In the build-up to the launch of NEXT Newspaper, Dele Olojede asked one of his founding partners, Muhtar Bakare, to explore the possibility of recruiting me as one of the foundation columnists of the newspaper. I agreed. Do you have a name for your column? Muhtar asked. I settled for Little Ends.
Why Little Ends? I told Muhtar that the column was going to be dedicated exclusively to little things, to trifle, to absolutely insignificant things, the things that pass under the radar because we consider them too minuscule to merit attention, the sort of thing that would make people call you petty if you flagged them.
I told Muhtar that I wanted to focus attention on how the accumulation of such little things since independence- such ignored things, such petty things - has transformed Nigeria into one gigantic mess.
To conceptualize that column philosophically, I saw wisdom in the approach to life of the little enders in Jonathan Swift’s great novel, Gulliver’s Travels. The little enders were involved in an ideological battle with the big enders. They preferred to crack an egg from the little end. The big enders said tufiakwa! An egg must be cracked from the big end.
A day in the life of Nigeria is an accumulation of little ends ignored.
Recently, I had an opportunity to return on Twitter to the instinct that had made me write Little Ends for two years in NEXT. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo had traveled to Akwa Ibom for official business. He and Laolu Akande, his Adesina/Shehu, live-tweeted the visit. However, the Vice President and his spokesman could not agree on the correct spelling of the Nigerian state they were tweeting from. One wrote Akwa Ibom, the other wrote Akwa-Ibom. To dash or not to dash, that is the question!
As soon as I noticed the spelling disconnect between Laolu Akande and his principal, memories of my Little Ends column welled. I decided to draw heavy conclusions from a situation so trifle, so insignificant that almost no one else noticed it on Twitter. I mean, with all that is happening in Nigeria, who would be so petty as to notice that the Vice President and his spokesperson have different spellings for one Nigerian state?
Even before I flagged it, I anticipated what the reaction would be. I know my people. A dear sister of mine, a fellow Nigerian-Canadian who now lives mostly in Nigeria, was the first to urge me to go easy. I disagreed with my sister. I told her that if the Prime Minister’s office in her other country had come up with two different spellings for a Canadian province, there would have been hell to pay. Nobody would have cut the PM’s office any slack. Why do we Nigerians in the diaspora immediately lower expectations and accept for Nigeria what we would not even countenance in our diaspora homes?
Up till now, the back and forth between me and my sister was cordial. I always tell people: if two people are disagreeing on social media, be careful how you jump into the fray. You don’t know their relationship. Maybe they have a relationship that can take the mode and frame of their exchanges.
Anyway, digbolugis, totally unaware of the relationship between me and my sister, rushed in. One said I was sick and needed healing. Another said I was a psychologically diseased wailing Jonathanian grumbling about everything.
Anyway, I don’t have to give you the full picture of the reactions. You can already imagine the novelty, the strangeness of somebody grumbling about something as insignificant as a spelling mistake. One screamed: must you people wail about everything? The reaction among President Buhari’s fans was lethal. I was merely trying to bring down the administration by resorting to extreme petty criticism. Imagine a jobless Professor whining about dash or no dash in the spelling of a state!
Although I already predicted these reactions, being right about my people’s inability to establish nuanced and organic connections between things gave me no joy. They could not see that the confused orthography between the Vice President and his aide is a symptom, an indicator of much bigger things about our society, our system, a pointer to how decades of accumulation of flippancy, levity, and mediocrity have led us to this sorry pass.
The irony, as I noted, is that many of those wailing and condemning me down there in Nigeria for flagging something as insignificant as a spelling error are queuing up at the embassies of America, Canada, UK, France, Australia etc, in Lagos and Abuja, experiencing humiliation upon humiliation in the hands of oyinbo consular officers young enough to be their children, struggling to escape Nigeria and head out to societies built by generation after generation of civic-minded citizens who whined about big things and also mostly about little things – especially about little things.
They forget that the societies they are struggling to escape to evolved from institutions built on a foundation of vigilance about little things – little things such as not spelling Massachusetts wrong if you are in the White House. If you do, it will be flagged. The current occupant of the White House is an illiterate who can't spell. He is always mocked. However, if Mike Pence and his team cannot spell an American state correctly in public, the matter will take on a sudden seriousness.
Attention to little things is an indication of a certain mindset, of a certain attitude to the life-world of your country. As a diasporan who returned to “join government” after years working in New York, Laolu Akande of course understands that he can afford to be complacent with little things such as the spelling of states because if you are in government in Nigeria, you are guaranteed a critical mass of professional citizen-supporters (the ride on my Oga crowd) who will shout down “the haters” on your behalf. In New York, he would not be making such errors and would not have certain attitudes to public work.
The more generous people among my interlocutors, those who understood the importance of little things and who were able to understand that the critique had nothing to do with Buhari, his administration, his ethnicity or his religion (very few Nigerians operate at this level) tried to console me with another approach to the Nigerian conundrum: Prof, we shall get there. Rome was not built in day. Those countries you always compare Nigeria to were not built in a day. It took America 200 years to get there. It took Canada 150 years to get there.
This is a faulty mindset that we need to purge from our approaches to national discourse. On the surface, it sounds logical. Sadly, it does not stand scrutiny.
You see, America and Canada and Western Europe self-describe as the direct heirs to the civilization of Ancient Greece. I am a student of the history, literatures, and cultures of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. The highest point of the civilization of ancient Greece was the emergence of the city state, notably Athens, which evolved institutions, democracy, trade, government and politics for the Western tradition.
The march to this level of civilization is conventionally divided into four stages for Ancient Greece: the Archaic Period, the Classical Period, the Golden Age, the late Classical Period. Nearly six centuries separate the Archaic Period from the Golden Age and the late Classical Period in Greek history and civilization: six centuries of trial and error, of tears and sorrow, of wars, of false starts, of failure of successes, of reversals, etc.
It took six centuries to get them to the highest point of the civilization of the city-state. The Americans and the Canadians you always reference when visiting the conceptual violence and the excuse of Rome was not built in a day on Nigeria also had the option of using their own history as alibi: it took our ancestors six centuries to evolve Athens. Therefore, we also have a minimum of six centuries to get there.
What ancient Greece did in six centuries, Canada and the United States have done in two centuries. If you do not understand how and why they did it, you will continue to deploy psychologically-comforting excuses for your country’s delay in entering civilization, Nigeria is in the 17th century, at least three centuries behind, and you sit down in Lagos and Abuja parroting that refrain: Rome was not built in a day.
Canada and the United States shaved off four centuries in that race because in their own march through history, they understood that they already had a base, a foundation. They were not working in exactly the same circumstances, with the same tools and the same mentality as their ancestors. When you are using steam and machines, you lose the excuse to say it will take you the same time as it took your ancestors who used ox ploughs to do the same thing.
The majority of Nigerians living today are youths under the age of 35. Some studies and data put this demographic at almost 65% of the population. They have internet. They have apps. And they are saying that they need as much time as 18th and 19th century Canadians and Americans to get there because Rome was not built in a day. Do you see the problem with this logic?
It took your grandfather in the village one week to make yam mounds with his hoe. Today, we give you a tractor, apps, and sophisticated land mapping instruments and send you to the village to cultivate the same land, you let the tractor and instruments go to rot because of the Nigerian factor and then turn around to say that you have time because it took your father one week to cultivate that land back in the 1960s. Again, do you see the problem?
My friend, change your mindset about your country. Your mindset is the starting point that we need to build in a day, in fact, today. Pay attention to and vigorously criticize little things and big things. Avoid the complacency that makes you think we have time because it took America 200 years to get there.
Your challenge is to gain a century on America because of what you have at your disposal.
Not to parrot America’s march as an excuse for your country’s lateness.