Wednesday, 8 February 2012



Prof. Niyi Osundare

As the argument rages whether to remove fuel subsidy or not, eminent poet and public intellectual, Prof. Niyi Osundare, has called on President Jonathan not to further compound the hardship Nigerians currently undergo. In an interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU in Ibadan, last week, the award-winning poet, essayist and scholar took on many issues that stand at the cross-road of Nigeria’s quest for development.

Excerpts:
In our earlier encounter, you said you finally came to the realisation that for a country to progress economically, there is need to ‘Seek ye the political kingdom first, and then all things shall be added unto you!’‘Seek ye the political kingdom first, and then all things shall be added unto you!’ How close is Nigeria’s political kingdom under President Jonathan’s watch?

Grasp ye the political kingdom and all other things shall be added unto thee! Nigeria has not got it right politically. This is why all other things appear to have been falling out of sync in the eight months of Dr. Jonathan’s full presidency. Do we need anyone to tell us our country is in a state of depressive stupor, thrashing around like a half-beheaded snake? President Jonathan needs to ‘man up’ (to borrow an American phrase); he needs to convince us that he knows what time of day it is. He doesn’t look like a leader yet: a decisive, deliberate, insightful figure whose wisdom goes beyond mere political savvy and the nervous quest for self-preservation. In the past many months, the President has behaved very much like somebody who is being pushed in all kinds of directions, and who doesn’t know how to make up his mind. When people in this country look at him, he doesn’t look like the kind of leader who is in charge: confident and resourceful; one who radiates the kind of dynamism which a country like this needs so badly so urgently.

Meek-looking, yes. Soft-looking, yes. Pious-looking, yes (he once knelt head-bowed before a famous Pentecostal cleric, and regaled the nation with a front-page picture of this posture in several Nigerian newspapers!) But this President sorely needs more insight to his thinking, more energy to his action, more bones to his flesh. He needs to think beyond sorry clich├ęs and hackneyed humdrums. He needs to convince us that he has the kind of ideas needed by a desperate country like Nigeria. Nigeria wants to see a President that can think on his feet. A president who has the vital ideas, and can surround himself with those who also have them, who can proffer them selflessly, while being sure that their words will count. Sad to say, but in so many respects, right now, the people of Nigeria seem to be far ahead of their President. He needs to catch up.

He has confessed to not being a Goliath or an army general…

You don’t have to be a general to have some strength in you! Goliath was an evil kind of power; a life-negating leviathan. He was too strong, too domineering, and that was why the God of the Old Testament made him face his waterloo through a pebble from the sling shot of a mere stripling. Jonathan is not a Goliath; nobody wants him to be a Goliath. Nigeria has had too many Goliaths in power and very few Davids. We’re not saying he should tower above us. No. We’re saying he should be man enough to also do the job he is elected to do: To think and act boldly.

People who know him say he is a good man. I have no right to doubt them, but I would like President Jonathan to be a good man and also an efficient leader, a leader who inspires.
He’s not an army general; we know. We have seen too many army generals in this country to be comfortable with having more of them. Our prayer is that this country will never again be ruled by army generals! Soldiers are trained to kill and destroy; they become a disastrous aberration when they are brought to construct, to reconstruct, and manage a country. The ‘Goliath-General’ metaphor is not a terribly well-chosen one, really.

Yeah, Dr. Jonathan, you may not be a Goliath or a general; we don’t want you to be any of those. We want you to be a president; a president who stands up and the people know he’s there for them; who thinks about our problems all the time, and also wakes up solving them. A president, who surrounds himself not with mediocres and political jobbers, but with men and women of ideas; and there are many of them in this country that can really contribute to the solution of our many problems.

President Jonathan’s cabinet is too mediocre, and there are people there that Nigerians know that are corrupt, manifestly corrupt. I remember a minister in one of Nigeria’s most lucrative ministries whose reappointment was strongly petitioned a couple of months ago, but the President went ahead all the same with the reappointment. In Nigeria corruption and other forms of abuse of office still remain the main qualification for high office.  Eight months after, this country has not made any progress. I think we have even retrogressed considerably. If in doubt, consider the on-going downward slide of the national currency. Consider  Boko Haram. The biggest problem we have in this country is security. What is he going to do with Boko Haram? Does he apply the military solution? At times, he talks tough. Other times, he talks soft, and says oh yes, there is going to be reconciliation. Does our President really understand the dynamics of Boko Haram? Who are those beating the drums for the water dragons that are dancing on the water surface? Who are the Boko Haram? Faceless people, most of the time although they say they have caught their leaders. When the security agencies boast that they have Boko Haram right now in our palm, the group surprises them by bombing a neighbouring town the next day? So Boko Haram remains an understudied, underestimated group conveniently dismissed as ‘terrorists’. Have we tried to understand what Boko Haram really is?

Boko Haram is not a totally religious movement, from my understanding of it. There are social sides to Boko Haram, social underpinnings which we have to understand. This looks very much like the movement of the under-privileged, of the dispossessed, the alienated. It looks to me like the movement of people who have nothing to lose in society. I think it was Malcolm X, the African-American leader that said that ‘a society that creates people who have nothing to lose is digging its own grave’. There is a lot of work Dr. Jonathan should be doing that he is not doing at the moment. This country is in a very perilous state.  When I arrived in last week, I think for a day or two, no bank in Ibadan was open owing to an armed robbery scare. When I complained to my friend in another state, he said ‘for five days our own banks have been closed; robbers just jump in, operate any time of the day, anywhere; they don’t care a hoot!’  Nigeria is a jungle, a thick medieval jungle, lawless and predictably precarious.

Dr Jonathan hasn’t done much, and that is why the country is like this. Nobody sleeps in this country with both eyes closed, not even the governors with their panoply of security detail, because I have read in the papers of some gubernatorial motorcades being ambushed by armed robbers. Perhaps the men of the underword are trying to tell our governors that our rulers don’t have a monopoly of impunity! This is a dangerous country today, extremely dangerous. We have to tell the truth to ourselves. Money is coming in; the oil in the Niger Delta is still pumping, but there is no honest management, no proper husbandry,  no organisation, no transparency, no accountability.  That’s why we are where we are today.
So our politics is that awry. What do we say about our economy? Nigeria doesn’t produce anything. I say this all the time, and I think it’s obvious to everybody. Anytime I’m on the road or standing by the roadside, and I see cars and other vehicles passing, I keep telling myself, ‘oh yes, that one is made in Sweden; that one is made in Germany; that one is made in Japan, that one is made in the U.K. Now, there is Kia, Hyundai from Korea; Tata from India. And I say to myself, how can a country afford to live like this? All the things we consume are made somewhere else. What are we doing with all these universities, with all the intellectuals we have around? How can a country create wealth when it cannot manufacture, when it cannot produce? Even the oil we depend so vitally on is not being refined by Nigeria, and Nigeria doesn’t know how many barrels of oil are really leaving her shores on a daily basis. Nigeria has no control over her own affairs even in year 2011, with all these universities, for goodness sake.

How can a country feel so satisfied with producing nothing and consuming everything?
Coming back to Dr. Jonathan, how can he lead the country to confront our pathological dependency? To be able to do this, he himself will need to stop being a pliable blaze-trailer; we need a trail-blazer! He will need to show us he is capable of generating fresh ideas and following them through. That is the kind of leader Nigeria needs at the moment.

‘President Jonathan Needs to Justify the PhD After His Name’

Jonathan is the first truly educated Nigerian to occupy that seat, with a doctorate degree, and an academic. Why is it so difficult for him to navigate himself through whatever obstacles that are on his way? The university does not necessarily an educated person make (pardon my archaic inversion!). A truly educated person is one who thinks beyond the walls of any institution. He’s one who has that amplitude of mind and vision, whose knowledge is broad, who is able to relate the past with the present, and therefore, anticipate the future.

Yes, a truly educated person is one with a refined sensibility, a humanist, a person who is capable of going from mere fellow-feeling to compassion; who is able to say, ‘oh my God, when my people are hungry, I, too, am hungry’. So, the word ‘educated’ is loaded. Our problem in Nigeria, and Africa really, is that we have so many ill-literates. A panoply of diplomas may not total up to insight and resourcefulness. Truly educated people wouldn’t rule us the way our rulers are ruling us today. Remember I haven’t said ‘leaders’. A truly educated person is the one that can become a leader. The half educated, merely literate people we have at the moment can only stop at the threshold of amateurish rulership.

Jonathan has a PhD after his name, and I think this country is telling him to justify that title. It doesn’t matter if it’s from Zoology or Microbiology or Astra-physics or Religious Studies. No; there is a discipline that goes with the acquisition of these degrees, a certain development of the mind; a certain toughness of thinking, and a roaming capacity for making decisions and following them through. These are the things we expect from a leader. So, it’s not a matter of how many degrees.

A truly educated person is also a conscientious person, a person who will think twice before stealing public funds. The illiterate ones will think about the millions they have and how to increase their loot. They hardly ever think about the future; that future is buried in their stomachs. This is the category of rulers we have in this country today, and that is why our situation is as it is. Does it matter whether they went to university or not? In the budget Jonathan recently presented, security took the lion share. Do you think that is what it will take to curb the security monster?

I don’t always like to comment on Nigeria’s budgets. As a writer, I eschew cliches and hackneyed expressions. Every budget that has been read in this country has come with some hackneyed sobriquet or another. “Budget of Hope”; “Budget of Reconciliation”; “Budget of Consolidation”;  budget of this, budget of that. Hasn’t President Jonathan’s own been tagged  “Budget of Transformation”? Insufferable mantras and irritating nonsense so galling in its utter disingenuousness. And, by the way, what is the percentage of implementation of these budgets? In what ways have they improved the lives of ordinary Nigerians? Every year, the Nigerian government votes huge sums for transportation, education, health, agriculture, security, etc. Take a look at our death-trap roads, decrepit educational system, procrustean agricultural facilities, death-inflicting healthcare, and ask where have all the budgeted monies been going?

Our rulers steal us dead; it’s as simple as that. So I don’t waste my thought on their budget.
Security, yes, the lion’s share mapped out for it. But then I ask again, whose security? How much of this is going to the fight against Boko Haram? Maybe a lot. But as I hinted earlier, Boko Haram is not something you can fight with money; no. This is why I say that our rulers should think; they need to think. Boko Haram is so grassroots  that even when you see the enemy, you don’t recognise him. It’s more than anything we can fight with money. Bank robbers, highway robbers all over the place; are you going to distribute the money to them or are you going to arm the police?

How many police men and women do we have in this country? Nobody has done the ratio of policeman to criminal in this country. I don’t know but I think it’s very high. I pity our policemen. In sun and rain, they are there, with many of them really looking scruffy and hungry. This is not how to treat people that you expect to protect you; no. The security of a country is its people. Let people have enough to eat, decent housing; let them have good education for their children; let there be hospitals when they are ill. Let life be more meaningful to them; it’s not likely that they will go out at night to rob their neighbours.
I knew this country when it was a country, when people went to bed with their doors unlocked.  Nigeria didn’t have so many desperate people. The way Nigeria is today, nobody can maintain adequate security in it. You don’t know what your next door neighbour is up to. Parents task themselves to send their children to school; the children suffer in order to gain an education. They finish and there are no jobs. Our streets are bursting with hordes of able-bodied but jobless youths, desperate and down and out, a terrible waste to a society that needs all hands to be on deck. This is a country that creates desperate citizens, and that is why Nigerian citizens look very much like the enemy of their rulers, because their enemies are their rulers. Those who rule us don’t care; they don’t do anything to show us that they care. If they care, they won’t be stealing the funds meant for development the way they do.
Some describe the impoverished citizenry as being too docile.

Is there the possibility of the Arab Spring Uprising in a country like Nigeria? Can Nigerians confront their leaders the way the Arab people did recently?

Good question. In the past five years or so, I have been reconsidering my long-held opinion about the relation between leadership and followership. Time there was when I laid all the blame on leadership. Now I’m beginning to say that the followership should also take their fate in their own hands. This is what I see most of the time, for example, in the plays of Femi Osofisan, one of our top writers. Play after play after play; the leaders are there doing things. But the address is to the people. Why must you continue to be ridden like a donkey? Why can’t you, too, get up in the saddle?

Nigerians are too docile, too forgiving of bad leadership. Why are they this way? A number of reasons. The first one is religion. The kind of religion we have in Nigeria is one that puts you to sleep, and after that, puts you to death. It’s not the kind of religion that’s after social justice; it’s not the kind of religion that is after the welfare of the people and the independence of their existence. Particularly guilty in this regard are the Prosperity Gospellers of the Pentecostal variety who hawk faith on the air and convert religion into superstition. If you have no job, we are told, it must be because of your sin. Your poverty (or pauperization) is a result of   the offence you have committed against God. Blissfully indemnified are the rogue-rulers whose greed has corrupted and ruined our social estate; those whose policies or lack of them have made job creation impossible by sabotaging our productive capacity? So, if you have no job, blame your sins; if you wallow in poverty, you only have yourself to blame. In the thinking and preaching of many of these latter-day evangelists, every scoundrel in power in Nigeria is “God-chosen”  and must be treated as such.

Religion in this country is a dangerous opium; really dangerous opium. And that is why our rulers are encouraging the building of churches and mosques all over the place. When in December last year the newspapers carried the picture of a kneeling President Jonathan with a ministering Pastor towering above him in prayerful supremacy,  we were presented with an image so symbolic of the relationship between the state and religion in Nigeria. No picture could have been more emblematic!

Religion has killed rational thinking in this country. I say this all the time, our country is still in a pre-scientific era. That is why things are like this. We don’t think logically; that is why any ruler, any fool would seize the reins and rule us, because we would always find an excuse for being ruled or being led by the nose.

Not long ago a pastor said he was between two cities and he discovered that the fuel in his car had run out. He actually checked and saw the fuel in the car was completely gone. But because of his act of faith and on the strength of his prayers, he was able to do two hundred miles on an empty tank! When he declared this testimony, people clapped and shouted “Hallelujah!” I never heard anybody say how can? Nigerians don’t ask questions; that is why the imams and the pastors lead them by the nose, and the politicians also complete their humiliation and disempowerment. And between the clerics and the political functionaries, there is a very close liaison.

It’s a kind of power structure; one controls the political, social realm, the other controls the spiritual, metaphysical realm and they are together. Many Nigerians are not rational,  interrogative people. In fact, in this country today, if you are the interrogative type you are easily labelled, branded, and condemned. People even wonder: why are you always asking questions?’ When the blessed Tai Solarin was alive, he agonised and agonised over this issue. The way he was misunderstood, the way he was misinterpreted and his anger at the way many of our people were going - that we should be up in the streets.

Another problem: well, our people are docile and the reason why they take all kinds of cheating is that many of them envisage themselves in the position of power someday, too. If I am X and the oppressor is Y, and the oppressor is oppressing me, stealing all the money, and making life difficult for me and my children, I am not likely to attack him. I’ll pray to God to let my own “miracle” happen so that someday, he will go and I will be in his place. No; I am praying for him to go but for the structure to remain. This is the social psychology of Nigerian politics. So many people don’t see it as wrong. When they see it as wrong, it’s because it is putting them at a disadvantage; they are not really concerned with the social order or the commonweal. That’s a very important issue.

‘Fuel Subsidy Removal...
The IMF Is At Work Again’

Now government is talking about subsidy removal and we have the Minister of Finance, Okonjo Nweala, who is the coordinating minister for the economy in her second coming to that position. She is coming with IMF and World Bank background, with a certain skewed orientation towards Africa. What do you make of this mix?

The subsidy issue is going to decide the fate of this country in year 2012, whether we are still going to have a country called Nigeria or whether there will be none at all. That we are talking about subsidy or no subsidy now takes me back to the point I made earlier on. We don’t have rulers who think and feel; we don’t have rulers who have the interest of the people of this country at heart. But we’ve been through all this before. Who can forget in a hurry the way the then President Babangida got the country debating whether we wanted the IMF or not, how the country roundly rejected the IMF’s ‘conditionalities’, but Babangida and his group smuggled them in through a subterfuge called Sap (Structural Adjustment Policy). This was when the drastic devaluation of the Naira began, and with it the devaluation of the Nigerian life. Nigeria is still reeling in the fever of that economic-fiscal fiasco.

IMF is at it again. Its new president, France’s Christine Laggarde, has just visited Nigeria and has given a pass mark to the Jonathan administration. With Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, the IMF’s Trojan horse at the helm in the finance ministry, that international task master and global  finance police has a jolly good friend in a powerful place indeed. There is no country in the world that has swallowed the IMF pill without spinning into retching bouts and, at times, rigor mortis. For, as I said in one of the poems in Songs of the Season,
The IMF Is a doctor Who heals the patient By killing him first

Yes, those clinical undertakers of vulnerable economies are at it again, and the very life of every Nigerian is on the line

Let us look at the ‘subsidy’ conundrum. Is there a subsidy really? Then who, what, is being subsidized? We all need to go back to Prof. Tam David West’s recent interview on this issue. If there is anybody who understands the oil and gas industry and how it works, it’s David West, Nigeria’s former Petroleum minister. Because Nigeria cannot run efficient refineries, and therefore it has to import the refined products, the government is now asking the Nigerian people to pay for its inefficiency and criminal mismanagement and corruption.  The questions we should be asking are:  who are the people responsible for the non-functioning of our  refineries? Who are the beneficiaries from this dysfunction? Who are the lucky owners of  oil blocks and instant billionaires from oil quotas?

If our rulers were people with a sense of shame, they wouldn’t be talking about subsidy at all. They should cover their faces in shame and apologize to the Nigerian people; for if anything, it is the Nigerian people that need some form of hardship allowance from their incorrigibly incompetent government.

And our President and his officials have been going from church to church (have they called at the mosques yet?), asking for God’s blessing for the kind of socio-economic mayhem they are about to unleash on the Nigerian people through the removal of the so-called subsidy; asking the pastors to pray to God to make Nigerians compliant to and accepting of their impoverished situation, begging Almighty God to soften the minds of Nigerians. But no one entered a plea for God to smash the incubus of corruption and mismanagement that has brought this country to its knees. Our President never asked God to grant him the courage and candour to make a public declaration of his assets as required by the constitution of the country he rules...

Nigeria is a country tottering on the precipice. Our rulers are doing everything to tip it into the abyss. As a student of history, I know that revolutions do not just happen. They are caused almost invariably by rulers that are blind, deaf, insensitive, and megalomaniacal. It is  this insidious cocktail that produces the ‘Distance of Power’, that affliction that has always engaged my attention whenever I ponder the  use and misuse of power. And I ask: President Jonathan, are you close enough to hear the heartbeats of those you rule? Can you hear the wailing in the land? Can you see the hunger in the streets? Can you see the protuberant stomachs of kwashiorkor-ravaged children? Can you see the hordes and hordes of our children who roam the streets because their parents are too poor to send them to school? Can you hear the unending screams from those face-to-face shacks where spouses tear each other into pieces over the non-availability of house-keeping money? Can you hear the interminable rat-a-tat of the sophisticated guns of armed robbers as they bloody our days and terrify our nights? President Jonathan, can you hear? Can you see? Can you feel? Your predecessors flogged us with whips; will you advance their various acts of cruelty by whipping us with scorpions?

President Jonathan, do you still remember that young, ambitious boy from Otuoke who never had shoes until well into his teenage years? Well, now he is a King in the Marble Palace with a wardrobe large as a house. Look through the tinted windows of power. You will see millions of children whose shoeless feet embarrass our land. You will behold thousands that have no feet to call their own.
Some people say your government is under pressure to remove the ‘subsidy’ because Nigeria is broke. Ask: who broke the country? Can you confront corruption head-on? It is the giant monster responsible for all the holes through which the vital juice of Nigeria is leaking. The Nigerian people are not responsible for the heedless squandermania and arrant improvidence that got us into this mess. Don’t heave the burden on the backs of those already bent and bruised by the consequences of the foul actions of the powerful and well connected.
President Jonathan, our country would not be broke if our rulers stole less and served more, if our governments were not so bloated with redundancies, if we did not squander most of our resources on the maintenance of a parasitic political class of which you are an affluent member.

Mr President, please do not toy with the fate of this country. A still restive Niger Delta is simmering in the south; Boko Haram bombs make a mockery of your government’s security  system in the north. Most of our people are poor (no, impoverished) and desperate and angry. They are like the savannah grass in the harmattan. Do not throw a flaming match into their fold.

Remember: the country over which you preside (just like the election that brought you into office) is fragile and frighteningly flawed. Tell the IMF and its Trojan Horse in your cabinet that you are not ready for the suicide which they are so heedlessly asking you to commit. Tell them you are not ready to commit Nigeriacide. A word, they say, is enough for the wise. For the wise, that is.

Author of this article: ANOTE AJELUOROU



We Still Do Not Have A Country Yet




By Prof. Niyi Osundare




The poet, erudite scholar, intellectual and public commentator, Niyi Osundare was recently made a Distinguished Professor of English at the New Orleans University . Now on summer vacation in his home country, Osundare spoke with ANOTE AJELUOROU of The Guardian, in Ibadan about the current political dispensation. It is vintage Osundare,  master of the word and eloquent commentator.

Excerpts:
We know you live abroad but you still follow events at home with a keen interest. What were your hopes and fears before the April elections and were they justified or assuaged eventually?

Yes, wherever we go, we carry this country with us. It’s like being so far away but being so close at the same time. If I’m allowed to borrow a phrase from my refreshingly innovative friend and ace columnist, Olatunji Dare, I will say that concerned Nigerians are more or less ‘at home abroad’, even though they would have preferred to be ‘home at home’.

Now, we had our fears before the elections, serious fears. First, we were wondering if the elections of 2011 would be different, radically, clearly and manifestly from those of 2003 and, especially those of 2007. And I remember sounding a note of warning that Nigeria couldn’t afford to repeat the terrible electoral fraud of 2007, for it was capable of causing the disintegration of the country.

My fears also had to do with the way the chairman of INEC was appointed. I did say to our friend and colleague: Congratulations and condolences! Congratulations because Prof. Attahiru Jega deserved whatever honour was bestowed on him and whatever kind of responsibility was placed on his shoulders. We knew him at the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) level, and we knew him to be a capable person, level-headed and principled….  Condolences because I sympathised with him over the dangers of conducting an election in a country like Nigeria – a notoriously lawless country noted for political and criminal impunity of all kinds. The question was, how would this man manage to ride the turbulence of Nigeria’s electoral sea?

And then the nature of his appointment! I was thinking that the recommendations of the Uwais Report would be followed to the letter, particularly the two concerning the appointment of INEC’s Chair and the funding of the Commission. And Jega was a member of the Commission, a very prominent member, for that matter. So, I saw the irony in his being appointed in breach of what many people consider the most important recommendations of the commission.

My other worry had to do with the funding of INEC, which, according to the recommendation of the Commission, should be transferred to the NJC. This, again, was cleverly ignored by President Yar’Adua, then quietly side-stepped by his successor, President Jonathan.

My views may sound merely academic now that the 2011 elections have come and gone and have been certified ‘free and fair’. But the dangers are still there. We have so far relied on personalities and NOT the Law. What happens in the future if the appointing President turns out not to be as unmeddlesome as President Jonathan has been this year, and the appointee does not have the kind of integrity so helpfully demonstrated by Jega? These are two issues that need to be tackled, for they are the proverbial banana peels under the heels of future elections. As things stand today, the ‘I’ in INEC remains a dangerous illusion.

Now, back to the 2011 election and my assessment of it. To a very large extent, Attahiru Jega has succeeded in redeeming the battered image of the Professor-Chair of INEC. I remember an interview in December last year in which I pointed out that Nigeria’s moral roadside is littered with the carcasses of rubbished professors. From Humphrey Nwosu, who conducted Nigeria’s cleanest presidential election but was robbed of the triumph, to Maurice Iwu, the Ebola professor, who infested Nigeria’s body and soul with the virus of his electoral fraud and brazen devilry, the Nigerian academic had shown that he hadn’t the solution to the country’s sickening run of electoral fiascos.

Attahiru Jega has been able to heal the wounds in a number of ways. He stood his ground and brought some sanity and direction to the electoral process. He proved to be unbuyable, thus, giving the lie to cynics who are often quick to say that every Nigerian has a price. His integrity and singleness of purpose ‘trickled down’ the ranks: he had a firm moral control over his staff. Which is why his own handling of the 2011 elections never produced an Ayoka Adebayo and her appalling moral somersault.

Of course, I’m not saying that the elections were faultless; they weren’t. They weren’t excellent, but I would say that in relative, comparative terms, the elections of 2011 were much better than the ones we had in 2003 and infinitely better than the Iwu-supervised selections of 2007.

The weaknesses? Virtually all the incubi of the ‘Nigerian Factor’ were at work: late arrival of voting materials, underage voting, monetary inducement of voters even a few yards from polling stations, snatching of ballot boxes, etc. So, we have to be very careful the way we gloat over the 2011 elections. They were better than their predecessors, but they were not free of the typical Nigerian drawbacks.  Many foreign observers, who praised the elections, did so in relative, comparative terms with regard to Nigeria’s recent electoral history. We have to read their reports between the lines.

What we had in 2011 has saved us from the usual crisis but we need to make things much, much better. So, in a way, I would say that the Jega team has set this country on some kind of electoral plateau; we must not go below that plateau but we need to rise above it.

All right, how do you access the post-election events, especially the violence that erupted in the north?

The presidential election has exposed our Achilles heel and left a deep scar on this country. Anybody who looked at the voting pattern in that election would realise that Nigeria is still a sorely divided country. The electoral map, according to the election, shows a discernible horizontal line cutting the country into two. The northern part is so disturbingly CPC/Buhari; the southern part is so unconscionably PDP/Jonathan. That is what I call the Sudanese Syndrome, a dangerous geo-ethnic pathology that has eventually resulted in the breaking up of Sudan into northern-southern blocks, after so many years of bloodletting and waste...

In the Nigerian case, the recent electoral map also brought into bold relief the lingering anomie of the Lugardian Amalgamation of 1914. Almost one century after that act, Nigeria is still very much a ‘gathering of the tribes’ (to borrow Wole Soyinka’s prescient phrasing); a country still very much in search of itself. A random, knocked-up contraption held together by the oil from the Niger Delta. A country, not a Nation.

This fact was frighteningly demonstrated by the rampage and massacre following the presidential election, a situation that brought chilling memories of similar massacres in the mid-sixties, the Civil War, and a near-disintegration of Nigeria. The cause, the modus operandi, the theatre of operation, the sheer senselessness and wanton destruction of the recent carnage look very much like a re-run of the previous one. And the result is the same: Nigeria is still a country ruled by primordial fears of ethno-religious domination, a country still in search of a unifying ethos beyond political sloganeering and opportunism. A country in search of unifying leaders and unifiable followers.

And, finally, those who, out of sheer enthusiastic surprise, have been calling the 2011 election the fairest and freest election in Nigeria need to look just 18 years back. The June 12, 1993 election re-drew the ethno-political map of Nigeria and set the country on a sure path to nationhood.

It provided us with a possibility and a fact. General Ibrahim Babangida and his cohorts fractured that fact and dissipated that possibility. Since then, Nigeria has been beating around the bush.

Just compare the presidential electoral map of the June 12 election with the one of April 2011. The difference is clear. The former carried no faultline in the country’s midriff; only pathways to a corporate, national dream. Which is why, in the thinking of many Nigerians with a fair sense of history, June 12 is really Nigeria’s Democracy Day. A day of a thwarted national dream, which is still not beyond the realm of fulfillment. A national blueprint. An exemplum.

This year’s presidential election is like a merchandise with BUYERS BEWARE written boldly all over it. It is a grim reminder and a warning. We must make sure it doesn’t become an omen.


Do you think the government headed by Goodluck Jonathan has what it takes to bring about a healing to all parts of the country?

It will take more than a Jonathan to heal the wounds of the country or to address the cleavages that I have been talking about. These fissures have been there from time immemorial; they have been there since Lord Lugard’s amalgamation act, and politician after politician has merely paid lip-service to the healing of the scars.

For us to do this the country will need to set its politics right. Nigeria is the artificial creation of the British; they didn’t create Nigeria for Nigerians; they created it for their own interests. Now, the country has passed into our hands and we cannot perpetuate the pattern that the colonial masters have left behind. We have to look for ways to refashion this country to suit our needs.

One way of going about this is to address again the nature of our federalism. We’ve said this time and again. We have to get together and ask ourselves: Do we really want to live together as a country - all 300 odd ethnic groups in this country with our different cultures, languages? If the answer is yes, under what conditions?

The British didn’t ask this question in a normal, candid way in spite of all their Constitutional Conferences before independence. Chief Obafemi Awolowo addressed this issue with perspicacity and prescience extent in his book of 1948, where he was talking futuristically about Nigeria as a federation.

It is we, the people, that will have to decide the nature of the country, of the union we really want to forge. We’ll need the national conference that we’ve been talking about all along – a Sovereign National Conference whose recommendations will be binding on all and sundry, and not subject to manipulation and tampering by the usual military and civilian political elite.

All constitutions we’ve been operating in this country have been dictated to us. The pre-independence one was literally dictated to us by the British; and the ones we’ve been using have been dictated to us by the military and their civilian collaborators. The 1999 Constitution we’re operating now is defective in many ways. There is too much focus on a unitarist structure for Nigeria and this is not working.

The centre is too strong, unconscionably strong, and this is why politicians take their bid for the presidency as a do-or-die affair. The Nigerian president is too powerful; in comparative terms, the president of this country is more powerful than the president of the United States. This may sound strange but it is true. The president of Nigeria could do many things that the president of America would dare not attempt.

Consider the written and/or unwritten acts of impunity, extraordinary power in the disbursement of favours and largesse (don’t tell me you don’t know how some Nigerians come about the allocation of oil blocks that turn them into instant billionaires!), and so many other powers arising from the typical Nigerian way of treating elected officials as Kabyesi (absolute, unchallengeable ruler). The Nigerian president (as well as the governors) is treated and behaves like a medieval monarch.
We have to weaken the centre a little bit but without making it ineffective. The federating units of the country, that is, if we agree that we’re going to be a federal institution, have to agree on how to federate. What kind of power do we have to allocate to the centre? What kind of power should devolve to the federating units? What should these federating units be called? Will they be states? Will they be regions? Provinces or whatever?

Dividing Nigeria into states hasn’t helped much in the forging of national unity (as evident in the electoral map of the 2011 presidential election). It was a master-stroke by General Gowon during the Nigerian Civil War to break the so-called Biafrian stronghold. It worked at that time, but it hasn’t brought this country together in a really fundamental way. In fact, it has created fissures in our walls; more and more people are asking for more states of their own; if we are not careful, we may end up with 300 states patterned after our 300-odd ethnic groups/languages.

A country is like a machine, like an engine; you have to constantly look at the parts and see how they are working together. A country is systemic entity; all its parts have to work in tandem and independently. They have to be able to work independently but they also have to be able to work together for the common interest, which in this case, is the federal centre. As things stand, the federal government takes too much. It plays Father Christmas to the states which are always all there with begging bowls in their hands.

The Nigerian President combines the power of the old military dictator and the absolute authority of the feudal despot. This is why democracy is not working; this is why there is so much sycophancy. Which governor would dare offend the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria? Which governor would dare disagree with him? Go and ask the governors who disagreed with President Olusegun Obasanjo and hear their tribulations, including impeachment by all kinds of Byzantine methods. This is not how to run a democracy. Nigeria is not a federal state, not even a ‘Republic’, as she is wont to claim. We have to create our own federal republic; and it is the people of the country that will do it.

It’s something that will take a long time if we decide to convoke a sovereign national conference in the end. It may take a whole year or even longer; we will have to spell out so many things; we also have to agree on a number of issues and disagree on quite a number of others. In the end, it will be the consensus of the people of Nigeria that, yes, we have agreed to stay together and this is the Constitution that we have created ourselves and this is what we want to be governed by. Those in the countryside will have to be fully in the picture. This means the Constitution will have to be translated into the local languages for easy understanding of the peasants across Nigeria.

At the moment, we are talking over their head. What we have is an elite dispensation that we call democracy crafted to the benefit of retired military officers, and moneyed civilians. I have never seen a political elite more corrupt, more debauched and more misbegotten than what we have in Nigeria. These people cannot lead us to progress; it is they who make free and fair elections impossible; it is they who steal and squander the country’s wealth. So, for us to have a country where the citizens count, we will need to address the state of the union; this is very important.

Nigeria is like an elephant killed by a benevolent spirit and left in the public square. Everybody is wielding a knife; every ethnic group wants a chunk from that elephant. How many chunks can they scoop before the meat is finished? In their desperate scramble for the juiciest piece, how will the booty-hunters avoid turning their knives on one another? Nigeria operates a political structure that encourages blatant cannibalism.

Let’s look at the Southwest, where the ACN has chased away the PDP, and a lot of people believe real progress has come at last. Do you see this optimism?

Ah, progress and problems! Two very important Ps; progress and problems. I like your word choice: ‘chase away’. Yes, the PDP has been ‘chased away’.

The question we have to ask is, How did the PDP sweep into the Southwest in the first place? Of course, it was through the political wizardry and chicanery of the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo.

But people, who blame Obasanjo for the disaster of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) in 2003 are not telling the whole truth. There was also a lot of dissatisfaction with the AD back then, and Obasanjo largely rode on the back of that disenchantment. If all were well, Obasanjo would have found it impossible to trick his way into the AD strongholds. This is an important fact of history for the present ACN victors to remember and note.

There was also the fallacy and fiasco of the mainstream-seekers who said the Southwest was tired of being ‘in opposition’, and should join the big players in the centre, the natural locus of power, profit, and preferment.

Many bought this lemon without asking what the water in the mainstream was like, how deep, how wide? The purposeless PDP sold the idea; many Southwest politicians bought it; scooped the federal elephant for themselves; grew fat and forgetful; then sank in the 2011 elections.

Now back to opposition politics once again… Without a doubt, a very important political development took place in the Southwest this year. In fact, the most important regional political development of the 2011 elections took place in the Southwest. When you are talking about change, about a hard, determined struggle for change and the instance of democracy at work, the 2011 polls gave us a lot of this in the Southwest. This happened not because the people of the Southwest are special or exceptional, but because the people have grown savvy and poll-wise from experience. The purposelessness and violence of the PDP engendered profound disillusionment with the mainstream unconscionably dominated by that party.

The Southwest longed for an alternative and the ACN answered their call.

The people fought for their freedom, policed the polls; they watched the electoral process very critically. The ACN triumph in the southwest is a phenomenon with many causes. One of them, surely, is the spectacular success of Governor Babatunde Fashola in Lagos State. Fashola’s achievements were/are there for everyone to see.  Lagos has become an indelible, incontestable advertisement for Fashola and the ACN. It has also given us a positive example; it has shown us that we could make things work in Nigeria. It has shown us that we are not a doomed country and land of the impossible.

Fashola’s Lagos story goes beyond Lagos; it has become a parable, a symbol and an article of faith. I hope someday soon Fashola will have the opportunity to repeat at the national level the feats he has so spectacularly achieved at the state level. And when that time comes, let no one thwart the chance with the incubus called zoning or suchlike geo-ethnic atavism. With people like Fashola and a handful of equally competent others from different parts of the country, the long-deferred Nigerian renaissance will be within our reach.

With the ACN and Labour Party in control in the old West, let’s hope for  a holistic and corporate development that is not restricted to just this region of the country. Let the ACN emulate the principled progressivism, political commitment, and people-oriented programming of the old Action Group shorn of provincialism and undue exceptionalism. And let there be   accountability, accountability, and accountability.

Nigeria is not a poor country; we’re only poor because our money is being stolen by those who rule us. And we have to say this without mincing words: This is no time for disingenuous euphemisms and innuendos. Most of those who rule us are thieves and criminals! If you don’t believe me, consider what is happening to former public officeholders right now. If you don’t believe me, consider what happened to the hairdresser, Mrs. Patricia Etteh, who was roundly indicted and kicked out of office a couple of years ago only for her fellow ‘law makers’ to clear her of any wrong-doing and then beatify her some days ago. You wonder: are the perpetrators of these acts the shameless, thoughtless bandits on whom the country squanders nearly half of its earnings? How can people like these lead a country to progress? Accountability is very important; let the ACN governors know that those who elected them never forget. No, the people of the Southwest never forget. The PDP plunderers didn’t remember that; the people jolted them into remembrance with a crushing defeat. Let the ACN learn a lesson.

A major problem in the present political scenario in the Southwest is that of extreme homogeneity. Too much sameness may constitute a political and moral problem. How do we deal with a situation in a supposedly presidential democracy in which the governor and all or nearly all the legislators come from the same party? With the merging of the executive and the legislative arms in a system in which the two are expected to be separate and characterized by mutual oversight, how do we calculate the enormity of the harm done to the principle of check-and-balance, which undergirds the very idea of democracy?

Government without opposition is like heaven without hell: the absence of the fear of the latter naturally leads to self-adulation and atrophy of the former. Without an alternative mirror in which to see itself, power soon bloats into self-beatification and self-indulgence. Untried, untested, uncontested virtues are sometimes worse than outright vices. Experience has shown that the one-party state (even when that state is a state within a state) can only pay lip service to genuine democracy.

In our present dispensation, the executive and the legislature could easily conspire against the people. And when that happens, the judiciary stands every chance of joining the first two arms, thus completing a vicious circle. Government without opposition is the shortest route to tyranny. In sum, our governors have to handle the present situation with extreme care and circumspection. We all wish them well. They cannot wish themselves anything less.

- This interview was first published in the Guardina  Newspapers on  Sunday, 19 June 2011



“EL SUBSIDY CHURCH OF CHRIST, INC.”: Reappraising “Church” in Nigerian Christian Religiosity

By
S. ’Jide Komolafe

The first part of this title was one of a few distinctive church name variations that surfaced on social networking sites, particularly Facebook, during the petrol price hike embroilment in Nigeria early in the year. There were other expressive usage patterns such as “Jehovah El-Subsidy Ministries, Isolo – Lagos,” “Ijo Mimo Subsidy Lati Orun Wa,” “CAC, Oke Subsidy, Iwo Road, Ibadan.” These creative adaptations are  “humorous lexical and semantic contortions” of such popular church names as “Ijo Mimo Kristi Lati Orun Wa” (Celestial Church of Christ), “Jehovah El Shaddai Ministries” (Jehovah God Almighty Ministries), “CAC, Oke Irapada” (CAC, Mount of Transfiguration)  and so on.

I had decided to use one of these creatively contextualized names before I came across Farooq Kperogi’s article, “The grammar and vocabulary of ‘fuel subsidy removal.’”[1] Kperogi’s depth and dexterous command of English tower in masterful supremacy. Yet, he is as entertaining as he is intellectually stimulating. His is an expose of the vernacularization and humorous contortions of the word “subsidy” in Nigerian English. While his focus is on the linguistic consciousness of the term and its distinctive usage patterns among Nigerians, my interest is in the exposure of ecclesiastical impulses that go beyond inspired “fashionable vocabularies and expressive styles.” This must not be misunderstood as attempting to play one against the other. Not at all! Rather, both highlight the scandal in contemporary Nigeria and the outrageously unconscionable indulgences that exist in the realms of God and of Caesar—the religious and the civil.

The vernacularization of the term “subsidy” and its associated contortions should, therefore, be seen as less relevant humorously than as a symbolic coping strategy. Although the texts of the humor are important, they constitute only a part of the whole. This is not to ignore the fact that whether these creative contortions are funny to some and unfunny to others, they are by no means useless. In a country where the aggregate index tilts precariously between rampart poverty and existential hopelessness, it is understandable that the humorous approach to the compounding of wellbeing as a result of the so-called “fuel subsidy removal” was a deliberate and powerful emotional regulator. Even when a sober cast would have been more appropriate these humorous contortions forced a positive perspective on an otherwise frustrating situation.
   
In the same way, the incongruous and unexpected association of these normally unrelated contexts (church and subsidy) presents a humorous reappraisal of what being and doing church has become in contemporary Nigeria. To this extent, it is possible to assess the expressive usage pattern such as “El-Subsidy Church of Christ, Inc.” not only as the limits of humor, but as both reflective of the state of the church in relation to the deeply conflicted subsidy removal itself and the associated corruption of our political economy.  The proliferation of churches, embodied by these distinctive church name variations, becomes the humorous reappraisal distancing authentic biblical Christianity from the upsetting scenario of today. By so doing, the humorist gains a sense of control over a disempowering situation and makes a compelling case for conservative values. 

Such a humorous reappraisal of the church presents us with a challenge. It calls us to stop being so comfortable and to start seeking the truth. More importantly, it challenges us to stand up for the church and against the liberal spin machine, whose practice attract many to the church but leave many more wanting more than prosperity and material acquisition. It is not an exaggerated claim that the most incurable of optimists would be hard put to it to deny the effusive assessment that “truth” has become a grand illusion in Nigeria. Yet, the country adjudged “the most religious nation in the world” (BBC News, 26 February 2004), and home to “the world’s largest temple” (naijagists.com, Dec. 6, 2011) occupies a less than enviable spot on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

How then are we to conceptualize this intractable contradiction? Would anyone looking at our last vestiges of “truth” proclaim our religious houses as morally surpassing the other sectors of the polity? Answering these questions truthfully and honestly is quite sobering indeed. What we have are religious institutions that have virtually become the fertilizing agent of everything untrue. We are prodigiously endowed in human and natural resources, and are uniquely described as “the most religious.” Nevertheless, Nigeria remains an index finger of poverty, social misery and corruption. This makes Nigeria a curious paradox in the comity of nations!

Looking at Nigerian Christianity, for example, the last couple of decades have brought new gains in influence and respectability to the nation as the center of remarkable Christian engagement both on the continent and in the world. Yet, a closer look at the story of Christianity in Nigeria reveals a tightly woven narrative of the process of beginning, growth and change. First, there were, and still are, the denominational churches of the Protestant mission era with their deep roots in Western forms and theology. Then arose the so-called African indigenous churches that gave witness to religious independency and a more African way of doing church. And lastly, there have come the more eclectic Charismatic/Pentecostal churches, revealing both Western and existing African expressions. This third strand can best be described as a “continuum,” where the past, with its older traditions, flows together with the present, epitomizing religious innovation in 21st century Nigeria.

Any analysis of religious engagement in Nigeria is misleading if it fails to account for such a transforming and somewhat overlapping pattern of church development. It must equally highlight the principal contributing factors of the massive growth of the church. The phenomena that characterize Nigerian Christianity are full of dramatic movements and sub-movements that are both radical and often controversial. These movements show clearly African creativity with its peculiar character, shape and form. Today’s pattern of church expansion is out of the ordinary: the exploding numbers, the scope of the phenomenon, the cross-cultural patterns of encounter, the variety and diversity of styles and forms, the wide spectrum of theological views and ecclesiastical traditions represented, the ideas of authority and styles of leadership that have been developed, the process of contextualization that fosters liturgical renewal, and the production of new religious art, music, hymns, songs, and prayers. All of these are featured on Christianity’s breathtakingly new face today. It does not come as a surprise, therefore, that a comparative survey of ten countries by the BBC aptly described Nigeria as “the most religious nation in the world.” It is very doubtful if this ranking has slipped because the events of today far surpass those of 2004 when the remark was first uttered. In fact, contemporary church advancement is a remarkable forward momentum that mimics the zeal and missionary optimism of the First Century Church.

For our purpose, the renewed attentiveness to ecclesiastical ethos looks through the lens of the moment and back to the late 1970s through the early 1980s. These decades marked the emergence of neo-Pentecostalism as the most creative and adaptive strand in Nigerian Christian history. On the one hand, it was an emotional reaction and a welcome moral alternative as the neo-Pentecostals became the subject examining an unsavory political, economic and socio-cultural milieu. On the other hand, this consciousness inevitably made them (whether or not they were aware at the time) the object of that same examination. It is a sober acknowledgement that more than two decades after their emergence on to the religious landscape, not many Nigerians will esteem them as highly as was the case in the early 1980s. A cursory look at articles, online social network discussions and blogs will show that not a few people are dissatisfied with the church in Nigeria over its perceived complicity in the corruption that has permeated everywhere whether in our pulpits or in public offices. 

Today, most discussions bother on the serious incompatibility between the church’s evangelistic conviction and its moral obligation. The commercialization of the gospel, for example, is disturbing to say the least. The Jesus of neo-Pentecostalism seems to have more in common with the Chamber of Commerce than with a rugged tree on a barren hill. Consumed by the “doctrine of prosperity” the church seems to have found the symbolic platform on which to integrate the born-again experience of redemption with social mobility, conspicuous consumption, and the legitimation of wealth in a time of scarcity.

The bold, radical, and even desperate attempts at becoming rich are out of bounds. In the process, the question of truth has been completely trivialized and the gospel itself robbed of its ultimate seriousness. Even the most elemental changes in human society for which the church has earned social respectability, such as building up morals and inculcating good behavior, have become lost. Today, a country that was adjudged “the most religious in the world” also boastfully affirms to be home to “the world’s largest temple.” In spite of these dexterous religious achievements, Nigeria occupies a negative rating on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). What then has gone wrong? Where are the prophets, those who have the divine mandate to campaign against what is evil, abhorrent and depreciating? In other words, how do we reconcile this paradox? It is fitting to say, therefore, that the Nigerian church is presently poised at a “strategic inflection point” where discernible strengths and limitations must be juxtaposed with a fresh articulation of the task and role of the church in nation building.

Answering these questions is precisely the purpose of our next series. It is to confront head-on some of the issues that are problematic to the Nigerian church. It is my hope that each commentary will present an argument to a problem; explain what the problem is, what caused it and what can be done to fix it. It is not a forum to bash people but to focus on specific issue, using biblical facts to back up theological claims. 

“The greatest historical puzzle of the Church’s history,” in the words of Leonhard Goppelt, “is her origin.”[2] Even more so, the origin and formation of the Church must be conceptualized in terms of her message since it is impossible to discuss one without the other. To this end, the apostolic witness has been the authoritative source that found its expression in what we have as the New Testament canon. Today, over two thousand years since the formation of the Church, historical investigations have taken on new forms, indicating the lines of thought, and the forces that made for change.

Nevertheless, in the process of eccelesiastical scholarship, the New Testament documents set the stage for all church history. They offer a series of explanations for the transition from Jesus’ earthly ministry to the development of the Church. It is assumed in this series, therefore, that an understanding of the basic ecclesiological developments in the First Century provides the a priori developmental principle that one can understand what the Church should be today only when one has a thorough understanding of what the Church “has been” or “ought to be.”
It is an appropriate theological claim, then, to posit that there is a connection between historical and contemporary ecclesiological developments, whereby the former gives expression to the fundamental claims of the latter.

What I have set out to do in the “Faith Seeking Understanding” series is to explore the biblical understanding of the Church and to find relevant clues from ancient times that may inform Christian thought and practice in Nigeria today. As a matter of urgency, some of the issues will also bother on theological integrity, moral probity, ecclesiastical accountability and the false dichotomy between theory and praxis. Ultimately, undergirding this series is the attempt to help people understand, explain, test, critique, defend or promote any of myriad religious issues relating to the practice and role of church in Nigeria today. In other words, it is to arm the average person with the kind of religious truth that is both self sustaining and socially liberating. It is not to be misunderstood as attempting to replace faith with understanding. Not at all! However one looks at it, Nigerians love God and this partly explains why we are considered “religious.” My premise follows from here and adopts the stance of Saint Anselm. That is, “faith seeking understanding” means something like “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” I must warn, however, that this journey is not a sprint. It is somewhat of a marathon that (Lord willing) will last a number of weeks. So, let’s fasten our seat belts as we embark on our journey of “Faith Seeking Understanding.”












                REFERENCES

               
[1] Farook Kperogi, “The Grammar and Vocabulary of ‘Fuel Subsidy Removal’” (http://sundaytrust.com.ng/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9104&catid=13&Itemid=28). Accessed on Feb. 5, 2012.
                [2] Leonard Goppelt, Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Times (1970:8).

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