Reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas”, I immediately thought about my recent visit to Abuja, the Nigerian capital. Broadly interpreted, the story of Omelas could conjure in one’s mind an evocative, but obnoxious imagery. In my case, I envisaged the political, social, and economic institutions in Nigeria, which have not only failed to address the urgent issues of poverty alleviation, justice, and fairness, but also currently provide the platform for crooked practices that deepen the social, economic, and institutional inequalities undermining citizens’ life prospects.
In Le Guin’s story, Omelas is an exhilarating, quixotic, and idyllic utopian city: a place distinguished by its grandeur, magnificent buildings, and fairytale-like summer festivities. At the first glance, everything seems to work perfectly in this city. The inhabitants are happy-go-lucky, wealthy, and affable. However, a closer look at Omelas reveals an odious incongruity. In the cellar of one of its buildings lives a malnourished, neglected, and grief-stricken child. This child used to scream for help, but now only whines, her voice apparently muffled by fatigue and despair. The child sleeps on her excrement and the sores all over her body have become septic.
The cellar where the unfortunate child is kept is as malodorous as a fetid pile of garbage. People know about the existence of the woebegone child, but no one dares to help her; otherwise, as they believe, their good fortunes go with the wind.
Sometimes, a group of Omelas residents would visit the gruesome cellar to inform themselves about the child’s fate. Initially, they would feel disgust. But as time passes by, they adopt evasive stances that dampen their feeling of antipathy or any roiling of conscience. If the child were to be
released from the cellar, they reason, she is already too degraded to know any real joy. She has been afraid for too long and would not rid herself of fear. Other times, a few, sensible residents would visit the child and choose not to return home. They would walk through the main street of the city, pass the city gate, and head silently to some unknown place.
The central idea of this story, which has been explored by other literary giants, is founded on a certain supposition. If we were offered the hypothesis of a world in which millions are kept enduringly happy on the condition that one innocent but unfortunate member of our society – a scapegoat – lives a life of wretchedness and penury, then would it not be a hideous thing for the rest of us to accept such a bargain? Conversely, if a few people in our society, let’s say 1%, decide to arrogate power to themselves and use the coercive force of the state’s security to keep themselves happy at the expense of the majority, then would it not be equally an outrageous arrangement? These hypotheses (especially the latter) capture the dilemma of the Nigerian conscience, and no place do they reverberate more garishly than in the Nigerian city of Abuja.
Like Omelas, Abuja is a city of happiness and opulence. If reducing progress solely to infrastructure does not amount to a grotesque misrepresentation of progress, then Abuja is a very progressive city. It has beautiful mansions of the kind that only Hollywood or American sports stars can afford. It is also a naturally beautiful place with the overhead scenery of flowing hills, rocks, and foliage that all but surround the city like walls. The Abuja police distinguish themselves from their colleagues across the country. They seem organized and neatly dressed; and they are polite too, so polite you have to blink again in surprise.
Looking at the collective ecstasy of Abuja residents dining in the hundreds of eateries all over the city in the evening, one might flinch at the idea of poverty in Nigeria. Money flows in Abuja
like nowhere else in Nigeria. For the super-rich, Maitama, Wuse or Asokoro is home. In an instance, those who have “made it” seem willing to override their scruples about injustice, inequality, poverty, and insecurity in the country. About 70% of Nigerians still live in squalor and hopelessness, while their leaders, residing in Abuja, bask in opulent lifestyles. Like the residents of Omelas, they seem to live in willful denial about the poverty ravaging the majority of their fellow citizens. The poor are like shadows in their eyes.
But for how long can the super-rich continue to live a life of denial? How long would the poor and hopeless Nigerians fold their hands and watch a small number of their fellow citizens thwart their good dreams and aspirations? Things are relatively calm in Abuja – the place has an uncomfortable quietness, even as signs abound elsewhere of restiveness among the majority poor in Nigeria. A naturally prosperous country with the larger portion of its citizenry impoverished, and living side-by-side with a stupendously rich few, cannot escape for too long the antagonism that poverty engenders. Sooner or later, the herd of downtrodden, oppressed, and seemingly intimidated poor will snap. Nigeria, I suspect, faces a time bomb.
Following recent terrorist acts in Abuja, no one is sure when the next terror will be unleashed. The bomb attacks on the police headquarters and the UN building in Abuja, allegedly orchestrated by the militant group Boko Haram, have created great insecurity in Abuja. The violent episodes constitute nightmares for the Nigerian security operatives. They demonstrate that it takes more than policemen brandishing assault rifles, the presence of armored tanks, or soldiers with bomb detectors to guarantee security. Security in the 21st century is intelligence, and Nigeria has a lot of catching up to do in that regard.
The relative calm in Abuja only paints a picture of stability for the wrong reasons. We might liken it to an informal or temporary cessation of hostilities between feuding parties, so that life can go on for a while. Stability for the wrong reasons is bad for Abuja and Nigeria. It is a temporary ceasefire before the eruption of a more destructive and mortal combat.
Now is the time for Nigerian leaders to work towards achieving lasting stability – or stability for the right reasons, in the capital Abuja and Nigeria as a whole. Rather than reacting to terrorist attacks by sending more military and paramilitary personnel to the streets, the government should address the issues that foster violence in Nigeria. The eradication of abject poverty should be the first place to start, if Nigeria is to make the transition to stability for the right reasons. Lasting stability is an ingredient for political, economic, and social progress. Oil money is not only good for Abuja and the city’s select rich and powerful; it’s desperately needed in the remaining 36 states of the federation.
The overwhelming presence of the police or the army on the streets of Abuja, or anywhere in Nigeria for that matter, may not prevent the next attack by violent militant groups yet. Food on the table may.
*Paul O. Nnodim, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Philosophy, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Massachusetts, USA.