realize that they can only help on the margins. It is up to us as Nigerians to decide how we want our country to be. As we step into… let us begin to talk intelligently about our nation.