Friday, 28 February 2014

Celebrating a fiction

The headline announced the early arrival of ‘more than twelve world leaders’ for the impending centenary celebrations. All were from Africa and all from countries whose presidents regularly travel to Abuja for handouts. There was Burundi, Mauretania and The Gambia, for instance, but not Kenya or South Africa. From the great world outside, Israel sent its agriculture minister, Switzerland its resident ambassador and the US a ‘state counsellor’, who will ‘meet with government officials and participate in high-level activities with other world leaders’, after which he will ‘interact with Nigerian youths’. It seems that the French President attended but there is the matter of a lucrative contract to help fight the home-grown Islamic terrorists we seem incapable of containing despite the extended state of emergency.
An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘who did not want to be mentioned’, further ‘disclosed’ that no fewer than 42 heads of state and government were expected, although he refused to name them, and this to a reporter from the government’s own News Agency of Nigeria. No doubt all will be revealed in due course. One only wonders why the secrecy. Either they are coming or they are not; if so, who and who, exactly? But this is Nigeria. After all, the event these world leaders have come to celebrate is itself a state secret given that nobody appears to have seen the relevant document which amalgamated us and which, according to rumour, may contain a hundred-year time limit. In other words, the assembled may have come to celebrate a fiction, which is perhaps what Nigeria is anyway.
The celebrations themselves will honour 100 people judged to have distinguished themselves in the evolution of this fantasy. The two most perplexing categories are ‘contributors to the making of Nigeria’ and ‘outstanding promoters of unity, patriotism and national development’. The first contains just three people: the man responsible for the amalgamation, his then girlfriend who named the country and the current Queen of England (who, being the only one of the triumvirate still alive, nevertheless declined to attend). The second contains nine names, among them Abacha, Babangida and Obasanjo. Between these two poles, we are effectively being told that Nigeria should forever be seen as the creation of other people’s desires, and that its continued existence is posited on plunder. Looked at this way, it makes perfect sense that the ill-gotten loot of the latter should end up in the coffers of the former, which is what the amalgamation was designed for in the first place. Long live the Queen!
Not surprisingly, the more deserving – or their descendants in the case of the deceased, who make up almost half of the great and the good - quickly distanced themselves from the government’s cynical attempt to co-opt them. The Fawehinmi family pointed out that it was Babangida ‘who as military president, severally detained and tortured our father’. Femi Kuti, whose family was more than well represented, demanded that the Federal Government ‘apologise for the killing of our grandmother and the burning of Kalakuta’ by the first Obasanjo administration. And Soyinka, who was able to speak for himself only because he miraculously survived Abacha’s death squads (even fleeing from the country through the bush), ‘would have preferred that the entire day of infamy be ignored altogether’. Those other families with pretensions to probity – or, simply, self-respect – must stand where they may. This includes the Maja family.
The scale of the cynicism attendant upon this jamboree is borne out by the usual genuflection towards federal character, meaning that the Big Three invariably dominate, and underscored by the paucity of information on the centenary exhibition’s official website, which doesn’t even list the awardees. This might seem like a trivial point but consider the following:

Nigeria has distinguished herself over the centuries in the field of arts. Nigerian culture is as multi-ethnic as the people in Nigeria. From a rich culture of ivory carving, grass weaving, wood carving, leather and calabash. Pottery, painting, cloth weaving and glass and metal works, we have written our industry and enterprise in a way that can only be Nigerian.’

This is the introduction to the ‘About Nigeria’ section, which is otherwise taken up with press statements from various bigwigs with their snouts in the trough - the chairman of the centenary exhibition, the secretary to the federal government, the project director – along with the ‘implementation plan’ with which to fitter away the money at their disposal, which also happens to be by far the most detailed section: visits to the UK and the US ‘to meet Nigerians in Diaspora’, a press conference at the Abuja Hilton ‘to inform/sensitize/mobilize the public’, and – with absolutely no sense of irony or shame but that is the way with such people - the ‘design and hosting of the website’. I contacted this same website but am yet to receive the promised early reply from the hard-working team. As far as I can tell, the last update was 23 January.
The point in all of this is our fundamental lack of seriousness in everything we do, even as we invite world leaders to come and celebrate a non-event, which is why those not looking for handouts or contracts sent their messengers. Even Tanzania and Zambia made do with ‘delegations’, in the latter case led by that country’s defence minister. Meanwhile, the onward march of Boko Haram continues with reports of the army fleeing in their wake. Perhaps one can’t blame the soldiers. Who would lay down his life for a fiction which is busy gorging itself in a pretend capital built on the proceeds of other people’s wealth, the raison d’être of Jonathan’s presidency given that there isn’t anything else to recommend him – as he perhaps well knows.
© 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, Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories,
and Dream Chasers.

Click here to see Maja-Pearce's page:

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