Reading Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria, you can’t help but think that Nigerians are insane.
Published in 1983 during the Shehu Shagari presidency, a brief dalliance with democracy in the midst of 33 years of military rule, it reads like it was written today. If it were a Nigerian, it would be a 36 year old married with kids, overwhelmed with responsibility and furiously involved in the Nigerian pastime of preaching marriage to single people. And yet, in the time it takes for a child to mature, we as a nation have not changed a whit. We seem stuck in an infinity cycle of madness: Wash, Rinse and Repeat.
I read this quote from a recent piece: “The [Nigerian] politician may pay them a siren-visit once in four years and promise to give them this and that and the other. He never says that what he gives is theirs in the first place. The things that are uppermost in their minds are basic, like clean water. The politician agrees but there is financial constraint now. The plans are drawn by my government; water will be flowing in …”
Actually, I lied. That quote was not from a recent piece; it is a 1983 quote from Achebe’s ‘The Trouble with Nigeria’. In page after page, you can draw a straight line from Achebe’s words to recent events in Nigerian history. That is what appalls and baffles me. We continue to tread well worn paths, our feet fitting gratefully into grooves that were left by people far older than we are or dead.
In the imagination of science fiction writers, stories are often set in the 21st century, the years 2001-2100. Technology is at its height, society has evolved past the everyday pettiness of opposing issues like gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights. We even contemplate the humanity of androids. But not in Nigeria.
In 2019 Nigeria, we still struggle with basic water and electricity supply. We haven’t even begun contemplating artificial intelligence not to talk of leveraging this.
We are constantly coming up with plans that will ensure that Nigeria joins the ranks of advanced nations. In 1983 Achebe reminded readers of “our declared ambition to become an advanced nation in the shortest time possible, preferably by the year 2000.” Growing up we sang the NTA jingle “Join us come with us we are on our way, education for all by the year 2000.” Before we finished singing, 2000 passed us by with a shrug. Vision 2010 (RIP) followed and the inevitable death of Vision 2020 is all but guaranteed. How does a nation remain so stagnant and yet citizens do so little about it? Haba!
In the Nigeria of Achebe’s book, £150 million equated to N180 million and not N64 billion in today’s money. The book contains even more disheartening things, like some names that keep recurring. General Olusegun Obasanjo enters stage and orders academics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) to recite the National Pledge and takes their failure as proof of absence of patriotism. Our current Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh, pops up as Minister of Communication, not complaining about pizzas flown in from London on BA flights, but about the corruption scam of ghost workers. The late Abubakar Rimi, one of the founding fathers of PDP, shows up to say “his party would win the votes of every Nigerian woman because of his handsomeness and the handsomeness of Jim Nwobodo”. Jim Nwobodo spouts inane lines like “he was not elected governor to carry shit”. At least Nwobodo and his inanity have retired from politics. Someone who refuses to go is the man who ousted the Shagari government from power – Muhammadu Buhari. Nigeria feels like the Part 8 of the Police Academy movie franchise. The same players keep resurfacing but with ever diminishing box office success and the jokes stopped being funny after Part 2.
Achebe thought that the Trouble with Nigeria was ‘simply and squarely a failure of leadership’ and that there was “nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character.” I disagreed with this and argued that our leaders come from among us and are just a reflection of the Nigerian character. The well is poisoned. But as I read on I realised that our living dinosaurs were just following in the footsteps of our founding fathers like Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe.
Achebe quoted the two men in his book.
“In a solemn vow made by Azikiwe in 1937 he pledged: that henceforth I shall utilize my earned income to secure my enjoyment of a high standard of living and also to give a helping hand to the needy.
“Obafemi Awolowo was even more forthright about his ambitions: I was going to make myself formidable intellectually, morally invulnerable, to make all the money that is possible for a man with my brains and brawns to make in Nigeria”
Achebe called their words “the poverty of thought” and it continues today. We groan under the weight of old political players who refuse to go silently into the night. Awolowo and Azikiwe both turned up to contest for the presidency in 1983 at ages 73 and 79 respectively.
We seem to be sleepwalking, having fallen into the trap of discussing issues we’ve known for decades and thinking they are new and insightful. Achebe knew the problems 36 years ago, and they remain with us all these years later.
“The trouble with Nigeria,” he said, “has become the subject of our small talk in much the same way as the weather is for the English. But there is a great danger in consigning a life-and-death issue to the daily routine of small talk. But national bad habits are a different matter, we resign ourselves to them at our peril.”
Let’s stop talking and start doing. Let’s stop repeating things and regain our sanity or as Achebe asks “We have lost the twentieth century; are we bent on seeing that our children also lose the twenty-first? God forbid!”