All posts by Okey Ndibe

About Okey Ndibe

Okey is a novelist, political columnist, and essayist. He is the author of Arrows of Rain, a critically acclaimed novel published in 2000.

The Wonder Known As Wole Soyinka, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

Wole Soyinka turned 80 at the very beginning of this week. For many, that milestone must seem incredible. He looks scandalously young and vibrant, his physique trim, his mind ever engaged with some of the major literary and political issues of our time. He’s the kind of man who provokes the question, “What is the secret…?”

The 1986 Nobel Prize for literature often strikes me as a kind of birdman. The metaphor is inspired by his amazing restlessness, his constant trips around the world in the service of the arts and ethics. An old joke among his friends and close admirers is that the man lives in the air. The joke is far from an exaggeration. Soyinka maintains an itinerary that would daunt many people half his age. I have had the privilege of being present as he gave a public lecture in Nigeria or the United States, often in an academic setting. I have also run into him at several airports in different parts of the world—New York, Atlanta, London, Amsterdam, Lagos. He’s easy to spot because he stands out in any crowd. There’s that signature dome of hair, a puff of white, as regal as halo. There’s that sartorial air all his own, a sleeveless vest often hanging over a band collar shirt. And there’s that briskness of movement befitting a man who is called, again and again, to attend to some fire in his country or around the world.

It’s as if Soyinka’s patron deity, Ogun, prepared him well—in mind and body—for his tough assignment as artist and activist. In fact, the implied dichotomy between artist and activist is often erased in Soyinka. His art frequently embodies his ethical outlook and concerns, which is not to say that his art is reducible to his politics.

The constant seeking of a balance between art and political engagement has been Soyinka’s inescapable burden and boon. One suspects that more Nigerians have encountered Soyinka through his unceasing interventions on political issues than in his artistic enterprise. It’s something of an odd situation, but wholly understandable. Soyinka’s language is, as a rule, stylistically and structurally challenging. His language is far above the diction quotient of most users of the English language in the world. That conjuncture—the rarefied register of Soyinka’s language and the fact that most readers have relatively modest linguistic funds—accounts, in part at least, for the often-levied charge that the Nobel laureate’s art is elitist and that he delights in esoteric speech.

For me, the seeming legitimacy of that charge is mitigated by the fact that Soyinka is the closest contemporary example in Africa of what—for want of a better word—I would describe as a total artist. I know of no African writer—and few in the world—who has approached the sheer breadth of Wole Soyinka’s artistic arsenal. He is, quite simply, Africa’s preeminent artist par excellence, a catholic entrepreneur of the expressive arts.

By catholic, I allude, of course, to his insistence that no artistic form would be foreign to him. He has worked in such varied genres as drama, poetry, fiction, memoir, cultural theory, music, film, criticism, journalism, and translation. He has most excelled as a dramatist, several of his world-class plays commanding critical praise for their dramatic tension, their resonance of language, their equal evocation of the social and the mythic, and for the playwright’s flair for plumbing the depths of his characters’ psychology. His achievement in the other areas, including his two highly unique novels, is significant.

I’m often curious how Soyinka has been able to maintain such a remarkable, if not unsurpassed, level of artistic productivity despite the incessant intrusion of the peculiar mess called Nigeria. In 2006, shortly after the publication of his most comprehensive memoir, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, I had an occasion to broach the issue. In an interview sponsored by the Chinua Achebe Foundation, I asked Soyinka: “Your new book, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, has just come out. You are not only a writer, but also an activist, an agent provocateur…something of a conscience of the nation. How do you reconcile such diverse demands?”

Here’s how he answered that question: “I don’t know about being the conscience of the nation. I’m satisfied with being my own conscience, and perhaps that’s what drives me. I have never really separated the two functions, which means that I have never given myself the burden of trying to reconcile incompatibles. We are all, before anything else, citizens. We belong to an environment and have a sense of community. Being part of a community means enjoying the security of being part of a family, but at the same time, accepting responsibilities towards that family. I mean, a nation is an extended family. So I have never seen my function as being different from the functions of any other citizen, except, of course, that my profession happens to be that of the word. And so I use that tool in the interest of my responsibilities. There’s no contradiction, whatsoever. Okay, from time to time I resent it very strongly. Let’s say I’m in the midst of, or planning a particular creative project. I’ve become internally committed to it, and something external impinges—like, what you’ve just mentioned; the politics of one’s existence—and of such urgency, that I have to abandon my project. And then there come strong resentment: Oh my God, not again, not again. When will I be able to plan my life according to my immediate moods, and so on? But it’s only in terms of those periods that there is resentment.”

Some people criticize Soyinka for the frequency of his critical comments on Nigeria, for his jeremiads against what he might call the “anti-men/women” leading Nigeria to ruination. Yet, I greatly admire Soyinka’s stipulation that we are, above all, citizens. As citizens, as Soyinka reminded us in his prison memoir, The Man Died, we cannot afford silence in the face of tyranny. As citizens, we must abhor the climate of unreason that darkness our space and deadens every facet of our society. As enlightened citizens, we ought to challenge ourselves and summon our fellows to rise to a loftier imagination and achieve a vital, vitalizing community.

I am in Soyinka’s debt for modeling what it means to be an engaged citizen and committed artist, and for demonstrating that the two impulses are not incompatible. May he be granted many more years of service to society and the artistic muse.

Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe

Something Really, Really Dangerous, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

Something really, really dangerous has happened in Nigeria. It is the reduction of human life to the scale of an ant. It is not about to happen; it has happened already.
 
Forget all the talk about 2015 and the coming general elections. Forget the debate about the PDP and the APC. Ignore the news that Nigeria has vaulted into the largest economy in Africa. Don’t bother about the bloated national conference and its tiresome deliberations. The most urgent issue in Nigeria, the issue that ought to keep Nigerians awake, is the evident abrogation (not devaluation) of human life.
 
The evidence stares us in the face each passing day. Day after day, Nigerians are massacred in some savage attack. Nigeria is a country in the grips of a blood lust. It’s as if, every waking day, there’s a promise of senseless death coming the way of some hapless Nigerians. Death or bereavement by Boko Haram has become a daily occurrence, even a guarantee.
 
In the last week and a half, Israeli authorities spared no resource to find three missing, abducted schoolchildren. When their remains were discovered, apparent victims of murder, the Israeli government stepped up reprisals against their suspected killers. Human rights organizations have flayed Israel’s excessive and indiscriminate use of violence against Palestinians. I’m troubled by such overreach. But the lesson is not lost on me: Israel reminds us how a nation-state behaves when any of its citizens is killed or even put in harm’s way.
 
From the explosive, strife-torn Middle East to the streets of Philadelphia in the United States.
 
Last Saturday, a roaring fire consumed residential blocks in Philadelphia. The deaths of four children in the fire brought home the gravity of the tragedy. The horrid event was near the top of radio, television, online and print news coverage. Driving last Saturday, my radio tuned to National Public Radio, I heard a local public official say, “A very, very tragic thing has happened to the city of Philadelphia today. We lost four beautiful children.”
 
 
I didn’t get the official’s name, but his voice carried a stamp of conviction. His words moved me. And then, suddenly, a deep sadness settled over me.
 
Here’s why. It occurred to me that, in Nigeria, no government official talks like that about children. No, they don’t think that children are beautiful, their lives precious, and their death—whether in a fire or human-made bomb explosion—a tragedy. If a Nigerian official describes children as “beautiful” or their death as tragic, it’s hardly ever from the heart, hardly a heartfelt sentiment. Instead, it’s likely because some speechwriter smuggled the words onto a written text.  
 
I did argue in a previous piece that Nigerians had been reduced to the level of animals, their death at the hands of vile, callous terrorists eliciting little outrage and no reaction. I had contended that Nigerian lives were so thoroughly discounted that the killing of a Nigerian hardly carries more weight than the killing of a chicken.
 
Then it recently struck me, quite suddenly, that I had exaggerated. I had erred in lifting the Nigerian to the level of a chicken. I’m afraid that the Nigerian has been so dehumanized, so terribly debased, that s/he invites comparison, not so much to a chicken as to an ant.
 
Here’s the difference. Chickens have a visibility that ants don’t. If a car runs over a chicken, there’s a carcass to remind onlookers of what happened. Not so an ant. The death of an ant is often invisible because ants are, on the whole, too small to be noticed. Even when we walk, we often step on and squelch many ants without taking place.
 
This sense of dying unremarked, I’m afraid, has become the lot of the Nigerian. Nigerians appear oblivious to the parade of tragedy stalking their land, to the unceasing line-up of lives sacrificed daily on the altar of sectarian violence.
 
Somebody could argue that Nigeria’s media feast on reports of terrorist attacks and their maimed or murdered victims. But that’s hardly a refutation of my point. Nigerians are slaughtered in massive numbers, every single day, so that the victims’ lives no longer count, even when some newspaper brings us the news.
 
There’s sheer fatigue in the international media about Nigeria. Boko Haram would have to top its continued abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls to awake the curiosity of the battery of foreign media correspondents covering West Africa. Were it not for the presence of American operatives, I would have been willing to bet that the search for the missing Chibok schoolgirls had been suspended. In the Nigerian imagination, more than 200 abducted schoolgirls might as well be 200 crawling ants!
 
Nigeria has become a Federal Republic of Ants ruled (note the word “ruled”—not governed or led) by a greedy, grasping bunch of politicians with insatiable appetites. In this misshapen republic, every thing, every value and every human presence, is subordinated to the rulers’ relentless pursuit of lucre. The rulers are too busy, too focused on looting, to notice the ants they trample underfoot. The ants are too riveted by the ardor of scrambling for the crumbs that they pay no heed to those of their number ground to death both by the rulers and those who presume a divine mandate to kill.
 
For me, all the talk about fashioning a new Nigeria, all the stipulation about new terms of office and the creation of new states, all the celebration of Nigeria’s stride to the position of Africa’s top economy is poppy cock. A nation must have citizens to make sense at all. Nigeria has humans scaled down to ants, instead.
 
That’s the dangerous thing happening in Nigeria. The first, most urgent order of business in Nigeria is to recreate its people into dignified humans. Unless this is done—until this task is accomplished—the space called Nigeria doesn’t even begin to make sense.
 
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Towards an Ethnicity of Values, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

For me, one of the most disconcerting facts about public discourse in Nigeria—including intellectual exchanges—is the rampant, if not default, deployment of ethnic or religious sentiments. Confronted with issues of moral urgency that demand the taking of principled positions, far too many Nigerians find comfort in embarrassing expediencies shaped by ethnic or religious affiliation.

I’d like to suggest that this particular malaise ranks awfully high in the menu of toxins ravaging the Nigerian body politic. And the greater pity—the tragedy, in fact—is that this particular pathology has infected a wide and widening section of that demographic group that answers to Nigeria’s intelligentsia.

It is dispiriting enough to run into unlettered Nigerians who can’t see the right or wrong of any issue without first wearing their ethnic or religious lens. It becomes sordid when those who are seemingly educated resort to viewing matters of profound import through the lazy, easy, hardly pertinent prism of ethnic aggregations or religious affiliations. Such haste to seize and spout ethnic jingoism or religious jingles raises serious questions about the form and content of education in Nigeria. At its best, education is a tool that frees and enlarges the mind, enabling the educated to see matters without the blinkers of ignorance or parochial platitudes.

When we see Nigeria’s parade of PhDs act and speak as if each issue is defined by their particular ethnicity or religion, then we must pause and ask salient questions. Here’s one fundamental question: Is the possession of an academic degree (or degrees) synonymous with being educated? Another way of posing the question is: Do degrees and diplomas translate into education? Is there a correlation between acquisition of a string of diplomas and the cultivation of an enlightened outlook?

I recall that, at graduation ceremonies, the graduates are said to have been found worthy “in character and learning” to deserve bestowal of degrees. Where lies the “character” when many of the graduates of Nigerian and foreign schools are willing participants in crooked activities, including primitive, criminal accumulation of wealth and electoral fraud? Where resides the “learning” when so many of our graduates are ever willing to subordinate principle to ethnic or religious rationalizations?

Perhaps, then, some of the Nigerians we glibly refer to as educated are merely “certificated.” The difference is crucial. A woman or man may cram up some economic theories or principles of moral philosophy without having the slightest clue how to apply them in real life. Such a person would be able to regurgitate the crammed information in an exam to earn a high grade and an impressive certificate. But ask her/him to apply the “knowledge” in the dynamic praxis of lived experience—and you see certified incompetence.

In the 1980s, the novelist Chinua Achebe had occasion to rebuke a group of academics at the University of Lagos for evincing a narrow, stultified vision of education. Here’s what happened. Achebe had given an interview to the then Concord newspaper in which he bemoaned the cataclysmic decline in the quality of education in Nigerian universities. His criticism drew the ire of some UNILAG academics. In separate interviews, these critics sought to dismiss Achebe’s argument. One of them accused Achebe of making a pronouncement that had no “scientific” proof. He then asserted that the spoken English standard of the average undergraduate was superior to Achebe’s. Another—a sociologist, if my memory serves me—reminded Achebe that each discipline has and uses its own jargon. A third, an economist, voiced his disdain for fiction, stating that he had no use for novels. He concluded that he missed nothing by not reading novels.

Appalled by the substandard quality of the responses, Achebe riposted that his critics had inadvertently made his case far more eloquently—about fallen standards—than he did originally. To the critic who accused him of making an “unscientific” claim, Achebe wondered how the counter-claim about the average student’s spoken English standard measured up as “scientific.” He reminded the sociologist that each discipline has its lingo, but that the most learned people are able to rise above the esoteric tongue of their discipline to communicate to a broad audience in an elegant language. He held up Bertrand Russell, the Nobel prize-winning philosopher mathematician, as an exemplar of the educated person who was able to transcend disciplinary claustrophobia. Achebe had some bad news for the novel-detesting economist. He told the man that, in denying himself the insights and pleasures of fiction, he loses much in culture and enlightenment—and would not even be a good economist. Achebe categorized the criticism of his assertion that educational standards had declined dramatically as a case of “combative ignorance rabidly trumpeting its own values.”

I’m willing to suggest—scientific proof or no—that educational standards in Nigeria have further declined significantly since Achebe’s claim in the mid-1980s. In fact, the invention and spread of the Internet has both afforded once repressed groups ease of access to expressive platforms and facilitated the articulation of abhorrent, pathological attitudes. One is constantly shocked by the ethno-religious name-calling between different Nigerian groups on Internet forums. The dirtiest epithets are hurled at the ethnic or religious “Other.”

Those with access to the Internet—many of them, one imagines, university graduates—frequently promulgate ideas that members of other ethnic groups are sinister and diabolical, in short as the very incarnations of evil. In like fashion, these Internet partisans often make sweeping ethical claims for those who belong to their states, ethnicity or religion.

Such claims, whether they denounce or extol whole groups, are caricaturist in nature. They have little or no validity, even when they appear persuasive or seductive. In fact, we should recognize them as inimical to the cultivation of a broad base of enlightened society. I have argued elsewhere that ethnic baiting and stigmatization often precede genocidal horrors. The free circulation of ideas of the inherent villainy of members of other ethnic groups and the inherent moral goodness of members of one’s own ethnic collectivity is a clear and present danger. Those who champion such attitudes are ever reluctant to subject their positions to self-scrutiny. They seldom pause to interrogate the legitimacy of their notions of collective guilt and collective heroism. Without any form of examination, ethics is collapsed to the size and shape of ethnicity.

The rampancy and growing appeal of such wholesale creeds have fed the argument that Nigeria ought not to remain one country. That contention is outside the purview of my talk, except in one respect. It is this: If Nigeria is ever to have a chance at self-realization, then its enlightened citizens must strike alliances across ethnic, religious and social lines. A critical core of citizens must begin to look beyond ethnic and religious considerations when faced with issues that behoove us to take principled positions.

I am Igbo by birth, but I make no extraordinary claims for my ethnicity. There are admirable Igbo men and women and deplorable Igbo men and women. The same is true, I believe, for members of Nigeria’s other myriad ethnicities. I make a point of judging Igbo politicians and public officials by the same criteria I use to judge politicians and public officials who happen, say, to be Kanuri, Efik or Yoruba. I admire people who share my values, whatever their ethnic or religious identity. I believe, quite simply and unapologetically, in the ethnicity of values.

This column is adapted from a talk I gave at an event organized by the National Association of Seadogs in New York City on June 28, 2014. Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe

Nigeria and Biafra’s Wasted Memory, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

Much is often made of the hundreds of billions of dollars that Nigeria has frittered away since huge deposits of crude oil were discovered within its boundaries. A contemptible, uncreative elite, its obsession with conspicuous consumption matched by its inability to produce anything of value, has overseen Nigeria’s obscene, record-setting squandermania.

This elite’s legendary greed and mindless accumulation were able to fester and thrive because of the near-absence of sustained resistance by their victims—especially students, workers, and peasants. Yes, Nigeria has become a particular mess because of its long history of mediocre leadership. But of equal significance—the other part of the equation—is the failure of Nigerians to demand of those who preside over their affairs.

This point deserves to be stressed. On my way to the airport to travel to Toronto to deliver this talk, I tuned my car radio to America’s National Public Radio. Fortuitously, the station was interviewing a Nigerian-born guest, Olu Oguibe. Responding to one question, Oguibe, who is a professor of arts at the University of Connecticut, disclosed that he had become dubious of Chinua Achebe’s thesis that the trouble with Nigeria—in the late novelist’s words—“is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.” Oguibe said he had come to question Achebe’s implied exoneration of the Nigerian followership. For him—and I am increasingly persuaded by the argument—Nigerians have consistently got the leadership they deserve.

For all the cash that Nigeria has thrown to the wind, I’d suggest that the country’s greater tragedy is its refusal to be instructed by the lessons of the Biafran War. And this particular tragedy began just moments after the cessation of the civil war.

Yakubu Gowon’s declaration that there were no victors and no vanquished was, on the face of it, noble. Yet, the government’s post-war policies did not always conform to the government’s lofty sentiment. For one, the idea that the erstwhile Biafrans were not automatically entitled to the houses they owned, before the war, in different parts of Nigeria was at odds with the logic of “no victor, no vanquished.” In many cases, the Nigerians who held such homes in trust were honorable enough to return them to their original legitimate owners as soon as hostilities ceased. In other cases, the government deemed the properties “abandoned,” thus enabling usurpers to snatch them permanently from their true owners.

It was, in the context of the war, a grave anomaly. It did not make sense to force a people to return to the fold of a country they had renounced—only to turn around and stipulate their alienation from the assets they owned before their attempted secession.

The government’s policy of paying every former Biafran a mere twenty pounds as full redemption for any financial assets they held prior to the war was, quite simply, unjust. Like the notion of abandoned property, that financial policy mocked the very idea of insisting on Biafrans’ (forcible) re-incorporation into the entity called Nigeria. What was the point of forcing a people to re-enter an unhappy, abusive and unjust relationship?

It can be argued that, more than any other ethnic group in Nigeria, the Igbo, who formed the core of Biafra, had come closest to embracing the promise and possibility of a Nigerian nation. They had been more willing than most to venture beyond their enclave, dispersing and settling in different parts of Nigeria. They made the effort to learn the languages of the areas where they settled, to build homes, and to participate—to a great extent—in the lives of their hosts. In a sense, then, they had been more willing than most to accept the prospect of an evolving trans-ethnic community, and to do their bit to make that community—in other words, Nigeria—a viable one.

When a group so passionate about testing the viability of Nigeria feels such wrenched sense of injustice as to demand a divorce, then there is cause for sober reflection. More than two million people perished in a war to uphold the sanctity of the space called Nigeria. The casualties of that war paid with their blood for Nigeria to germinate, flower, and grow. Alas, post-war Nigeria chose to erase the memory of their great sacrifice. It never seized the opportunity to ask necessary questions about the meaning of this name—Nigeria—in whose name so many lives were cut short, so many more bodies maimed.

Instead, Nigeria returned to its old, reckless ways. It proceeded as if the war had never happened, as if so many lives had not been lost. That return to business as usual—the business being an unjust dispensation—meant that those who had died in the fight for one Nigeria constituted a colossal—betrayed—waste.

The prolonged economic exploitation of the people of the oil-rich Niger Delta would not have happened if Nigeria had learned the right lessons from the Biafran War. The writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Ogoni compatriots were unjustly hanged in 1995 because Nigeria had conveniently forgotten the import of Biafra. The 1999 massacre of the unarmed residents of Odi in Bayelsa State was, at bottom, an aftermath of a country gripped by amnesia about Biafra. The 2001 slaughter of the people of Zaki Biam in Benue State was possible in a climate in which Biafra had not registered in Nigeria’s memory. If Biafra counted in Nigeria’s memory, then the country’s leaders would have awakened sooner to the horrors of Boko Haram’s decimation of innocents in several northern states.

More than fifty years after Nigeria’s “Independence” from Britain, few, if any, Nigerians can say with confidence that they know what it means to be called citizens of Nigeria. Nigerian prisons overflow with so-called citizens being held without trial. Human Rights Watch and other international monitoring organizations have reported a fact that’s so morbidly clear to Nigerians: that law enforcement agents in Nigeria carry out widespread extra-judicial executions. Nigerians vote in elections with no guarantee that their votes will count. Instead, a coalition of “powerful” godfathers, electoral officials, security agents and judges conspires to normalize a culture of electoral fraud.

If any idea animates Nigeria, it is this: that the state exists to enable and empower a tiny coterie to steal to their greed’s content. That’s why the ostensible war against corruption is a joke, taken to new ludicrous heights by President Goodluck Jonathan who has taken up the odd semantic task of splitting hairs between “stealing” and “corruption.” The preservation of a Nigeria that remains safe for embezzlers is, from all indications, an urgent mission. If you’re in doubt, consider that Nigeria’s yawn-inducing national conference is loaded with ex-convicts, pardoned convicts, vacated convicts, and should-be convicts.

As currently constituted, Nigeria does not stand a chance of surviving. It is far from a nation. It is, at best, a collection of strange bedfellows whose elite is bound by a common—looting—interest. At the inauguration of the so-called national confab, President Jonathan declared that the corporate unity of Nigeria was not open to negotiation.

It is a misguided stipulation. It is an ineffectual response to the spate of renunciations of Nigeria by groups in different parts of the country. Let me be clear: I have not given up on the idea of Nigeria, but Nigeria as now constituted is little more than an irritant. And I have the hunch that Nigeria can no longer get away with forcing itself on people. Unless all the groups within Nigeria elect to work, across ethnic, cultural and sectarian lines, to found a nation, it is going to be extraordinary hard (and costly) to maintain the lie of one destiny.

There is no more urgent question facing all Nigerians than contemplating whether we desire to work towards being one. The emphasis is on “work,” for the process of building a nation is an arduous, painful, conscious undertaking. It is only after this fundamental question is confronted—and answered—that Nigerians can tackle such other questions as the terms of our engagement, the irreducible content of citizenship, and the central ideas that shape our lives.

This whole declaration of the given-ness of Nigeria amounts to a false affirmation of Nigeria’s viability. At best, it represents a wish by those with their lips to the trough of the treasury to perpetuate an entity that has always been a cash cow for the few at the expense of the millions of distressed Nigerians.

This is the second and concluding part of my reflections. Please follow me on twitter @okeyndibe

Biafra, the Ostrich Mentality and Nigeria’s Tragedy, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

There is a sense in which the name of the malaise afflicting Nigeria is Biafra. I have argued before—and I must do so again—that Nigeria’s refusal to confront and address the sore of the Biafran War is the chief reason no nation has been able to materialize out of the space called Nigeria, no peace has been had in that space, and no real progress—much less development—has been recorded. As the world watches, riveted, Nigeria is spinning and spinning in a dizzying, ridiculous, violent dance, racing ever closer to the edge of that jagged precipice we have all romanced for fifty-four years—if not before.
 
The wound called Biafra haunts Nigeria precisely because Nigeria imagined that it could get over Biafra through cheap sloganeering (no victor, no vanquished), the mere invocation of the mantra of the Rs—reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation—through silence and willed forgetfulness—indeed, by playing the ostrich.
 
I’m not going to be detained by contested, contending accounts of the Biafran struggle, or even questions pertaining to whether the quest for secession was inevitable. At minimum, we ought to agree that Nigeria, from the moment of its British conception, was neither essential nor natural. It was, above all, convenient and profitable for the British. And all the logic that informed its constitution made eminent sense, finally, mostly from the prism of British interests.
 
When the British removed their bodies—but not necessarily their spirits and ghosts—from the Nigerian space, we all had a historical duty. That duty was to pause and ask the question, what does Nigeria mean? It was to determine whether we all—the 400 odd ethnic collectivities that the British bracketed inside the space called Nigeria—wished to maintain the shape of this British design. It was to discern whether we all—the constituent elements of the space—felt sufficiently animated by the prospect of living together, fraternizing as a people with shared aspirations and common destiny. In the event that we all found Nigeria an irreducible, compelling proposition, then we should have hatched out the terms of our coexistence. We should have sketched out our imagination of Nigeria and spelt out what it meant to be called a citizen of Nigeria. In other words, we should have commenced the task of remaking the British-delineated space called Nigeria into a veritable, vital, and robust nation. Had we done this, we would have acquired some kind of compass for navigating our self-fashioned nation towards the direction of our own envisioning.
 
We did not as much as attempt to grapple with that arduous, messy, but inescapable process of nation-formation. We settled for the British-made illusion. We were content to take the British confection of a Nigerian idea and run with it. We pretended that there was some inherent logic to Nigeria, that it was coherent and organic, a full redemption of some promissory note, almost a divinely designed imperative.
Perhaps we shirked this duty out of laziness, a sense of convenience, or a naïve faith in the British. Perhaps, then, we believed that Nigeria was a nation just because imperial Britain had seen fit to outfit the space with roads that linked its different parts as well as such accouterments of the modern state as postal and telegraph services, railways, the police, prisons, schools, and a cadre of civil servants.
 
We neglected to pay attention to the fact that, at every opportunity—especially when our “nationalist” figures pressed the case for Independence—British officials had insisted that Nigeria was not a nation but a collection of “nations.” In retrospect, we should have paid attention to the British. They owned the patent on Nigeria; they knew that they had not achieved a nation—indeed, that they had not intended to achieve one—when they set out to cobble together the space called Nigeria.  
 
It was a monumental error, this collective failure to examine the crisis-prone, top-down edifice called Nigeria. We all found ourselves in the nightmarish situation of belonging to an ostensible nation that reflected little or no sense of community. Instead, life in Nigeria was marked by strife and disillusionment and mutual distrust and—above all—a pathological brand of competitiveness. Forced to belong within a space that had no spirit-lifting narrative, no pathos or inspiring ideal to impart, Nigerians became fascinated with “eating” the flesh of their hollow bequest unto death.
 
It is no surprise that the metaphor of the “national cake” was a central, if not dominant, part of the Nigerian discourse. In the literature, journalism and politics of the country, each group exhibited an obsession with cornering its own “share of the national cake.” Nigeria made sense to Nigerians only as a banquet, a delectable dish, as something to be consumed.
 
A nation is dreamed and then carefully, deliberately, consciously designed and built. No people in history have ever “eaten” their way into a nation. If Nigeria were a true nation—or even one with prospects—we would all have been concerned with working hard to lift it to great heights. We would have been bakers, baking Nigeria into a grand cake, not just devourers bent on cornering ever-larger slices of the Nigerian cake.
 
Truth be told, the Igbo appeared the most committed of any group to the idea of realizing Nigeria. They dispersed to all corners of Nigeria and threw down roots. Wherever they settled, they built homes and learned the language and opened businesses or began careers as civil servants. They seemed to have taken more seriously than most the summons to inspirit Nigeria with national consciousness.
 
The pogroms of the Igbo, especially in 1966 and 1967, exposed the fragility of the British-fangled space and amounted to a profound, blood-soaked repudiation of the Nigerian project. Consequently, Biafran secession became the most significant interrogation of the unformed, ill-formed, malformed project named Nigeria. Biafra was far from an idyll; it actually had its imperfections and contradictions, including the cooptation of the ethnic minorities of the Niger Delta. Even so, it was a charter for justice, a demand by a besieged people to be left alone to arrange their lives in a separate space, apart from their tormentors.
 
Nigerians had not taken time to audit the content of what they inherited from the British, but they were quite willing to sacrifice more than two million lives in a little more than thirty months in order to sustain their unexamined, British-made project. The Biafran aspiration—which was the first time a group had risen to question a colonial arrangement—was ultimately squelched, the better to uphold the inviolability of Nigeria.  
 
Alas, the defeat of Biafra birthed monsters that have since menaced all of us, exposing the seams and fissures in a space that continues to pretend that a nation already exists within it.
 
The concluding part of this column will be published next week. Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe

Uncle Sam Is In, But Let’s Not Pack It In, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

Now that the United States, Britain, and some European countries may be stepping in to help rescue the Chibok girls, I hope that Nigerians won’t fold up, reach for their beers and pepper soup—and go into snooze mode.

I doubt that Boko Haram intended it, but the extreme Islamist sect has brought out something close to revolutionary in Nigerians. In abducting close to three hundred teenage schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State, the group helped to dramatize Nigerian officials’ indifference to the plight of—quote and unquote—everyday Nigerians. In a way, the Chibok girls represent that “everyday” Nigerian. And once it dawned on Nigerians that the abducted girls didn’t count in the estimation of their “leaders,” they decided to do something about it.

They marched to the National Assembly in Abuja and let its officers know that they won’t stand any longer for inaction and indifference. They organized marches in many Nigerian cities, demanding that their government take action to bring back the girls. Nigerians resident abroad picketed their country’s embassies in different parts of the world to make the same point. They helped make #BringBackOurGirls one of the most resonant hash tags of the last month.

Nothing of this sort had happened since 2012 when Nigerians stood up to oppose President Goodluck Jonathan’s ill explained decision to increase the price of fuel. Then, as now, Nigerians proved that, acting together, they have the power to compel their government officials to pay (some) attention.

Left to their own devices, these officials would proceed with their leadership-as-merriment style, blind to the groans of the people they presume to lead, oblivious to the agonies and cries of the downtrodden, the wretched, the smacked up and down. That attitude explained President Goodluck Jonathan’s two-week silence, as if the Chibok abductions were a fairytale. That also explained the president’s tame response to the April 14 slaughter of “everyday” at Nyanya bus stop.

By contrast, when Vice President Namadi Sambo lost his brother in an automobile accident, the president elevated the event to a national tragedy. In sympathy with his bereaved deputy, Mr. Jonathan canceled a meeting of the Federal Executive Council. The signal was clear: the country’s business may be put on hold whenever a “stakeholder” is pinched by grief. But let tens of “stakeless” young Nigerian students be slaughtered in their sleep, 300 girls be abducted, or hundreds perish in a series of bomb explosions—and you won’t hear pim from the powers-that-be. Not in Abuja and not in any of the thirty-six states.

Mr. Jonathan did not invent this aloof, out-of-touch stance. Far from it. In fact, Nigeria’s military regimes thrived on it, what with their mindless decrees and edicts that gutted the middle class, pulverized the poor, and drove many Nigerians into exile. In January 2002, an unsympathetic President Olusegun Obasanjo arrived at the horrific scene where more than a thousand Nigerians, fleeing from explosions in a cantonment, had drowned in a swamp. Heckled by the victims who had lost loved ones, Mr. Obasanjo used the occasion to lecture them on manners and status. As a president, he sternly told the rowdy crowd, he didn’t have to be present among them at all.

The implication was that a Nigerian president’s place is always among the privileged few who answer to the name of “chieftains/thieftains” or “stakeholders/steakholders.” As for the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, he was too sick to care about the misery prowling the poorest of Nigerian streets.

Indifference is the default mode of Nigerian officials. That’s why, despite their lavish allowances, few members of the National Assembly maintain any constituency offices. And those who do have such offices are hardly ever there to meet with their constituents, to take the pulse of the people they supposedly represent. That’s why, whenever they commingle with the public, Nigerian officials ensure that no real meeting takes place. So they arrive with a retinue of sweaty, unsmiling, gun-wielding security agents who cordon them off from any form of exchange with the “ordinary” people, enforcing a buffer between them and the crowd.

Lost in all this arrangement is any sense that political power ought to be rooted in the people, that the proper end of any political office is to advance the interests of the public. That sense is lost, unless the people insist on renewing it.

That’s why the surge of energy and outrage over the missing Chibok girls was good for the people, but bad news for do-nothing leaders and Boko Haram’s reprehensible murderers. Nigerians stood up to serve notice to their “leaders” that they, the people, count. And that they, the people, are sick and tired of being ignored, jettisoned, consigned to the margins, mortgaged and murdered.

It was that collective passion—as well as global media scrutiny—that finally forced Mr. Jonathan’s hand. It nudged him to promise to search for and rescue the girls. And—since Nigeria does not have the wherewithal to undertake the task—the president consented to accept help from foreign powers.

There’s promise and there’s peril in the arrangement. In the end, Boko Haram is a Nigerian problem, and it is Nigerians who must solve it. If we ever abandon the task to a foreign power, then we better brace to become a full-time colony all over again, in deed if not in name.

With the US and other foreign nations pledging to lend a hand in the war against Boko Haram, some Nigerians appear set to pack up, pack in, and tune in to the next English Premier league football match. But there’s a real danger in taking our eyes off the (real) ball: demanding real leadership and accountability from our officials, from the president down to local government councilors. The lesson should be obvious to us: custodians of the public trust focus on doing the people’s work only when they know that the people are ever alert, that the people have great expectations—and won’t settle for mediocrity or nonchalance.

Even if the Chibok girls are rescued tomorrow, Nigeria will still be in a state of war. The carnage wrought by twin explosions that rocked Jos, Plateau State, is a reminder that the agents of death are very much on the prowl. Enlightened Nigerians must zero in on the urgent, long term mission of creating a country where impunity does not reign, where those who steal public funds are jailed rather than venerated, where no group may get away with killing or abducting others in God’s name.

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What Do APC, Nigerian Leaders Stand For? By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

The All Progressives Congress (APC) is now frequently called Nigeria’s main opposition party or group. Which designation raises the question: what exactly does the APC stand for? Or—a different question: In what significant ways does the APC represent an alternative vision for Nigerians?

To the first question, my honest answer is, I don’t know. To the second, I’d say the answer is, it’s hard, if not impossible, to say.

True leaders excel in the way they respond to a major adversity. Great leaders separate themselves from the pack of pretenders when they are tested by crises. The APC advertises itself as the antidote to the ruling Peoples Democratic Party’s lethargy, inertia, and incompetence. We’re told that, come 2015, all we need do is replace the PDP with the APC—and, pronto, our headaches would vanish; we’d usher in an era of superb statecraft and surpassing leadership.

If this were so, what’s stopped the APC in its tracks at this moment of grave danger and opportunity? Why has the party failed to rise to the challenge of defining itself as a serious opposition body—and doing so by proposing tough, credible solutions to Nigeria’s festering malaise?

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that Nigeria’s “main opposition political party” would seize this opportunity to articulate a different set of answers to those of the ruling PDP. You’d think that the APC would go beyond mere politicking, beyond the symbolic gesture of hoisting brooms, and instead offer insights into what we must do to extricate ourselves from a lurching doom.

There’s no question: the situation in Nigeria is tailor-made for just such sober, brainy and effective intervention.

In the past fifteen years, I don’t believe that any other Nigerian tragedy (and there have been numerous) has quite commandeered global attention as Boko Haram’s abduction of schoolgirls from Chibok in Borno State. For more than two weeks, the eyes of the world have been on Nigeria. Those eyes have seen, and deplored, the Nigerian government’s inept response to Boko Haram’s outrageous acts, among them the explosion of bombs in Abuja and the abduction of close to 300 schoolgirls. They have seen that, while Nigerians groaned, their president, Goodluck Jonathan, went waltzing at a political campaign in Kano. And that, when he finally came round to leading on the matter of Boko Haram’s latest acts of impunity, Mr. Jonathan’s first instinct was to set up a committee. The recourse to such committees is a familiar routine for Mr. Jonathan. It suggests that the president wants to buy more snooze time whilst leaving the impression of being vicariously engaged with the crisis.

The world now knows that Nigeria’s “leaders” hardly stir when a plague stalks their land. Neither Mr. Jonathan nor Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno—an APC member—responded to the Chibok abductions in a reassuring manner. Both men, once they started speaking on the issue at all, seemed to share the same speechwriter. They assured that “everything was being done” to rescue the Chibok schoolgirls. Part of that “everything” apparently included a strange theatrical performance by First Lady Patience Jonathan, filled with insinuations that the abductions were designed to hurt her husband’s political prospects, and tearful reminders to her faceless nemeses that, “There is a God oh!”

Nigeria’s Minister of Defense, Aliyu Gusau, has maintained a staunch silence. He has scrupulously avoided Nigerian and foreign reporters, as if they were the very plagues themselves. At a time like this, what more urgent business has seized Mr. Gusau’s attention? Or is he, perhaps, embedded with the troops who are supposedly combing the Sambisa forest, searching for the beleaguered schoolgirls?

Cornered last week by a TV reporter from the American Broadcasting Corporation, Nigeria’s Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala offered a bored, weary face. Then she complained that she was tired of speaking on the Chibok abductions. A Nigerian reporter might have taken his cues then, muttered “Thank you, Ma” or “God bless you, Ma,” and gone on his way. But the ABC reporter persisted. What had the government done to advance the rescue of the girls, he asked the minister? “The government is doing everything,” the minister replied in a testy, impatient tone—as if the reporter were guilty of impertinence. She then made a brief move to duck away from the reporter before apparently remembering that she was a busy minder of Africa’s largest economy. “I’m going to a meeting,” she said, brushing past the still question-filled reporter.

The entire performance left me wondering: what could be more important to Nigerian officials than the safety of citizens, especially the most vulnerable? It all points to a confounded, confused leadership. If the authorities in Abuja and Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, are—as Okonjo-Iweala, Governor Shettima and President Jonathan assert—doing “everything,” then Nigerians are more beat, more hopeless than they realize.

What’s even more disturbing is that none of the opposition parties, least of all the APC, comes across as having any clues about how to proceed. Two of the party’s major figures, Bola Tinubu and Muhammadu Buhari, weighed in on the matter. In an interview with reporters, Mr. Tinubu welcomed President Jonathan’s belated acceptance of international help. Mr. Buhari, a retired general and former military dictator, offered a more substantive response. In a statement, he reprimanded the abductors for exploiting the name of Islam in committing horrific crimes. Then he warned: “Now is not the time to play politics. Now is also not the time to trade blames and amplify our ideological differences. The unity of Nigeria is not negotiable and nothing should divide us as a people.”

Yet, the APC’s initial temptation was to make political capital out of the unfolding crisis. One newspaper headline said it all: “APC Blames Presidency Over Abduction of Chibok Girls.” The paper reported: “The Interim National Secretary of All Progressives Congress (APC), Alhaji Tijanni Musa Tumsa said that the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast was a product of Federal Government’s incompetence in the fight against insurgency and other terrorists’ activities for over four years.

“Tumsa made the allegation Friday in Maiduguri at the Government House when a delegation of the party paid a ‘sympathy and solidarity’ visit to the Borno State government and its people over Boko Haram insurgency and recent abduction of 276 students of Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok.

“He said: ‘We are here today to sympathize with the government and people of Borno State over Boko Haram insurgency that has claimed many lives and property in the last three or five years in the Northeast sub-region of this country. This condolence will also enable our party, the APC, [to] establish solidarity with Shettima’s administration and its citizens in the immediate and unconditional rescue of the abduction schoolgirls of Chibok by suspected insurgents on Monday, April 14, 2014.’”

“We have come here today (Friday) to also strengthen your fortitude and resilience in handling terrorists’ activities in Borno. APC is 100 per cent behind the policies and leadership styles of your administration.”

The APC’s Mr. Tumsa knows it’s easier to haul platitudes than to think deeply about a difficult, even tragic, situation. He was content to play politics. But here’s what he and his party have not been able to do: demonstrate that there’s a qualitative difference between them and the PDP crowd.

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Jonathan doesn’t know poor nigerians, by Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

If anybody wanted proof that Nigerian “leaders” do not occupy the same space and time as most of their country folk, President Goodluck Jonathan amply provided it in an astonishing speech he gave last week.

On April 4, World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, had stated in New York City that Nigeria was among five countries containing most of the world’s poorest people. India, China, Bangladesh, and the Democratic Republic of Congo were bracketed with Nigeria in this unflattering league.

The Nigerian president appeared to have spent close to a month mulling an appropriate, decisive response to the World Bank’s president. Mr. Jonathan seized an opportunity on May 1, celebrated in his country and many other parts of the world as Labor Day. In a speech to workers, the man who runs Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, essayed `what must have struck him as an eloquent rebuttal.

Nigeria, President Jonathan argued, isn’t—could not possibly be—a poor country.  His country’s problem, he owned, was not so much poverty as the business of wealth redistribution. To buttress his argument, he pointed to the august Nigerian business mogul, Aliko Dangote, listed by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s 25 richest people. How could a country be home to one of the richest billionaires in the history of planet Earth and yet be deemed poor, Mr. Jonathan seemed to wonder?

And the Nigerian president did not leave the argument at Dangote. “Nigeria is not a poor country,” he let the World Bank henchman know. “Nigerians are the most travelled people in the world. There is no country in the world you go that you will not see Nigerians there. The GDP (gross domestic product) of Nigeria is over half a trillion dollars and the economy is growing at close to 7 per cent.”

And then, for definitive effect, he proudly shared an anecdote about a recent outing in Kenya where he participated in a program organized for Nigerian and Kenyan business executives. Nigerians, the president revealed, strutted their rich stuff on Kenyan soil, leaving their hosts dazzled. A paraphrase of that presidential anecdote won’t do. It makes eminent sense to hear the story in Mr. Jonathan’s own words. Here goes: “The number of private jets that landed in Nairobi owned by Nigerians that day was a subject of discussion in the Kenyan media for over a week.

“If you talk about ownership of private jets, Nigeria will be among the first 10 countries in the world. Yet, they are saying that Nigeria is among the five poorest countries.”

I implore the reader to please pause for a few seconds, take a deep breath, and then take that in.

Okay, I know what you, the reader, are thinking. You don’t believe that the president spoke the words attributed to him. Some addle-headed online critic must have made it all up. Or some mischievous foe must have concocted the story in order to create a cartoonish image, to scandalize a good president’s name.

I sympathize. At first, I too found it hard, if not impossible, to believe that Mr. Jonathan marshaled this line of argument. But I waited for three agonizing days to read a disavowal. As I write, none had appeared. I have no choice, then, than to believe that the president voiced the (hard-to-believe) words, that he expressed the (improbable) sentiments. Our president, in other words, must believe that what he said amounted to a solid rebuke of the World Bank’s dismal outlook on Nigeria.

I’m nothing short of astonished. If the president read from a text, then whoever wrote that speech deserves to be fired. If, on the other hand, the remarks were extemporaneous, then some of the president’s advisers ought to muster the courage to counsel him to refrain from such off-the-cuff remarks.

The president’s argument merely pointed to a grave deficiency of argument. Going by the evidence of what he said, he had no facts he could commandeer to call the World Bank’s evaluation into question. And, lacking anything remotely interesting or tenable to say, he should have maintained a studied silence. He was under no compulsion to pronounce on the matter. If he felt an irresistible urge to weigh in, he might have taken the noble path. That is, he should have acknowledged the sobering state of affairs in his country—and then announced a set of proposals to begin the task of reversing the trend.

Instead, he spoke in a vein that betrayed profound alienation. He demonstrated a weak grasp of the fate of Nigerians, and a deep misapprehension of the meaning of poverty and wealth. In no place did he articulate any measures to achieve his goal of redistributing the billions in a few hands to the nearly 200 million Nigerians who don’t—can’t—own a bicycle.

Running for president, Mr. Jonathan had made great capital out of his deprived, shoeless past. His May 1 speech seemed calculated, cruelly, to mock that campaign narrative, to thump his nose at those who today suffer as he suffered in the past.

It is easy to stretch Mr. Jonathan’s “argument” to ludicrous conclusions. In his shoeless days, how would the president have felt if somebody had insisted that Mr. Jonathan had more than enough shoes because the children of some wealthy family owned ten pairs each? Would that argument have brought relief, a smile, to the young Jonathan?

Nigerian public officials routinely travel abroad to receive quality medical treatment. Should we invoke that fact to claim that Nigerians enjoy one of the best healthcare systems? Electric power supply in Nigeria remains woeful, even though Aso Rock, the seat of presidential power, as well as the residences of 36 state governors enjoy round-the-clock power from mammoth generators. Mr. Jonathan might as well assert that Nigeria has more than enough electric power—the only problem being that of distribution. Come to think of it, since so many Nigerians own private jets, why, the president can argue that Nigerian Airways, his country’s now moribund airline, is in robust shape.

In Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, we encounter a learned and principled Finance Minister who is cast to the hounds, reduced by a manipulative Prime Minister to a widely ridiculed caricature. The minister’s crime in the novel is to balk at the prime minister’s order to print worthless currency in order to paper over a looming economic crisis in the country. It seems to me that there’s little to choose between the prime minister’s recourse to a deceptive panacea and Mr. Jonathan’s bizarre way of reckoning his country’s fortunes. Thanks to a career in politics, the Nigerian president is now far from the days of shoelessness. Perhaps his many, many pairs of shoes have blunted his imagination, erased his memory of what it means to live in dire circumstances, and estranged him from all but billionaire Nigerians.

Somebody close to him ought to whisper to his ears that he does not preside over a country of billionaires and private jet owners. He ought to spend more time among his country’s slum dwellers, including those in his home state of Bayelsa. Only then will he grasp what the World Bank knows and has stated with such unanswerable authority.

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The Time Of The Gross Domestic Producers, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

That Nigeria has passed South Africa as Africa’s largest economy—when calculated by Gross Domestic Product—is almost old news.  The coverage of that feat afforded Nigeria’s image a rare shining moment in the foreign media. As Uri Friedman wrote in The Atlantic, “Something strange happened in Nigeria on Sunday: The economy nearly doubled, racking up hundreds of billions of dollars, ballooning to the size of the Polish and Belgian economies, and breezing by the South African economy to become Africa’s largest. As days go, it was a good one.”
 
But many Nigerian pundits were far from impressed. Some were skeptical about the whole “re-basing” rhetoric. Some went as far as suggesting that Abuja fudged and rigged its way to first place. Others sought to restore perspective to the triumph by drawing attention to Nigeria’s perennial and persistent woes—among them a dismal infrastructure, scant electric power supply, run-away rates of unemployment, and miserable wages for the lowest brackets of workers.
 
In a piece provocatively titled “Okonjonomics Or When a Finance Minister Turns Money-Doubler,” Ogaga Ifowodo, a poet, professor, lawyer and political activist, cut to the heart of the matter. He wrote: “So if Nigerians went to bed in the night of Saturday, 5 April 2014, with N42.4 trillion naira in their collective pocket, and woke up the next day to their statistician-general’s revelation that they had grown richer by N37.8 trillion while they slept, wouldn’t they be fools to believe it if they remain as hungry and angry, homeless and jobless, as they were when they closed their eyes the night before?  Mind you, statistician rhymes well with magician! The real reason for this money-doubling miracle, we are told, is to position Nigeria as an investors’ paradise. If so, another miracle is urgently needed: the overnight transformation of Nigeria’s stone-age infrastructure. And don’t forget about the ravening monster called corruption while you are at it!” 
 
It seems to me that both the international media’s excitement and the Nigerian punditry’s negativity often obscured some significant lessons to be grasped from the report of Nigeria’s outstripping South Africa by one measure of economic performance.
 
It’s instructive that the dramatic growth in Nigeria’s movie industry and the telecommunications sector was key in boosting the country’s GDP. What does this tell us?
 
The great global spread of Nigeria’s movie industry, better known as Nollywood, testifies to the can-do spirit, enterprise and ingenuity of a people. Most of the first Nollywood producers and directors learned on the job, getting a handle on the mechanics of movie making as they filmed. Now, as in the first days, the “home videos” are usually low-budget affairs, often shot in a matter of days. And they mostly employ unfledged actors who hone their acting skills as they go from one production to another.
 
Yet, these dilettantes and amateurs have seized the imagination of millions of fans around the world. Notwithstanding the technical lapses of many of these movies, they have inspired a stupendous domestic and foreign following. In my travels to different countries, I find that Nollywood movies often come up in discussions. Many Nigerian movie stars are household names in such places as Kenya and Jamaica.
 
The homegrown movie sector embodies something of the genius of Nigerian entrepreneurship. Together with Nigerian musicians and writers, home-video makers have made their country a major producer and exporter of cultural capital. Nollywood has emerged as a leader in Africa. The commercial success of its example has inspired the emergence of smaller models of movie markets in many parts of the continent.
 
I believe that Nigeria teems with talent in a variety of areas, women and men capable of replicating—if not surpassing—Nollywood’s strides. I’d bet that, given the right conditions, these skilled Nigerians would launch mini-revolutions in any number of fields.
 
In the space of a decade and a half, there’s been an explosion in mobile telephone use in Nigeria. With 120 million mobile phone subscribers, Nigeria has become a major global player in telephony. The current picture contrasts sharply with the days when NITEL held a monopoly, and Nigerians had to offer bribes or queue up for years to acquire a landline. In those old days, dialing phone numbers within and without Nigeria was a galling adventure.
 
Mobile telephones have meant greater connectivity, but they are far from problem-free. Owing to weak government oversight, mobile telephone carriers get away with imposing relatively high tariff charges on hapless Nigerian customers. And, with frequent network disruptions, mobile phone users complain frequently of sloppy service.
 
Yet, the amazing reach of the movie sector and high penetration of cell phone use tell two stories of success. The first narrative highlights tremendous productivity; the other points to the remarkable size of the Nigerian market. The former suggests the presence of a rich reservoir of creative people in Nigeria, women and men who have what it takes to recognize and seize opportunities. The latter underscores the availability of a huge pool of consumers able to sustain several industries.
 
It’s an altogether heartening portrait. It demonstrates, above all, that it’s everyday Nigerians, not the unimaginative public officials who are on the lookout for the next heist, who hold the key to the country’s economic survival. It is high time the real producers of Nigeria’s “re-based” GDP awoke to the real potential they possess to reshape the economy and—in the process—their lives and environment.
 
It’s easier said than done, for there are two essential tactical steps. One, those who constitute the productive segment of Nigeria—the real producers of the country’s wealth—ought to figure out a formula to maneuver the indolent, parasitic politicians to some marginal space. Quite simply, the negative aspects of political power ought to be muted. This will entail convincing or compelling Nigeria’s rulers to abandon the habit of putting impediments in the way of enterprise. Two, Nigeria’s leading productive class should realize that they are much better off when the political environment is healthy. It behooves them, then, to champion salutary political reforms. The reforms should seek institution of a culture of credible elections; the attainment of an independent judiciary; the adoption of measures to curb corruption, and a commitment to invest massively and efficiently in infrastructure.
 
Imagine the kind of quantum leap to be witnessed in Nigeria’s productivity if government functionaries decently addressed certain basic challenges: electric power, roads, security, water, the rehabilitation of schools, and provision of healthcare. Nigerians will take it from there and transform their lives.
 
That Nigeria has survived so far—survived, despite its tattered state—owes to the sheer resilience of its people. Daily, Nigerians labor, grave odds notwithstanding, to produce the goods and services that and to reproduce themselves. Nigerians have demystified their government, only many of us don’t know it.
 
Uri Friedman of The Atlantic drew the correct conclusion. “The good news is that the Nigerian government now has a better system for measuring its economy. The bad news? Knowing Nigeria has a $510-billion economy doesn’t reveal a whole lot about the welfare of its citizens.”
 
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A Letter To President Jonathan From The Grave, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

Dear President Jonathan:
 
We, the more than 200 victims of Boko Haram’s latest savage bomb attacks, feel we must write to you from beyond the grave. Our simple message is summed up in the phrase: Enough is enough.
 
As you know, we were dispatched to our sudden death by the gruesome bombs of depraved people who think they have God’s mandate to kill and maim others. We did not commit any crime deserving of any punishment, much less the horrific deaths meted out to us. We were simply going about the business of our varied daily lives. We just happened to be about when craven men who take pride in playing god set about their heinous business of sowing bombs the way more honorable people sow yams.
 
The bombs exploded in a fraction of a breath, left us no praying chance, no time even to think swift, endearing last thoughts about loved ones. Forget about saying hurried good byes. Incendiary, deafening blasts, and it ended. In a flash, more than two hundred of us, men and women, adults and children, became gored, scalded, bloodied bodies, twitching as we turned into corpses. The bombs severed limbs, tore open skulls, disgorged brains and viscera.  
 
The rabid, misbegotten zealots of a twisted version of Islam planted the explosives that killed us. But the space and idea called Nigeria is complicit in our dastardly fate.
 
The pieces of our decapitated bodies had not been harvested yet when the Nigerian state commenced its mindless business of dishonoring the dead. The security agencies that could not anticipate and forestall the attack that wasted our lives began its usual dumb game of statistical fibbing. They said “only” twenty-something of us had died. And then, as the evidence mounted about the scale of the tragedy, they revised their figures upwards. Only seventy plus people had perished, they asserted.
 
Why does the Nigerian state resort to lies after every act of carnage? Isn’t it bad enough that the country’s security agents are unable to protect innocents from the murderous designs of evil merchants of death? What end is served by this macabre falsehood? Is there a prize of nobility handed out to countries that consistently under-report the number of people who perish in acts of violence? Even if twenty-five of us died, instead of two hundred, does that earn Nigeria some great glory? Does that make Nigeria a rosier destination for tourists? Are foreign investors perpetually on the lookout, waiting to rush their cash into any country that, a, routinely falsifies the number of casualties in terrorist attacks and, b, would place the word “only” before twenty-five or seventy-five corpses?
 
This morbid lying with figures is yet another way that Nigeria violates most of its populace. Most of those unfortunate enough to be called Nigerians are systematically degraded in life and diminished in death. Alive or dead, Nigerians don’t count!
 
About this time last year, two young men, blood brothers, set off pressure cooker bombs near the finish line of the Boston marathon. Three persons died, with scores more injured. US officials did not spend one moment trying to mislead the world about the number of victims. Instead, from President Barack Obama through Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts to the mayor of Boston, one message and one message emerged: the perpetrators would be unmasked, and the people of Boston would grow stronger from the horror.
 
The full power and intelligence of American law enforcement got cracking. Investigations led to leads led to identification of the perpetrators led to a massive manhunt that led to the death of one suspect, the capture of the other.
 
Through it all, the American people, led by Mr. Obama, remained focused, resilient, determined to learn the hard lessons and to be more vigilant in order to avert, or at least reduce, future attacks.
 
What President Obama did, Mr. Jonathan, is a profile in what’s called true leadership. Let’s contrast his admirable example with yours.
 
Our torn limbs were still being gathered, it seemed, when you, President Jonathan, took off to Kano to keep a campaign date. It was deplorable enough that you felt the urge to proceed with partisan politicking hours after a dreadful series of explosions killed so many, physically scarred many more, and left uncountable numbers bereaved, shaken with grief. But the kind of political rally you choose to have spoke volumes about your profound confusion about the meaning and quality of leadership. You had on stage with you musicians who played heady music, as if the slaughter of Nigerians at Nyanya motor park was a crowning achievement of your presidency. You even swayed to the music, titillated your fellow party men and women with a few dance steps. Then you unleashed a torrent of lowbrow, partisan vituperations against your political opponents.
 
Here’s what you didn’t do, what you failed to do. You didn’t project a solemn expression that would have shown you were aware of what time it was in Nigeria—aware that it was Death time, Horror time, Mourning time. If you had to do an event in Kano, you might have used the occasion to spell out a major policy initiative for addressing the plague of Boko Haram. You did not tell confused, angry and terrorized Nigerians what you plan to do to checkmate those who deal death to others in the name of fighting western values.
 
No, you danced. You danced—we might as well say—on the corpses of those who died; on the wounds of those still bleeding from their injuries; on the agony of the bereaved. For you, sir, and for other Nigerian officials, leadership seems to be one giddy carnival that goes on interminably, must go on regardless of the number of corpses piling up on the streets, no matter the depth of disquiet on the faces of “ordinary” Nigerians for whom death at the hands of Boko Haram is a real and present danger.
 
You and your aides have often accused your political opponents of sponsoring sorties of Boko Haram attacks. If this is true, then it’s your duty to do something about it. Nigerians are sick of this ploy, tired of the fruitless pointing at faceless, nameless nemeses. Unmask the sponsors, now.  Order their arrest and prosecution, now. It doesn’t matter how politically or financially big they are. Go ahead: name, arrest and prosecute them.
 
If you’re scared of these champions of death, if the arsenal of your presidential powers can’t match their homicidal will, then it’s time you stepped down from the office you hold. If Nigeria’s crime entrepreneurs are so big that the president and the institutions of the state must cower in fear of them, then Nigeria has zero reason to continue existing.
 
Mr. Jonathan, stop this carnival train that parades streets piled with corpses! Leadership is not a party.
 
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Power, Uninterrupted, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

No, I didn’t mean to tease you, dear reader. I didn’t want to leave the impression that Nigeria has magically realized its dream for regular, uninterrupted (electric) power. That aspiration remains unfulfilled, futile even. If anything, the country’s electric power woes continue to worsen.

In fact, I spoke a few days ago with a US-based friend of mine who travels quite frequently, and often to African countries. In the last two months, he said, he’d made trips to Nigeria (where he spent a week and a half at a friend’s home in Lagos) and South Africa (where he stayed a week, also at somebody’s home). He didn’t experience one second of power outage in South Africa, he said. Nigeria was a different story; at best, his host had two days’ worth of electric power in more than a week. My friend actually shared an anecdote that’s at once funny and saddening.

His son, who is five years old and visiting Nigeria for the first time, awoke in the middle of the night. Disoriented by the pitch darkness, the kid called out to his father. “Daddy, I can’t see, I’m blind!” the child shouted, alarmed. His father tried to assure him that he hadn’t gone suddenly blind, but the child would not budge. His tone became more plaintive, ever more agitated. In the end, his father had to wake up their hosts and plead with them to turn on their generator. Then, and only then, could the harried child be convinced that he wasn’t blind after all!

So, no, the title of this column has nothing to do with electric power. It refers, instead, to raw, rampant political power. There’s a surfeit of that other kind of power in Nigeria.

Every day, Nigerians are treated to the rude display of political power. We saw a grave example of it recently when a band of hawkish police officers traveled from Abia State to Lagos and swooped down on the residence of Ebere Wabara, one of the editors of the Sun newspaper. The police were clearly on an illicit mission. They abducted Mr. Wabara from his home, in the presence of his wife and traumatized young children. Then, defying the pleas of a senior police officer in Lagos, they sped away with their quarry back to Abia State where the editor was arraigned on a preposterous 10-count sedition charge. The sum of the charges was that Mr. Wabara had written some “seditious” articles about Governor Theodore Orji of Abia State. The speculation is that the governor had set the police officers to travel all the way to Lagos, crossing several states, to ferret out the editor and bring him to the governor’s lair for a dose of harsh lessons.

It’s only in a country run by knaves, clowns and charlatans that this kind of patent illegality can transpire with ease. In any other nation, where the law is respected and those who breach it must face consequences, most police officers would resist orders to go on what amounts to a criminal mission. And the deployment of sedition charges against Mr. Wabara is a clear case of abuse of political power. The best of Nigeria’s judiciary, including a subsisting appellate decision, have ruled that the so-called sedition statute is inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the country’s constitution.

But don’t expect that stipulation to chasten the Theodore Orjis of the Nigerian political space, or the police officers who are ever so willing to serve as peons of every illicit edict of puny men blinded by transient power.

The abuse of Mr. Wabara’s rights mirrors what happens to millions of voiceless Nigerians every day. That his case has elicited outrage, in Nigeria and beyond, owes entirely to his professional position. The Nigerian space is a depraved one where the powerful define the rules by which they wish to play, and get away with their terrible conduct even when they offend every tenet of human decency.

Call it Nigeria’s power industry. It’s the kind of power favored by Nigerian public officials, appointed as well as elected. They wield this power for ill, usually to serve themselves, to exploit others, and to bring an unrelenting harvest of grief to the hapless occupants of the space called Nigeria.

It is—this power—exercised with vulgar pride. It is the power to act with impunity, without suffering any consequence. It’s the license to violate the rights of others, especially the poor, and yet answer to nobody or institution. It entails the ability to break the law at will, to maim and kill others, to injure or seize others’ property—and yet receive neither sanction nor face a restraining hand. It is the power to use might in a singular way, permitting no ethical or moral or legal question to come to bear.

I have written for years about Nigeria’s peculiar power malady—in other words, about the temptation on the part of those who hold political power to abuse it. But it was in 2009 that I became educated about the putative link between Nigeria’s misfortunes in the energy sector and the country’s excesses in the area of political power. That education came courtesy of Wole Soyinka.

In May, 2009, the Nobel laureate was the main speaker at a symposium at the London Metropolitan University. The focus was Nigeria’s democratic and developmental crises. When it came my turn to speak, I dwelt on former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s famous promise to take on and finally solve his country’s legendary and embarrassing electric power challenge. Mr. Obasanjo had charged a technical committee with finding the answer. He’d then vowed, on his honor, that Nigerians would start enjoying “regular, uninterrupted power supply” beginning December 31, 2001.

The day arrived, alas, and everything remained the same. Or, as many across Nigeria testified, power outages seemed even more widespread on the date when the former president had staked his honor on their banishment. It was as if Mr. Obasanjo had played a callous, expensive prank on Nigerians.

I reminded the audience in London that, under Mr. Obasanjo’s supervision, Nigeria had squandered tens of billions of dollars in the electric power sector, but had nothing to show for it. An investigation by a panel of the House of Representatives uncovered numerous sordid scams, including local and foreign firms that picked up huge payments for doing—nothing!

Rising to speak, Mr. Soyinka stunned the audience by asserting that President Obasanjo had fulfilled his guarantee of “regular, uninterrupted power supply.” According to the bard, the former president must have meant “political power.” And Mr. Obasanjo and his cohorts had engineered a formula to stay in uninterrupted power in Nigeria for at least sixty years!

There’s an ostensible conference in Abuja to chart a new direction for Nigeria. But a country cannot pretend to exist when there are no citizens. And citizens cannot exist in a climate where there’s no respect for laws. And there can be no respect for laws when a few members of a society are deemed to be above the law, and most of the populace is bereft of any form of legal protection. The ritual called national confab is an empty one as long as a governor can commission police officers to embark on the criminal enterprise of hounding a critic—and they obey!

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Abba Moro and the War on the Poor, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

I was going to title this piece, “Why is Abba Moro Still a Minister?” but changed my mind. In the context of Nigeria, the answer to the question seemed rather obvious. Nigeria is ravaged by human-made poverty. A society with a humane sensibility would invest every resource and deploy its imagination to fight this plague of poverty. In Nigeria, instead, the war is directed not at poverty but at the desperate poor. A culture of depraved accumulation has seized Nigeria. In turn, that culture has created one of the most pestilential crises of deprivation, hunger and disease anywhere in the world.

Deprived Nigerians are daily afflicted with the plague of a callous war on the poor.

Mr. Moro, Nigeria’s Minister of the Interior, is sitting pretty precisely because the Nigerian state has scant regard for Nigerians wounded by the festering sore of poverty. That sentence actually puts a gloss on the reality. The fact is that, far from seeking to reduce poverty and ameliorate its impact, the Nigerian polity wages an unceasing, gruesome war on the beaten down, the crushed, the poor.

On Saturday, March 15, Mr. Moro catapulted himself into the forefront of this grisly war on the wretched of the Nigerian earth. His ministry had fewer than 4800 positions to fill in the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS). The ministry invited more than 500,000 desperate youngsters to jostle for the posts. The applicants were asked to show up at stadia in different Nigeria cities to take an aptitude test that was a first step towards filling the posts. Each applicant was compelled to pay N1000 for a chance to play what amounted to a lottery with long odds.

Nigeria’s unemployment figures hover near 25 percent. And that, by the way, is going by the official data. Many Nigerians would describe the official rate as laughably understated. Getting facts and figures right is among the many basic things the Nigerian state hasn’t figured out how to do. The anecdotal hunch is that Nigeria’s unemployment rate is significantly higher.

Each year, Nigerian universities, polytechnics and colleges of education pour out more (ill-educated) graduates into a “patronage” economy that produces millionaires and billionaires, but generates few jobs. I know friends and relatives who graduated from universities more than fifteen years ago, but have never been able to receive employment. They make do however they can. They hustle and beg and lend themselves to all kinds of political schemes—whatever gives them their daily bread.

Nigeria has a grave crisis of unemployment. The mix of desperation on the part of the unemployed, the terrible paucity of jobs, and the brainlessness of Nigerian institutions are a recipe for disaster. That disaster was actualized on March 15 when some 20 job-seekers died in stampedes at the National Stadium, Abuja and at other centers where the NIS tests were scheduled.

The tragedy is not simply in the lives lost. It’s in the vile, exploitative impulse of the Nigerian state, a monster that feasts on its own children. There were not just 20 victims that Saturday; there were more than half a million!

Let’s be clear: the Ministry of the Interior did not set out to offer jobs. At bottom, the ministry had devised a mindless scheme to exploit youngsters who were jobless, desperate and vulnerable. The N1000 fee the ministry charged each applicant amounted to a sort of scam. The ministry was able to collect more than N500 million from the desperate applicants, and had only the illusory reward of 4800 jobs to offer!

Who came up with the crazy idea of putting hundreds of thousands of job seekers in stadia, as if the unemployed were cattle fed through a chute? Who decided that only one gate should be open at the stadia? Whose idea was it to use this mass method to fill 4800 jobs?

Whether he made those decisions or not, the Interior Minister, Mr. Moro, owns them. It’s part of the principle of ministerial responsibility which is respected in every serious country in the world. If the exercise had gone well, Mr. Moro would have been entitled to count it as one of his accomplishments. It ended tragically, a monument to poor planning—and, without question, it’s Mr. Moro’s can to carry.

Except that the minister wants none of it. He’s blamed everybody else, including the dead themselves. He’s told the press that the question of his resignation does not arise. He’s berated that unknown, invisible person who decided that only one gate should be opened. He’s implied that the applicants failed to conduct themselves in an orderly manner. Mr. Moro looks at the deadly wreckage of his policy, and the only thought that occupies his mind is how to save his own job.

The minister is desperate to shirk his ultimate responsibility for the disaster of March 15. And, this being Nigeria, Mr. Moro can count on many enablers. So-called traditional rulers from his state have urged President Goodluck Jonathan not to sack their “son” in whom they remain well pleased, the needless death of 20 poor Nigerians notwithstanding. One Nigerian newspaper has speculated that Mr. Moro’s cabinet seat is not threatened because the minister has champions in high places, including Senate President David Mark.

Nigeria has never had a history of holding any public official to account. Ministers simply waltz away from the sins and scenes of their disastrous policies, their jobs intact. President “Do-Little” Jonathan revels in the tag of “transformational” president. But the president is not about to invoke the ethos of “transformation” to demand that Mr. Moro hand in his resignation. Nor is he about to serve notice to his other ministers and aides that the era of being held accountable is here. There’s little temptation for presidential firmness in this case when the dead were poor, the injured part of that wretched mass that the Nigerian state has made it its mission to decimate.

Mr. Moro is likely to hold on to his job. Mr. Jonathan is bound to go on reading speeches that contradict his actions. Hordes of poor Nigerians will continue to die from the callous policies and indifference of the Nigerian state. But here’s something that must give sleepless nights to the Moros of Nigeria. There are millions of desperate, unemployed and angry youths in every space in Nigeria. Sooner or later, sooner than later, they will realize that there’s a war on them, that their wretched condition is not an act of God, but the acts of man/woman. They will rise in fury, and there will be hell to pay!

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The Example of Lateef Jakande, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

One of my most revered friends rang me a few days ago after reading last week’s column. He wanted, first, to echo my criticism of Nigeria’s public officials who, despite loud claims to having delivered “the dividends of democracy,” are not ashamed to rush off to foreign countries at the slightest excuse, including grounds of ill health. But he also reminded me that my proposal to compel public officials to cut down on their foreign junkets was not altogether unfeasible. “I believe,” this friend said, “that Lateef Jakande did not once travel out of Nigeria during the four years he was Lagos State Governor from 1979 to 1983.”

I’m not able to swear that Mr. Jakande did not take a single overseas trip, but the odds are that he didn’t. At any rate, if he traveled out of Nigeria during his governorship, he did it rather sparingly. He was a man of Spartan habits, a man of great personal discipline and focus who, first as a journalist and later as a governor, knew that performance was of the essence. Despite his lack of a university education, he excelled in journalism, especially as an editor at the Tribune group of newspapers.

His tenure as governor was marked by the same results-oriented zeal. He shunned the trappings of office, abjured self-aggrandizement, and decided, instead, to set about the task of achieving certain goals. He promised free education for all school-age kids in Lagos State, and delivered on it. He pledged free healthcare, and made it happen. He said he would provide affordable housing for low and medium income earners, and he built more than 20,000 units.

As a governor, Mr. Jakande did not court the image of an intellectual; he was content to cleave to the idea of service. He did not come across as charismatic, and would not be favored to dominate a debate. He had his eyes set on the prize—delivering the goods to his constituents.

His achievements didn’t mean an absence of critics. Some questioned the quality of facilities at the majority of the new schools he built. Some argued that the hospitals in the state were mediocre. There was probably some merit to the criticism, but I doubt that the state governments that did not provide free education and free healthcare boasted of superior quality. Besides, no critic could accuse Mr. Jakande of hypocrisy as a leader, or of having two standards—one for himself, the other for the rest of the state’s residents.

In fact, he ensured that members of his family went to the same state-run schools and hospitals. That’s one way to gauge a leader who believes that he’s doing the right thing by his people. Many of today’s governors talk up a good game, but have no game. They declare themselves “icons,” proclaim that they have “redefined governance,” assert that they have “totally transformed” their state. But these haughty governors won’t entrust their children to the school system they have created, nor would they permit themselves or members of their family to receive treatment from the healthcare system they have designed. No, one of the first things they do, on taking office, is to register their children in some elite private school, preferably abroad. And, when they or their relatives take ill, they fly abroad, boosting Nigeria’s medical tourism to such countries as India, South Africa, France, Germany and the US.

Last December, the Punch newspaper interviewed Mr. Jakande. One of the questions the paper asked him was, “Your children attended public schools. How do you feel today that leaders send their children abroad to school?” The former governor’s answer was straight to the point: “I feel that it is wrong and unfair for leaders to educate their children abroad while other children are educated in Nigeria. It is not fair.”

Those are the words of a man of deep convictions. If you’re a president and insist you’re God’s gift to Nigeria, or a governor who contends that you’re the very definition of exemplary leadership, fine—prove it! Live the way most of the people you presume to govern live. Send your children to the chairless, deskless, often chalkless schools that are the lot of the great majority of the led. When you’re sick—or one of yours is out of sorts—ask for a spot on the floor of one of those ghastly, unequipped facilities you heartlessly call hospitals.

Here’s something else that Mr. Jakande did. He refused to move into the opulent comforts of the governor’s official residence. As a state governor, he lived in his private residence in Ilupeju, his modest home surrounded by other homes. And he commuted to work in his private Toyota sedan.

Today’s Nigerian governors and other public officials are notorious for their ostentation. They authorize the purchase of many expensive cars, mostly sports utility vehicles, for their use. In motion, their convoys are veritable murderous monsters, and seem out to declare wars on hapless motorists and pedestrians. These governors contrive all kinds of excuses to justify their too-frequent foreign escapades. One oft-used ruse is that their numerous trips abroad attract foreign investors. But hardly do they report how many of such investors they ever netted. Nor do they demonstrate that the harvest of investors is big enough to cover the cost of the foreign junkets.

Mr. Jakande was able to run Nigeria’s most complex and populous state (I’m sorry, but I don’t take seriously the census data that placed Kano’s population higher) without hopping on a flight for a trip abroad every few weeks.

The one significant blot on Mr. Jakande’s image was in his astonishing decision to serve in the cabinet of former dictator Sani Abacha. For that error, he was consigned by many to the wrong side of history. But it’s a mistake to total down the record of a man of such stellar ethical insight and impressive leadership to his most visible misstep.
He still represents a chastening example for the current crop of 36 governors, a rebuke to their wastefulness. So, to those who demand answers, I’d say, How about the Jakande example!

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Okay, Here Are Some Answers, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

I’m often taken aback when some of my Nigerian readers respond to my column by noting a failure to offer solutions. These fairly frequent responses are stated as complaints. It’s as if everything would turn out just fine, the country’s myriad crises would evaporate, once I stipulated what the solutions ought to be. One is amazed by that line of response.

The role of a column like mine is, in part, to illuminate the issues I care about by sharing my lens. I don’t presume to think for my readers or for Nigeria, much less to function as a factory of solutions. If I describe a problem well enough, I consider my job mostly done. That job is to ginger Nigerians into a deeper awareness of their condition, and to nudge them to break out of the complacency that enables Nigeria’s so-called leaders to get away with grave crimes committed daily against their own people.

I do know that Nigeria’s judiciary is a shadow of what it ought to be, that many judges lack the moral spine to resist bribes, and that a society that does not have a strong, independent judiciary can count, sooner than later, on the descent of anarchy. I also know that part of the reason the judiciary is in a shambles has to do with the broader tearing of Nigeria’s moral fabric, the cynical elevation to the bench of candidates whose grasp of the law is as weak as their moral acumen is wretched. I happen to know that, in fifteen years of “democratic” governance, Nigeria has spent enough funds in the power sector to produce a noticeable improvement in electric power supply. Yet, the expected improvement has eluded the country. Why is that so? I believe there’s an absence of political will to tackle the power woes. And that is compounded by the unchecked culture of pocketing public funds. Again, I’m aware that Nigeria doesn’t have a healthcare system worthy of the name. That’s why the country’s top officials and their families are flown abroad for all manner of medical issues.

Must I—or any other columnist, for that matter—figure out specific proposals for revitalizing the Nigerian judiciary, how to generate and distribute more wattage of power, and the nitty-gritty of a healthcare system fit for humans before I am deemed qualified to comment on them? My answer: I don’t think so.

Two, as far as I am concerned, the answer is often implicit, embedded in my description of any particular problem. If I focus on any issue, say office holders’ mindless theft of public resources, linking the malaise to Nigeria’s high misery index, I already hint at a set of answers. One is to offer a caution to voters be more discriminating in their choice of candidates for elective offices. Another is a summons to the victims, especially the enlightened and professionally organized among them, to insist on higher standards of accountability.

There’s a third—and most important—reason why, week after week, I don’t make it my place to unfurl a roll of solutions. It is my conviction that Nigeria is deliberately organized to operate as a dysfunctional entity. Nigeria is in reverse gear, presuming to be going forward. The contemptible elements who ran and run it are profiteers from chaos.

Nigeria has a rich endowment of experts in the fields where the country lags critically. If any Nigerian governor wished to revamp education in his state, odds are that he can find talented scholars and policy wonks to devise a sound system. There are Nigerian experts, at home and abroad, who know how to fix the electric power crisis. There are many who can take on the challenge of creating a sustainable healthcare system. There are those versed in tackling urban blight, including waste disposal. A Nigerian president who wished to revolutionize the transport grid, to modernize and equip the police for crime-fighting, to revolutionize the country’s higher education, to create conditions that would spur an explosion in jobs, to modernize the tax code in order to raise and invest more funds, to enthrone true respect for democratic values as well as the rule of law—a president with this lofty, ambitious agenda can find help from among Nigerians to turn his dream into reality.

The trouble is not with columnists who describe the problem but proffer no answer. The problem lies, instead, with those whose agenda are both hostile and antithetical to the kind of answers that the real experts in various areas can offer. Nigeria is a puny, disheveled address because most of its “leaders” are puny men and women who devote their waking hours to schemes of ever-insatiable accumulation of lucre.

If Nigerian officials and their families were unable to fly away to such places as Germany, France, Saudi Arabia and the US for medical treatment, they would long have seen to it that their country had an effective healthcare. If the children of Nigerian presidents, governors, ministers, legislators and other officials were compelled to attend Nigerian schools, rather than the expensive private schools they haunt in Europe and North America, the crises bedeviling Nigerian education would not exist. If the Nigerian judiciary had a spine, independence and believed that the law ought not to be a respecter of any criminal, whatever his or her office, then there would be a steady traffic of current and past occupants of high political office headed for jail. In that event, those that Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would have described as “animals in human skin” would not be trooping out in quite the same number, desperate to grab one political post or another.

So, here’s one modest proposal for the week. Henceforth, no Nigerian official or their family member may travel abroad for health-related reasons.

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A National Insult Rejected, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

For those unaware of its source, I might as well state from the outset that the title of this column is not original. It’s adapted from a statement released last week by Wole Soyinka. The statement, which bore the Nobel laureate’s stamp of revulsion at moral impunity, chastised the Goodluck Jonathan administration for its bizarre line-up of 100 personalities worthy of honor at a ceremony marking the centenary of Nigeria’s amalgamation.

The centenary list, typical of such rolls in Nigeria, was a hodgepodge. It bracketed imperial personages, so-called “contributors to the making of Nigeria”—including Queen Elizabeth 11 of England and Lord Frederick Lugard, first British overseer of the forcibly amalgamated territory—with such notable nationalist fighters as Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, and Anthony Enahoro. It squeezed Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Michael Imoudu, Aminu Kano, Kenneth Onwuka Dike, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, John Pepper Clark, Chike Obi, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Dagogo Fubara, and Moshood Kashimawo Abiola into the same tent as Sani Abacha. In an even weirder development, Mr. Abacha shows up—along with Yakubu Gowon, Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida—under the category of “Outstanding Promoters of Unity, Patriotism and National Development”.

How did we quickly forget that Abacha’s looting of public funds from the vaults of the Central Bank of Nigeria was a patriotic act? Or that he gave his cronies licenses to import toxic fuel into Nigeria because he so fiercely loved Nigerians and fervently desired their development? Or that Babangida’s annulment of the June 12 presidential election was a recipe for Nigeria’s unity?

Anybody who only followed the Aso Rock version of the centenary could have run away with the impression that Nigerians are ever grateful to the coalition of British merchants, bureaucrats, adventurers and royals who cobbled their country together—and named it Nigeria. But the deeper truth lies elsewhere. There were two sets of memory at play last week, two attitudes to Nigeria—a so-called nation bereft of a national spirit, a space that is unformed, ill-formed and malformed.

Those who preside today over the looting of billions of dollars of Nigeria’s resources may deceive themselves that the 100th anniversary of the amalgamation of Nigeria is an occasion for celebration. Many—I’d argue, most—Nigerians think otherwise. For several months, the Internet was abuzz with speculations that the legal instruments of amalgamation stipulated one hundred years as the event’s expiry date. With a great sense of expectancy, many looked forward to the formal cessation of the tragic, nightmarish, and blood-soaked experiment called Nigeria. Was the Jonathan administration unaware of this swell of hope that Nigeria should cease?

In the build-up to the centenary, the band of Islamist extremists known as Boko Haram carried out one of their most savage and outrageous attacks yet. They stormed a secondary school in Yobe under the cover of darkness, slaughtered 60 boys, and set their victims’ dorms on fire. In any serious country, one such act would forever scar the collective conscience, provoking a resolve of “Never again!” Not in Nigeria, a place where a human life is worth far less than a chicken. How did Nigeria’s “transformational” leadership respond to this latest callousness by Boko Haram? It responded in its accustomed soft, indifferent manner. It issued the same tiresome, obligatory condemnation of the carnage, nothing more. The Presidency did not consider the shocking abbreviation of so many innocent lives an occasion to devise and announce a bold, effective plan to assure the safety of all citizens, especially school children, in the Boko Haram-plagued, terror-infested areas. It was, as usual, a do-nothing stance.

But then the government did something even worse than habitual abdication. Apparently, Reno Omokri, Mr. Jonathan’s point man on social media, orchestrated a release that sought to link Nigeria’s suspended Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, with a spike in Boko Haram’s gruesome activities, including the Yobe slaughter. Apparently Mr. Omokri did not reckon with the fact that many Nigerians are quite adept at cyber intelligence, deft at the kind of detective work that can unmask those who exploit the seeming anonymity of the Internet to slander others. Mr. Sanusi is the Jonathan administration’s Public Enemy Number One. The sacked CBN Governor committed the unpardonable sin of telling the world that a major agency of the Nigerian state had failed to deposit $20 billion earned from crude oil exports. In response, the government accused Mr. Sanusi of squandering the funds of the bank he ran, awarding contracts without following requisite laws, and dispensing Nigeria’s funds as if they were his private treasury.

If Mr. Sanusi committed these crimes, I’d like to see him prosecuted, convicted and punished. I’d also like to see the administration account fully for the funds that Mr. Sanusi alleged to be missing. Here’s what the government doesn’t have a right to do: sending Mr. Omokri, its cyber warrior-in-chief, to concoct and disseminate horrific lies against Mr. Sanusi or any Nigerian. Unless Mr. Omokri can demonstrate that he did not mastermind the craven forgery, he ought to resign immediately. Or be fired.

It’s tragic that the Nigerian government, from the president to his aides, continues to fiddle while the country burns. It’s shameful that President Jonathan and Nigerian legislators prioritize a phantom war—going after gays—when the country is besieged by mindless, well-armed zealots who see unarmed Nigerians, including children, as fair game. How does the targeting of gays solve Nigeria’s infrastructural problems? Are gays the reason elections are massively rigged in Nigeria; public funds looted with depraved greed; our educational system a shambles; our healthcare system ghastly?

Nigeria fought a civil war that claimed anything from one to three million lives. It was a war to defend a British-made idea, to uphold the sanctity of a space wrought by British imperial fiat. The mantra was: To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done. To their credit, the British had an excellent reason for keeping Nigeria one. Nigeria was their largest holding in Africa (and their second largest anywhere, after India). It was a prodigious source of raw materials for British firms as well as a huge dumping ground for British-made goods. It made sound sense, from the British point of view, to keep Nigeria one.

As British rule ended, the Nigerian elite who inherited the spoils of the state adopted as an article of faith the idea that Nigeria must remain one entity. But they shied away from asking the hard questions. What’s so sacred about Nigeria? Why should we remain one? What ends are served by remaining one? What does Nigeria represent? And—if unity was not negotiable—then what must be the irreducible terms of our engagement?

I’ve argued before that a central part of Nigeria’s tragedy arises from the fact that the country fought a costly war, but has never permitted the lessons of that war to inform its conduct, to shape its ethos. It’s as if we went to war to defend the right of a few to continue to plunder, to continue to feed fat at the expense of the rest of us, to perpetually rig themselves into power, and to add their contemptible names to every roll of honor, even though they refrain from doing anything that is remotely honorable.

As Mr. Jonathan feted the so-called giants of Nigeria’s centenary, a different, oppositional narrative played itself out. The collective memory of the vast majority of Nigerians beheld Nigeria, not as a splendid monument, but as a sordid, wretched edifice. They saw what Mr. Jonathan and his ilk refuse to see: that the Nigerian state is a provocation, a moral affront, a failed, misery-dispensing state.

Soyinka captured part of the spirit of that deep split in the way Nigeria is regarded. He acted bravely by excusing himself from the insouciant official ritual that amounted to an insult to the outraged sensibilities of the majority of Nigerians. In a statement of renunciation titled “Canonization of Terror,” Mr. Soyinka called attention to the wasted lives of the students in Yobe. He drew our attention to “the entire ethical landscape into which this nation has been forced by insensate leadership.” He would not succumb to the summons to collective amnesia, the only condition under which an ogre like Sani Abacha would be invited to arise, ghost-like, to accept national veneration as a patriotic champion of Nigerian “unity and national development.” Stated Mr. Soyinka: “Under that ruler, torture and other forms of barbarism were enthroned as the norm of governance. To round up, nine Nigerian citizens, including the writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, were hanged after a trial that was stomach churning even by the most primitive standards of judicial trial, and in defiance of the intervention of world leadership.”

In the end, Soyinka spoke for me—and I suggest, for many other enlightened people—when he stated, “I reject my share of this national insult.”

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Besieged by the Police By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

President Goodluck Jonathan is notorious for moving at slower than the speed of a snail when called upon to address issues that rather demand alacrity. Yet, Nigerians are besieged by a terrible plague that Mr. Jonathan can—and should—address immediately. It’s the plague of the “privatized,” lawless police.
 
Last week, a friend telephoned me from Lagos. Alarmed by his dispirited tone, I feared that something grave had happened. He acknowledged that he was downcast. “It’s about the way that the police are now used,” he explained. “Anybody with some money or political contact can buy himself a few police officers. They then use these officers to harass people everywhere, including in traffic.”
 
He described how commuters in Lagos trapped in the city’s hellish gridlock are constantly beset by the blare of police sirens. “These sirens go off so frequently, and you are expected to make way for the police-led convoy. Mobile police men hang out of the doors of the blaring vehicles, brandishing guns and koboko (horsewhips). If you don’t get out of their way fast enough, they can smash your car’s windshield or beat you up. Here’s the most annoying thing: more than 90 percent of the time, they’re not escorting any government official. They’re clearing the traffic for some private individual with money or connections.”
 
I was quite familiar with that nightmare scene. During my last visit to Nigeria, I spent time in Lagos, Calabar, Awka, and Enugu—and I saw that ugly scene play out numerous times in each city. I came away with the impression that police officers, whose orientation ought to be the combating of crime, had been deployed to serve as mai-guard (private security guards) for the country’s well-heeled—including those who had accumulated their huge nests in illicit ways.
 
Indeed, one saw two classes of police officers in Nigeria. One class—those on private deployment whose job is to harass the rest of us on behalf of their wealthy “owners”—struck me as clean and well dressed, their boots shiny, a sheen to their skins. The other class—who stood in the sun worrying motorists for bribes of N20 or more per car—appeared scruffy, their uniforms dirty or torn, their boots dusty or spattered with mud when they did not wear flip flops.   
 
This misapplication of police power compounds the atmosphere of lawlessness in a country where might frequently usurps the place of what’s right. Each police officer in Nigeria is paid from the collective resources of all Nigerians. It is bad enough that the Nigerian police are scandal-prone, that they hardly know the first thing about solving serious crimes, that their training equips them to view Nigerians, not with any sense of civil regard, but as legitimate sport for all manner of violent impulses. To now “privatize” police officers, especially the dreaded ones called mopol (for mobile police), to lend these police officers to do the bidding of private citizens who happen to have mortgaged their senses for a haul of cash—to do this is to worsen Nigeria’s state of anarchy.
 
Mr. Jonathan ought to order the police to immediately stop the practice of deploying police officers on private duties. There’s a precedent for such a directive. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was no great custodian of law and order, saw fit to instruct the police to pull officers who were seconded to non-government officials. President Jonathan should tread the same path.
 
Like the country’s National Electric Power Authority (NEPA)—re-baptized the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN)—the Nigerian police have an awful image. Billed as an electric power company, NEPA spent years earning a reputation for plunging Nigerians into darkness. Years before the government officially changed NEPA’s name, Nigerians had creatively refashioned the acronym, making linguistic games out of it. When in a generous mood, they rendered it as “Never Expect Power Always.” In moments of forlorn exasperation, they called NEPA “Never Expect Power At all.”
 
Nigerians’ most benign epithet for the police remains “Wetin you carry?” It grew out of the lazy question that police officers pose to hapless motorists they stop at ubiquitous police road blocks all over the country. These road blocks are ostensible crime-fighting devices, but any Nigerian kindergartner knows that they are, in reality, bribe-collection points.
 
In fact, Nigerians know that their police are allergic to fighting crime. Quite often, the police seem enamored of criminals. There are accounts of criminals who menaced their innocent victims with guns supplied by the police. Many Nigerians would say that, frequently, they can’t tell the police apart from criminals: both are so deeply, so inextricably embedded.
 
Nigerians know or tell some version of a joke that’s the product of despairing experiences. The kernel of the joke goes like this. A horde of armed robbers descends on a neighborhood, shooting sporadically into the air whilst going from apartment to apartment to haul away cash and valuables. A distressed victim makes a frantic telephone call to a nearby police station, breathlessly describes the harrowing event, and asks that police officers be sent to combat the robbers.
 
“Is that right?” says the police officer at the other end, his tone calm and manner unhurried. The officer sucks his teeth, as if he’d just worked through a heavy meal of spicy goat meat escorted by two large bottles of Guinness. “We fit come now now, only say vehicle no dey. If you can fit to bring car, we go follow you there quick quick!”
 
In some countries, the point is made that the police are the citizens’ best friends. Suggest that to Nigerians, and you’d provoke guffaws. The Nigerian police are nobody’s friends. Some Nigerians would say their police are friends only of criminals. The Nigerian police offer little or no help to law abiding citizens. Some Nigerians would contend that ruthless criminals receive plenty of help from the police.
 
There’s—to cite one example—the case of Lotachukwu (Lota) Ezeudu, a 19-year-old accountancy student at the University of Nigeria who has never been seen since he was kidnapped on September 26, 2009. The main suspects in his abduction include Sam Chukwu, a divisional police officer (DPO), and Desmond Chinwuba, a sacked police officer who was standing trial in an earlier armed robbery. Both men have been on the run for several years. Some believe that Mr. Chukwu was the mastermind, that he ran a criminal ring whose nefarious menu included assassinations, armed robbery, and kidnapping. Among those in custody are Ernest Okeke, fired alongside Mr. Chinwuba, and Nnaemeka Chukwu, the DPO’s son.
 
Rogue officers like the fugitive Sam Chukwu further taint the already unflattering image of Nigeria’s police. They are one reason some took to calling the country’s law enforcement agency the Nigerian Police Farce.
 
Nigeria’s police are trapped in a crisis that demands long-term remedies, addressing in a fundamental way how police officers are trained, equipped and paid. For now, however, President Jonathan has a duty to spare Nigerians from some of the excesses of the police. He should order that no police officer should be seen working “private” shifts for Nigeria’s deep pockets.   
 
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The Shape of Things To Come? By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

I have had several sad conversations in the past two weeks with friends who, like me, are from Anambra State. The conversations have focused on the local government election held in the state on January 11.

One friend, who lives in Onitsha, rang me last week. He pointed to an aspect of my recent column on the possible electoral implications of political realignments in Nigeria. I had speculated that the 2015 elections “are bound to be another Nigerian-made mess, a fraud fest, a classic of rigging.”

“You’re living in the past,” this friend said in a mordant tone.

“How so?” I asked. I wondered whether he wanted to chide me for offering a dim prognosis of the 2015 elections. I have had encounters with Nigerians who imagine that elections in their country are of acceptable quality if not irreproachable.

“The fact that you’re still writing about rigging,” the friend explained, “tells me you don’t know where things stand. Nigeria has now moved past the stage of rigging. Rigging can only happen when there’s a pretense of an election. But we have found another formula that spares the ruling party the headache of having to rig. The recent local government election in Anambra introduced a new formula. Results were written everywhere before the election, and just announced. That’s the new formula.”

Another friend, from Nnewi, expressed a similar outlook. The state electoral commission had invalidated the polls in Nnewi North, the commission’s chairman, Sylvester Okonkwo, citing “a security report” made to him. But my friend insisted that a grim political purpose was at play. She accused the state electoral commission of cancelling the election because the voters of Nnewi would not abide the kind of impunity that marked, and marred, the local government election elsewhere in the state.

“The [Nnewi North] community decided not to allow any person or party to hijack their votes. That’s why the election was cancelled,” she asserted.

The results of the election as announced by the Anambra State Independent Electoral Commission were nothing short of astonishing. Of the 20 local government chairmanships where the results were announced, the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) swept all. The only spot not claimed by APGA was that of Nnewi North, which was cancelled.

I’m willing to bet that the results represented a grave manipulation. The people of Anambra State are far from the monolithic APGA-ists that the so-called results suggest. There isn’t anything near the level of political homogeneity mirrored by the results in Anambra. In a credible election, there would have been a far more heterogeneous outcome, with the candidates of a variety of political parties winning in different places. So how did APGA manage its sweep?

By—I hazard—crooked means, period.

The state electoral commission, like its national counterpart, appeared to have become willing or innocent tools for electoral manipulators. The headline and content of one Nigerian newspaper told a sordid part of the story. “Anambra LG poll: Electoral officers, voters fight over result sheets,” was a headline in January 11, 2014 edition of the Punch newspaper. According to the report, “Violence broke out in some parts of Anambra State on Saturday during the election held to elect local government chairmen and councilors. At Nkwelle, Awka South Local Government Area, ballot materials were burnt when a fight broke out because polling officers failed to produce result sheets. It was a similar story at Igwebeze Primary School, Ifite-Awka where some party agents insisted that voting would not commence unless the result sheets were made available. The Presiding Officer for the Igwebeze polling unit 2, Mr. Jude Onwubiko, however pleaded with the agents and voters to let the voting process continue, explaining that the results sheets were being brought by the supervisory presiding officer. There was also violence at Igboukwu Town Hall, Fegge, Onitsha, where some youths protested against alleged thumb-printing by members of a particular political party. All the polling units visited by our correspondent did not have results sheets.”

Therein—in the last line of the quoted report—was the crux. What was the electoral commission thinking? How could you presume to conduct an election when the sheets for recording the results were missing? Where were those sheets?

It all lends credence to what several of my contacts as well as most of the political parties have alleged: that the results were written ahead of the election, and announced after hapless voters had spent hours in a hollow, meaningless ritual.

Mr. Okonkwo, the state’s electoral commissioner who presided over this apparent sham, was quick to issue a standard, cynical response. He asked disaffected parties and candidates to take their case to court. He knows, this electoral officer, that Nigerian courts have on the whole given a poor account of themselves in adjudicating electoral cases. The odds are stacked in favor of the rigger, who all too often gets away with his/her stolen electoral goods. That explains part of the reason ruling parties act with particular impunity in elections. They figure that, given a judiciary packed with unethical judges willing to peddle influence, their electoral heists would be hard to reverse.

The deplorable “electoral” experiment in Anambra should disturb all enlightened Nigerians, not just those from Anambra. Each election cycle, Nigerian politicians, with the help of electoral officials, seem to come up with novel ways of thwarting voters’ will. Each new anti-people idea becomes contagious in Nigeria, widely copied. We ought to worry that what happened in Anambra State, an election in which the result sheet was missing in action, could become the norm for future elections elsewhere—and nationally.

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Billionaire House Helps, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

Nigeria’s (misnamed) Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has released the schedule for the 2015 set of general “elections.” The presidential and National Assembly “elections” will be held on February 14, 2015, followed by state “elections” on February 28, 2015.

I have put elections in quotes to underscore a given: the electoral exercises are bound to be another Nigerian-made mess, a fraud fest, a classic of rigging. Even INEC has signaled this by warning Nigerians not to expect a “perfect” election. That’s a Nigerian shorthand that translates as, “Expect a massively rigged election, as usual.” When a Nigerian (politician or a politician’s apologist) announces, in reaction to accusations of corruption, “Nobody is perfect,” it’s a coded way of saying, “Yes, I (or my oga) stole, but who doesn’t?”

It’s become settled practice: every four years, INEC puts together an obscenely expensive show called “elections.” But the point of the bazaar is to enable the various political parties to exhibit their varying levels of versatility at rigging. Yet, at the end of the show, determined to dress up the event in borrowed garbs, INEC and the “winners” declare that “no election is perfect.” Or, to explain away the more mystifying aspects of the hollow exercise, the “winners” declaim that God, not the electorate, voted for them.

Many wonder whether Nigeria will survive past the 2015 “elections.” It depends on what they mean by survive. Nigeria has subsisted as an increasingly lawless place for decades now. Post 2015, the degree of lawlessness will be compounded. Violence, already the currency of Nigeria, will be writ larger. The endangered species called the Nigerian citizen will be further diminished and crushed. The instruments of the Nigerian state, at the local government, state and national levels, will be hijacked anew by a set of buccaneers. Filled with disdain for so-called citizens, driven by the singular mission of transferring public funds to their private pockets, unable or uninterested to legitimize themselves through the popular consent of citizenry, the hijackers of state power will resort, more and more, to the use of violence.

INEC’s timetable for the next set of a rigging jamboree is not the only source of foreboding in Nigeria. Nigerian politics—which is often reduced to politicking—is amazingly bereft of issues. Yet, it is a country that has a lot of issues.

The organized scam that bears the name Nigeria has not addressed the most basic of questions. With the exception of the few who run the shop, Nigerians can’t claim to possess any rights as citizens. I know: somebody is going to flip through the pages of the Nigerian constitution and read the bla bla bla it says about the rights of citizens. But the words are baloney. The fact is that, all too often, the Nigerian constitution wilts and the law courts shiver when the occupant of Aso Rock sneezes. It doesn’t matter what the constitution says, any sergeant in the Nigerian police can arrest, beat up, and lock up any poor Nigerian who crosses a big oga. The security detail of a any Nigerian state governor can wreck the car of any driver slow to move out of the governor’s way in traffic—and expect not to be called to account.

The recklessness of the police is matched by the timidity and corruption of the Nigerian judiciary. Many of my Nigerian lawyer friends despair of the willingness of too many judges to cheapen their bench by accepting lucre in exchange for judgment. In a country where custodians of the most exalted offices are the boldest, grandest thieves, few are tempted to stick to the right path. To insist on doing the right thing in Nigeria is to risk losing your job, being passed over for promotion, being jeered at by peers, friends and relatives, and being excluded from the list of recipients of national honors.

Nigerian “elections” are such violent affairs because political posts are a sweepstakes. The Nigerian president, governors and local government chairmen rake in billions each year in a scam called security vote. The Nigerian president and governors enjoy immunity from prosecution, even when they commit grave crimes. Nigerian legislators have become legislooters in popular parlance, and for good reason. Elsewhere, political office holders function as servants. In Nigeria, they exchange knowing winks as they announce, in jest, that they are our servants. Americans pay President Barack Obama $400,000 per year for the job he does. Each month, each Nigerian governor pulls in five to seven times Mr. Obama’s annual salary as security votes.

Nigeria’s public officials are like domestic house helps who have been allowed to set their salaries, and have set them at billions of naira. Yet, they are house helps who don’t know their right from their left. Their pay packets may dwarf Mr. Obama’s, but they and their hired hands are first to protest that they must not be held to American or European standards of performance.

It works for Nigerian politicians not to set any store by issues. Ideas-based politics is the graveyard of hollow politicians, the surest way to expose their mediocrity. That explains the recourse to such trite, boutique phrases as “dividends of democracy” and “moving the nation forward.” The Nigerian politician’s worst nightmare is to be challenged to specify what s/he means by “dividends of democracy” or to articulate the particular means as well as philosophic underpinnings of “moving the nation forward.”

It is this absence of discursive rigor in Nigerian politics that has brought the country to yet another absurd moment. The absurdity lies in the way in which a faction of the PDP establishment has joined an opposition coalition, and is now presuming to represent a fundamental alternative to the ruling party. With each passing day, the All Progressives Congress (APC) resembles a re-baptized PDP. In fact, a part of me suspects that the APC is something of the PDP’s Plan B, a part and parcel of the PDP’s threat to run Nigeria for a minimum of sixty years, or until the country collapses and dies.

Nigerians Yawn Over Missing Billions By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

On December 9 and 10, several websites and newspapers published a startling letter that Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) had written to President Goodluck Jonathan. In the letter, Mr. Sanusi alerted the president that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) had failed to remit $49.8 billion in crude oil revenues into the federation account at the Central Bank.

The letter provoked verbal bedlam. The NNPC claimed that the country’s chief banker was ignorant on matters of oil earnings and remittances. It also accused Mr. Sanusi of Nigeria’s version of the capital sin: playing politics.

A week later, Mr. Sanusi appeared before the National Assembly along with Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Petroleum Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke. The three announced that their officials had been in marathon meetings to “reconcile” accounts. The Central Bank chief regretted his astonishing estimate of nearly $50 billion as missing remittances. The figure yet to be accounted for by the “reconcilers,” he announced, was $12 billion. Ms. Okonjo-Iweala interjected that the figure was $10.8 billion.

Nigerians, initially irate that somebody may have pocketed $50 billion, were exceedingly delighted to learn that they were out only $12 billion (according to Sanusi) or approximately $11 billion (by Okonjo-Iweala’s calculation). And since many—perhaps most—Nigerians don’t bother to get worked up over any sum smaller than $50 billion, there was a collective yawn throughout the country.

Some Nigerians heaped abuses on Mr. Sanusi for inflating the missing funds to $50 billion. What was the man up to? Perhaps, he sought to shock us into momentarily raising our faces from our piping hot bowls of goat meat pepper soup and chilled bottles of Star lager to pay attention. Perhaps he plotted to compel us, even if for a fleeting moment, to abandon our obsession with English and Euro soccer leagues long enough to carry placards in protest. No question, the banker was out to play with our minds, to mess up our routines, to ginger us into unfamiliar modes of reaction.

Forget the NNPC’s charge that Mr. Sanusi was Mr. Unpatriotic, politicking. With his tenure at the Central Bank due to expire in May, 2014, perhaps the banker was simply rehearsing for a new role as a street dramatist. Perhaps his leaked letter represented an audacious attempt at a tragic production, with a cast of outraged Nigerians filling the streets with their rage, confronted by soldiers armed with the stoutest weaponry for crowd-pacification and a fanatical determination to defend the divine-favored looting class against any silly moves by the rude, wretched, demon-possessed masses.

At any rate, whatever were his designs, Mr. Sanusi failed woefully. He found out, in the most humiliating way, that Nigerians don’t even wake up for $12 billion. And when, according to the General Overseer of the Ministry of Finance, the missing or “unreconciled” funds amount to a mere $10.8 billion, forget it! It’s a mere fraction of what we permit our president, governors, legis-looters, ministers, commissioners, and sundry political aides to rake away in salaries and allowances as well as soirees in different foreign cities.

But seriously! Why are we so blest? What combination of factors has rendered Nigerians this apathetic, this nonchalant, this indifferent to their degraded condition? In a space where most so-called citizens exist in animal-level states, a country with no healthcare to speak of, a vast toilet of a country where millions defecate in the open, where highways are accident traps, where all public universities were just shut down for five months, where electric power remains ever epileptic, where unemployment rates are so high nobody bothers anymore to keep tabs, where insecurity reigns and kidnappers rule, where prisons are chockfull with petty criminals (but with no election rigger or big-time embezzler in sight), where the minimum wage can hardly buy a goat, where trash is piled up on major city streets and burned—why is it that, in this veritable hell of an address on earth, Nigerians scoff at $11 billion? Why do we treat $12 billion as if it were chump change, a poor widow’s lunch budget? My prediction is that we’ve heard the last about the “unreconciled” 10 or so billion dollars.

Why, I wonder, have we gone back to sleep, gone back to quaffing our beer and savoring our pepper soups, because Mr. Sanusi had admitted that we’re missing not $50 billion but (a mere) $12 billion? Nigerians shout themselves hoarse over the fortunes or misfortunes of English Premier league football teams. But tell them that more than $10 billion has taken wings from their treasury and they push the snore button!

The whole NNPC financial fiasco raises several troubling questions. Mr. Sanusi’s letter to President Jonathan was dated September 25, 2013. From all accounts, Mr. Jonathan did nothing. Perhaps he was too busy figuring out the 2015 jigsaw to ask questions about the astonishing letter. Mr. Jonathan did not set up a panel to investigate, did not report the matter to the National Assembly, did not summon Ms. Alison-Madueke (who oversees the NNPC) or Ms. Okonjo-Iweala (who coordinates Nigeria’s economy) to explain things to him. It was only after the CBN governor’s letter was leaked to the press—and drew national and international media attention—that a tripartite meeting was held to reconcile the record.

And what a “reconciliation”! While many reporters and commentators focused on Mr. Sanusi’s admission that his original figure of $50 billion was hugely inflated, they conveniently ignored the fact that the still “unreconciled” sum—whether it’s $10.8 billion or $12 billion—is a huge, huge deal. The collective yawn in the face of information that such princely sum was not accounted for speaks to a deep ethical malaise in Nigeria. In most other countries, rich as well as poor, missing funds as (relatively) low as $10 million would be regarded as a big deal, triggering a thorough scrutiny. Not in Nigeria, a country where five or so civil servants were able to stash away more than $200 million from the police pension funds. And these civil servants have effectively got away with their illicit haul. Next stop for the pension fund looters: the governorship of some state, or—at minimum—a seat in the House of Reps or Senate!

Did Mr. Jonathan ever receive Mr. Sanusi’s letter. If he did, why did he not take action? If he didn’t, then has he sought to find out and fire those who conspired to keep such an explosive document from him?

Nigeria is a place where things that ought to be simple are complicated while things that should be complex are made simple. The language of the NNPC’s first reaction to the whole curious incident of the missing billions struck me as an exercise in obfuscation. The NNPC’s Group Managing Director, Andrew Yakubu, inveighed against Mr. Sanusi’s letter, characterizing it as “an attempt to ridicule NNPC staff and the management of NNPC.” Then he stated, “We will continue to keep our operations in high integrity and transparency and we are available at any point in time to reconcile numbers as we do in our operations.” Mr. Yakubu blamed the CBN governor’s letter on “a surprising lack of understanding of how revenues from crude oil sales are remitted into the Federation Account.”

That’s problematic. The remittance of crude oil earnings is Nigeria’s major source of revenue. Mr. Sanusi has headed the CBN for about four years. Why would the CBN head suddenly become ignorant of how crude oil earnings are deposited at the bank? Mr. Yakubu “explained” that “all NNPC crude oil liftings is made up of the following: Equity Crude, Royalty Oil, Tax Oil, Volume for Third Party Financing, and NPDC equity volume. It is important to stress that remittances of proceeds from the above liftings are made according to statutory and production arrangements.” And so on and so on and so on.

It’s mostly mumbo jumbo, to my ears. Here’s the bottom line: somebody who knows should tell us where those “unreconciled” billions are hiding. Whether the amount is (Okonjo-Iweala’s) $10.8 billion or (Sanusi’s) $12 billion is of little import. It will take a lot of work, a lot of money, to turn Nigeria into a habitable address, to make the lives of Nigerians a little less dire and hellish. Yes, those “unreconciled” billions can make a big difference.

My new novel, Foreign Gods, Inc., will be published on January 14. Please follow me on twitter @okeyndibe

What Anambra Says, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

Numerous political pundits stipulated that the recent governorship election in Anambra would serve as a gauge of things to come in the 2015 general elections. Anambra, these pundits suggested, would have a lot to say about the place and direction of Nigeria. If that projection was sound, then we have many reasons to be uneasy.

Last week’s declaration of Willie Obiano of the All Peoples Grand Alliance (APGA) as the governor-elect was, in the end, beside the point. Regardless of the outcome of the election, I believe that the process itself was deeply flawed. It left me disheartened.

It may well be that Mr. Obiano would still have emerged victorious in an election that was unquestionably transparent and technically efficient. In that event, he is entitled to a sense of outrage that the election was attended by significant irregularities. Any candidate in a major political race deserves the sense of legitimacy that comes from a process that is glitch-free. It is hard to claim that the Anambra governorship contest met that standard.

The governor-elect’s luck – if luck be the word – is that he operates in a Nigerian system where ever-elastic allowances are made for procedural impropriety. In 2001, George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States of America after a majority of US Supreme Court justices handed him victory in a ruling that many viewed as ill-considered at best or even a scandal of judicial overreach. Throughout his first term in office – and for much of the second as well – Mr. Bush labored under a sometimes debilitating cloud. Many of his liberal critics cast question marks on his legitimacy.

As I argued two weeks ago, INEC’s performance in the Anambra governorship election was deplorable. Despite the dramatic build-up to the election, voter turnout was embarrassingly low. Many voters discovered their names missing from voter registers. Electoral documents arrived terribly late, and sometimes not at all, in many polling centers. In much of Idemili, where voting did not hold at all, INEC sustained a black eye. Last weekend’s supplementary election was a poor palliative for a veritable fiasco.

Looking at what transpired in Anambra, Nigerians who hold out hope for credible elections in 2015 ought to be afraid, very afraid. If INEC could not acquit itself creditably in Anambra, if INEC officials were unable to handle the logistics of a governorship in just one of Nigeria’s 36 states, then the prospects of the commission conducting credible elections all over the country in 2015 are suspect, to speak in mild terms.

The full meaning of what happened in Anambra’s November polls won’t become clear for some time. Some of the losing candidates have alleged that what took place was a case of “high-tech” rigging. Some defenders of the outcome have countered that the criticisms exemplify an inelegant habit of being sour losers. Other apologists suggest that all the major political parties were implicated in rigging, and that the final result merely reflected the victorious party’s dominance in a widely practiced art.

Each contention is disturbing. Any form of rigging, low- or hi-tech, ought to give us pause. Let’s never forget that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Nigerians perished in the struggle to enthrone voting as the default mode for choice of public office holders. Why, in the name of decency, do we accept malpractices that bastardize elections?

Some Nigerians rationalize electoral fraud by asserting that no system is perfect. They forget that the argument is hardly ever about perfection. It is about grave, glaring defects that are deliberately built in, designed to thwart voters’ will. It’s doubtful that any Nigerian election since 1999 has passed muster. It’s often hard to look at any occupant of political office in Nigeria and assert, with a degree of confidence, that s/he won in a clean way.

The argument that all political parties are invested in rigging is just as tenuous. It’s an argument calculated to perpetuate the political party with control of the machineries of state power. Rigging anywhere is wrong. Yet, the reason critics often focus on and flay the PDP’s rigging is that the ruling party is able to commandeer the coercive powers of the state to aid its candidates. The party of the Nigerian president often marshals soldiers, the police, officers of the State Security Service (SSS), and even INEC officials as agents of rigging. The rigging system is decisively rigged for the ruling party.

The stakes in the Anambra governorship had national repercussions. It was the first time that the APC, through its candidate Chris Ngige, tested out its viability in a high-profile electoral contest. Without question, President Goodluck Jonathan’s ambition for re-election in 2015 was a potent factor in the election. Mr. Jonathan and the PDP’s singular interest in the Anambra election was to ensure that the APC’s Mr. Ngige did not win. In that respect, the PDP’s mission intersected with that of APGA.

Like most elections in Nigeria, the Anambra governorship campaign was bereft of ideas. In the end, the candidates, their sponsors and champions mostly traded slurs. Substantive issues pertaining to strategies for addressing the state’s myriad crises were given short shrift. The voter who sought illumination of the central issues that bear on Anambra’s problems and problems was abandoned to his fog. There is no reason to expect that ideas will suddenly become important in 2015.

With the deepening fissure in the PDP, Mr. Jonathan must scavenge for a formula to win the 2015 election. With an achievement profile that is evidently unimpressive, the Nigerian president has no choice other than deploying the apparati of state power. How much of the mess in Anambra’s election was a product of such manipulation, and how much a demonstration of INEC’s sheer incompetence?

Mr. Obiano is bound to face extensive legal challenge. If he triumphs – and the history of judicial rulings place the odds in his favor – then he faces the much tougher test of governance. Anambra has been terribly unlucky in its governors. The sordid shape of Awka, the state capital, continues to serve as a symbol of the mediocrity of the state’s leadership. One of the incoming governor’s most pressing tasks is to commence the urgent job of cleaning up the eyesore that is the Anambra State capital. And that governor must tackle insecurity, unemployment, and education.

My novel, Foreign Gods, Inc. will be published on January 14, 2014. Please follow me on twitter @okeyndibe

INEC’s Awful Outing In Anambra, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

I’m writing this piece first thing on Sunday morning, so I don’t know yet which candidate and party won – by fair or foul means – the governorship election in my home state of Anambra. But here’s what I can say with confidence: the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) lost.

Reports indicated that voting started late at many locations. Ballot papers and result sheets were often missing. As in past elections, many voters were unable to find their names on the voters’ roster. And there was little or no voting in many parts of Idemili local government area. In the end, INEC was compelled to reschedule voting in 65 wards in the area.

In many other societies, what transpired in Anambra last Saturday would be regarded as a portrait of utter failure. The INEC officials who oversaw the colossal mess would have been too ashamed to hold on to their jobs a day longer. If they didn’t resign, they would have been fired.

Alas, it’s Nigeria! It’s in a country where few are willing to call failure by its proper name, and where failure – even when acknowledged – is never anybody’s fault. Botched elections, like aircraft falling from the sky, are “acts of God.”

It’s important to put INEC’s disastrous outing in perspective. Anambra is only one of Nigeria’s 36 states, and INEC had no other election on its calendar last week. In other words, the commission had time and human resources on its side. It had all the time to get things right, to ensure that the name of every registered voter appeared on the register, and that electoral materials were shipped on time to all polling centers.

If INEC couldn’t conduct a hitch-free, credible election in Anambra, what are the odds of its handling the fast-approaching 2015 nation-wide elections with any integrity? If the names of many Anambra voters were missing, then imagine the scale of the crisis when many more voters around the country will come out to vote in 2015.

There’s hardly ever any good excuse for the disenfranchisement of voters, period. The kind that happened last week in Anambra was particularly egregious, especially since INEC had time to prepare, enough manpower to do the right thing, and the logistics to pull off hitch-free polls. There’s no reason why the governorship election could not have gone through fluidly; no reason why voting did not take place on Saturday in many parts of Idemili. The kindest view is to blame it all on sheer incompetence. And if incompetence be the cause, then the incompetent electoral officials deserve to be fired.

A more likely explanation for the Idemili imbroglio is that it was a man-made glitch, a calculated, well-designed, deliberately engineered cog in the electoral wheel. My suspicion is that the electoral fiasco in Idemili was a scheme to suppress votes, subvert a candidate, or grant undue advantage to another. Electoral fraud is one of the gravest infractions in any society that cherishes the free exercise of the vote. And if Nigeria were a country where serious crimes are frowned upon, the electoral screw-up in Anambra, and particularly Idemili local government area, would have invited serious prosecutorial scrutiny.

Nigeria is 14 years into what we used to call our “nascent democracy.” Today, unlike the first few years after this particular phase of Nigeria’s political adventure started in 1999, there’s nothing nascent about it anymore. And, as in the first few years, it’s still hard to argue that there’s a lot of “democracy” in Nigeria’s political experiment.

I received numerous telephone calls the last few days before Anambra’s governorship election. Some of the callers were curious that I had not come out in support of any of the candidates. I explained that, as a principle, I never endorse any candidate. Instead, I champion the sanctity of the electoral process. If Nigeria professes to practice democracy, then that profession must be borne out, at minimum, in the way elections are conducted. Nigerians ought to be able to trust INEC to conduct credible elections in which the declared winners match the true choice of the electorate. That is no great expectation; it should be non-negotiable.

Sadly, that’s far from the case. Olusegun Obasanjo, who became this nascent democracy’s first president, could have advanced the cause of electoral probity. Given his military antecedents, he was cast by many as a necessary bridge from years of military dictatorship to a dawning democracy. Instead, the man made himself into an imperial president and militarized Nigeria’s politics. He approached each election – after the fashion of armed combatants – as a “do-or-die” affair. In many ways, Nigeria has not been able to shake off Obasanjo’s legacy of going to war against voters, rather than wooing them.

In 2003, the Peoples Democratic Party – or, specifically, one of its “godfathers,” Chris Uba – imposed Chris Ngige as Anambra’s governor. It was widely known that the true winner of that election, and the dispossessed candidate, was Peter Obi of the All Peoples Grand Alliance (APGA). I opposed the PDP’s imposition. Even when many in Anambra were lauding Mr. Ngige, a medical doctor, for renouncing his political godfathers and grand godfathers, for tackling the state’s ghastly roads, and for paying civil servants’ salaries (yes, a responsibility ignored by his predecessor, Chinwoke Mbadinuju), I insisted that Mr. Obi should not – in fact, could not – abandon the legal battle to reclaim an office the voters of Anambra voted to have him hold in trust for them. It took several years, a lot of political maneuvers and legal rigmarole, but Mr. Obi finally became governor. It was as it should be.

I had hoped that Mr. Obi’s eventual triumph would set Anambra as the epicenter of electoral propriety in Nigeria. That hope has been far from realized. Last week’s shame in Idemili gave another red eye to INEC, and further cast doubt over the electoral commission’s ability – or even will – to earn the word “Independent” that sits, like a bad joke, at the beginning of its name.

No, even the soundest elections would not begin to solve Nigeria’s myriad crises. Yet, there are at least two solid reasons why enlightened people must insist on transparently credible elections. One: once we establish that votes count, always count, then elected office holders would be placed under notice that they serve, and will be re-elected, at the pleasure of voters. Odds are that a higher percentage of office holders would then spend some time serving the common good, instead of making the “godfathers” that enthroned them happy. Two: once Nigerian polls become discernibly credible, rather than expensive scams, the chances will be better of attracting better candidates – especially those equipped with vision, imagination, and the talent for translating lofty dreams into reality.

It’s tragic that INEC officials, through sheer incompetence and/or criminal treachery, continue to make the arena of Nigerian politics the preserve of sponsored mediocrities and would-be looters.

My novel, Foreign Gods, Inc. will be published on January 14, 2014. Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe

Beyond Oduah-gate, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

For all of two weeks, Nigerians have been riveted by the disheartening revelation that Aviation Minister Stella Oduah approved the purchase of two bullet-proof BMW cars at the cost of $1.6 million.

Once SaharaReporters broke the story, we were treated to a predictable game of fibs and obfuscations. First breath: an aviation official denied the report. Second breath: the minister’s spokesman admitted the purchase. He then defended it on the ground that the minister needed the cars to protect her from faceless threats to her life. Third breath: Yet another official said the cars were actually bought for the use of foreign aviation dignitaries on official visits to Nigeria. Fourth breath: Ms. Oduah, appearing last week before a committee of the House of Representatives, disavowed her spokesman’s account of events.

If the varied accounts had any characteristic in common, it was this: each narrator seemed to speak before thinking. If there was a common impression, it was of a desperate bunch trying hard – but failing mightily – to defend a transaction that’s simply impossible to justify.

If Ms. Oduah were an official in a country where ill-thought actions have chastening consequences, she would long have handed in her letter of resignation. Instead, she’s extremely lucky to be a Nigerian, a space where anything-goes is the going style.

Nigerians can’t stand the small crook, won’t forgive the petty thief. If a wretched, starving fellow is spied picking somebody’s pocket for a hundred naira for a meal, you can count on any Nigerian mob to deliver a sentence of death. And that sentence is instantly executed, no appeals for mercy from the hapless thief entertained. But let a Nigerian public official – a governor, say – steal billions of naira of public funds, and the same mob becomes amazingly dovish. Some will rise to the thieving governor’s defense because he’s a “son/daughter of the soil,” a fellow “tribesman/woman.” Some will put much store by the fact that s/he worships in the same church or mosque. Some will declare that the Bible warns, let s/he who is without sin throw the first stone. Some will ask whether you expected a person who had sugar sprinkled on her/his tongue to spit it.

Nigeria is a paradox. It metes out instant capital punishment on pickpockets. Yet, it is the perfect kingdom for the big, bold, audacious embezzler or squanderer. It’s a country where ethics is frequently asked to surrender to ethnicity, principle must cower before sectarian claims, and where institutions are made to shudder in the presence of personalities, the merest achievement of public officials is inflated beyond belief. It is, above all, a country where nothing is ever any body’s fault. In Nigeria, the buck never stops at anybody’s desk; like the Energizer bunny, the buck must keep on going.

Ms. Oduah has benefited from the strange confection of Ethics Nigeriana. Many (I’d even hazard, most) Igbo saw that what the Aviation Minister did was plain wrong – no ifs or buts. But some Igbo groups and individuals rushed to her side, proclaiming her a target of ethnic bigots. Their line of argument, whether deployed by the Efik, the Hausa, the Yoruba, or the Igbo, is exasperating. How does being Igbo lessen the awfulness and scandal of a minister’s decision to buy two BMW cars at a price tag of $1.6 million?

Every inch of Nigeria is bereft of basic facilities. For the vast majority of Nigerians, life is hardly livable. Only recently was the country’s minimum wage raised to N18,000 (about $112) per month. That’s $112 per month to spend on rent, clothing, kerosene/firewood, food, transportation, school fees, healthcare, (tanker-borne) water, (non-existent) electricity, and so on. The federal and state governments were dragged, kicking and screeching, to assent to that minimum. Today, many Nigerian workers are still paid much less than that miserable minimum. Forgive me, but I don’t see how the millions of hapless Igbo are helped by Ms. Oduah’s approval of vulgar sums for bullet-proof cars.

This is not to deny the existence, persistence and power of the ethnic factor. There’s no question that some of the minister’s harshest critics would shed their indignation and sing a different tune were she a member of their ethnic bracket. But that fact, I think, does not validate the use of ethnicity to defend impunity. Instead, it offers a challenge as well as an opportunity for the emergence of a cross-ethnic coalition of enlightened citizens. Such citizens ought to be courageous enough to reject the invocation of ethnicity in defense of nonsense.

In 2007, many commentators went after Patricia Etteh, then Speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, for spending N600 million of public funds on renovating her official residence and her deputy’s. In one piece titled, “A female speaker’s manly vices,” I argued that Ms. Etteh deserved to be banished from her office. I wrote: “She has displayed a quality of arrogance and insensitivity to the national mood that is difficult to stomach from an occupant of her exalted position. In a season of national misery and disquiet, she has proved herself an insouciant fan of revelry, self-aggrandizement and squandermania.”

The title of my piece was provoked, in part, by some misguided apologists who sought to defend the speaker on grounds of gender. Others still raised the ethnic defense. But both the gender and ethnic apologia were hollow in her case. They have no traction in Ms. Oduah’s case, either.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s response to the Oduah scandal was to – in effect – refuse to address it. He achieved his evasion by setting up a panel to look into the matter and report back in two weeks. Is there any information of consequence that the president doesn’t already have? Nobody, least of all Ms. Oduah, has denied that an aviation agency doled out $1.6 million for two cars. That’s a grave enough misjudgment for the minister to merit being fired. The US, Britain, Germany, Norway, France, China, and Canada have lots more money than Nigeria. Yet, it’s a safe bet that no aviation authority in any of those countries would survive the scandal of doling out $1.6 million on two cars! I’d like to know whether Ms. Oduah and Nigeria’s aviation “dignitaries” are driven around in $800,000 bullet-proof BMWs when they visit other (wealthier) nations.

If President Jonathan needs a panel and two weeks to figure out how to respond to the Aviation scandal, then how much time – and how many panels – would he require in order to tackle his country’s ever-worsening climate of insecurity, its education crises, scary healthcare system, horrible roads, and the tattered state of its infrastructure?

It’s a mistake to assume that the president wanted a panel that would exhume the facts to guide his action. No, Mr. Jonathan was merely playing according to the rule book of our mess of a country. One of the rules is to shield, protect and immunize loyal “steakholders” like the Aviation Minister from the consequences of their actions and inactions. The presidential panel’s real, if unstated, mandate is to lull outraged Nigerians to sleep. If it can, the panel must induce us to forget that our “Honorable Minister” blew $1.6 million of our scarce funds on two cars. Once we forget, the president will be able to do what he really wants to do – nothing!

Some of Ms. Oduah’s defenders have pointed to the extensive renovation she initiated at various Nigerian airports. The facts are there, undeniable. But Nigeria is a nation of at least 120 million people – perhaps as many as 170 million. Surely, the president can find another minister from that population capable of continuing – and even expanding – the airport renovation projects. To argue that Ms. Oduah and she alone can oversee that job is to fall back on the Nigerian cult of the individual. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo used that canard when he made a thinly disguised bid to alter Nigeria’s constitution in order to perpetuate himself in office. His shameless acolytes argued, “If Obasanjo is not president, who can do the job?” It was an insulting, brainless question to pose in a country that brims with talent, even if the best of them are carefully, deliberately excluded from the pool. And there was the irony that the question was being posed by the surrogates of a man as ethically wretched, mischievous and bereft of a modern outlook as Mr. Obasanjo.

There’s a good chance that Ms. Oduah will keep her cabinet post, but that outcome would be for all the wrong reasons. It won’t be because she’s a superb performer, or that it made sense to fork over $1.6 million for two cars, or that the purchase met the smell test. It will be because she happens to operate in a country where ethnicity trumps ethics, loyalty to the oga at the top supersedes loyalty to the collectivity, and expediency has far more muscle than adherence to sound principles.

Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe

The Curse of Foreign Rulers, By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe

Last week, I tried to sketch out the minor, desultory drama that culminated in my failing to speak at a convention of the Anambra State Association-USA in Tampa, Florida. Had I spoken, my speech would have been shot through with ideas ingested, adapted or borrowed from two of Nigeria’s best writers, and heroes of mine, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. I had recently been rereading the two writers’ works, Soyinka’s prison memoir, The Man Died, and Achebe’s slim but provocative political treatise, The Trouble with Nigeria.

It was in the former’s work that I encountered, many years ago, two lines that, to this day, strike me with their aphoristic pithiness and fierce moral power. The first, perhaps the most famous sentence in Soyinka’s account of his experience in solitary detention during much of the Nigerian civil war, goes, “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.” The second: “Justice is the first condition of humanity.”

It is fair to say that those two stipulations have continued to inform my moral posture, certainly my take on the big and small dramas of Nigeria’s sad, saddening biography. For any citizen to choose to be silent, especially when principled speech acts are called for, is to (at least unwittingly) cooperate with those who degrade and dehumanize others. Speech, and particularly speech deployed to confront, condemn and combat injustice, is, at bottom, a moral duty. Humanity, properly understood, is impossible in the absence of justice. That is Soyinka’s particular bequest, as a writer and social actor.

Achebe’s book – a booklet, really – is a fascinating model of a sharply observant intellect delving into the heart of a people’s malaise in a decisively economic style. The power of the volume lies not so much in the originality of his insights as in his ability to light on just the right anecdotes that illustrate – in fact vivify – the tragedy of a country that, in his memorable phrase, managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

As I read The Trouble with Nigeria for the umpteenth time, I came away with two strong impressions. One is the fact of Nigeria’s resilience; the other, a sense of awe at the poignancy and currency of Achebe’s trenchant remarks, a realization that his declamations remain startlingly pertinent and relevant, that they bear eloquent testimony to the continuing toxic nature of our choices.

Achebe’s book was published in 1983, a time so suffused with a sense of pervasive dysfunction and impending doom that nobody was really surprised when the military struck, knocking down a rotten “democratic” edifice run by self-indulgent politicians. Of course, the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida would go ahead to re-enlist some of the worst elements among the dethroned and disgraced politicians, creating a military/civilian tag team that set astonishing records in impunity, ineptitude and corruption.

Many a page of Achebe’s booklet teems with sentiments that could have been provoked by today’s disheartening political events. The book, he stated in the early pages, “calls on all thoughtful Nigerians to rise up today and reject those habits which cripple our aspirations and inhibit our chances of becoming a modern and attractive country.” At the time, his entreaty was deemed utterly urgent. There was the perception that Nigeria was running out of time. Today, those crippling habits that impeded the country’s aspirations are still very much in existence, only more virulent.

The author of The Trouble asked – a question that resonates even more powerfully today – “Why do the good among us seem so helpless while the worst are full of vile energy?” In a chapter titled “False Image of Ourselves,” Achebe juxtaposed two statements made in 1979, one by then (West) German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the other by then Nigerian dictator General Olusegun Obasanjo. Here’s what the German leader said about his country: “Germany is not a world power; it does not wish to become a world power.” It was an advertisement for modesty, if not national self-effacement. By contrast, Obasanjo projected a hubristic portrait of his country. Nigeria, he said, “will become one of the ten leading nations in the world by the end of the century.” Achebe weighed in, categorizing the former statement as “a sober, almost self-deprecatory attitude,” and the latter as “a flamboyant, imaginary self-concept.”

The end of the 20th century came and went. Nigeria, far from ascending to the ranks of one of the world’s ten leading nations, became one of the world’s metaphors of disaster, a country that frequently haunts lists that measure the worst social indexes around the globe.

Nigerian governors and presidents, mediocrities though they are, bask in extravagant praise. They call themselves, and cause their flatterers to address them as, icons. Few Nigerians are content to be known simply as a president, a governor, or a local government chairman. No, they must be “executive president,” “executive governor,” or “executive local government chairman.” They inflate themselves as having “totally redefined governance” and “totally transformed” the country, state, or local government. Yet, let them (or their spouses) have a headache, and the first thing they do is rush to such places as Germany, Spain, France, the UK, the US, or Canada – places whose leaders, presumably, have yet to decode the magic of “totally redefining” governance or “totally transforming” their spaces.

As Achebe pointed out, “[o]ne of the commonest manifestations of under-development is a tendency among the ruling elite to live in a world of make-believe and unrealistic expectations.” It was perhaps a matter of poetic fate that Obasanjo, who had prophesied Nigeria’s top-ten leap by the end of the 20th century, was shepherding Nigeria as that epoch dawned. Under his watch, Nigeria took several critical steps backward. He pledged to Nigerians, “on my honor,” that they would start enjoying “regular, uninterrupted power supply” come 2012. What he gave instead – perhaps, the only thing he could give – was a regular, uninterrupted supply of reckless political power. He presided over Nigeria like an emperor. He decided which governors needed to be removed and how; arrested members of state assemblies who were slow to do his (impeachment) bidding; and sent soldiers to raze locations like Odi or Zaki Biam in state-ordered murderous orgies.

For me, one of the most salient of Achebe’s piquant observations in his booklet is the suggestion that Nigerian rulers, like many of their counterparts elsewhere, “do not live in their country.” As I surveyed the roll of those who have governed Anambra State (as well as many other southeastern states), it dawned on me that most of them lived outside the state prior to running for governor, and promptly fled to Abuja or Lagos the moment they handed over.

It is an awful, anomalous situation, akin to the curse of being ruled by foreign powers. Perhaps, then, one of the keys to finding effective leaders for Anambra (and elsewhere) is to search among those who are prepared to call the state home after they exit office.

Please follow me on twitter @okeyndibe