Nigeria: 55 Years Later And Not A Moment For Sober Reflection

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NIGERIA @ 55

Eme N. Ekekwe

One does not easily remember the last time Nigeria’s independence anniversary came around and we celebrated in joyful gratitude to the Creator and Ruler of the all the worlds, happy that, at least, we look like the giant of Africa, compete with all the necessary endowments.  We have never used the opportunity of this anniversary to look back and to showcase what we had contributed to the humanity of which we are a part, and in particular, to the Black race whose potentials we carry in our national genes. Every anniversary Nigerian leaders more or less make the same bland but decent and familiar noises.  They call for prayers in churches and mosques (it is not fashionable to include the shrines!).  They urge Nigerians to be their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. None of this is complete until they include the call for sober reflection. On the Friday and Sunday nearest the anniversary day the churches and mosques fill up and television cameras follow these leaders in their pious best as they perform that necessary ritual.  Outside the mosques and churches, goodwill messages fill the pages of newspapers and magazines, complete with those pictures posed for effect. All this could have made good entertainment except for that small point about sober reflection which may even have been made absent-mindedly. It gets one thinking.

Come to think of it, nobody sees any of those who call for it doing anything resembling sober reflection: not on television and not in either print or electronic media.  Yet, this is what we need most, especially at the level of our leadership.  One thinks that those who tirelessly call for sober reflection do so out of mere habit.  Perhaps, they are sincere about it. But let’s face it, what else could they reasonably say at such times? The phrase “Sober reflection” sounds responsible and mature; it suggests a deep – or even a sophisticated – mind.  Coming from politicians, it gives the citizens the impression that their leaders are capable of, or interested in, something deep and profound – the sort of thing that should result from reflection, especially the kind of reflection that is truly sober!

In a country whose leaders are even faintly familiar with sober reflection, government would have been doing all that was necessary and possible to ensure that poverty was reduced to the barest minimum.  Leaders who engage in sober reflection would have known that their best resource is in the people and they would have ensured that this resource was truly cared for and nurtured.  And what better way to nurture it than to ensure that the youth were in some reasonable employment; to ensure that there would have been active policies to reduce poverty, and to pay salaries and pensions (such as they are) as and when due.  But here, 55 years after the formal departure of our colonisers we are living with over 25% unemployment level, excluding the underemployed.  It is a major news item when salaries get paid!  A society whose leaders engage even only occasionally in sober reflection does not have about 70% of its population poor and hungry after many poverty reduction programmes have supposedly been implemented.  Then there is that something cynically called ‘stomach infrastructure’ which appears to be the height of sophisticated policy that some of our leaders are capable of.  Charity may begin at home but it makes a very poor substitute for policy.  If this was a country where leaders do any sober reflection, it would not have taken 55 years for Nigeria to be declared polio-free.  These are sobering thoughts, if ever we needed some.

Over 30 years ago the late Professor Chinua Achebe explained very lucidly that “the trouble with Nigeria” was the poor quality of leadership it has had since independence.  Of course, we know the very serious damage that colonialism did to our national psyche; we know how Britain used the resources from here to help rebuild its economy after World War II. And, of course we can show that the damage done by Britain still haunts our development efforts.  All that is true.  All that is also what should have made sober reflection an on-going engagement of whoever had the privilege of ruling Nigeria.  But even though they have occasionally identified periods for sober reflection, there is little evidence that our leaders take their own advice.

A cursory review of how we have spent 55 years of national independence suggests that many among those who have led Nigeria show they learnt and imitated much that was wrong from their colonial masters. Many, but mercifully not all of them, of course. The majority in that group simply appropriated for themselves the same instruments of political domination and economic underdevelopment.  In changing nothing from the colonial past, these leaders simply became the new conquerors.  They were our brothers and sisters with whom we worshipped in same churches and mosques and this masked the fact that they had merely replaced our colonisers but have not come to represent us. Even now, when any segment of the society does a little sober reflection, and argue that leaders have been capitalising on these primordial issues to confuse, that segment is dismissed out of hand.

Just like the colonial masters, this majority in the leadership cadre has treated Nigeria as some real estate to be plundered. This plundering is often done legally, of course. Who has not heard of the mind-boggling figures about looted funds in foreign countries? Who has not seen the figures that represent the salaries and allowances of our national legislators and many other political office holders?  All those figures were taken from the national treasury because the papers and contracts had been signed.  Repeating the numbers here would just be an exercise in tiring the mind and courting frustration.  Nigeria must be one of the few countries where a Governor, a Legislature or Local Government Chairman comes into office as poor as the next man without a godfather but leaves office rich enough to be a godfather in his own right.

A little sober reflection would have shown those who grow filthy rich just from being in public office that all of this is eventually a waste of time and effort! All the wealth an individual amasses is eventually eaten by termites.  So, why spend all that effort working for termites? There is an old saying that nobody in his right mind should busy her/himself cracking palm kernels only to feed them to the fowls. A little sober reflection would show that those who use public office for self aggrandisement as opposed to giving the genuine service they promised the people are doing just what the elders condemn. Soon or late, here or there pay day will come.  The Good Book says the Almighty is not mocked!

Besides, being so rich in an environment where an overwhelming majority is poor is dangerous. It cannot be good for one’s psychology to see so many poor and hungry in the neighbourhood while one and one’s friends/associates are the only ones who afford decent shelter and two or three meals daily. Who knows how far hatred, envy and frustration can drive those who are weak?  And what if the many that, rightly or wrongly feel deprived, turn on the few who are rich?  Some may be quick to dismiss this possibility on the ground that those rich and mighty also pay for security.  True, indeed, but a little sober reflection shows that before the so-called Arab Spring, few could have believed that one day – and soon after the World Bank forecast a rosy future for their economies – political office holders in Libya, Algeria, and Egypt, that they would be attacked by mobs, some of which would feature women, the most deprived of segments in the Arab world.  These, indeed, are days when the unexpected and even the improbable are happening with frightening regularity!

From all that one has seen these past 55 years, Nigeria’s ruling class has not shown any capacity for sober reflection.  The political arm of this class (comprising both civilians and military) has been good at copying policies from others, and seems incapable of offering something original and new. It believed it was doing something new when it abandoned the Westminster parliamentary model and opted for American-type presidentialism.  And it thought it was being original when it tried something called ‘home grown democracy, when, in fact, this was the same dictatorship re-christening itself and making “home grown” look like a bad brand. In both instances, the result has been highly questionable. The Americans our leaders copied operate a passable democracy and strong federalism compared to what is happening here.  What we copied from them has left us still clamouring for internal party democracy and true federalism.  We bought the World Bank’s structural adjustment even as we were pretending to be doing something original and new.  And when it seemed that there could be and outbreak of real democracy, Babangida and his cohorts aborted it and stepped aside for full blown dictatorship to overtake the country.

From America’s constitution Nigerian leaders copied that great phrase, “We the people”.  But in the same breath they went right ahead and imposed a constitutional document on the people that was drawn up by a few.  Recent attempts under Olusegun Obasanjo and later Goodluck Jonathan to review that document have been met by roaring failure because at each turn the rulers displayed their chronic inability or unwillingness to engage in sober reflection.  This is a class that substitutes navel-gazing for serious contemplation.

At the economic and technical levels, this ruling class has fared no better.  The vast graveyard of economic waste speaks to this.  Industries that could have employed thousands of people have been abandoned.  If this nation had leaders who engaged in sober reflection, it would not have gone for decades without investing in electricity – yet, it was building industries and its population was growing.  These same leaders repeatedly announced their intention to have Nigeria join the league of economic power houses in the world.  They apparently believed that one could run an economy meaningfully by relying on imported generators and petrol.

But make no mistake; there is hope for the country. Even as it is, some progress has been made. As the country lurches from one confusing situation to another, experience that was not there is being gained.  It only seems nothing or very little has been achieved because there is so much confusion among our leaders that the rest of us tend to despair.  For instance, our democratic experience is much higher today than it was in 1990, even though our legislators still run out of debating points and have to resort to using their fists occasionally to drive their points home in the hallowed chambers.

On their own, our leaders appear to have failed in moving the nation forward by much – to use their favourite and popular phrase.  From all indications, circumstances will force them to look for critical ways to improve in the difficult task of sober reflection.  The contradictions of uncritical engagement with neoliberal economic policies are becoming more glaring by the day.  The corruption that has fed their private wealth has also driven the economy down on its knees.  This, along with unforgiving and harsh international economic environment, will force some degree of sober reflection at least among a few of these leaders.  This few will realise the need to think along more progressive lines, and to clamp down on some of their obvious excesses.  This condition will be fraught with the danger of reaction and backsliding. However, it also holds the promise of once more opening up the political space just that much wider. Already this is happening even though a relapse cannot be ruled out.  All said and done, the majority of the people are a bit conscious of their rights today than they were yesterday.  It is a very gradual process.

When it is obvious that the status quo cannot be sustained, sober reflection will no longer be just an option; it will become an imperative for the very survival of the ruling class and the rest of the society.  That is when the possibility of genuine and sustained progress will be once more within reach.   This is where we are now, and that is the burden of the Buhari administration. As was pointed out earlier, this is indeed the season in which the improbable and the unexpected happen.  Only some sober reflection can help the country move from the slow to the fast lane of development.  As this same Buhari once reminded us, this is the only country we have and we have to salvage it. Doing so will be relatively easy once we take stock of where we have been, where we are (and why we are here), as well as where we intend to be in a clearly defined time frame, with realistic milestones.  This will be the result of continuous and sustained sober reflection, and it is bound to yield a better future for everyone. Already one can see in some segments of the youth, evidence that they are fully aware that business as usual is unsustainable, and they are beating new paths to the future. It is still the case that most youths are imitating the bad habits of my generation, but these are the ones who will be left behind.  All is not lost and much can be gained.

Eme Nwachukwu Ekekwe is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Port Harcourt.  He holds a PhD degree in Political Science from Carleton University, Canada.  He is currently the Director, Claude Ake School of Government of the University of Port Harcourt as well as the occupant, Claude Ake Chair of Political Economy.

Ekekwe has wide ranging work experience in both the public and private sectors of the economy as well as in international development. He is a teacher, public speaker, researcher, mentor. He has written several books and journal articles in his area of specialization.