Nigeria is chaos. But the chaos is created, organized by the government. Chaos
allows it to stay in power. –Richard Dowden “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary
Many have argued that the Nigeria we have now was not the Nigeria the colonialist left for us. This revisionist history is often perpetrated by educated journalist who should know better. All it takes to know where Nigeria was before independence is to read books about Nigeria before and after independence, but they won't do that. Very often this romanticised opinion of Nigeria's colonial Eldorado are mere figments of lazy journalist who do not have the time to read.
Recently I picked up two books to read while I spend time at home with my kids. The two books are by two different authors. The first book by Vernon Bartlett is titled "Struggle for Africa" and published in 1953 by Praeger inc. The entire ninth chapter of this book is dedicated to "the New Nigeria." The second book by Richard Dowden is titled "Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles" published in 2009 by Public Affairs Books and foreworded by Chinua Achebe. Here again, the entire sixteenth chapter was devoted to everything Nigeriana.
Both authors travelled widely in Africa, visited and lived in Nigeria for a while. Their uncanny observation of our social political state is both compelling and sad to boot! Much as I struggle with the fact that these authors are neither African nor sympathisers, I had to remind myself that they do have a stake in the future of our dear continent-all human kind should. Afterall every human being on our planet earth can trace their roots to Africa. Vernonn Bartlett is a famous British journalist, one-time London Times foreign correspondent, News Chronicle foreign affairs advisor, author of fifteen books. Member of British Parliament for twelve years and British diplomat to the United Nations. Richard Dowden is director of Royal African Society and spend a decade as Africa editor of the Independent, and then another decade as Africa editor of the Economist. He has made three television documentaries on Africa, for the BBC and Channel 4.
I intend to excerpts huge chunks of these books in coming months, because as we march towards the next election we need a lot of reflections on how we got here and what needs to change.
So folks here you go, let's start with Dowden (remember he wrote this in 2009):
Everyone has a Nigeria story from beyond the normal bounds of credibility. Some are terrifying. Most are funny. Nigerian politicians try to pretend that its bad image is some Western conspiracy against Nigerian and Africa. The truth is that Nigeria’s popular image falls short of the reality. It is not just white visitors who fear it. Other Africans do too.
By any law of political or social science it should have collapsed or disintegrated years ago. Indeed it has been described as a failed state that works. Maybe but some people are living fabulously wealthy lives amid the ruins. And others survive and get by. How? It’s a mystery. The secret lies in the layers of millions upon millions of networks, personal ties, family links, ethnic loyalties, school fraternities, secret societies, Church and Jumaat Mosque connections and scores of unrecorded, informally organized bonds of trust that make things happen. Forget the government, the formal structures. What makes Nigeria works is a matrix of social, political and economic connections that ensures most people get food and shelter. The hidden wiring also ensures that the vast majority of Nigerians are kept outside the ruler-owner circle, never given the chance to fulfill their –or Nigeria’s- potential.
A successful Nigeria could transform the continent in the twenty-first century. It’s 120 million plus people- or is it 140 million? The numbers are disputed like everything else in Nigeria- are a quarter of sub-Saharan Africa’s population and among them are astonishing talents. In business, law, science, art, literature, music, sport, Nigeria produces phenomenally talented individuals as if its superheated society throws up brighter, hotter human beings than anywhere else. The leader who manages to harness and direct all that energy- physical and human- will create a formidable country that will change African and the world. Were it to implode like its neighbors, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, the human catastrophe would be unconscionable and it would take much of West Africa with it. Nigeria lives on the edge.
Colin Powell, the then American Secretary of State, once let slip the opinion that all Nigerians are crooks. (It is interesting that few years ago, he appeared as guest at an event organized by a Nigerian publisher in London, without any mention of that allegation. If all Nigerians are crooks, one of my friends asked what is a former Secretary of State doing in the midst of crooks?). All? Maybe not, but a lot of Nigerians dedicate their lives to fulfilling the stereotype. And being Nigerian they are also often world class. An official of the US Drug Enforcement Agency spoke in awe of the Nigerian drug smuggling gangs. “We thought we knew most of the tricks of the drug trade until we came up against the Nigerians” he told me. “Then we realized we were just beginners.”
One area in which Nigeria seems to be deficient is political leadership. With the possible exception of Murtala Mohammed- and he was murdered seven months after coming to power-the country has not had a single decent leader. When Achebe wrote the lines “This house has fallen” in 1983, talking about the house left behind by the colonialist and taken over by “the smart and the lucky and hardly ever the best”, he was writing about Nigeria. Politics in Nigeria is a business career. Any politician who does not end up a multi-millionaire is regarded as a fool. Not many Nigerians are fools.
In 1996 a commission of inquiry discovered that the $12 billion surplus revenue from oil resulting from the high price during the Gulf War was missing. Much of it was in offshore accounts controlled by President Ibrahim Babangida. None of it was ever recovered. When Babangida’s successor, Sani Abacha, died in 1998, his family were forced to pay back $2 billion stolen during his five year reign. But they were allowed to keep the $100 million that he stole before he seized power. Many Nigerian think that $2 billion is small change compared to what he actually stole.
Corruption is such an important part of the Nigerian political scene that politicians can be quite open about it. Ahmed Sani, the governor of Zamfara state, admits to taking money when he held a senior position at the Central Bank. He says it was given to him by Abacha when he brought cash from the bank to the presidential villa.
Yet the rulers who steal Nigeria’s future and a poor man who steals a yam at the market are judged very differently. Pinch a yam in the market and you will have a petrol-soaked tyre jammed around your neck and set alight. Trouser a billion dollars of state funds and everyone laughs and fawns on you. No big man in Nigeria has ever been punished for theft, though under Olusegun Obasanjo’s rule one or two of his political enemies were asked to resign and give back some of what they had stolen. Corruption exist everywhere, but Nigeria’s hilariously brazen corruption puts it in a different league. Elsewhere it is conducted behind closed doors or by nods and euphemisms. In Nigeria it is open and it is everywhere.
Corruption pervades Nigerian life so broadly and deeply that is hard to imagine life in Nigeria if it were suddenly to end. Without a little something a policeman will not investigate a crime, a journalist will not write up a politician’s speech, a politician will not speak to a constituent, a tax inspector will not sign off your tax return. You may suddenly find your telephone does not work. It has been mysteriously disconnected or ‘tossed’ as the Nigerian say. Or your electricity is cut off. When you try to find out what has happened you will be presented with a demand to a ‘quick quick’ reconnection charge.
In Nigeria every contact between an official and an individual seems to involve an extra payment, that personalized VAT. To check your name on the voters’ register, to get a passport, to pass through a roadblock, all involve a few note changing hands. Even when I want to interview President Obasanjo, the staffer escorting me slipped Obasanjo’s bodyguard a few naira. It was not asked for, just slipped discreetly from hand to hand. Why was that necessary? What relationship did that cement?
Nigerian politics appears to be a zero sum game. The popular assumption is that if the Hausas are in power, they are eating well so the Yoruba and Igbo must be losing out. Northerners will tell you that they should be rulers because that is what they are good at, and that Yorubas should be the civil servants and Igbos the businessmen. This ethnic stereotyping is countered by the Southerners’ proposal that the presidency should rotate between regions. The assumption- spelled out shamelessly at political rallies – is that each group may suffer for a while but every decade it will also ‘eat’ – meaning gobble up the national resources. In other words, the elite of each region of Nigeria will take it in turns to loot the country. Faced with these alternatives no wonder the military has been allowed to rule for so long in Nigeria. Everyone fears that political breakdown will lead to strife: a bare-fisted, free-for-all fight to the death.
Nigeria is famed for its sudden explosions of violence, usually in cities where a politician has stirred up his own ethnic group or co-religionist to try to wipe out a rival. These brief explosions regularly leave 400 or 500 dead in a couple of days when gangs to thugs take up clubs, machetes and knives. Whole suburbs are burned down – often with people locked in their homes. Then it stops as suddenly as it started. The incidents rarely make more than a paragraph in the Western press. The world sighs and moves on. Violent Africa.
On the contrary, I sometimes feel Africa is not violent enough. If Africans fought back sooner against theft and oppression instead of allowing themselves to be slaves to the rich and powerful, Africa would be a much more peaceful place. Instead African patience allows exploitation and oppression to thrive until everyone loses their temper and explodes.
Nigerians are probably no more “tribalist” than any other human communities. Nigeria’s size in fact makes it more of a melting pot than many smaller African countries and most Nigerians can trace many ethnicities in their family trees. The root of the problem is that the Nigerian state depends not on constitution but on a commodity: Oil.
Religion reinforces some of Nigeria’s political divisions but it is not the cause of the division. Nigerians are deeply religious, the vast majority Christian or Muslim. When religion overlays ethnicity and culture, it is easy to claim God or Allah backs your cause. Ahmed Sani – the man who took money to Abacha when he worked at the Central Bank- used up the cash Abacha gave him to get himself elected as governor in 1999 but he needed to get elected again in 2003. In his first term there had been widespread lawlessness and robberies in Zamfara state to he suddenly turned religious, reintroduced full Sharia law to please the largely Muslim electorate and started chopping the hands of thieves. He also demanded that the state be officially Muslim and at one stage he even ordered the destruction f all Christian Churches. This easy political stunt nearly split Nigeria in two. It led to judicial stoning and amputations and caused scores of deaths in Muslim-Christian clashes and riots. It also got Sani re-elected. He nearly ran for President in 2007.
And now Bartlett, (again remeber he wrote this in 1953):
Nigeria, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. "Whatever you do," they said to me in the Northern Region, "don't be misled by those people in the South. Lagos doesnt in the least represent the opinions of Nigeria." In the Western Region they criticized the East: had I managed also to visit the Eastern Region, I should doubtless have heard similar criticisms of the West. I had expected some rivalry between the larger tribes- the Hausa and the Fulani in the North, the Ibo in the East and the Yoruba in the West. I had not expected the British officials also to feel such regional loyalty.
The northerners, as Moslems, have been slow to develop schools, and the southerners are therefore inclined to treat them with contempt.
One of the commonest words in West Africa is "dash", which is West African for 'backsheesh". A patient in hospital has much more hope of getting the medicine or the treatment the doctor ordered if he 'dashes' the African nurse or orderly. Too many African civil servants are ready to accept bribes, although the service they render has already been paid for by the State. It is perhaps not so much that the man who does something for an African expects a bribe; it is rather that the African expects to show his appreciation for services rendered. It is the outcome of a personal relationship which does not fit in with the idea of impersonal service to the community. But this tradition of courtesy is all too likely to lead to corruption.
The European is violently criticized but he is slavishly imitated- in his bad behavior as well as his good. In the Island club in Lagos- the only club I have found in Africa where Europeans and Africans manage to forget the color of each other's skins- most of the Africans, who include many of the Ministers and higher civil servants, drink imported Dutch beer at two and three pence and bottle; the Europeans generally dring the local product at ninepence.
Prices of Nigerian exports have risen so steeply, and the African change of status has been so sensational, that a certain nouveau riche ostentation is easy to understand. The disquieting side of it is, however, that the wealth will, for many years to come, be dependent on European advice, technical help and capital, and the tendency to dismiss them as unnecessary.
What the white man can do, one is assured, the black man can do. Hence the enthusiasm throughout black Africa for the advantages of education. This enthusiasm is pathetic, inspiring, depressing, according to your way of looking at things. Pathetic, because the people are prepared to make such sacrifices to attain it and have such exaggerated ideas of the happiness and contentment it will bring them. Inspiring because the changes being wrought by it, for good or ill, are so tremendous even in the remoter hamlets. Depressing, because there is still so few Africans who understand that an ability to quote slabs from Shakespeare or to solve some fairly simple mathematical problem does not carry with it automatically the ability to rule other men wisely.
The desire to run one’s own country, even if one runs it badly, is a natural desire, especially if the existing overlords are men not only of another but even of another color.
But the riots in kano in May of 1953 have made it necessary to re-examine a constitution introduced with such optimism a bare two years earlier. The result is that too much of this desert-like country (speaking of Kano) is given up to cash crops, and too little to food, so that there is too much to spend and too little to eat. A man who is suffering from malnutrition may have a smart new bicycle, the African’s equivalent of a motor car.
The small group of business men with more money but less prestige, and little of the official’s paternal sense of responsibility for the African’s development towards independence.
The women of West Africa have done several things the women of East and Central Africa have not yet managed to do. They have emancipated themselves sufficiently to persuade their menfolk to carry some of the burdens and to do some of the agricultural work-near Lagos I almost ran over a cyclist with a pickaxe, a hoe and a spade balanced on his head. Elsewhere in Africa, the men have the wealth, in the form of cows; in West Africa, the women have it in the form of bales of cotton.
I went from Kaduna, the capital of the Northern Region to Ibadan, the Western capital. We were flown in an alarmingly small machine by a pilot who sported an enormous beard. The only event occurred when he handed back a slip of paper which I thought would give us the usual details of height, speed, and estimated time of arrival. Instead it had only the words: “Arsenal nil. Newcastle United one,” The result of the greatest soccer match of the year.