by Wole Olabanji
If you happen to see a woman leaving the Federal Secretariat (Phase I) in Abuja with a bottle of liquid and assume, because of a certain yellowish colour, it is one of the popular local concoctions for treating fevers, you may be mistaken.
For about a year now, the taps at the headquarters of Nigeria’s bureaucracy have been dry. Toilets in the city-block sized facility, which were notoriously dirty in the past, have now become completely unusable; no running water to flush and clean the toilet bowl after use.
Expectedly, as happens in every other Nigerian sphere where public systems have failed, self help has replaced government: senior political office holders and top bureaucrats who have the exclusive use of certain toilets in the complex resorting to private arrangements to import water and service their toilets.
A few female staffers who enjoy the favour of such top officials may be given the privilege of using the toilets. The remaining, unable to take a stroll like the men and ‘water’ a nearby shrub are often forced to use plastic bottles to collect their urine and then pour into the stinking toilet bowls.
The others, who find the toilets completely unapproachable, have no choice: they have to ferry it out of the facility for actual disposal. So if you do see someone leaving the so-called engine room of Africa’s biggest economy with a bottle of yellowish liquid, don’t think agbo-jedi.
Sorrow, tears and blood
10 years ago, on the morning of 22 December 2004, I and several other corps members boarded a bus from Awka to Lagos. Shortly before we got to Benin, a speeding driver at the lead, one of the rear tyres burst.
It sent the bus careening all over the road as the driver struggled to regain control. In a blur of motion and the high-pitched noise of metal scraping asphalt, the car went into a roll, ending up on the grass verge forming the median of the dual carriage way.
When the dust settled, I – and the other passengers – counted my luck and gingerly picked my way out of the mangled metal and shattered glass. Then I found it. The prone body of my friend who had been sitting by me, in front, only a few moments earlier. He never opened his eyes again.
We spent the next few minutes in a daze, scrambling about, while motorists slowed down, and then drove us – ignoring the abandoned lot in their blood spattered NYSC uniforms. We were eventually rescued by a team of policemen manning a checkpoint a short distance from the accident. They took us in the back of their patrol van, first to their station in the next village where we were persuaded to leave our belongings for ‘safekeeping’ and then to a private clinic not far away.
The danger wasn’t over yet.
Now somewhat calmer and realising that I had only sustained a small cut just above my eye, I got the only doctor and nurse available at the clinic to focus on other passengers who had sustained more serious injuries. To my shock, when it got to my turn to be stitched up, the nurse motioned for me to seat – and then made to shave my eye-brows (and the fresh gaping wound by it) with a surgical blade dripping with the blood of passengers that had been treated earlier. At the peak of the HIV pandemic.
Don’t teach me nonsense
15 years earlier, growing up in the eighties of military coups, one of the top ambitions for boys my age was to don the green khakis someday.
Even though I was growing up in Zaria’s university community, the military was so dominating of national consciousness at the time that the pristine lab coats that we saw undergrads wearing all over the campus seemed quite dour compared to the razor edged khakis of the Nigerian Military School (NMS) band that came regularly to play at our inter-house sports events.
So in my final year of primary school, when forms were sold for exams into NMS, I promptly got mine, and began to prepare to write the exams in earnest.
On the eve of the exam, an uncle of mine who lived near the army barracks came to visit. He had some crucial advise for my father. If he really wanted me to achieve this dream of joining military school, the question papers for the exam next day could be procured to ‘aid’ my preparation. For a fee, of course.
Vagabonds in Power
If you went even farther back in the history of our country; into the days many now view with glassy-eyed nostalgia, the honest would find many similar examples of the deep rot upon which this nation has sat for a long, long time.
However, in the light of – amongst very, very, many others – the international fiasco that the 14t April abduction of nearly 300 school girls in Chibok has become (and the abductions and bombs after), it is quite easy to focus on the tragic disaster that the Goodluck Jonathan presidency has largely been.
Nevertheless, my personal experience growing up in this country impresses on me the conclusion that Goodluck Jonathan is perhaps no more than a symptom – debilitating, yes – of what ails this country.
It was Achebe who famously concluded that “the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely the failure of leadership”.
Whilethis sits well within a certain framework of arguments, it has mostly been used outside of that context and thus become adopted as an easy thesis that focuses on one person and largely ignores the system that repeatedly allows persons of questionable capacity to emerge at the top and thrive.
It is common to hear Nigerians lament the bad luck, which seems to consistently leave them with poor leaders. Unfortunately, the strident consistency with which we have had underwhelming leadership at every level and in every sphere of national life suggests that the outcomes are consistent with an underlying national culture.
The epidemic of poor leadership even suggests that the occasional decent leaders we have happened upon are flukes, against the run of play.
The more desperate worry, however, is the disconnect of the Nigerian from this rather obvious reality.
It seemed ironic for instance to watch my Twitter timeline fill up quickly with snide remarks about the quality of Nigerian Journalism as the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag brought into our fray the likes of CNN’s Isha Sesay who grilled the minister of information in a way commentators believed local journalists would not dare.
As we characteristically partitioned reality so as to conveniently deny the connectedness of resultant parts, these commentators missed the glaring correspondence: we also have American boots on the ground because of the deficiencies of our own forces; foreign coaches clamoured for the perennial deficiencies in our national teams, even as more and more Nigerians are going away to places as ‘backwater’ as Benin Republic to get an education.
From whence therefore would the country’s leadership emerge markedly different?
Swegbe and Pako
There is a phrase that has caught on in some sections of the blogosphere – ‘anyhowness’. ‘Anyhowness’ – otherwise none as the ‘Nigerian factor’ – is that debilitating condition, which almost guarantees that the most basic things will be bungled by anyone charged with the responsibility for handling.
Our daily experiences, from the roadside mechanic to the federal executive cabinet member, present a stark clarity: majority of Nigerians approach their responsibilities with about the same level of diligence and ownership – none.
Many Nigerians can relate, for instance, with the experience of the motor mechanic removing five bolts from a component; losing one; replacing the remaining four and, asked about the missing one, tells you how it was unnecessary in the first place to have five bolts.
Many would be familiar with statements like “oga, e no dey work anything, oyinbo just put am for dia” (It doesn’t do anything. The white man just put it there). If you insist on finding that fifth bolt, you are given the poorly veiled look of contempt that announces you as a troublesome one.
It was the same contempt with which the nurse viewed me when I objected to the stark possibility of being infected terminally. To her, I must have seemed finicky, ungrateful, of bad faith. It is with the same contempt that the government, represented by its interior minister, Abba Moro views those raising questions about the atrocious conduct of the NIS recruitment exams which led to the death of about 20 Nigerians. And, now the stuff of national legend, the farce of Mr. President’s wife wailing on national TV does a poor job of veiling the contempt with which she views those who have the temerity to demand of the government: #BringBackOurGirls.
The questions must however be asked; what breeds this disdain in us for an existence better than the bane? How is it that we are happier to cut corners and see no need for the due or the process? How is it that all our colloquial words for diligence are pejorative? Why are we comfortable with the approximate when there is the actual?
Many like to point to relatively recent events in our history like – of course – slave trade, colonisation, even the civil war as the traumatic experiences that have eroded our values and stunted our development as a people.
Without doubt, these experiences have had a severe impact on the evolution of our national culture and surely influenced many of the negative manifestations holding back the country, but those are the branches – where are the roots?
Allow me take a detour to more effectively search for the answers to this existential question.
The progress of society is driven by the cumulative of experience. The evolution of society for the better relies heavily on the effectiveness of the baton exchanged between generations. Essentially, how far down the path the next generation travels depends largely on the quality of the information pack provided by the previous generations.
Unfortunately, we have relied on the oral, and with it the disadvantage of constant decline in the quality of transfer.
A good example: the near total disappearance of the intellectual wealth related to traditional knowledge of herbal medicine. Or the lack of any technical documentation for making the crude tools like canoes and hoes that we have used for centuries, and are still stuck with today.
Worse still, it can be theorised that the market need for keeping competitive advantage in proprietorship of oral tradition could have given rise to the mystification of herbal medicine. That would certainly be in keeping with how our society is governed at the moment.
The desire to create and enjoy a monopoly can of course push the man with knowledge of what herbs cure headache to accompany the administration of the herb to the patients with some incomprehensible chant, to create the impression that healing came by more than just the herb. The injection of mystery then sadly reduces the incentive to share the knowledge lest the powerful herbalist be demystified.
Therefore, starting out with knowledge, a society will come to a fork in the road where it must decide whether to go down the path of technology or that of superstition, of excellence or of mediocrity: the former fuels progress, the latter, stagnation.
Having gone down the path of superstition, we missed out on the discipline of cumulating history; sucked into a seemingly unending cycle of reinventing the wheel rather than improving on it. Wallowing in that culture for centuries naturally led to the conditions that made the slave trade and colonization possible, inevitable even.
It is a culture of accepting much, much less than we should, and can be.
Unfortunately, while decades of interaction with monotheistic religions have significantly reduced the mystification of the most basic of things, it still has not eroded the ingrained disdain we have for the rigour of thought, and process.
In reality, we are still hurtling full throttle down the path of superstition, only this time, we are travelling in the most sophisticated technologies that money can buy. This is why our president is happy to measure progress by how many private jets are parked at our airports, and with no sense of irony, even if we don’t have the local capacity to manufacture a fully functioning toothpick.
Increasingly shed of the economic value of mystery, the path we have chosen means we are forced to rely more and more on the economic value of two types of wasting assets; the natural endowments of the earth and our physical strength.
While anthropologists may prove that there is indeed no connection, it is nevertheless curious that even in the physical activities, we largely tend towards those things in which the balance tilts towards sheer strength rather than fine technique. Football will suffice as an example. In this universally popular sport in which we have had some success, you will often hear enlightened commentators talk about how our teams have to play ‘physical’ football.
Of course when you discount age cheating by focusing on the national team, our experience has shown that technique generally wins. Not that this has changed our proclivity much. Hence, the wrenching disappointing we have built the capacity to expect and endure, match after match.
The e evolution of our culture has had, as it must, far reaching consequences on what kinds of social systems we have eventually developed. The result is clear – with no understanding, no discipline and ultimately no capacity to progressively create, we now have as ample evidence of bad choices the pathological conditions, which now hamper our progress as a people.
Beasts of No Nation
Draw a long enough line and you can connect the dots: the herbalist who chose, centuries ago, to choose myopic mystique over the endless potential of an open market is substantively no different than the leader in Nigeria today who seeks to maintain hold on power by shrouding the office in mystery and closing any possibilities of allowing the testing and validation of ideas. Ask him – or her – why the country fails, and he says it is ‘a complex country’. As if China were a game of cards.
Shielding filthy petroleum ministers, ignoring political debates, chucking off legitimate dissent to sponsored opposition, or pleading prophetic immunity by reason of anointing, leadership in Nigeria today, just like the babalawo of yore resolutely refuses to be accountable – or vulnerable.
By its very nature, the culture of inquiry which berths advancement requires that ideas be continuously and rigorously tested and improved Sadly, the culture that emerged from the path that we took does not encourage anything close to refinement. Taken in one of its crudest cultural expressions: ‘my father was head of the house, he ate the gizzard exclusively and so now that I have started my own family, I own the gizzard – or the sun will not rise tomorrow’.
Thus, the clueless mechanic, the thoughtless nurse; the triumphantly incurious president.
Open & Close
Are we too far down the path to switch?
Thankfully, Achebe was right. If we manage to get the right kind of leadership (giving the prevailing conditions, this can only be by a fluke), such a person can push us to modify our national behaviour and begin to make the choices that put mediocrity away for excellence, and take the long roads instead of the short cuts – so that, in a few decades, we would have managed to return this behemoth of a country to that fork in the road.
While we work towards finding that leader however, we come to that fork in the road, day after day, as Nigerians.
When you are tempted to do something as ‘harmless’ as forming the third lane on a two lane road, you have come to the fork in the road. You are faced with the seemingly inconsequential but fundamentally important choice between process and ‘anyhowness’ – between the life-saving effort of getting a new needle, or putting a young man’s life at risk.
As you hit the road on Monday morning, perhaps you can allow this thought find a premium spot on your mind.
See other long read pieces HERE