When Karl Maier published his book This House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria (2000), I was probably among the first people given an advance copy of the book a few months before it was formally published. I was at that time the Books Review Editor of the London-based monthly magazine, Africa Today. Maier, a former correspondent for the London daily, Independent, called a few times to ask my opinion of the book, before I got to review it.
Maier’s book appeared to me at that time to be more popular for its prophetic and catchy, if depressing title, than for any rigorous analysis of the Nigerian condition. Accepted, he interviewed several shakers and movers of the society. I felt however that like most reportages and travel writings, in several instances he elevated the institutional manifestations of a phenomenon to its defining characteristics, thereby missing the point. I also accused him of peppering his reportages to enthral his publishers and the British reading public.
Barely a year after relocating to the country, I am beginning to feel I was perhaps unfairly touchy about Maier’s book. I left the country as a young adult and was away for only twenty two years. Maier was only a correspondent, knew little about the emotional and other nuanced history of the country and his referents were understandably only the worlds he grew up in and knows well –USAandUK. Perhaps my reaction to the book in theUKwas typical of the way most people would react if a non-family member told them that their mother’s ‘soup’ tasted awful. In hindsight, Maier’s book was perhaps the way outsiders would interpret our country from their own idiosyncratic way of filtering reality. For Maier,Nigeriawas one chunk of chaos that was destined to implode at some point. These days, with despondency all over the place, people are bandying around the title of Karl Maier’s book as if it were one piece of prophecy about to be fulfilled.
In October 2003, some three years after Maier’s doomsday book was published, a survey of more than 65 countries published by the UK's New Scientist magazine suggested that the happiest people in the world live in Nigeria. Nigeria had not imploded; rather it inhabited the happiest people on earth, according to the survey. We flaunted the results of this survey – directly where we could and by innuendo where etiquette would frown at such. We were unconcerned about the ‘scientificness’ of the survey and very few of us took issues with the New Scientist that had published it.
The current revival of interest in Karl Maier’s book and Nigerians’ reactions to the New Scientist’s 2003 survey on happiness in many ways mirror the contradictory relationship many Nigerians have with theNigeria project. For instance when Gaddafi tapped into the declining faith in theNigeria project to suggest the balkanisation of the country along its most obvious fault lines, most Nigerians, even those that have represented centrifugal tendencies, jumped on him. This for me suggests that despite the consensus that most of the constituent units of the country are unhappy at the contrived marriage, we seem to have become so used to one another that, like most dysfunctional marriages, we bicker and threaten divorce all the time and at the same time paralysed by fear of what would be our fates if the divorce option is pursued conclusively.
For me, it appears obvious that Nigerians need a forum where the basis of the marriage should be renegotiated. And a continued resistance to this, when things are obviously not going in the right direction in the country, stiffens the challenge to the current arrangement. I am not for a ‘Sovereign’ National Conference, which, knowing the Nigerian temperament, will easily be turned into a forum where a vocal minority will tyrannize the rest and engage in all sorts of unhelpful shenanigans and grandstanding. We may need something along the lines of a Constituent Assembly where all critical stakeholders are represented, and no subject is declared off limits. In fact declaring any subject off limit, such as any discussion of the break-up ofNigeria, drives such an idea underground, glamorising it in the process. In such a forum to renegotiate theNigeriaproject, every idea must be allowed to compete freely in the political marketplace of ideas.
My gut feeling is that most Nigerians will feel diminished if the country were to be dismembered. It appears that most Nigerians simply want a greater devolution of power from the centre to the federating units such that local peculiarities will be preserved and allowed to blossom within theNigeriaproject. Curiously, while popular sentiments are for ‘true federalism’ quite a number of the actions of the federal government, including the proposed constitutional amendments, will invariably push the country towards greater centralisation. The proposed constitutional amendments even included the creation of more states – at a time most of the existing ones are economically unviable and popular sentiments are towards collapsing existing ones to a more manageable number to save the cost of governance. Such a forum to renegotiateNigeriamust also take a critical look at the current system of revenue allocation just as it has to consider the possibility of state/zonal police.
I believe that beneath the façade of ‘happiness’ exuded by many Nigerians is the stark reality that for an overwhelming majority of the populace, life is truly nasty, brutish and short. At 51, it is true that the house has not fallen; it is however equally true that it has continued to leak badly and is becoming progressively uninhabitable, with wobbly structures. At 51, we can no longer continue to skirt around issues when there is a pervasive existentialist crisis and a rapid withdrawal from theNigeriaproject into primordial identities where people are trying to seek meaning for life. At 51, many increasingly see theNigeriaproject as a hindrance to their self actualisation and therefore see the country as a legitimate target.
The crisis in our nation building project was brought to the fore by the selfish way a group of self-serving members of the late Yaradua’s kitchen cabinet - otherwise known as the cabal - took the nation for a ride during the last days of the late President. The opportunity for a new beginning offered by the collective anger against the ‘cabal’ was sadly lost by Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to contest the last April election. For some Nigerians therefore, Jonathan became just another hope betrayed. Regaining the trust of Nigerians should consequently be the number one priority of the president. I however honestly can’t see how his idea of a- single term tenure of seven years for the President and Governors, which he continues to push despite contrary popular sentiments, can aid the rebuilding of that trust.
War of the militias?
The Tribune of September 30 2011 reported that the Egbesu Mightier Fraternity has threatened to fight MEND to a standstill over the latter’s threat to plant and detonate explosives within the vicinity of theEagle Square on October 1 2011. In an email to the paper through its “European representative Mr Peter Timi” who claimed he was “mandated by the leader of the group, Mr Jomo Gbomo”, to issue the statement, MEND said one of the reasons for planning the attack was “to express the displeasure of the group at the continued prosecution of the leaders of MEND, Henry and Charles Okah.”