It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich man to….
How foolish I was when I had thought that after 23 years of return to civilian rule Nigerian citizens would have learnt pretty good lessons especially about making the right choices concerning those who will steer the ship of the nation. How foolish I was when I had also thought that after 23 years of massive poverty, hunger and disease, the citizenry would be wiser and bold enough to take decisions that will alleviate the parlous state of our being. But from the recent presidential choices made by the ruling All Progressives Congress and opposition Peoples Democratic Party, it seems clear to me that materialism has become a god and money its demonic angel. It is this kind of sad situation that prompts one to look back to the past with the devout hope that the virtues of the past will reanimate our present. But whenever I look back to the past my heart bleeds. Each time I look back to the past, tears roll down my cheeks.
But I cannot refrain from looking back to our past, just as a maiden standing on the shore of the ocean, follows with tearful eyes her departing lover with no hope of ever seeing him again, and fancies that in the distant sail she sees the image of her beloved. And like that loving maiden, we Nigerians too have nothing but a shadowy outline left of the object of our wishes and aspirations as a people.
It is 62 years since independence and Nigeria as a country is still travelling in reverse gear because the country has refused to look back. Philosophers are right when they say that looking back also means looking forward. The period of the first regimes could be conveniently regarded today as the golden age of Nigeria. Leaders like the late Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa were able to manage and govern the country with meagre resources derived basically from taxes, cocoa, groundnuts and other agricultural products. Although oil was discovered at Oloibiri in the Niger Delta region as early as 1956, its exploration was yet to commence and agriculture remained the mainstay of the economy until the end of the Nigerian civil war. During this period, the naira was also more powerful than the pound and dollar. The three biggest universities in the country at the time— the University of Ibadan, University of Ife and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria—ranked among the best universities in the world with expatriates vying for teaching appointments in all faculties. These nationalists were aware that only education could be used for the development and liberation of man. Equally important is the fact that the first leaders of Nigeria had several things in common: patriotism and the refusal to use the resources of the state for their personal benefit. The young Nigerian singer, Wande Cole, nostalgically captures this golden age in a song, Once Upon a time… one naira equal to one dollar…once upon a time you go graduate from school and government go give you car….
When hundreds of billions of naira began to accrue from the oil sector, Nigeria began its descent into misery and poverty. A new ethos of cheat or risk being out-cheated had crystallised since agriculture, which sustained the nation was destroyed together with institutions and the nation’s sense of honour. Ethics, patriotism, self-respect, responsibility and vision escaped as the new leaders stashed away billions of naira in foreign bank accounts, investment and real estate. As a parenthetical remark, a reading of Homer’s second epic poem, Odyssey, reveals that the leaf of the lotus plant is reputed to erase memory and, if we accept Homer’s logic, then we must concede that Nigerians are lotus-eaters or, better still, we are suffering from amnesia. We forget so easily!
But Nigeria has endured a tortured history and continued to persevere under the burden of hunger, poverty, disease, political instability and religious, social and ethnic strife. God has shown tremendous benevolence to Nigeria as a nation. It is a country blessed with abundant oil wealth and human resources. It is also a country with a large, dynamic and resourceful population. Nigeria is also free from natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires and monsoons. Yet, in spite of all these enormous blessings Nigeria is tormented by unresolved puzzles and paradoxes. Nigeria is rich but at the same time, it is poor because the rich people in Nigeria did not become rich through invention or manufacturing. Rather, they are rich through contract fraud, embezzlement and outright theft of public funds. What Chinua Achebe said in 1983 about “the trouble with Nigeria is leadership” is true today more than ever before. Nigeria is never in short supply of leaders, what is lacking is leadership with vision and integrity; leadership that has the interest and welfare of the people at the centre of all its policies and actions. Nigeria does not lack eloquent and articulate leaders, what is greatly missing among Nigerian political leaders are those who are not hypocrites, those who do not take their people for granted by saying one thing to get into office and doing the opposite once there. Nigeria is not lacking in educated politicians and leaders, what is in short supply is a crop of incorruptible statesmen and stateswomen who will not sell Nigeria and its citizens to amass wealth and property in leading capital cities of the world at the expense of the much-needed development at home. It seems it is only in Nigeria that presidents, governors and ministers have immunity from persecution for crimes against their people and humanity while in office. It seems only in Nigeria that politicians, who could hardly afford money to fuel their beat-up cars (if they owned any at all), become owners of private jets so soon after getting into office. It seems only in Nigeria that leaders use security votes to make themselves billionaires, while their countries number among the world’s most poverty-stricken, and their citizenry is at the mercy of armed robbers and daring terrorists. In a word, talking about Nigeria is like opening the book of Lamentations.
The results of the recently concluded presidential primaries by the two biggest political parties in Nigeria are an abundant testimony of the fact that materialism and the pursuit of dirty lucre are the hallmarks of Nigerian life. In other words, Nigeria is a nation without a soul. Truth to tell, the manner in which the primaries, for both parties, were conducted is reminiscent of the contest between the devil and the keepers of the devil’s gate. The contest showed clearly that we have sold our souls to the devil and that the devil shall continue to demand our souls. But the presidential primaries also remind one of Ben Okri’s short story, Stars of the New Curfew. Let me share the story with you.
In Warri town, Odeh and Assi, both lawyers from two extremely rich, but abysmally corrupt families, are busy with preparations for a contest (just like that between the two rival parties in Nigeria). The essence of the contest is to prove to the people of Warri who is the richest among the two families. On the appointed day of the contest, Odeh’s father came with a big Rolls Royce. A refrigerator from the car contained millions of wads of foreign currency to be distributed to the crowd. In the air, Assi’s father’s helicopter was swirling and dropping bags of notes of foreign currency that were blown away by the propeller blades. But as the crowd scrambled and jostled uncontrollably for the wad of notes, a nearby preacher began to denounce the event saying, “for want of vision my people perish, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Assi’s father was declared the winner of the contest because of his unprecedented show of the power of money. For now, it is true that the winners of the presidential primaries are the Stars of the New Curfew. But it is left to be said that they should be careful not to buy up the entire country and souls of the citizenry. Finally, what is amazing, though not surprising, is that in the midst of all this brazen show of human stupidity and reckless display of stupendous stolen wealth, teachers of public universities in the country are on strike demanding better funding and revitalisation of the education sector. So, which is superior: education or elections?
- Doki, a Professor of Comparative Literature, is Head, Department of English, University of Jos
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