Friday, 29 March 2013

A land in need of heroes

In There Was a Country, his memoir published last year, Chinua Achebe counted himself part of a lucky generation, and so they were. Pampered by the departing British as the sun began to set on the Empire, they were in their late twenties and early thirties at independence in 1960, fresh graduates from the country’s only university, where they were taught in small classes by professors from Oxford. Achebe himself walked from there into a job with the Nigerian Broadcasting Service and quickly rose to Director of External Broadcasting by the time of the civil war seven years later. By then, he had a house in Ikoyi, a ‘Jagua’ car and four well-received novels to his name, one of which, Things Fall Apart, is widely considered a twentieth-century classic. It was to his great credit that he recognised the privilege for what it was, which perhaps accounted for his famous humility, a much-praised quality in Nigeria – hardly an obituary fails to attribute such to the dearly departed – precisely because it is so rare, at any rate amongst those whose chi cracked their nuts for them.

I was never a fan. I have always considered Things Fall Apart a bad book, although its suffocating sentimentality about a vanished kingdom where men were virile and women virtuous – the past is always a better place, in Nigeria no less than elsewhere – presumably accounts for its 10 million readers in 50 languages who evidently like their literature to be uplifting, in this case that Africans once had cultures of great depth and beauty. Arrow of God, his other book set in the olden days, was a more complex attempt at characterisation but here as in the others he faded well short of the finishing line. Still, both those novels were at least driven by passion. Not so the other two set in modern times, where the machinery creaks awfully. The protagonist of No Longer at Ease is unable to stand up to his parents for the woman he loves but imagines he can prevail over the corruption in the wider society; in A Man of the People, the same sort of protagonist triumphs over his older rival by stealing his improbable girlfriend before the revolution comes along to settle the country’s problems. Neither of them would have attracted the interest of Jagua Nana - ‘They called her Jagua because of her good looks and stunning fashions. They said she was Jag-wa after the famous British prestige car’ - but then Achebe, unlike Cyprian Ekwensi, never did create a woman who wasn’t virginal or elderly – sexless, at any rate.

Nor did I think much of his political observations, notably the famous opening passage in The Trouble with Nigeria to the effect that Nigeria’s problem is its leadership. As I have argued elsewhere, the politicians he held responsible for our ills are themselves Nigerian (albeit of a more desperate disposition); moreover, politicians, everywhere, will get away with what they can because that is their nature. It is up to the people they seek to exercise power over to keep them in line. That Nigerians do not do so is hardly their fault, although a modicum of probity among just a few of our legislators would be water in the desert. That this is not going to happen is Nigeria’s tragedy, as Achebe himself observed from the exile he was forced to endure because the medical facilities he needed were not available in his homeland; the same homeland, incidentally, which nevertheless attempted to use him as cover for its own deficiencies. Much was made of Achebe’s rejection of successive national honours in his later years, and rightly so. The first was in 2004 by the then Obasanjo administration; as he stated at the time: ‘I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.’ The second was seven years later when he was even more forthright: ‘The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me. I must therefore regretfully decline the offer again.’

Then there was the matter of his ‘viciously dim’ observation of Heart of Darkness, although he might have had more cause for unease had the ‘racist’ Conrad presumed upon the African imagination that so distressed him in Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, the novel which famously inspired Things Fall Apart. Conrad, equally an outsider in the very tradition Achebe aspired to, concerned himself with what he knew - Kurtz adrift in the incomprehensible bush, divested of all that was familiar – as, indeed, did Achebe himself in his insistence that everybody must tell their own side of the story the better to understand our shared humanity. But the real question is why he didn’t write in his own language if he was so concerned with the depth and beauty of his culture. What is extraordinary, in fact, is the effortless way Achebe et al abandoned their mother tongues in order that they might challenge the white man at his own game, a futile exercise which only proves the white man in his superiority, and underscored when the same white man organises conferences to reassure his charges that they write even better English than he does. And it’s not as if a start hadn’t been made with Pita Nwana’s Omenuka in 1933 and D O Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmale five years later, but they were swiftly shunted aside in favour of the self-styled ‘pioneers’ the British cultivated in their own image as the logical extension of indirect rule.

That said, the encomiums have been pouring in from the moment we received news of his death, but then Nigeria is in the unhappy state of a land in need of heroes and Achebe might as well fit the bill. At least he didn’t take anything from anybody while writing the books that have given so much pleasure to so many, including, it seems, the saintly Mandela  - ‘There was a writer named Chinua Achebe in whose company the prison walls fell’ – who absolutely everybody has been quoting.

© Adewale Maja-Pearce

Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy, and
Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998 and 1999 annual reports on human
rights violations in Nigeria. He also edited The Heinemann Book of African
Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, and Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems.

Click here to see Maja-Pearce's page:

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Of principalities and powers

Dr Doyin Okupe recently called me a child. Well, not me personally. I never met the fellow and probably never will. He meant the rest of us on the outside looking in when he attempted to explain why his boss recently had cause to pardon his own former boss, the Alams who snuck out of the UK dressed as a woman in order to evade the long arm of the law. ‘It is not all decisions parents take that are palatable for their kids,’ he said loftily; and added: ‘But with time they will realize that their parents are right.’ Perhaps caught off-guard by the fury of Nigerians at his revealing slur, he attempted to cover up his evident contempt for those who should know their place by tasking us to forgive the newly pardoned former governor on the grounds that he was a reformed sinner.

Still, it’s not easy being a spokesperson for the sort of administration which one might have expected given the antecedents of the incumbent. But Dr Okupe, at least, never had any pretensions to honour or integrity, ideals or values. He was long known as an attack dog – a Rottweiler, say – and managed to achieve the singular feat of earning Baba’s wrath for his duplicity: ‘I was there when President Olusegun Obasanjo physically beat and assaulted him because of his attitude and lack of honesty,’ an eye-witness recently claimed, although one might be inclined to question the moral authority of a man who allegedly fathered two children on his daughter-in-law on the sworn affidavit of the cuckolded husband. At any rate, one gets an idea of the cess-pit we are talking about when it comes to the goings-on at Aso Rock.

Dr Okupe himself was drafted in to assist Dr Reuben Abati, whose own lacklustre performance in the first 12 months of this administration failed to inspire confidence on the part of his paymasters, and exemplified by his own response to the latest proof that tackling corruption is not among their most pressing  priorities. He began by castigating those uneasy with the pardon as suffering from ‘sophisticated ignorance’ (!), before accusing them of wanting to ‘pull down the country [by doing] everything possible to promote their own agenda regardless of whatever differences that may exist among us,’ which was difficult to follow, especially since Abati himself had previously characterised the man whose pardon he was now defending as ‘a dishonourable fellow, unfit to rule, unfit to sit among men and women of honour and integrity, unfit to preach to the people that he leads about ideals and values…’

Alas, poor Abati, the former hero of the downtrodden who once railed against ‘people without standards, values, beyond shame, who hold a position today and shift to the other side tomorrow and still argue with great passion’. Well, yes. Never has a person condemned himself with his own pen - shameless is the word most bandied about - but then quoting Abati against himself is now something of a blood sport. He has become such an easy target that even the likes of Femi Femi-Kayode - another Rottweiler - is able to score cheap political points at his expense, but then Abati asked for it when he railed against yesterday’s men who ‘inflict themselves with so much ferocity on an otherwise impressionable public,’ which is another way of calling us children. Nigerians recognise a lie when they hear one – they have been hearing so many for so long– and don’t need to be further patronised in this wanton fashion by a man who indulges in double-speak.

I suppose it suits those fortunate to be plucked from relative obscurity to partake in the only game in town to imagine themselves above the great unwashed who must struggle to survive in a country where government is itself the problem.  Perhaps, also, they are motivated by the fear of suddenly finding themselves out in the cold once more, a fate which almost engulfed Abati himself when Okupe was drafted in, but how true is it that there but for the grace of a political appointment goes the rest of us? Is every Nigerian capable of abasing themselves so completely for ten pieces of silver, as most Nigerians are inclined to believe?

We can leave aside the likes of Fela, Gani and the long-serving police officer who has never taken a bribe. These we will always have with us. They certainly can’t be taken as ‘typical’. Perhaps nobody really knows what they will do to themselves until they actually get there. For Abati, who actively lobbied for the post, the die had presumably already been cast in his own mind so he hardly has the excuse that he didn’t know what he was letting himself in for. But let us imagine that you didn’t lobby for the post and when the call came you managed to convince yourself, after much soul-searching, that you were duty-bound to serve your fatherland and would remain above the fray. My guess is that you would find yourself quickly sidelined. And then there would be the perks: the easy money, easy girls (or boys), foreign travel (complete with estacode), and the relentless fawning by those you left behind and who are now besieging you for school fees, rent, Madam’s hospital bill... How can you say no? By now your own kids are in a N1mn-a-term school and Madam has long forgotten the days when she didn’t go shopping on Oxford Street. We won’t even mention the relatives on both sides for whom you are now their only hope and salvation.

Better not to go there lest one day in the not-too-distant future the likes of Dr Okupe beg your compatriots to forgive you your sins, forgiveness being a religious matter, not a secular one, which is why Dr Okupe’s call on behalf of the disgraced Alams is misplaced.

© Adewale Maja-Pearce

Friday, 15 March 2013

Unlikely hero, unlikely country

Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima, the former two-term governor of Zamfara State, recently claimed in a radio chat show that the revolution in Egypt would be repeated here in Nigeria if INEC refused to register the supposed mega-party which has promised to unseat PDP come 2015. Alas, within minutes of the broadcast he was invited by the police to ‘clear the air on the statement he made’ although being a senator as opposed to an ‘ordinary’ Nigerian he was quickly released. We are still waiting for President Jonathan’s parrot to tell us the reason for this heavy-handedness by an administration which otherwise ‘follows the rule of law every step of the way’ but it is early days still. No doubt all will be explained in the website the parrot recently uploaded – President Jonathan visits Cȏte d’Ivoire, President Jonathan visits Borno State, President Jonathan visits the toilet - in a country where reading is a problem for most, never mind the extortionate prices ISPs charge for access to the internet.

The pity of it is that it should be this particular representative of a degenerate political class who should emerge the victim of what an opposition spokesperson dubbed the government’s incipient ‘fascism’. We recall that it was Yerima who caused a man’s right hand to be amputated for stealing a goat worth N5,000 when he became the first governor, post-military, to introduce Sharia law in a supposedly secular country; the same Yerima who, proceeding to the senate in order that he might make laws for the good governance of Nigeria, bought a thirteen-year-old Egyptian for $100,000 as his fourth wife in contravention of the Child Rights Act passed by the federal government he now legislates for. When questioned, he said that he followed the Koran ahead of the Constitution and that, in any case, Zamfara under his watch refused - and continues to refuse - to ratify the Act.

As for the charge of fascism, that is just so much hyperbole on the part of excitable politicians whose first Bill on reaching the National Assembly was to vote themselves salaries seven times that of their Swedish counterparts while quashing another Bill for a rudimentary social security system in a country awash with the petro-dollars they are so intent on stealing. As the whole world knows, Nigeria faces many challenges, not least the Islamic fundamentalists who recently executed seven expatriate workers they had previously kidnapped. Some observers are even predicting the collapse of the state itself come 2015, in which case the Egyptian revolution will indeed look like ‘a child’s play,’ as the same opposition spokesperson promised. In amongst all this, one might have imagined that the Nigeria Police Force, underpaid, understaffed and under-resourced had enough problems without wasting its time interrogating a senator for predicting what many hope will come to pass in the belief that anything must be better than what currently obtains.

The only lesson to be drawn from Yerima’s interrogation is Jonathan’s mounting obsession with 2015, as if the sole purpose of power was the perpetuation of itself by any means necessary. This is why we can safely infer that nothing much will happen in the interim: no running water, no electricity, no jobs for the ever-growing army of unemployed youths churned out by universities widely acknowledged to be little more than glorified high schools. As I remarked in a previous blog, the absence of an idea – any idea – that ‘you can set up, and bow down before, and offer sacrifice to’ is countered by said parrot’s assurance that Jonathan had done ‘something novel in Nigeria’s history,’ to wit: ‘He got the ministers to sign a performance contract, to state their key performance indicators. A ministerial appointment as the president has made clear is not an opportunity for you to come and moonlight.’ In other words, what is considered perfectly normal elsewhere, and hardly requiring a signature on a contract that is assumed as a matter of course, is a revolutionary event in Nigeria, and this from a previously respected newspaper columnist who claims to have a doctorate, but then so does his employer. No wonder the average Nigerian is sceptical about ‘you book people’ who spin the English they barely understand in order to flatter and deceive.

So it is that Yerima has emerged a hero of democracy but this is fitting in a way. As I also remarked in a previous blog, any pretence that the country’s civil society organisations might provide an alternative to the you-chop-I-chop mentality of those in power is belied by their evident reluctance to challenge the status quo in any meaningful way. Their notion of activism is a conference in a hotel in Abuja where papers are read, published and filed away. This doubtless pleases their American and European funders, who have thereby engaged the relevant ‘stakeholders’ in their desire to help move the nation forward, as if they cared one way or the other. And why should they? Only Nigerians can move Nigeria forward, a lesson the Egyptians learned – are, indeed, still learning – even as a Nigerian senator defiles one of their daughters in this latest version of the trans-Saharan slave trade.

Which leaves the matter of whether INEC will register the new mega-party that is to be the solution to our myriad problems.  Much has been made of Buhari’s quip to the effect that INEC has now merged with PDP but this is playing to the gallery. Jonathan’s own position as an accidental president with a limited constituency is far too precarious for him to contemplate any such thing, much less imagine that he can get away with it. Perhaps he already senses that his unlikely tenure at Aso Rock is even now slipping from his grasp, which is also why he has been sucking up to Baba despite the latter’s endlessly public – and endlessly tiresome – criticisms of his successor. As for the opposition, it merely suits them to cry wolf in their own desperation to get their hands on the loot.

© Adewale Maja-Pearce

Friday, 8 March 2013

Nasty and brutish

I’m writing this on the day – 5 March 2013 – when friends in Epe lost their homes. It wasn’t flood, fire or sinkhole but the Nigerian state that caused it. One of them, Segun, lived on her own and used the place as a retreat from the cacaphony that is Lagos one hour away and so can shift for herself; the other, Manager, is a 65-year-old retired banker (hence his nickname) with a wife and two young children.

I used to visit Manager and his family from time to time when I, too, needed a break. I remember when he built the pond at the back because he believed there was a market for catfish in the local pepper soup joints. Next he erected a kiosk facing the dirt road so that they could do a little petty trading and all the while he was cultivating plantain, ugwu, bitter leaf among the fruit trees he had planted over the ten years that they lived there. They had tried chickens but the snakes were not deterred by the dog they acquired, a friendly mutt who only wanted to play.

The first warning came late last year when Segun phoned that officials from Alausa had come to say that the land they had built on was owned by government and that government was coming to claim it. I had a small interest in the matter because I had bought a couple of plots myself from one of the local farmers we believed were the rightful owners but I was yet to start building. A lawyer we engaged filed a motion, which still subsists, but, as a friend remarked in another context, ‘Look at where you are.’

The second warning came 48 hours before the Task Force descended with the army in tow. Segun was just preparing breakfast. They gave her half-an-hour to pack her things out. Half-an-hour later again her house was rubble. By then the whole community – about 250 households, she reckoned, although the next day’s papers put it somewhat lower – were trying to take in what was happening. She said that one woman fainted; a man whose wife had given birth the previous week ‘was running up and down like a madman’; and a high-up Customs officer, paralysed by what he was witnessing, refused to remove so much as a pin so they flattened his house anyway. She remembered, especially, the glee with which the fellow operating the bulldozer ran over the plasma TV screens.

At one point the elderly Mrs Otedola, wife of the former governor who lived nearby, came to plead with them. She showed them the relevant court papers and explained that most of the owners had even acquired certificates of occupancy from the same Alausa which had sent them. They listened to her and then the head of the Task Force politely told her to go and complain to Fashola; and added: ‘Those who are building on government’s land, thinking that nothing will happen, should have a rethink. Government will rise up and take action one day. This is a message for land grabbers and unsuspecting buyers.’ By evening it was all over. The newly homeless, refugees in their own country, slept outside -‘we did night vigil,’ was how Segun put it - because they couldn’t leave their goods unattended. Sometime in the early hours they even caught some local boys trying to steal but at least it didn’t rain, as it had done the previous night.

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know who truly owns the land and it will be irrelevant in any case. By coincidence (if that is what it was) the latest issue of TheNews magazine carried a story about a family in Badagry who complained to the police that Obasanjo had taken over seven acres of their land for his technological university, Baba himself being hostile to the arts, as he repeatedly told us during his disastrous Second Coming. All the members of the family were promptly arrested and charged to court for trespassing after spending a couple of nights in a police cell because they couldn’t raise the bail that the police will tell you is free.

So going to court is not uppermost in the minds of those who must find shelter as they contemplate the calamity visited on them by the very government that should have protected them. Such things used to happen under the military – we still remember Maroko – but, well, that was the military. In fact there is no difference between then and now that we go to the polls to cast votes which nobody counts. It is still the same old cabal but what is chilling is the depth of its contempt for those it lords it over. As others have remarked, not even the white man behaved with such impunity when he was in charge. And in the bad old days of apartheid in South Africa the white minority government at least had the courtesy to pass the Group Areas Act to give such barbarism an air of legitimacy. Not so here.

Segun has since re-located back to Lagos, which she never properly left anyway; Manager, with a family to support, must attempt to rebuild his life there in that same Epe, but how? How does a 65-year-old retiree start over in a country where the government which destroyed your house offers no incentives to help you build one – or even make provision after rendering you homeless? It may indeed be true, as the head of the Task Force also insisted, that many of the occupants failed to get building approval and that their certificates of occupancy – given by the same Alausa - were fake, but why the triumphalism, the gloating, the portrayal of government as punitive? We have become a nation of brutes, which is why Thomas Hobbes’s famous passage is part of the Nigerian lexicon in any number of opinion columns.

© Adewale Maja-Pearce

Saturday, 2 March 2013

The coming anarchy

Talk of revolution is much in the air but this is hardly surprising. Barely two years into President Jonathan’s so-called transformation agenda and all we are hearing is 2015, as if winning the next election is the be-all and end-all of governance, and this in a country with everything left undone. Even his wife is in on the act. Just the other day, for instance, she publicly boasted that 100 opposition parties couldn’t defeat PDP, but then Dame Patience is given to mouthing off about a lot of things, sometimes not altogether grammatically, although the message always comes through clearly enough.

One of the first notable figures to raise the prospect of violent upheaval was Dr Ben Nwabueze - ‘I don't believe in small changes; we've had ad hoc arrangements; Nigeria needs a revolutionary change, and it has to be bloody’ - and notable because the discerning have long known that wahala dey but were easily ignored, especially if they happened to include a drug-crazed musician not averse to wandering about in his underpants. But an elderly constitutional lawyer as establishment as they come is a different matter. And he’s hardly alone. Only recently, the prelate of the Methodist church concurred – ‘I agree seven times. When you keep people unemployed for a long time, you are asking for a revolution’ - as indeed did Obasanjo, himself one of the architects of our current misfortunes but let us leave that to one side. We will have occasion in a later blog to dissect the many sins of this general-turned-gentleman farmer who had the good fortune to rule this nation twice and failed spectacularly both times.

It is reckoned that the Nigerian ruling class comprise less than 1 per cent of the population. Their names are widely known but it could hardly be otherwise. Money doesn’t hide, as they say, especially in a country where a daily meal is a problem for the ‘teeming masses’. In some parts, the local bigwigs actually encourage grown men and women to leave their homes to eat in theirs - three times a day if they like. It’s possible, of course, to get a few crumbs through honest labour – some work has to be done, even in Nigeria – but then you will be obliged to settle your connection, such is the limitless greed of this cabal and their hangers-on. When the former Speaker of the House of Representatives is queried over N10bn gone walkabout and the current First Lady proposes a N4bn monument to her vanity then we know that all is lost, like Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps, which is why the more successful pastors are able to afford private jets as they preach the message of Christ - love thy neighbour, turn the other cheek, render unto Caesar - to the miracle-longing masses they are busy milking.

The timidity of Nigerians is taken as a given: ‘Papa dey for house, Mama dey for house, I wan’ build house, I no wan’ die,’ as Fela put it. This seemed to be confirmed during the demonstrations early last year against the fuel price hike. Suddenly, all the talk was of Occupy Nigeria as people spontaneously gathered to voice their anger, but then what happened? Like so many civil servants, the demonstrators packed up on Friday afternoon, only to return on Monday morning to find soldiers at the potential flash points given that power, whether maintaining it or seizing it, is no respecter of weekends.

On the other hand, I see no reason why Nigerians should be considered more timid than Americans, French, Russians, Chinese, Cubans - or any of the others who collectively prevailed against tyranny when they could no longer stomach it. Nobody wants to die, although what we do conspicuously lack is dedicated individuals united around an idea, a cause - indeed, a Vision - which can appeal directly to those same teeming masses. All we have really had to date are outbreaks of hooliganism, some understandable, some not. If I were an impoverished inhabitant of the oil-producing Niger delta I might very well take up arms against the state, but I find it impossible to enter the mindset of religious fanatics who blow up churches during Sunday Mass. Tellingly, the former only killed soldiers; they never harmed the foreigners they kidnapped, having previously warned them to stay away from the area.

Most dispiriting of all are the civil society organisations which might otherwise have been expected to provide some sort of direction, if only intellectually. Alas, they seem more concerned with satisfying the latest thinking of their American and European benefactors than agitating for fundamental change in their own country, the better to maintain their bourgeois lifestyles. When you hear of an ‘activist’ sending his wife and children to Switzerland for their summer holiday – since when did we have summer in Nigeria? - you get an idea of their aspirations.

In other words, a revolution in Nigeria seems less likely than the continued slide into the anarchy that is slowly but inexorably engulfing us. Moreover, those who advocate revolution invariably add the rider that this colonial creation is somehow sacrosanct. But there is nothing organic about Nigeria, which may be one reason why there is no coherent movement to suggest how it may be rescued from the depredations of those hastening its end. There is no such creature as a ‘Nigerian’ as there is an American or a Russian or a Cuban outside the symbols that appear to make them so – the flag, the anthem, the UN seat, even the green passport which nobody wants, Nigerians no less than immigration officials in any number of countries.

All this, of course, is beyond the ken of the country’s politicians, whose only thought – if it can be so called - is how to scramble for office in order to grab what they can from a fast-diminishing national cake. That this is unsustainable is a lesson they are about to discover.

Copyright: Adewale Maja-Pearce