….. Hysteria, Euphoria & Amnesia: A nation’s long walk to freedom
Matthew Hassan Kukah, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, diagnoses Nigeria. He spoke at the Platform, an occasion organised by Covenant Centre, Lagos, on October 1, 2015, to mark the country’s 55th independence anniversary
For years and, perhaps, out of deep frustration, Nigerians have raised up messiahs, hoping and praying that they would take away their sins and sufferings and usher in a new dawn. But, in almost all instances, our joys have turned into ashes. For over 50 years, we have celebrated every military or civilian regime only to lose patience and fall into depression. Under the civilian administrations, we have often summoned the military to come to our rescue.
Some years back, while I was in Oxford and working on my book, a friend of mine, a retired military officer, paid me a visit. We got talking about our country. I told him I really wanted to know how military coups were planned because I had never really read anything about coup plotting. He laughed and offered me some insights. I asked him if I could have him on tape and he said yes. In summary, he said something like this: “The idea of a coup could come from an individual who might then sell it to another very close friend. It is hard to know whom to trust, so you have to know how to send out feelers. So, for example, you meet a friend and you ask, ‘how are things?’ And he says, well, my brother, country hard’. You could go on and say something like, ‘how can things be so bad? Will we continue like this? It is really terribles. Then you watch and see or hear his reaction. If he is of the same feeling of frustration, then you know that he is a good material and you go from there”.
“Just like that?” I said. He continued: “Well, you keep sharing the feelings and then, from two of you, the circle could gradually increase until you become a small core group. You then get to work and this could take months to plan. But when you are done with planning, the challenge is how to gauge the mood of the country to be sure that the coup might be popular. At this point, we then reach out to our friends in the media. We get people to write articles, editorial opinions, saying how bad things are in the country. Gradually, the people themselves begin to feel that things are really bad. Even those who are doing well may begin to feel guilty and so on. By doing this, we set the tone for public approval. This is why you always see people on the streets, rejoicing and welcoming us as messiahs and redeemers. The rest, as they say is history”.
The hysteria and euphoria that greeted General Buhari’s election victory is reminiscent of these sentiments. You get a sense of de javu, we have been on this road before, it all looks so familiar. I have listened to Nigerians sing the praises of General Buhari as a morally ramrod Muslim, God fearing, a disciplined officer, a patriot, an incorruptible man who is now adorned with a messianic regalia. He will take us to the promised land, Nigerians argue, by ridding our nation of the devil of corruption. And, as they say, we shall live happy ever after.
I do not disagree with these sentiments. Some, like myself, have known the man for the better part of 20 years and can even claim some level of friendship and greater familiarity than most of those who met General Buhari after worshipping at the Church of Latter Day saints. However, I believe that Nigerians are very much mistaken in associating fear of God with goodness.
Going forward, I want to do three things. First, I will define the key words. Second, I will try to look back at how the so-called fight against corruption has been deployed by successive military regimes as a means of seducing us into compliance. My concern is whether we shall continue to fall for the same tricks given that, after over 50 years, we are nowhere near achieving success in our fight against corruption.
Against the backdrop of what I have said, I hope you can now understand why I chose the words, hysteria, euphoria and amnesia, as a way of interrogating the situation we are in. So far, what I have tried to do is to draw attention to the fact that we have been on this road before. What lessons are there for us to learn?
I wish to now turn my attention to examining why I believe that ours is a case of a long walk to freedom.
My Apple computer dictionary defines hysteria as follows: “Exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement, especially among a group of people…. psychological disorder whose symptoms include conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms, shown in volatile emotions, overdramatic or attention seeking behaviour”. The same dictionary defines euphoria as “a state of intense excitement and happiness”, while amnesia is defined and associated with, total or partial loss of memory.
I believe the outpouring of emotions welcoming the new administration was necessary and understandable, given the nature of the trepidation ahead of the elections. However, now that we have been able to catch our breathe, what should we make of this hysteria and euphoria?
Personally, with some trepidation, I have some sense of de javu manifested in the blind hysterical and euphoric outpouring of emotions welcoming the return of President Buhari and the belief that he has come to take our sins away. The sense that, somehow, we should simply fold our hands and wait because, like a scene out of Jim-will-fix-it in the British television programme, we should hand our future to one man who knows it all.
We are becoming victims of what our famous daughter, Chimamanda, has referred to, in a most powerful essay, as the danger of the Single Story. In her words, the single story is built on stereotypes and, the trouble with stereotypes is not that they are false, but that they are incomplete. Building on this, Nigerians have imbibed the notion of the single story that we are being defined as corrupt. Thus, the idea of a fight, a war against corruption has often taken a life of its own in our collective narrative of the problems of our country.
We have moved a step further by saying that if we do not kill corruption, corruption will kill us. I consider most of this analysis a bit shallow, lacking in a serious understanding of how societies and human nature work in semi-primitive society such as ours. My argument therefore is to say that, no, we should not be talking of fighting corruption, rather, we should see corruption as a symptom of something that is intrinsically wrong with our society, the loss of the moral centre of gravity of our society.
If corruption is so evil, how come we are so much at peace with it? If corruption is so rotten, how come we all seem to enjoy its company? What are the agencies for corruption? What capacity do they have? Are they above the fray or are they also caught up in the same web of corruption?
How much bribe does a President need to pay to get an anti-corruption agency or bill passed in the legislative assembly? Why has corruption become so easy and pervasive and why is it that, like MTN would say, it is everywhere you go? What makes it so attractive? If we are so much against it, how is it that we cannot generate a collective sense of moral revulsion?
But, if we are a serious people with a sense of history, how many wars have we won in this country? 50 years after civil war, MASOOB says Biafra is still alive because those who govern us have refused to admit that, in all dishonesty, we have left a few windows open. Why did we not win the war against indiscipline?
Why did we not win the war against illiteracy? Why did we not win the war against hunger despite Operation Feed the Nation? Why did we not win the war against armed robbery? Why did not win the war against poverty? Why did we not win the war against insecurity? What makes us confident that we will win this war? Should it not be clear to us that there is more than meets the eye?
President Buhari is not new on the block. He came and saw but we all know the story. In declaring a war against corruption, he lost his job. It is quite interesting that none of all of those who have suddenly become vocal now in the war against corruption went out on the streets to condemn the overthrow of their hero. If Nigerians were so convinced about the war against corruption, why did they all cross to the other side of the street where President Babangida was already offering them a decaffeinated form of war by stating that the overthrow of Buhari had become necessary because, in his words on August 27th, 1985: “Muhammad Buhari was too rigid and uncompromising in his attitude to issues of national significance?”
General Babangida justified his coup by claiming that General Buhari had been rather impervious to reason. His words: “Efforts to make him understand that a diverse polity like Nigeria requires recognition and appreciation of the difference in both cultural and individual perception only served to aggravate these attitudes…He arrogated to himself the absolute knowledge of problems and solutions and acted in accordance with what was convenient to him using the machinery of government as his tool”. This was 30 years ago and both men are still alive.
So, when I warn about the consequences of our hysteria, euphoria and amnesia, it is based on the feeling that, in a more serious country, we should appreciate that we have been on this road before.
The question we should be asking ourselves now is, how and why is it that every coup plotter in Nigeria hung his colours on the mast of fighting corruption? How come that all successive governments have come in, accusing their predecessors of massive corruption only to turn around and do even worse or leave a similar legacy of rot?
In my book, Witness to Justice, I titled one of the chapters, Do Not Forget to Remember. The idea was to call attention to a chronic lack of a sense of history that was unpardonable. I drew from a few of the speeches of coup plotters to illustrate this tragedy and argued that we are all culpable and that we are also sinners, not a bunch of innocent people who have been sinned against. Let me very briefly trace this same trajectory to make the point.
On January 15, 1966, Major Nzeogwu told a stunned nation that he and his colleagues had intervened to establish a strong, united and prosperous nation, free from corruption and internal strife. The highpoint of his speech was when he said: “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10%, those who keep the country permanently divided so that they can remain in office. He ended his speech by proclaiming that: We promise that you will no more be ashamed to say that you are Nigerians”. As we know, he and his men went on to commit heinous crimes against this nation by killing innocent men and finally triggering off the ugly events that led to a civil war.
When the war ended, General Gowon was overthrown on July 29, 1975. Brigadier General (Murtala) Muhammed stated that the military had intervened because: “Despite our great human and material resources, the government has not been able to fulfill the legitimate expectations of our people. Nigeria has been left to drift”. Even the charlatan, Lt. Col BS Dimka, opened greeted Nigerians on February 13, 1976, by saying: “I bring you good tidings” and ended his speech by reminding Nigerians: We are together”.
On December 31, 1983, the nation woke up to the voice of one Brigadier Sani Abacha, who conscripted Nigerians into the witness box by arguing: “You have been witnesses to the grave economic predicament and uncertainty which an inept and corrupt leadership has imposed on our beloved nation…Our economy has been mis-managed. We have become a debtor and beggar nation…In some states; workers are being owed salaries of 8-12 months”. General Abacha concluded that he and his colleagues had intervened because it was their duty as “promoters and protectors of our national interest”.
The new Head of State was announced as Brigadier General Muhammadu Buhari who, in his opening address, noted: “The change became necessary in order to put an end to the serious economic predicament and the crisis of confidence afflicting our country….This government will not tolerate kickbacks, inflation of contracts and over invoicing of imports, nor will it condone forgery, fraud, embezzlement, misuse and abuse of office and illegal dealings in foreign exchange and smuggling…..Workers who have not received their salaries in the past eight or so months will receive such salaries today or tomorrow. It was interesting that the President acknowledged that even the criminals had a role to play in his vision for the nation. He said: We expect all Nigerians, including those who participated directly or indirectly in bringing the nation to this present predicament, to cooperate with us”.
When Brigadier General Dogon Yaro announced the overthrow of the Buhari administration on August 27, 1985, he acknowledged that the government had been welcomed with what he called, “unprecedented enthusiasm”. He complained that members of the Supreme Military Council had been sidelined and made redundant because only “….a select few members were charged with the day-to-day implementation of the SMC’s policies and decisions….the concept of collective leadership has been substituted by stubborn and ill advised unilateral actions, thereby destroying the principles upon which the military came to power”.
On the same day, General Abacha, in his own speech, complained: “The Buhari leadership lacked the capacity and the capability to lead this nation out of its social and economic predicament….It is most disheartening that most of the ills that plagued the nation during the civilian regime are still present in our society”.
President Ibrahim Babangida then stepped up and opened his speech by reminding a stunned nation that Buhari had come to power with the most popular enthusiasm accorded any government in the history of this country.
But, sadly, he continued: “Since January 1984, we have witnessed systematic denigration of hope. He continued: Muhammadu Buhari was too rigid and uncompromising in his attitudes to issues of national significance…He arrogated to himself the absolute knowledge of the problems and solutions and acted in accordance with what was convenient to him using the machinery of government as his tool”. General Babangida made the usual noises about the state of the economy and the plans to end economic mismanagement and place the nation on the path of rectitude.
Then General Abacha came back a third time, this time to oust Chief Ernest Shonekan. This was a rather curious speech because it was like no other. General Abacha broke from the tradition of denigrating his predecessor as a way of justifying his coup. Instead, he commended Shonekan for, in his own words, “showing the greater courage of knowing when to leave”. He promised to lay a solid foundation for the growth of democracy. He ended his speech by again, lamenting Chief Shonekan who, again, in his words, “unfortunately, resigned yesterday”, stated that the government was a “child of necessity” out to enthrone lasting democracy.
I know I sound like a bearer of bad news, a cynic or one who does not support Buhari’s war as my enemies have concluded. Indeed, the opposite is actually the case. First, as the American television series, ‘Everybody loves Raymond,’ will say, “Everybody loves Buhari”. But that is the first danger. It is not in President Buhari’s interest that everyone presents a face of love for him. The country is more than one man. President Buhari himself has said that much. What the President needs is an army of non-partisan patriots committed to supporting him, but looking well beyond him and his party and focusing on the nation and its future.
Despite our claims of moral probity, the President’s men and women, who will be Ministers, will be taken from among us. They will serve in the same public service that has deteriorated into a conveyor belt of corruption and malfeasance. We do not know how long they will stay on the high horse of moral probity before we start hearing the usual cry of, “na morality we go chop?” These men are from among us, and they will be surrounded by the usual coterie of carpetbaggers. So, the President requires other men and women outside his formal choir of party members who can help him think, men and women who are unencumbered by the vagaries of the sweet juices of political power and office, men and women who are not seduced by popular approval, men and women who live for tomorrow, men and women who have ideas about how nations are build, men and women who do not see public trust as a vehicle for vengeance, men and women who live by the law of live and let live, men and women who do not see the exigencies of the moment as our turn to eat.
2: Still a Very Long Walk To Freedom:
I always had great difficulties understanding how Nigerians tried to compare Nelson Mandela with General Olusegun Obasanjo. On the surface, local and international commentators kept saying that they expected Obasanjo to do a Mandela by which they meant that he should have served one term and moved on. The comparison, to my mind, was a useless distraction because both men had such totally different dispositions, spiritual and other wise. Mandela never spoke of religion while Obasanjo had had a road to Damascus spiritual experience in prison. Obasanjo had been a President, an experience Mandela never had. Mandela inherited a disciplined society which had come at great cost to the black people, but it had produced a nation of superb infrastructure, a business elite that was largely ensconced from direct politics. Obasanjo had been wheeled into power by a thoroughly corrupt and inefficient system with which he had to negotiate and keep happy at a great cost to the nation. Mandela had had years of training and preparation, negotiation and the search for common ground with the Afrikaners while Obasanjo did not have such an experience.
Finally, Mandela inherited an almost 80 year political movement that had the discipline of a religious group, while Obasanjo inherited a rickety contraption quickly assembled merely to wheel him to power. So, while one moved on, the other opted to stay on and on. The title of Mandela’s biography, A Long Walk to Freedom, more or less, says it all. In his personal life, he had been disciplined in the purifying fires of suffering. He promised the traumatised and oppressed people of South Africa who had been rendered landless and homeless a million houses and salt. But, in the end, none of these really became available to the people of South Africa, majority of whom are still in the sheebeens of poverty and squalor. For Mandela, there was a trade off. In exchange for a stable country ravaged by hatred and injustice, he opted to heal the wounds of his people by focusing on the dignity of forgiveness and reconciliation.
The verdict is out there as to whether he succeeded, but no one can take away the fact that he left his country sufficiently stable. This singular achievement laid the foundation for a new South Africa. It can be argued therefore that, to Mandela, securing peace and reconciliation were the primary objectives he wished to achieve. He had all the reasons to turn an angry and hungry populace against the white supremacists, especially given that most of those who crafted the architecture of apartheid were still alive and relatively well enough to go to prison as the case may be. He left the task of creating a wealthy country to his successors, believing that, first, there has to be a country before we can talk of prosperity and wealth. What lessons can we learn from this?
It is important to note that Buhari is not a new kid on the block. I hear people talking about a new Sherriff in town, but this is absolute nonsense. This Sherriff was here and left us a record. As I have indicated earlier, he was overthrown when he embarked on his war against corruption and indiscipline. None of us went out on the streets to show solidarity with him. We embraced Babangida but we also ended up accusing him of sowing the seeds of corruption. In the eight years of his (Babangida) rule, we watered those seeds. Today, Buhari has to confront the children of the Babangida era who are still very much around, have become fathers, grand fathers and, in some cases, great grand fathers. They have passed on the milk of this corruption to their descendants many of whom have built empires and kingdoms.
Having been President before, Buhari knows things we do not know. But, we already also know a thing a two about Buhari and what he represents. There has been too much focus on his being a good man, a patriot, a moral probity and so on. But, really, all of these qualities might be good for the Chairman of the pilgrims agency, a mosque or church building committee or Chairman of parish council and so on. But for a President to sort out a dysfunctional society like Nigeria, these qualities are necessary but not sufficient to guarantee success. Fixing Nigeria will require more than just a good man especially as we, in Nigeria, seem to equate goodness with prayer, building private churches and mosques which tend to become shelters and places of refuge for criminals and thieves who should really be in prison. In the final analysis, I do not really care what faith our President professes, if he professes any at all. All we need is a man who can fix our problems with the precision of the Chinese who are atheistic, not praying but getting results.
What we need is a leader who can learn and not be afraid to admit what he does not know, a leader who can ignore the whispers of the coterie of the so-called inner circles, separate friendship and camaradiere from the business of hearing the cry of the oppressed. Buhari fought his war without a Constitution. Buhari fought his war without a National Assembly. Buhari fought his war with a judiciary. He fought his war with tribunals.
We can start an effort to lay a solid foundation for change in the Nigerian psyche. However, for this to be more effective, the fight against corruption is not so much going to be won by how many investigations, probes we conduct. It will not be won by how many people go to jail. While we fight corruption, we must not see this as the business of one man, a President, no matter who capable he may be. Governance is about creating safe spaces where citizens can thrive and achieve their goals. This requires a clear vision about a world with limitless frontiers where individuals can thrive with government creating the necessary support structures.
The President should learn some of the things that worked and the ones that did not. Nigerians genuinely want change; sadly, as things are, they want others to change so that they can have good things of life. They are not prepared as individuals to change. But, we can learn that change happens as the result of a sequence of actions and activities, dreams and visions that serve as a foundation on which generation after generation make their contributions and move on. As they said with Obama: “Rosa Parks and her generation sat (on the bus) so we could walk. Martin Luther and his colleagues took the baton and walked so that the next generation, that of Obama, might run”. Now, the Obama generation has run so that the next generation can fly. We must build today with tomorrow in mind, hoping that those coming after us will do much better than us, that they will find a more peaceful nation than the one we are living in.
The youth bulge should not be seen as a threat, rather an opportunity. If governments create the right climate, then, we can produce our own generation of the likes of the Mark Zuckerbergs. After, as we can see from our youth, people, like young Davido, have proved you can go to school and still make millions without breaking a bank. The energy of youth must be properly challenged and, rather than looking for elders to imitate, every young man and woman must know that God has plans for us all. The challenge is to meet up and co-operate with the grace of God by staying on the right path.
Building a nation, as diverse as ours is, is a tough job and requires patience. If we have the patience and are ready for the sacrifice, then, the sky will be a footstone for us. Till then, we must learn from the likes of Mandela, that it is, indeed, a long, long road to freedom. This is why I am pleased to leave you with the words of Jimmy Cliff, who titled one of his songs, Hard Road to Travel. I will sing it for you just so you can know that if I had not become a priest, who knows, I could have ventured into music and made a living. Among other things, he said:
“I’ve got a hard road to travel and a rough rough way to go
Said it’s a hard road to travel and a rough rough way to go
But I can’t turn back, my heart is fixed
My mind’s made up, I’ll never stop
My faith will see, see me through”