I left Nigeria for Canada in 2005. Over 11 years later, I am amazed at how deeply I still care about a country in which professional development opportunities were largely unavailable or blocked. I witnessed how folks in academia hired their children and siblings even in cases where they were patently unqualified. Some classmates in my MSc cohort at the University of Abuja were certain that I would have been immediately hired were I Hausa-Fulani. I disagreed based on a previous experience. At my Alma mater, the University of Ado-Ekiti (now Ekiti State University), my name mysteriously disappeared at the faculty level from the list of shortlisted applicants for graduate assistantship positions. One of my former professors assured me that “we made the rule. We found that non-indigenes were using us as a stepping stone”. Meaning? You are not from Ekiti state, therefore, we cannot hire you as graduate assistant although you were the best student in your cohort in the department.
You may have noticed my name (and its likely origins) at the top of this article. Does anyone truly believe that the folks who removed my name from the shortlist of candidates were representing the interests of Ekiti people? I laugh when people state that the problem with Nigeria is the ethnic divide without articulating any nuances.
Those were the circumstances under which I left Nigeria to study in Canada. You would think that I would be done with Nigeria. I feel the pulse of Nigeria through my mother and I have been closely following Sahara Reporters and Premium Times in the last few years. My recollections of Nigeria, particularly the 1990s, are radically different from my mother’s. Her diagnoses of the problem with Nigeria is even more interesting. It makes for truly fascinating discussion. She believes like many Nigerians do that the Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) held in 1977 constitutes Nigeria’s original sin. I countered: “So, God has not forgiven Nigeria since then?” You would hope we would have been forgiven that particular sin considering the number of churches in Nigeria (I didn’t say Lagos-Ibadan “Expressway”) and the quality and quantity of prayers being offered. She told me (quoting the Bible) that “He whom the father loves, he corrects.” I asked: “Does that mean the suffering in Nigeria is meant to correct us? When will the correction end? Are we no longer in the dispensation of grace? How about countries like Canada?” She said countries like Canada often have major problems. But I asked if we would not prefer the genre of social problems in the West.
I have been trying to convince my mother that the level of a country’s economic development has nothing to do with how many months of fasting and prayer people observe. A declining number of people in Canada consider themselves religious but the standard of living is one of the highest in the world. I told her about the Premier of Ontario who is a lesbian and is managing the largest province in Canada. Many Nigerian prayer warriors would probably not vote for the Premier of Ontario, if she ran for office in Nigeria but would likely not hesitate to live in her jurisdiction. How do you argue economic matters with statistics, charts and graphs when preternatural explanations are easier to believe? This is a delicate point to make as you risk being perceived as an atheist or agnostic.
My mother argues that unlike the 1970s when one Naira was sufficient for a pot of soup, people now throng to parties to which they have not been invited in order to eat left overs. I am left wondering what exactly the people are doing about that. I saw someone eating directly from a garbage dump in Caracas, Venezuela in August 2016. Possession of bread on the streets seemed to have the distinctive feel of a contraband. People who transported food were terrified of being robbed. But there were multiple large-scale protests all over Venezuela to demand government action. Where’s the outrage? Where are the protests in Nigeria? Acceptance of social conditions as given or somehow natural or inevitable is a major problem. It seems to have developed into what has been labeled “learned helplessness” — a socio-psychological numbness and inertia caused by historic trauma.
It appears that people are virtually reconstructing their memories of realities in Nigeria in the last few decades partly because of current socio-economic problems. I have noticed during multiple transatlantic phone conversations a nostalgic tone in my mother’s descriptions of the last 25 to 30 years — a measure of how things are at the moment. My mother appears to believe that the 1970s to 1990s were Nigeria’s golden age. I took a pass on the 1970s and 1980s but tried to convince her that there was nothing golden about the 1990s. I am alarmed that somehow the 1990s are now being construed as the good old days.
I recall the incessant fuel crisis of the 1990s. My mates and I walked home from school during the incessant fuel shortages. The journey was over six miles from home. The effects of the structural adjustment program did bite hard and many businesses were lost. Nonetheless, the IBB government gave out brand new vehicles to senior military officers at the time. It was a popular gesture among the recipients. IBB’s government and several of those after him could not see beyond maintaining their grip on power.
Students from my school and many others were once lined up in the scorching sun to welcome IBB to Ogun state. We missed an entire school day for that. Someone could have easily fainted or died due to the prolonged wait for the Head of State. None of us was traumatized because we breathed and lived in trauma. The experiences toughened us but surely there must be less egregious means to develop resilience.
There was a huge house in our neighborhood called “Ile onina”. The name is surprisingly difficult to translate but roughly means “the house with power supply” or “the house with electricity”. Your guess is as good as mine. The house always glowed in the surrounding darkness as our friends at NEPA did their world-historical job. Of course, everyone began to buy generators rather than protest against power failure.
Mahmood Mamdani is correct. He argues that the postcolonial African state has a “bifurcated” political system in which the grammar of civil society, human rights and democracy is spoken by urban-based persons while those in rural areas are in the grip of ethnic leaders. Ethnic leaders are patronized for purposes of winning elections whether or not they have criminal histories or are ethically challenged. The result? We do not yet have a critical mass of “citizens”; we largely have “subjects”, Mamdani argues.
I see attempts on social media to ridicule and make fun of the conditions in Nigeria. I imagine these are coping strategies. However, we must realize that sharing a funny video about social problems without any concise action is exactly that — entertainment for a brief moment. In the meantime, I shall no longer discuss politics with my mother — there’s no winning the argument.
‘Tope Oriola is professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, Canada. Kindly follow me on Twitter: @topeoriola