Waiting for our fairy ship to dock (2) By Tolu Ogunlesi

The first part of this article was based on a quote from Chinua Achebe’s 1983 book, The Trouble With Nigeria, describing Nigeria as infected by “the cargo-cult mentality that anthropologists sometimes speak about – a belief by backward people that someday, without any exertion whatsoever on their part, a fairy ship will dock in their harbour laden every goody they have always dreamed of possessing.”

In fact, it may not be totally accurate to assume that Nigerians do not exert any efforts. This country is home to some of the hardest-working, exertion-obsessed people in the world.

The problem is that the bulk of that exertion is not exactly designed to produce real action or progress. Much of it is hot air. So, to that extent Achebe is right – somehow, we imagine that on the strength of our hope and our gods and our bombast, we will make our way to the Promised Land.

“As you are all aware, we have never really lacked good development plans. Our greatest problem has been how to creatively translate such good plans into concrete action on the ground.”

That was the former military dictator, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, in a speech on February 21, 1990 in Lagos, at the launch of a government initiative called “Operation Excellence in Public Service.”

As plans and schemes go, no one did it like the self-styled Evil Genius. No one, I’m willing to argue, had a more ambitious reform agenda than Babangida. I recently got a copy of one of the volumes of his “Selected Speeches” – the interestingly titled, “For their Tomorrow we Gave our Today” – and I have to say that those speeches were impressive. If speeches and dreams could transform a country, Babangida’s Nigeria would have left Nigeria a paradise-on-earth.

But all of those dreams stayed stranded in the speeches. There was no serious effort to make them come true, beyond the effort that went into writing the speeches. The problems regularly outlive and outlast the solutions, so that our biggest problem may indeed be our inability to leave old problems behind and move on to new ones.

And that’s the summary of our country’s journey: Every time we think we’ve made progress, or announced that we’ve made progress, something comes along to remind us of the hollowness of our wishful thinking.

Every time we think we’ve caught a glimpse of our fairy ship, something happens to remind us that mirages are real, and that we don’t even need to be smoking strong stuff to experience mirages in their fullness.

An exasperated Wole Soyinka made that point last week at the press conference he called to comment on recent happenings in Port Harcourt. Something about Nigerian activists being forced to deal with the same issues, again and again.

In the budget speech he delivered on New Year’s Day of 1991, Babangida declared that “the full commercialisation of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation will come into effect in 1991.”

The children of 1991 are now on their way out of university (at least the minority who managed to get in in the first place), and we’re still discussing reforming the NNPC.

Babangida also said: “In the spirit of deregulation, government will embark on a number of reforms of the capital market – the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the Nigerian Stock Exchange – with a view to deregulating and achieving more realistic and competitive pricing for industrial equities.”

Twenty-two years later, the SEC is caught up in protracted crisis – the National Assembly, unhappy with the Director-General, Ms. Arunma Oteh, is insisting, petulantly, that she has to go, and until she is fired, they’ll be washing their hands off the activities of the commission. No one seems to be considering the fact that this is a critical time for the Nigerian equities market, recovering as it is from a wipe-out.

Another excerpt from that budget speech: “The programme of butanisation of which will encourage the use of Liquefied Petroleum Gas for cooking and thus reduce the use of firewood, and the rate of desertification, will be vigorously pursued during the year.”

That was 1990. In 2013, the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Company is caught up in a roforofo fight with the Nigerian Maritime Safety Administration, over remittances. Whilst that is happening, all shipments of LPG have stopped. Last week, in this paper, someone raised the alarm that the domestic market was going to run out of LPG by last Friday, if the crisis was not resolved.

It appears that we’re travelling in ever-expanding circles, whilst waiting and praying for our fairy ship to dock.

Travelling in circles like we do eventually translates into a desensitisation – we become numb to the full and tragic weight of our problems. When tragedy happens one time too many, it no longer qualifies to be called tragedy. 9/11 is 9/11 because when it happened, a government vowed that never again. And when a country like America makes a vow like that, it means to keep it.

Nigeria’s 9/11s on the other hand are a never-ending series. There’s always a new and more insistent tragedy waiting to displace the old, without resistance.

In Nasarawa State, about 100 policemen and SSS agents filed to their deaths a few months ago.

My friend, Nicholas Ibekwe, whose brother, Christian, was one of the policemen killed, wrote, in a moving blog about the incident: “Many of the murdered policemen would still be alive today if the police authorities had done basic checks before hurriedly deploying over a hundred officers to their death. They were not properly briefed; the police had no intelligence or bothered to get any. There was basically no planning whatsoever.”

We all know it will happen again. Because this is Nigeria. In Borno and Yobe states, children are regularly being murdered in their classrooms, and all we can do is recycle our verbal outrage.

A decade after the abduction of a former Governor of Anambra State, Chris Ngige, from the Government House in Awka, in one of the most brazen assault on democratic structures that this country has ever witnessed, we are treated to a replay of sorts, this time in Port Harcourt, Rivers State – a siege on the Government House.

In both cases, the sitting presidents were to be found on the side of the political opponents of the sitting governors, providing grounds for us to believe that the sieges happened with the full knowledge, and by extension, approval, of the presidents. And in both cases, both presidents were far from the scenes of the crime, Olusegun Obasanjo in Uganda in 2003, and Jonathan in China in 2013.

If we thought we’d progressed from that sort of violent mentality of subversion of state authority using mechanisms of state security, obviously we were mistaken.

We’ve been here before. We’ve been here before. We’re still here. That’s our story.

I firmly believe in the past. And I may be mistaken, but I think that one of the ways to deal with that cargo-cult mentality is to take a hard look at the past – the promises that were made long before us, the dreams that were hinted at, the failures that laughed – and still laugh – at us; and ask what lessons we can seriously learn, and what wheels we don’t need to reinvent.

Connecting the past to the present and the future appears to me to be a sensible theoretical starting point for the Nigerian Project.

I’m willing to argue that the cracks opened up by our inability to connect the past with the present provide fertile grounds for continued dysfunction.

Perhaps, if someone really high up in the President’s circle had remembered the embarrassment of 2003, they’d have advised him on how to better handle the Port Harcourt debacle; on the need to caution the five “enemy” legislators. (Obviously, there’s a masquerade somewhere behind the scenes, emboldening five persons to attempt to override the wishes of 27. And clearly that masquerade has the endorsement, tacit at the very least, of the highest powers in the land).

Perhaps, if someone remembered that 22 years ago, Babangida spoke of “vigorously” pursuing a Liquefied Petroleum Gas “programme”, there’d be a greater sense of urgency regarding solving the NLNG/NIMASA face-off.

Perhaps, if the current government took some time to read the one major newspaper interview that President Umaru Yar’Adua did in office (April 2009), there’d be a more coherent approach to governance. (It’s an interview I’d highly recommend, for the depth and detail. The President touched on every major aspect of his now-rested 7-Point Agenda. It’s a formidable blueprint that should be picked up and referred to again and again by the current occupants of Aso Rock).

When I read about the approval of the Conditional Cash Transfer scheme by the Federal Government last February, I immediately remembered that sometime in December 2007, Yar’Adua launched such a scheme. It was a bit disappointing to read the news of the revival without any connection to the previous incarnation.

It’s the same way YOUWIN was launched without any attempt to connect it to the Nigerian Youth Employment Action Plan, an ill-fated predecessor that was supposed to create a million jobs between 2009 and 2011.

I think that one of the duties of the media is to help keep the past in mind; help ensure that by remembering the past we stand a better chance of learning serious lessons from it.

I’m not trying to argue that keeping the past in mind is a silver bullet for our many ills.

There are no silver bullets. But I suspect keeping the past in mind will create, to borrow a suitable cliche, an “enabling environment” for breaking the vicious cycling-on-the-spot syndrome afflicting us.


Twitter @toluogunlesi

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