By Tabia Princewill
Nigerians want to be lied to. We claim to seek the truth, to desire honesty from our leaders. Yet we’re all too comfortable with lies. It is our complacency, our acceptance of socio-economic backwardness as the norm which is the true cause of today’s recession. In a country where overnight oil millionaires influence public thinking and monopoly capitalism is the only unchanging policy, recession was almost inevitable, given our refusal to invest in anything else beyond rhetoric. We never imagined there could be an end to the quick and easily obtainable oil rents our entire society survives on.
Lies comfort us, feed our delusions. We are a society that blames everyone else for its problems—the easiest form of escapism. No one is ever worried by the boldness of the lies politicians tell or ever surprised by the Nigerian propensity to accept them unquestioningly. Nothing is ever wrong in Nigeria till suddenly we wake up and the weak structure holding up these lies has collapsed under their weight. Then we say “it’s because Mr or Mrs X is being persecuted by government, that’s why contracts have run dry and I can no longer pay my bills” rather than “is there any other economically successful society on earth where money comes only from government? Where the private sector exists only to serve government? Where without government business everything collapses?” Sing me a song, tell me that nothing is wrong—that is what we’ve basically told our leaders for the past 50 odd years.
I’m worried about America and by extension Africa. Its poor and uneducated underclass (akin in social composition to the Brexit voter) blames globalisation, immigration and affirmative action for job losses and socio-economic displacement, rather than blaming drug use and other socio-cultural ills in its community, a lack of skills and college education etc. It is human to seek to blame others for one’s failures or inability to adapt to a changing world. The lies people tell themselves to survive say a lot more about the inner self than its would-be aggressors: this goes for us here in Nigeria who see politicians as an independent, all powerful scourge and not one we the people created and enabled. It all comes down to the universal, ever constant need to abdicate individual responsibility. Most people around the world think change is impossible, that systems are rigged against well-meaning individuals and this is true to a certain extent. But it is the self-satisfaction that goes with that idea, the smugness or the feeling that one is too intelligent to even try to go up against these forces because it’s pointless or that anyone who does is a fool, which enables people with terrible ideas (or none at all) to come to power. This contentment with the status quo, even when it hurts us so deeply, hinders our prospects, which keeps Africa from truly rising, beyond a few malls and boutiques owned by politicians and their children. The gratification the average American white voter gets from people like Trump and other right wing revisionists selling them impossible dreams of “America first” and the “whole world hates America and wants to see white men fall”, will be short lived. Politicians lie. They lie because we ask them to. We need the self-righteousness, the hypocrisy, the pretence of wanting change when all we do is fight it. Human beings are complex.
Around 30% of Americans, according to certain estimates, still believe Obama is a Muslim and part of a world-wide conspiracy to decimate white Americans. I wonder what the percentage of Nigerians who believe Buhari is a Muslim fundamentalist sent to Islamise Nigeria (due to conspiracy theories spread to discredit him) would be. The American election was like a short clip describing the descent into madness which manipulation, lies, fear and self-doubt have already allowed in most African countries. It’s the same self-doubt in white America which watches society crumble, economies and purchasing power shrink, but remains uncomfortable with its own agency or ability to intervene. In Africa, this also translates as a desire to hide from the truth: we’ve designed a system of government which allows individuals to replicate and self-perpetuate themselves in office so that no matter who is in power, the difference is moot. Human beings rarely question the social constructs or arrangements under which they operate. In Nigeria for example, a good number of people prefer corruption and refuse to see its unsustainability, out of pure greed and selfishness.
Knowing all this, Trump, like most African politicians, gets away with saying one thing today then another opposing thing the following day. Who can tell what Nigerian politicians’ campaign promises truly are? Everything is denied, forgotten and reneged upon (like Trump is currently doing with the “build a wall” idea). watching the slow death of critical thinking and public honesty in America is a scary prospect because it’ll excuse and confirm the acceptance of such woeful political behaviours in the developing world. America has entered a sort of twilight zone where lies are the same as the truth. Nigerians have lived in this universe for decades, one where everything is upside down and sensible, intelligent people are forced to swear allegiance to the backwardness of “the matrix” to survive. We hardly fact check or challenge illogical propositions. We prefer to say: “who really knows what is going on” or to propose conspiracy theories varying in levels of madness as an excuse for our failure to act. Americans should be worried.
The biggest lie of all, sadly embraced around the world, is the fiction of politics as a zero sum game where one group, race or religion can only prosper at a time and at the expense of others. It is a savvy political strategy, the old divide and rule, it’s worked from the beginning of time but never for long. I’ll end with this quote: “If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us! But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind”— Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
It is far too easy, once one has achieved some notoriety, to publish a book in Nigeria. The intellectual standards and rigours which apply in other climes simply don’t exist here. This former Chairman of the PDP, during the launch of his biography, complained about his imprisonment during the 1985 Buhari regime, stating: “My crime was that I was a wealthy, influential and highly respected politician”.
However, as with most Nigerian politicians, the source of his wealth was neither clearly stated nor discussed. Neither was his performance as Minister of Works under Obasanjo, nor the dilapidated state of roads inherited by future administrations, despite the huge amounts budgeted. Anenih went on to complain about roaches and vermin in prison where he met other “rich and influential” politicians (the question about the source of their wealth still remains unanswered), forgetting that for petty thieves in Nigeria who steal bread or garri, prison without a trial is all they can expect. Welcome to the Matrix, where illusion is preferred to reality and, as I said last week, where some people still matter more than others.
Buhari and 2019
Real change in Nigeria is impossible without a successful fight against corruption. Poverty and economic sabotage are enabled by corruption and waste. Communications with Nigerians have so far been poorly managed. The blame game must be substituted for real explanations of the challenges and proffering policy solutions. After all, an election is a referendum. If Nigerians thought PDP and Jonathan were successful, they wouldn’t have voted them out. They know all that went wrong. There is no doubt that corruption is fighting back, that was bound to happen. To convince Nigerians that Buhari needs more time to fulfil his mandate will only be possible if communication with the public is seriously overhauled.