Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Who Can Rescue This Rogue Republic?

Nduka Otiono is currently FS Chia Scholar in the Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta, Canada, and Fellow, William Joiner Centre for War and Social Consequences, University of Massachusetts Boston.

The Piano Lounge of the Transcorp Hilton hotel, Abuja is perhaps the last place where a soul-stirring discussion about Nigeria and her myriads of challenges is expected to occur. The trappings of affluence, the conjured fantasies, and the recycled vanities on proud display, can almost leave you drowning in the waters of illusion – a false feeling that all is well, when so much is actually unwell.

My first encounter with Mr. Nduka Otiono was during my undergraduate days at the University of Ibadan where he lectured my class as a visiting scholar to the Department of English, and successfully initiated us into the cult of Metaphysical Poetry. Then he was still General Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and had carved a niche for himself as one of the leading lights of the literary movement in Nigeria. Mr. Otiono’s stay with us at the department was short. He soon left the University, leaving us to battle with the wits and conceits of the metaphysical poets. That was four years ago, and I had lost touch with him until about two months ago when I located him on Facebook one of the world’s fastest growing online social utility networks. So it was a meeting I eagerly looked forward to when I received a message from him on Friday 25 July, 2008 asking me to meet him the next day at the Transcorp Hilton on a brief visit to Nigeria from Canada where he relocated in the face of the depressing demands of the Nigerian system.

I had anticipated a short meeting. But it was not to be. We spent over five hours sharing thoughts on the travails of the Nigerian nation. Our discussion moved from the poverty and hunger in the land to the Niger Delta crisis and then to the failure in leadership. For the first time in a long while, I was listening to an intellectually insightful dissection of the Nigerian conundrum. At a point, it became so emotional tears began to well up my eyes. We looked at the power sector in Nigeria, attempting a sincere analysis only to end up with an emotional paralysis. We had thought; if only Nigeria could just fix the energy problem, a large part of our problems would be solved. With $16 billion we could have generated 16, 000 megawatts of power, sufficient to help drive the Nigerian economy to unimaginable heights of economic rebirth. But today’s sad reality is a seemingly powerless probe on a power sector bedeviled by inefficiency, corruption and a harvest of scandals. What is the problem with us?

In the course of our discussion, we were soon joined by one Mr. John, a friend of Mr. Otiono who works in one of the banks as a customer relations manager and later my good friend Ferdinand Adimefe, a budding author and youth corper serving at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) in Abuja. Together, we all continued with this passionate talk about our national misfortunes. A little insight from the banking sector opened another can of worms. It was disturbing to hear how some of these financial houses had become homes to all kinds of immoral transactions. If you were not touched by the financial roguery, you only needed to hear how hundreds of Nigerian female graduates end up becoming sex merchants in some of these banks, many of which appear with attractively bright exteriors but thrive on the dealings of their ‘stinkingly’ rich interiors!

At a point, we were joined by Mr. Toni Kan Onwordi, Head of Corporate Communications, Visafone who exchanged banters with Mr. Otiono and then moved on. I had heard so much about Toni Kan (as he is popularly called), read a few of his write-ups and had come to admire him just like my big brother Tolu Ogunlesi who works in the same outfit. I wondered how the likes of this young man survived the frightful and sleazy conditions of the Nigerian media where you are constantly confronted with the two unpleasant options of starvation or having to embrace the brown envelopes. I saluted his resilience and prayed for some of my friends in the media who are fighting to remain men and women of honour in this untidy rat race of what may be termed for want of better description, a voodoo republic that thrives on the ‘lootocratic’ orgies of a heartless hegemony! I immediately recalled that Mr. Otiono had been in the Nigerian media for over a decade and once sat on the editorial board of the now world-famous Thisday newspapers. I do not intend to write Mr. Otiono’s biography. But I am convinced it was a good thing that happened to him when he experienced a paradigm shift from the Nigerian arena, proceeding overseas in order to retain the sanity of his body and mind.

The statistics are horrifying. I shivered with righteous indignation when UNODC boss Mario Costa mentioned that between 1960 and the present day, Nigerian leaders had stolen over $400 billion! With just $10 billion, the city of Lagos can be transformed to the mega city status it deserves with all basic infrastructures in place. Yet, recent research and development indices have revealed that the city of Lagos is a looming catastrophe. Thus, while cities like Dubai and Hong Kong continue to amaze the world with their advancement prowess, the city of Lagos has been marked as one of the disaster megapolis of the century – waiting to happen! Why should this happen to a nation so richly blessed? Our education sector has not fared any better. When Prof. Niyi Osundare, in his valedictory lecture at the University of Ibadan remarked that the universe has left our Universities, it was a death knell that sounded loud and clear. What is the state of our tertiary education today? What kind of graduates are we producing? Are we producing assets or liabilities to society? What is happening to the infrastructure, the laboratories, the libraries, the lecture rooms and the hostels? Is it not pathetic how much our Ivory Towers have fallen from the heights of social re-engineering to the depths of helplessness, becoming idle towers of subsidized illiteracy?

If that is not enough to jolt you, Nigeria currently has about 10 million school age children out of school; 4.5 million are potential primary schools pupils and the other 5.5 million, young men and women who should be in secondary school. When you combine that with the about 60 million adult illiterates in the country, one can hardly see any light at the end of the tunnel. Maternal mortality rate in the country is put at 1000 to 100, 000 births in our labour rooms. That is equivalent to 10 plane crashes everyday! The Nigerian situation is akin to a grotesque theatre of the absurd whose spectators are a ruthless elite sitting, watching and satiated by this spectacle of blood, tears and sorrow. In the midst of this disillusionment, the mass of the Nigerian people remain resilient. This is still their country, their home and their fatherland. They are deeply troubled and are forced to ask questions. They want to know why poverty reigns in their fatherland. They want to know why those in the positions of responsibility continue to let this great country down. Nigerians are asking questions, but are they receiving and acting on the right answers?

I come to one sad conclusion. The problems of this great country are man-made and if there will be any solutions, it will have to come from Nigerians themselves. But who is ready to bell the Cat? Who can rescue this rogue republic from the hands of these pirates? Here again lies the tragic irony. We have a nation populated by some of the brightest brains on the face of the earth who individually are geniuses in their own rights but have never been able to collectively fix any problem they set out to solve. It is a tragedy that swings the way of pessimism, but history does not prove me wrong. We are confronted by a very strong cabal whose only interest in Nigeria is driven by their devious doctrine of self-preservation at all costs. They are deadly and dangerous. They are few in numbers, yet very powerful. I also understand they have devised an efficient machine programmed to resist the change we desire in this great nation. They can get you sacked from your jobs, and make life unbearable when they think you have become a threat. That is why the efforts we have made so far amounts to little or nothing, because all this talk does little or nothing to them. They hardly even read or hear you talk.

But should we give up? A million times, NO! The change that we seek must prevail. We will not join them because we can beat them. It has not been an easy battle, but we must continue the fight and I see victory over this reign of mediocrity.