Reviewier –Adinoyi ojo onukaba
Author –Amanze obi
Language is one of the strong points of this delightful and delicious intellectual offering consisting of 44 essays in five parts. Obi’s language, most times, is clear, crisp, precise, refined and dignified. It is not surprising. The author has a doctorate in English Language.
I have chosen to anchor this review on the double entendre, Delicate Distress. In their ordinary meanings, the word “delicate” means something that is “fragile”, “frail”, “easily damaged”, and one that “requires great care, caution or tact” while distress means being in “pain”, “danger”, “trouble” or “suffering”.
These two weighty words when applied to a nation connote a situation of great peril, a dilemma. Nigeria, according to Amanze Obi, is a fragile, troubled entity whose life-threatening, self-inflicted maladies require great tack and care to treat and to heal.
It is the sort of caution and wisdom needed to get rid of a stubborn mosquito that has decided to perch on the scrotum. If you choose to smash it with a sledge hammer, you risk crushing it with the balls. The wisest thing to do is to gently drive it away from that delicate zone, kill it mercilessly and end your distress without any collateral damage.
In this metaphor, Nigeria is the scrotum on which an army of mosquitoes and other enemies have descended. Nigerians, led by their leaders, must work together to rid her of these parasites and cankerworms without destroying the entity. How do we manage danger or distress in a nation without destroying its essence? This is the critical question that Delicate Distress has thrown up.
In Delicate Distress, Amanze Obi guides us through contemporary Nigerian history, analyzing and commenting on such issues as the clamour for national conference or dialogue to determine the future of our country, the challenge of re-making the Nigerian constitution, balancing regional agendas, the desirability or otherwise of state police, gloating and fretting over oil, militancy and the Niger Delta blight, the Igbo dilemma, Boko Haram terrorism and the spectre of Islamization, the failed Third Term campaign, the 2007 elections and the rot in the judiciary.
In these essays, Amanze Obi is deeply concerned about Nigeria. He wants to know why things are the way they are. He wants to know why things don’t always work. Could it because Nigerians do not have abiding standards or because they do not believe in Nigeria? Like the mythical Sisyphus, must Nigerians be interminably engaged in meaningless and purposeless act that Existential philosopher Albert Camus once wrote about? Is Nigeria the way it is because people owe their loyalty primarily to their ethnic enclaves rather than to the country? Is there a country? Does it have any real place in the minds of Nigerians and do they care about her? Do they want to make it work?
Nigerians must ask themselves these critical questions, the author says. If Nigerians really want their country to work, the author argues, they must stop tearing their country apart and begin pulling it together. He says Nigeria will not work until the groups that make up the country come together to review the terms of their co-existence. He argues that national unity or oneness is never achieved through coercion but through dialogue.
Nigeria, he says, has not been programmed to work. Nigeria has short-changed most of us just as we have also short-changed her by our unwillingness to do the right thing to make her great. He says that Nigerians have become so narcotized by the daily diet of bizarre and absurd occurrences that they are now unshockable and frequently forgetful. Nigeria has to be programmed to work.
When in May 2005, the United States National Intelligence Council came up with the report titled “Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa’s future”, the Nigerian leadership was alarmed and incensed by its ominous predictions which says that “while currently Nigerian leaders are locked in a bad marriage that all dislike but dare not leave, there are possibilities that could disrupt the precarious equilibrium in Abuja”. According to the prediction, this house is expected to fall on all of us in 2015 or thereabout.
But Amanze Obi is not one of those Nigerians who are quick to dismiss the American prediction as scare-mongering. He argues in this book that Nigeria should take the prediction seriously “because Nigeria is bogged down by disequilibrium…..basic ingredients of corporate existence which should make all of us to hang together no matter our differences have been willfully ignored by those the US report called Nigeria’s leaders”.
If Nigeria is to survive as a corporate entity and if the bad marriage must work, the author argues, Nigeria must face certain basic truths – justice and equality. These are fundamental issues that require national consensus since nothing in Nigeria today has been arrived at through the people’s will. He accuses some people of benefitting from Nigeria’s disequilibrium and of wanting it to remain so and trying to protect it at all cost. But Amanze Obi wants the contradictions and incongruities upon which Nigeria was founded dismantled.
What exactly is this dis equilibrium that the author speaks vaguely about in the first eight chapters of the book? It takes Amanze Obi quite a while to hit the nail on the head. He is angry about the “unfair distribution of states in the geo-political zones of the country”, the concentration of power at the centre, the lack of fiscal federalism, Sharia threat, and uneven revenue allocation. These are issues that some believe can be addressed through constitutional amendments. But Amanze Obi takes sides with those who argue that the issues constitute the “innumerable gaps”…….”that stand in the way of progress and development”.
Although the author is generally sober and reflective both in person and in this work, there are hints of barely contained anger and despair over the trouble with Nigeria. He seems at times to question the basis for Nigeria’s unity. He wants to know why the constitutional declaration about the indivisibility and indissolubility of Nigeria is still sacrosanct. The mad and ignorant Boko Haram terrorists that are killing people indiscriminately in the country, we are told, have “given Nigerians cause to re-examine the basis and rationale” for her corporate existence. He refers frequently to the structural imbalance in the country that “places one section in serious disadvantage while treating the other as a special segment”.
He says Nigerians have a right to renegotiate their togetherness, to agree on how best to live together harmoniously. The present situation, according to him, is not inclusive enough because certain segments and groups are alienated. The Nigerian state, he declared, has to be redefined.
Here, the author sounds no different from the separatist mobs of MASSOB, OPC, ACF, EGBESU and other kindred groups who want the country dismembered. Rather than put more efforts to make the union work, Nigerians like to fantasize about returning to the village republics of pre-colonial days. They don’t seem to realize that the cost of staying together as a nation is obviously less than the cost of going through a messy and bloody separation. Therefore, rumours about the demise or impending demise of Nigeria is exaggerated – as the writer Mark Twain once said in reaction to rumours of his death.
Amanze Obi can be excused for being at times angry and dismissive and for the pessimism that pervades much of this work. As a commentator on Nigeria, he suffers from the usual frustration of repeating oneself, writing about the same issues over and over without something being done about them.
The essays in this book appeared to have originated from Amanze Obi’s popular newspaper column. Regular readers of his column may find some of the articles familiar. As Obi himself confessed in the book, “the issues discussed ….may have been broached by me one way or another at various fora”. He however assures that they have been imbued “with a brand new perspective that will guarantee the timelessness of the subject matter”. Still, a few of the essays are dated, repetitive and merely reportorial, and devoid of insightful comments. When articles migrate from newspaper pages to a book, depth becomes a serious issue because a book is considered more serious.
Amanze Obi has done a good job in Delicate Distress. But it is surprising that the author included in this great book the two chapters on INEC and its leadership during the 2007 elections. In subsequent reprint of this work he may wish to reconsider keeping these odious chapters to avoid damaging the integrity of his work.
Even in this land of hopelessness and collective amnesia, we cannot forget the grave injustice done to the Nigerian people by those who simply refused to live up to the responsibility of leadership.
Reading this book will make you wonder how Nigeria has survived for over 50 years in spite of its many internal contradictions and the centrifugal forces tearing its fragile soul apart. It is a great relief that he ends the book on a hopeful note, admonishing us to make the country work by approaching the contentious issues with utmost good faith.
With keen intelligence and the scholar’s broad view, the author seeks our sympathy and understanding for this delicately distressed country that has remained a land of unfulfilled dreams. We are grateful to Amanze Obi for shining a light on the dark recesses of our souls.