By Obi Nwakanma
I felt a deep sense of pity – not outrage, not anger, not frustration – just pure pity, and a little nausea for this generation after reading a series of the responses to the US President Donald Trump’s description of Haiti and many African nations as “shithole” countries. Of course Trump did not mention Nigeria specifically, and one does have to remember that one of those Trump himself appointed to his Economic Advisory Council was a Yoruba – Nigerian, from Shagamu; the Oxford and Harvard-educated banker, and chairman now of the private equity firm, Global Infrastructure Partners, Mr. Bayo Ogunlesi. Ogunlesi had been educated first at Kings College, Lagos, before going to read for the PPE in Oxford, and then on to Harvard for the Harvard Law School. At Harvard, he was in the prestigious Harvard Law Review, and had clerked for Justice, the honorable, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s friend and classmate at Lincoln, and the first African-American Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. In a sense, one of Trump’s own top economic advisors comes from one of those “shitholes” and so much is the pity of its profound, and tragic irony.
But the greater tragedy is the self-hating willingness to accept that description by many who said, “yes, Nigeria is a shithole country! Trump is right!” It is the voice of the many in this society who hate themselves; who hate their country and who have given up, spiritually on the connections between them and the land. It is much like President Buhari who, playing the ostrich, and rather than stand up and spout outrage when the former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, said to his Queen that Nigeria and such countries as Afghanistan are “fantastically corrupt,” did in fact accept, saying, “yes, Nigeria is fantastically corrupt.” Good thinking folk refuse to accept these kinds of tar. Not only because it is untrue, but because it undermines the capacity of people to construct the kind of ethos, and idealism necessary for propelling the transcendence of nation. Nigeria, we have been compelled to insist, is not “fantastically corrupt.” Not as a people, and not as a nation. The class of buccaneers – the oligopolists that have held Nigeria hostage since 1967 may be “fantastically corrupt,” but not Nigeria, either as a nation, as a people, or as an idea.
The idea that a vast nation can be created out of a diversity of great cultures is not a corrupt idea. The idea that Nigeria is far too diverse and made up of people with irreconcilable cultural differences and thus cannot live peacefully, harmoniously and organically together, is the corrupt idea. It is the meaning of fascism – the very sense of a radical and absolute difference. Those who have made us think that this idea is unworkable are the corrupt ones, not Nigeria or its people. I think we must establish the critical and philosophical difference as we point fingers. So, in fact, when President Buhari accepted that Nigeria was utterly corrupt, he was pointing more to himself and to his cohorts, although in his own mind, he may have thought that he was not to be included among the corrupt; that by saying it, he stood apart from it all; and that Cameron may not have included him in that description of “those people,” since, he Buhari, was not among “them.” It is the way the mind of the self-regarding and the alienated works. In the same sense, those who belong to the “shithole” are the individuals who accept their own historic and inexorable inferiority.
Those who have said, “Yes! Nigeria and Africa are shithole!” Not those Nigerians or other Africans who have expressed deep outrage, and who have, in expressing their profound self-awareness, like Ms. Irene Fowler, writing in the opinion pages of the Guardian (Lagos), who said, “I am a Nigerian holder of a Harvard law school Masters degree in International Law which I earned as a fee paying student. I am presently living happily in a well-appointed, water front town house in Lagos, Nigeria. I am shocked but hardly surprised that Trump resorts to the level of racism and ignorance that has not emanated from a paramount world leader in modern history and has certainly not been a building block of official immigration policy in recent memory. I would venture to state that the rhetoric is reminiscent of an ugly, dastardly period of world history in which equally negative connotations and slurs contributed significantly to the eruption of the Second World War,” drilled it down to that difference between self-consciousness and ignorance. Those who continue to denigrate, hate, and despise themselves are in need of psychiatric help, because self-hatred and alienation, are forms of mental illness. It is true that not everybody lives satisfyingly in a “well-appointed waterfront” crib, like Ms. Fowler, but it is important for the health and future of the people, that we sometimes, in spite of the clearly unnecessary difficulties of our society, count many of its blessings, and try then to comprehend that the ultimate aspiration of truly worthy intellect is to lift higher, and higher, the community to which one belongs.
And we belong to Nigeria at the moment – restless, dynamic, full of tension, and frankly, in need of serious emendation. But that obligation to change its fortunes and direction belongs to an organized people and an organized generation. It brings me to the task of this generation, which has basically, and very sadly, accepted itself as “shithole” people. To accept that condition of permanent marginality and irrelevance is to succumb to mental death. I will draw two primary examples to underscore my concern: last week former president Obasanjo, wrote a blistering letter to the incumbent president Buhari, urging him to go home after his first term, because, to put it mildly and in sum, he had failed in his promise and in his task to set Nigeria on the right path. No surprises there.
Many of us knew that Buhari was not up to that task in the first place. Buhari has basically corrupted the foundations of the Nigerian project by his serial acts of nepotism. But that is not his worst failure: he has driven Nigeria into a frenzy of the worst ethnic and religious distrust. More than any other time in its history, not even during the civil war, Nigeria is far more divided along dangerous fault-lines that are ethnic, tribal and religious.
Nigeria is facing the terrible prospect of a religious war between the Christians and the Muslims. There is also the simmering tension of a class war beneath the masque of religion. It does not need an Obasanjo to remind Nigerians, and Buhari, that things are not right. However, this generation of young Nigerians are waiting to be spoon-fed with purpose. They are profoundly alienated, and have demonstrated very little ideas about how to proceed to capture power and use it to transform the purpose of Nigeria.
Everyone is crying out for justice. Everyone is looking to God and Heaven, but as the Rastafarian songster, Peter Tosh did sing, “none of them wants to die.” Everyone is crying about the menace of an armed “Fulani Herdsmen,” but few have devised means of strategic response to them. Daily in their Facebooks and twitter and Wassap accounts, they lament; they post pictures; they talk. It is all good. But all talk, and no action, amounts to the same thing. It is empty talk to repeat the same thing, and not to provide alternative means of action. Nigerians are mobilized to the truth of their situation. They are yet to organize to change it. There, is exactly where this generation – those from ages 17 and 35 – have failed themselves; their nation, and their generation. Each generation since 1937 has impacted on the transformation of Nigeria in unique ways; the young men of the Zikist Movement, that confronted the British in a very short armed struggle; the Ifeajuna/Nzeogwu/Ojukwu/Gowon that took power from the first generation politicians in 1966; the Ali-Must-Go youth of the 1970s, that presaged the transformation of Public Education and political discourse; my own generation – and we are now in our 50s – that took on the military, as university students in a series of huge national protests organized from the campuses of Nigerian universities in the 1980s, which rattled the military and led to June 12 and democratization. I must say our greatest mistake is that after that fight, we let power slip out of our fingers because we were not organized for it.
Power returned to the old guard, but we created the space for democracy. What about this generation? They have the numbers. They have the education. But they lack the will and the organization. They have gone to religion as a form of primitive escape. They have failed to confront their own situation of history. They may be the “shithole” generation, whom America now does not want. But they need not be. They need to take charge of the political ground floor by organizing to take power and changing the circumstances of their society, not by fleeing, or wanting to dismantle Nigeria by mere talk and anguish.