Nigeria: Moving Forward In A Circle - by Ken Ihedioha

The issues that challenge us are basically the same, and as Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808-1890) reminded us in one of his frequently quoted epigrams, “The more things change, the more they remain the same”. 

I recently dusted up my archives of newspaper headlines and magazine editorials kept over the years and found that the issues that dominated the public space 50, 30, 20 years ago are still the ones that confront us. Today’s newspaper headlines and editorials scream of the same issues. Corruption, perhaps, remains the most endemic. Violence did well in ranking; in our peculiar case, violence comes in increments – through the decades.

Two years ago, KPMG, a global audit firm, named Nigeria as the most fraud-prone country in Africa. The Economist magazine of October 25, 2014, in “A Nation Divided”, said inter-alia, “Corruption blossomed in the late 1960s during the Biafran Civil War, when money flowing into regimental coffers went into private pockets. The generals never lost their appetite. When they allowed a return to democracy 15 years ago, the civilian political class adopted the army’s habits. What started as a nibbling at the system has turned into all-out gobbling”. 

In a supplement, titled “The Most African Country”, The Economist, in its January 23, 1982, edition had a most damning report on Nigeria and contained revelations that were sure to embarrass any true Nigerian. Consistent with the fashion of that era when online publications were almost non-existent, men with deep pockets dived into the premises of news vendors and bought out the entire lot, ostensibly to prevent the reading public into the depth of the economic abyss that Nigeria of that era had sunk. In yet another damning report, Jonathan Spivak, staff reporter with The Wall Street Journal, in a July 12, 1982, piece he editorialised for his paper inferred that, “Foreigners who have lived here a long time believe that many of Nigeria’s shortages are deliberately created by government officials to line their own pockets…a local businessman persuades a friendly government minister to slap import duties on a particular commodity…supplies dry up, the price skyrockets, and the well-connected businessman unloads his own stocks at a large profit. The friendly minister then gets his percentage”. 

Do you observe any similarity with the present? Anyone who thought legislative indolence and absent- mindedness belonged only to the new-era may chew on this: On September 22, 1981, the New Nigerian reported that a total of N500, 000 appropriated for the furnishing of five apartments belonging to the leaders of the House of Representatives was embezzled. Writing in the Sunday Tribune of July 11, 1982, Ebino Topsy – before he encountered his transformation – appealed to Nigerians not to attach much importance to the National Assembly probes. He said: “ The National Assembly has yet to inform Nigerians what had become of the internal inquiry conducted sometime ago to the question of some National Assembly members receiving the money meant for their aides under false pretences”. Ebino continued: “Neither have we been told of the names and the type of punishment meted out to the senators who collected estacode allowances for no overseas tour made”.

In his “State of the Nation” column published in the Sunday Tribune of October 3, 1982, the late Dr Tai Solarin alleged: “Absenteeism became so rampant in the National Assembly that more often than not, a quorum could not be formed to perform the day’s work…Many members came in, signed their names and then stole out to do their own business, whatever those were, in town”. Evidently, this throw back from the past evokes a feeling of pathos in today’s news headlines. Indeed, nothing has changed, one is tempted to conclude. A number of state legislatures – in a democracy that can no longer be described as nascent – have become mere appendages of the executive arm. The accompanying scandals are also too familiar – oversight functions have often degenerated into contract scams, leading to loss of moral courage to do the right thing. It has been argued elsewhere that our problem is not lack of training or expertise. Rather, it is the corrupt and indiscipline milieu in which this expertise is expected to perform social, political and economic miracles.

Why is Nigeria so fixated to dancing on the brink; of a dangerous rendezvous with history? Those who lack a sense of history or refuse to be educated by it invariably repeat the same mistakes.

A friend narrated to me quite recently, the gory experiences of her family in Maiduguri in the hands of the JTF soldiers. Sounding very despondent – almost broken – she said that in her estimation, the civilian casualties recorded in the search for Boko Haram kingpins were far in disproportionate measure. Another family that I am acquainted with lost three of its members to violence in Kano. Sufficiently petrified by the inhuman experience of watching her two teenage boys killed in her presence, the mother of this family has vowed never to return to the familiar territory, a space that gave her family nurture, until things spiralled out of control. 

More recent developments across cities within the North-East zone make madam’s case pale into insignificance, no matter how hurtful. As these pockets of violence sweep through a beleaguered nation, the security forces, in spite of their best efforts, appear overwhelmed. In the midst of the bombings, the staffing and other pre-meditated acts of violence, a certain eerie feeling often crosses my mind: I hope we’re not perilously walking towards another era of prolonged civil disturbances?

As a child of the civil war, I dread the gory spectacle of its repeat, yet the stark reality suggests we must urgently move away from rhetoric and self-denial. In July 2014, Rwanda marked 20th anniversary of the genocide, where 800,000 people mainly Tutsi men, women and children – in 100 days of madness – were killed. The Rwandan nation is still processing its degree of insanity and trying to bring a closure to that season of hate. The dangers of moral equivalence and making peace with injustice and immorality is that soon enough the cycle follows a repetition. 

Unlike Nigeria that spurned the brilliant opportunity for a full closure to its cycle of violence that the Oputa panel offered, the government of Rwanda has taken steps to bring about justice and peace. Perpetrators of the genocide have been tried in courts. Over 20,000 people have been tried. The United Nations also came in and conducted over 70 cases in its tribunal. Those found guilty have been sentenced. The survivors of the genocide and the children born after have a sense that actions have consequences and that there is a price to be paid for disregard of human life. This should serve as a lesson to Nigeria.

Ken Ihedioha is a Lagos based political analyst