By Muyiwa Adetiba
Many moons ago, there was a security man at the Punch who was very fond of me. He affectionately called me ‘nwamu’—meaning ‘my son’ in Igbo. (I hope I got it right). I often called him ‘papa’ in return. Our conversations were usually brief, punctuated in the main by jokes and banters. They were light hearted and warm: like between friends and family. I can’t recollect his asking for anything from me and I can’t recollect my giving him anything—we didn’t have that kind of relationship. Yet, he was deeply protective of me, almost like a mother hen sometimes. If he felt a particular regular visitor, usually of the female specie, wasn’t good for me, he took care of it often without my say so or even knowledge. He once pointedly told a young lady to leave me alone because I would soon be married! There was no doubt in my mind that he would shield or at least alert me if he knew State Security was coming after me or if any danger was coming my way.
I casually put down his interest in me to the fact that I knew his son in secondary school. Yet, on reflection now, in the perceived reason behind his interest in me and in my youthful, but nonchalant acceptance of that interest, lay the core of what was or should have been the Nigerian dream or goal. Let me explain. Igbobi College was one of the best schools of the 50s and 60s in Nigeria. It was also one of the most expensive. It was where Segun, the brilliant first son of Chief Obafemi Awolowo attended along with the children of many notable Nigerians. Yet, it was where the son of this gateman attended. It was also where I, the son of teachers attended. We both probably attended government primary schools from rural or remote settings. But such was the quality of our elementary education that we both successfully competed with children of rich kids who attended private schools from more cosmopolitan settings. There were many other highly coveted secondary schools dotted all over the country which were available to kids irrespective of class, tribe or religion. Your parents didn’t need to know the Principal or any member of the governing board to be admitted. The only criterion was the ability to pass the exams—and interviews for those schools which had them. And once admitted, you put your father’s wealth/poverty, position or societal standing at the gate. You put your religion, tribe or privileged/unprivileged primary education at the gate. Simply put, Nigeria until the early 60s at least, gave all her kids an equal educational chance to succeed in life.
A look into the profile of Nigerian leaders of that era showed that education, intellect, hard work and luck—largely in that order—were the keys to the upper room of success and privilege. They were invariably from poor backgrounds. I recollect my interview with Chief S.O Adebo where he recalled his path to the top through self- education and hard work. At a point he looked up, turned to me and said: ‘You can achieve the same.’ It’s difficult to forget such an advice from a respected sage.
It was in recognition of this, that poor parents like my ‘papa friend’ denied themselves to send their wards to the best available schools; that communities sometimes pulled resources to send their ‘children’ to good secondary and tertiary schools. Unfortunately, this aspiration to merit and a level playing ground, made the new managers of the Nigerian project uncomfortable because it did not support cronyism. After all, who can argue the merit of a person who comes first in a competitive hundred meters dash? So they proceeded to dilute and destroy the educational system. They diluted by compromising the admission process; by lowering cut off marks, by insisting on their wards being admitted to the prestigious schools and thus disenfranchising brilliant but poor students. Then they destroyed by nationalising all schools bringing them to a uniform standard of mediocrity. Prestigious government schools like Kings, Queens and Barewa Colleges were filled with wards of Perm Secs and top government officials to the detriment of the brilliant poor. Expensive private schools soon sprang up to fill the vacuum left by missionary schools. But their priority was more of the payment of fees than academic excellence. This again was to the detriment of the brilliant poor. The seed to a class system; to the divide between the haves and have nots has now been well and truly sown.
Now to my second reason. I was neither intrigued nor surprised that an Igbo man would take to me so unconditionally—there were many Igbo sons and daughters working in the Punch establishment—or that I would accept it so good naturedly, because it really wasn’t a big issue back in the days. In fact, easily one of my favourite people at the Punch then was A.B Attah, who by his name must be Efik. It didn’t matter then. He was brilliant. He was expansive. He was confident and I loved him. The stars in schools were those who excelled in academics, sports, debates and student unionism. Their tribe or religion or parental status didn’t matter. After all, when a child chooses who to play with at the airport, he doesn’t care about race, religion or class. Those are lessons in hatred and bigotry that the university of life teaches him as he grows up.
That these things matter now, or worse, that they are now part of the preconditions for success in our country, shows the failure of the Nigerian dream. Recently, MTN, a private company, picked members of its board and a Yoruba socio/cultural group went to town because it did not have a Yoruba representative. You have to wonder where we draw the line. Under the guise of ethnic and religious balancing, we have destroyed the Nigerian project. Rather than raise up the standard of disadvantaged sections through education and special training, we have brought the rest of the country down to their level. We have in the process, allowed people to exploit the fault lines of ethnicity and religion for their selfish purposes. This has led to the enthronement of mediocrity. It has also led to a devil may care attitude towards the Nigerian project.
It should be possible for anybody who is well educated, has a good work ethos, is innovative, to have an exalted place under the Nigerian sun irrespective of social status, tribe or religion. That should be the Nigerian dream. Secondly, it should be possible to see a man and not see his tribe or religion. That should be the Nigerian goal.