One of the more difficult (at a personal level at least) aspects of the Nigerian dilemma is the fact that we still have debates in which strong entrenched positions about the state of the nation are pitched against each other. How come that in the face of a palpable rot (a vast army of unemployed people; decrepit infrastructure; moribund real sectors of the economy; a public bureaucracy famed more for its capacity to leak fiscally, than to design and run policy; and the spectre of poverty daily stalking our streets), there are compatriots who still counsel caution? If the view opposed to the call for quick, root-and-branch reforms to the way this country is currently managed was simply concerned with keeping hope in the possibilities of this nation-building experiment alive, in order that we do not succumb to despair over the succession of failures that we have recorded, it would have made some sense. Instead, apologies for the status quo regularly emerge as justification for the propriety of our current policy trajectory and pace.
A familiar argument against all who would prefer that the country proceeded faster up the development path, is the old insistence that those countries that the latter category of Nigerians hold up as examples have been in the development business for centuries; and that technically, we have been at it only since 1960. Essentially, this zeitgeist assays a justification for the enormous expenditure of effort our leaders sometimes go through in their benighted attempts at reinventing the wheel. However, this narrative ignores the example of those countries who like us got their flag independence about the same time, but today are ranked among the best performing economies in the world. Apparently, too, this perspective might not be aware of the leaps and bounds made by the Peoples’ Republic of China since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” began pushing what has today become the world’s second biggest economy in the direction of a “socialist market economy”.
I have often wondered how much of our high levels of tolerance of all things mediocre is a function of a thoroughgoing lack of respect for self. My preferred metaphor for this sadomasochist variant is of the parent of a teenage child still in the second grade, who after term ends is sufficiently impressed by the fact that the child managed a middle of the class position (having led from the rear the previous term). I still am uncertain how much of an occasion for celebration this is, given that this child’s peers are (the world over) taking entrance examinations into various universities. Of course, evidence that this teen is challenged in any way would alter both the structure and the conclusions of this metaphor. But not even the most strident advocates of Nigeria’s right to a unique (and necessarily slower development path) are willing to agree that the country and its citizens are retards.
And anger? At what point does it begin to matter that our official delegations have become the butt of jokes at global public fora? Or that very soon the word Nigerian (hopefully with a low-case “n” the first time) may soon become an acceptable synonym for “fraudulent disposition”? Or that all around us our neighbours think poorly of us? When are we finally going to be permitted to feel sufficiently offended by all these (and a lot more), and offer an emphatic “no” to the self-evident processes that beget these travesties?
In the face of the every day evidence, I think we may not be able yet to reach a conclusion either way on these latter possibilities. Consequently, I’d rather interrogate other aspects of the problem. “Settlement” or the promise thereof has often been enough to encourage a conceptual volte-face in these parts. That is why the image of a vociferous critic of government emerging from a visit to the “state house” and proclaiming his/her “new” understanding of those policies that s/he condemned in no uncertain terms only two hours ago, is not galling any more. Even the acknowledgement that the suborning process, which “settlement” is only a part of, long since begat a different thought scheme matters not any more.
Long ago, “settlement” morphed into a collective gain: “omo wa ni, e je o se”. On this reading, the gains from electing an incompetent, thieving, imbecile political office holder seemingly accrue to the latter’s sub-national grouping; while the rest of the country bears the losses arising therefrom. I’d always thought this a strange formulation. But now that (on account of General Sani Abacha’s hard to fathom six geo-political zones) I turn up being from an incumbent president’s “catchment area”, I understand the “omo wa ni, e je o se” concept even less. Now, I am more convinced than ever that it is not possible to privatise or sectionalise the gains from access to the wealth of a collective and hope to have run the place well.