By James Eze
To be a Nigerian is to master the art of living on the edge. It is to develop a strange short memory and a neurotic craving to move on, to rush through unpleasant experiences as though they have nothing to teach us and to pick quarrels with anyone who calls our attention to the past.
I became fully aware of what it meant to be a Nigerian during my NYSC experience in Lagos in the late 90s. I was young and foolish. My head swarm with fuzzy ideals. Nothing in particular seemed to take any real shape. My vision lacked clarity. But I was not alone. I was one with Nigeria.
Fate had played games with Naija: MKO Abiola and the dictator, Sani Abacha, had just died in quick succession and Nigeria was in transition. So were the hopes of hordes of youngsters who had finally graduated from the universities after losing interminable years to spates of purposeless strikes by university teachers. Everything seemed suspended, deferred; our aspirations, our dreams, our laughter.
Abdulsami Abubakar who took charge of government business after Abacha’s death had promised to hand over, but there was nothing in our collective memory to nudge us into grasping at that promise with any seriousness.
In the prevailing anxiety and growing confusion, I watched my childhood friends and school mates flee the country. It seemed the sensible thing to do then. Anyone who had a reliable friend or relative outside of Nigeria thought seriously about their chances. A friend of mine aptly captured the mood of the country then when he referred to Nigeria as the “world’s greatest cemetery of dreams.” It was not so much a question of the fewness of options for the youth as it was a summation of the bleakness of the national climate of the time.
All along, I had pined for the freedom of the open air, to test the waters, to see life in its hideous nudity away from the boisterous laughter of the classrooms. Life at the NYSC Orientation Camp in Iyana Ipaja, Lagos had been like a tang of fine champagne. There in the company of dreamers, I had imagined the world was too narrow a canvass for the immense size of the gifts we had.
But when I began to pound the forlorn streets of Victoria Island in the blazing sun, peeping into office windows and dropping application letters, I also wondered if my talents wouldn’t find a quicker expression outside Nigeria. Jobs were a rarity then. But so were other things that made for a contented citizenry.
All across the land, people sang different dirges for the country. Nigeria seemed split dramatically across the usual fault lines. There were talks of separation as diverse ethnic militia carved up the country into separate fiefdoms for themselves with ease.
In the North Arewa People’s Congress spoke their usual language of entitlement and dominance but in the South, a loud cacophony of war held sway. Egbesu Boys of Africa brandished potent charms and amulets in the creeks of the Niger Delta. Myth-makers went to town with stories of how the Egbesu goddess had granted the boys invisibility before their enemies.
In the South East, the rhetoric was as expected. The marginalization of the last thirty years had got to stop or else, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) would reenact the return of the land of the rising sun. MASSOB leader, Chief Ralph Uwazurike’s pampered beard had begun to grow wild in a manner reminiscent of the revolutionaries of yore.
In the South West, the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) spat fire. The death of Abiola and the cheeky shoving aside of Ernest Shonekan, the Interim Government leader who had assumed power after the annulment of June 12 elections had rubbed the Yorubas the wrong way and the young militiamen that peopled OPC felt a need to assert their manhood. Before long, their long suppressed angst began to keel over into malevolent tendencies. Soon enough, Dr. Fredrick Fasehun’s strenuous effort to rein in exuberances that were out of kilter with his vision for the group led to a split and out sprung the dreaded Gani Adams’ faction of the OPC that pushed Lagos dangerously close to the edge.
It wasn’t long before their muted manifesto of war began to take on the timber of violence. Soon enough, the vegetable market in Mile 12 and Ketu axis became the touch-point for a rage long deferred. The ensuing clashes between OPC and some Hausa traders began in that axis and suddenly snow-balled to Idi Araba, Agege and other parts of Lagos.
The climate of fear that reigned then was such that most Lagos residents soon cultivated the habit of tuning in to radio stations to get a reading of the “temperature” of the city before leaving their homes each morning.
There were violent clashes most mornings and it was so easy to get caught up in the storm. The prevailing sense of justice or lack thereof was intense. And all around Nigeria, there was a strong feeling that the ship of state was adrift in a fast current. Not many people reasoned in terms of nationhood or collective survival or unity. Happily, it was only for a while.
Almost as everything Nigerian, the pull-back from the razor-edge was dramatic. In a rare display of foresight, Olusegun Obsanjo was dug up from the dungeon where he lay rotting away. For a while it seemed almost preposterous for Nigerian leaders to seek to create our own version of Mandela’s prison-to-presidency narrative but that was what we got. And in a manner almost reminiscent of the biblical rebuke of the storm by Jesus, Obasanjo’s assumption of power served as a calming balm on the searing turbulence.
Looking back now, it also seems like they never happened; as though my mind is playing tricks on me and I am dredging up memories from across the river bank of my childhood.
But this is Nigeria.
Children born in 2005 may never have heard of OPC or APC or Egbesu Boys of Africa. They may only have heard of MASSOB after Odumegwu’s death last year when Uwazurike and his men had to make some noise to re-assert their relevance. It all seems so distant, vague andinconsequential that one would be tempted to wonder why we ever worried about them but those were dreadful moments in our contemporary times.
Indeed, recent Nigerian history is replete with imageries that echo the above scenario. We have had too many close shaves, countless dances on razor-edge and too many bewildering moments that tug on the consciousness and make one re-evaluate one’s belief in Nigeria. It happens all the time; from Jos to Mi and from Aluu to Madalla.
Increasingly though, a crucial lesson is emerging from our social mosaic – to be a Nigerian is to master the art of living on the edge. To weed oneself of all emotions that have to do with all kinds of loss since we are the planet’s true inheritors of loss. It is to develop a strange short memory and a neurotic craving to move on, to rush through unpleasant experiences as though they have nothing to teach us and to pick quarrels with anyone who calls our attention to the past. You may call it living in denial if you wish.