I have long nursed a profound disquiet about the prospects and direction of Nigeria, but two recent encounters have crystallized for me the particular shape and depth of the country’s malaise.
One was an e-mail exchange with a friend who now lives and teaches in South Africa. Irked by my column last week, with its prescription that security vote and immunity be erased from the Nigerian constitution, this friend wrote me a sharp letter. He reminded me that I – like other Nigerians – had made no input in the current constitution. The constitution was basically imposed on the rest of us by the Abdulsalami Abubakar regime. Then he asked: “How can you in all conscience expect that what you never had a say in…you’ll have a say in expunging something from it?”
This friend and I have had a history of sparring over Nigeria. He often accuses me of taking a failed entity seriously, much like a man who unduly obsesses over a corpse. As for him, he no longer worries about Nigeria, a country he’s written off as a bad job. Yet, he was not always a skeptic. He was an activist in his student days at the University of Nigeria, and invested a great deal of time and other resources in the struggle to actualize the June 12, 1993 elections. It was something about that struggle that finally pushed him over the edge, made Nigeria a bankrupt idea for him, a nation that left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Left to him, I should stop commenting on Nigeria altogether. The country’s prospects are dim, at best. Like this friend, I find Nigeria consistently exasperating. Unlike him, I retain, I confess, some residual faith in the redemption of Nigeria’s promise. As bleak as Nigeria appears to me, as forlorn as the landscape is, I am stubborn in believing that the country has never lost its capacity for regeneration. Nigeria is both a nation in dire straits and a polity on the cusp, perpetually, of achieving its dreams.
That conviction explains the commitment I made in 1999 to write a weekly column focusing (more or less exclusively) on Nigeria. It’s been far from an exhilarating journey. Some of my friends joke that my profusion of gray hair bespeaks the harsh, painful life of one who has chosen to chronicle a disaster-in-progress.
My friend is hard put to it to grasp why I bother. In our recent exchanges, he queried why I was lending credibility to Nigeria and its ostensible constitution as well as the April elections. His prescription? “We must instead emphasize [the constitution’s] illegitimacy, which is also the basis of why it’s roundly full of blatant corruption-spawning clauses. To say otherwise is akin to conferring legitimacy to it, and by so doing undermining your essence as a citizen. In which case, you’re a subject, whose lot is to whimper, at the most.” Then he ended by restating an old rebuke: “I keep telling you…to desist from engaging Nigeria as a given.”
There is, one must admit, something that strikes a chord in that reprimand. The givenness of Nigeria is suspect. Indeed, I have never viewed Nigeria as a sacrosanct idea, or a settled question. Nor – to balance the sheet – do I subscribe to the omnibus idea that the answer to Nigeria’s troubles lies in dividing up the space into separate nations corresponding to ethnic or other lines. The case for balkanization is often pushed by partisans who contend, rather lazily and with little or no proof, that virtue inherently resides in the DNA of their ethnic stock. There’s nothing in Nigeria’s history to sustain the idea that any one ethnic group has demonstrated an impressive and sagacious outlook in the management of their affairs.
So, why would one care to narrate the story of a fallen edifice? Part of the reason is my belief that the intellectual, moral and technical capital exists among Nigerians to rebuild their crashed structure. Yes, Nigeria is a paradox, a nation of highly talented people who have been hijacked by some of the most contemptible mediocrities to walk the face of the earth. It’s a country in which convicts assume governorship and other exalted offices
Still, Nigeria’s desultory narratives exist side by side with countervailing glimmers of hope. Think about all the Nigerians who are celebrated in the world for being outstanding writers, extraordinary physicians, leading researchers and scientists, excellent musicians, successful entrepreneurs and magnificent teachers. These are resources the nation can husband and enlist in the task of rebuilding itself.
And then there’s the evidence that things are getting better – however slightly. Nobody expects this year’s elections to approach the scale of impunity of the 2007 season, when the ruling party, led by the ever shameless Obasanjo, stole any legislative seat or state capital it fancied – and then counted on some compliant, grubby judges to validate their fraud. Nigerians can’t see on the horizon any “godfathers” with the impudent airs of a Lamidi Adedibu, who openly demanded that a state governor split the security vote with him, or Chris Uba, who would breathe fire when a governor he considered a political godson defied his orders.
The evidence is that Nigeria is evolving politically. But – in the nature of evolutions – the changes are slow, often imperceptible, sometimes too negligible, and easy to miss.
Yet, Nigerians want to see the pace of change in their comatose country dramatically accelerated. Besides, even as Nigerian politicians are forced to drop some horrible habits, their diabolical dexterity enables them to acquire new, equally terrible – sometimes worse – habits. One of the new tricks this election season is for governors, often with the collusion of commissioners of police, to declare their states off-limits as campaign turfs to opposition candidates. Such illicit efforts to cripple the opposition has led to disturbing violence in Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Oyo, Plateau, and other states.
The frustratingly slow pace of progress brings me to my second recent encounter, this time a lengthy interview Pat Utomi gave to a Nigerian newspaper. Mr. Utomi is an American-educated well-known professor, businessman, writer, and presidential candidate. Mr. Utomi has never been accused of being a gadfly, nor seen as one who speaks flippantly, uttering intemperate opinion to shock or awe. If anything, some view him as a consummate insider, a young man with a mastery of the ins and outs of the corridors and rooms of power.
Now, when a man of such prudent temperament begins to despair of the direction of the polity, then we better pay attention. In the interview, Mr. Utomi spoke with the directness of an Old Testament prophet. “Sometimes,” he said, “our elders, politicians and so-called business leaders either don’t get it or pretend not to, but it’s going to catch up with all of us very soon.” After drawing salient examples from Brazil, where political leaders are held accountable, he turned to Nigeria. “The Jonathan government,” he said, “has crippled the Nigerian government. All the public resources of our country are being used to prosecute private personal political campaign of the PDP. The state governors have pillaged the treasuries to advance their political interest.”
Utomi continued: “Now I see people who are coming out of prison for criminal offence being celebrated on live television as if they were war heroes, and I definitely knew something was wrong with the heart and soul of my country. Values shape human progress. If we have gotten that wrong, progress can’t take place.”
He then prescribed something that struck me as both radical and commonsensical. “We have to bring this system down completely and rebuild…Destroy it…Crash the whole thing. It is not worki
ng for Nigeria, it will not work for Nigeria.” To buttress his case, he asked, “Show me one road that has been completed in Nigeria in 12 years. One road. The dualization of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway? One Canadian diplomat was coming to a meeting with the Concerned Professionals and other civil society groups three years ago and he had gone to speak to some group in Ibadan. When he arrived the meeting, he said that driving on the Lagos/Ibadan Expressway is a violation of the fundamental human rights of all those who travel on it.”
Utomi’s pronouncements capture the pressing challenge before Nigerians. He depicts how thoroughly misshapen Nigeria is, but holds on to some implicit hope. Properly understood, he’s asking that we think beyond the ritual of the April elections. We must get over the distraction of these elections in order to begin contemplating what to do with the burden that our nation has become.