Bards and Tyrants: Literature, leadership, citizenship issues of modern Nigeria
Being an excerpt from the lead journal essay, Bards and Tyrants, dissecting four decades of Nigerian independence.
by Chin Ce, 2005 Writer of the Year
Writer of the Year, ALJ 2005
A SMALL, neglected pamphlet dots the reference section of the Nigerian national library. The Trouble with Nigeria by Chinua Achebe begins in a language and tone that would annoy its countrymen, particularly the political cheerleaders:
There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership. (1)
African literature parallels politics rather closely, even as critics who argue from a cultural position of arts for arts’ sake may tend to overlook this literary sensitivity to issues of literature, nationhood and citizenship. Yet while the literati have since decades of political self-determination been preoccupied with social and political paradigms, as if walking on the front line, the question is: how far has the literature gone towards the education of society?
After forty years of Nigerian independence, in any case, readership may not have improved. Many intellectuals, as noted years ago, read very little and any writer, at the risk of bigotry, may add that this is why the development of the nation is all talk and little progress. Time is a serious handicap,
But there are other limiting factors besides time. The habit of reading itself is clearly the most important, for if it were strongly developed in our intellectuals some of them at least would find the time. But the habit is simply not there. (Creation 29)
With the obvious lacunae in imaginative thinking is it surprising the vacuity of national leadership and the country’s descent in redundancy syndrome? Coming to power in 1999 with boasts of a new deal for his countrymen, Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, typical of the military that tutored him, declared a campaign against corruption. Two years in the same course his country was to rank in the hall of infamy as one of the most corrupt in the world. It was not long after that this president reconciled his brief epiphany of public accountability with the corruptive demands of his own political survival in office as foisted by a military fiat constitution. Few Nigerians would forget his glib reaction to the international exposition that the highest corruption emanated from the central government of the nation where the retired general had full control. It smacked of a remark by a central character in Children of Koloko inter alia:
Dogkiller was once quoted, off the record of course, as saying that all this grammar of development didn’t belong to high matters of state since it didn’t quite put the food on his table. (41)
Nothing, however, would more please the beneficiaries of Nigeria’s brand of democracy than the aphorism: ‘the worst democracy is better than the best military rule’. The mediocrity of this thought and its overall acceptance among them seem the prevailing order of a society with hardly any sign of transition – which leaves little to wonder why they run the worst democracy in the world. The literature of Africa holds memories of an era that the populace should be glad to put behind them. Literary accounts of everyday situations in societies of that time depict an attitude of citizen complicity in an obvious state of anomie. Yet the Nigerian republic, contrariwise, kept a steady, geometric progression in public corruption that threatens to drown her nationalities in the pool of its affliction.
Foppery is the word. The foppery of mundane minds emerging presidents and lawmakers in the country has since become a recurring theme in the drama of its own undoing. During the eighties and nineties, there was spirited campaign for army generals to continue the leadership of the country under a civilian arrangement. Government-owned radio and television stations would point to an American general who became president for example. But they never acknowledged that in 1948 General Dwight Eisenhower, while discouraging efforts of supporters to nominate him for presidency summarized the dominant views of the professional military. He had insisted that ‘the necessary and wise subordination of the military to civil power will be best sustained and people will have greater confidence that it is so sustained, when lifelong professional soldiers, in the absence of some obvious and overriding reasons, abstain from seeking high political office. (14)
And so with the conspiracy of May 1999 that grafted a general onto civilian leadership, Nigerians have paid the price of untold suffering and hardship which the turncoat visited upon his people, with public outbursts so foolish, so uncharitable, and comparable only to the legendary notoriety of Idi Amin of Uganda.
Ethnicity and Falling Education Standards in Nigeria
Nigeria’s multiethnic composition has been stated as the single most constraining factor in the evolution of that nation state. Its decline to civil tyranny under successive governments only confirms the desperate attempts since the first coup d’etat to keep a collapsing federation together.
Undoubtedly the country has the largest concentration of ethnicities in Africa numbering well over three hundred and fifty two. The domination by the majorities on the point of still debated numerical strength has engendered such angst that while the bulk of revenue generated through oil exports come predominantly from so-called delta ‘minorities,’ infrastructural development from oil income is squandered on Lagos and Abuja ‘majorities.’
Currently the Niger delta region is being run like pre-revolution France where, as Peacock tells, peasants gave up their land in despair and took to brigandage and smuggling (6). With the youths of the delta turning to terrorism and other crimes lately, armed rebellion against the state, with more organised terrorist strategies, portends grim news for the future. The aggressive peasant groups of eighteenth century France were wont to be given shelter and protection by sympathetic villagers. That tax collectors were then murdered and soldiers constantly used to suppress food riots (7) echo present conditions in the delta where most have had their rights to decent life violated with the callousness and brutality of parasites and absentee landlords of medieval Europe. A young environmental poet writes what none will deign to read at the country’s government houses:
First it was the Ogoni/ Today it is Ijaw/ Who will be slain this next day/ We see open mouths/But hear no screams/ Tears don’t flow/ When you are scarred/ We stand in pools/Up to our knees/ We thought it was oil/But it was blood. (Blood 14)
Official history now proclaims that Nigeria survived a fratricidal war of national unity but this was merely a war of attrition by mutually antagonistic leaders and self-serving decision makers at home and abroad. The conditions that led to that war have since replicated in far worse dimensions. Massacre of other ethnicities continues in the northern states such as Kano, Kaduna, and Jo’s. Every northern state has enjoyed the barbarism of slaughtering the southern nationalities for reasons of religious differences and political disagreements rooted in primordial ethnic chauvinism. Where political murders and inter-tribal rivalry have not blown into another war they seethe in the cauldron of competing forces striving for petty advantages to the detriment of the whole.
Inordinate ambitions and primordial loyalties remain the hallmark of Nigerian national and political existence – leaving out the international football where citizens seem to respond to a common purpose. But there, too, the sports ministry, like electric, power, steel and other national establishments, insures its endemic failure with nepotism and corruption.
Ever since the educational sector blazed in ruins by Northern-backed incendiary using the quota system, an avid ethnocentric admissions policy as a rule became entrenched in Nigerian tertiary institutions. Universities funded with ‘federal’ resources began to clamour for mere sectional advancements in a country that claimed to have fought to preserve her unity. It was not long before other nationalities in their exuberance copied the Northern policy. Thus the 1990s witnessed the final crumbling of all that constituted its educational heritage as foreign nations began to decertify the plethora of degrees awarded by Nigerian universities after 1989.
The sanction led by the United States may have been appropriate in that the nineties was the apogee of bastardies in public educational systems. While the national institutions were overrun by ethnic lords of their various localities, the state-owned universities, sprung with the haphazardness of state creations, were determined mainly to produce as many graduates as can compete in federal labour positions. Standards and procedures for admissions were jettisoned for entrees that could never have passed senior high. In some educationally-disadvantaged states (one of Nigeria’s jargons for elevating mediocrity above merit and quality) these half-baked certificate holders became teachers in their turn. Having neither the diligence of ‘little frogies’ who went to school nor ‘polished’ to any degree whatever, the local champions simply filled the vacant slots of their state towers as of right.
Nowadays it is common to find positions like departmental heads and faculty deans occupied by ‘acting’ misfits, or sitting professors with hardly any research contributions to society. Some universities in their rush to award higher degrees begin their postgraduate programs with barely a backward glance at prior undergraduate competency.