Following Goodluck Jonathan’s presidential victory and the subsequent post-election violence in some parts of the country, local pundits and the international media have returned to familiar habits – trafficking apocalyptic predictions of Nigeria’s imminent collapse. Some analysts have declared the country “deeply divided” and have called for its breakup to preempt its certain meltdown in the near future. The pessimists are ascendant. To these evangelists of misery, we must say, ‘the end is not nigh.’
Nigeria has always been allegedly poised on the verge of ruin. For as long as we can remember, we have been falling short, falling behind and falling apart. The jeremiad is a national tradition. Coup speeches were jeremiads announcing the imminence of disaster and the necessity of salvation at gunpoint. The agonistic disposition of Nigerians to Nigeria is born of serial disappointments. It serves as an emotional shield against heartbreak in our engagement with an immensely frustrating country. But we have now translated our justifiable dissatisfaction with inept governments into an unjustifiable disdain for the land itself.
Let us consider the history of America which offers compelling parallels with our own circumstances. No other country exercises as much influence on the Nigerian imagination and political architecture. Both nations are former British colonies. Both fought civil wars and in both cases the union was saved. They share the eagle as a national symbol. Our system of government is a clone of the US federal presidential model.
Many of our statesmen, notably the Zikists, were influenced by their experience of the US. It was the site of Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa’s Damascene conversion from pessimism about Nigeria’s prospects to a commitment to be “a Nigerian and nothing else.” General Yakubu Gowon drew inspiration for his prosecution of the civil war from studying Abraham Lincoln.
America represents the summit of our republican aspirations. It is the country that Nigeria most wants to be like. The Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui has described Nigeria as Africa’s “closest approximation to the United States”. That the US hosts Nigeria’s largest diasporic community is no accident. Incidentally, many of the slaves that ended up on American plantations were from present day Nigeria.
Nigerians see the US as a mirror of social perfection by which to measure their own advances. In reality, America had to evolve from the point in which political power was the monopoly of the landed elite in the 18th century through the 19th century when the suffrage was broadened to white men beyond the traditional gentry. Women and African-Americans were finally included in the civil mainstream only in the 20th century.
The instability of 1960s America is strikingly reminiscent of Nigeria. Then, America was reeling from the legacies of slavery – institutionalized racism and segregation. Race riots were common. In the southern US, African-Americans were liable to be lynched and their churches and homes torched or bombed by racist terrorists. So pervasive was state-sponsored and supported racist violence that Malcolm X was not alone in foreseeing a racial civil war. While running for president, John F. Kennedy’s most cited disadvantages were his Catholicism and his Irish ancestry – an indication of the ethno-religious bigotries of the day. The climate of intolerance ultimately consumed President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Robert F. Kennedy among others in a spate of assassinations.
America has since moved on but there remain deep veins of bitterness stemming from historic white Anglo-Saxon violence against African-Americans and other minorities. Issues like the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, the decay of inner cities, the disproportionately black population of US penitentiaries and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 depict the sordid underbelly of race-related poverty and injustice. Elements of the opposition to President Barack Obama, particularly the “Birther” movement and those who peddle rumours that he is a closet Muslim reveal the lingering currents of racism in the American psyche.
Some watchers see America as deeply divided and foresee the cultural and ideological conflict between liberals and conservatives igniting another civil war. The red state- blue state divide is as pungent as any that we have in Nigeria. Even so, America continues its quest to achieve “a more perfect union.”
Those rightly frustrated by Nigeria’s sectarian polarities and inequities can observe US history for parallels in ethno-religious and political violence and social injustice. Sectarian violence in Northern Nigeria today recalls the racial violence of the American south in the fifties and sixties. Debates over ethnic quotas and federal character in Nigeria mirror the contention over affirmative action in the US.
Just as America struggles with its plurality, Nigeria also grapples with its diversity. The difference is that America is older and consistently projects its most positive narrative as a republic founded on truth and justice while downplaying its equally valid narrative as an empire founded on slavery, racism, white supremacist destruction of aboriginal cultures and expansionary militarism. We, on the other hand, have mainstreamed a self-destructive pessimism that we virtually revel in.
Pessimistic pundits typically invoke the most skeptical utterances of our founding fathers while ignoring their more affirmative declarations on Nigeria’s destiny. Obafemi Awolowo did say, “Nigeria is a mere geographical expression” in 1949 but in 1958, he said, “Let us cross the Rubicon into independence and burn the boat. Nigeria is a noble purpose and a venture worth fighting for.”Ahmadu Bello did indeed once describe Nigeria as “the mistake of 1914” but later said in 1953, “Whatever the Nigerians may say, the British people have done them a great service by bringing all the different communities of Nigeria together.” In early 1960, he declared that with independence Nigeria would rise to become “first among equals in Africa.”
Like the nation itself, these leaders’ views on the viability of the Nigerian project evolved over time. However, we have frozen our patriarchs in their most skeptical phases and made them oracles of our own faithlessness. We have made cynicism our national religion, thus subverting our quest for a better society.
At his 1962 treason trial, Awolowo prophesied a “twilight of democracy” in Nigeria but also an eventual “glorious dawn” after the darkness. Azikiwe who lived in Jim Crow-era America when Negroes were subjected to systematic violence wrote that the “racial intolerance, bigotry and lawlessness” of the period was “a passing phase in the saga of American history.”
The patriarchs had an insight that we need to recover and apply in evaluating our national life. A nation is not static but holds within itself the seeds of its constant renewal. It is an odyssey in space, time and spirit from one state of being to a higher plane of existence. Each generation of citizens must write its own chapter of this odyssey, either progressing or regressing, but never standing still. And their children bear the burdens or blessings of what has been written. The question is whether our own children will inherit a scorched wasteland or a garden of civic concord and opportunity.
Through their proclamations, the patriarchs offered a political eschatology of infinite promise and unyielding hope. They understood that transforming a post-colonial state into a sovereign republic is an arduous struggle.
Admittedly, Nigeria faces grave plagues in venal politicians and the ubiquitous portents of state failure. In a bid to drive home the urgency of our crisis, we are often prone to shrill exaggeration and defeatist doom-mongering.
A society’s prophetic faculties include a capacity for self-criticism but we have degenerated into self-loathing and self-flagellation. To be truly prophetic, it is not enough to uproot and overthrow with our critiques; we must also build and plant. We must move from agonizing to organizing. If we stop at destroying and deconstructing without designing new social and political architectures, we are no more than anarchists and nihilists. We must not only proclaim the end of the undesirable, we must also declare a future and a hope. We do not need saccharine fantasies of a God-willed Utopia miraculously delivered from on high but a constructive optimism about our nation.
It is impossible to nurture democratic potentialities in a climate of despair. If Nigeria is already doomed, why bother voting or engaging? Why bother with activism if all possibilities of change have been foreclosed? Democracy flowers where there is hope while antidemocratic forces thrive in an atmosphere of hopelessness. Indeed, by promoting a toxic pessimism about our future, we unwittingly sustain the longevity of retrograde power-mongers that have outlived their usefulness. We concede the public square to entities that prosper only because we believe that change is impossible.
Nations are not built by colonialists, military strongmen or oligarchic cabals, but by citizens. Yet we persist in outsourcing our civic responsibilities to the most unregenerate of our compatriots. Nigeria will not be saved by any political messiah but by citizens with redemptive values and habits and the organized political expressions of these positive energies. The challenge is for us to overcome the temptations of despondency and bigotry and articulate a progressive politics of hope and common purpose. Our fate is in our own hands.