Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The death of commonsense, By Okey Ndibe

Published:

Okey Ndibe

“Nigeria has progressively become an assault on the senses, a veritable eyesore and a place that stinks like hell”.

There was this fascinating loafer of a student during my secondary school days. We half-mockingly called him “Ogbu Oge.” The moniker is best translated as “killer of time.” “Ogbu Oge” dawdled, whiled away time, spent hours drinking, chasing women, or getting into other kinds of trouble. The only thing “Ogbu Oge” did not have time for was to study.

As you can imagine, he was not the most brilliant of students. His grades, predictably, were failing ones. But “Ogbu Oge” was also resourceful in other surprising ways. On its face, the name we gave him (if memory serves me, it was our then geography teacher, a Mr. Eze, who first coined it), was unflattering. But the guy lent a half-heroic tenor to the name. He happily adopted the name, even reveled in it. In fact, when you called him “Ogbu Oge” to his face, he made it into a complete sentence by responding, “nwe plans.” In other words, he asserted that he who kills time has plans!

Part of “Ogbu Oge’s” plans lay outside of his school days. In the end, he had sense enough to realize he was not cut out for the disciplined rigor of academic life. He never bothered to apply to any university or polytechnic. He went straight from secondary school into business, taking with him all the wiles, guiles and slight “bookishness” he’d acquired.

But “Ogbu Oge” also left a lasting, if dubious, impression as a student – and he did it in a history exam. In this exam, the history teacher had asked, “Why did the Songhai Empire fall?” Our time-killing friend wrote a short, succinct answer: “Because of their carelessness.”

That answer established “Ogbu Oge’s” lore. Visiting Calabar two weeks ago, I spent time with a former schoolmate. As we ate “bush meat” and quaffed palm wine, we also reminisced about “characters” in our secondary school. Inevitably, the inimitable “Ogbu Oge” came up. We both remembered that memorable answer of his to a question about the Songhai Empire – and we roared and roared with laughter.

Afterwards, I had the opportunity to meditate on that unusual, uncanonical response of “Ogbu Oge’s.” No teacher with his head screwed on right would give a student credit for that answer. Even so, I had to admit that there was at least a hint of creativity to the response. If you boiled it down, “carelessness” is a major reason – perhaps the major reason – imperial nations collapse. “Ogbu Oge’s” answer, then, was informed by a measure of commonsense – a kind of applied native intelligence.

As I traveled in Nigeria two weeks ago, it suddenly struck me: Nigeria would be a much better-run space if the country’s so-called leaders brought even a smidgen of commonsense to statecraft. For Nigeria’s problems are both large and small, macro and micro. And even if our leaders were incapable of tackling the complexities of the major crises (unemployment, infrastructural underdevelopment, the dominance and persistence of an informal economy), they ought to be able to address the more minor problems.

Instead – from the presidency all the way to local government levels – Nigerian “leaders” appear bereft of ideas for solving even the most basic of problems. Nigeria’s tragedy does not lie simply in the inability of its “leaders” to engage in serious thinking about wrestling with complex issues. The greater tragedy is the death – and dearth – of commonsense in the ranks of those who parade as political leaders. Nigeria fails woefully at the big issues of nationhood; it also fails, sadly, in the small things.

Nigeria has progressively become an assault on the senses, a veritable eyesore and a place that stinks like hell. Let me illustrate.

During my recent visit, I spent time in Lagos, Calabar, and Anambra. I also traveled by road through Ebonyi, Abia, Imo and Enugu States. I came away with the impression of a country that had become a vast dumping ground. Often, the landscape was marred by the carcasses of decrepit buses and trucks imported into Nigeria from Europe, North America and Asia. Even the grounds near the domestic wing of the Lagos airport had their displays of grounded, rusted planes. On roadsides, highways and streets, one saw piles of refuse: banana and plantain peels, orange rinds, and the ubiquitous plastic wraps that contain what Nigerians call “pure water.” It all makes for a shameful sight, as if Nigeria had been set up as a metaphor for pure ugliness.

The infestation of plastic wraps in Nigeria is a national calamity. Why hasn’t anybody thought to ban the use of these plastic sachets to sell water? Or why has no state government taken the initiative to provide trash bins where these plastic wraps can be discarded? If there is any state government in Nigeria that boasts a modern waste disposal plan, I’d like to learn about it.

As I traveled by road from Calabar to Anambra, I saw numerous places where heaps of rubbish had been set aflame. This crude incineration appears the default method of waste “treatment” in Nigeria. Don’t we have bureaucrats with enough knowledge to warn state governments that such approaches to waste disposal cause environmental degradation and health hazards? Or is it the case that our governors are too focused on what next to steal to spare a thought for the terrible impact of these toxic bonfires, many of them set next to populous markets or residences? One also wonders about the issue of open gutters in Nigeria. Many of these gutters are filled with rank, brackish water – and they’re often right next to food stalls and residences.

I walked around Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, once one of the proud edifices of Africa. Today, the airport is a shambles. The air-conditioning in the departure gates was fitful at best. But the airport’s busiest area, the check-in corridor, was a small oven, with a jostle of drenched, sometimes stinky bodies. Many of the faucets, spigots and basins in the toilets are broken, the floors wet. I walked the length of the arrival hall looking for a trash bin, but saw none. Not one. That meant that a passenger with tissue paper to throw away was easily tempted to drop it right there on the floor, or to leave the airport building and toss the paper outside.

Is it rocket science to know that a public place like an airport requires trash bins? What would it take to place such bins in any airport? Does Nigeria need a World Bank loan for the purpose? Do we need a presidential committee to study the issue, and another presidential committee to study the recommendations of the first committee? What accounts for Nigeria’s woeful failure in areas where the application of commonsense ought to guide people to the right decisions or solutions?

Lately, Nigeria has become notorious as one of the few countries where demand for private jets is rising dramatically. What do we say about ourselves when our fellows mop up private jets, but we cannot put a single trash bin in our airports much less fix the toilets? How do we advertise ourselves to outsiders when we buy up Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris and Lamborghinis, but our highways are gutted, rutted slow ways? How come we build mansions in our cities, but must hide these architectural marvels behind elephantine walls because our individual greed had snatched food from a multitude of mouths and forced our youths to make a living as armed robbers or kidnappers – or to die as suicide bombers?

In the midst of the gloom that’s Nigeria, I also saw glimmers of hope. Governor Fashola of Lagos State is making palpable, positive changes. Lagos streets looked cleaner and greener than I’d seen them in many years. Oshodi was not the bedlam I remembered, even though I spied a man in the white, flowing gown of an Aladura worshiper spraying the concrete road divider with his pee. Before arriving in Calabar, I had been told to expect a city as well-kept and groomed as the best spots in London. It was hype, of course. Even so, I saw clear evidence of a city whose appearance has been dramatically improved. My host told me that violent crime was rare in the city. One night, we met some friends at a fish restaurant, leaving after midnight.

In many cities around the world, to be about late at night is no big deal. But in Nigeria, where armed robbers often own the night, it’s an extraordinary feat. Calabar’s relative quiescence is proof that people respond to their external environment, that a beautiful address inspires beauty in the hearts of a populace. It’s the kind of benefit that’s likely to accrue to Nigerians if more of their leaders applied this equipment called commonsense.

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