By Adagbo Onoja
Every morning now, every reader of several Nigerian newspapers encounter a tormenting but humanising discourse of the Chibok girls tragedy in the display of the number of days the ordeal has lasted. It is such an edifying unity of purpose in the print media in the face of a frightening threat to collective well being. Yet, it should remind us of something more threatening.
Nearly 40 years ago, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi drew Nigeria’s attention to it and what he said has to be quoted in extensor: “There is no government that can pursue a dynamic foreign policy if it is faced with problems of internal subversion and to prevent internal subversion, a society must not condone (1) the reckless acquisition of wealth by individuals whether in government or outside government and the reckless display of that wealth, no matter how acquired. We have got to a stage in this country where human beings have become so politicised and they draw the right conclusions from what they see even if they feel impotent about doing anything about it immediately. To me, the most dangerous or the most potent slogan in this country today is just made up of two words: “God dey”. When you get a Nigerian who just shrugs his shoulders and says, “God dey”, don’t think you have got away with riding over him. At that moment he is just giving up all hopes of convincing you to be reasonable. It then means that from that point on, he is asking for divine intervention. The intervention may not be divine when it comes but all it means is that he is just ready to resort to anything in order to correct the situation. I believe that we are not only posing a problem for ourselves foreign policy wise, but we are posing a problem for even our own existence as a nation if we don’t move towards trying to create a just society”.
Akinyemi suffered ideological bombardment on account of the speech from where this quotation was taken. Akinyemi had denounced Socialism which irritated many of his attackers. The most acerbic of them was certainly Bamako Jaji, (a pen name) who wrote “The Mutations of a Right-Wing Ideologue” which ran in two instalments in The Guardian then. Of course, there was Lewis Obi’s frenemic “Akinyemi’s Nigerian Imperialism” in The National Concord. They were all well aimed. Other than that and looking back now, Akinyemi got most of his points right. If no caucuses in the presidency, NASS, the armed forces and the parties in the past 16 years were making regular references to that speech in the past 16 years, then the idea that Nigeria has been on auto-pilot is corroborated. This is because Akinyemi had anticipated the sedimentation of alienation into social instability either in individualistic mayhem such as armed robbery or the group vengeance we are witnessing all over today but whose sources of vengeance-seeking behaviour nobody can trace easily.
They all show that no such caucuses paid attention to Akinyemi’s early warning in any systematic manner. Rather, Nigeria pressed on the accelerator in the reverse order as far as human rights is concerned, sending mobile police squads and sometimes the military to draw down whole settlements. To worsen matters, we never follow up with any programme of social healing or restitution. The Obasanjo regime set up a variant of the Truth and Reconciliation approach. It was great in its own way but at the end of the day, it was also as exactly as Archbishop Onaiyekan memorably captured it: “a forum for a few aggrieved people to tell their story and cry for people to see…We were, therefore, treated to the bizarre spectacle of high-level lawyers leading big time liars to package their misleading stories for us to hear”.
In other words, restitution, reconciliation or transitional justice are still not a part of our consciousness in the management of the social order in the Nigeria. Instead of that, we are happier bandying about mindless analogies. Someone who utilises the institutional weaknesses in the Nigerian social order to acquire power and/or make money would say that the end justifies the means. S/he thinks that because Machiavelli said so, it becomes a licence upon which to anchor his or her own sadism. But, the end cannot justify every means without creating the “God dey” situation Akinyemi’s threat analysis fingered out. Any society that has no institutions or mechanisms to check such unconscionable combination of discretion and indiscretion by any one individual is already lost. The society would suffer if the trend is not checked. And in this society, it is always the weakest, those who cannot help themselves who pay the highest price for the consequences of the banalities we are all guilty of parading. That is what is great in the graphic display of the number of days the Chibok conundrum has lasted by several Nigerian newspapers.
Realism has suffered so much intellectual set back in recent years and Akinyemi might have shifted analytical position. But, as at 1979 when he drew Nigeria’s attention to this, it wasn’t because of any self-doubts in that analytical framework. So, nobody can say that he was pretending or posing as a reverend preaching morality to others. I believe he was doing that within the context of the mandate of knowledge, the responsibility to alert society to dangers to the social order from certain contradictions that are taken for granted.
He could afford to say those things without being reprimanded probably because of his personal connection with the Nigerian establishment or because the society was more liberal in those days. It is doubtful that the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) today would have survived that sort of analysis anytime after 1990. It must be pointed out that, by his own account, Akinyemi used to be queried even then. And he only never got punished because there were the T. Y Danjumas and M.D Yusufs in government in the late 1970s when Akinyemi was DG and who would call him to say ‘well done’ for such and such opinion that you expressed on NTA. And the minister querying him for embarrassing the government on account of that same view would have to back off.
The point is that even when you are an Akinyemi, it can be costly to be independent minded both then and now. This is virtually the case almost everywhere in the world, with only minor differences in the degree of tolerance. Some minister is bound to query you. God helps you if there are no informed superiors who understand the spirit of what you are saying. Those who are inclined to independent mindedness must, therefore, learn to start by acquiring the capabilities that would enable them not only to cope with the dangers of being independent minded but also be in a position to ignore what the type of ministers querying Akinyemi could do. More so that nowadays, being queried can be the most mild of such ‘punishments’. The situation has degenerated. There is room only for views considered favourable in the quarters where it is so considered. We are so scared of our shadows that we have practically shut down debate in Nigeria. Throwing ethnic abuses seems to be the only great game in town.
We cannot, therefore, help recollecting Akinyemi’s alert as the Nigerian government announces the beginning of negotiations with Boko Haram. An Akinyemi can hold his head high and say “I discharged my duty” by the fact of that alert just as most members of that generation could. As recently as 1999, the late Dr Ibrahim Tahir told a PDP Orientation Session that Nigeria had been progressively driving itself into a pressure cooker from which there was no exit. The evidence now shows that no one heard him. What anyone might have been tempted to dismiss as intellectual alarms on Akinyemi or Tahir’s part have all come to pass, unfortunately. If, from this moment, we still do not do something bolder and more imaginative on restitution, the state is bound to encounter having to enter even more humiliating negotiations in the future. The weakest in the link have had to endure power in its most ruthless form in the past three decades. Naked power has been on the prowl across Nigeria either through corruption, physical or structural violence. All these have produced so many people echoing Akinyemi’s “God dey”.
Yet, no political leaders are out there at the head of fissure healing missions by communicating with people who might have silently borne the brunt of this history of physical and structural violence. And yet, we think there can be social harmony. Nothing can be worse than a polity in which the leaders who must be able to do good to all manner of people do not come down to everyone’s level. Rather they are haughty, obstinate and likely to pick quarrels, both among themselves and with those they are supposed to lead. Yet, people are not the same. Some are rich, others are poor; some are six-footers, others are midgets; there are men and women; old and young; everyone doesn’t fall into one age group. This observable obstinacy goes against the wisdom that stooping down to talk to a dwarf does not make the giant a dwarf.
As it is the quality of governance that brings security and peace, the phenomenon of absentee leaders, leaders who mobilise nobody around any values is one of the most critical dimensions of the Nigerian crisis. The subsequent disconnect between politics, the polity and the people is a major source of the tension in the country. There can hardly be an escape from this without political leaders stooping low to conquer via communication, dialogue and restitution. The question, however, is how would anyone expect any such capability from, say a Senator, who spent upward of N500m to purchase just nomination form? Or from a governorship aspirant who needed in excess of N10b to clinch the party ticket and win the governorship election? And these are just two examples. Where do we go from here?
The government of the day has set up some structures on the combustion in the North-East. That’s absolutely a most welcome step without reservations. That area is the most urgent in this respect, especially when resource availability is considered. But when that is done with, reconciliation and social healing are options the government might need to draw up a major new pact. On the long run, only a Mandela of Nigeria would do. A Mandela of Nigeria would be that individual whose moral authority would be such that when he says, “hey, gentlemen, calm down, calm down”, everybody would listen, irrespective of tongues or tribe or religious affiliation.
Given Nigeria’s complexity, it is doubtful if there would be ever such an individual in the near future. The turnout for President Buhari in the last election campaign offered much promise but it still remains to be seen how that can be consolidated with the viscosity of ethnic language in current public discourse in the country. Quite alarming, especially in the cyberspace! What is clear is that Nigeria is still not linked in a way that what is going on in one extreme stops everyone else on track at the other extreme. That communal distance has even been made worse by the supervisors of privatisation in Nigeria. They did not just sell our most valuable assets which constitute the commanding heights of the economy at a time when the prices were down, they did so without a thought for the binding role of those assets. Nations are imagined communities, we are told. Those infrastructural entities have symbolic imports in that geopolitical imagination: oil pipelines from PHC to Gusau, railway lines from Lagos to Kano, vast national telecommunications outlay, Power stations and the transmission lines, Nigeria Airways and so on. Those sales are absolutely reversible and the Heavens will not fall.
Against this background, elevating restitution/social justice in the president’s top priority list might be strategic. If those intellectualising state power at the moment find the time to read Akinyemi’s Farewell to Policy and were they to find anything useful there in respect of fine tuning such a new social pact, the point would have been made. It is more so if they link whatever they find useful there to the healing process Onaiyekan proposed some years back, which portion from an earlier op-ed I reproduce here, again: “For him, there are always a few basic elements necessary for this kind of healing. First and foremost is the truth. The truth means that everybody is ready to admit what he or she has done. It is not time to apportion blames or accuse one another. Nor is it time to drag in prestigious lawyers and advocates. Rather, it is time to accept that we have done wrong. Those who have stolen our money should admit that they have stolen. Those who have killed others, even in successful coups, should admit that they have killed one another. If we have not got the courage to do this, we will continue to dance around in circles. And in order that the telling of the truth may not just become racking up old wounds that will lead nowhere, it must be part of a process that leads to the next stage, namely repentance, forgiveness and reparation”.
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