“Fellow Liberians: As I speak to you today, I am most gratified by the caliber of the delegations of our own African Governments, Foreign Governments, partners and local partners as well, who have come to join us to celebrate this triumph of democracy in our country. I am particularly touched by those you see – our dear brothers, the delegation from the United States, headed by the wife of President Bush and my friend, our mediator, who has been with us so long and brought us to this day.
We pay homage to all of you. We respect you. We welcome you. Bien vene a tous. My dear Brothers and Sisters of West Africa: You have died for us; you have given refuge to thousands of our citizens; you have denied yourselves by utilizing your scarce resources to assist us; you have agonized for us, and you have prayed for us. We thank you, and may God bless you for your support to Liberia as well as for your continuing commitment to promote peace, security, stability, and bilateral cooperation within our sub-region – and beyond.” President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (excerpts from inauguration speech)
Shortly after inauguration, she was on a thank you visit to the United States and addressed a joint session of Congress thus:
“But our ties greatly exceed the historical connection. I stand before you today, as the first woman elected to lead an African nation, thanks to the grace of Almighty God; thanks to the courage of the Liberian people, who chose their future over fear; thanks to the people of west Africa and of Africa generally, who continued to give hope to my people. Thanks also to President Bush whose strong resolve and public condemnation and appropriate action forced a tyrant into exile and thanks to you – the members of this august body – who spurred the international effort that brought blessed peace to our nation.”
…which brings me to my point. This was the Liberian President in 2006 giving credit on two occasions to George Bush in particular and the United States in general for services rendered to her country mainly by Nigeria. For who does not know that ECOMOG is a synonym for Nigeria’s petrobillions and Nigerian limbs? Yet, in both speeches, one could barely make out the silhouette of Nigeria, lost in broad remarks about West Africa and Africa.
Before Liberia, you could possibly count fifty something other ungrateful lepers across the continent who, at various points in Africa’s postcolonial trajectory, have been beneficiaries of the bottomless pit of petrobillions of Abuja, only to run to Washington, London, Paris, or Lisbon to give thanks upon being healed. At least one of the ten lepers returned in the Bible to give thanks to his healer. In Africa, Jesus heals them and they run to render thanks unto Caesar.
I am therefore “maniacally bewildered” (apologies to Patrick Obahiagbon) that, upon the latest insult by South Africa, Nigerians are behaving like they’ve only just discovered this fact today. From Abakaliki to Zungeru, the din of our outrage is threatening to invade my second ear. South Africa, folks claim correctly, seems to have forgotten the source of the petrobillions that funded the struggle in the 70s and the 80s and has given the funeral oration stage to those who put Madiba and the ANC on terror watchlists while money that should have been invested in our roads and other infrastructure went to buy ammunition for Umkhonto we Sizwe and to provide Federal Government scholarships for thousands of black South Africans to study free in Nigerian Universities. All of this is true. But why are we behaving like it has only just started to happen? Nigerians have this irritating habit of going to bed every night with indignity for decades only to wake up one day in the middle of the afternoon and scream: “Mr. Indignity, what the heck are you doing in my bed? How did you get here?”
It means that those who are screaming today about the insult from the South Africans aren’t even aware of the previous insult from the Liberians. In short, they do not know when, where, and how the rain began to beat us. All these cries of insult remind me of Tortoise who fell into a pit latrine and was there for seven years. Then one day, his neighbours discovered where he was whereupon Tortoise began to scream, asking them to get him out quickly lest the stench killed him.
Folks, we have been in this stench of Africa’s ingratitude for our incurable habit of Santa Clausing our petrobillions for a very long time.
The point is not to scream outrage today. Your responsibility is to think very critically about why and how we got here. Are there any connections between this state of affairs and the quality of Nigeria’s leadership, especially since 1999? If we had leaders who could think and deploy critical intelligence, would this be happening to us? What is your own role in canonizing mediocre and intellectually inferior semi-gods in our political process? Are you contributing directly or indirectly to this state of affairs when you display a programmatic hostility to any criticism – no matter how justifiable – of the quality of service and leadership of your canonized political gods?
Perhaps in 2015, you should vote in folks with enough brain power to understand that you cannot buy love and respect with petrobillions? Perhaps you should vote for those who understand that if your citizens are healthy and well fed and gainfully employed, if your infrastructure is world class, if your Universities in 2013 don’t look like the University of Timbuktu in the 12th century, respect and global esteem shall be added unto you? There are connections between things. Let us think urgently about all these connections and make something constructive of today’s insult. I salute you.