Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mr President, What is Your Message?

When Senator Chuba Okadigbo complained some years ago that three years of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration had yielded “no quotable quotes,” he was lamenting the inspiration deficit of Nigerian leaders. Listening to President Goodluck Jonathan’s inaugural speech, I was struck yet again by how abjectly bereft of inspirational powers most of Nigeria’s top politicians are. An inaugural speech is traditionally a defining proclamation of a president’s agenda. What we heard on inauguration day was a drab, colourless, soporific recital unworthy of recall. It left no memorable fragments to warm the heart or quicken the spirit. It was forgettable and I would wager that few if any Nigerians can recall any part of that address.

President Jonathan’s oratorical challenges have long been obvious. He was not the most eloquent of the four main contenders for the presidency. (In fairness, his closest rival in the election is possibly an even worse speaker). Jonathan’s predecessors, the grumpy, gravelly-voiced Obasanjo and the dour Umar Yar’Adua were far from stellar public speakers. The problem goes beyond eloquence. It speaks to the inability of leaders to inspire Nigerians with their words.

In fact, this is a contradiction of our political traditions. The nationalists of yore considered rhetorical sophistication an essential part of their political arsenal. In our indigenous cultures, the art of eloquence and the spoken word was a key part of education for public life. The nostrums of our culture were orally transmitted. The creative and destructive power of words is recognized in African moral traditions. “Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten,” Chinua Achebe wrote. His axiom conveyed the truth that in African culture, the spoken word was a form of spiritual and mental nourishment. Accordingly, the nationalists practised oratory as the dispensation of soul food. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Aminu Kano, Kingsley Mbadiwe, Mbonu Ojike, Adegoke Adelabu, Mokwugo Okoye, Raji Abdallah among others were renowned for their fluency. Our first Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was acclaimed as “the golden voice of Africa.”    

I believe that military intervention which ruptured the liberal tradition and inseminated Nigerian history with a lineage of soldiers more accustomed to barking commands and decrees than winning hearts and minds through the power of persuasion is partly to blame. Even so, among the soldiers, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Murtala Mohammed were notably fiery speakers. Simply wearing khaki does not impede eloquence.

The oratorical limitation of our leading politicians also has a great deal to do with the context of elite selection. The nationalists had to rally multitudes to their cause in order to gain political significance, whereas political leadership today does not depend so much on inspiring multitudes as on buying the favours of godfathers. It is less about persuading the electorate than placating special interests. The absence of a real public debate before the polls between the leading presidential contenders denied Nigerians the opportunity of seeing them match wits against each other. Instead of watching the aspirants to the most significant office in the black world arguing their respective cases for leadership, we had to settle for a dire presidential monologue. If you never have to make a case for your leadership before the people, then your ability to inspire their confidence at any other time will be nil.

It is significant that many of the most powerful public speakers in Nigeria today are either pastors or imams. Their leadership, being devoid of any coercive sanction, rests entirely on their ability to persuade, to inspire voluntary loyalty. If they cannot speak to the inner consciousness, they rapidly lose their audiences. There is a reason why the numbers that fill our crusade and prayer grounds have yet to be matched by any voluntary gathering for a party rally. Multitudes still drift towards the wells of inspiration and words fitly spoken still set hearts aflame. In these days of religious extremism, the president and many politicians are in a rhetorical contest for hearts and minds with charlatans who use their influence over the multitudes for evil.        

The ability to inspire people matters, especially since the task before us is mobilizing Nigerians with a sense of common purpose. It will take the right words to resurrect people from tribal tombs and raise them to a new level of national consciousness. It will take inspiration to pierce through the veils of cynicism and pessimism that separate the citizenry from the leadership. It takes rhetoric to build bridges of empathy to connect the powerless with the powerful. It will take rhetoric to motivate Nigeria’s teeming young population, many of whom are without jobs and see no prospects for the future.  

The power to inspire and influence is basically rooted in conviction. People are more likely to follow leaders who display passion. It has been a long time since a Nigerian leader displayed fervency. Murtala was not a rhetorician in the league of the nationalists but his fervour was undeniable. His ‘Africa Has Come of Age’ speech was memorable not just for its words but also for the passion with which he delivered it in 1976 at Addis Ababa. Nigerians remember his time in office as one of governmental resolve largely because of his ardour.

We have yet to decipher what Jonathan stands for and what ideas command his passions. He has no record of strongly-held positions, either oral or written, on any of our pressing national issues. Even his repudiation of the PDP’s zoning arrangement which some had hoped would be a springboard for asserting a new post-sectarian meritocracy in our politics has turned out to be opportunism with the president now reaffirming zoning. His inaugural address was replete with the usual clichés about “patriotism” and “resilience” and getting “Nigerians to dream again.” But presidential sermonizing on patriotism would be more compelling if it were delivered with conviction. There is as yet no message or big idea, no core value or principle around which the president can mobilize Nigerians.

In a presidential democracy, the centrality of the chief executive means that the president is the prime town-crier, the nation’s narrator and storyteller-in-chief. We look up to him to put our times in historical context, to instruct us as to where we are going as a nation and to create a dramatic symmetry between our collective past, present and future. When the president speaks, it should be with oracular gravity. As such, legitimate criticism may be leveled against the president’s speech writers. The inaugural speech failed to strike the right chords even when dealing with the historic significance of being the first Nigerian from an ethnic minority to assume the presidency. Sometimes, even when assailed by stilted and wooden delivery, the right words uttered at the right moment can do a profound work – but the president had no ammunition.

Of course, eloquence is not everything. For instance, it is not a substitute for character. Adolf Hitler was charismatic and eloquent. In the last elections, Kano State Governor Ibrahim Shekarau impressed many watchers as the most articulate of the main contenders. But his performance in Kano did not quite rise to the level of his rhetoric. There are some who might argue that the president can compensate for his oratorical limitations with his character and competence. That remains to be seen.

Still, a measure of eloquence matters. A dexterous public communicator can translate a crisis into an opportunity for national self-transcendence. In times of crisis, leaders come forth to give utterance to the groans of their people. Nigeria is in crisis and requires voices to articulate its yearnings. Some would say that it is asking too much for Nigerian politicians to sound like Barack Obama or Tony Blair. This view not only contains a derogatory insistence that we keep accepting the average, but misses the point. Azikiwe thought that leadership should be reserved for an aristocracy of intelligence and Obafemi Awolowo wrote that only those who possessed “mental magnitude” were fit to lead Nigeria. Alas, Nigerian leadership has plummeted from those lofty standards.  We can refer to the nationalists because there was a time when politics was about words and ideas not just cash, bags of rice or frivolous pageantry. The president has to raise his game.

The Nigerian presidency is not merely the leadership of a small West African country; it is the leadership of a quarter of the black race. There are more Nigerians on this planet than Britons, Germans or the French. A Nigerian president is well-positioned to champion Africa and the black world’s cause in the conclaves of the world’s most powerful nations. It is important therefore that we begin to raise our standards in terms of what we expect of our leaders. The quality of a nation’s leaders is directly connected to the public expectation and definition of leadership. The time for settling for the barely average and tempering merit with mediocrity is over. The 21st century will punish us harshly if we persist in doing so.     

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Nigeria's Original Sin

As Nigeria’s independence loomed in the 1950s, two opposing camps of thought struggled to define the nation’s post-colonial future. The liberal nationalists believed that democracy offered the best chance of achieving Nigeria’s developmental aspirations while radical nationalists like Chike Obi believed that liberal democracy for such a diverse polity would lead to polyphonic anarchy. Only a strongman in the order of Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Abdel Nasser could lead Nigeria’s charge to fulfill its manifest destiny.

Dr Obi’s vision was of a neo-Stalinist dictatorship and collectivist order in which coercive violence was a necessary component. His advocacy possibly provided the intellectual justification for the January 15 coup. Emmanuel Ifeajuna, one of the five majors had been a student at the University of Ibadan when Obi held court. Yet the mathematical genius was not alone in his conviction that Nigeria needed an iron hand. Even Aminu Kano had pondered the possibility of a Nigerian Kemal or Mussolini and intellectuals like Tai Solarin welcomed the coup, as did the media in general.

Despite its high-sounding pretensions, January 15 was a catastrophe. That its zealous protagonists eliminated politicians from every part of the country except their own kin ensured that their revolutionary motivations were lost in the impenetrable thicket of ethnic suspicion and paranoia. Nnamdi Azikiwe noted that violence had never been part of the nationalists’ anti-colonial agitation and declared the coup a “national calamity.” Obviously, the First Republic had been tested by episodic violence and arguably, events such as the brutal repression of the Tiv riots and the disturbances in the western region helped set the stage for military intervention. As Claude Ake wrote, the degeneration of politics into warfare propelled the specialists of warfare into a lead role. Once democrats succumbed to using anti-democratic means, disaster was inevitable. Yet, the First Republic was essentially a liberal dispensation and the coup outlawed debate and dialogue and enthroned violence in their stead.

Successive juntas proffered a narrative in which politics itself was the sin of which the nation had to be cleansed in order to be reborn. Political parties and para-political organizations were instruments of strife and corruption. Thus, politics and its practitioners were accordingly prohibited. But the idea at the heart of messianic militarism was enlightened authoritarianism. Its exponents insisted that dictatorship and discipline were prerequisites for prosperity at the expense of democratic freedoms. Nigerians made this pact with the devil wholeheartedly. In forty years, they only protested against one coup – the 1976 putsch in which Murtala Mohammed was assassinated.  

As Kingsley Mbadiwe once remarked, “The first democracy is the democracy of the stomach.” Bread mattered more than ballots and the soldiers could provide bread in abundance.  With the oil boom, soldiers were cast as miracle workers who could solve national problems with ‘immediate effect’. When the veteran nationalists, Azikiwe and Hezekiah Davies respectively proposed experiments in diarchy (a governing partnership of civilians and soldiers) and triarchy (adding traditional chiefs to that partnership), they were basically articulating popular opinion.

After the riotous Second Republic, politicians became outlaws hunted by military inquisitors. Liberals and leftists celebrated the overthrow of that dispensation. Adebayo Williams wrote in 1986, “People prefer tyranny to liberty which leaves their pockets drier, their religious freedom threatened and their children murdered.” Military rule would not have endured without the society’s complicit idolatry of messianic soldiers, and without intellectuals marketing the virtues of enlightened authoritarianism. Progressive liberals compromised their values and accepted militarism as a necessary evil. They had come to believe implausibly that military dictators could midwife liberal democracy. For leftists who had idealized Murtala as a forerunner to a full-fledged socialist regime, the right military regime was acceptable. These beliefs facilitated Buhari’s disciplinarian state, Babangida’s right wing corporatism and Abacha’s thuggish totalitarianism, all of which included progressives and civil society actors.

Adebayo Williams wrote in the last days of Babangida’s regime, “There will always be tyrants and sadists. But we have a right to insist on exchanging lower forms of tyranny for higher forms.” This quest for higher forms of tyranny led progressives into curious positions. Gani Fawehinmi once argued that Nigeria needed “a period of grueling and gruesome militant intervention” and that “Democracy is a luxury that must follow after enlightened and principled dictatorship has settled the society.” Several pro-democracy activists welcomed Sani Abacha. Indeed, this dalliance with Abacha terminally polarized the Campaign for Democracy and aborted its promise as a broad-based anti-military coalition. To their credit, when liberals and leftists realized their error, they made for the barricades but the damage was already done. By 1999, the pro-democracy groups were too weak to mount a credible political challenge.

Why do these histories matter? We came out of the military era with a less than total sense of closure. It may even be argued that Nigerians did not come to a profound consciousness of democracy’s virtues but rather became dissatisfied with each military regime’s apparent hijack by particular ethnic interests. Military rule was not rejected because it was morally wrong but because it failed to deliver prosperity. The basis for the return to civil rule in 1999 was pragmatic and utilitarian rather than moral. There was no sudden realization that destructive means cannot achieve constructive ends. We may well question the sustainability of the Fourth Republic given the vexatious incompetence of its leading actors thus far. The belief in messianic strongmen dies hard.

These histories matter because the odious legacies of militarism endure. It is no accident that a cabal of retired generals sponsored Obasanjo, a retired military Head of State, to the presidency in 1999 or that the leading opposition figure in the past three elections has been another ex-Head of State, Buhari. Obasanjo’s successor Umar Yar’Adua owed his presidency less to his modest gubernatorial accomplishments in Katsina than to his inheritance of the vast political machine created by his late brother, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, another veteran soldier-politician. Consider the rebirth of several retired military officers variously as senators, governors and ministers. In 1999, military officers had acquired enough wealth to finance their reincarnation as democrats. Some even touted their experience in military regimes as qualification for office. This was akin to Nazi operatives seeking office in post-war Germany and touting their service to the Third Reich as an advantage. But then Germany achieved closure after the darkest period of its history. Nigeria did not.

Militarism casts a long shadow.  As long as retired military officers remain significant political players, warlord politics and the militarization of political conversation and public life will continue. Coup d’états and election-rigging are similar pathologies rooted in the culture of impunity and violence, and both subvert popular sovereignty.  A military-sponsored constitution has created an imperial presidency and provided legalistic fortifications of the unitary command and control paradigm that undermines federal democracy. The current generation of political operatives was socialized in an era of authoritarian lawlessness as evidenced by their larcenous proclivities. The military’s abolition of debate devalued ideology and promoted money, ethnicity and religion as the directive principles of our politics.

Even the frequent eruptions of sectarian violence stem from the military era. As the military vandalized and plundered the state, people took refuge in tribal and confessional fortresses. Recession caused Nigerians to seek social security in ethnicity and religion. Repression ensured the politicization of ethnicity and religion and their emergence as touchstones of civic expression. Today’s ethnic militias and religious extremists are children of the military era. The post-military presidency, being an authoritarian institution, invites unhealthy sycophantic and cultic adulation which foils the possibility of building strong institutions and discouraging aspiring strongmen.

Violence as a tool of political redemption is a grossly limited, if oversold, commodity. Historically, dreams of Utopia forged by brute force produced martial monstrosities. The modernizing autocracy was a political mirage. In our diverse society, we need liberal democracy to provide space for plural perspectives. We need the wisdom of the multitudes rather than presidential omniscience. Our democracy will often be slow, ponderous and even mediocre until ideologies crystallize. Our task is to accelerate this dialectic and speed the day of ideological clarity. In the process, we must also exorcise the spirit of violence from the body politic. In the past, a national haste often led us to seek social and economic miracles purportedly retailed by militarism. Such haste informed our plunge into the Fourth Republic without first scrutinizing its military-made constitution. But nation-building is not done in haste.

There remains the problem of how to address the provocative excesses of a “democratic” kleptocracy. Either we forge new weapons of civic resistance and solidarity and renew our faculties of social engagement; or appeal to false messiahs that materialize in times of crisis.  For when we consider the injustices of our age, the criminal disparities between the fortunes of the people and their representatives, we can only conclude that confrontation is inevitable. For the good of Nigerian humanity, that confrontation is best choreographed by the messengers of reason rather than the avatars of chaos.    

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Jonathan's Rocky Road Ahead

Recognizing the reputational debilities of his party, the People’s Democratic Party, President Goodluck Jonathan built his campaign around his personal brand, which despite his underwhelming incumbency, remained sufficiently popular to earn him a win. He presented his bid as “a breath of fresh air” not an enterprise in continuity, knowing that the PDP had offered little worthy of continuation. He engaged broadly on social media and with constituencies ranging from commercial motorcyclists to Nollywood. It was smart politics. By repudiating the PDP’s zoning arrangement, Jonathan had angered influential northern power-brokers and needed to counteract their angst by broadening his popular support. Arguably, he accurately keyed into public opinion since an NOI/Gallup poll in early 2010 found that 63 percent of Nigerians opposed zoning.  

While campaigning, the president often sounded more like a populist insurgent than the ruling party candidate. Having won by virtue of strategic populism, he must now manage stratospheric public expectations and the tension between his two public personas – man of the people and ruling party standard bearer. These tensions will define his presidency. Nigerians voted for Jonathan and not the PDP. Yet, the coming days will reveal just how much ownership of his presidency ordinary Nigerians can justifiably claim.

The Jonathan administration will move to abolish subsidies on domestic fuel prices which will cause not only a hike in the price of petrol but also diesel and kerosene, the lifeblood of household economics for millions of Nigerians. It will likely raise fuel prices to between N115 to N120 per liter, effectively an increased tax with knock on effects on food and transportation prices. Last September, the finance minister, Segun Aganga disclosed that the subsidies would be removed by the end of 2011 but after investment in a mass transit program to ease its impact on the poor. Since then, officials have been more forthright in arguing for subsidy abolition than in announcing when this mass transit program is to commence.

At the same time, Jonathan has to curb the riotous government spending particularly, the reckless and unsustainable financial rewards that the PDP dominated National Assembly has appropriated for itself. This will surely bring him into confrontation with his party. If he abolishes subsidies without imposing fiscal discipline, he will swiftly become the object of public odium. If he takes on the reigning kleptocracy, he could trigger a civil war within the PDP pitting reformers against conservatives. But Jonathan could rally civil society groups and popular support to his aid in an epic confrontation with the culture of impunity. Either way, confrontation is certain if the orgy of theft in Abuja continues and the economy does not improve.

Subsidy removal will not achieve the administration’s stated goal of reducing the current 13.2 percent inflation rate to single digit figures. Nor would it aid reduction of the present 21.2 percent unemployment rate. Indeed, it will erase the gains of the new national minimum wage of N18, 000 which many states cannot pay. To do so, some states may have to lay off workers and risk the wrath of organized labour. Industrial unrest could paralyze several states as a result. The increasingly powerful Governors Forum will insist on a revision of the Revenue Allocation Formula to increase the funds available to states and ignite a potential confrontation with the federal government which presently gobbles up 52.68 percent of centrally collected revenue.  

Jonathan must also contend with a treacherous national security threat environment. Nigeria’s ruling class is a rent-seeking elite reliant on government for survival but its northern fraction is the most hopelessly dependent on government, the most vulnerable without it and, therefore, the most obsessed with state power. Unlike its southern cohorts, it has no technical or entrepreneurial capacity to fall back on. The coterie of northern politicians that sees power as an entitlement and now feels marginalized by Jonathan’s victory may stir up the feral passions of the northern street. They may deploy the armies of the slums to wreak havoc as a means of negotiating their continued access to the national cake. While they share no affinity with the Talakawa, identity politics often creates a false sense of solidarity between the dispossessed and the privileged. This explains why mobs may riot in support of the very elites responsible for their impoverishment. This has happened often enough in the past and is a likely scenario in the coming days.  

Kaduna which has its first elected Christian governor could witness a rise in sectarian tensions. For nearly two years, in Borno State, the ultraviolent anarchist Islamist cult, Boko Haram has been assassinating police officers, district heads and opposing clerics. It will attempt to expand its theatre of terror beyond the northeast and target even Abuja with high profile bombings and assassinations in order to firmly establish itself in the national consciousness. Other extremist groups could arise elsewhere in the north due to the ongoing and widespread radicalization of young northern males. In Jos, Plateau State, which is now largely segregated across ethnic and religious line, a tense calm is punctuated frequently by covert reciprocal killings. The likelihood of more open violence remains.

In the next four years, an outbreak of violence in the north may compel President Jonathan to declare a state of emergency in the affected state. At the very least, the army will be deployed as has been customary since 1999 to contain unrest. Yet Jonathan must adroitly manage the politics of militarizing trouble-prone Northern areas and also the practical consideration that prolonged militarization of an area tends to radicalize restive communities as was the case in the Niger Delta in the 1990s.

The administration must develop a comprehensive national security doctrine that metes out tough, swift and decisive responses to sectarian terrorists, their sponsors and the architects of serial unrest including clerics and politicians that traffic in hate speech and incitement. Such a doctrine must also tackle the structural poverty and injustice that feed extremism. Jonathan must pressure and work with northern state governments to deliver good governance.

On another front, the new administration must tackle the constant clashes between nomadic pastoralists and agrarian communities. This is actually Nigeria’s most consistent low-intensity conflict and is partly a result of our flawed energy policy. 45 percent of Nigerian households use firewood for cooking and this figure will rise as the abolition of subsidies prices kerosene beyond the reach of more people. The quest for a cheaper alternative in firewood leads to deforestation, contributing to severe erosion and loss of farmland in the southeast. According to the Federal Ministry of Environment, Nigeria’s forests are plundered of more than 30 million tons of firewood annually.

In the north, deforestation and desertification is forcing the southward migration of pastoralists in search of grazing ground and into contact and conflict with agrarian communities in the Middle Belt. It is really a straight forward resource conflict but because these agrarian communities are mostly Christian, these clashes are reported as Christian-Muslim clashes when, in fact, nomadic Fulani are not Muslim. Such reportage fits the stereotypical “Muslim vs. Christian” binary beloved of much of the local and international media. Unfortunately, it also creates artificial convergences between distinct formats of violence, intensifying conflicts and perpetuating a mutual sense of threat and paranoia among ethnic and religious groups.

Much of Nigeria’s protein requirement is supplied by the pastoralists now hemmed in by the surging Sahara and by unwelcoming farmers. Without land to sustain their livestock, the pastoralists will suffer but Nigeria’s loss will be more severe. It will undermine our food security and sharply increase protein deficiency which is a key factor in the high rates of malnutrition and child mortality. The federal government should resume plans to establish a grazing reserve which if successfully implemented would drastically reduce clashes between herdsmen and farmers.

On the whole, the Jonathan era is likely to be marked by turbulence. The Nigerian state is bereft of institutional capacity, severely weakened by pathological graft and no longer has a monopoly of force. New non-state actors have emerged, created by the long-term militarization of public life, mobilized by social injustice and empowered by the privatization of violence.

The president may feel inclined to secure his government by distributing government positions to placate special interests. This would be a mistake. The commoditization of public office is the hallmark of a failed brand of politics. Instead, Jonathan must assemble a coalition of competent and honest Nigerians to drive national restoration. This will be the first sign of any serious intention to distinguish his presidency.

Politicians typically campaign in generalities and govern in specifics. However, in the course of his campaign, Jonathan was exceedingly vague and offered no definitive positions on key national questions such as why an oil-rich country imports fuel when it could build refineries or the meaning of Nigerian citizenship in the light of conflicts between so-called “indigenes” and “settlers.” These and other urgent questions await cogent answers. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The End is Not Nigh

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.  

Thursday, May 5, 2011

What Next for the Youth Vote?

Perhaps the most significant subtext of the 2011 elections was a statistic: 70 percent of Nigeria’s population is under 35. In the course of the campaign, various candidates sought to lay claim to the “youth vote” via campaigning on social media platforms and direct engagements in youth-oriented forums. The polls were marked by a very significant upsurge in youth activism. Many young people shed their aloofness and got involved.

This youth majority has serious implications for our public life and politics.

The question is: Now that the polls are over, what next? We would be mistaken to believe that simply voting is the extent of our task. Our work is only just beginning. Nations are not transformed in election cycles but in generational cycles. Therefore, the emergence of the post-oil boom generation (those born roughly between 1975 and 1990) as a putative demographic majority, holds possibilities for national renewal.

Nnamdi Azikiwe proposed that the most critical dialectic in the evolution of nations is generational conflict. “Youth,” he wrote, “act as a sort of catharsis to society. It is the revolt of youth against the injustice of the old which enables old age to realize that it needs a new set of values, morally or otherwise.” He believed that the contest between youth and senescence is history’s decisive dynamic. The contest is over who owns the future and thus has the right to define it. In Azikiwe’s conception, youth transcends physical and physiological conditions; it is a state of mind, a new way of perceiving reality. It is a psychic disposition towards discontent with the status quo; a hunger for innovation and progress.

Over the past half-century, our sense of nation has been defined by a particular generation born between 1930 and 1945. That generation became politically ascendant in 1966 after the fall of the First Republic; it fought the civil war and through cycles of coups and counter-coups ever since, it has remained the most influential faction of the Nigerian elite. The recurrent figures in our politics either belong to this generation or share its ideas. Wole Soyinka famously dubbed them “the wasted generation” for failing to fulfill Nigeria’s destiny.

This generation has continued to wield an altogether malign influence. Their values were inherited by their children, the independence generation, so-called because some of them were among the mass of flag-waving children on October 1960 or born in its wake. They came of age just as the oil boom briefly offered the material means of fulfilling our national potential and then receded, leaving behind the carnage of consumerism and corruption. The independence generation witnessed the collapse of the Second Republic and the abortion of the stillborn Third Republic. They placed their faith for national redemption in messianic military men and were sorely disappointed. They reacted by largely withdrawing emotionally and psychologically from the Nigerian project. Their politics is marked by abandonment and alienation. Their rhetoric is one of resignation and recrimination.

Because the wasted generation witnessed the sectarian perfidies of the First Republic and fought a bloody civil war as a result, its definition of Nigeria is as a patchwork quilt of mutually antagonistic tribes, perpetually on the brink of warfare. Despite the wasted generation’s rhetorical obsession with Nigerian unity, their sectarian vision of Nigeria has done more to undermine national solidarity than anything else. As our own generation comes of age, the hour has come to redefine Nigeria and what it means to be Nigerian.

Unlike the wasted generation and some of the independence generation who were born in a British colonial territory and first carried British passports, we are authentic sons and daughters of the Nigerian geopolitical reality – one hundred percent “omo naija.” We bear the burdens of its dysfunction and the accumulated derelictions of past generations. Unlike them, we have no memory of a time when Nigeria worked.

Whereas our parents were the first generation out of rural areas into the townships and managed tensions between their allegiances to tribe and nation, the post-oil boom generation are for the most part born and bred in sprawling, urban metropolitan spaces. We came of age in an epoch of globalization and many of us, through exposure, education, travel and work, have a bifocal consciousness of both local and global realities. We are thus obliged to operate in a social universe far larger and more diverse than that of our parents. We intermarry more and live and work far away from our natal communities. We are typically children of two or more worlds; socio-cultural hybrids for whom identity should neither be a lethal weapon nor a fatal weakness but merely a symbol of self-definition.

We grew up in a Nigeria in which “Where do you come from?” is the most frequently asked social question. It is an interrogation of origins; often an attempt to classify the subject of inquiry into a tidy category or frame neat stereotypes through which we may relate. With this query, we typecast each other and make ciphers of our compatriots. ‘Origin is Destiny’ is the chief principle of progress. We are denied our right to define ourselves as we deem fit and sentenced to a lifetime in straitjackets of inherited identity. Opportunities for self-actualization are circumscribed by where we come from. Accident of birth over which we have no control is frequently the main factor that influences our chances of success.

This is arguably our greatest failing as a society. We obsess too much with origin and too little about destination. We focus too much on divining narrow ethnic pasts at the expense of imagining a grand national destiny. We waste so much time and energy classifying “indigenes” and “non-indigenes” when only citizens are needed. The question should no longer be “Where do you come from?” but instead, “Where are you going?” Our place of birth should matter less than place of berth – our destination. Nation-building is much more about a perceived common future than a shared ethnic past. The passport to that future should be our state of mind rather than our state of origin. We should pay less heed to ancestral oracles and sharpen our powers of prophetic imagination.

This is not to advocate amnesia. Memory matters, for there can be no development without peace; no peace without justice; and no justice with memory. The process of rebuilding our future must include an accounting for its ruin. Even so, the vast majority of our country did not see the Civil War, so we can no longer sustain the definition and practice of politics as a continuation of the war by other means. What we have seen is the failure of previous generations to bury their antipathies and promote a just peace.

Nation-building requires faith, forgiveness and reconciliation. We must be willing to admit and overcome our bigotries and inherited prejudices; to seek first to understand before being understood. Whatever our political convictions, let us hold them with decency and civility and always with a respect for the other. Human life must be our most sacred temple and human dignity our highest ethic. We must reject the legacy of bad politics that condemns us to carry on cycles of strife and vengeance. For the sake of our children and theirs, we must become avatars of peace. Only by so doing can we proclaim new beginnings.

We have been conditioned to relate with each other in terms of negative stereotypes and mythical ethnic categories and to discuss Nigeria with clichés. Yet the fullness of our freedom as a people will come about only when we foster semantic liberties in our conversations and freely define ourselves without suffocating stereotypes.

The challenges now confronting us and which will assail our children are onerous. We will witness Nigeria’s population hit the 300 million mark just under thirty years from now. We could also witness the depletion of Nigeria’s oil reserves and/or the discovery of a new source of cheap alternative energy, both of which developments will throttle our current oil-based economy. Clearly, the failed politics of the past fifty years is unsustainable. This is why we must now design alternative ways and means of civic engagement.

Our promised land is a realm of boundless opportunities for vertical and horizontal mobility; where citizens are judged by their character and competence, not their creed, clan or gender; and where the only limit on our potentialities is our own consciousness.

Skeptics will argue that this is an unattainable ideal and that we are better off aspiring to what is realistic. I disagree. Nations do not progress by reaching for what is realistic but by striving for the ideal. It was never realistic to stop slavery or segregation or colonialism or apartheid or the holocaust. Our civilization will not advance by grasping the low-hanging fruits of the realistic but by reaching for the stars. By the sheer force of desire and discipline, we can translate the apparently impossible into the inevitable.

A nation is a dream in constructive fulfillment. If Nigeria is a nightmare, it is because we have acquiesced to the reprobate dreams of the vilest among us and relinquished our right to envision better as citizens. The time has come for us to dream boldly and dare in like spirit. Let us embrace it.