A Country Like No Other

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A Country Like No Other

 

By

 

Godwin Agbroko

 

 

culled from THISDAY of August 24, 2004

 

There is a sense in which Nigeria is like no other nation. This separateness goes beyond the usual differences among nations. It is one that is fundamental, setting the country apart from all others. In other words, Nigeria is a unique manifestation in the comity of nations.

It is to this uniqueness that Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB) was referring in his last Sunday interview with this newspaper. Will Nigeria break up in 2007 on account of the controversy over the zoning of the presidency? To this question, IBB didn't hesitate to quip, No! Why? Because the country has a unique resilience that makes it to overcome all problems. It is only a visitor to Nigeria that would conclude from what he reads and hears that the country will break up any minute from now.

These are brave and comforting words. Throughout his tenure as military president, Babangida never tired of saying that he knew his countrymen and women like the back of his hand and that he was on top of every situation all the time. Though I was sceptical of his vaunted knowledge of Nigerians at that time, I'm beginning to believe him now.

Babangida's knowledge must be based on the uniqueness of Nigeria as a country of the unexpected, a place where anything can happen without fatal consequences. How many countries can withstand the IBB marathon transition programme that took all of nine years and with bans and proscriptions, only to end in the annulment of the presidential elections? How many countries have ever witnessed that unexpected stepping aside of Babangida on August 26, 1993? In how many places has any phantom government like Shonekan's come to power, without an election, coup, or conquest but simply by the abdication of a military president? In what country has an absolute dictatorship like Abacha's been so painlessly and swiftly exorcised from the body politic? And without a crisis of succession because the heir-presumptive by election conveniently died the month after the dictator's demise? And finally, what country, following the sudden outbreak of democracy after all the horrors of military dictatorship would forget the heavenly reprieve so soon as to revert to business as usual?

I'm afraid there is none. This is why a man like IBB would not only aspire to rule Nigeria again, but would want to take over from the very first elected president after the divine intervention to liberate us from a military dictatorship of the worst variety. In going about his ambition, IBB is not even contrite. With a wave of the tongue, he as put traducers who want him to apologise for June 12 and his misrule in their place. To IBB, people like Prelate Sunday Mbang and Professors Wole Soyinka and Tam David-West are like the proverbial fly on the dung. The fly can only strut and fret around the heap of cow dung but it can't move it. What Babangida is saying in essence is that Nigerians are just like flies; no matter how they try, they can never affect the dung of his presidential aspiration, except God.

IBB has a firm basis for his ambition which he has chosen to spice with haughtiness. That basis lies in our unique system of governance. Since the second republic, every government seems to have operated on a grand conspiracy. It is not as if our ruling class, both military and civilian, sat at a conference table to hammer out a governance code to bind them from generation to generation. Rather it operates somewhat like the Concert of Europe which roughly guaranteed uninterrupted peace for the first time to Continental Europe for a hundred years. The Concert was not a body of treaties binding on all Europe but a system of understanding among countries after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. That understanding ensured peace until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Like this Concert, Nigerian governments seem to have entered into an unholy understanding that every succeeding government must strive to be worse than the previous one so that the predecessor might thus be glorified. When Buhari came in 1984, his government was roundly condemned for being brutish and nasty. It took Babangida's Maradonic transition programme and unabashed glorification of corruption, indiscipline and cronyism in the name of deregulation and liberalisation for Nigerians to confer sainthood on Buhari, the erstwhile devil.

In the same way, it was said of Babangida that no Nigerian ruler, before or after him, could conceivably be worse. With Shonekan, the bench warmer, out of the way, it took only the next succeeding ruler, Abacha, for Nigerians to have a re-think.

In his context, I will not venture to go as far as using Wada Nas' self-abasing comparison of Obasanjo's government not only to justify but to venerate Abacha's bloody regime. But that is as far as I can honestly restrain myself. In running his government, the over-riding vision of President Olusegun Obasanjo seems to be a return of IBB to office. I'm not here talking of the pact that both men supposedly signed when IBB was convincing Obasanjo in 1999 to become president. In that pact, those who claim to know say they agreed to 'scratch each other's back' for the presidency. What I am talking about concerns the apparent conspiracy of presidential incumbents to perform so poorly as to burnish the records of their predecessors. If Duro Onabule's summation of "IBB Project 2007" is to be believed, then Babangida has Obasanjo's government to thank for his continuing relevance. Although, Chief Onabule didn't say it directly, the imputation of his words is clear: "We want to re-activate elegance, dignity, carriage, respect, and competence in governance. Our goal is to get Babangida to continue his enduring programmes."

It is only in a situation where these attributes are lost to the government that IBB wants to succeed that we can begin to talk of their re-activation. The painful point is that the Babangida camp is not being unfair to the Obasanjo government.

Two examples will illustrate the point. Pray, can you see any iota of elegance, dignity, carriage, and respect in the president's conduct in the selection of an Olowu of Owu which he single-handedly aborted? Even when he was chairman of the kingmakers council and the event was for his own people?

Here, I would summarise the account by Chief Sufiana Olaifa, the 83-year old kingmaker who was arrested, detained and later released by the police on account of the Owu chieftaincy crisis. In the first voting by the six kingmakers, the leading candidate got four votes while the two others scored a vote each. The result was endorsed by all the kingmakers, including Obasanjo and sent to the governor for ratification. The governor on his part disallowed the ballot and instead decided to increase the number of kingmakers to eight. A second balloting increased the votes of the leading candidate from four to five, leaving the other contestants, including new ones who had entered the race, to share three miserable votes. As Chief Olaitan recounted, "it was at that stage that Obasanjo got furious and started to call us names. He said a lot of untoward things that our children and people should not hear. He said we were rude not to vote along the same direction as he."

Can you imagine any other president of a country in the same league as Nigeria who, in addition, is honoured internationally as chairman of the African Union, leader of G. '77 and by extension the group's spokesman at meetings of the G.8 conducting himself in such a manner at a council meeting to choose a traditional ruler for his village? It is only in uniquely Nigeria that strange things like this can be imagined and actually put into practice.

Given this unpresidential conduct, why would Babangida not talk of bringing back elegance, dignity and all that bullshit to governance? And why would Nigerians not be tempted to listen to him with nostalgia? The second illustration concerns the more substantive issue of competence in governance that Chief Onabule equally raised. In this, the testimony of Chief Philip Asiodu, the erstwhile economic adviser to the president, is conclusive.

He has not only described the president's approach to economic policy as 'wishy-washy" but is baffled by what this government has done with the unprecedented high prices of oil since it came to power five years ago.

To me, this is the kernel of the tacit conspiracy. If Obasanjo had performed exceeding well, if he had moved Nigeria from the bottom of the ladder of corruption to a respectable percentile, if he had had the presence of mind to fetch the Okigbo report, he would have taken the wind out of IBB's haughty sail. And if he was foolish enough to insist on setting sail for 2007, IBB would have found a less hospitable environment. If the people's lives had been transformed for good, Babangida would certainly have found less political jobbers rooting for him, and if corruption had been made less respectable and more risky, there would have been less crooks who want a return of the Babangida bazaar of yesteryear.

In a nutshell, it is Obasanjo's government that is resurrecting IBB and putting a cloak of respectability on his ambition. C'mon, Nigerians couldn't have forgotten so easily the enormous effort and sacrifice they made to remove him from office. Nor the relief they felt at his departure. That Babangida is harbouring the intention to return after ruling this country for eight years and that supposedly serious-minded persons are not just listening to his talk but getting themselves involved in the project on their own free will under a democracy says something uniquely aberrant about us as a people and the subsisting government in power.

There is no doubt that Nigeria's inexplicably unique nature has its good sides. It has helped us to fumble and wobble over serious problems that citizens of other countries wouldn't stomach. This accounts for why even when fissiparous problems tend to make the national fabric extremely brittle, the country has not pitched over into disintegration.

Unfortunately, it is this same uniqueness that political leaders, religious fanatics and ethnic jingoists take advantage of to perpetrate all manner of unspeakable evil. They feel assured that no matter how hard they try, the country, to use current political lingo, dey kampe, no shaking, no movement.

Of course, I am not in a position to affirm how resilient this nation is to withstand the constant bufetting to its foundation. Babangida who literally calls himself an expert in these matters has graciously assured us of the country's ability to withstand the political onslaught of 2007. I can't dispute this.

What I do know however is that Nigeria's exceptionalism is not like that of the United States, a city upon the hill for all the huddled masses of the world to look upon for democratic and economic salvation. Rather, our uniqueness seems more of an exploitable commodity in the hands of unconscionable politicians and knaves. Until we begin to look less unique and more like other nations, this country wouldn't make a headway.

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