Our fault lines
Anniversaries often offer us a platform for stock taking and sober reflection. We have just turned 56 as an independent country and we are not breaking into song and dance. We are rather engaging in a now familiar method of marking our liberty day, by handwringing, teeth-gnashing and finger-pointing over the fault lines that have kept us down in the dumps. Some of our countrymen have even dared to characterise our liberation from the British yoke as “flag independence” because we have had since independence an avaricious neo-colonialist gang that replaced the British colonialists. Some of them think this “internal colonialism” is far worse than what Lord Lugard and his tribesmen did to Nigeria. One of the Governors of Imo State, Sam Mbakwe, had in one moment of frustration with Nigeria’s failure to get to the top based on the abundance of its potentials had called on the British to come and colonise Nigeria all over again. He did not get his impossible wish but it marked the high level of disenchantment with the way Nigeria has been run from even a leader at the pinnacle of our administration.
True, we have had our ups and downs, our hills and valleys, our flips and flops and our many moments of misery, such as this one, but we can still count our blessings though few they may be. We do not need to lose our head or to hit it against a stone for not being able to achieve what may be considered our “manifest destiny.” Manifest destiny is difficult to define but it is presumably based on the expectations of the people which are also hinged on the huge potentials, material and manpower, that such a country should, all things being equal, be able to achieve. But all things are never equal. Besides, destiny is achieved in fragments. We may be in Queer Street now. We may be a people without sheet anchor but all is not lost. We may not have achieved the full quantum of our manifest destiny in one fell swoop, but we have certainly achieved part of it. This nation is one, though divided it may be, though crises it may face. If those who manage it manage it well, with fairness and justice as their articles of faith and make all citizens feel happy to be here then the country can take its rightful place under the blazing sun. Despite the failure of our political class in the art of governance, our youths have done, and are doing, some exceptional things in entrepreneurship, music, drama, comedy, modeling, fashion inventions, sports, scholarship and communication, achievements that have drawn the world’s attention to this land.
The problem with Nigeria, as I see it, is the failure of leadership, be it military or civilian, who have been at the commanding heights of governance these past many years. One hundred and two years after the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates we are still talking about the need for unity. Unity cannot be delivered to us like a neatly wrapped parcel with a green ribbon on it. It comes from honest, sincere, open, nation-building efforts by our leaders. Nigerian leaders, military and civilian, have never really been able to connect with the people because they are insincere. But connecting with the public is an exercise in the mutual learning. Their insincerity poisons the well of that relationship and deprives it of trust. It was General De Gaulle who said that “since a politician never believes what he says, he is always astonished when others do.” The politicians shake your hand during the campaign for office and they shake your confidence after that. During electioneering campaign they are prepared to spend (almost) half the time making promises and (almost) the other half making excuses. We can ask: Na excuses we go chop?
On September 30, 2016, there was a story in the Punch newspaper about a well-known actor and comedian, John Okafor aka Mr. Ibu. He said that sometime ago his wife and his two-year old son were kidnapped by some hoodlums. As is customary they demanded and received ransom before mother and child were released. According to him on January 18, 2011 the boy fell ill and he took him to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi-Araba, where he was diagnosed of inflammation of the liver. He was to be scanned but there was no electricity.
The standby generator was in no position to do its job. It was just standing by because there was no diesel or money for it. Out of desperation, Okafor offered to buy the diesel. You would think the problem had been solved but no. The generator man was nowhere to be found. Okafor was advised to write a letter to the administration department. He wrote it but there was nobody to receive it. He was told his boy needs blood transfusion. Okafor did not say whether he was asked to look for blood for him or not. However, to shorten the story, his heroic efforts to save his son’s life came to zero. The boy died.
According to him, one of the doctors came to him and showing no trace of sympathy at all requested him to release the boy’s corpse to him so that he could cut it open and use it to teach his medical students. “At that moment I felt like committing murder for the first time in my life,” said Okafor. He then threatened to sue the hospital but his lawyer friend told him there was no point apparently considering that it may take 10 years or more to get a decision in court.
Mr. Okafor earns a living by being funny but this is not a funny story. It may sound like one man’s story, but it is the story of most of us, the story of Nigeria. It is a multi-dimensional story of a nation that is closer to failure than to success. Look at all the ingredients of this story: The kidnap of a baby and his mother and the payment of ransom. The failure of a university teaching hospital to offer electricity or to even have diesel for its operation; the not-on-seat syndrome of our public servants and the lack of sympathy or empathy for a distraught man who lost a son due to the negligence or incompetence of a highly regarded hospital which, a few years ago, was named as one of the Centres of Excellence. Comedy depends to a large extent on hyperbole for its success but I doubt whether Okafor was inventing a story or embellishing it. There are many men and women in Nigeria like him who are angry with the state of affairs, angry because Nigeria has let them down, angry that their country has gone to pot.
This is a country that offered so much promise at the dawn of our independence on October 1, 1960. We thought we were on a roller-coaster journey to the city on the hill. We had Nigeria Airways with a flotilla of aircraft, Nigeria Railways with clean coaches roaring from one part of the country to another; we had a bevy of ships steaming in the international waters. In our universities, we had lecturers and students from all over the world which made them truly universal institutions with well-stocked libraries. Now the universities are glorified secondary schools with some lecturers now exchanging question papers for money or sex. In those boom years, we were lotus eaters. Now that we are not in fine fettle we talk about the past as halcyon days because we are no longer on the side of the angels. We export crude oil and import refined petroleum products. We now have the landscape littered with dead, abandoned or dilapidated projects.
National Stadium, Lagos; National Stadium, Abuja; National Theatre, Lagos; Ajaokuta Steel Mill; NAFCON; the three paper mills at Jebba, Iwopin and Oku Iboku. The list is long. These dead or dying projects define the quality or lack of it of our leadership recruitment process. Our greatest failure is in the art of governance. And because we prefer to run a big government which swallows up even the private sector, when the government catches a little cold the private sector is infected with Ebola. The Italian and Japanese governments are two of the most unstable governments in the world yet their countries still work like a well-oiled Swiss watch. This is so because the private sector is not subservient to the government. How many big businesses in Nigeria can survive without government patronage? Pretty few if any. So as the various governments are going through difficult times, the private sector companies are breathing hard and are beginning to choke.
The under performance of the country is brought about by leadership failure. And leadership failure comes from the faulty leadership recruitment process that has become the defining feature of our elections. To be successful in an election at the highest level in Nigeria the candidate must understand the mean mathematical arrangement of religion, region, ethnicity, luck, AK 47, blood oath ceremonies and other seemingly intangible ingredients. Nothing is left to chance and because the quest for power in Nigeria has a cut-throat, do-or-die dimension to it, the stakes are sky-high. And since most of those who have run the affairs of Nigeria were never adequately prepared intellectually for the job, they find it difficult to hit the ground running, to use a threadbare cliché. In the absence of a thoroughly researched plan for moving the country to the next level, the inadequately prepared leader begins to look for a peg on which to hang his incompetence. He then blames everything on the past, on the weather, on the rain, on the sun, on thunder and on lightning. We have witnessed this many times in the past. With such leaders nothing beneficial to the people ever existed until he arrived on the scene. The aim is always to obliterate the past and render its history notional in the hope that if the past is a drab, dark cloth, the present will be a shiny piece of diamond by comparison.