By Sonala Olumhense
If you are a regular reader of this column, you might like to know that this is the final time I will be writing it in this form.
I have been here for a while, beginning with a contribution to this page 30 years ago in the maiden issue of The Guardian on Sunday.
My co-travelers at that time, as members of the Editorial Board, were Onwuchekwa Jemie, Chinweizu and Femi Osofisan, three distinguished academics, writers and humanists who constituted for me a private graduate university of my own.
We were surrounded by a larger ‘Board’ of Nigeria’s top-notch journalists and first-rate professionals from other fields, as well as by a younger generation of people who had graduated at the top of their various fields.
We were all held together by one idea: Stanley Macebuh. Most people knew Macebuh, who died a couple of years ago, as a man. No, he was an idea. Men are resistible, but a good idea sears into you. And a great idea never dies.
Stanley was the idea that a newspaper could be so compelling it would be irresistible to the society and to its time. He was the idea that Nigeria was good enough to be bold and vibrant and successful, and to be the origin of a newspaper of such a definition. History shows that it took him only weeks of The Guardian to demonstrable that point.
As a part of that process, I was privileged to write this weekly commentary the theme of which was how to move Nigeria forward. That meant engaging the government of the day, and in the first half of the past 30 years, the background National Party of Nigeria (NPN), and then a succession of military rulers: Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, Abdulsalami Abubakar.
When you reflect on those rulers, you realize how almost contradictory it is to put the terms ‘military’ and ‘government’ together in the same sentence. One of the governments named above provided a modicum of decency and motivation, but the others were grand deceptions that succeeded only in chicanery and looting. Take a look at such unfolding international scandals as Halliburton, and at the drama productions as the elections these men presented or prevented, and it is difficult to speak of a military government with a straight face.
Nonetheless, 30 years ago, we had fairly decent and safe roads, along with two kinds of highway robbers: the regular kind, and the police. If the regular kind said, “Your money or your life,” they invariably let you go as soon as you gave your money; you were more likely to get shot by the police at a checkpoint if they simply did not like your self-confidence.
In 1983, you knew what hope was. The NPN had assaulted our national aspirations and desires, but your life and your prospects lay largely in your own hands. If you worked at night, or wished to travel, you had no mortal fear of setting out. If you worked hard, and did not fear Nigeria, you had no reason to fear you would not succeed in Nigeria.
But we then perfected our kleptocracy, which is the combination of military bravado in milking Nigeria, and civilian pretense for the same objective. The result is increasing underdevelopment of Nigeria, in colours of shame and perpetual embarrassment.
The immediate outlook is a landscape dotted with a small list of men and women who are suddenly and inexplicably rich. You wake up in the morning and there are all these men and women who own property in cities and towns and villages all over Nigeria and abroad; you wake up and you are in a country where wealth is counted but not character; a country where mediocrity is rewarded with National Honours and lucrative contracts.
How does the kleptocracy work?
Fifty years ago, at independence, we had hope. Now, we have this triumphant kleptocracy so successful and transcendent that the national ruler can dismiss questions about his integrity with the infernal words, “I don’t give a damn!”
Elsewhere, in any self-respecting country, the legislature would have risen in defence of the law and the country, and insisted on that ruler doing as the law says.
But we speak of Nigeria, and in Nigeria, the legislature is on the side of the kleptocracy, not on the side of the constitution or the spirit of the law.
Worse, the legislature is a robust part of the kleptocracy, which is why, as every schoolboy from Ado-Ekiti to Zungeru now knows, means you cannot expect David Mark, the President of the Senate, to go to war on behalf of right over wrong.
We speak symbolically of course, but the President of the Senate knows that the day he travels beyond lip service, he cannot avoid the same inspection. The President of the Senate knows he does not want to be inspected. Few are the legislators who can say in public they invite an inspection.
In the same way, Nigeria’s so-called anti-corruption agencies maintain a calculated protection of the status quo, doing just enough to stay within the margins. They are imaginative keepers of the kleptocracy, for the kleptocracy.
That is why, 30 years after I first wrote on this page, and hundreds of billions of Nigeria’s oil dollars later, just a few Nigerians have unimaginable wealth that is paralleled only by the astonishing poverty of most of our people. And while most of Africa yearns for a courageous, patriotic leadership, Nigeria allows itself to be manipulated by a duplicitous, mediocre cabal.
Thirty years later, you can claim a Ph.D., but since anyone can beg, borrow or buy those or any combination of letters, is that shorthand for Port Harcourt Degree, or for Doctor of Philosophy?
Thirty years later, we are a nation in fear. Our youth have no jobs, and many are learning to employ themselves as robbers and kidnappers and thugs and militants. In place of hope and inspiration, one ruler after another inflicts on them despair and cynicism.
Thirty years later, we fear whether we will survive. We fear whether we will survive as one. Whether we will survive to tell the tale. Whether we will ever have water to drink or electricity by which to see our children smile; or jobs to go to, roads to get to them, or safety from “unknown” gunmen, known militants, and indiscriminating security agencies.
Thirty years after I first wrote here, it is almost impossible to provide younger Nigerians with any inspiration they can grow and compete with the best of other nations. Government Ministers who cannot spell “Naira” correctly lie fluently about the dollar.
As I Was Saying, just look at the time!