Last week, I tried to sketch out the minor, desultory drama that culminated in my failing to speak at a convention of the Anambra State Association-USA in Tampa, Florida. Had I spoken, my speech would have been shot through with ideas ingested, adapted or borrowed from two of Nigeria’s best writers, and heroes of mine, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.
I had recently been rereading the two writers’ works, Soyinka’s prison memoir, The Man Died, and Achebe’s slim but provocative political treatise, The Trouble with Nigeria.
It was in the former’s work that I encountered, many years ago, two lines that, to this day, strike me with their aphoristic pithiness and fierce moral power.
The first, perhaps the most famous sentence in Soyinka’s account of his experience in solitary detention during much of the Nigerian civil war, goes, “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.” The second: “Justice is the first condition of humanity.”
It is fair to say that those two stipulations have continued to inform my moral posture, certainly my take on the big and small dramas of Nigeria’s sad, saddening biography. For any citizen to choose to be silent, especially when principled speech acts are called for, is to (at least unwittingly) cooperate with those who degrade and dehumanize others.
Speech, and particularly speech deployed to confront, condemn and combat injustice, is, at bottom, a moral duty. Humanity, properly understood, is impossible in the absence of justice. That is Soyinka’s particular bequest, as a writer and social actor.
Achebe’s book – a booklet, really – is a fascinating model of a sharply observant intellect delving into the heart of a people’s malaise in a decisively economic style. The power of the volume lies not so much in the originality of his insights as in his ability to light on just the right anecdotes that illustrate – in fact vivify – the tragedy of a country that, in his memorable phrase, managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
As I read The Trouble with Nigeria for the umpteenth time, I came away with two strong impressions. One is the fact of Nigeria’s resilience; the other, a sense of awe at the poignancy and currency of Achebe’s trenchant remarks, a realization that his declamations remain startlingly pertinent and relevant, that they bear eloquent testimony to the continuing toxic nature of our choices.
Achebe’s book was published in 1983, a time so suffused with a sense of pervasive dysfunction and impending doom that nobody was really surprised when the military struck, knocking down a rotten “democratic” edifice run by self-indulgent politicians.
Of course, the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida would go ahead to re-enlist some of the worst elements among the dethroned and disgraced politicians, creating a military/civilian tag team that set astonishing records in impunity, ineptitude and corruption.
Many a page of Achebe’s booklet teems with sentiments that could have been provoked by today’s disheartening political events. The book, he stated in the early pages, “calls on all thoughtful Nigerians to rise up today and reject those habits which cripple our aspirations and inhibit our chances of becoming a modern and attractive country.” At the time, his entreaty was deemed utterly urgent. There was the perception that Nigeria was running out of time. Today, those crippling habits that impeded the country’s aspirations are still very much in existence, only more virulent.
The author of The Trouble asked – a question that resonates even more powerfully today – “Why do the good among us seem so helpless while the worst are full of vile energy?” In a chapter titled “False Image of Ourselves,” Achebe juxtaposed two statements made in 1979, one by then (West) German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the other by then Nigerian dictator General Olusegun Obasanjo. Here’s what the German leader said about his country: “Germany is not a world power; it does not wish to become a world power.” It was an advertisement for modesty, if not national self-effacement. By contrast, Obasanjo projected a hubristic portrait of his country. Nigeria, he said, “will become one of the ten leading nations in the world by the end of the century.” Achebe weighed in, categorizing the former statement as “a sober, almost self-deprecatory attitude,” and the latter as “a flamboyant, imaginary self-concept.”
The end of the 20th century came and went. Nigeria, far from ascending to the ranks of one of the world’s ten leading nations, became one of the world’s metaphors of disaster, a country that frequently haunts lists that measure the worst social indexes around the globe.
Nigerian governors and presidents, mediocrities though they are, bask in extravagant praise. They call themselves, and cause their flatterers to address them as, icons. Few Nigerians are content to be known simply as a president, a governor, or a local government chairman. No, they must be “executive president,” “executive governor,” or “executive local government chairman.” They inflate themselves as having “totally redefined governance” and “totally transformed” the country, state, or local government. Yet, let them (or their spouses) have a headache, and the first thing they do is rush to such places as Germany, Spain, France, the UK, the US, or Canada – places whose leaders, presumably, have yet to decode the magic of “totally redefining” governance or “totally transforming” their spaces.
As Achebe pointed out, “[o]ne of the commonest manifestations of under-development is a tendency among the ruling elite to live in a world of make-believe and unrealistic expectations.” It was perhaps a matter of poetic fate that Obasanjo, who had prophesied Nigeria’s top-ten leap by the end of the 20th century, was shepherding Nigeria as that epoch dawned. Under his watch, Nigeria took several critical steps backward. He pledged to Nigerians, “on my honor,” that they would start enjoying “regular, uninterrupted power supply” come 2012. What he gave instead – perhaps, the only thing he could give – was a regular, uninterrupted supply of reckless political power. He presided over Nigeria like an emperor. He decided which governors needed to be removed and how; arrested members of state assemblies who were slow to do his (impeachment) bidding; and sent soldiers to raze locations like Odi or Zaki Biam in state-ordered murderous orgies.
For me, one of the most salient of Achebe’s piquant observations in his booklet is the suggestion that Nigerian rulers, like many of their counterparts elsewhere, “do not live in their country.” As I surveyed the roll of those who have governed Anambra State (as well as many other southeastern states), it dawned on me that most of them lived outside the state prior to running for governor, and promptly fled to Abuja or Lagos the moment they handed over.
It is an awful, anomalous situation, akin to the curse of being ruled by foreign powers. Perhaps, then, one of the keys to finding effective leaders for Anambra (and elsewhere) is to search among those who are prepared to call the state home after they exit office.
Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe