Monday, July 26, 2010

On Good and Evil in a Failing State

         Edmund Burke, the 19th century Scottish statesman famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In applying this axiom to contemporary Nigeria, it is permissible to argue that the problem of our society is not that evil people outnumber the good. Various critics and analysts of the Nigerian condition have situated the national crisis within a broader collapse of values and an unhinging of public decency that ripened during the long dark years of military rule. Politics as we know it on our shores is a jarring study in the banality of evil. The news headlines strongly suggest that the ethical challenges of a post-colonial society still trying to find its soul have mutated into pure atavistic amorality in every dimension. The current generation of Nigerians raised and socialized under military rule has no terms of reference for moral conduct in public life or even the very idea of a public life. Incubated in the consumerist ethos of a materialistic age, it is a generation that does not believe in anything except self-interest, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Its creed is materialism but of the nihilistic and narcissistic kind.

          Even so, the problem is not that evil people outnumber good people but that good people do nothing. It is the Burkean conundrum. Nigerians are generally decent, compassionate and morally aware. They want the same things – the basic social amenities and the guarantees of security that make for a healthy, happy and wholesome life. They want to grow old and see their children and their children’s children progress and break new grounds in mutual prosperity. No ethnicity or creed has a monopoly over these aspirations; they are common, universal and indubitably human. However, the moral majority is also a silent and a passive majority lacking faith in the power of their goodness to prevail over evil. In fact, in our popular theology and popular culture, the power of evil is celebrated. Our home videos depict Nigerian life as a precarious existence threatened by an array of physical and metaphysical perils. The faithful are taught to pray against the machinations of the Devil and a host of supernatural forces ranged against them. Parents are more likely to terrorize their children into obedience with threats of Ojuju Calabar (a local masquerade or bogeyman figure) than to teach them voluntary ethical behaviour.

Why we have more faith in the reality of evil than in the power of good is a subject for anthropologists and sociologists to investigate. It may have to do with the African mind and how it traditionally interpreted the unpredictable vagaries of nature as forces to be feared and worshipped, not to mention the cultural penchant for seeking metaphysical causes to explain natural phenomena. We can venture further postulates. Apart from virtually nil infrastructural development, zero growth and a post-conflict type economy, military rule left other less visible but even more insidious legacies. These bequests are buried in our collective psyche and subconscious. In the course of the 1980s and the 1990s, we were socialized to believe in the power of the strongman; the man with the most guns and the most money and his divine right to lead.

Today, ten years into our at least nominal democracy, this belief continues to negate the emergence of authentic democratic institutions and habits. It is the reason why like military coups, elections in Nigeria feature all the elements of state capture, the hijack of the state and its arsenal of coercive instruments by political gangs and their eventual privatization of governance upon their ascent to power. It explains the gangsterization of politics and public service and the complementary adoption of oligarchic capitalism that makes membership of some cult, mafia or cartel, the presumptive pathway to political relevance and economic prosperity.

In many ways, Nigeria is like a frontier society, a 21st century version of the American Wild West characterized by primitive predatory capitalism and a surfeit of banditry and lawlessness. The culture of impunity and incivility that denominates our politics and public life is evidence of this. The Book of Ecclesiastes speaks of an epoch streaked by “the tears of the oppressed” who “have no comforter” in a land where “power is on the side of the oppressor.” These are our circumstances. A predatory ruling class simply steals, kills and destroys in order to secure power and economic resources. The Nigerian condition is not an accidental misfortune. It is not the unhappy consequence of poor planning and stupid policies although we have had plenty of that. It is not merely a result of the fact that increasing numbers of life-long felons are retiring into politics. Official corruption in Nigeria is not simply a problem of dishonest individual leaders and top officials; it is a system. The configuration of power and governance makes it essentially anti-development. Those who control the state thrive by subverting development. It is more rewarding for them that the state and the economy are dysfunctional than operating smoothly. It is systemic evil. What we have is not the rule of law but the rule of the outlaw, a moral climate designed to engender the ascension of antiheroes.

Our situation evokes a theodicy. Where is God? Where is the power of good in a realm in which evil is so mercilessly predominant? Where is hope when godless men prosper? To explain our adverse circumstances, a theology of fatalism and a bizarre eschatology that situates Nigeria’s redemption at some far-off future time has developed and seized the Nigerian imagination. The faithful are told that God will swoop down in due time, work miracles of apocalyptic proportions and set the nation free from its demonic captors. They are enjoined to pray unceasingly for the dawning of that judgment day. Oddly enough, even public policy is crafted in eschatological rhetoric. Consider that in 1979, General Olusegun Obasanjo predicted that Nigeria would be a superpower by the year 2000. During the 1980s, General Ibrahim Babangida promised millennial prosperity with housing, health, education and welfare for all Nigerians by the year 2000. General Sani Abacha shifted the millennial goalposts by a decade with his Vision 2010 economic program. President Obasanjo pushed the threshold further forward with his Vision 2020 agenda promising to make Nigeria one of the world’s twenty largest economies by the year 2020. Along the way, the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. program to halve the incidence of poverty, illiteracy, disease, maternal and child mortality by 2015 has entered our canon of millennial visions. These prophecies were all the more remarkable because from 1979 to 1999, Nigeria recorded virtually no growth.

Long-term planning is all very well but that is not in the main what these programs were about. By deferring progress, these regimes, aided by their theological coefficients, postponed and continue to postpone the necessity of fighting in the now for justice and equity. By adopting a futuristic vision of national progress, the work left undone by several generations is laid up for our progeny who must bear the burden of their forebears’ knavery and indolence. Above all, the civic will to change is sapped as Nigerians are enjoined to pray for their leaders even as those same leaders perpetuate the plunder of our patrimony. The establishment prophets assure us that a millennial day of divine rescue is coming thereby desensitizing us to the urgencies of the now. Our duty, they say, is to survive, to cling on by any means necessary, until that day. If we cannot beat them, then we must join them. In the meantime, we are to accept that evil must prevail for now until the Lord in his infinite mercy moves to save us. And so the masses of otherwise decent and morally-sensitive Nigerians participate in the destruction of their country and become unwitting accomplices of the evil forces which they so readily revile. Just by the simple fact of their surrender to things as they are.

This nation has been literally brought to its knees in what may seem to be a posture of prayer and supplication. In fact, this posture is an apt metaphor of our genuflection at the altars of the oppressors. It is a statement of our surrender to the whims and caprices of feckless tin gods. This position of prayer is actually a portrait of our faithlessness and our civic and moral inertia. Authentic faith moves through prayer to politics; politics meaning a broad engagement in public life that conceives of a responsibility to the wider society at large whatever our individual callings might be. Faith must transcend personal survivalist concerns and energize social and political action. Good and evil are but cosmic abstractions. It is with our moral and civic choices that we incarnate either good or evil in the public square and in the market place. With our acts of omission or commission, we can become as angels establishing beauty, symmetry and order or demons perpetuating death, decay and dysfunction.

Throughout history, societies have been transformed by the twin moral impulses of righteousness and justice. These instincts emanate from a sense that good is inherently superior to evil and therefore, that evil can be defeated by good. The notion that good trumps evil is innately human. It has driven civilization throughout the ages. It is why we generally love fairytales and movies with happy endings. The great moral traditions of the world offer a hope in the eventual redemption of humanity, whether in the form of Nirvana, Utopia, New Jerusalem, Elyseum, Valhalla, Zion, Al Jannah, or allied idealized visions of the city of God. They speak of the attainment of a state of enlightenment and a universal consciousness in a terminal civilization of peace, love and justice. But they are fundamentally based on the idea of the ultimate triumph of good over evil. What we must recover then, as people of faith, is the belief that the good within us can overcome the evil without. As the great nationalist philosopher, Mokwugo Okoye once said, “To be silent in the face of so many evils crying for action is to give consent to their continued existence, for progress demands discussion and action.” And action prescribes a resort to righteousness and justice as the basis of our social and political redemption.

In our context, righteousness is doing the right thing, performing that which commends itself as an act of conscience and a moral necessity. The righteous deed is essentially right in itself and requires no authentication by its consequences. Civil righteousness is doing what is right regardless of its consequence. It is the womb of courage. Imagine that a child is crawling unknowingly towards a ditch in the ground. As that child toddles in innocence towards a fatal plunge into the pit, you are confronted by a moral necessity. Righteousness does not demand that you pray at that hour or seek divine intervention. You are the only one who can possibly intervene in that drama. The moment demands action not prayer. Therefore you act and save the child before it falls to an early death. That is righteousness – doing the right thing. While righteousness is doing the right thing, justice is fixing what is wrong. So in this drama, justice demands that you cover the ditch and eliminate its threat to the child. Beyond that, it requires you to investigate who or what created that threat in the first place. For pursuing justice in a lawless society necessarily implies a confrontation with evil.

We can now begin to imagine a public theology of civil righteousness and social justice. Charity and compassion constitute the righteous response to the poor, the hungry and the alienated in our society. This is basically in the domain of social enterprise and non-governmental activism. Social justice, however, requires that we investigate the structures and systems that mass-produce poverty, hunger and alienation. It is the calling to interrogate the protocols of formalized inequity and oppression which hinder people from fulfilling their potential. This is what it means in the Pauline syntax to challenge “powers and principalities.” There must be a needful balance between our empathic duty to feed the poor and our prophetic responsibility to ask why the poor have no food in the first place. Discernment and vigilance are necessary in this regard for uncritical charity can serve to defuse political outrage and cause people to accept as benevolence the things that should be their civic inheritance. Such munificence can deepen our beggary and victimhood thereby neutering our capacity to ask crucial questions of the state.

The pursuit of social justice will lead us into many domains including those of politics and public service for this is where the faulty systems and structures can be reformed or destroyed if necessary. Civil righteousness and social justice mean that we must uproot and destroy dysfunctional systems as well as build sustainable institutions. To do so, we will have to penetrate the innermost sanctums of power where the realities of Nigerian life are dictated and rewrite the rules of our social, economic and political existence. Thus, the new theology redefines politics as a noble and patriotic vocation whose practitioners are called to manage and maximize our collective possibilities.

The role of faith in a developing society or a failing state is not to manage the consequences of failing institutions, nor is it to anaesthetize us to the crimes against our humanity and posterity inherent in the reduction of so many of our people to dynasties of prehistoric subsistence. It is to inspire us as citizens to identify real causes and confront them. Civil righteousness and social justice demand that we address the urgencies of the now through compassionate encounters with the humanitarian consequences of our arrested development and creative and constructive engagement with its systemic and institutional causes.

Our resistance to evil may not yield immediate spectacular victories. Most of our acts of conscience will not birth dramatic results. But they will accomplish something no less important. History has been known to turn on the mustard seed paradox; on small apparently hopeless acts of defiance whether it is Rosa Parks refusing to go to the back of the bus, Gandhi leading his people on the salt march, Martin Luther hammering his 95 theses to the church door or William Wilberforce and his band of conscientious activists waging a twenty-year campaign to end slavery. Mustard seeds are small, sustained, seemingly insignificant acts through which we counter evil and bring good into being. In the end, the point is to create crisis of moral choice for our children before the dark night of anomie and anarchy completely falls over our land. For if we can show them through our acts that another Nigeria is possible then it will be enough.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Road to Renewal

The first challenge confronting those who want to renew Nigeria is not the pervasive dysfunction of its institutions or even the legendary venality of its ruling elite. It is actually the steely hardboiled cynicism, pessimism and faithlessness with which Nigerians regard their country’s prospects. We have basically relinquished our beliefs in the country’s future and have surrendered to the survivalist imperative of every man for himself. To many of its citizens, Nigeria is already a lost cause. This is the mentality that we must first tackle. Thus, we must first engage with the Nigerian condition in the psychic dimension, in the domain of thought processes, behavioural constructs, belief systems and ultimately, values. Consider, for instance, the ancient axiom, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” The ancients believed that there was a profound connection between hygiene and holiness. Some cultures interpreted leprosy as a physical manifestation of a moral and spiritual blight. In our indigenous traditions, environmental filth was repugnant and there was an emphasis on cleanliness. A filthy home or community suggested the presence of some moral muck, if not a deeper existential evil. By the same token, cleanliness, beauty, order and symmetry suggested ethical hygiene and were held to be the hallmarks of social decency and civilization.

We can apply the same logic with slight modifications to our contemporary circumstances. Whenever we see in our communities, filth, disorganization and disorder, we can take them as evidence that the state is failing in its moral responsibility to safeguard the citizenry from all forces and factors that impair a qualitative life. But it goes beyond that. Environmental chaos indicates the moral condition of the society at large. Heaps of garbage festering in the tropical heat of our cities and towns tell us that a people that can sustain such anomalies for so long even at grave risk to their health have been overtaken by a virulent apathy and selfishness. It is precisely these moral plagues that have hindered civil society and restrained the middle class in particular from the sort of civic engagement that the times undeniably require. For since the 1980s, we have responded to the deterioration of the state with a cynical self-centredness.

Our public schools fell into decay and we responded by building pricey private schools that three-quarters of the population cannot afford. Public healthcare collapsed and we established private clinics beyond the reach of three-quarters of the population. And those with loftier ambitions took to attending to their health needs abroad – an option not available for ninety percent of our compatriots. Among the bizarre consequences of this development is the fact that malaria still kills more Nigerians in the 21st century than any other disease. Vast numbers of our people cannot even afford the cost of malarial medication. Our roads collapsed and we responded by buying Four-wheel drives and exotic SUVs that most Nigerians cannot afford. Power supply diminished and we took to buying power generators to the point where Nigeria is the biggest importer of such machines in the world and emergency back-up generators are the defacto power supply infrastructure for most homes and businesses. Indeed, our entire economy is run on emergency generating sets. In short, as the state’s capacities and competencies have been degraded, more Nigerian families have become virtually self-contained, self-sustained micro-municipalities with each household providing its own electricity, water and security.

The ability to thrive in the teeth of infrastructural meltdown, to display flashy SUVs, patronize private or foreign clinics and private schools, are all pungent statements of class in a perversely status-conscious society. They also signify a profound rupture between the self and the society. The idolization and idealization of wealth, our remorseless pursuit of status symbols and conspicuous consumption to the exclusion of everything else has created a society rabidly polarized between haves and have-nots. The culture of privatized selfishness is sustained by a perverse theology that has gained ground since the 1980s and captured the hearts and minds of the middle class. The Nigerian dream propounded from the pulpits of popular spirituality and the cockpits of popular culture is of isles of affluence set in a raging sea of want and desperation – a situation in which the apathetic middle class is more at risk now than ever before.

More than two decades of flawed public policy have played their part. Social services were already in decline by the last days of the Second Republic when Lagos achieved global notoriety as the dirtiest city in the world. However, there remained a basic commitment, more in philosophy than in practice, on the part of the state to provide public goods. It stemmed from a tradition of state capitalism dating back to the First Republic. For all their political differences, the three patriarchs of post-colonial Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo apparently shared a similar economic vision of synthesizing free enterprise with an actively regulatory and entrepreneurial state. They left a formidable legacy in the form of cottage industries in the north, free public education that created a vast and vibrant middle class in the west and a manufacturing base in the east that was well on its way to rivaling the industrial miracles later wrought by the Asian tigers. Sadly, that particular course of growth was cut short by overwhelmingly adverse political realities. Two coups, a civil war and the oil boom which saw the emergence of a gargantuan federal administration that centralized power and economic resources in itself, halted the growth propelled by the old regions and enthroned a new developmental dynamic fuelled by federally-controlled petrodollars. Even then, the federal leviathan of the oil boom era did not jettison the tradition of state-led capitalism it had inherited. It simply supplanted the regions as the main driver of economic reality. Indeed, economic nationalism characterized the rhetoric and reality of the Murtala-Obasanjo era.

The decisive rupture came in 1986 when General Ibrahim Babangida introduced the Structural Adjustment Program, rolling back the state, cutting public spending, eliminating social subsidies and privatizing state enterprises. From then on, the notion of the state as the principal provider of public goods and guarantor of the common good died. SAP killed off the legacies of the patriarchs through its untrammeled deregulation of the economy, destroying the industries and enterprises established during the First Republic to drive national growth. The sturdy middle class that had been produced by the social engineering of the 1950s and 1960s was almost totally wiped out. But the consequence of SAP was not merely economic; it was also psychic, moral and psychological. Arguably, the forced retreat of the state from its role as guarantor of the common good helped to nullify the very concept of a public domain for which every citizen is responsible. Community values and civic solidarities were undermined by the nascent inequalities generated by the new economic order. Survivalism as a creed and ideology took over.

The shift was aggravated by the peculiar political realities of the time. A principal tenet of SAP was fiscal discipline – stricter protocols of accountability were needed to rein in the riotous proclivities of those in power and to avoid the sort of incontinent spending that had gotten the country into trouble in the first place. Yet, here was a military junta, accountable to no one and its powers guaranteed by its absolutist monopoly of the instruments of violence, executing far-reaching economic reforms. It was secure in its own infallibility while all the time conducting the plunder of the treasury required to nourish the piratical covenant that had brought its leading officers to power. It was a recipe for disaster as the state was simply being vandalized. Nigerians observed the farce and learned that the common good and the public interest, always questionable concepts at best of times, had ceased to exist. The concept of what the ancient Greeks termed res publica, “the things of the public” vanished from the Nigerian mind.

Since the Babangida years, the fundamental tenor of public policy has been of the neo-liberal persuasion. Succeeding governments have failed to bolster the regulatory capacities of the state and to restore its meaning as an impartial arbiter in the public square and the market place. They have failed to realize that the naturally uncontrollable enthusiasms of the free market must be reined in and complemented by the attentions of a state that is socially-aware and designed to promote the common good. In true Nigerian fashion, we have adopted free-wheeling capitalism without the regulatory safeguards that enhance open democracy and social justice. Monopolistic oligarchies and kleptocrats are now ascendant, shaping policies and politics that perpetuate the perversely disproportionate advantages enjoyed by a few at the expense of the many. The society that has emerged from this broth is one dominated by corporatist and political monopolies where agencies of the state are privatized by the powerful and where the distance between the privileged and the poor widens daily.
In such a society, the ideology of radical self-assertion takes precedence over the public interest. All that remains is the swinish scramble for wealth and power; a struggle for access to the national cake conducted with a Darwinian intensity. It is either this or a civic retreat into ever smaller enclaves where the security of the self is narrowly defined with no regard for society.

In the orgy of privatized selfishness and frenetic acquisition that has overtaken us we have forgotten a salient fact. No matter how private sector-driven a nation may be, if it lacks a committed corps of citizens who answer the call to guard the public square and serve the common good in all its ramifications, that nation will inevitably succumb to the forces of anomie. It is the notion of the common good, sovereign above all other motives and interests that informs governments, and preserves society from descent into a Hobbesian state of nature or in more contemporary parlance, the abyss of failed statehood. Ancient wisdom resonates with the urgencies and necessities of our time. Amos, a prophetic voice of Hebraic antiquity spoke of a day of judgment in which a man would flee from a lion only to meet a bear and would flee from the bear into his own house only for him to be then bitten by a serpent. In our context, this oracle, laden with vivid metaphors of danger, chaos and fear, conveys a most urgent truth. We can no longer escape from the deadly contradictions of an unequal society and a failing state by fleeing into the safe havens of an apathetic middle class existence. This much is evident.

Three decades ago when ultraviolent cults began to besiege our university campuses, the response was largely tepid. They were not our children, we thought, and so we did not care. The brigandage on the campuses seemed far removed from the hustle and bustle of urban life. Besides there were new private universities where we could send our wards and if necessary, they could always be sent abroad to study. Today, the miscreants have moved out of the precincts of the academy and into the larger society, mostly unemployed and unemployable, and have unleashed kidnapping and allied affronts on the society. We now increasingly find ourselves in a climate of fear and suburban terrorism. We live in fortresses behind ten foot high walls capped with jagged spikes, on grounds patrolled by private guards, augmented by fierce canines, and further secured by vigilantes contracted to compensate for the doubtful capabilities of a poorly paid police force.

But for all of our protective measures, we still do not feel safe. Relations between neighbours are marked by a mistrust and cautious distance. In many urban communities, the next door neighbour is a stranger. In our exclusive estates, gated communities and upscale areas, we have achieved the Nigerian dream of prosperity in the midst of plenty but it has come at an awful price. Consider that one of the reasons nocturnal fire accidents claim so many lives in middle class neighbourhoods is that firemen are often impeded in their rescue efforts by the very fortifications installed as safety measures. These fortifications often mean that firemen cannot swiftly gain access into burning buildings nor can the endangered occupants get out in time. The irony here is unmistakable. As we rack up individual successes in attaining material security, they exact a terrible toll in terms of the lack of public welfare, a general social insecurity and a sense of fear that isolates us from each other.

The road to renewing our society will start with modest steps, the first of which is the realization by the middle class who currently live in indifference and denial, that Nigeria is our collective responsibility. Our current way of life that sees us zoned out of the squalor of our environments and tuned into the delights of foreign lands via cable TV, the internet and our consumption habits, is unsustainable. We hope in vain for political change, if we are unwilling to mobilize for the cause. Thus, we must replace the current theology of self-aggrandizement and radical individualism with one of public-spiritedness, volunteerism, civic responsibility and social action. Reclaiming society from the clutches of anomie requires us to participate in public life at various levels. That may mean non-profit oriented social enterprises; businesses with a keen sense of the need to empower others and direct engagement in the political process. Renewal requires us to organize rather than agonize, to relearn the science and art of citizenship and rediscover the power of banding together for the common good. This is how national renewal will begin.

There is no easy road or shortcut to our objective. One generation ago, Nigerians dreamed of a messianic strongman that would come and rescue the nation from its self-inflicted ruin. It is unworthy to harbour such dreams today for we are in the epoch of citizens, not strongmen. The only force at this moment that will renew Nigeria is a confederacy of awakened citizens working as change agents in diverse spheres and at various levels in the name and spirit of a new Nigeria.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Super Eagles Have Crash-landed

The Super Eagles Have Crash Landed
(Nigeria’s World Cup: A Post Mortem)

A time comes when a nation exhausts its stock of miracles, when its prayers for divine intervention fail like bounced cheques because it has long overdrawn its account of justifiable help from above. In the end, no amount of prayer could help the eagles’ wretched performance at the world cup. Even when divine aid was apparently delivered in the shape of Argentina beating Greece and the eagles needed a seemingly feasible victory over South Korea to grab a spot in the round of sixteen, it was beyond their talents. Instead we are left to ponder Yakubu Aiyegbeni’s ghastly miss from three yards out with the goal at his mercy. In the inquest that follows the eagles’ exit, we will revisit defining moments of our very brief world cup adventure. People will, no doubt, cite Sani Kaita’s moment of madness against Greece, needlessly incurring a red card for violent conduct and leaving his team a man down; or Yakubu Aiyegbeni (again!) failing to score when put through and Chinedu Obasi’s even more galling inability to slot home the rebound at close range. Had either of the two forwards utilized this gilt-edged opportunity, we just might have beaten the Greeks.

It is comforting to blame the Swede Lars Lagerback’s formation that deployed Yakubu as an at times isolated lone striker. Alas, all these are only symptoms. The truth is that Nigeria’s eagles have offered a mediocre brand of football for a while now. There is little a coach can tell a premier league striker about how to kick the ball into the goal from well inside the penalty box with no pressure whatsoever. Yakubu’s atrocious finishing against Korea is not a coaching matter. It speaks to the player’s motivation, hunger and sense of professional responsibility. But let’s not make this about Yakubu. For the better part of the last decade, Nigeria has fallen as a football medium power to an also ran even on the African continent. Let us remember that Nigeria made it to South Africa only after a lackluster qualifying campaign and had needed Mozambique to defeat its close rival Tunisia to win its world cup place. Thereafter, an equally mediocre showing at the African Cup of Nations earned the team an undeserved third place finish. Amodu Shuaibu who had overseen the last gasp qualification for the world cup and the dismal venture at the African Cup was sacked and replaced by Lagerback who in classic Nigerian tradition was asked to perform miracles. The Swede obliged persuaded by a contract reportedly worth twenty-five times what his predecessor had been earning. The ignominious showing in South Africa was thus foretold. In view of all this, news that a 56 year old Enugu resident and father of three died shortly after Argentina scored their goal against the eagles is especially lamentable as a waste.

What lessons can we learn from our latest misadventure? It is impossible not to interpret the eagles’ failure as a metaphor of our own failings as a nation. For decades, Nigeria has adopted an ad hoc strategy by default which discounts planning and relies heavily on talent and magical thinking. This fire brigade approach is precisely what it means. We have evolved a way of doing things that is a series of emergency protocols laced with prayers for divine intervention. Our preparation for events is a study in chaos, crisis mismanagement and damage control. In the past, we have somehow managed to get by because we had sufficient talent to gloss over our abject inability to plan. What the 2010 world cup showed is that we no longer have the talent to compensate for our organizational shortcomings.

In the current generation of the Super Eagles, there is no playmaker in the mould of Jay-Jay Okocha – a midfield general that can hold the ball and distribute it to the forwards. John Obi Mikel, a pretender to the throne was injured before the tournament and in any case has never performed in that role having been converted to a defensive midfielder by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. The most natural successor to Okocha is Rabiu Ibrahim, an alumnus of the Under 17 World Cup-winning Golden Eaglets of 2007 but he was not picked. The current eagles have no holding midfielder in the league of Sunday Oliseh, nor wingers in the class of Finidi George and Emmanuel Amuneke. Thus, the team had no capacity for ball-winning, retention or distribution. The forwards were starved off decent supplies but were woeful when called into action. True, Yakubu’s close range miss was one of the bloopers of the tournament but the supporting cast – Obasi, Nsofor, Odemwingie, Martins – scarcely covered themselves in glory. The obvious exception is Kalu Uche who scored both of Nigeria’s goals at the tournament. Of the lot, Odemwingie and Martins did not get much playing time. It seemed Lagerback was undecided as to a preferred striking combination. Overall the team lacked leaders on the pitch; it had no midfield general or dean of the defence. Decision-making in the final third of the pitch was often poor. The team lacked character. But let it be known that these problems did not begin in South Africa.

Success in any endeavour is not miraculously generated on the fly. It is the outcome of systems and institutions built over time. Excellence takes organization and planning, not wishful thinking, prayer, fasting or gambling. It is instructive that the eagles could not summon the will and the hunger to win even with the offer of pecuniary incentives. Tom-Tom, the team’s official candy had an initiative to reward the eagles with $1000 per shot on target. It was a creative, if desperate response to the team’s poor chances of success. Note that the prize money was for shots on target not goals. It is absurd that top footballers should need monetary motivation to strike the ball in the direction of the goal in the world’s biggest football competition. The point of the game, after all, is not that the ball should be kept in the centre circle or fired at the corner flag. Before they were knocked out, the eagles had earned $5000 for mustering one shot on target against Argentina and getting four against Greece. More tellingly, they entered the history books as the first team ever beaten by Greece at the World Cup finals. The eagles may have been among the highest paid teams at the tournament but financial incentives can only accomplish so much for a team of overpaid and overrated underperformers. Even at the highest levels of the game, playing for honour, pride and country still trump playing for cash.

It is significant that the last generation of Nigerian footballers to win international laurels – Oliseh, Okocha, and Rasheed Yekini etc. – emerged during the reign of the Dutch manager, Clemens Westerhof. What was remarkable about the Westerhof era was not the man himself but the fact that he had considerable latitude in terms of time and primacy over national football matters. Westerhof coached Nigeria from 1989 to 1994. In those years, he scoured the local league, unearthed raw diamonds like Finidi, Uche Okechukwu and Daniel Amokachi among others and saw to it that they moved to foreign clubs for cutting and polishing. He gave Kanu his senior debut and was not afraid of experimenting with new finds from the local league. But the point is that Westerhof was given time and full authority over the national team. He was able to focus on his work without the distraction of meddlesome dolts in the football federation. Just as important, Nigeria had a local league that was worth the name at the time. That was when Iwuanyanwu Nationale, Shooting Stars, Ranchers Bees and Sharks of Port Harcourt could still engage the imagination of football followers. Then it was possible for Finidi George to move straight from Sharks to Ajax Amsterdam.

If today, our national league commands scant interest even from local sports journalists, it is not because of the ubiquitous presence of the English premier league or the Spanish La Liga. It is because it simply fails to capture our soccer-loving hearts. With pitches better suited for grazing cattle, poorly run clubs with players on slave wages, all too common hooliganism and a monopolistic corporate sponsorship deal that reeks of graft, the Nigerian league is hardly a spectacle of the beautiful game. Over the years as the local league has degenerated, there has been a dearth of talent coming into the national senior team. Consider the fact that since the departure of Amuneke, we have not had a natural left footer on the left side of midfield. During Westerhof’s time at the helm, Dotun Alatishe, Friday Elaho, Amuneke and the two-footed Victor Ikpeba variously occupied this position. Since Okocha’s retirement, we have lamented the hole in the centre of the eagles’ midfield. The misguided calls by some analysts for Okocha to come out of retirement signify the dearth of talent in our time. Under Westerhof, we had able midfielders like Moses Kpakor, Friday Ekpo and Mutiu Adepoju who marshaled the midfield with distinction. Indeed, Okocha played second fiddle for a while to Ekpo, and did not become a regular starter until Westerhof’s departure because Samson Siasia (converted from attack to midfield) was preferred.

Without a well run league, there will be no nursery for fledgling talent. Our most promising footballers will continue to falsify their ages so as to play for age-grade teams and market their skills on the world stage or simply sign away their lives in slave contracts with foreign clubs. The effect is that when such players eventually make it into the eagles, they shine brightly but briefly as supernovae rather than stars. Their careers are cut short by diminishing marginal returns and recurrent injuries brought on by middle-aged limbs protesting their overuse. Consider Julius Aghahowa, Pius Ikedia and a host of talented players that have gone too soon into retirement or obscurity. Like Shakira’s hips, hamstrings and muscles in the throes of midlife don’t lie.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s reversed decision to suspend the eagles from international football may have been well-intentioned but was consistent with the Nigerian tradition of taking sensational and superficial actions that appear populist but have little beneficial practical value. The presidential decision risked incurring a FIFA ban on Nigeria. That would have been unfortunate. For Nigeria’s ascent as a football power was cut short by similar presidential meddling in 1996 when the Abacha junta pulled the eagles out of the African Cup of Nations being hosted in South Africa for political reasons. That earned the country a ban by CAF for another two years that stalled our progress. There is still room for presidential action but it must be directed at fundamental causes rather than superficial symptoms. Government control of football is an important cog in the wheel. The fact that candidates for the leadership of the football federation often court the backing of the presidency is a problem. We need to resuscitate the local league, renegotiate the silly contract that has placed local football in the pocket of one corporation. We need to revitalize school competitions, the Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria (YSFON) and our soccer academies – the seedbed of football talent. Whether or not Lagerback is kept on as coach, whoever heads the team should be given a long-term contract with an eye on the next African cup of nations and the Brazil 2014 World Cup. We should start planning for the future now.

Long suffering Nigerians will want to believe that our misadventure in South Africa will mark a radical change in football administration in this country; that the national disappointment will provoke dramatic transformation of Nigerian football. History suggests otherwise. It seems more likely that our inability to learn lessons from the past will once again take hold of events. We have, after all, been here before. Remember that we did not even qualify for the last world cup, Germany 2006 and that we suffered a first round exit in Korea-Japan 2002. Neither failure sparked off any revolutions. Crocodile tears were shed and some recrimination ensued, but nothing transformative happened. The same thing might happen now. Nigerians are jaded having been hurt for so long by their underperforming footballers. The parallel with the relationship between Nigerians and their political leaders is unmistakable. Overpaid footballers break our hearts and overpaid politicians dash our hopes. It is so easy to pessimistic. But we can still hope, can’t we?