An unexpected consequence of the rebranding debate that has animated Nigeria’s commentariat at home and abroad in the last few days lies in a sly and subterranean casting of issues as a struggle for meaning by those who have been persuaded to grab a first class seat on Dora Akunyili’s rebranding train to nowhere. I am speaking here of effects and affects of discourse that have been so cleverly created by the rebranders in order to place a question mark on the patriotism of those who have elected to see beyond the puff and powder of this latest national exercise in expensive delusion.
I have been particularly interested in the ‘patriotic’ exertions of two prominent members of the Nigerian internet community. There is Mr. Uche Nworah, a former critic of the Nigerian establishment who has found a worrisome – not profitable I hope - calling as a pro-Abuja noisemaker since he relocated to Lagos from London. Lately, Mr. Nworah has been behaving like Dora Akunyili’s Senior Special Adviser on Rebranding. Then there is Dr Ola Kassim, the well-known Toronto-based Physician, NIDO “chieftain”, and certainly one of Nigeria’s best advertisements abroad in terms of a citizen’s exemplary achievements.
Dr. Kassim and Mr. Nworah have different internet platforms. The former operates mainly in listservs while the latter has his niche in e-sites like The Nigeria Village Square and Nigerians in America. However, their respective interventions in the rebranding debate have been remarkably similar in terms of both men’s subscription to rather amusing notions of patriotism. Their position is fairly representative of all the versions of the pro-rebranding argument I have encountered thus far, hence my focus on them in this treatise. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explore the theoretical and historical trajectory of that chequered concept – patriotism - with Abuja’s self-appointed internet McCarthys. Suffice it to say, however, that it doesn’t take a degree in history or political science to understand that right from the Greek city states to the global banditry of the post-Cold War American state, the state is always at her loudest, huffing and puffing about patriotism, conscripting the gullible and the opportunistic citizen into the service of official narrativizations of patriotism, only and precisely when she is guilty of the most egregious demission from her obligations to the people in the context of the social contract.
History, the great teacher, avails us of virtually no exception to this rule. The more power is alienated from the people, the more strident and desperate its recourse to nationalist mythmaking and its equation of uncritical submission to such soporific official narratives with patriotism. In other words, the drumbeats of patriotism as defined by the alienated state – alienated from its own people - is almost always proportional to her loss of hegemony and legitimacy. In this context, patriotism and nationalism become hollow instruments of dominance, to be worn as a miserable cache-sexe (what we call “bante” in Yoruba) by conscripted and/or voluntary onward soldiers of officialese. The good news is that history has been kind to us considering the fact that the trajectory of Abuja’s megaphones is no mystery. Dr kassim’s and Mr Nworah’s positions did not happen by accident. We can account for them historically. Patriotic demonizers of dissent on behalf of the state have been with us since the beginning of human history.
In literature, these demonizers of dissent and manufacturers of consent have been created as memorable archetypes by some of the world’s greatest writers. For instance, every intervention by Dr kassim and Mr Nworah since the commencement of the rebranding debate has reminded me of Squealer in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. And there are deadlier versions of Squealer in 1984, another great novel by the same writer. Travel to America’s Deep South at the peak of slavery and you encountered that patriotic slave who screamed “we are sick” whenever Massa was sick. He it was who voluntarily extolled the virtues of Massa to other less patriotic slaves who might nurse dangerous and dissentient ideas about liberty. Vichy France had plenty of patriotic Squealers. Business boomed for Squealers in Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain. Today, there are patriotic Nigerian Squealers ready to scream “we are sick” every time President Yar’Adua rebrands the Nigerian health sector by treating common cold and cough in Germany and Saudi Arabia.
The voluntary patriot has more analytical value for us than the conscripted patriot. At least we know that the conscripted patriot has a gun to his head. The voluntary patriot is the most deadly weapon in the hands of the state. He is to all intents and purposes a rock of ages cleft for a failing and underdeveloping state. This type usually does not depend on the state and her prebends for his livelihood and this creates the illusion of freedom from manipulation and an alibi that is brandished at every turn: “I have nothing to gain. I am doing this only for the love of our dear country.” This is precisely what an incompetent state like Nigeria finds so serviceable in the voluntary patriot. Once the voluntary patriot convinces himself that his version of love for the homeland is exclusive, the foundation for the criminalization of other versions and ideas of love of the homeland is laid. Worse, the voluntary patriot is hardly ever conscious of the point at which he begins to mistake his servicing of the will, power, desire, and bloated egos of the irredeemable failures in the ruling class for patriotism and genuine love of the homeland.
This is the unfortunate logic that powers Dr Kassim’s opinions on patriotism. In some of his listserv sorties, he even allowed himself the unbelievable liberty of proffering psychoanalytical evaluations of those he demonizes as unpatriotic self-hating Nigerians. I propose to give him his first patient. The name is Chinua Achebe and this is the statement that qualifies him as Dr Kassim’s first unpatriotic patient: “Listen to Nigerian leaders and you will frequently hear the phrase: this great country of ours. Nigeria is not a great country. It is one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun... it is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest, and vulgar. In short, it is among the most unpleasant places on earth”.
Chinua Achebe was describing the Nigeria of 1983! Unpatriotic self-hating Nigerians like me will aver that the Nigeria of that period was even paradise! And come to think of it, Achebe already pre-empted the vanity of perhaps the only remaining state in Africa that cannot provide electricity and water to her citizens calling herself great in a heady fit of useless sloganeering. But that is not all Achebe anticipated. He was also years ahead of our patriotic demonizers of other Nigerians: “There will always be some people whose personal, selfish interests are, in the short term at least, well served by the mismanagement and social iniquities. Naturally they will be extremely loud in their adulation of the country and its system and will be anxious to pass themselves off as patriots and to vilify those who disagree with them as trouble-makers or even traitors. BUT DOOMED IS THE NATION WHICH PERMITS SUCH PEOPLE TO DEFINE PATRIOTISM FOR IT”. How then does the master, Achebe, define patriotism? Hear him: “Patriotism is an emotion of love directed by a critical intelligence. A true patriot will always demand the highest standards of his country and accept nothing but the best for and from his people. He will be outspoken in condemnation of their shortcomings”. In other words, Franklyne Ogbunwezeh’s “Is Nigeria the Capital of Hell?” is a hundred times more patriotic than the pro-rebranding rhetoric of the merchants of Abuja’s illusion.
It takes a sophisticated degree of disingenuousness for anybody to refuse to understand that the greatest impediment to the Nigerian brand – if there is any - is the Nigerian state symbolized by the Federal Government and Aso Rock. How do you rebrand a Presidential Residence and seat of Federal power that has become a pepper soup joint for James Ibori, Lucky Igbinedion, and some of the most corrupt people ever to bestride our nation-space? Imagine Bernard Madoff making bail and heading out to chill at the White House, sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom! Sometimes there are no words to describe our rulers’ violence on decency. Can Dora Akunyili go to Aso Rock and tell those cavorting therein that genuine rebranding can only start when they stop stealing? Can she tell her employer that Nigeria can only be rebranded when he stops rigging elections? Can she tell them that she cannot rebrand health when they treat tooth ache in New York? Can she tell her masters that she cannot rebrand education when they pay for their children’s Yale education with looted funds? In short, can she tell our oppressors and her employers that they need to rebrand themselves first? I am sorry for Dora Akunyili’s self-appointed Squealers. They can do a lot of things but they cannot define patriotism for the rest of us. We won’t allow them.
• All quotations from Chinua Achebe are from The Trouble with Nigeria.