Last Thursday, in the first segment of this series, I introduced the book, Time to reclaim Nigeria, a collection of 65 essays authored by Chido Onumah, a 45-year old Nigerian. The essays were written over a 10-year period, 2001-2011, and presented to the public in Abuja, Nigerian capital, on Thursday, December 15, 2011. I also introduced the author by means of historical circumstances in which I met him. The segment ended with my general assessment of the book, describing it as “lucid and accessible, appropriate in time, patriotic, radical and revolutionary”. His ideological and political platform is unambiguously and uniformly progressive and democratic. Other people’s reviews, which I endorsed, praised the book in terms of clarity, courage, hope, passion, faith, and optimism. We shall, beginning with this segment, look at the book in more detail.
The first chapter bears the title The trouble with Nigeria and consists of eight essays: Why Nigeria is a basket case (June 5, 2006); Nigeria at 48: Rethinking Nigeria (September 30, 2008); Rebranding our leaders (April1, 2009); The trouble with Nigeria (October 1, 2009); A country of low expectations (August 2, 2011): Who is afraid of homosexuals (March 13, 2006); Homosexuality and its enemies (March 21, 2006); and In solidarity with a forgotten people (October 10, 2006). From what I have said so far about the book as a whole, and about the author, and from the reviews that have appeared – some of which I quoted last week – it is possible to guess the author’s positions on each of the eight essays. Your speculations will even become less difficult if you are not encountering the author through his writings for the first time. I shall therefore focus just on three of the eight essays: the essay bearing the title of the chapter and the two essays on homosexuality.
The author, ChidoOnumah, aligns himself with one of the theses in Chinua Achebe’s 1983 classic, The trouble with Nigeria. In this small book, Achebe said: “There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leader to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership”. The trouble with Nigeria is therefore “simple and squarely a failure of leadership”, Chinua Achebe said in 1983 and ChidoOnumah agreed in 2009 and endorses in the book under appreciation. While accepting Chinua Achebe’s (and ChidoOnumah’s) proposition, I shall interpret or reduce “leadership” in ChidoOnumah’s essay to the Nigerian state and the various governments constituted under it.
With this reading, I can then make the following comments. There is an old saying – which is sometimes read cynically – to the effect that a people deserves the government it gets. We know that this is historically and politically untrue. And its inbuilt fallacy is not completely removed if we add the qualifier “sometimes”, so that the statement becomes “A person sometimes deserves the government it gets”. But it can be transformed into a strong proposition if it is reformulated as a statement of right and imperative, namely, that a people have the right and the duty to change the government it does not deserve. If for some reasons a people (temporarily) finds it difficult to change the government it does not deserve, no blame can be put on it. But, if, for some reasons, or for no reason at all, a people renounces its right, or duty, or both, then the blame is squarely on such people.
The debate on homosexuality and same sex marriage is till ranging in the country. At the time of writing, the Senate had passed a bill criminalizing homosexual practices and same-sex marriages and imposing stiff penalties on those found guilty of committing or facilitating the acts. The House of Representatives, the other chamber of the National Assembly, is yet to decide on the bill. If it passes it, then it will transmitted to the president for assent. So, there are still two hurdles on the road of the bill becoming a law. The debate is not new as demonstrated by the two essays which Onumah wrote almost six years ago – on March 13, 2006 (Who is afraid of homosexuals?) and on March 21, 2006 (Homosexuality and its enemies).
I do not intend to review the current debate or revisit earlier ones, beyond the observation that the scientific proof that homosexuality is largely biologically determined has not been falsified. I limit myself here to presenting some of the pronouncements Onumah made on the question in the essays mentioned. In Who is afraid of homosexuals, I select three of these pronouncements: “What is human nature? Human nature is no more than the agglomeration of social, cultural, historical and economic factors that shape the lives and attitudes of a particular group of people. Human nature is not static. In some societies in Nigeria, many things, including cannibalism and killing of twins, that we thought to be “natural” in time past are no longer acceptable”. I may also add that “left-handedness” which was once thought to be “evil” and had led to the murder of “left-handed” children is no longer so believed – or not widely so believed. The reason is that, like homosexuality, “left-handedness” has been proved to be largely biologically determined.
The second statement is more “provocative”: “Nigeria was not cobbled together on the basis of the Bible or Koran. Nigeria is a secular state, or so the Constitution says. It is worrisome when the government abandons its responsibility to citizens and becomes the handmaiden of religion. The civilized world has moved away from the period in history when religious laws and doctrines formed the basis of social interaction between citizens in a state”. The third statement is a statement of humanism and constitutionality. “Gays and lesbians (that is, male and female homosexuals respectively) are not harming anybody. They are not aliens from some distant planet. They are our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, in-laws, friends, neighbours, etc. They deserve to be accorded all rights guaranteed to very Nigerian in our constitution.”
Onumah’s second essay on homosexuality is a response to public reactions to the first. Like I did in regard to the first, I shall select some statements from the second essay, Homosexuality and its enemies, and offer some comments. First statement: “From the outset, let me say I am not gay – not that I need to justify this to homophobes out there. I am stating this to help change the tone of this debate, and perhaps, shift the focus.” Second statement: “We are told that homosexuality is a “White man’s problem’; that it is foreign, or for those who prefer fancy term, “un-African’… We deny the fact that homosexuality and homosexuals have been with us from time immemorial.”
The third statement is a rhetorical challenge: “How many Nigerians out there who went to an ‘all-girls’ or ‘all-boys’ school can come out and say boldly that they didn’t hear of homosexual encounters in their school?” Speaking for myself, I would say that I briefly attended an “all-boys” secondary school where I was a boarder but would now not be able to enter the denial which Onumah challenges us to do. I can also not enter a denial in regard to my experience later in the university. And like Onumah, I am not gay. By the way, I was in secondary school in the first half of the 1960s and in the university in the second half. So I am talking of between 40 and 50 years ago. You can therefore see how old the phenomenon is in Nigeria.
Onumah’s fourth and last statement in my selection relates to the fundamental right of the people to say No to bad laws: “Of course, it is the duty of governments to make laws. But when governments make stupid laws, people have a responsibility to oppose such laws”. The “anti-gay movement” is fighting to have the anti-gay bill become law and people like Onumah are opposing them with scientific, historical, and humanist, and even constitutional arguments. But, if, in spite of the latter’s efforts the bill becomes law, its opponents will continue their opposition by all means necessary and possible. The right and duty to oppose bad laws have no “statute of limitation”.