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The trouble with Nigeria

By Obi Nwakanma

I AM profoundly skeptical about the meaning of Nigeria and about its ultimate destiny. This, of course is no news. I am like most Nigerians in that emotional place where I have been forced to almost completely come to terms with the tragic fact that the Nigerian project, in spite of the blood and passion wasted on it, and in spite of the benefit of our doubts, is almost proving to be futile. Not because Nigerians do not want a great country. Not because Nigeria has no extraordinary talents to guide its renewal. Not because we do not sense the great rewards in having a great country, proud of its human accomplishments, and its natural and built landscapes. But let us in fact say, the Tarot card leaves me a reading of the state of Nigeria, as exemplified in that mysterious character in one of my poems in The Roped Urn, throwing daggers blindly into the elemental void.

He is a figure of the uncanny. He also in my mind embodies what the Latin American, Alejo Carpentier, would call the “marvelous real.” Sometimes the extended and fantastical aspect of the Nigerian reality is heady and entertaining; sometimes it gets overwhelming and futile, and compels watchers of its events to inevitable fatalism.

I got this sense of futility and fatalism recently from my conversations with a very distinguished Nigerian poet, scholar and statesman who said to me, with resignation in his voice, “I feel no need to write my memoir because, what really does it matter anymore in Nigeria?” It was startling, the depth of his frustration. This is a man whose eloquence and involvement with the Nigerian nation has been extensive, vital, and historic.

I did of course urge him to see that it is the ruptures or gaps in the Nigerian narrative that have left us incapable of creating the kind of continuous scale of history, whereupon the impassioned image of our giant fixed to some usable past will become a guide to those intent on nation-building. Therein lies, to quote the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the crux, and perhaps even “the scale of our solitude.”

It appears to me, and to many Nigerians indeed, that Nigeria no longer has a compelling national mission. It seems that the most compelling national raison d’être in Nigeria today remains the jaded war mantra “to keep the nation one;” that is, to hang together by all means necessary. Every other goal is secondary. This is the consequence of the “national security state” created by the military.

But when the value of an abstraction called nation becomes far more important than the concreteness of citizenship the state ought to wither. This fatality of “abstract nationness” has made Nigeria ambiguous. The Federal Republic of Nigeria seems to have no further a reason for being, other than to share oil money and keep the rents coming. Nigeria has not managed to transcend the history of its colonial origins.

She is driven by crass, and its current situation is the product of crude and careless governance as well as lethargic citizenship. We are all now, more than ever since the end of the civil war in 1970, faced with that inexorable question “What is Nigeria to me?” It is no longer the Igbo alone who are challenged by the anxiety of citizenship and national belonging.

It is a condition which even those who once claimed the virtue of preserving Nigeria as the lone historical and spiritual task now confront and ruminate upon, for even the simplest obligation of nations – to provide security to those who claim its membership – Nigeria can no longer, it seems, render or guarantee. The president gets sick, he is quickly flown to Saudi Arabia or Egypt on tax payers’ account.

The tax payers get sick, they have no places to go but to hell, and there are no hells worse than a government hospital in Nigeria. The only other place worth comparison to this hell called Nigerian hospitals is the Nigerian Police station and its jails. They exist in such states of primitive incontinence and cruelty that it seems as though time itself was arrested within their confines.

Last week Umar Yar Ardua embarked upon another trip to Saudi Arabia, while other world leaders were meeting in New York for the UN General Assembly. Yar’Adua was seen being entertained by the governor of Makkah, and as he was being chaperoned around the new King Abdullah University in Riyadh, Nigerian universities remained shut. As many other commentators have pointed out, the incongruity of Yar’Adua’s visit to Saudi Arabia is provocative.

It is simply the case of a mad Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Asked about this by reporters in New York, the foreign minister, Ojo Maduekwe said, the president had an obligation to honour the invitation of a friendly government. Yeah, right!  I think it was the minister’s lamest response yet to any serious question. That response telegraphed his own befuddlement. There are those who say, the president is actually too distracted by concerns about the state of his own health to worry seriously about the health of the nation to whom he is chief minister.

He is quite unable to carry out state duties with due concentration and priority. Parliament, full of really mostly weird, third-rate, and inconsequential people, is on a perpetual leave on these matters. In other words, there seems no longer a fierce obligation or desire, even on the part of those handed the sacred guardianship of nation to perpetuate the existence of Nigeria as a real nation within the current history of nations.

The ship of the Nigerian state has not only lost course, but like the massive Titanic, it is sinking right before our very eyes. And many are jumping ship – including ministers of government, who enter for and win visa lotteries to America, where they keep their children, while they maintain a farcical presence in Nigeria.

Any country whose ministers enter for lotteries to enable them and their families reside in another country while pretending to serve another leaves us little doubt, indeed no irony, about the insanity of the situation. But no one really seems to mind any longer. That is the trouble with Nigeria.


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