March 25, 2018

Airways workers pension: Where is the outrage?

Nigeria Airways

File. For illustration.

By Obi Nwakanma

Nigeria is that country now where God seems to have fled, and the devil has taken his throne. You may do well to forget all the speaking-in-tongues; all the prophesying; and all the strutting about by Nigerians who are extremely drawn what we now call religion. Church leaders are like the Pharisees in the book of the Christians, doling out their leaven, and Nigerians are partaking fully of the “leaven of the Peruyim.” Boko Haram is kidnapping and raping young school girls in the name of their God. What God asks anyone to kidnap and rape young women going to school? An army of deranged “Herdsmen” – most likely remnants of mercenaries that fought with Hissein Habre in Chad over the long years have been unleashed on Nigeria, and they are on a killing spree, spreading like locusts from the North to the South. And what do Nigerian do? They pray, and then do what the immortal Fela would call, “looku and Laughu.” The laughter is not from amusement. It is from derangement.

These are the days of great evil in Nigeria; a nation that has been turned into a hoary joke – a great example of what Martin Easlin did call “Theatre of the absurd.” Not a joke: Harold Pinter and Sam Beckett would have found great material out of this moment in Nigeria. Heck, who knows what that great playwright and genius of the comedic, the late Ola Rotimi would have made of this moment? And that is why – perhaps I am now too distant to measure the true substance of the Nigerian stage – I do feel that the stage has atrophied in Nigeria. Maybe it is all the fault of the new cocky bastard of the stage called Nollywood that there is no memorable playwright of weight and genius in Nigeria after the last generation of Soyinka, Rotimi, Osofisan, that great triad of our National Theatre. The contemporary playwright either doesn’t exist or is doing flat, unmemorable theater. But this is a great moment for theater. For both the absurd, the tragic, the comedic, and the farcical.

There is an audience for it too: a huge population of alienated, and profoundly weather-beaten Nigerians who could find relief, and catharsis in great plays produced in small neighborhood theatres, rather than spend all that time watching Arsenal Versus Chelsea in cheap shebeens; or perhaps the churches and the mosques are providing, and taking the place of theater, because everything that happens in those places are the work of great theatrical imagination.

Brother Jero, and Jero’s Metamorphosis, live! But who am I kidding? I have this sneaky feeling that people have absolutely no idea what the fiddler’s-fart I’m talking about: a benighted generation, looking for salvation and handouts from a God that had withdrawn his services from Nigeria long ago, who has long left Nigerian’s to their own devices, with a shrug of the shoulders that says, “if they want all to perish, let them perish!” is unlikely to understand these references. Who reads Soyinka or Osofisan these days? Does anyone remember Soni Oti, who wrote The Old Masters, and who played the stage adaptation of that akalogoli, Danda, brought to life by Nkem Nwankwo? They are too much into porn, and Facebook, and selfies.

A generation that has very little social consciousness will continue to be slavish and inferior, and will have neither revolutionary will nor impetus. Just this past month in Orlando, their peers, secondary school kids, have taken to organizing nationally to force a debate on gun control. My thirteen-year old daughter, Priya, convinced her mother to accompany her to go to Washington DC so that she will join in the march against guns this weekend, organized by a group of articulate High school children, between the ages fifteen and sixteen, to force attention to the issue of unregulated guns, and to move against legislators who have been backed by the gun lobby.

This is following the shooting incident at the Margery Stoneman Douglas High school in Parkland, Florida. This is the measure or the sum of their consciousness. Priya is thirteen, in Middle school, the equivalent of form two in Nigeria; she is starting a newspaper in her school, and she is a volunteer at the public library, and she has civic consciousness, and as she told me, “I do not want to stand aside while history passes by.” Well, she is my daughter. But the point is quite simple: her peers in Nigeria are in the doldrums. I do not think she’s smarter than many of them, but I think that she is not wasting her time, feeling sorry for herself, and frightened of being kidnaped by Boko Haram. She has the safety of the protection that sane societies offer children.

Thus, she is neither afraid of God, nor is she spiteful of her fellow man, nor is she willing to “stand aside while history passes by.” And it is not as if it has never happened before in Nigeria. In 1944, under severe colonial sanction, young students at Kings College rose against colonial rule in Nigeria in one of those signal moments that instigated the anti-colonial nationalist movement. A young Emeka Ojukwu, only ten years old took part, and in fact slapped one of his English teachers, and for his part, was tried as a minor in the courts. In the annals of anti-colonial nationalist struggle, Emeka Ojukwu’s picture, of a tired ten-year boy sleeping in the docks from saying, “Heck NO!” put to lie English notions of justice and its “civilizing mission.” As an image, it was one of the greatest propagandas for the nationalists.

Today, folk who neither knew what the issues were, nor were they anywhere near the struggle to free this nation, are now determining the path of this nation, while the likes of Emeka Ojukwu are now the anti-heroes. Perhaps that explains why no one – not even the young one – want to commit to that “heck No!” moment anymore; and that may be why, when some official at JAMB claimed that a snake had swallowed JAMB money in Makurdi, all we heard around Nigeria were guffaws. Not holy outrage. When it was reported that billions from a National Security vote had gone missing from some flat in Ikoyi, all we heard in Nigeria was, “wao, really?” not the “Excuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuse me!” of hot outrage.

So, people get away with things. And what this leads me to is the unfolding situation with the Airways Pension. Nigerians remember that the Nigerian Airways was once the biggest National Airline in Africa. When K.O. Mbadiwe launched that National Carrier in 1964, it bore the sweeping image of the Majestic Eagle. It was launched with typical, “bombastic fanfare” which only the likes that “Caterpillar and Juggernaut” K.O. Mbadiwe could pull off, all with the famous and colourful “Nkpokiti” dancers of the East as the Airways made its maiden voyage from Lagos to New York. Soon, over the years, the image changed from the Eagle to the Elephant, and we all do know that elephants do not fly. Perhaps there’s not much to it, but that “flying elephant” was progressively cut down to size, and eventually dismantled, after years of abuse and mismanagement.

The Obasanjo civilian administration which inherited what was in fact, no more than the carcass of this flying Elephant just simply closed its doors. But the great victims of this move to dismantle the Airline were the innocent workers of the Nigerian Airways – Pilots, Engineers, Technicians, and other support staff of the Nigerian Airways who had to be laid off. As part of their severance, after years of lobbying and pleading, and protests, the Federal Government finally approved N45 billion to pay off these Airways workers many of whom spent their career and a lifetime doing nothing else but working for the Nigerian Airways.

An old friend of mine, a former pilot of the Nigerian Airways, pointed me recently to the current situation, and this is outrageous. In spite of the N45 billion approved by the National Executive Council and passed as part of the federal budgets to offset the severance pay of the former Airways workers since last year, the money has not been received. Many of these workers are dying, many are old and it is sad to see pictures of old men and women sitting under the biting sun, begging and waiting to get paid what is rightfully due them. How could a nation treat its own citizens, particularly elderly citizens, with such callous disdain and disrespect? Where is the outrage, dear Nigerians? Who is sitting on this funds already approved by the president and the Executive Council? How much of this fund has generated interest since then if it was kept in a bank? All that, plus the interest accrued should, if justice is to prevail, be paid to these men and women, who should no longer be tortured because providence made the mistake of making them Nigerians.

It is time that we hold public officials who withhold the pay and pensions of workers, one of those things often the first line items of to be approved in the budgets, to account. It is time the National Assembly stepped into this issue and placed sanction where appropriate. This is the true meaning of corruption. It is in fact a criminal offence to violate the financial act as approved by the National Assembly. This withholding of the Airways pension must be resolved quickly, before many more of these old folk die, and before another python swallows the cash.