Tuesday, 18 June 2013
The Nigerian Ailment By Lanre Giwa
I speak as a layman, in simple terms and with no claim to any historical facts or proofs. Nevertheless, indulge me. Please hear me out as I lay out my theory on what I call ‘The Nigerian Ailment’. Just as with any other ailment it is crucial and often times a matter of life and death that one makes an accurate diagnosis in order to find a lasting cure. A wrong diagnosis can ultimately lead to death while a correct one can save the tormented if instructions are followed. Without too much preamble let me go straight to the point. Nigeria is sick! We are a nation stumbling in the dark like the blind because our eyes, aka the PHCN, suffer from an epileptic glaucoma syndrome. We are a nation crippled because our land, sea and air infrastructure is so broken, disjointed and dilapidated that certain parts of the country are now disconnected from the main. Yes, we are sick!
The first point towards recovery is admitting one’s ailment. Likewise, one’s journey to success begins when one readily admits failure. To continue to say that we are not a failed nation despite all the glaring facts is to continue to apply ointment to a boil without being bold enough to apply the knife, incise it and then withstand the ache of patiently squeezing out the pungent pus so that permanent relief might eventually be obtained. You cannot rebrand a corpse with new clothes and expect the clothes to keep in the stench of death and decay! But how did this once healthy nation fall sick? How did this once-upon-a-time giant of Africa bow to the scourge which destroyed great nations of old? How did this former topmost cocoa-exporter and agricultural powerhouse of the world succumb to the plague of nations? I recall seeing pictures of the Lagos Marina looking like the Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris and I wept. I recall going to the National Theatre in the 70s, that Golden Era of Nigeria when we had a window onto greatness that unfortunately was shut never to reopen for decades.
I recall marveling at that grand theatre and feeling a sense of national pride and awe. Nigerians were once proud to be Nigerians; we had a heritage and were courted by the developed world. If you’re confused about the definition of national pride ask the Americans. Or why go so far, you’ll never see an Egyptian cleaning the underground stations of London, you’ll never see South Africans washing corpses in the morgues of New York. A people who have fled their nation to eat at the dunghill of another cannot be proud of the nation that took away their dignity.
The kids of today will never know that the Naira was once stronger than the Dollar and on par with the British Pound. They’ll never know that Gowon once declared that we had so much money we didn’t know what to do with it. Remember the Udoji awards. They’ll never know that Shagari once declared that we did not have a single kobo in debt as a nation. That was in 1980. Now, only 32 years later things couldn’t be further from the truth. What infernal ailment turns a giant into a dwarf in 32 years? Well, let me share my theory with you…
In 1960, Nigeria became an independent state with a fledgling democracy. There was a lot of national pride at the time and the citizens were prepared to work together towards building a great nation. The civil service was functional and the arms of government whilst still very infant were in order. Then the
military struck in 1966. To a large extent, having read the letters of Nzeogwu in Obasanjo’s memoirs of the same name, I can appreciate what led to the coup of that year. Unfortunately, this singular event marked the downfall of the giant. From the little I’ve gathered about the crop of officers who carried out this coup, they were some of Nigeria’s finest. The likes of Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna and Ademoyega.
Perhaps if the coup had been successful and they had taken over the story might have been different today. The letters of Nzeogwu provide insight into a mind full of national pride, passion and good intentions. A mind loaded with great ideologies and a plan for leadership that might have done much good had it taken over the rule of the country. Alas, we will never know. For the coup failed and in so doing thrust the reins of the nations leadership into the hands of a man least prepared for leadership! Many will agree that the world’s biggest problem today is the leadership void. That man was Aguiyi-Ironsi, an infantry officer trained purely in the military way. A man skilled in the art of war but unschooled in politics and the skills for leading a nation.
He, nevertheless, was the highest ranking military man in the land after the failed coup and also played a major role in crushing it. And so, behold the great giant, this massive, hulking and complex entity of immense potential and energy in the hands of a leader by accident and not ‘by design’ so to speak. The rest is history. Aguiyi-Ironsi was killed and Gowon took over not because he had a plan or an ideology or even a leadership agenda but on the back of tribal emotions and eruptions which spread across the nation after the failure of Nzeogwu’s coup. Then we had the civil war and the place of the military in Nigeria’s political history was irrevocably sealed for life.
After the military became entrenched in the corridors of power, the Nigerian Ailment like a cancer reached a terminal stage beyond which the patient could only begin to waste away. I strongly believe that the worst democracy is better than the best military government. Of course, this is as long as it still is a democracy in which free speech and the rule of law exists because anything other than this would not be a democracy but a civil dictatorship like Mugabe in Zimbabwe and some other notorious African so-called democracies. Perhaps the most grievous impact of successive military rule upon Nigeria has been the plunge from a nation of great intellectuals to a nation of great mediocrity. They achieved this by systematically starving the cerebral core of the country.
During their rule, the great bastions of learning were turned into glorified secondary schools. The extent of damage was such that the Nigerian university certificate became no better than toilet paper on the international scene. Even in Nigeria, most companies do not regard what discipline you graduate with any longer, they take what candidates are available and put them through their own general aptitude test and then filter out the best. The reasoning being, if they can get the right aptitude then they can train the fellow on the job and make him useful. Compare that with the past when our graduates were job-ready upon graduation. I often listen with dreamy eyes when senior colleagues talk about those hitherto grand halls of knowledge, Great Akoka, Great Ife, Great UI, Great ABU and struggle to reconcile the pictures they paint with a Unilag (now bearing the mediocre name of MAU!!! Oh dear God!) where we shared toilets with giant rats who insisted they had first rights to the urinals and toilets ahead of humans.
With a Unilag where 10 students slept like laborers in a room meant for 3, in the steamy Lagos heat no less! Where lecture rooms were packed like stadiums and the possibility of imbibing sound knowledge was cruelly jeopardized. Little wonder the country experienced a massive ‘brain drain’ during the tenure of the military. I recall so many colleagues who left the university at the point when their futures were about to be destroyed. Colleagues whom the crippled system had labeled ‘third-class’ or ‘pass’ and were bound for graduation with these labels. These same fellows ended up in the finest universities outside this country and excelled beyond their mates over there. I recall one in particular was the best graduating student of the prestigious Imperial College during his year of graduation. While in Unilag, he was on track for just a pass!
Understand this, military rule and intellectualism or intense cerebral activity do not go together. I speak as an ex-military school graduate and also the son of a military man. The fundamental military law for enshrining discipline in the ranks is ‘obey before complaint’ and ‘obey the last order’. This explains why Fela called them ‘zombies’. When the military man governs, he does so by Decree. To decree is to command, to order by fiat. Needless to say, it does not leave room for cerebral engagement, the learned and informed debates and fine arguments that are the bedrock of a democratic constitution. In other words, the constitution which ideally is a result of fiercely debated and mutually agreed laws on how a people have decided to live together in harmony, gets tossed aside and martial law or decree prevails in its place. Watch the fine oratory and robust debates employed by British parliamentarians and you will begin to understand my gist.
During military rule there is no room for debate, no free speech. Intellectuals are relegated to the background and yes-men and mediocre fellows who will do the bidding of the government without applying their minds are brought to the fore. The military man surrounded himself with this sort and gradually transferred the economic power of this great nation into the hands of these worthless persons. Money in the hands of a mediocre person will multiply mediocrity. Some of you may remember a particular northern money bag who made his money during one of these regimes. He owned a now defunct airline and also had an array of the latest Mercedes Benz cars of that period which had number plates labeled K1, K2 right through to K13. Now that’s what mediocrity breeds, a money-miss road mentality that revels in exhibitionism. The mediocre mind cannot compute that if money is well spent on road infrastructure only 1 or 2 cars are sufficient for the family.
Neither can that same mind compute that money well invested in the nation’s power grid will mean he/she will not have to buy a 60KVA diesel generator to oppress their neighbor when there are power outages. Mediocrity now scars every corner of this once enviable nation. You find it in the dim-witted movies which insult our intelligence yet have a frighteningly huge following. Surely, it must be because of the sheer comic-content they provide. Surely! Otherwise, one cannot but worry about the mind that lauds such. You find it in the healthcare sector, in the poor workmanship of our artisans, in traffic, at the airports, in the courts of law. Like a rancid plague its stench pollutes the land.
The brain drain sucked the nation of its cerebral core, its intellectual heartbeat. Our finest minds, doctors, lawyers, engineers, literary giants fled the country to places where their intellect could blossom and be valued. Ah, the Wole Soyinkas, Chinua Achebes and Philip Emeagwalis of this great nation, my heart weeps for you as you seek your muse in a strange land. Meanwhile, the nation continued to revel in the mediocrity foisted upon it by the military. Chieftaincy titles were given to well-known crooks and inept overnight billionaires enriched by filthy government lucre were bestowed with doctorate degrees! Oh dear God!
Within the space of a few years, the hitherto enviable value system of the Nigerian society changed. Even the Yoruba who used to be proud of the ‘Omoluabi’ became more concerned about who was paying the bill and not how he or she made the money. I remember there was a time when parents
used to ring into their children’s ears: remember the home you’re coming from, do not disgrace the family name! Another sound now ring’s in the ears of today’s generation, the sound of parents buying expo for their wards to pass exams or even going as far as hiring mercenaries or worst of all, teachers, to sit for the exam.
With each action, the intellectual fabric of Nigeria loses a strand. Each action rendering the once fine clothing of this nation into a rag to be trampled upon within and abroad. Babangida’s regime was the worst. The brain drain was so acute during his reign and the rise of the mediocre was most profound during his eight years of mis-rule. The economic power of this nation was handed over on a platter of gold to the nation’s mediocrity. It was during this period tales were told of kola nut sellers bandying about LPOs of black oil and even crude oil running into millions of dollars. And the nation’s wealth instead of being processed intellectually was squandered by men and women whose vision never went past momentary gratification.
Industry died and Nigeria became a dumping ground for cheap imports and low quality goods. Our finest builders also fled and with their departure the standard of buildings and construction works also tanked. That’s why even today the structures and buildings which continue to weather the storm of time are those built in the 60s and 70s before the loss of intellectualism. Buildings collapse frequently in Lagos, Abuja and across the country. No surprise at all. What you sow, you reap. Nature’s unchangeable law. I repeat, the loss of intellectualism began with the military! I cast my mind back to my primary school days and remember what we learnt about Murtala Mohamed. He was said to be a national hero. Indeed, I’m sure there were many things he could be lauded for but certainly not what he did to the Nigerian civil service.
We had a functioning civil service which was being run by citizens this country had encouraged to return home from the diaspora. Many of them trained and highly skilled administrators in developed societies and enticed back to Nigeria to build the country. He summarily sacked droves of them from their senior positions and persons who once again were ill-prepared for leadership were thrust into their seats. There was the sad story of a UK-trained senior doctor who was pursued out of his government-allocated residence in Ikeja GRA. He ended up squatting in a friend’s garage until the depression of his situation drove him to suicide. Another great mind lost… Needless to say, the fellows who took over made a mess of the entire civil service and we are yet to recover today. Of course, these individuals having witnessed what had happened to their predecessors must have vowed never to fall victim to the whims and caprices of the next military junta. They went on a feeding frenzy and you know the rest. Corruption and the Nigerian civil service became one and the same word. No file moves today without some oiling of the wheels, the fact that one is a committed and dedicated taxpayer notwithstanding.
It is a nation that eats its finest minds because the military made it so. Let me expatiate further using John Maxwell’s scale of leadership. For those who have read his best-selling book the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, he mentions a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is the lowest form of leadership and 10 is the highest. He explains that a level 8 leader is not intimidated by fellow level 8s neither by level 9s or 10s but is very comfortable in their midst and works with them to achieve great goals. However, the lower down the scale you go the more the likelihood of finding tin-gods and small minded dictators. So you would typically find a level 5 leader surrounding himself with level 1, 2 or 3 leaders who kowtow to him and make him feel important. He is easily intimidated by other level 5s and certainly is intimidated by minds operating at a higher level than his. This explains why he would surround himself with mediocrity, yes-men and A.G.I.Ps (Any Government In Power), individuals prepared to give the military man whatever he wants and make him feel all powerful just so they can reap the benefits notwithstanding how idiotic the scheme.
This is the bane of Nigeria’s woes and its chief ailment. We’ve never had leaders with the real stuff of leadership since the first coup when a man totally unprepared for leadership found himself at the helm of affairs. Each successive military regime was the same in its effect. The military gave birth to our
current so-called democracy so how can we expect that the scale has changed. At best we’ve been ruled by level 4 leaders without the cerebral capacity required to manage a highly complicated household with 3 landlords who each speak a different language and were just forced to stay in the same house by a cunning colonial master who understood that a house divided in itself would never stand. All to his advantage. Our differences as a people caused the first coup to fail, our differences make it impossible for us to experience a unified uprising similar to the Arab spring.
The Arabs are unified by language and religion. If you doubt the power of these elements of unification then you’ve never heard the story of the Tower of Babel. Will the Yoruba man ever trust the intentions of either the Ibo or the Hausa man? Will one tribe not assume the other has a tribal agenda at some point and then scuttle the onslaught on Aso-Rock? One must realize that the mediocre state we find ourselves in is a deliberately orchestrated one. The oppression of a people is best achieved when they are not informed, educated or civilized. Knowledge is power and civilization is illumination. The vote of every single American is potent because he is fully aware and informed about his estate as a human being with certain rights. Every presidential candidate knows this and fights for that vote through intellectual vehicles trying to convince the populace and not through loaves of bread! That a man should esteem a loaf of bread above his rights to good leadership is a clear indication of how well the military regimes have choked the fight out of the citizens of this great nation.
So like humbled sheep you find the electorate voting along tribal lines, religious lines or as instructed by the tin-gods of their communities. The North, despite being at the helm of this country’s affairs for the majority of its independent life, exemplifies how the elite can render its people backward to its own advantage. They reap what they have sown now in the form of graduates from the Boko Haram Institute of Terror. A people without voice, mere cannon fodder for the low level leaders who hold sway in the land of the oppressed and intellectually deprived. That’s why elections are never won by the votes of the learned in Nigeria. They are won at the so-called ‘grass-root’ level were politicians draw on low-level and simple-minded emotions: na our pikin, allow am; I sabi him mama, allow am enter. Or perhaps a loaf of bread and some chicken change…
Understand this, Nigeria is made up of 150million people (questionable considering the absence of the cerebral capacity required to conduct an accurate census in this country), less than a tenth are truly educated. An even smaller fraction are actually civilized (one needs to make the distinction between being educated and being civilized and self-aware). If therefore the remaining 130million (almost 90%) are operating at a mediocre level due to years of subjective and mentally-retarding military rule how can you expect Nigeria to look like Germany where the minds of its people are fully engaged?! That’s why people say that if you cart all the Nigerians to Germany and do likewise to the Germans, Nigeria will end up looking like Germany in 5 years while Germany will end up looking like Nigeria. This is the stark truth. You can fight it all you want. It is true because it is a people that make a nation and not the reverse. And a person is nothing if the mind is lost. When people ‘lose’ their mind we know where they end up. They are conveniently moved out of life’s cycle or they end up roaming the streets naked and no different from beasts of the field. The mind therefore defines the man.
The Nigerian mind has been so brutalized, oppressed, harassed, bullied and tortured by the military. Or how do you explain a man flogging motorists to clear out of the way when a siren sounding tin-god needs to get to his guest house to pounce on his waiting girlfriend? Ah my Fellow Nigerians, God knows you have tried! The ‘chancing’ you endure daily and yet remain hopeful shows your strength of will and your confidence in that age-old naija cliché that ‘no condition is permanent’. One day you too shall flog your own and chop your own. I do not begrudge you my brothers and sisters for to expect angelic behavior from you when a man pokes you in the eye daily with peppered digits is the stuff of gospel movies. The resurrection of intellectualism in Nigeria and the deliverance of its people from mental decay is a task we must pursue vigorously. The enlightened do not burn their fellow human beings with tyres and smash in their skulls no matter the crime. No! That is what savages do. A savage is not very far from the primal, bestial nature of the animal kingdom where violence determines the lay of the forest.
Indeed, you can measure how civilized a person is by how much he respects life, not only human but even that of other creatures. To cloth a dog in a warm cloak and gloves out of a mental consciousness that the creature also has a right to warmth speaks volumes. Now, the average Nigerian would crack up with loud guffaws at that. That also speaks volumes… Frankly, I could lament on and on but perhaps we need to cut to the chase. “What must be done? You have said nothing new that Nigerians are not already aware of.” Well, I fully agree but it is good to remind ourselves of these things once in a while so that the ember of inner revolution within each mortal to better one’s mental state does not die. Nevertheless, let me also attempt at suggesting a solution to our ailment.
As with every cancer, there are two routes one can to take to rid the body of the alien growth. There is the aggressive and urgent approach which involves applying the surgeon’s knife to excise the tumor and there is the long-term more subdued approach of applying poisons to choke the tumor. Both carry with them significant risks. The aggressive approach can chop the body beyond repair or redemption and leave the tormented worse off. It might however be the only option left in some cases. The subdued approach could be too slow and thus underestimate the rampaging force of the disease thus being
ineffective in curbing the damage. Applying this to our discourse in plain terms, we could try to take back the destiny of this country by force, through violent revolution but in this age where conflicts never end quickly the effect could leave Nigeria so much worse off than ever. Ask Syria. Moreover, we have witnessed a civil war before and it was horrible. It is only those who have never seen war that cry WAR! WAR!!
I often marvel at those who say that Nigerians are cowards. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we were to head into war as a people who would be the rallying force for a people so diverse and so distrusting of each other’s motives. There is truly no leader of the people today, no beacon of hope that can assure the people of a victory under one umbrella. Gani is gone! Even he would have struggled with the tribal divides.
Some might say, “Hey, it worked in Ghana! They succeeded in violently scrapping away the hard crust of corruption and greed that was choking their country's light!” My response would be, the crust created by the military to maintain the status quo and keep the masses oppressed in Nigeria is harder, thicker more complex. Moreover, how many do you want to kill?! Ghana’s population is just about a tenth of Nigeria’s! Where do you want to start from?!
The subdued approach appears more appealing to the intellectual mind. Granted there is a risk in its lethargic approach and Nigerians are not known for their patience but slowly surely it will deliver. Maybe not even in our lifetime. But the change is already taking place. Across the nation, driven by social media and technology and also aided by this semblance of a democracy which allows some level of free speech. People are beginning to debate, forums of discussion and cerebral engagement are taking place and once again the Nigerian mind is lighting up. See the difference between a democracy, no matter how scruffy, and a military dictatorship? People can express themselves. People can apply their minds and no longer be shut up or shot down. Over time, minds will enlarge and hearts will follow suit and the intellectual heartbeat of a nation will be rediscovered.
A generation is already lost to the callousness of the military, we must accept this. But another generation is here now and we can encourage them to be great thinkers, we can prod their minds to imagine awesome things and wonderful innovations that can put us back on the world map not because of 419 or drugs or such like but because of art, invention, thought-leadership and vision. We need to energize this buzz. We need more fora, more discussions, more cerebral activity and engagement across the land. Open theatres of debate and literary dissection and review just like it was in Greece and Rome of old. We need to engage the minds of the old and the young until mediocrity becomes irritable wherever found in society and enlightenment, excellence, quality and such higher values become most sought after. The bastions of learning must be awakened unto greatness again. With or without the help of the government. I often wonder what great minds we would have in this country if the educational sector was as well funded as the oil sector.
If public school teachers were as rich as bankers and oil workers and it was made a profession so lucrative that the finest minds battled vigorously to find jobs in the teaching ‘industry’ much the same way as they go to great lengths to find employment in the aforementioned industries. Imagine what a fine country with the most brilliant and inspired minds we would be. Just imagine it! It never ceases to amaze me when I hear people in the public space say they wish the military had never left, that things were much better then. How foolish and forgetful some Nigerians can be. They’ve forgotten the corpses which littered the streets of Lagos during the military reign; they’ve forgotten the brutality, the plunder and waste, the loss of free speech and worst of all the mental decay and loss of intellectual advancement we all suffered. Those that refused to shelve their minds and mouths were either hounded out of the country or met untimely deaths.
Remember Professor Awojobi, that genius of blessed memory. Oh dear God! They and their civilian cohorts brought us to this point of decay and ruin and only the mediocre man who once again cannot apply his mind to remember and think past the day could possibly ask them to return. This is my theory on the Nigerian Ailment, I’ve also laid out my solution. The mediocre mind will be assailed by it and be offended by its truth but the intellectual will ponder and even engage me in a robust, healthy non-violent discussion until our minds evolve inspired by superior arguments and I see his or her truths even as they discover mine.
Oh how I miss that great mind of Reuben Abati, now kowtowing in the corridors of mediocrity. I am however comforted by the Honeywell sponsored writings which land infrequently like dew on my parched soul. And with an ending borrowed from them, I add my voice… Fellow Nigerians LET US PRAY!
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters