On the eve of President Goodluck Jonathan’s version of the circuitous strategy of an emergency national conference resorted to by virtually every recent past Nigerian president confronted with succession roadblock, Chido Onumah’s book, Nigeria is Negotiable is a timely read. This is so for one major and two minor reasons. Let’s take the two minor reasons first.
The book is a collection of his newspaper articles on the many issues, people, drama and events that dominated Nigerian politics spanning the last segment of the IBB years/the June 12 impasse and the Abacha regime. What this suggests is that in this book is concentrated an imagination of Nigeria by someone who was not just involved but involved from the vantage position of the politics of street barricades against retreating authoritarianism in the 1990s. Meaning that the menu on offer stretches from interrogation of bad leadership to politics of federalism in Nigeria and the associated advocacy for restructuring via a Sovereign National Conference, the hydra headed issue of corruption and the likes. This kaleidoscopic nature of the content makes it very fascinating to read and re-read because it does not tie the reader to one theme from the first to the last page.
The second minor attraction is the activist language in which the author anchored his delivery. What is so great in the activist language? It is the ‘irreverence’ or boldness or lack of silliness in saying what the author wanted to say. In other words, this author, like the activist he was or still is, didn’t tremble before any temple of finesse or any deceptive niceness in saying what he had to say. So, he ended up being more piercing than most peddlers of so-called cultured narratives. But his is not a pointless or abusive bluntness. Rather, it is the analytical clarity that comes with praxis and commitment typical of a student activist of those years when the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) was NANS and had not been taken over by some government sponsored and ideologically incoherent ‘students’.
The major attraction is the overarching theme which defines the book and that is the negotiability of Nigeria as a way out of the chaos that reigned when the book was published mid last year and still reigns. In fact, it is in search of a way out of the total confusion that the president is conveying a national conference or whatever it is called between April and June later this year. But it is not a Sovereign National Conference as this book is demanding, though they are all variants of the ideology of re-negotiating Nigeria.
Against this thematic background, the point to harp on in any serious review of this well titled book is the contextual issue regarding this ideology of negotiability of Nigeria rather than a mediocre chapter by chapter summary of the content. And so, I get on to that.
The postmodern context of politics today makes everything negotiable although it is an unsettled issue whether the postmodern applies to Africa since what is understood as modernity is a product of the Enlightenment temperament, a uniquely European experience. I would, therefore, be wary of a wholesome applicability of the concept of postmodernism to sub-Saharan Africa even as that does not mean that Africa is not caught up in the postmodernist traffic, the most important attribute of that traffic being the culture of interrogating and negotiating any and everything under the sun because postmodernism does not recognize any centre of gravity. Hacking down all such centres and masquerades is its intellectual mission. But it is only an intellectual because post modernism has no political mission.
To the extent of the postmodern culture of hacking down all evil spirits, all ‘egwugwus’ in Nigerian politics, Nigeria is negotiable. In fact, there is a fascinating democratic import in the admirable pluralism that post modernism invariably calls forth. In Nigeria, that would involve calling numerous voices to the Abuja Village square to pose and demand answers to the “why” questions in Nigerian politics.
But, as things are today both in Nigeria and globally, can Nigeria negotiate itself without imploding unintentionally? Should it? What manner of negotiation would that be? Is it the type that will start from the context of the mass misery/poverty in which majority of our people subsist or one that will fool around with ethnic arithmetic of power which will soon be swept away by the dynamism of the world today? Is it the one that will concentrate attention on strategies of mass mobilisation and rapid industrialization or one that will waste everyone’s time around empty notions of federalism in a very dangerous world?
In this book, there are contending notions of the negotiation of Nigeria. There is a pervasive and persistent agitation against a felt over lordship of one section of the country against the other. The Sovereign National Conference strategy is, somehow, favoured by the totality of the sentiments in the book.
But, the autonomy of intellectualism functioned in the book in a way that equally brought out contrary arguments. In this, there is a way in which Kwesi Pratt, Jnr, in my view, struck the chord about it all. I just have to quote his appraisal of the book on the blurb in full if only to advertise and celebrate the clarity he has imposed on the debate against the fussiness of the constructivists and other debaters. According to Pratt Jnr, the Ghana born journalist, “This book reads like a thriller and yet it is the true account of a nation and a people who remain essentially victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, classical colonialism and a brand of neo-colonialism which is largely sustained by a kleptocratic elite. Onumah dwells on the history of Nigeria but he also focuses on today’s Nigeria which has no sensible excuse for the poverty and misery which confronts its people. Onumah and those who recognized the Nigerian problem in its full expression are few but it is their work like this book which will ultimately provide the enlightenment leading to real change”.
The import of Pratt’s intervention is the way it rescues the debate about Nigeria’s future from the ethno-regional frame of reference. That makes his a strategic intervention because he is basically and correctly saying that Nigeria’s pluralism is not a fundamental explanation for its misery. The more fundamental explanation is the political blindness of the kleptocratic elite he referred to.
Generally, the world itself is moving beyond the classical Westphalia state in favour of supra nationalism in which the capacity of the generic state will continue to be called to question, globally. If any evidence is needed to prove this, it is there in the volume of migration. It is true that much of migration today is substantially forced and unidirectional toward the northern hemisphere but even then, sufficient chunk of it embodies a transnational a global spiritedness. So, the idea of re-negotiating Nigeria around abstracted category and inward looking formula of their co-existence is a hopeless and miserable escapism.
The state everywhere is being hollowed out even before the ascendancy of the ideology of emancipation as articulated by radical scholars and theorists in International Relations pushing for polycentric referent objects of security of nations and their citizens. Nigeria cannot be an exception from this current. In our own circumstance, the African Union and the ECOWAS should begin to assume greater centrality beyond our current imagining of them. These are the arena our notion of negotiation of Nigeria at this point in time should be privileging.
As Professor Anselm Odinkalu, a contemporary of the author and the incumbent Chairperson of the Governing Council of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission stressed in the book, it is not every one who will agree with everything the author has written. That is almost obvious. Anyone familiar with the National Question in Nigeria knows that many will hack the author down with their pen when they read some of the arguments. There are so many arguments and Nigeria is so complex that no reviewer can make any serious list of which arguments will make the author a subject of a reader’s attack from which part of Nigeria. The more of such attacks, the more successful the book would have been.
Onoja is at the Politics Department, University of Warwick, UK
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