January 21, 2018

Nigeria and the curse of Sisyphus (1)

Nigeria as a killing field

Map of Nigeria

By Douglas Anele

Homer, one of the greatest poets of ancient Greece, described what is generally known as the myth of Sisyphus. In the myth, Sisyphus, king of Corinth, was condemned in Tartarus to roll, ceaselessly up a hill, a huge stone, which would roll back to the foot of the hill again each time he was close to the top. Therefore, the myth of Sisyphus, or the Sisyphean curse, has become an apt metaphor for any endeavor or undertaking that is laborious and futile. The problem of incompetent leadership in Nigeria cannot be overemphasised because, in a very important sense, the history of Nigeria especially since independence has been a continuous but seemingly futile struggle to build a strong, viable egalitarian nation in which the different ethnic nationalities would live harmoniously and peacefully for the attainment of noble national objectives.

The fundamental reason for creating human groups of all kinds is the well-being, growth and fulfillment of every member of such groups. Admittedly, Nigeria was not created to achieve a high moral purpose; rather, she was brought into being by a British imperialists intent on exploiting the huge quantity of human and natural resources in the colonial amalgam for the benefit of Britain. Unfortunately, since the colonialists left in October 1, 1960, Nigerian leaders have failed to harness the incredible resources in the country for the benefit of majority of Nigerians. Why is this so? What is responsible for the repeated failure of our leaders to create athriving society that caters for the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots; a society where the Marxian dictum “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” finds practical expression? In short, why is this country stymied in the abyss of arrested development, of motion without real movement? In my opinion, the answer to the questions raised above, which must be well known by now, is poor leadership. Since Nigerians took over political power from Britain, the ruling elite has been dominated by intellectual and moral Lilliputians who lack the basic understanding and skills for responsible leadership. Plato, the iconic ancient Greek philosopher, had a profound grasp of the imperatives of political leadership in the society.

That was why he insisted that leadership must be entrusted in those with the requisite intellectual and moral skills to handle the affairs of men and women in an ideal republic governed by laws. One can fault Plato’s rejection of democracy in favour of aristocracy as the most suitable political arrangement for the advancement of society. However, it is impossible to invalidate his argument that the very best in the society should be the ones at the helm of affairs, just as a chariot must be controlled by a well-trained and competent charioteer, in order to achieve the goal for the establishment of civil society. Indeed, unlike most political thinkers in the ancient world (mostly men) who discriminated against women in matters of leadership, Plato perceptively included women in the guardian class because he recognised that leadership qualities are not a matter of gender but of inherited talents and sound preparation through education.

The question now is: how many of those that have emerged at the forefront of political leadership in Nigeria actually possess those intellectual, moral and spiritual characteristics Plato recommended as essential for good leadership? If we graduate the attributes on a scale of one to ten based on actual achievements and legacies, there is clear evidence of steady deterioration in quality from around seven to about three presently. In other words, from the time of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello and a handful of others in the first republic to President Muhammadu Buhari, there is a noticeable drop in the quality of leadership at the national level, which is also the case at the lower levels of government. Incidentally, since northerners have dominated power at the centre, it implies that the north bears greater responsibility than the south for the poor quality leadership we have had in this country.

Looked at from different angles, the fundamental problem militating against the emergence of Nigeria as a world-class country is mediocre leadership. Chinua Achebe, one of Africa’s greatest novelists, has documented the bankruptcy of leadership in his little book, The Trouble With Nigeria. I will draw some insights from Achebe’s pamphlet to buttress the point that Nigeria’s most troubling challenges stem from that single source. Although the taproots of leadership failure in Nigeria predate 1960, it became more pronounced after the colonial administrators handed power over to our people and departed.

Beginning with Balewa, Nigerian leaders have been either unwilling or unable to rise up to the challenge of personal example which is the hallmark of true leadership. There have been what might be called flashes of such leadership, especially during the earliest months of the military dictatorships headed by late Gen. Murtala Mohammed and Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. But the euphoria had died down already even before both men were kicked out of office through military coups – tragically in the case of the former who was assassinated in the abortive coup of February 13, 1976. Of course, a leader’s reputation for discipline and no-nonsense approach to governance might induce a favourable behavior modification in the society. But for such positive change to last and have salutary impact on the people generally, it must be supported by a well thought-out programme of radical socioeconomic and political reengineering or, at least, a clear-headed and consistently implemented reform agenda of social change that would eventually engender those habits of thought and action necessary for societal progress.

Let us begin by considering some of the founding fathers of Nigeria as an independent nation, because their acts of omission and commission set the stage and tone for the future socio-political and economic development of the country. According to an Igbo proverb, “one cannot know when the rain stopped beating him unless he knows when it began beating him.” A fact often neglected in popular eulogisation of these pioneers is that the is the disappointing poverty of thought in their documented statements and lifestyles, in contrast to the expressions of ideology by statesmen like Mahatma Gandhi, Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela.

Take for instance Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, late Sardauna of Sokoto who, according to Max Siollun, was “the most powerful politician in the country by virtue of being the leader of its biggest party in parliament, and by being Premier of the northern region and an inspirational figure for Nigeria’s muslim population.” Revisionist commentators on Nigerian history oftentimes tend to portray the Sardauna, a school teacher by training, in borrowed robes as a nationalist at the same level as Herbert Macaulay or Dr. Azikiwe. But then, his most important preoccupation was preservation and protection of the north’s hegemonist feudalist interests. Several of the Sardaun’s most significant pronouncements display a consistent pattern of ethnic chauvinism and religious bigotry seldom exhibited by genuine nationalists.

One of the most famous (or infamous) examples of this was shortly after independence when he proclaimed that “The new nation called Nigeria should be an estate of our great-grandfather, Uthman Dan Fodio. We must ruthlessly prevent a change of power. We use the minorities of the north as willing tools and the south as a conquered territory and never allow them to rule over us, and never allow them to have control over their future.” In his autobiography, My Life, Bello claimed that the idea of northern secession was “very tempting” but decided against it for two reasons none of which had any connection with the concept of a united Nigeria, namely, the difficulty of collecting custom duties along a land border and uncertainties concerning access to the sea through a neighbouring independent country.

Admirers of the Sardauna especially from the north might argue that the instances cited above are insufficient to label him an ethnic champion. Still,they accurately represent the attitude of the most powerful prominent northern leaders even when nationalist agitations gained more traction in the 1940s down to the present day. For example, when the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) was formed in 1947 or thereabouts, its motto was “One North, One People.” Moreover, despite producing the Prime Minister at independence, the NPC which ought to have metamorphosed into a national political party refused to change its name to reflect a pan-Nigerian outlook by replacing ‘Northern’ with the more appropriate ‘Nigerian’ even for the sake of appearances. Not only did NPC led by the Sardauna retain its parochial regional identity till the end of the first civilian government in 1966, it resisted attempts by southern political parties to field candidates in the north and regarded those campaigning in the northern region as trespassing into the north’s territorial sovereignty. It should be mentioned in passing that left for Ahmadu Bello Nigeria should not have existed because the amalgamation of 1914 “was a mistake.”

To be continued…