I wish I knew the exact words Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka spoke to President Muhammadu Buhari when they met privately last week. My hunch, however, is that the writer looked the president straight in the eye and described for him the near-unprecedented scale of Nigeria’s crises.
Why would it take a writer to deliver a devastating account of Nigeria’s travails to the man who, day to day, runs the Nigerian shop? Because—as I have argued before (echoing the late novelist Chinua Achebe)—to be a Nigerian president (or governor) is to live in virtual exile from the space you govern. The last thing the president’s (or governor’s) closest advisers—the ones who share the same space with him on a daily basis—the last thing they’d think to do is speak to him honestly about his policy miscues, the depth of suffering by those under his charge, or the degree of public disenchantment with his government. In a country where political office is the surest, easiest route to wealth, few are the advisers willing to tell the truth and risk being ostracized.
Even when workers have not been paid for months, Nigerian governors and the president continue to enjoy their lavish banqueths, fly first class or in a presidential fleet, and collect their perks and more. When the electric power generated in the country drops towards zero megawatts, the governors and the president have no inkling of it. They live in quarters where generators are permanently turned on.
To compound matters, most of the men and women who are allowed within whispering distance of Nigeria’s political executives are seekers of one favor or another. Some of them are contractors, determined to snag the next big one. Some have their eyes on some strange thing called “juicy political appointment,” which translates as a position that enables its occupant to amass illicit funds.
If you visit the president or a governor in search of personal gain, it’s no wonder you’d speak with a tongue coated with honey. You’d wish to give the man in power the most sugar-brushed, rose-tinted and varnished account of the state of the state. Indeed, before you lean towards the leader’s ears, you first fill your mouth with inflated phrases and grandiose praises.
Unless a Nigerian man of power masters that ancient guile of disguising himself and sneaking into the bukas and markets and barbershops where Nigerians plainly speak their woes, he remains a hostage of hired liars, mired in a miasma of deception.
That’s why I was comforted that Mr. Soyinka went to see the president. The playwright is at home in the rarefied company of fellow laureates, but he is also grounded in the everyday reality of Nigerians to feel the pulse of a people racked by profound anxiety, perched on the precipice of doom and gloom. If anybody could articulate the multifaceted nature of Nigeria’s misery, that man is Soyinka.
I hope—I suspect—the playwright took the opportunity to tell his host that Nigeria is in too deep a mess, in too critical a condition, for the kind of cosmetic remedies and analogic steps patented by previous Nigerian presidents and adopted by the current one.
Last February, the Nobelist had urged Mr. Buhari to convene an emergency economic conference to enable experts to offer solutions to Nigeria’s economic quagmire. At the time, the naira had gone on a precipitous fall. Numerous businesses, unable to find or afford foreign exchange for critical imports, were shedding staff or shutting altogether. Most state governments—along with local government areas—owed workers multiple months’ salaries.
It was in those bleak circumstances that the renowned playwright visited Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, and prescribed an emergency economic conference.
Between February and now, Nigeria’s condition has grown more dismal. Many states and local governments still owe hapless workers, this time for many more months. A year ago, some considered it unthinkable that the naira would exchange 350 for one dollar. Today, few are shocked that it takes four hundred naira and more to marry one dollar. Unable to afford access to the dollar, many businesses are sending away more employees or shuttering their doors. Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State has spoken of a plan to have civil servants work only three days a week—and devote the rest of the week to farming and other activities to supplement their income.
A wide swath of Nigeria’s middle class is in danger of being erased from the country’s demographic reckoning. I shudder to contemplate what’s befallen Nigeria’s most pauperized population, how they have been further crushed aground, stripped of every modicum of human dignity. Everywhere you look in Nigeria, the narrative is the same: money is drying up, or is plain gone. The exceptions are the recesses of political office where a privileged, insouciant few still bask in grandeur.
Given the scope of the crises—and the real fear that we have yet to see the worst of it—it is appropriate that Mr. Soyinka elected to go and speak directly to Mr. Buhari, instead of through a ministerial intermediary.
President Buhari’s first duty is to acknowledge that the crises in Nigeria—but especially the economic ones—are way beyond his competence or that of his cabinet. We are caught in a quintessentially fundamental crisis, one that rocks the very foundations of the ill-formed organism that is called Nigeria. At the very least, Mr. Buhari should heed Soyinka’s earlier proposal that an emergency conference be called to discuss urgent Nigeria’s immediate and perennial economic challenges.
But there’s more, a lot more. The space named Nigeria is a victim of decades of deliberate malformation. Every sector of that space has become misshapen, infected by virulent strains of corruption, ethical pollution, sectarian violence and ethnic prejudice. When Nigerians discuss corruption, they often have in mind the familiar phenomenon of political officials who pocket public funds. But corruption is woven into every fabric of our society, including the sectors that are the haughtiest in condemning the plague. Let’s take the now widespread practice of “sorting,” an affliction at all levels of Nigerian education. The term refers to the practice of students handing cash to teachers in exchange for grades. How about male teachers who must sleep with their female students, or fail them? Or what do we say about managers at various companies’ personnel departments who demand bribes or sex as a condition for hiring new employees? And how about the hordes of mis-educated Nigerians who can’t tell black from white, and who are ever ready to defend every act of impunity in the name of ethnic, religious or state solidarity?
Approaching its sixtieth anniversary, Nigeria has squandered every opportunity to become a meaningful, coherent nation. As Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala reminded us recently, our political elite has lacked even the will to save a few pennies for a stormy day.
Despite his hectoring rhetoric, President Buhari has no formula for taming the country’s divisive impulses and knocking Nigeria into shape. The sooner he abandons the illusion that he runs a cohesive country, the better for all of us. Nigeria’s economic crisis is acute, exacerbated by religious tensions and political fault lines. There’s no better time to discuss the structure of Nigeria, the cost of governance, the culture that authorizes mindless embezzlement, and the terms of continued engagement within the polity called Nigeria.
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