This Government and the Year 2009 Resolution: Are Nigerians Convinced Or Convicted?
Like water in the chimney, and the steam that preceded it, this government belongs to a generation that failed to build a just and dignified Nigeria for everyone. Asked to talk about the role of leadership in bringing about cultural change, they have to admit that they don’t have any answers on how to transform Nigeria or how to achieve the economic change our country so obviously needs. But I do have questions, concerns and a few ideas I want to share with you. I’m convinced of the need to recognize that, politically speaking, we Nigerians have failed. After almost two hundred years of independence, Nigerian is just a caricature of a state, and the Nigerian nation a fictitious concept for sociologists and historians writing about the country. Nigeria is neither a nation nor a real state. We’re a geographical jurisdiction inhabited by people with no shared vision of aspirations who therefore do not share a national political identity. We like the same food and sing the same songs, but we’re not a community of shared rights and obligations or of shared aspirations and collective memories.
As a Nigerian it really pains me to point out and emphasize our failure, but I do so because, just as alcoholics first have to recognize they have a problem, we have to recognize our real condition if we are ever to bring about a cultural, material and moral recovery. The dilemma is whether to recognize our failure or refuse to and live like alcoholics.
Our country has high malnourishment levels despite abundant areas of fertile land and a relatively small population density. One in every three Nigerian children suffers from chronic malnutrition. Transparency International lists us as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. We also have high levels of teen pregnancy and a recent study stated that over 45% of our adolescent girls are either already mothers, are pregnant or have been pregnant at some point. And what can we say about primary and secondary education? According to some estimates, 800,000 children received no education this year in our poor schools, and some put the figure even higher. And that’s actually a very optimistic statistic, because it implicitly assumes that pupils who did enroll will receive an adequate education from teachers who earn what those who can afford it spend on a fine bottle of whisky in Nigeria.
We’ve failed despite having experimented with socialist models, military dictatorships and different shades of neoliberalism implemented by PDP government, all of it to no effect. After just 48 years of independence, our west African coast is still as isolated as when we set off on our national adventure. And we haven’t even been able to rebuild our economy after it was destroyed by the military regime.
Nigerian youth, are the heirs of a national failure constructed over almost forty-eight years of independence. To be young in Nigeria means being the heirs of a society where national institutions are dens of tie-wearing thieves and the main political parties act like youth gangs, because at least they have greater consistency and clearer values, principles and objectives and a better idea of what they want to do than our so-called political parties.
Being young in Nigeria means being the heir to a country that has to export members of the population to maintain the national economy. We expel Nigerians from the country of their birth then calculate the remittances they send home in dollars, without ever quantifying the pain of the mothers who leave their children behind in the search for survival or the indecent conditions faced by the thousands who sustain our fictitious economy.
Being young in Nigeria means inheriting all these national tragedies, this failed society. But it also means being accustomed to failure, being socialized in failure. Socialization is a process through which individuals belonging to a given society internalize a set of values, principles and ways of perceiving and experiencing reality. We are socialized through our participation in the country’s institutional life, and in our own families, our schools, our political parties and our churches. These institutions are both socializing mechanisms and systems of habits and socialized routines.
What my generation bequeathed today’s youth People like me—those of us from the generations that created the country’s institutions and our prevailing family model or models—forged its disastrous educational system and built its political and legal framework—bequeathed young people like you our habits, values and political culture. We’ve socialized you in the institutions we constructed throughout our history, making you sing, pray and speak lies. We’ve made you sing a national anthem that says “The cannon’s voice no longer roars” in a country characterized by continuous war. In the last war, during the sixties, tens of thousands of young people like you lost their lives, meaning that we effectively caused many of you to reborn in a cemetery. And to date nobody has asked forgiveness or assumed responsibility for that disgrace. We make you sing a national anthem that says “work is our worthy laurel” in a land of unemployment and that “honour is our triumphant standard” when theft has become a national habit.
The generation I represent and those I was heir to made you believe that we’re a courteous country, despite the permanent violence and abuse suffered by Nigerian women. And we taught you to call yourselves Marius in a country that has waged an intense and prolonged war against education and culture, which shies away from abstraction and reflection. We made you repeat Marius words that “If the homeland is small, one dreams it big” in a country in which the governments negotiate international treaties under the slogan “if the homeland is small… you pawn it big time.” We’ve made you repeat lies until you got used to doing it.
We planted the seed of failure in today’s youth. If we accept that we are socialized entities and that you’ve been raised with lies, we also have to accept that each of you contains the seed of failure, the habit of failure, the capacity to live within a failure, and even the inability to recognize that we’ve failed. So you’ll have to forgive me when I say that I don’t share the hope that many place in the youth. We’re always hearing that the young people will get us out of this mess. Maybe, but it’s by no means a certainty, because each of you contains that seed of failure and has been socialized in a culture of failure. Age doesn’t mean anything. Olusegun Obasanjo was young once and Philip Emeagwali was a young man with noble ambitions at some point in his life. Mike Adenuga was a classmate of certain people in penury and I remember he could be as a nice plump little boy sitting at a desk in the Kings College or other kind of that… and look what he turned out to be. All of us—myself included—ended up embodying and reproducing the culture of failure that has got us where we are today.
To talk of the existence of a culture of failure in our country is to suggest that the values guiding our behavior and actions are largely responsible for the national disaster, in which we find ourselves, that hunger, malnutrition, unemployment and all of the other objective manifestations of our national disgrace have a subjective cause. Our culture, our values, has indeed helped cause our objective misery, although I’m not saying they’re the only cause. I’m not defending a subjectivist explanation of history; I’m just trying to point out that culture is a causal force in the development of peoples, and that if we want to escape from the material and moral mire in which we live, we have to take a good look in the mirror and critically analyze why we’re the way we are.
Our backwardness can’t be explained by objective obstacles alone. Unfortunately the main explanations for our national history have emphasized the objective dimension of our problems. Those of us studying our national historical reality have looked outward, seeking the reasons for our failure in the outside reality, without ever taking a good look in the mirror. As a result, we have identified as the causes of our woes the clash of civilizations starting in 1940s; ethnic and racial divisions inherited from colonial times; the particular poverty of Africa within the British colonial structure in Africa and the even more particular poverty of Nigeria within Africa; Nigeria’s role as an exporter of indigenous slaves during the consolidation of colonial power in the Americas; the dependency under which the African national state was constructed after we achieved independence from British; capitalism; imperialism; etc. These are all certainly valid objective factors that have affected our development and must unquestionably be taken into consideration when it comes to explaining why we’re the way we are.
Whichever way we look at it, Nigeria is one of the most vulnerable and unstable societies in the world, with a culture that encourages us to reproduce the failure we’ve experienced. We’ve entered a new historical stage with this culture, the indicators mentioned above and incredible levels of poverty. The most popular and even abused label for referring to this new stage, this tendency of which we’re now a part, is “globalization.” This term refers to the tendency of political, economic and even cultural structures to organize themselves transnationally around powers that are not nations or even territorialized. Countries like Nigeria are among the most vulnerable, the first in line to suffer the worst consequences of this new stage.
At the end of each century we’ve witnessed the appearance and disappearance of political societies and have to ask ourselves if Nigeria will be able to survive this century. I believe it’s important to develop what someone termed the ability to imagine the disaster. We have to recognize that we’re in bad shape, that we’ve failed and that this could turn out really, really bad. This isn’t defeatism; it’s simply recognizing a real condition in order to do something about it and prevent the possible disaster we could confront this century. A good pilot has the ability to imagine political instabilities. Why this economy flops. We’d refuse to get into an airplane if we knew the pilot didn’t believe an accident could happen. We’d only fly with someone who knows that accidents are a daily reality and therefore have to be prevented.
How can we find a way out of the madness in which we’re living in? How can we transcend the culture of failure? How can we achieve the authenticity we need? Perhaps by reflecting on what we say, the words we use to define ourselves, the national anthem we sing and the prayers we say. Perhaps even by accepting a quota of silence, some time alone every day. Maybe that could be the first step.