The trouble with Nigeria


Recently in Abuja, Nigeria

CHINUA Achebe, that late iconic Nigerian and African writer summarised Nigeria’s problem in two poignant statements. “There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian character. “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.” Last Friday on May 29, Africa gathered in Abuja to witness the inauguration of General Muhammadu Buhari as president of Nigeria, a man who in 1984 had toppled Shehu Shagari from power and briefly taken over. This time, the General had swapped his military uniform with civilian clothes. Nigeria was now recycling its leaders. As the General took the oath of office, Achebe’s haunting words echoed in the background. There were over 50 Heads of State at the occasion, including our own Robert Mugabe. There were also Nigeria’s former heads of state, at least those still alive, and you realised with a bit of surprise more than half of them were soldiers. There was General Yakubu Gowon who had toppled General Ironsi in 1967 and, between 1968 and 1970, battled to crush Biafra’s attempt to secede that cost nearly two million lives. There was General Olusegun Obasanjo, twice head of state and believed to be the mastermind behind all the military coups that happened starting with General Ironsi’s in 1966. There were soldiers everywhere, but the police manned the roadblocks in Abuja and the soldiers stood a short distance behind, but you saw they were the ones in charge. In Nigeria, they say the most guaranteed route to fame and fortune is through the army. In Eagle Square, many speakers made reference to the Third Republic as if that helped to distance them from the memory of military rule that dominated the country’s history since independence in 1960 when they established the First Republic under Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa. He was toppled by General Ironsi in 1966. The Second Republic was a brief four years when General Obasanjo allowed general elections in 1980 that ushered in Shehu Shagari before General Buhari toppled him in 1984. The Third Republic was when, once again, General Obasanjo allowed general elections that brought in Chief Yar’Adua in 2007. Yar’Adua died in office in 2009 and was replaced by his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan. But most of the time between 1966 and 2007, there was a litany of coups and counter-coups as the soldiers toppled each other. Therefore if the Third Republic and the ceremony we had gathered to witness was Nigerians’ attempt to move away from memories of the military dominating their past, they are carrying its significant baggage into the future. And this confusion, this historical leadership instability, is the sad story of Nigeria. It is against this background that a situation could arise where some political activists in the name of Sahara TV could breach the security cordon and harass President Mugabe as he entered the inauguration venue last week. It was a mere reflection of that general disorder. At the Hilton Hotel where many heads of state stayed, we watched the President of Benin, Boni Yayi refuse to use the military shuttle bus that had been arranged to take heads of state to the inauguration venue. Such a laissez-faire and lax approach to issues concerning the security of heads of state was outrageous and suicidal. The biggest lesson for Zimbabwe was Goodluck Jonathan and the virtue of accepting defeat. If Morgan Tsvangirai was there and looked into Jonathan’s eyes, he would have seen the mercurial statesmanship it required to accept defeat. He would also have followed the spotlight move to Bayelsa, Jonathan’s home state and seen the huge welcome that awaited him. General Buhari described Jonathan’s acceptance of defeat as having “changed the course of Nigerian political history.” Indeed, it did. If Tsvangirai was there, he would have learned to return to Buhera where a loser could also be hero. There were other worrying things about the occasion, like the silence in General Buhari’s inaugural speech on Nigeria’s foreign policy. As Africa’s biggest economy, US$600 billion, and the continent’s most populous nation, 180 million people, Africa looks up to it for leadership. General Buhari did not mention the African Union (AU), not even recognising the presence of its Chairman, President Robert Mugabe. In the end, you were confused by the incredible political small-mindedness. Africa wanted to hear how its economic and political giant would contribute to its effort to reform the United Nations (UN) and create itself a permanent position in the Security Council, a position that it was prepared to give to Nigeria. Was the General not aware of these unspoken political dynamics? But if there was anything that highlighted Nigeria’s monumental economic shortcoming, it was the meandering fuel queues in the world’s fifth largest oil producer. Even the uninitiated could understand the problem. If Nigeria refined its crude oil instead of exporting it and then importing the finished products, it would not experience shortages of fuel to such an alarming extent. The Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation (Zim-ASSET), Zimbabwe’s economic blueprint which the AU has urged its members to look at, underpins value addition and beneficiation as key drivers for overall economic development. The noise in the streets of Abuja, the confusion, the careless laughter at the market as gossiping women clapped hands with friends, the angry curses over a failed deal marked by explosive clicks of the tongue and lips, the general extravagance, in fact everything that we see in their low-budget Nollywood movies that we have become addicted to, is Nigeria. In fact, that is how Chinua Achebe defined it. For instance, the driver of the van we moved around with had such a short temper we requested his withdrawal because we feared there might be a small misunderstanding and an altercation. When he went away, he waved at us happily as if nothing had happened. They are happy people, the Nigerians. At the end of his inaugural speech, General Buhari quoted an entire passage from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, Taken at the flood, leads to fortune And omitted, all the voyage of their life Ends in shallows and misery.” It was as if his election by the Nigerian people was not sufficient without being endorsed by the British. How could General Buhari search for heroes to inspire him in the freezing wilderness of English culture when Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for example, that African literary Bible, lay next to him, unopened? If Buhari had quoted Achebe, Nigeria would have given him a standing ovation. It is frustration brought about by this kind of thinking and behaviour that eventually leads Things Fall Apart’s central character, Okonkwo, to take his own life in the end. Chinua Achebe must have turned in his grave and said: “I told you.” Africa needs visionary leaders who put the interests of their citizens and that of the continent first. After all, the twin scourges of slavery and colonisation were horrible, shared African nightmares. Nigeria is still groping in the dark. For views and comments, email:


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