Tolu Ogunlesi: The beggars, the fence and the country (YNaija Frontpage)

From another perspective it is super-depressing news. President come president go, fuel scarcity remain, corruption remain. Nigeria’s problems seem destined to outlive every Nigerian, and certainly every government.

I’m currently reading The Supreme Commander, Olufemi Ogunsanwo’s 2009 biography of former Head of State Yakubu Gowon. I don’t need to tell you it’s a fascinating read. Any well-written account of the life of any major player in the drama-suffused story of Nigeria will definitely be laden with fascinating stories.

I’ll go on to share three quotes from the book – Ogunsanwo quoting three different persons – which brilliantly illustrate a point I always like to make.

The first is from a speech that Obafemi Awolowo delivered as Chancellor of the University of Ife, on October 6, 1973. Ogunsanwo quotes Awolowo as warning that “a situation such as we now have, under which the good things of life are assured to a small minority of Nigerians and almost totally denied to the vast majority of our countrymen, is pregnant with unpredictable dangers if allowed to continue much longer.”

The second quote is from a July 1975 article by the London Guardian correspondent in Lagos:

“Corruption has not been eradicated in Nigeria – indeed it has got worse since the oil boom in the country brought more riches. Corruption is everywhere – it ranges from the petty and normal daily occurrences like the man who stamped my passport at the Immigration Desk of the Lagos Airport asking me for cash to large deals at the ministerial level over huge industrial contracts and projects.”

The third quote is from a 1975 article by Brian Silk, the Daily Telegraph correspondent in Lagos:

“In spite of a leap in oil output, which has placed it on a level with the Arab States, Nigeria is suffering from an acute fuel shortage. Five years after the civil war, oil has made Nigeria the most prosperous country in Black Africa. It now produces two million barrels a day, supplying one-third of America’s imported oil needs and 16 percent of Britain’s. Yet in Nigeria itself motorists queue at filling stations for petrol so scarce that black market prices three times the official rate are being paid and transport costs are being forced up. Housewives face similar difficulties in getting paraffin for their cooking stoves.”

You read stuff like this and wonder: when was the ‘good old’ era our parents like to boast about? When exactly was this? Before the civil war?  Then you probably have never come across Kaduna Nzeogwu’s January 15, 1966 coup speech, in which he declared:

“Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 percent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds.


Pre-oilboom there were swindlers, bribe-demanders, corrupt b*st*rds. Yesterday’s “political profiteers” birthed today’s rent-seekers, today’s 150-percenters are the natural descendants of yesterday’s ten-percenters. Today’s rent-seekers will, unchecked, give rise to tomorrow’s auctioneers-of-the-house, and the 150-percenters will mutate into 1000-percenters. It’s not rocket science, it’s a simple law of progression.

In his memoir You Must Set Forth At Dawn Wole Soyinka writes about dreading leaving Akoka for the Island – because of traffic. In the 1970s.

And that airport scene painted above by the Guardian correspondent might as well have been captured today. A few weeks ago I still had to fend off immigration officials asking me for “breakfast” as I made my way through MMA security. (Dammit – do I look like a chef?)

Viewed from a certain perspective I guess it means that Goodluck Jonathan can sleep a bit more soundly, realising that the problems that are routing him have routed everyone before him, and that, in the final analysis, perhaps he isn’t any more clueless than any of the other men who have ruled this country.

From another perspective it is super-depressing news. President come president go, fuel scarcity remain, corruption remain. Nigeria’s problems seem destined to outlive every Nigerian, and certainly every government. Thirty-seven years on, we’re still an oil-producing nation dealing with the curse of fuel queues.

It is very important that we keep these things in mind, so that the next time we’re tempted to give in to the blissful idea of a period when all things were bright and beautiful, we’d take the high ground of sense and silence, and instead invest our energies in seeking ways to break free from the vicious curse of the past.

As a character in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah says:

“It is the story that outlives the sound of the war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story, not the others, which saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence.”

We have blundered far too long, into the same spikes of the same cactus fence; a fence with a much higher life expectancy than the average Nigerian.

We seem to be frozen in time – 1975 and 2012 being about as different as six and half a dozen – and at the mercy of a programmed sequence of disastrous habits and events.

And the question we should be asking ourselves is not “Shall we ever break free?” but instead “Do we really want to break free?”



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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Comments (3)

  1. You hit the nail on the head. This 'the other 159 million Nigerians have been waiting for opportunities to benefit from corruption' my brother, is Nigeria's greatest problem!

  2. What's seems very unfortunate is the fact that this story of ours is most definitely going to outlive us and our progeny, and as averse as I am to being spiritual when it comes to human engineered disasters, I can only pray that I become a model Nigerian, and my neighbour too, and his neighbour. Then maybe, just maybe, we can start stepping back from our doomed embrace of the spikes of the cactus Achebe mentioned

  3. Even if a million of us want to break free, the other 159 million Nigerians have been waiting for opportunities to benefit from corruption…WE ARE FINISHED!

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