Apologies to the Past, By Okey Ndibe
Last Wednesday—the 54th anniversary of Nigeria’s Independence—was a day of silence for me. I didn’t have the stomach to leave any comment on Facebook or Twitter. Two or three friends and family members sent me texts of felicitation. Demure, I merely wrote back: Thanks!
But at the back of my mind I was thinking, What is all the fuss about? What was one supposed to celebrate?
Last Wednesday, Nigeria reminded me of nothing so much as—to invoke the title of Wole Soyinka’s short polemical book—an open (festering) sore.
I know: many super-“patriotic” Nigerians now insist that, before one says a critical word about our dear, dear Nigeria, one must first pause to count the country’s blessings. So let’s count them.
Blessing Number One: We all woke up on October 1, 2014 and Nigeria was still there. As we Nigerians love to say, nothing spoil. We still had our transformational president sitting pretty in Abuja, he and his beloved wife amused to see all the “transformation ambassadors” staging rallies all over the country to draft him to run again, to win again (by a landslide of course), and to, once again, bestow on us that magic rule of his that created so much prosperity that Nigerians raced to the front ranks of private jet ownership in the world.
We still had all our 36 (executive) governors at various perches, doing what they know best: totally redefining every aspect of governance in their various states. If these governors ever leave their kingdoms, it is usually for one of two reasons. One is to go to Abuja to collect the handouts that enable them to do achieve all those revolutionary achievements, chief among them being paying salaries and keeping traditional rulers, contractors and other “stakeholders” happy. Sometimes too, when they have a headache, fever or a faint hint of diarrhea, these gubernatorial geniuses make jaunts to hospitals in Germany, France, the US or UK (which, unbeknownst to some ignoramuses, are Nigeria’s 37th, 38th, 39th and 40th states).
We also had our distinguished senators and honorable members of the House of Reps in place, ever focused on the extraordinary legislative duty of mastering how to spell the word “bill” and the noble job of counting their constituency allowance, to ensure that not a single naira is missing.
Nigeria was still standing, yes, but does that really rate as a blessing? Not if you ask the growing number of Nigerians who can’t wait to be ex-Nigerians. Not if you factor in all the disenfranchised, disaffected Nigerians hankering to live in the Republic of Biafra, or the Oduduwa Kingdom, or the Sovereign Oil States of the Niger Delta, or the Gwoza Caliphate ruled by Boko Haram’s anti-book aristocracy).
Blessing Number Two: In January this year, Jim O’Neill, an economist with an uncanny ability to foresee the future, bracketed Nigeria—along with Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey—as the world economy’s new (growing) kids on the block. The dibia-economist coined the acronym MINT to represent these four emergent economic powerhouses. Like any dibia worth his gourd of palm wine, Mr. O’Neill let it be known that his cowry shells whispered to him that this economic miracle would come to pass only if the MINT nations “reach their potential.” I have searched hard and long, but couldn’t find where he ever said that “potential” refers to the size of security vote pocketed each month by state governors or the number of private jets owned by bankers, politicians, transformation ambassadors, and pastors.
Blessing Number Three: In April, Nigeria surpassed South Africa as Africa’s largest economy, when the Gross Domestic Product is the scale used. In sheer derring-do, the news was like Arsenal coming back from 0-2 at halftime to trounce Man U 4-2. Except that, in reality, Nigeria had long been ahead of South Africa, only that the keepers of our economic data had chosen for decades not to update GDP. Once Nigerian statisticians got to the revision, the country’s GDP for 2012 shot up from $264 billion to $453 billion. Even so, South Africa—whose GDP per capita is $7,508—still dusts Nigeria at $2,688.
Blessing Number Four: Boko Haram is no longer quite the indomitable, invincible foe it was several weeks ago. At any rate, Nigerian soldiers have proved themselves capable of standing toe to toe with the Islamists whose idea of progress is to slaughter, maim or abduct as many innocents as possible, and whose ultimate fantasy of self-attainment is to ravish 72 virgins in Never-Never land.
With these “blessings,” why did I find it impossible to exult last Wednesday? Why did I not break out a bottle of red wine and toast Nigeria’s birthday?
Quite simply because, abstract economic data aside, Nigeria is still a country in reverse gear presuming to be headed forward; its narrative remains one of failure in the areas that matter most. If you audit Nigeria for the signs of vital national health, you’re bound to be alarmed at your findings.
A nation that thrives is one that has a central organic and lofty idea that animates it, lends it and its people an identity, and shapes their journey of growth and renewal. What is that idea in Nigeria? I’m afraid that the closest thing is the relentless, depraved pursuit of lucre. A perceptive commentator once offered a wise crack that I have borrowed a few times: that too many Nigerians see life as a rat race, without reckoning that the winner of such a race remains a rat!
A thriving nation demonstrates a profound respect for the rule of law. No sane person would accuse Nigeria of being a place with an abiding sense of the rule of law. Just last week, a commentator on a listserv wrote something that struck powerfully at the heart of the Nigerian malaise. It is unlawful, he quipped, to be law abiding in Nigeria. At first blush, the statement would seem flippant, even a tad malicious. But is it truly a mean-spirited exaggeration? Hardly!
Just take a look at the roll of recipients of national honors in Nigeria. Each year, those who draw up the list of recipients seem actuated by a macabre sense of honor. Many honorees should be spending time in what the Igbo call nga mkpulu oka—hard labor in jail! Yet, there they are, held up as embodiments of the national ideal, encouraged to strut the national stage, regardless of the fact that they pollute the space for the truly honorable who—perhaps accidentally—make it to the register of honor.
Each day, in the name of partisan political advantage, men and women accused (sometimes convicted) of corruption and other grave crimes are rehabilitated, named to government committees, or beckoned to the supposedly hallowed halls of power.
Fifty-four years after we told the British that we could no longer stand their humiliating rule, we are still crawling like unsteady toddlers when we should be firm and robust in our gait. We have not figured out how to count ourselves to know for sure—not as guesswork—how many people we are. We have not mastered how to keep a credible register of voters, much less how to conduct incontrovertibly sound elections. Fifty-four years later, we haven’t achieved a police force that truly fights crime. Instead, we are stuck with officers who, too often, give comfort to high-powered criminals but offer pure misery to poor, innocent citizens. We have too many civil servants and public officials who raid public funds and get away with it. We have too many magistrates and justices who can’t spell independence, too many who view the bench as an auction block from which to sell judgments to the highest bidder.
Fifty-four years later, Nigeria has no healthcare system worthy of the name. The rich fly away to Ghana, South Africa, India, the UK or some European nation; the poor resign themselves to a slow death in ill-equipped Nigerian hospitals; and the truly desperate troop to miracle-hawking pastors and imams. How about an educational policy—where is one?
Fifty-four years after Independence, many a Nigerian governor can look his people in the face and declare that one of his achievements is the payment of salaries. And he can often count on receiving an applause!
Last Wednesday, the only urgency I felt was to apologize from my heart to those who toiled that we may achieve this strange bequest called Independent Nigeria.
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