Thursday, August 13, 2009

Antipolitics, Militancy and Terrorism

If anyone still doubts that Nigeria’s dysfunctional political order is in meltdown, the events of the past few months and in particular, of recent weeks, should have cleared all doubts. For the past decade, the federal government has been locked in a low intensity conflict with militants in the Niger Delta. The militants’ stated goal is greater control of the oil resources bountifully buried beneath their land. That struggle is now less of a clear-cut agitation for resource control, having been adulterated with criminality, organized crime, kidnapping and brigandage. Even so, the essential contention remains over the control Nigeria’s strategic resource. In recent months, the temperature of the conflict spiked following the slaying of 12 soldiers, including a lieutenant colonel and a major. The Joint Task Force launched a sweeping reprisal campaign that culminated in an amnesty announced by President Yar’Adua for all militants who would lay down their arms. For the avoidance of doubt, what is going on in the Niger Delta is a small scale insurgency. Militants have gone toe to toe with federal forces and remain unbowed, and have even been able to extract concessions from the state.
Two weeks ago, over 700 people were killed in clashes between the military and a radical Islamic extremist group known as Boko Haram (western education is a sin). By and large, such episodes are not new in Northern Nigeria where ethnic, political and religious differences combine in a highly unstable cocktail of sectarian animus. There is a long tradition of Islamic extremism in the north notably with the rise of the Maitatsine group in the early 1980s and subsequently similar sects. What is striking about the recent clashes is that they represent an escalation of extremism in the north to the point of full frontal engagement with the state.
The best way to understand the rise of militancy and extremism as represented by Niger Delta militants and sects like the Boko Haram is to situate them within the context of a failed state and as the natural consequence of a coincidence of alarming social indices. At no other time has the state been so comprehensively disconnected from the society at large. Three quarters of our population is under 35. The overwhelming majority of these youths have no jobs, no prospects and no hope. As many as 40 million Nigerians are unemployed. The vast majority of the unemployed belong to the under-35 age group. Furthermore, the federal government freely admits that up to 70 percent of the products of the educational system are unemployable. What these statistics represent is nothing less than the failure of the state and a flagrant inability to secure a sustainable future for the next generation.
This is further compounded by the triumph of antipolitics – the degeneration of politics from the art of governance to nothing more than predatory extraction and plunder. Under these circumstances, as poverty has deepened, an ever smaller cartel of politicians deploy cash and guns to secure electoral victories and then plant themselves squarely at the receiving end of the unearned billions of petrodollars disbursed by the federal government. Most Nigerian states subsist only as beggarly leeches sucking the golden goose of crude oil without any attempt at wealth creation. Nigeria’s politics is that of expropriation and loot-sharing. The consensus that binds the political class is the same as the concord among pirates and robbers as to how to share their plunder. It is fundamentally a kleptocracy. The president sits atop the predatory machine exercising proprietary powers over Nigeria’s mineral resources along with 36 state governors who serve as sub-executives of Plunder Inc.
The subtext of all this is the shrinking circumference of the federal government. The Nigerian state can no longer project its power at will as it used to do at the height of military rule. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the political reality. After Babangida, June 12 and Abacha, it was a politically awakened and sectionally aroused nation that entered into the fourth republic. The increase in micronationalism across the length and breadth of the country was a reaction to the rapacious misrule of the military. It is no surprise that from the Yoruba and the Igbo to the Ogoni and the Kataf peoples, micronationalism took root. Ethnic militias were formed to prevent their peoples’ political extinction at the hands of a neo-colonial state machine long captured by a class of political predators.
The second factor is sheer demographics. Nigeria has a youth bulge. About two-thirds of this country’s population is under 25. The population doubles every 30 years. Demographically speaking, this is not the same country that the military so easily seized control of in the 1980s. Significantly, general productivity, industrial capacity and agricultural production have nosedived as our population has surged. There are many more people to pacify and to police. This surge in our population also means that the contest for spoils and resources that customarily defines our politics has intensified. As oil revenues plunge due to militant attacks and global recession, there is increasingly not enough of the fabled national cake to go round. The Nigerian state apparently has no idea what to do with its burgeoning youth population. Politicians have been unable to galvanize them with economic empowerment through employment or a sense of belonging, identity and purpose. Under these circumstances, militant groups, criminal gangs, extremist sects and violent cults have multiplied as a form of social capital creation by these alienated youths.
Thirdly, the state can no longer project its desires at will because it no longer has a monopoly of violence. The years under Babangida and Abacha were nothing if not an education in the theology and physics of coercion. Most of the militants now negotiating with the federal government were but teens and youths during the 1990s, when the Nigerian state conducted a ruthless pacification of their land. They were conditioned by the extermination of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his band of dissenters. For them it was an education in the utility of violence. This consecration of violence, what Wole Soyinka has called “the divine right of the gun,” is the most insidious legacy of military rule. It taught the post-oil boom generation that treason was alright so long as its practitioners were successful. Coup plotters that failed were executed with dispatch. Those that succeeded became the government of the day. The principle was that he that has the most guns wins.
Eight years under Obasanjo did little to displace this principle from the national consciousness. Politicians have merely borrowed and perfected it by recruiting unemployed youths to serve in their private armies and as storm troopers in electoral campaigns. This militarization of Nigerian politics and public life was responsible for the emergence of confraternal brigandage in our universities but its most prominent progeny is now militancy. In place of the previous state monopoly of violence, there has been a deregulation of terror. Competing franchises on violence are all over the federation – militancy in the Niger Delta, Islamic extremism in the north, organized crime and kidnapping rings in the south-east among others, all of which constitute a fearsome mosaic of domestic terrorism.
The recession of state power is coterminous with the diminution of the moral authority of our politicians and the ethical degeneracy of our public institutions. It stands to reason that if the electoral process is a certified farce, then its products will be an expensive parasitic circus of ostentatious politicians. Ordinary Nigerians have lost faith in governance and have since resigned themselves to the grim chore of daily survival. Voter turnout since 1999 has steadily plummeted. News of the larcenies carried out by public officials and the unconscionable heists perpetrated by government agents now lack impact. It is not simply that “Nigerians have been shocked into a state of unshockability” as Dele Giwa once remarked. It is a grim resignation to the facts on ground – civilians are no better than soldiers when it comes to managing the public trust. The civilian/military dichotomy is no longer a Manichaean moral divide. The current PDP government which is even now engineering the emergence of a one-party state can only be likened to an army of occupation in plain clothes.
This development brings us to the fourth phenomenon of the post-military era. It is the increasing pre-eminence of religious clerics in the popular imagination. The switch to civil rule in 1999 was the climax of the popular discontent with military rule that had been brewing since the dawn of the 1990s. The idea of military Messianism had died a slow and painful death under the deception and intrigue of Babangida and the bare-knuckle savagery of Abacha. Nigerians consequently discarded the idea that salvation would come from the barracks and decided to give civilians another chance. In 2009, ten years into the fourth republic, Nigerians have lost faith in politics and politicians. They have deposited their faith in religious leaders and ethnic warlords. This explains the near mystical appeal that Nigeria’s faith gurus and sectarian freedom fighters command. It explains why not a few people see Asari Dokubo, Henry Okah and their confederates in MEND and allied groups as emancipators waging a just war against a bankrupt state. It accounts for the appeal of the late Mohammed Yusuf, leader of the Boko Haram sect and clerics of his ilk.
Just as militant leaders command great popular esteem in the south, so do religious clerics command great following in the north. According to the State Security Service, Boko Haram has half a million members. The fact that it took the military almost a week to subdue the movement in Maiduguri and that the sect’s followers were spread across several northern states is reflective of the sort of following that these clerics command. No Nigerian politician can command the sort of fanatical loyalty among the masses that figures like Dokubo, Ralph Uwazurike, Ganiyu Adams or Mohammed Yusuf and others elicit. In summary, the balance of power has shifted in this country from the federal government to what we might describe as non-state political actors.
This is the proper context in which to place the emergence of domestic terrorism and the recent deadly clashes in the north. This is the basis for the increasingly prevalent extremist theologies now festering in the cauldron of volatile social conditions and now capturing the hearts and minds of millions in the north. Some of these theologies are hived off those of the puritanical Wahhabi school propagated by some wealthy Saudi Arabian charities and missionary agencies and most recently manifest in Afghanistan under the defunct reign of the Taliban. This is why Boko Haram and allied sects have been described as “Talibans”. The appeal of sects like the Boko Haram is their explanation of the material conditions of the dispossessed: poverty, injustice, famine and hunger are rife because people have abandoned the path of true faith (in this instance, pure Islam of 6th century vintage). Nothing but a theocracy and the rule of Sharia will remedy this situation. The Nigerian state being a colonial invention and all other accessories of the modern nation-state (like western education) are diabolical structures against which a jihad must be levied. The military, the police and all other government institutions are arch-enemies of this theocratic order and must be thus destroyed.
Only the most ignorant Nigerian will write off this summation as the stuff of fringe lunacy. For while it is right to say that these extremist groups live on the margins of society, it is also correct to say that the vast majority of our people have, in fact, been forced onto the margins of society, alienated by the social injustice and impoverishment wrought by anti-politicians. Youths who have no hope and no prospects roam around these fringes from where they can be initiated into extremism. The appeal of groups like the Boko Haram should not be a mystery. They provide a theological explanation for the dispossession of millions of Nigerians who are born into this country in poverty and are apparently preordained to live and die in poverty. The theology casts injustice and class inequities in Manichaean terms as a struggle between light and darkness. Above all, it provides our existentially frustrated youths with a transcendent cause (jihad) for which to live, fight and die. In a reality characterized by lack of moral clarity and amorality, these theologies provide a firm moral order through which the faithful can interpret their circumstances. Their doctrines of sainted exclusivity and exclusion offer the very sort of self-esteem and self-respect that the Nigerian system so abjectly fails to give its youths. In addition, Nigerians remain hungry for leadership, and following the serial failures of military messiahs and civilian buccaneers, they are quite willing to settle for the oracular certitude of charismatic militants and pseudo-prophets.
It needs to be said that these symptoms are in no way restricted to Islam. They are mirrored in the ascendancy of some Pentecostal, neo-Pentecostal and wholly Nigerian brands of Christianity in recent decades. We must see the moral equivalence that connects the excesses of groups like the Boko Haram and the atrocities perpetrated in some communities in Akwa Ibom and Cross River, some of whose denizens abused, tortured and even murdered their children because some Pentecostal clerics had dubbed them witches. In both cases what is evident is that a cadre of priests are providing scapegoats for the material circumstances of the faithful. For Boko Haram, it is western education and the Nigerian state that sustains it; for the Pentecostal gurus in Akwa Ibom, it is defenceless children. The saga of Reverend Chukwuemeka King who was sentenced to death for murder in 2007 and others of his kind intimates us of the equivalent capacity for extremism that exists in Nigerian Christianity. In short, over the years the failure of the state and the general moral degeneracy of society have created the perfect circumstances for the emergence of false prophets and the germination of extremist theologies. Reason is in decline. Unreason, superstition and unhinged zealotry have taken centre-stage.
These trends are not in anyway restricted to fringe religious groups. Nigerian politicians have been adept at manipulating religion to serve their own ends. It should be remembered that it was Nigerian politicians not clerics that declared Sharia law in some northern states in late 1999 and 2000. For the politicians, Sharia was a convenient piece of populist gimmickry. For the long suffering masses, Sharia held out the promise of redistributive justice and a more ethical society. This is why the people took to it. As it turned out, these high-minded objectives were far from those of the politicians. But their betrayal of the people stirred the deadly broth of discontent that has produced extremists like Boko Haram. As governor of Katsina, Umar Yar’Adua also instituted the Sharia. The first execution under Sharia law in Nigeria was in Katsina under his watch. After his victory in the farcical 2007 polls, President Yar’Adua urged his opponents and Nigerians to accept his election as the will of God.
Reason demands that we trace a parallel line of congruence between Yar’Adua’s definition of his dubious victory as the will of God and Mohammed Yusuf’s definition of his crusade against western education as the will of God. In Yar’Adua’s case, it was the consecration of an electoral heist executed with generous deployments of state-sponsored terror; in the case of Yusuf and the Boko Haram, it was the sanctification of privatized terror deployed against the state and its agencies. It is not a leap in logic to propose that Yar’Adua and Yusuf, as far as their pronouncements are concerned, are neighbours on a spectrum of religious belief – one that purports the appropriation of divine sanction for partisan agendas. This speaks to the need for us to resolve the role of religion in public life in this country.
That the emergence of domestic terrorism poses an existential threat to Nigeria is beyond doubt. The question is how to defuse the incendiary circumstances in which extremist and militant movements have been incubated. The solution to the crisis lies squarely in the province of moral leadership. The challenge is one of repurposing our politics, reorienting the political class and reforming the character of the Nigerian state which at this moment is essentially a machine of internal colonialism. Bombing campaigns and amnesties will not resolve the Niger Delta conflict. Over the years, Nigerian military chiefs have publicly admitted on several occasions that a military solution to the conflict is not viable. The conflict is a prime example of asymmetrical warfare with a comparatively small band of irregular combatants operating in a familiar and inscrutable terrain, a labyrinthine network of creeks and amongst a largely sympathetic local population. An all out military solution is fraught with the risk of high casualties for the armed forces, unconscionably high collateral damage in human and material terms; much of Nigeria’s oil infrastructure would be imperilled and above all, such indiscriminate deployment of military force against Nigerian citizens would only further radicalize the surviving population.
In the north, law enforcement agencies can be deployed against these extremist groups but only as one component of a holistic strategy. The fact that these groups tend to disperse and reappear again with increased ferocity indicate that there is a large pool of disaffected people from which to swell their ranks. Let there be no mistake. Nigerian forces may have routed the Boko Haram in Maiduguri but this is no time for jubilation. All that has been achieved is the decapitation of a particular sect. Yet, the extra-judicial execution of Mohammed Yusuf by the police somewhat proves the point of the sect which is that the agents of the state are messengers of a degenerate power. The slaying of their leader will serve to further radicalize the members of the sect. The police through its thoughtless brutality may have simply created a martyr in whose name more disenchanted youths can rally. Indeed, while a certain sect has been neutralized, there remains a widespread movement in the north of people who share the sect’s disenchantment with western education, modernity and the Nigerian state. Therefore, containing extremism cannot be a matter of who can deploy the most force. The challenge facing the political elite is to enthrone good governance and social justice.
Militancy and terrorism are Frankenstein monsters that were conceived by the militarization of politics and nurtured in the Petri-dish of antipolitics. In order to eradicate militancy, the political culture that has created it must be addressed. President Yar’Adua must come forward and commit publicly and unequivocally to ending political violence, not as a sermon or a piece of presidential posturing but as a matter of urgent national priority. He must commit himself to putting an end to zero-sum politics. In practical terms, this means insisting that the ruling Peoples Democratic Party does not have to win every state in the federation and discarding the party’s manifest design to establish hegemonic one-party rule; he must ensure that the relevant agencies particularly INEC and the police are unshackled and empowered to function as truly autonomous arbiters in the electoral process; and that the police and allied security agencies will safeguard the integrity of the process.
The chain of causality is obvious. When politicians recruit unemployed youths as thugs and arm them with cash and guns, they create the next generation of militants and terrorists. When these politicians take power, their knavish misrule creates the material conditions that gestate terrorists and extremists. Antipolitics is the reason that the federal government has thus far failed in the Niger Delta. Hopelessly rigged elections produce public officials that are answerable not to the electorate but to cliques and cartels in the ruling party. When the Yar’Adua administration created the absolutely needless Ministry of the Niger Delta, it created, in effect, yet another channel of plunder and patronage for party chieftains. The dubious provenance of the Niger Delta Ministry and of the “selected” officials in the zone means that government will never deliver for the long-suffering denizens of the region. This is because they were never on the agenda in the first place. This democracy deficit is the key factor in the instability in the region. Only as the Nigerian state cleanses itself of its predatory proclivities will it assume the moral authority needed to distil the social ferment in the country into criminal terrorist elements and genuine democratic activism and agitation.
In the Niger Delta as in every other part of this country, Nigerians need to know that their votes count and that their leaders will be held accountable. Issues like devolution of powers from the centre, adjustments in the derivation formula and revenue allocation are ultimately political outcomes best pursued through the channels of political engagement and public debate. But as long as our electoral process is subverted to the point that its outcomes are undemocratic, no such debate will occur. The democratic channels that provide a valve for discontent and legitimate agitation will be closed. Under such circumstances, Nigeria’s growing army of discontents will ardently adopt the eloquence of violence to press their claims. The gap between state and society will widen and terrorists, warlords and extremists will fill the void, serving as a buffer between a bankrupt political elite and a disillusioned citizenry. In time, these agents of disruption, enabled by their weapons of war and ennobled by the disenchantment of the masses will carve out turfs where their rules rather than the laws of Nigeria apply. Their little kingdoms will continue to increase, while the circumference of a state manned by an intellectually exhausted political class continues to shrink into irrelevance. The country will drift further into the outer darkness of statelessness and failed statehood. This is the possibility that the Yar’Adua administration must now work to avert.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

MUGU DON PAY! The Gospel According to Kelly Handsome

Kelly Handsome, a singer of modest talents, is one of the latest artistes to grace the flourishing Nigerian music scene. His break out video entitled Maga don Pay is an ode to Nigeria’s notorious 419 fraudsters; an unabashed psalm of adoration for their nefarious exploits. Like most Nigerian music videos, it projects a range of compelling cultural meanings. There is the ardent glorification of criminal behaviour, the vile objectification of women and the celebration of unearned riches. The bling-bling fixation, the sagging of trousers and the grandiose imagery are all imported from the American hip-hop tradition which itself is largely a product of American jailhouses where a disproportionate number of African-American youths are now languishing. It has been suggested that the more violent strains of hip-hop are indicative of the moral collapse of the African-American community, particularly those of the decaying inner cities of the US. The apparent germination of this brand of hip-hop on our shores is thus worthy of careful study.

Kelly Handsome’s single is only part of an emerging pattern. Before him, Olu Maintain’s Yahoozee and Nkem Owoh’s I go Chop Your Dollar enjoyed great airtime and following especially among youths. But it is Handsome’s lyrical content that demands attention. Mugu don pay, shout hallelujah! – So go the lines of his song. The chorus suggests a spiritual chant, a perverse spiritualization of illicit profit and a reconciliation of God with Mammon. On one level, it indicates the idolization of wealth that is rife in our society. Let there be no mistake: strains of Nigerian hip-hop can be linked to the general alienation, drift and purposelessness of our youth. It reflects the level of narcissism and nihilism that has taken root in their psyche. But the fruit has not fallen far from the tree. Theirs is merely a generational reloading of our social sins – the celebration of overnight success and avaricious acquisition practised by the doyens of Nollywood and publishers of society magazines, not to mention the fact that plunderers of the national treasury are serenaded and criminals are rewarded for their exertions with national honours and public office. However perverse the images purveyed by young Nigerian artistes, we must understand that they do not indicate a generation gap or an acute moral divergence from the ways and means of their fathers and mothers. If anything, they have lyricized and cast in pictures the hypocrisy and corruption of our broken society.

However, it is on a subliminal level that Kelly Handsome might have more to offer. When he suffixes his self-adulation with the Hallelujah chant, it may be an unconscious or veiled tongue-in-cheek social commentary. He is implying a moral equivalence between 419ers and Nigerian popular spirituality. His music bids us to explore the fraud that lies beneath the veneer of faith in Nigeria. Kelly Handsome’s message is fraud as faith and faith as fraud. In his estimation, 419 and Nigerian religiousity originate from the same conceptual universe. The evidence seems to bear him out.

Both 419 and Nigerian pop-spirituality share a common emphasis on immediate gratification and on miraculously disproportionate returns on modest investments. The emblems of success in both realms are identical – easy sweatless wealth achieved as quickly as possible, designer wardrobes, posh cars, fancy houses, beautiful girls, etc. Advance fee fraud blossomed around the same time as Nigeria’s religious boom. It was during the 1980s and the 1990s, General Babangida’s Structural Adjustment Programme had wiped out industries, annihilated the middle class and impoverished families. As governance failed, people turned to self-help. The naira plunged and society followed in its wake. The spiritually-inclined turned to the new-generation churches that were mushrooming in the midst of decaying urban centres. These religious movements proposed that salvation was upward mobility and fiscal health. The same self-help instinct fuelled atavistic behaviour. Individuals tried to make a living by duping and fleecing others. Finance houses or magic banks promising incredible returns on deposits sprung up all over the country. Depositors discovered too late and with devastating costs that the so-called magic banks were scams. The emergence of fraudsters and faith gurus was reminiscent of the money-doublers of yore that boasted “a trial will convince you.”

Kelly Handsome’s song is best interpreted as a commentary on the state of Nigerian spirituality. In 419 as in these spiritual temples, the gullible exist to be fleeced. The marketplace of faith is the marketplace of fools. Each of us must find our own niche. We must scam or be scammed. Beyond this, the idea is that we are being scammed all the time by someone – the state, PHCN, clerics, a customer, even a wife or a husband. The only way to thrive is to be equally fraudulent – under-declare your assets, cheat at every turn, steal your own share of the national cake if you can and beat the system. And do it all in the name of Allah and to the glory of Jesus. This is how to win in Nigeria. The almighty will understand so long as you return to render what belongs to him. In northern Nigeria, we would say Allah ga na ka, which means ‘God, here’s your share.’ In the Christian parlance, the winner must render “tithes and offerings” – heaven’s tax on our booty. This explains why some of the greatest thieves in the country have distinguished themselves by building mosques and churches. Mr Handsome’s subliminal suggestion is that Nigerian spirituality is sanctifying a culture of theft.

The subtext of Mr. Handsome’s poetry may well be that our entire social and political reality is a fraud. Here after all is a country in which many of those holding public office were actually unelected and who having gained power through electoral heists now purport to serve the society. This is a country in which youths patronizingly referred to as the ‘leaders of the future’ are treated to sermons by those bankrupting that very future to sate their greed today. If there is anything that approaches a generational or even a national ethos in Nigeria, it is the proposition made by songs like that of Mr. Handsome and Olu Maintain: ‘I scam therefore I am.’ Nigeria already has a reputation as a fraudsters’ paradise. The former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell once characterized Nigerians as marvellous scammers. This perception of Nigerians as being inherently deceitful and as natural born con artists is something we must vehemently reject. But we cannot do so without understanding how deeply the culture of fraud has embedded itself in our socio-cultural DNA and the associations with Nigerian religiousity that reinforce it.

The scope and intensity of religious feeling in this country suggests the neurosis of a society that was previously prosperous but is now unable to come to terms with its privation and broken promise. The fixation on demonology, witchcraft and allied paranormal phenomena is a way of externalizing responsibility for our failures. Thirty years ago, we were blaming western imperialism for our woes. After three decades during which we amply demonstrated that we didn’t need western imperialists to dig us into a hole, we have discovered witches, wizards, demons and allied metaphysical forces out to truncate our progress. Tomes of religious literature on our bookshelves purport to disclose all kinds of satanic conspiracies aimed at us. The only solutions are to pray, await the rapture or some messianic advent, to retreat from this dark, wicked world and to find shelter in any of the temples and shrines all over the country. In the alternative, it is to flee abroad preferably across the Atlantic which, according to Nigerian theology, is heaven on earth.

Nigerian religiousity is a product of our unique socio-economic circumstances – poverty, the pervasive dysfunction of our institutions and the sheer arbitrariness and low estimation of life on these shores. It is also the poetry of defeat; the swansong of a society that has since surrendered in fatalistic resignation to chaos and which is unwilling to take responsibility for its own destiny. It has thrived by providing scape-goats for our own inadequacies and theological justification for some of the worst aspects of our culture, particularly tendencies towards avarice, short-termism, mental laziness, vulgar ostentation and superstition. This sort of faith is possible only in the context of a massive failure of the state. The social contract is in tatters and both soldiers and civilians have proven to be equally corrupt. After the fall of the Second Republic, the onslaught of SAP, the deceit of Babangida, and the bestiality of the Abacha era, Nigerians turned to the anointed men of God. The crowds that turn up at our mosques and churches, prayer grounds and camps indicate that Nigerians are hungry for leadership and are willing to settle for the sub-optimal sort provided in the enclaves of faith.

The faith gurus of our society, whether they be pentecostal preachers or radical imams possess an enormous appeal because politicians have bungled statecraft. The size and ardency of their following is possible only within the context of the monumental failure of politics and governance. This is precisely what makes Nigerian religiousity spiritually unsound and even dangerous. The country’s shift to religious ecstasy has coincided with a withdrawal from the public square, a dearth of civic responsibility, a rise in social incivility and a collapse of community values. This isn’t coincidental. Nigerian popular theology is hyper-individualistic, narcissistic and insular. It has no agenda for social engagement or capacity for public activism. ‘Prosperity by any means necessary and to hell with society at large’ is as good a summation of this creed as any.

Mr. Handsome is arguing that the entire edifice of Nigerian faith is another fraud. The riches and the power promised by the faith gurus are generally limited to upper levels of the market while the dispossessed masses remain credulous and ever impoverished by the demands of their creed. It is just that of all kinds of deception, the type grounded in religious sentiment is the most difficult to discern. Just as soldiers and politicians have failed us, our current romance with anointed men of God is doomed to fail. The problem is our readiness to heap our expectations, hopes and responsibilities on pseudo-messianic pretenders whether they be charismatic soldiers promising revolution, cherubic politicians advertising reform or anointed religious leaders offering miracles. This tendency renders us incapable of taking responsibility for our destinies in both personal and civic domains. It also leaves us prone to deception.

The notion that our ecclesiastical elite are immaculately conceived messengers from on high is our last illusion. When this illusion is dispelled, we will at last realize that nations progress when their citizens take responsibility for their advancement. It is often said that only God can save Nigeria and that the faithful must keep praying. Bollocks. God doesn’t save nations; people take responsibility and their countries progress as a result. This is otherwise rendered as the durable cliché: Heaven helps those that help themselves. For this to happen prayer must become practice and faith must birth works. It is simple causality. Faith without works is sterile ritual, which however boisterous is of no effect on material reality. The Bible proclaims that “Righteousness exalts a nation.” This is not a referent to the privatized self-righteousness so prevalent in Nigerian theology but to righteousness in terms of ethical conduct – the gold standard of personal and social values. Whether a nation reaps the blessings of the good society or the curses of atrophy depends upon how well it grasps this dynamic.

Raucous lyrics aside, Kelly Handsome may have done us a profound service. He is asking us to wake up and smell the coffee. His song might even be an unintentional prophetic utterance urging us to rethink our theology and to discard the fraudulent catechisms that litter our spiritual landscape. It is a call for us to emancipate ourselves from that most Nigerian of self-deceptive canards, namely, that God is perpetually bound to perform miracles to accomplish tasks that are well within the province of our responsibilities and our powers. He is asking us to snap out of the imbecilic credulity that has left us at the mercy of all kinds of charlatans. Implicit in Mr. Handsome’s anthem is a challenge for people of faith to rediscover authentic spirituality and to interpret their beliefs in ways that are socially redemptive. It is a call to work out our salvation like a moral equation that we must solve everyday in every sphere of life, making the word flesh and translating doctrine into praxis.

Faith can be a fount of hope and fortitude for a beleaguered society but all too often Nigerian spirituality is a vessel of escapism, a portal to an alternate universe that distracts us from the real and earthbound fights of faith namely serving community and saving the society from descent into chaos. Nigeria will not be transformed because of its numbers of prayer-warriors. It will progress when its teeming masses of the faithful convert their creed into transformative acts of creative enterprise, conscience and compassion in the public square and in the marketplace. Many already operate in this vein but their numbers must be swelled to a critical mass.

The imperatives of our day possess a compelling moral simplicity – we must do what is right, observe the golden rule (really, interpersonal ethics for idiots); refuse to cheat, lie, steal or bear false witness. We must build bridges of empathy across divides of ethnicity, class, creed and gender; we must condemn and repair what is wrong, remedy injustice and speak truth to power. We must broaden our horizons beyond our consumptive aspirations and begin to give a damn about the material conditions of the society in which we live. We must rediscover concepts like personal responsibility, contentment, perseverance, delayed gratification, self-discipline and self-knowledge – these are renaissance values of which so little is heard these days from our bully pulpits.

These imperatives seem simple enough. The fact is that we have replaced real faith with labyrinthine ritual. This accounts for the contradictory trends of deepening religiousity and mounting decadence in Nigeria. In short, if the sum of our religious understanding went no further than observing the Ten Commandments, our society would be a markedly different place. And Kelly Handsome’s lyrics would not be such a haunting indictment of our country.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Rescuing the Renaissance Generation

There are many of us who believe that the emerging generation of Nigerians (the post-oil boom generation) is summoned by historical circumstances and providential necessity to construct a new Nigeria. However bleak our national condition might be, we have the potential to become the renaissance generation. We could go down in history as the generation that turned back the tide of decay and set this country firmly on the path to the greatness for which she is so clearly ordained. Our time could become a definitive dateline in the calendar of Nigeria’s odyssey.

Some of the portents are auspicious. There is a rich vein of discontent waiting to be tapped for this purpose. There is also a capacity for strategic fraternity and solidarity partly evidenced by the popularity of sites like Facebook and the connectivity made possible by the internet and GSM telephony. There are embryonic intimations of a nascent social order – a more cosmopolitan outlook, defiant of customary prejudices, divisive tendencies and sectarian polemics – a proudly pan-Nigerian identity construct is slowly emerging from the rubble of sectional politics and it is refreshingly different. This is the face of the generation that will save Nigeria from itself.

But the renaissance generation itself must be rescued before it can undertake to rescue society. A calling to national renewal will count for nothing if we fail to answer history’s summons. The real question is: Does this generation care enough about Nigeria to invest in her redemption? The answer, based on available evidence, is probably not. The Nobel laureate and social critic, Wole Soyinka once famously described his generation as “the wasted generation” for its pitiless squandering of Nigeria’s opportunities for greatness. We run the risk of going down in history as the generation that didn’t even turn up for the nation-building enterprise; an absentee generation of runaways made infamous by our dereliction of a historic duty.

Thirty years ago, young Nigerians could be found at the frontlines of social and civic engagement. Their voices were strident in the public arena. It was youths that protested and forestalled the Balewa government’s proposed Anglo-Nigerian defence pact; it was youths that launched the Ali-Must-Go protests during General Obasanjo’s rule and the anti-SAP demonstrations during the Babangida years. It was young Nigerians that founded the Civil Liberties Organization and the Constitutional Rights Project among other groups that were to form the spine of the civil society’s anti-military resistance. Our national anthem enjoins us to always remember “the labours of our heroes past”. Indeed the exploits of the great nationalists of yore, Azikiwe, Awolowo, Aminu Kano, Herbert Macaulay, Michael Imoudu did not come at the crest of old age but in the prime of their youth.

Today, Nigerian civil society is in a kind of suspended animation and is badly in need of fresh blood and youthful vigour to pilot it in new directions. Part of the problem is that the culture of civic participation was virtually destroyed during the eighties and nineties when the trio of military dictators – Buhari, Babangida and Abacha undertook the most comprehensive subversion of civil society in our history. Our generation which grew up during military rule and has only a fleeting acquaintance with democratic culture needs to learn the principles of civic participation. This is important. Our experience of power and governance was of the buccaneering variety rendered by military regimes. This experience frames our modes of engagement in the public space. The utility of violence among young people under the auspices of campus cults, militant groups and other conclaves is in a profound sense, the legacy of military rule – a consequence of the militarization of the public space.

This is only half of the problem. Nigerian youths are more likely to be found today in religious gatherings, crusade meetings, sports viewing centres, beer parlours and clubs. If this generation is to fulfil its calling as the renaissance generation, then it must itself be delivered from the opiate of sterile spirituality and the entrancement of an increasingly bankrupt popular culture. The evidence suggests that a cynical dumbing down of a generation is in progress. Consider that by all accounts Nigerian youths are in poor shape bent double under the yoke of mass unemployment and mass unemployability. Examination scores of secondary school leavers have been plunging steadily for more than a decade. The failure rate is currently over 70 percent. From all indications, ours is a generation with few or no prospects. Yet we are plied relentlessly with a panorama of activities and images designed to distract us from reality. This goes beyond the habitual failure of government. Even the private sector corporations ostensibly imperilled by the growing shortages of skilled manpower are the biggest promoters of an increasingly widespread culture of mindless entertainment.

A cursory perusal of the fare on television yields images of able-bodied youths in dance-a-thons, sing-along contests, and various reality shows that tend towards hedonism. Everything on air points towards a celebration of frivolity and a trivialization of the challenges facing young people in this country. Let us remember that Nigeria suffers severe limitations in basic literacy and numeracy. Yet there is a fastidious lack of investment in the intellectual capacities of our youth. Programmes that promote intellectual armaments are jarringly absent. What passes for entertainment is hopelessly low-concept. Our youth programmes feature an unhealthy fixation on physicality. If we are to think of the brain as a muscle that is toned with exercise then we must agree that our popular culture exercises every muscle but the most important one. About the most cerebrally tasking thing on Nigerian TV right now is the game show, Who wants to be a Millionaire?

On the other hand, there is the disturbing obsession our young people have with religion. I am not by any means proposing atheism; spirituality is a fundamental part of humanity and at its best is an agent of renewal and progress in society. But I fear that our youths are now largely under the thrall of personality cults masquerading as religious movements. Nigerian popular theology is intensely materialistic, promotes immediate self-gratification and is devoid of a social conscience. The Marxist definition of religion as an opiate is mostly true in Nigeria. It should not escape our attentions that the religious boom that multiplied churches and mosques in Nigeria occurred within the context of urban decay, economic recession and the collapse of our communities. This is no coincidence. As people have turned to religion, they have withdrawn from the public arena.

What would happen if the multitudes that turn up with alacrity at the sundry crusade grounds and prayer camps developed the same commitment towards renewing their communities? What if the young, upwardly, mobile and apathetic congregants of the so-called mega-churches in our urban areas repented of their existential cluelessness and were mobilized towards activism in the public square? What if religious leaders of different persuasions adopted a social and moral consensus to publicly interpret their faiths in terms of civility, courtesy, charity, good works, community service and social renewal? Imagine if pastors and imams mobilized their flock towards constructive ventures in the public space rather than destructive ventilations of angst in riots and inter-religious clashes that scarify our land?

If we cannot even imagine these occurrences or can only do so with great difficulty, then we must quickly reach the right conclusions. First, religion as we know it in Nigeria is under-developing our society and far from being a redemptive force is largely an escape hatch from reality, a fount of denial and a zone where civic irresponsibility crystallizes into pious hypocrisy. If the potential for a national renaissance is not to be aborted in our time, we must emancipate those of this generation that are now being anaesthetized into indifference and narcissistic individualism in our religious theatres.

Secondly, the tone and tenor of our popular culture must change. Private sector companies must devote their resources to sponsoring intellectually-stimulating fare as against the celebration of raw animal physicality of youth. We live in an age of brains not brawn and we must commit as a society to developing our intellectual armaments. Put another way, if we educate our children so that they can find a cure for HIV/AIDS, discover cheaper alternative energy or develop ways of renewing the vast areas of our country now being devastated by desertification and erosion, it would make a far greater impact on our social and economic reality than sponsoring them to contest in the World Street Dancing Championships or in international beauty pageants. We will not progress as a nation on the basis of how many street dancers and beauty queens we have.

We must realize that whereas the developed countries of the world are rich enough to afford certain levels of indolence, Nigeria is simply not in that league and can ill-afford leisurely idleness. The problems facing us are daunting enough – they require seriousness and rigour not frivolity and banality. They require focus and commitment not the portfolio of distractions offered by a bogus spirituality.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


Everyday across Nigeria, on at least half a dozen or more occasions, one occurrence elicits wrathful oaths and unprintable profanities from people of both high and low breeding. It is that moment when a power outage cuts short work, leisurely activity, a football game or something as serious as a surgical operation. At such times, whether with a scream, a groan or a sigh, the word “NEPA!” escapes our lips like an expletive directed at the air as if invoking some spiritual entity. NEPA is Nigeria’s National Electric Power Authority, and arguably no organization in the world attracts the same unanimity of public odium. What is interesting though is that NEPA ceased to exist several years ago. The organization that has been in charge of our power supply for years is the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN). Not that it matters. For over two decades, power supply in Nigeria has essentially fluctuated between erratic and non-existent. Consequently, the rebaptism and change in nomenclature has made no difference.

NEPA’s ineptitude is so seared into the Nigerian consciousness that nothing short of a revolution in PHCN’s service delivery will redeem its reputation. NEPA is a compelling example of the staying power of a negative brand and is especially relevant to the Yar’Adua administration’s current campaign to rebrand Nigeria. With typical Nigerian superficiality, government spin doctors have reduced national branding to sterile sloganeering: “Good People; Great Nation.” Professor Dora Akunyili, the minister of information and the chief apostle of the rebranding campaign has attacked her assignment with customary gusto. She has been making the rounds on the local and international media to vociferously argue that all Nigerians aren’t fraudsters and to condemn the delinquent minority whose vile acts have given the country a bad name.

But in fact her campaign misses the point. The social theorist Marshall McLuhan coined what we might regard as the cardinal principle of branding when he said: “The medium is the message.” Professor Akunyili while entirely justified in her vilification of fraudsters is mistaken in casting them as the archenemies of the Nigerian brand. The people whose acts cast the most doubt on her campaign are none other than her fellow travellers in the current administration. It is the government itself that is doing the most to discredit the rebranding exercise. President Yar’Adua’s lack of leadership, his government’s failure to move beyond a now esoteric seven-point agenda and urgently invest in the critical sectors – power, energy and public infrastructure, constitute the most potent blights on this rebranding campaign. Add to this the administration’s apparent indebtedness to corrupt politicians, its disgraceful hounding from office of an anti-corruption czar in violation of his statutory tenure and the president’s refusal to repudiate the electoral heists perpetrated by his party, the Peoples Democratic Party. Akunyili may find it easy and convenient to inveigh against faceless fraudsters but if she is truly interested in tackling the biggest fraudsters in Nigeria, she needn’t look further than Abuja. Half of our national budget goes towards maintaining our public officials. Their wage bill last year amounted to 1.3 trillion naira. A member of the National Assembly earns more than the president of the United States. At the same time, members of the National Youth Service Corps who are expected to serve their country often in indecent conditions and in remote locales receive a paltry N9, 775 as monthly allowance. Last year, a proposal to increase the allowance to N20, 000 was shot down in the National Assembly. Meanwhile the national minimum wage is N11, 130. The Nigerian Labour Congress which is campaigning for an increase in the minimum wage has observed that between 2006 and 2007, workers’ salaries were raised by 15 percent while those of political office holders were increased by 800 percent.

A more cognitive government would have recognized the connection between high unemployment and crime. By one estimate, 40 million Nigerians are unemployed. The fraudsters that Akunyili has had cause to condemn belong predominantly to the demographic bracket of the ages of 20 to 35 years. This is the bracket that supplies most of our teeming army of unemployed youths, as well as the militants and brigands that are often used as cannon fodder by political operatives. Confronted by mass unemployment and the growing spectre of mass unemployability owing to the collapse of public education, the government’s most imaginative response has been “Good People; Great Nation!” The PDP’s only contribution to the debate has been its announced readiness and intention to rule Nigeria for sixty years.

Let’s be honest. As of now, the Yar’Adua administration has no moral right to preach probity to Nigerians. It isn’t the acts of a few delinquent fraudsters that impugn the national brand; it is the piracy of a delinquent political elite and the continuing culture of impunity, hypocrisy and graft in high places, which in turn feeds graft in the lower places. None of the high ranking politicians and officials implicated in bribery scandals involving Siemens and Halliburton have been exposed. The corruption cases brought by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) against some governors, among them the president’s known political associates, have conveniently vaporized. The EFCC itself has been neutered and is steadily sinking to the same operational efficiency levels as NEPA. Just this April, a report on Nigeria in The Economist portrayed the stark reality of Nigerian politics as “back-room deals that ensure that the top job alternates between the elites of the largely Muslim north and Christian south: a “gentleman’s agreement” to allow the ungentlemanly feasting on the country’s billions of dollars of stolen and mismanaged oil resources. Nigeria is still one of the world’s most corrupt countries.” This perception of Nigeria in the west has nothing to do with 419 and neither stale slogans nor hackneyed preachments will alter this perception. That President Yar’Adua and his administration are supposed to be symbols of the Nigerian brand readily makes this rebranding campaign an unqualified farce. The medium is the message.

As for Professor Akunyili, we may well be witnessing the self-immolation of one of the country’s most capable public servants. When she agreed to become one of the public faces of the Yar’Adua presidential campaign in 2007, many Nigerians excused her involvement with the PDP as conscription rather than a voluntary inclusion in the party’s gravy train. By assuming such a high profile in the campaign, she was, it was felt, lending her public reputation to a presidential campaign of such unhygienic provenance. (In retrospect, we might surmise that she was simply staking her claim to power in the nascent presidency). To Nigerians who had fallen in love with Akunyili following her impressive crusade against fake drugs as the nation’s food and drugs czarina, it was almost as if she had been abducted by the PDP and forcibly deployed to the frontlines of their electoral campaign. If this is so, then she may now be a victim of Stockholm syndrome, the peculiar neurosis that causes abductees to identify and bond emotionally with their captors and adopt their causes. Little else can explain her acceptance of a brief that requires her to defend an administration that is indefensible on many counts.

Had she defined herself solely as a minister of information, then perhaps her position, however much of a disservice to her person it is, would have been tolerable. Akunyili remains quite popular with many Nigerians. And Nigerians are very forgiving of public figures that they love and very understanding of their frailties and errors. But her insistence on the role of the chief apostle – as a medium of a government that really has no message, strains credulity. This role calls for a dangerous level of self-righteousness because it involves preaching to the disillusioned on behalf of the irredeemable. To say that Akunyili is throwing stones from a glass house is an understatement; her very pulpit is an Aegean stable. At the moment, it doesn’t look as if Akunyili will leave government with much of her reputation and stock of goodwill intact. This is the price of yoking her personal brand to a political brand that was always suspect at best.

This brings us right back to the subject of rebranding. No amount of re-baptisms and changes in nomenclature can transform NEPA’s image in the national consciousness. Like the police, the customs service and much of Nigerian governance, what is needed isn’t rebranding but rebooting. Serious exemplary leadership can change the tone of these organizations and infuse our institutions with a new spirit of excellence and service. This will happen only when the right balance is struck between rhetoric and purposeful action. So far, the Yar’Adua administration has simply dished out bankrupt rhetoric and has demonstrated a pitiable lack of ideas and political will.

In the final analysis, whether Nigeria is advertised as the “Heart of Africa” or simply a “Good People” and a “Great Nation” is inconsequential. No amount of creative sloganeering can challenge the reality that greets visitors and citizens at our airports, the filth on our roads, the impunity of law enforcement agents, decrepit infrastructure and allied evidence of a broken system. Given the scale of these challenges, the rebranding campaign is a criminal waste of funds. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, a future administration will find it useful to prosecute those who are now conspiring to squander much needed resources on a pointless rebranding exercise.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Time Has Come

Leadership is the greatest need of the hour in Nigeria. Across the land, at all levels, with the exception of very few bright spots, there is a debilitating absence of direction. Our leadership meltdown is not restricted to the political realm; religious leadership has been equally abysmal. There are few genuine role models and exemplars of what is good. Our society is descending into chaos. The times recall lines from W.B. Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming: “the best of all lack conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The situation is bleak and everywhere there is a deficit of common sense and character; a yawning absence of courage and conviction.

There are things that need to be said and there are things that need to be done. The saying must often come before the doing. A declaration of alternate possibilities – a strident insistence that things do not have to be like this – must precede action. There are those who will say that talk is cheap. Indeed. But when people steadfastly refuse to voice the obvious, then clearly truth has become expensive. Someone must utter the truths which we as a people fastidiously avoid confronting. We must speak truth to power.

As Thomas Paine said, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” These are not times for regurgitating stale clichés and rehashing the expired rhetoric of our superficial public conversation. These are not times for apathetic self-involvement punctuated by beer parlour lamentations and living room histrionics. These are not times for mundane pursuits. On the contrary, the times are crying out for fresh thinking. These are times to dream boldly and to dare in like spirit. We need to reason deeply, to brood over the issues and our roles in resolving the crisis. The deep-rooted malaise of our society requires solutions conceived from the very depths of our consciousness. Only the deep can call out to the deep. In other words, the customary shallowness which attends our public discourse must be discarded.

The prophets of old heard from heaven and sought to align their societies with the imperatives of providence. If we could hear from heaven today regarding Nigeria, I do not believe that we would hear the poetry of comfort and impending bliss. We would not hear the sound of an abundance of rain coming forth to end a season of national drought. We would hear instead a summons to responsibility; an invitation to begin to re-imagine and reinvent the dysfunctional conditions that we have grown distressingly accustomed to. We would hear a call asking us to seek our roles in a nascent and as yet embryonic movement for national renewal. I believe that that we would hear this call framed as a query: “Who shall we send and who will go for us?”