WE gathered at the rapidly developing and neat Lagos State University, LASU, campus to talk about our country and proffer solutions to its myriad of challenges. The Dean of Social Sciences, Professor Elias Olukorede Wahab; political scientist, Professor Sylvester Odion Akhaine and Head of Political Science Department, Dr. Wale Aderemi, had worked hard with their colleagues and university authorities to put the gathering together in honour of Professor Abubakar Momoh, an intellectual who blazed through our skies like Halley’s Comet with an orbital period of 75 years.
Chairperson of the gathering was Honourable Kehinde Bamigbetan who, like Momoh, was a radical student leader bent on changing the country for the better. I shared affinities with both, and was given the honour to deliver the annual lecture which I titled: “Our Future Is In Our Past.”
Abubakar Momoh was not only an academic but one committed to the mass of the people, truth and social justice. He was not just an intellectual, but an intellectual–warrior in the mould of Walter Rodney, with deep, penetrating analysis. He could move from the classroom to the political field; the ivory tower to the grassroots of society. He was at home in the international academic circles where words can be esoteric, and on the streets where words can be simplified and weaponised for change. Momoh could blend with the elite, debating, and also melt into an underground cell, brewing revolution; either revolution now, or in the future.
Momoh was a professor like Frantz Fanon who knew that his historical duty was to midwife revolutionary change. I first met him when he was a student activist contributing to transform the conservative culture of the University of Lagos, UNILAG, Students Union from ‘Eko for Show’ to ‘Eko for Action.’
Then we met in organisations were liberating the country from military misrule was a primary objective. Those were seasons when exposing the fraud that was military transition programmes, disagreeing with the International Monetary Fund-imposed Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, or calling for democratic rule, were regarded as treasonable acts.
Not a few paid the price for this. In those days, holding a public lecture was regarded as a criminal activity and lecturers involved could be sacked for “teaching what they are not paid to teach”. Even holding meetings of the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS, led to the closure of campuses and rustication or detention of student leaders.
Despite those dangerous times, fighters like Momoh stood their ground. Some student leaders like UNILAG’s Gbenga Olawepo and Gbenga Komolafe of the University of Ibadan were detained without trial, others like Chima Ubani of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, were expelled. Scores of people were killed in Benin when, following anti-SAP protests, the military regime through Colonel Jonathan Tunde Anene Ndapkomi Ogbeha, issued a ‘Shoot-Students-At-Sight’ order to soldiers and security agencies.
Momoh was a major part of the Campaign for Democracy, CD, which organised nationwide pro-democracy protests from 1993. They were regarded by the military regime as attempted coups. In 1995, some of the CD leaders like Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti and Shehu Sani were tried as coup plotters and jailed for life. The Momoh generation of students might not have succeeded in changing our country, but it is not for want of determined efforts.
In the lecture, I examined pre-colonial Nigeria when we ran inclusive and self-sufficient economies where there was no unemployment or homelessness, we had a culture of extended families and were largely tolerant of each other’s beliefs. I looked at our colonial period when in the main, we built strong pillars of patriotism and a focus on a bright future. I also focused on the First Republic when we ran a federation; when the federating governments were quite productive developing their economic and social potentials rather than being parasitic with a sense of entitlement to free oil money doled out monthly like the poor in a soup kitchen.
I talked about our past of free and qualitative education and healthcare, mass housing and a welfare state dedicated to building a strong, productive economy and providing security for all. I, therefore, concluded that our future is in our past. I dwelt a lot on the past. But I also talked about ‘the bad new days’; these days of alienation and backwardness, where might is right and the powerful grinds the powerless into the dust.
I spoke about the bad new times when even basic movement from one town to another requires fasting, prayers and preparation for the worst as you can end up in a kidnapper’s den, a bandits enclave or a place of celestials with winged angels. My position is that these are calamities wrought on us by prodigal elites and military regimes led by neo-colonial soldiers who see the people as conquered ‘bloody civilians’.
The first major calamity that befell us was slavery in which our societies were ravaged and our youths and children carted away. The second was colonialism in which greedy and criminal Europeans seized our resources and tried to take our lands in perpetuity. The third calamity is military misrule in which scavengers claimed they had the answer to all questions, ravaged the land, built a tradition of impunity and destroyed the foundations of our development.
The results include looted treasuries, de-industrialisation, mass factory closures, mass unemployment, mass hunger, mass poverty, insecurity, a culture of corruption, and a society where many of our youths no longer dream of a future. While under slavery, we were ravaged, forced into ships and taken away to foreign lands, now some of our youths make a suicidal walk through the deserts just to get the opportunity to take, not slave ships that were relatively safe, but leaking boats and crafts, just to submit themselves for possible enslavement in Europe.
So we needed to change urgently. But when ‘change’ came, it was a dummy; a dud cheque issued by the barely literate presented as authentic by the otherwise smart elites and their social media hangers-on and sold as genuine to a largely trusting public. It was a reversed law of osmosis in which the myopic conservatives pulled down the traditionally progressive elites not to their low level, but beneath even the old bar.
Those who hold themselves out as the heirs of the progressive tradition of the Obafemi Awolowos, Aminu Kanos and Joseph Tarkas, made no pretence to building the welfare state which all our leaders set out to build at independence. The heirs abandoned the basic tenets of free education, free healthcare, mass housing, rural development, welfare for the people and security for all. Rather, they choose to float without compass or maps in uncertain tides. Our past reveals that our future is embedded in it.