The attitude of Nigerians to criticism from foreigners is similar to what might go on in a dysfunctional marriage…
The inspiration for this particular train of thought – if I can call it inspiration – comes from two things: the current fierce debate about guns in America in the aftermath of the killing of over two dozen people, many of them 6 and 7 year olds, and the criticism Nigeria’s correspondent for the Associated Press, Jonathan Gambrell, has gotten from some quarters over his reports about the country. Mr Gambrell is accused of being too negative about Nigeria, the exact same criticism levelled at every western correspondent and media organisation for the last couple of decades.
The charge is that the coverage coming out of Nigeria, and most other African countries, is overwhelmingly negative, and serves to reinforce stereotypes about the African continent as a basket case, instead of a land of opportunity. Those who hold this view ask: ‘Isn’t there anything good to report?’
The problem with that question is that it is a fundamentally stupid. In the last two weeks alone, billions of naira in freshly minted notes disappeared from the high security mint facility, and there is no word on whether it has been found, or if anyone has been punished. The mother of Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was kidnapped over what was suspected, and later confirmed, to be in connection with subsidy payments which she has tried to restore some form of integrity to. As a result of her fight against corruption in the verification and payment of subsidy claims, a member of her family was seen as fair game.
These are the types of incidents that Nigerians hear about on a daily basis, and show no signs of slowing down. Someone said recently that it is difficult to write satire in Nigeria, because nothing is too absurd to actually happen.
It is then hard to see the reason for the backlash against Western journalists who merely report what they see and hear, which is just an amplification of the millions of conversations we have in our homes, offices, beer parlours, and on social media.
On closer inspection, however, it isn’t hard to understand.
The attitude of Nigerians to criticism from foreigners is similar to what might go on in a dysfunctional marriage, where the woman feels oppressed by her husband. She complains constantly to family and friends, but the minute someone raises objection from outside the home and asks her to take action, the default response becomes: ‘mind your own business’.
On a national level, it might be called false patriotism: this reflex defence of one’s country from external criticism, criticism which merely echoes the sentiments of the locals, which in turn is drawn from events within that space. Instead of working to ensure that there is less to criticise, the pushback is just a coping mechanism, postponing the important conversations and reckonings that must happen for Nigeria to truly become a better place. Yes, there are good things happening here, but those are few and far between. Until excellence becomes the rule instead of the exception, we will continue to weep and gnash our teeth.
We lash out at foreigners who say the obvious about our society, then proceed to complain about the very same things, but what is worse, some of us even rationalise and excuse the abuse of power and mediocrity we encounter on a daily basis. We excuse it in ourselves, our friends, and those we hope to curry favour from.
In many ways, the need to cope is understandable. The need to deflect, change the subject, rationalise, or to dissolve our frustrations in alcohol or religious worship, may be the only things keeping many people sane, but it is no longer sufficient.
Watching the US media focus intently on America’s gun culture after the Newtown killings makes me wonder when, if ever, our media has been able to do same over important national issues. As it stands, they cannot even cover breaking news properly. Major events meet our TV stations carrying on with regular programming for hours after an event that would warrant wall-to-wall coverage elsewhere.
Perhaps this is too much to ask, but the way our media treats issues is part of the reason we never seem to learn anything as a nation from the numerous teachable moments we have had. As a result, it is too easy to forget. Too easy to complain for a while and move on, while nothing changes.
This is the reason we lash out at those who puncture our sleepwalking state with their unwanted criticism. The message is this: don’t interrupt us while we are marching over the cliff.
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