Last week was a rather sobering one for Nigeria. The country marked its 56th anniversary, an altogether dour affair. Margaret Emefiele, wife of Nigeria’s Central Bank Governor, Godwin Emefiele, was kidnapped and then rescued. President Muhammadu Buhari spoke to Nigerian youths and served notice that he intends to continue blaming his predecessors—especially the immediate past one—for the country’s dismal situation. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo gave his own speech, again to youths, and advocated an end to the blame game. Mr. Buhari gave another speech, on October 1, Nigeria’s Independence Day, and couldn’t seem to decide whether to blow hot or cold on the militancy in the Niger Delta.
Let’s begin with the Independence anniversary. In his national broadcast, President Buhari said, “Today, 1st October is a day of celebration for us Nigerians. On this day, 56 years ago our people achieved the most important of all human desires—freedom and independence. We should all therefore give thanks and pray for our founding fathers without whose efforts and toil we would not reap the bounties of today.”
On social media, many Nigerians, myself included, had a grimmer take. We would not use the word “celebrate,” viewing it as a stretch. On Facebook and Twitter, I wondered, “What does one say about a 56-year old bumbler?” Then, dredging up hope, I urged all Nigerians to “work harder to steady our doddering giant of a country!”
One or two commentators voiced a stubborn hope, but the majority could muster no glimmer of such sentiment. One wrote a terse comment: “Keep hope alive…The prayer of losers!” Another described Nigeria as “a designed failure,” adding the country was bound to fail “no matter the amount of hard work it receives.” There was even the cringe-worthy suggestion that we should beg the British to return and “rule us”!
Whatever side of the divide one occupies, there’s little question that Nigeria has for fifty-six years been a dispiriting experiment. The late novelist Chinua Achebe wrote famously that Nigeria developed a tragic knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s as if the country were trapped—to borrow the words of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka—in “the recurrent cycle of human stupidity.”
It used to be fashionable to blame the British for Nigeria’s omnibus travails. For sure, the British have much to account for in the way they cobbled together more than four hundred different ethnicities into a geopolitical collectivity. The deft hand of British colonial policy, dividing the “natives” in order to rule them, left a legacy that continues to plague Nigeria even till today.
Even so, I believe even the most irreverent anti-colonial polemicists now recognize how tiresome it is to persist in blaming the English for Nigeria’s every ache and pain. In the close to six decades since we achieved “Independence,” Nigerians have failed to define the terms of their engagement. We fought a brutal war in which at least two million people perished—in order to maintain the sanctity of the British-fangled country. Yet, those lives were wasted in vain, for we have yet to take seriously the task of inspiriting the Nigerian space with meaning and values. We have, so far, postponed if not altogether ignored the task of deciding what it means, at bottom, to be a Nigerian citizen.
That’s why President Buhari’s speech last Saturday—like his predecessors’—was a harvest of platitudes, bereft of passion and an animating vision. On the rise of Niger Delta militancy, Mr. Buhari asked, “What sense is there to damage a gas line as a result of which many towns in the country including their own town or village is put in darkness as a result? What logic is there in blowing up an export pipeline and as a result income to your state and local governments and consequently their ability to provide services to your own people is reduced?”
On one level, such seemingly self-destructive action would seem absurd. However, the absurdity begins to make perfect sense in the context of Nigeria’s historical experience, marked by mindlessly predatory behavior by the country’s elite. There is no question that the militants’ actions, consisting in blowing up oil facilities, are criminal. Yet, the perpetrators of those criminal deeds ought to be seen for who they are: victims of a deeper, Nigeria-made injustice. That injustice consists in the parasitical greed of the Nigerian elite—yes, some of them from the oil-rich Niger Delta. Over several decades, these unproductive leeches stole and hoarded the country’s assets. In a fashion reminiscent of the behavior of some characters in Obinkaram Echewa’s absurdist yarn, “How Tables Came To Umu Madu,” Nigeria’s contemptible elite made a sport of eating for others. You could actually say their voracious gluttony amounted to eating others.
If Mr. Buhari is truly bewildered that militants should blow up oil infrastructure in their neighborhood, thereby abetting the impoverishment of their own region, then I suggest that the president lives in a bubble, disconnected from the grim realities of life in the Niger Delta and much of the country. Nigeria has, unwittingly, consecrated an ethos where state violence (the violence deployed by the privileged few) has begotten mutations of resistant violence. In fact, by instituting violence as its preferred currency of communication, the Nigerian state has encouraged oppressed groups to conclude that their mastery of the idiom of violence offers them the best odds of wresting any concessions from their country.
Even when the country’s earnings from oil exports were robust, the vast majority of Nigerians hardly saw any bump in their fortunes. If they wished to eat well, they often had to angle for a political appointment. Or they registered tithe-harvesting churches. Or—if they had the nerve—they took to armed robbery or the even more lucrative business of kidnapping people for ransom. Imagine the chilling effect on potential local and foreign investors of last week’s kidnap of Mrs. Emefiele—despite her complement of police escorts.
I have relatives who graduated from university more than a decade ago, and yet have found no steady employment. They are reduced to the indignity of eking out a living as stylish mendicants. Last week, former President Obasanjo told students at Baptist Boys High School, Abeokuta, that unemployment in Nigeria was “a time bomb.” To illustrate the depth of the crisis, he shared an anecdote from Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote. When Mr. Dangote’s firm advertised a position for truck drivers, there were six Nigerian PhD holders in the pool of applicants!
One hopes President Buhari comprehends the explosive consequences of that kind of situation. Nigeria is a breeding ground for citizens so dehumanized, so ground to the dust that they would not hesitate to blow things up if they had the means. These seething would-be militants are the victims of a country whose elite, for close to sixty years, has recognized no boundaries when it came to embezzlement of public funds.
Mr. Buhari continues to invoke his personal virtues, his ascetic mindset, and his commitment to change. And he continues to blame his predecessors. But those attributes—self-assessment, rhetoric and the blame game—won’t suffice to address Nigeria’s gargantuan crises. Does he have it in him to outline a bold vision for Nigeria’s new direction? Does he realize that he’s steering a floundering ship, headed for the rocks—unless he finds a way to enlist every hand to be on deck, to use that hackneyed but useful cliché.