Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
Things Don Change?
Chukwuemeka Uche Onuora
July 7, 2003
“Back in the days, our parents used to take care of us
Look at ‘em now, they even f@#*ing scared of us
Calling the city for help because they can't maintain
Damn, shit done changed!” Christopher Wallace a.k.a The Notorious B.I.G
Welcome to my latest effort at rationalizing our reality. The late Christopher Wallace a.k.a Biggie Smalls a.k.a The Notorious B.I.G (1972-1997) was (as far as I am concerned) one of the greatest lyricists that ever lived; in the pure sense of word play and dexterity with manipulating verbalese. He is almost unrivalled as a wordsmith in Hip Hop in particular and music in general, with the depth of his words and the stark poignancy of his poetry. I adopted his words to serve as a contradictory backdrop to my discussion on the so-called good old days in our checkered existence. Excuse the vernacular of my title, but the question I want to tackle by drawing on different examples is whether things have really gotten progressively worse, or if this present madness is just a regression to the same reality that has bedeviled us for centuries. Some might object to my utilization of Biggie’s vocabulary on the grounds that it is inappropriate for an academic or intellectual analysis of our predicament, but it is exactly that raw unadulterated nature (some would say animal magnetism) of his words and the circumstances that precipitated them that offer a glimpse into our cursed existence as a people.
A dispassionate observer will affirm that the words above serve as a vignette of our present reality. The question is whether our parents’ parents will agree (as our parents are wont to profess) that their children listened to and obeyed them without question. Or will they (our grand parents) hearken to their own idea of the good old days when men were men and children were to be seen and not heard? Have things gotten progressively worse or have scale and realignments made it seem so? I personally think that things have not really changed in that sense; I mean scale might have increased and circumstances might have shifted or tolerance attenuated, but the principal concept remains the same. I feel that the inherent inadequacies that smothered our ancestors and rendered them prostrate to European machinations still remain with us, perhaps in more surreal permutations.
As manifestations of our ancestors’ dreams, we are a complete and utter failure; not individually, but collectively, as a society, and as a race. As forebears of an impending generation of Africans, the unmitigated disaster that we have become threatens the very foundation of our society and confirms the iniquitous legacy that we intend to bequeath to our children. They will have no choice but to fail, continuing the family nay societal tradition of rapidly deteriorating values (resulting in failure) as a means of livelihood. We are little more than professional victims of our collective mental infirmities, placid prostitutes of our elite’s libidinous impulses.
Roberta Flack must have been referring to us when these words where expressed; “to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering”. All my tomes, the lengthy and not so lengthy alike, have been driven by my inherent desire to reverse my people’s flirtation with societal destitution and mediocrity. With this one, my intentions remain the same. I am not one to denigrate and chastise the Negro needlessly, but instead I strive to spark in his/her mind, the belief that things can change from the present quagmire and societal stalemate, into an era of renewed sense of purpose and restored dignity. Some say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In other words, history is simply the portrayal of the present and pursuit of the future in retrospect. But as humans have acquired the benefit of incrementally continuous knowledge of our surroundings, natural and supernatural, some societies have adapted these advances to create new meanings and to alleviate their suffering. My problem is that we have refused to establish affirmative paradigms of what it means to be an African in 2003 CE. Instead, we have reverted to the primordial animalistic nature that our forefathers and foremothers left behind when they broke off from the mutual genealogy of our primate cousins and evolved into our present form. Perhaps our race is different, defying normal conventions and contemporaneous ideas of orchestrated societal advancement, choosing instead the slow debilitating “sociocide” that has come to characterize our reality.
Due perhaps to the speed of our millennial lifestyle in the pursuit of happiness, work keeps me very busy to the point that I have little or no time for the intellectual vagaries that keep my sense of self and reality grounded. The moments for leisure and play have become fewer and far between. It has now degenerated to the point where I am reading or rather trying to read a total of ten different books simultaneously. But the other day I received a book that I purchased from an obscure book dealer on Amazon.com. It was a used copy of Dr. Elizabeth Isichei’s classic, “A History of the Igbo People”. It was written before I was born, by the then Senior Lecturer in History at UNN in 1976. At first I wanted to use it as a point of reference in a book that I am writing, but after the invigorating preface, I decided to suspend all my other intellectual pursuits and jump wholeheartedly into reading the book in its entirety. I am a fast reader but the pace at which I read this particular book, shattered my previous records. And the manner in which it commanded my utter attention rattled my normally ADD-prone (sometimes flippant) attitude towards certain details that I deem trivial. Suffice to say that I read the book from cover to cover in a little over two days, with a great attention to detail.
Though Dr. Isichei’s book dealt with the history, culture, and experiences of Ndiigbo, I marveled at the seeming parallels between the occurrences of the past and the present, not only in Igbo society and experience, but also in present-day Nigeria. In the wake of the present political and economic stalemates that have trailed OBJ’s decision to raise prices of petroleum products, it was a refreshing account of human individual and sociological endeavor in the midst of chaos. Although it described historical accounts and occurrences, it is an interesting insight into the happenings in Nigeria in 2003.
After reading Dr. Isichei’s book, I came to the conclusion that Nigeria’s so-called federal government (indeed all the institutions, instruments, and paraphernalia of the Nigerian state and geographical entity) is little more than a quasi-colonial government that has not changed in character from the colonial-era government that the British instituted at the turn of the 19th century. The dramatis personae might have changed, but the game has stayed the same.
From the armed forces and police force, to the civil service, to the courts, to the “legislature”, to the executive, to the “constitution”, to the census, to the national identity itself; all have been founded on a dubious foundation of injustice and deceit. First and foremost the Nigerian Army is a colonial army, an off-shoot of the constabulary force that enforced a Pax Britannia starting on the continental coastline and progressing inland, conquering all that lay in its path, all for the glory of Empire. It has not changed, though its master’s skin color might have. The native administrators or rather what became the “civil service” constituted a slew of mostly corrupt and collaborative Quislings that served as intermediaries between the conquering masters and their subjects, mostly because they spoke a smattering of English. They served not the native inhabitants, but at the behest of their British overlords and to their ultimate satisfaction. The judiciary metamorphosed out of the Native Court system that the British established, not to dole out justice or enforce the rule of law, but rather to legitimize their imperial ambitions and to subjugate the conquered natives to the rule of gunboat diplomacy. The executive is little more than an extrapolated Governor General, doing the bidding of the Status Quo (as the foremost interest paying the piper and dictating the tune), and ensuring that the aspirations of the generality of the Nigerian populace never see the light of day. I could go on, but I am sure that you get the point.
I will quote selected passages and then extrapolate as I deem fit. In the first excerpt from the tenth chapter, Dr. Isichei discusses the colonial government in Igbo land and the role of Warrant Chiefs.
“But the Warrant Chiefs operated within a new and dimly comprehended system. There were no precedents to guide them, and they were responsible, less to public opinion, than to the white official who had the power to take way their Warrants. In the words of a former Warrant Chief from Bende: ‘Warrant Chiefs feared the Government more than the people. The latter could not unseat a chief but the Government could.’ It is proverbially difficult to serve two masters… Success, authority, prestige, and material wealth seemed inextricably intertwined. At a later time, the legitimate aspiration towards the European’s Senior Service grading was inevitably also an aspiration towards his car loan and his house in the GRA…. Times of great uncertainty and change seem to encourage materialism. Men try to attain the psychological security which the social context of their time denies them by creating a little charmed island of affluence for themselves. The Warrant Chiefs, living when ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’ sought security in a ‘zinc house’, a ‘storey building’, in the multiplication of wives. And education, the summum bonum of the new era, could be acquired only with money. Of the first Igbo who studied abroad and fully mastered the skills of the Western world, a notable proportion were the sons or close relatives of Warrant Chiefs… Any system rapidly creates its own mores, which become difficult for the individual to renounce. In an age of corrupt Warrant Chiefs, an honest Chief would be stigmatized by his relatives and townsmen as a fool, a blameworthy neglecter of his and their interests…”
This sounds a lot like the situation we are faced with today. If OBJ’s plan to institute local government reform at the expense of democratic elections succeeds, it will be interesting to see to whom these administrators will owe their allegiance, having been appointed or selected by the Governors in their respective states. To understand this development, let us assume that this was instituted on the national level. For those who argue in favor of appointing the local government chairmen and women, it is akin to a situation whereby OBJ will be “burdened” with the constitutional obligation to appoint state governors. This concentrates even more power in the center, in the process killing the concept of devolution of powers and lays waste the principle of federalism, and can only lead us back to the era of goose-stepped march of a unitary dictatorship, with the party at the center (in this case the PDP), dictating policy to the “federating” local government areas.
In regards to the corruption of the Warrant Chief era, it has already been duplicated and eclipsed by the culture of corruption presently prevalent in Nigeria today. The idea of kinsmen and family members egging on their respective government-official brethren to misapply and misappropriate government funds is in full practice today. It has reached pandemic proportions today, but the excerpt demonstrates that it did not originate recently.
She goes on in the same chapter and discusses the changes that the British enacted after the 1929 Ogu Umunwanyi that erupted as a result of the 1926-7 decision to extend direct taxation on Ndiigbo in Igbo land, and quotes a neutral observer J.S. Harris (contained in his account of ‘Some Aspects of the Economics of Sixteen Ibo Individuals’, Africa, XIV, 1943-4, 322-4).
“At the present time not only do the litigants still bribe the judges (now called the ‘court members’) but they must pay large fees to the native court clerk, which are phrased as ‘kola’ so that the clerk will record the case as it actually transpires… Furthermore fees are paid to the court messengers… to have the summons served promptly and efficiently. Bribes are often offered to and sometimes accepted by the white administrators’ interpreters who, whenever the case has been appealed, can by skillful interpretation influence the white official in the desired manner. Fees are often paid to Africans who boast of vast legal knowledge and the ability to win cases for them by preparing their arguments and by writing petitions… Finally, the court members must pay a fee to the court clerk so that he will allow them to hear a fair number of cases during the monthly period in which they sit.”
This description was rendered in 1938-9, but baring the references to court messengers and court members, it could serve as an annotation of Nigeria’s judicial system in 2003. Even the vernacular has remained the same. It is obvious to the honest observer that not only is this a damnation of our so-called golden era or good-old days, but it is an indictment of our society and culture vis-à-vis our reaction to the Oyibo man’s manipulation in the colonial epoch.
She goes on to discuss the educational system that developed during this violent period in our history, and the roles that the evangelizing missions of Europe’s dominant Christian denominations played. I will give some extrapolations to these damning descriptions that are indicative of our mental malaise today. It will serve as an explanation to the political actions of our so-called leaders today. Forgive my exact replications of her words.
“To the missions, the schools were an invaluable way to influence the young in their impressionable years, and government subsidies a precious supplement to their meager budgets. The government needed a large cadre of Africans who were literate and numerate to staff the railways, postal services, police force, and fill a large number of clerical posts; the expatriate commercial firms, likewise, needed the same type of personnel. It was cheaper to subsidize mission schools than to start their own, or to import educated Africans from further afield. Neither the government nor the missions were interested in education per se. The government started very few schools of its own, and its subsidies to mission schools formed only a minuscule part of its own budget. The amount that colonial governments spent on education was always dwarfed by their expenditure on expatriate salaries and pensions. In 1918, the Nigerian government devoted one percent of its total expenditure to education. By the 1930s, it was between 3 and 4 percent. (In 1958-9, the self-governing Eastern Region spent over 40 percent of its income on education.) Government officials were troubled by the low standards of the schools, and repeatedly (in the Education Code of 1903, and the Ordinances of 1916 and 1926) attempted to use their subsidies as a lever to ensure higher standards. But they were not interested in raising levels to a point where they represented a realistic proportion of government income, let alone in creating a body of Nigerians who were sufficiently educated to endanger their own position and careers… The missions, who were concerned to reach as many children as possible, concentrated on quantity rather than quality… One of the key grievances of the colonial era was the lack of opportunities for higher education. The education policy of thus far and no further engendered enormous frustration, and made it impossible for aspiring Nigerians to man the higher echelons of government, and overthrow colonialism.”
In the initial euphoria of post-colonial self-governance, the more progressive regional governments spent more on education than had ever been spent by our colonial-era masters. This revolutionary devotion to funding education was inspired and driven perhaps by an inherent desire to attain preeminence over competing federating units in the Federation or perhaps to provide a great percentage of their citizens with the most affordable and adequate education on par with what was available in the developed world. The conscious effort was also made and pursued to leverage education as a utilitarian technique for social mobility into an emerging middleclass. This brief flirtation with a passionate commitment to education flickered and died out as ensuing military regimes placed little or no emphasis or importance on educating its people. In subsequent governments, deliberate efforts and policies were made by those in positions of power, either in the furtherance of parochial or ethnic sentiments, to stifle the flourishing educational sector, dominated as it was by southerners. Instead of the governments to formulate proactive policies directed at addressing this lopsided advantage, it selfishly implemented a “cutting off the nose, to spite the face” paradigm in national education.
Where advances or progressive developments were realized, they were most likely fall-outs and unintended consequences of unrelated policies, as opposed to the clearly articulated decisions to pursue educational parity and balance, without succumbing to the fear of ethnically jingoistic paranoia of continued educational dominance of the south over the north. As time has gone on, succeeding “civilian” and military governments in Nigeria have spent (as an overall percentage of Government budgetary allocations) fewer resources on education, than say on salaries and gratuities or security and/or defense. It is a hold-over (which was briefly interrupted by the post-colonial governments of the First Republic) of the colonial era. In other words, Nigeria’s governments have become increasingly colonial-era minded in the education of its citizens.
It has risen to the point were the Obasanjo government spent more on building the Abuja Stadium for the All-Africa Games, than on the education or health of its citizens for that fiscal year. This completely warped notion of government priorities is the clearest indication of the more things change, the more they remain the same. Government apathy towards education is a throw-back to the era of colonial pacification of the “Nigerian” heartland. The security and defense of a state that has little or no clear and present external threats to its corporate existence, has become more important than the education of its citizens.
An inference could also be posited that Nigeria expends more resources on internal security operations and exercises, say in quelling agitation amongst the Niger Delta nationalities, than she does on foreign engagements (except for perhaps the ill-advised misadventures into Liberia and Sierra-Leone). No one in our immediate vicinity or in the sphere of our geo-political periphery, even if there were under the influence of some psychedelic substance/s, can threaten us militarily. So it is interesting that we have to spend so much in this area. Aside from the billions that have flowed into or been misapplied to the private bank accounts of strongmen connected either directly or indirectly to Nigeria’s military establishments for “safe-keeping”, more untold billions have been expended in the name of national security with no tangible benefits. One can even argue that gargantuan expenditures such as that which the US expends on its military have yielded amongst numerous other innovations, the Internet and the development of commercial satellite and communications technologies, most notably, GPS.
Our government’s continued insensitivity to the average Nigerian, reaffirms my belief that today in Nigeria, we have a colonial-era government run by Africans, for Africans, and of Africans; if such a thing is possible. The low esteem with which succeeding Nigerian governments regard the average Nigerian, and the total disregard that Nigerian rulers have for human life can be summarized by this observation that according to Dr. Isichei was made in a Government Blue Book in 1935. It belongs to a “bygone” era; a different epoch in our societal development; the colonial era; but is a painful contraposition of the mantra that things have changed.
“A ration of cooked native food consisting of garri, palm oil, greens and condiments is sold in the markets for a penny. Two such rations daily are fair sustenance for an African of the laboring class.” Protein, it would appear, was superfluous for an African of the laboring class.
This government apathy to the plight of the average Nigerian is exemplified and corroborated by typically insensitive government actions since independence in 1960. It is ensconced in the affirmation accredited to the then Minister of Communication and erstwhile Chairman of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee, Senator David Mark, that telephone services were not for the common man. It is lent further credence by the actions of Obasanjo’s government in the unruly (perhaps tense would be a more appropriate qualifier) aftermath of the just concluded Elections 2003, to implement the upward review of prices of Petroleum Products. The perception is that this decision to increase prices had already been decided well in advance of the election, but that for understandable matters of political expediency, could not be implemented right away. My suspicion is that international creditors and institutions insisted on such “reforms” prior to any discussions on debt forgiveness or rescheduling.
The plan was designed and hatched in cahoots with the labor leadership, their present grandstanding notwithstanding. However my bone of contention, is not the increase in itself, but rather it is with the percentage of the increase and the timing/manner in which the increase was introduced. It smacks of the same government insensitivity to both the prevailing political environment (having just won a “landslide” victory at the polls), and its I-don’t-care attitude to the impact of the increase on the general populace. The ram-it-through mantra of the refurbished OBJ administration is quite perplexing given that politics is a game were you fight on some fronts and retreat on others. The recent fiasco with Wabara’s “s/election” into the Senate and his ascendancy to the Senate Presidency is another example of the government’s disregard for both the opinions of the people it is supposed to represent and its increasing political myopia in the long term. The damage that is being done to Nigeria’s democracy will not be felt in the short term, its impact will be assessed in the long run, if we are by some luck of the draw, able to make it that far.
In the thirteenth chapter, Dr. Isichei goes on to discuss the plight of the workers in the Enugu coal mines in succeeding decades starting in 1915.
“In the early days of the mines, there was no treatment or compensation for injury. For a time, after the First World War, when the labor supply was depleted by the twin disasters of smallpox and influenza, labor had to be coerced by force. It was a fertile source of oppression and corruption when peasants paid to be exempted from mine labor, or, alternatively, for the privilege of retaining their earnings… As a British official minuted: ‘There is no doubt that more men are engaged by the Boss-boys and given work than are necessary for the needs of the colliery and that regular hands, who are anxious to work five days a week, do not get their desire unless they pay for it or, for some other reason have curried favor with the Boss-boys and Headmen.’ Worse still, the Boss-boys exploited the practice of monthly payment, by dismissing workers shortly before the end of the month, and taking their pay. To the white officials of the mine, the miners were faceless and nameless, and many injustices were committed in their name. It was in the 1930s that the management began a deliberate policy of recruiting illiterates from Udi, rather than relatively well-educated workers from Onitsha and Owerri, who might be expected to understand their grievances and take steps to remedy them. In 1949, decades of injustice and bad labor relations reached a bloody finale in what is euphemistically called the Enugu Colliery Shooting Incident, when twenty-one miners were killed, and fifty-one were wounded.”
This sounds eerily familiar in terms of the scale of manipulation and oppression to what exists in contemporary Nigeria. In other words, the scale or dynamics of the oppressions and manipulation may have changed, but the underlying shortchanging, remains the same. The Boss-boys of that era became the nouveau riche Status Quo of the post-colonial experience. As such, the reality of our uncaring (and parasitic) elite as the Status Quo in Nigeria was born in those turbulently unfair times of the colonial epoch. At no time in our history has “Nigeria” ever operated on the basis of fair and equitable distribution of wealth and resources. Nigeria was not established or sustained on the basis of the rule of law, but rather on the rule of the gun; later pretensions to the contrary have failed because the initial foundations were built on deceit and manipulation. That has remain unchanged and as we strive to grapple with the issues of building a viable, sustainable, and reasonable modern nation-state as an articulation of our wishes and dreams, I cannot help but be apprehensive, because the experiences of the colonial era are still with us.
Neither the lessons of that unmitigated disaster nor of the civil war that ensued have been learned by succeeding generations of “Nigerians”. As a friend of mine put it so succinctly, “the fundamental issue of the Nigerian psyche, as an articulation of the Nigerian experience, and an unintended consequence of the Nigerian incident; will remain unjust and parasitic, geared towards get-rich-quick idiosyncrasies, so long as the fundamentals of the Nigerian existence are attached firmly to the colonial experience which bred them”. The mistakes of the colonial “accident” of 1914 will haunt us for as long as we fail to make a conscious effort to reconcile our opposing viewpoints on a Nigerian awareness. Nigeria as an idea and a society is an amalgam of the violently and summarily interrupted mental development of each individual nationality as it strived to interpret its evolving environment on its own terms. We were put together by force, we have been held together by force, and so the spirit of give and take is alien to our consciousness. We are now faced with a dire circumstance, it reminds me of that ever-poignant title of a Clint Eastwood movie, any which way but lose.
We have no other choice but to succeed. The consequences of inaction or myopic reaction will be an ultimate clash of civilization, perhaps between the North and the South, or Niger Delta versus the rest of Nigeria, or masses versus the elite, any of which will make the Biafran War seem pale in comparison to the ensuing catastrophe. There is an inequitable distribution of resources based on the unfair and unitary derivation formula in Nigeria today. The Ogu Umunwanyi was crushed by superior fire-power and at a high cost of innocent blood, but the undercurrents of that conflagration remain with us. The way OBJ is going, I hope we make it to 2007 in one piece. Nigeria cannot continue to operate and exist as it is presently constituted, any dispassionate analysis will prove this fact. I hope and pray fervently that things change before it is too late, because Dr. Isichei’s book proved to me once and for all, that nothing has changed in our recent history.
The revolutionary agitation for change is rooted in the dissatisfaction of the oppressed and repressed, their needs and wants are finding expression in the actions of radical and not-so radical groups such as the Egbesu, OPC, MASSOB, MOSOP etc. Life is all about percentages, when enough Nigerians become sufficiently disenchanted with the Status Quo to take up arms, then it will only be a question of how many innocents will die. I ask again just like in my title: things done changed? I think not, but maybe I could be wrong.
Nobody is asking for a miracle from OBJ’s administration. In the words of that popular Nigerian mantra; all we are saying is give us more hope. The imperatives of our continued existence as a nation reside in the audacious possibilities trapped within each individual component nationality of the Federal Republic. The potential cannot be unlocked and put to good use under the prevailing circumstances within which we find ourselves. Force breeds force, injustice breeds injustice, and the cycle of ineptitude cannot be broken by cheap words and promissory speeches. Now (more than ever) is the time for this government to sit up and put up or shut up and ship out; everything else, as my compatriot Mazi M.O. Ene would say, is embellishment.
I will close with lyrics from Sonny Okosuns evocative song. Forgive errors in syntax; I have not heard this song in over 15 years.
Which way Nigeria?
Which way Nigeria?
Which way to go?
Which way to go?
I love my fatherland
I want to know
Yes I want to know
Which way Nigeria?
Or Nigeria will die
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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.