Saturday, April 19, 2014

Time to Reclaim Nigeria- Review by Ayo Obe

Published:
Let me start by congratulating the author, Chido Onumah. Not the usual congratulations for having brought a work like this into being, but on his bravery.
 
I generally try to evade doing review duty because I am inexorably drawn to typographical and grammatical errors, a pull so strong that I often have to go back and reset before I can enjoy the actual content. This terrible reputation is usually enough to warn authors to steer clear of Ayo Obe in the business of book reviewing. But as it happens, this particular book contained few, very few of such errors, and it was therefore no problem at all to read, and to focus on what the author seeks to convey to his audience.
 
So in addition to congratulating Chido Onumah for bringing the book into being, I should also congratulate him for excellent editing!
 
Now, to my knowledge, I am at least the third person to have reviewed this collection of essays, and though – knowing that I had this review coming up – I tried to avoid reading the extensive critique by the venerable Edwin Madanugu over several weeks in The Guardian, newspaper, I found myself reading the briefer review by Uche Peter Umez before I knew it, not least because it was Mr. Onumah himself who distributed it. So I can tell you that the few errors in this book have already been identified by Mr. Umez.
 
The only one he missed that I feel I must draw attention to is the one on page 52 where the author misquotes Lord Acton’s dictum about power and corruption. Action wrote of the tendency of power to corrupt, and I think we need to emphasise that rather than simply say “power corrupts”, because otherwise, it would be saying that everybody in power must necessarily be corrupt in everything, and leave no room for resistance to the tendency, whereas I am firmly convinced that we should expect and encourage those in power to resist its tendency to corrupt.
 
Mr. Umez has also done the usual reviewer’s job of telling readers what they can expect to find in the book, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to do exactly the same thing!
 
We start with ‘The Trouble With Nigeria’. Amidst what you might expect to find, including leadership (to which I will return later) we have two essays on homosexuality which the author uses to demonstrate how some of our “God forbid!” or “It is the Will of God” knee jerk reactions to issues fly in the face of the reality on the ground and almost preclude any rational debate.
 
The constant references that we make in Nigeria to God, Prophets, and Messiahs show the same disturbing abandonment of responsibility that runs through our lives as Nigerians. It is, writ small, the same problem when it comes to leadership. It is not our fault, we say; it’s all down to the leaders – or is it? After all, at a point in the early part of the book, the author praises Mass Action.
 
We have a chapter “In Praise of Dictatorship” which actually concentrates on the Third Term issue. Again, we see that Nigeria almost succumbed to those who wanted us to fold our hands and do nothing because “It is the Will of God” etc.
 
Now, since we know that the Third Term Agenda (TTA) was defeated, albeit for a combination of reasons, it might seem easy to say that all that is past history, and not relevant today, though we might, in passing, note the different explanations given then about the origin of the TTA and then President Obasanjo’s reactions to the campaign – so at variance with what is being offered this month! But to see what makes it relevant and still disturbing, we need only consider our responses to our present leadership, and all the superstitious nonsense that is peddled around the President’s name.
 
The chapter “When Democracy Insults” takes us through from the end of the TTA to the present day. Landing here, the author does the usual, with some telling insights – Nigeria as a failed state (though that easily peddled around expression is one that, living here in Lagos State, I may not recognise as completely applicable to Nigeria) but more tellingly, a “full blown criminal enterprise”.
 
If we doubt the truth of that, we need only recall late Bola Ige’s experience upon joining the Obasanjo administration as Minister of Power. Irritating members of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party by trying to actually do his job, he was told: “Keep quiet! We didn’t bring you into government to make noise. We brought you here to come and eat!”
 
Mr. Onumah makes an important point that too many of our leaders, with their ‘L’état, c’est moi’ – ‘I am the state’ – mentality, seem unable to understand: that though he personally did not vote for Goodluck Jonathan, he wants him to succeed because as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, he holds the destiny of 150 million people in his hands.
 
Does it, should it, require a very big leap of imagination to see that those who criticise President Jonathan’s performance do so out of the same motives? That his failure will be ours, and impact us directly? Instead, we have this unedifying reaction from government to any criticism – the whining about people who want to bring down the President, whether the complaint is about the frivolously profligate size of a Presidential delegation on an overseas trip, or an actual call for his impeachment. It is the same irritating ‘my enemies’ mentality that permeates so much of our public life.
 
Naturally, the secret Assets Declaration of the President is mentioned in this book. After all, Nigerians are bound to wonder why he did it in 2007 when his then boss, President Umaru Yar’Adua, did so. Was it just because he had to? It reminds me of Bill Clinton’s explanation about the Monica Lewinsky affair, which also speaks to the tendency of power to corrupt. He did it, Mr. Clinton said, because he could. Do we conclude that Mr. Jonathan now keeps his Declaration of Assets secret … because he can?
 
The references in the book to some of the speeches made by Mr. Jonathan and our other leaders remind me of what was said at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa colloquium that I attended yesterday in Abuja, namely that these inspiring speeches are usually written by someone else, and then read by the principal and forgotten almost as soon as they are delivered. Expecting the President or any other leader to ‘walk the talk’? Good luck with that!
 
Part 2 of the book opens with discussions on corruption. It has a lot of old – and new – horror stories. From there, the author moves to “Globalization and its Victims”, a section which shows that Mr. Onumah is firmly situated as a world citizen, as must every educated person expect to be in this 21st Century. I would have liked him to have positioned Nigeria more firmly within this discourse (although he more than makes up for that later), because with the frequent complaints about the way we are (mis)governed, it is as if our rulers see things going right (or wrong) abroad, but too many of them park what they heard, saw and learned at the door of the aircraft bringing them home to Nigeria! Not all, but at too many levels, too few.
 
The last part of the book ought to contain its real import. The high hopes captured in “Team RIbadu” are noteworthy. But it soon returns to horror stories and lamentation, yet all the while clinging to hope. Justified in his plea that we “Don’t Dismiss the Obama Phenomenon” by Mr. Obama’s subsequent victory at the 2007 polls. Discussing this victory in a further essay, Mr. Onumah begins to draw some lessons for Nigeria, and for our own youth. It is important however, that we don’t overstate the effect of the Obama victory in the United States, important though it was in that racially polarised country.
 
The other night I was watching the press conference that followed the arrest of the killer of Trayvon Martins, a 17 year old boy who was gunned down in circumstances which suggested to most Americans and the world at large, that he died simply because he was black. I noticed Al Sharpton in the background, just as he was when there was another shooting of an unarmed black man ten years ago, twenty years ago … thirty years ago.
 
Which goes to show that despite our romantic view of Mr. Obama’s election over here, all the problems facing black people in America, or in the world at large, have not just vanished in post-Obama America. The parallels for those who imagine that the election of a President from a hitherto neglected minority in Nigeria is all that would be necessary to change their condition, or Nigeria at large, are too obvious.
 
Back with the book, we have yet another tragi-comic incident, the power cut that interrupted the 17th Nigeria Economic Summit Group meeting at the Transcorp Hilton last November, underlining the hollowness of talk about transformation.
 
But when you try to winkle out the message in the “What is to be done?” chapter, you come up with an answer that seems to fly in the face of Mr. Onumah’s earlier endorsement of Chinua Achebe’s analysis that Nigeria’s problems are due to a failure of leadership. Because when Mr. Onumah, having already identified the Occupy movements in other countries (though he wrongly ascribes its genesis to the United States, rather than Spain where it actually started) as holding powerful lessons and examples for Nigeria, one is bound to conclude that the problem of Nigeria is not so much leadership, but – to further paraphrase another quote from Bill Clinton, which the author himself paraphrased at page 153 (“It’s Corruption, Stupid!”) – It’s the People, Stupid!
 
It’s the People, the rubbish we put up with, the nonsense that we cheer and applaud, the crumbs we accept, our astonishment and gratitude that those whom we elected into office do anything for us at all, as if that is not what they are supposed to so. It’s us, the People.
 
Now, what do we do about us? Remember the character in a satirical play (by Bertolt Brecht) who wondered whether it might not be better to dissolve the people and elect another one? To say nothing of Emperor Nero, who wished that the Roman people had just one neck so that he could get rid of them at a stroke.
 
Don’t we, the people, need to change? At any rate, since we have tried leadership-driven reform, and have seen it come up short over a period of five decades, if we are not to fall into the classic definition of madness, i.e. doing the same thing over and over again in the same conditions but expecting a different result; perhaps we need to try something other than changing leaders, waiting for Big Daddy to come and sort it all out for us, for God to intervene while we just sit on our hands.
 
In a way, this book stops just at the point where things really took off. We all know what happened with ‘Occupy Nigeria’, and there are those who will say that it failed, so we should go back to the same old Waiting-for-Messiah game. But I’m sure that the author, if he were to have extended this book, would have said: No, it did not fail. That was just a beginning, a taste. Time to act! he says: Time to reclaim Nigeria! It is a job for “We, The People.”


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