There was once a Nigerian dream. Nigerians believed that through diligent study at school and hard and honest work, they would live better than their parents had, and give their children the tools with which to secure a better life. Indeed, if one phrase could summarize the essence of the Nigerian dream, it is “the better life”; an optimistic resilience in the face of sundry challenges in the belief that tomorrow’s harvest will exceed that of today. It is a progressive cycle in which one generation’s expectations become the experiences of the next. This, in a nutshell, was the classical Nigerian dream. It was a blend of a neo-Calvinist work ethic and our traditional communitarian ethos which held that individuals were the children of the whole community. In the mainly Muslim north, the same dream found expression in Ahmadu Bello’s proclamation of the region’s guiding values as “work and worship.” The dignity of a productive life would be anchored to the spiritual imperative of a life of faith. Economics would be balanced by ethics.
Over a half-century ago, this dream inspired communities to pool resources to build schools and send their most promising children abroad to study. It led them to transcend the boundaries of rural life and aspire to the armaments of modernity. It produced a generation of nationalists who fought and won the struggle for independence. For those nationalists, the classical Nigerian dream became the ultimate objective of national liberty. Independence promised a new expansive space within which Nigerians could aspire towards a full creative life. They believed that the moral purpose of the state was to underwrite the pursuit of the better life. This belief found powerful expression in the premium they placed on education. Obafemi Awolowo, one of the most articulate exponents of this moral purpose, dubbed his political vision “Life More Abundant” – and defined it as freedom from want, ignorance, disease and British rule. His emphasis on universal education, universal healthcare and full employment essentially summarized the political priorities of the nationalist patriarchs.
This notion of the state as an empowering force and enabler of human potential is a thread running through Awo’s democratic socialism, Aminu Kano’s democratic humanism and Azikiwe’s pragmatic socialism. The progressive consensus was that government existed to enable citizens become autonomous social, political and economic agents. This socialistic impulse bore good fruit. Between the 1950s and the early 1960s, regional governments built schools, hospitals, and roads and invested in enterprises in which they had comparative advantage, leveraging their natural resources while developing their human capital.
Two momentous events altered the course of Nigerian history – the discovery of oil in 1956 and the military intervention of 1966. Nigeria shifted from the competitive communalism that had seen regions drive growth, to a unitary military government that centralized control of oil resources. As successive military regimes tightened their grip on oil resources, the central government became a leviathan dispensing alms to beggar states. The post-civil war oil boom sparked a rural-urban drift with hoards of youths streaming into chaotic cities in search of their share of the national cake. Federal control of petrodollars transferred the locus of power from the regions and states to an alien and alienating governing entity at the centre. Whereas politics previously had been localized and municipal, with regions running basically on tax-based social economies, the new politics necessitated a scramble for the centre where a new form of wealth was shared out amongst lucky partakers.
Thus was born another Nigerian dream – the pursuit of wealth without sweat squeezed out of remote oil-rich creeks at human and ecological costs that most Nigerians were blissfully unaware of. But it was a dream for the few and a nightmare for the many. Communal values and Calvinist ethics were displaced by new Machiavellian moralities that perceived boundless possibilities for the self. Pentecostal prosperity preachers have essentially appropriated and apotheosized this dream. Where the first Nigerian dream at least attempted to supply a sense of citizenship, the second dream has informed a radical self-interest that reduces civic being to conspicuous consumption.
The old Nigerian underclass of domestic servants, house-helps, guards and drivers who were shaped by the classical Nigerian dream were exemplars of contentment and longsuffering. While they toiled in the gilded corridors of the affluent, they held resolutely to the belief that their educated children would ascend the greasy totem pole of upward mobility and eventually reach down and ransom them from the stygian depths of want. But the structural adjustment programme of the 1980s brutally annihilated the old middle class that was shaped by the Calvinist ethos of dexterity and sacrifice. Today’s aspirants to upward mobility are less fatalistic about their prospects. Encouraged by the prophets of prosperity and nouveau rich kleptocrats, they have acquired a taste for instant gratification, a raging sense of entitlement and personal fiscal possibility, unhindered by the prudish constraints of “archaic” moralities. Thus, the rich plunder the state while a desperate underclass in turn robs the rich.
The second Nigerian dream has found expression not only in the grand larcenies of rogue politicians but also in the delinquencies that haunt the Dickensian cities over-populated by the scramble for a piece of the national cake. These delinquencies are apt symbols of our political degeneracy. Armed robbery, which grew alongside the metropolitan chaos of the oil boom era, symbolized the militarized capitalism purveyed by messianic soldiers who essayed to redeem the country at gunpoint but ended up simply looting it.
The 1980s introduced hired assassins to our society – mystery gunmen that slew their victims without stealing a dime before melting into the shadows. Death itself had become a marketable commodity deliverable on demand with extreme prejudice. A new growth industry of murder contractors emerged to embody what Niyi Osundare described as a “culture of mayhem.” The era also spawned ritual killers that preyed on innocents for use as sacrifices in rituals for wealth. The emergence of the fraudster by the 1990s was an apt metaphor for the long con that was messianic militarism. It is no accident that these three archetypal villains – the hired assassin, the ritual killer and the fraudster – emerged during the Babangida years, when a martial kleptocracy in the garb of a neo-liberal reform regime eviscerated the public infrastructure of the classical Nigerian dream. They were manifestations of society’s descent into Mammon worship in an age of recessionary hysteria and repressive politics.
Today’s burgeoning ransom kidnap industry is perfectly symbolic of a society held hostage by vampire elites that extort multi-billion petrodollar ransoms from state coffers. For the commoditization of human life is the logical consequence of the apotheosis of wealth. Finally, the emergence of sectarian terrorists detonating bombs indiscriminately in the midst of unsuspecting crowds signals the nihilistic consummation of the second Nigerian dream. The zero-sum politics of greed and Machiavellian self-interest has culminated in the self-destruct sequence of anarchic violence. In addition to being sold for profit, human lives are now extinguished for nothing with clinical efficiency and in the perversely democratic anonymity of mass death. Many of our cities and towns, turned into de-industrialized wastelands by decades of socio-economic holocaust, are now theatres of warring sectarian militias locked in the cycle of mutual assured destruction. How do we pull back from the abyss of anomic horrors?
Our challenge is to recover and re-interpret the classical Nigerian dream as a progressive social vision that leaves no Nigerian behind in the quest for moral and material betterment. A new generation of progressives must now articulate a politics of meaning that restores moral purpose to governance. They must undertake the rebuilding of our civic infrastructure – public healthcare, universal education and those systems that foster a common citizenship. We must reconstruct our social capital that was depleted during the years in which privatized selfishness became ascendant. We should recapture the cooperative spirit that enabled communities to establish schools, dispensaries and scholarships for their brightest children. New generation ethicists must extricate Nigerian spirituality from the grip of materialism, the stranglehold of charlatans and its incest with anti-intellectualism and redefine it as a social spirituality that rekindles our best moral instincts – empathy, enterprise, community values, social justice, a sense of the dignity of the other and a notion of the common good. Recovering the classical Nigerian dream is the calling of our times.