By Tabia Princewil
I often feel as if we, in Nigeria, are stuck in a debtor’s prison. Before many of us are even born, to a certain extent, we owe debts which we must repay. Our very lives and livelihoods we often owe to other people who have the unequivocal power to decide, much like gods, who will be allowed to go further, who will prosper and who won’t based on arbitrary rules. This all begins because individualism is not acceptable in the Nigerian society.
Everybody belongs to somebody (everyone is someone’s “boy” in Nigeria) and everyone comes from somewhere and must grow to represent the interest of a people or of a particular place (i.e. tribe).
Everyone must answer to someone, in the Nigerian context, as free will and independence are neither encouraged nor often accepted. So one finds that, even over the course of generations, some people and families are indebted to others much like vassals to the feudal lords of old. Nowhere is this truer than in Nigerian politics: the term “godfather” in our society is one which needs no introduction. Yet, here comes a man who says: “I belong to everybody, I belong to nobody” and the crowd went wild, for obvious reasons.
It was as if with that short sentence he had paid all our debts, virtually liberated us from prison and enabled us to resume a productive life, where we would not be asked to continuously sacrifice whereas those who have the power to make us see good times would carry on, as usual. The weight of our past debts has crushed our possibilities: every one of our leaders mortgaged our futures in order to gain something for themselves, yet, here comes a man who has not posed himself as a creditor, as someone who is ready to collect, to build himself and his fortune on our own hard work.
I am impressed by the man, President Buhari (how good it feels to drop the “elect”!). But I wasn’t so impressed by the inauguration. Such a momentous occasion which demonstrated the true strength of “people power” versus the ineluctability of incumbency and the influence of the political elite, would have warranted something finer, something that 20 years from now we could watch and still get goosebumps from, and even learn from. John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, or closer to us, Barack Obama’s, inspired and galvanised their country, ushering in a new era.
That is what I expected of Buhari’s speech, but it seems many of our Nigerian brand of speech writers do not possess the magic their foreign counterparts so easily yield as we continue to recycle the same hands who are not always capable of delivering, because they, who are from another time entirely, do not fully grasp the “newness” of the moment. I recently came across a commencement speech Martin Luther KingJr gave in 1965 at Oberlin University in Ohio, called “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” and it gave me a lot to think about as we in Nigeria hopefully enter a new epoch.
MLK said: “There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution”. Many in Nigeria will not survive this revolution. I am not only talking about the politicians, I am talking about the people, in this society, whose only call to fame is perhaps proximity to power, or a tainted name.
The time when gangsters, thieves and murderers, despoilers of the common good will be allowed to lord it over decent, hard working Nigerians, unlike what has been allowed to happen previously, is over. I am sorry if you don’t believe this: you’re in for a rude awakening. The colonisation of some Nigerians, the mental slavery based on who-has-the-most-money will come to an end in this generation if Buhari is able to empower people with a vision that goes beyond lining their pockets.
Quoting Victor Hugo, MLK said there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come: I hope it is finally time for vision and for the democratisation of economic opportunity, a time for all Nigerians to benefit and prosper, irrespective of “who their father is”. We must all remain awake throughout this revolution, play our part to help guide and accompany change: expectations are high and rightly so, but we as a people must be up to the challenge. Are we ready for change?
To “stay awake”, we must broaden our vision and perspectives: MLK spoke about brotherhood. He said “live together as brothers or perish together as fools”. Nowhere is this truer than in Nigeria. Sectarian violence, politically motivated conflicts, senseless divisions have ruined us. A part of me feels this might be our last chance to get it right: dangerous men and women still walk free among us, waiting for the goodwill that brought us all together to dissipate so they can carry on with their misdeeds. We must not allow it. We can’t survive more years of injustice. Whenever I think of Nigeria, there are a few quotes I remember. I discovered this one by James Russell Lowell in a speech by MLK:
“Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.”
Let us remain awake in extraordinary times: believe you were born to a generation of change. We all have the power to become our best selves and to be worthy of Nigeria. That voice we search for to take on this country’s challenges and right the many wrongs that have made us victims, can often be found within ourselves. We must give ourselves to the struggle of changing Nigeria, now that we have the opportunity to do so. We must not retreat into letting some other people, some other time decide for us: this is how we made it into the debtor’s prison in the first place.
The Nigeria Governor’s Forum
I was relieved by reports that President Buhari informed governors seeking to recommend ministerial candidates that, constitutionally, he was under no obligation to listen. What, in effect, is the point of the Nigeria Governors Forum? A governor is the elected chief executive of a state; there is no Constitutional mention of anybody or forum from which governors can seek to influence federal decisions.
Yet another aberration successive PDP governments created and which now seems to have taken root in our political system. This, in essence, explains the worry some Nigerians express in the capacity of the APC to deliver change if the same people and the same actions that were part of the problem before,are simply allowed to continue. I doubt it, where Buhari is concerned. But many of the structural and institutional reasons why we can’t seem to move forward will need to be brought to his attention.
It was reported that the EFCC Chairman claimed his agency was starved of funds, hence why it could not prosecute high profile offenders. Shockingly, it was also said that the EFCC, a supposedly independent body, had to check with the Presidency before any investigations could begin. President Buhari is playing the poker game of a lifetime and will have to strike an incredible balance between recovering funds we desperately need and setting a precedent.
Those thinking he will spend his four years in office prosecuting corrupt officials and therefore have no real impact misunderstand the workings of government: if our agencies are allowed to be independent, then the executive will be free to focus on development. Let’s take a page from the US Attorney General’s playbook: Obama is not personally prosecuting FIFA. The Internal Revenue Service, IRS and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI, are.