SUNDAY, 01 JANUARY 2012 00:00 ANOTE AJELUOROU SUNDAY MAGAZINE - KALEIDOSCOPE
As the argument rages whether to remove fuel subsidy or not, eminent poet and public intellectual, Prof. Niyi Osundare, has called on President Jonathan not to further compound the hardship Nigerians currently undergo. In an interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU in Ibadan, last week, the award-winning poet, essayist and scholar took on many issues that stand at the cross-road of Nigeria’s quest for development. Excerpts:
In our earlier encounter, you said you finally came to the realisation that for a country to progress economically, there is need to ‘Seek ye the political kingdom first, and then all things shall be added unto you!’‘Seek ye the political kingdom first, and then all things shall be added unto you!’ How close is Nigeria’s political kingdom under President Jonathan’s watch?
Grasp ye the political kingdom and all other things shall be added unto thee! Nigeria has not got it right politically. This is why all other things appear to have been falling out of sync in the eight months of Dr. Jonathan’s full presidency. Do we need anyone to tell us our country is in a state of depressive stupor, thrashing around like a half-beheaded snake. President Jonathan needs to ‘man up’ (to borrow an American phrase); he needs to convince us that he knows what time of day it is. He doesn’t look like a leader yet: a decisive, deliberate, insightful figure whose wisdom goes beyond mere political savvy and the nervous quest for self-preservation. In the past many months, the President has behaved very much like somebody who is being pushed in all kinds of directions, and who doesn’t know how to make up his mind. When people in this country look at him, he doesn’t look like the kind of leader who is in charge: confident and resourceful; one who radiates the kind of dynamism which a country like this needs so badly so urgently.
Meek-looking, yes. Soft-looking, yes. Pious-looking, yes (he once knelt head-bowed before a famous Pentecostal cleric, and regaled the nation with a front-page picture of this posture in several Nigerian newspapers!) But this President sorely needs more insight to his thinking, more energy to his action, more bones to his flesh. He needs to think beyond sorry clichés and hackneyed humdrums. He needs to convince us that he has the kind of ideas needed by a desperate country like Nigeria. Nigeria wants to see a President that can think on his feet. A president who has the vital ideas, and can surround himself with those who also have them, who can proffer them selflessly, while being sure that their words will count. Sad to say, but in so many respects, right now, the people of Nigeria seem to be far ahead of their President. He needs to catch up.
He has confessed to not being a Goliath or an army general…
You don’t have to be a general to have some strength in you! Goliath was an evil kind of power; a life-negating leviathan. He was too strong, too domineering, and that was why the God of the Old Testament made him face his waterloo through a pebble from the sling shot of a mere stripling. Jonathan is not a Goliath; nobody wants him to be a Goliath. Nigeria has had too many Goliaths in power and very few Davids. We’re not saying he should tower above us. No. We’re saying he should be man enough to also do the job he is elected to do: To think and act boldly.People who knows him say he is a good man. I have no right to doubt them, but I would like President Jonathan to be a good man and also an efficient leader, a leader who inspires. He’s not an army general; we know. We have seen too many army generals in this country to be comfortable with having more of them. Our prayer is that this country will never again be ruled by army generals! Soldiers are trained to kill and destroy; they become a disastrous aberration when they are brought to construct, to reconstruct, and manage a country.. The ‘Goliath-General’ metaphor is not a terribly well-chosen one, really.
Yeah, Dr. Jonathan, you may not be a Goliath or a general; we don’t want you to be any of those. We want you to be a president; a president who stands up and the people know he’s there for them; who thinks about our problems all the time, and also wakes up solving them. A president, who surrounds himself not with mediocre and political jobbers, but with men and women of ideas; and there are many of them in this country that can really contribute to the solution of our many problems.President Jonathan’s cabinet is too mediocre, and there are people there that Nigerians know that are corrupt, manifestly corrupt. I remember a minister in one of Nigeria’s most lucrative ministries whose reappointment was strongly petitioned a couple of months ago, but the President went ahead all the same with the reappointment. In Nigeria corruption and other forms of abuse of office still remain the main qualification for high office. Eight months after, this country has not made any progress. I think we have even retrogressed considerably. If in doubt, consider the on-going downward slide of the national currency
Consider Boko Haram. The biggest problem we have in this country is security. What is he going to do with Boko Haram? Does he apply the military solution? At times, he talks tough. Other times, he talks soft, and says oh yes, there is going to be reconciliation. Does our President really understand the dynamics of Boko Haram? Who are those beating the drums for the water dragons that are dancing on the water surface? Who are the Boko Haram? Faceless people, most of the time although they say they have caught their leaders. When the security agencies boast that they have Boko Haram right now in our palm, the group surprises them by bombing a neighbouring town the next day? So Boko Haram remains an understudied, underestimated group conveniently dismissed as ‘terrorists’. Have we tried to understand what Boko Haram really is?
Boko Haram is not a totally religious movement, from my understanding of it. There are social sides to Boko Haram, social underpinnings which we have to understand. This looks very much like the movement of the under-privileged, of the dispossessed, the alienated. It looks to me like the movement of people who have nothing to lose in society. I think it was Malcolm X, the African-American leader that said that ‘a society that creates people who have nothing to lose is digging its own grave’. There is a lot of work Dr. Jonathan should be doing that he is not doing at the moment. This country is in a very perilous state. When I arrived in last week, I think for a day or two, no bank in Ibadan was open owing to an armed robbery scare. When I complained to my friend in another state, he said ‘for five days our own banks have been closed; robbers just jump in, operate any time of the day, anywhere; they don’t care a hoot!’ Nigeria is a jungle, a thick medieval jungle, lawless and predictably precarious.
Dr Jonathan hasn’t done much, and that is why the country is like this. Nobody sleeps in this country with both eyes closed, not even the governors with their panoply of security detail, because I have read in the papers of some gubernatorial motorcades being ambushed by armed robbers. Perhaps the men of the underworld are trying to tell our governors that our rulers don’t have a monopoly of impunity! This is a dangerous country today, extremely dangerous. We have to tell the truth to ourselves. Money is coming in; the oil in the Niger Delta is still pumping, but there is no honest management, no proper husbandry, no organisation, no transparency, and no accountability. That’s why we are where we are today.
So our politics is that awry. What do we say about our economy? Nigeria doesn’t produce anything. I say this all the time, and I think it’s obvious to everybody. Anytime I’m on the road or standing by the roadside, and I see cars and other vehicles passing, I keep telling myself, ‘oh yes, that one is made in Sweden; that one is made in Germany; that one is made in Japan, that one is made in the U.K. Now, there is Kia, Hyundai from Korea; Tata from India. And I say to myself, how can a country afford to live like this? All the things we consume are made somewhere else. What are we doing with all these universities, with all the intellectuals we have around? How can a country create wealth when it cannot manufacture, when it cannot produce? Even the oil we depend so vitally on is not being refined by Nigeria, and Nigeria doesn’t know how many barrels of oil are really leaving her shores on a daily basis. Nigeria has no control over her own affairs even in year 2011, with all these universities, for goodness sake. How can a country feel so satisfied with producing nothing and consuming everything?
Coming back to Dr. Jonathan, how can he lead the country to confront our pathological dependency? To be able to do this, he himself will need to stop being a pliable blaze-trailer; we need a trail-blazer! He will need to show us he is capable of generating fresh ideas and following them through That is the kind of leader Nigeria needs at the moment.
‘President Jonathan Needs To Justify the PhD After His Name’
Jonathan is the first truly educated Nigerian to occupy that seat, with a doctorate degree, and an academic. Why is it so difficult for him to navigate himself through whatever obstacles that is on his way?
The university does not necessarily an educated person make (pardon my archaic inversion!). A truly educated person is one who thinks beyond the walls of any institution. He’s one who has that amplitude of mind and vision, whose knowledge is broad, who is able to relate the past with the present, and therefore, anticipate the future.
Yes, a truly educated person is one with a refined sensibility, a humanist, a person who is capable of going from mere fellow-feeling to compassion; who is able to say, ‘oh my God, when my people are hungry, I, too, am hungry’. So, the word ‘educated’ is loaded. Our problem in Nigeria and Africa really, is that we have so many ill-literates. Panoply of diplomas may not total up to insight and resourcefulness. Truly educated people wouldn’t rule us the way our rulers are ruling us today. Remember I haven’t said ‘leaders’. A truly educated person is the one that can become a leader. The half educated, merely literate people we have at the moment can only stop at the threshold of amateurish ruler-ship
Jonathan has a PhD after his name, and I think this country is telling him to justify that title. It doesn’t matter if it’s from Zoology or Microbiology or Astra-physics or Religious Studies. No; there is a discipline that goes with the acquisition of these degrees, a certain development of the mind; a certain toughness of thinking, and a roaming capacity for making decisions and following them through. These are the things we expect from a leader. So, it’s not a matter of how many degrees. A truly educated person is also a conscientious person, a person who will think twice before stealing public funds. The illiterate ones will think about the millions they have and how to increase their loot. They hardly ever think about the future; that future is buried in their stomachs. This is the category of rulers we have in this country today, and that is why our situation is as it is. Does it matter whether they went to university or not?
In the budget Jonathan recently presented, security took the lion share. Do you think that is what it will take to curb the security monster?
I don’t always like to comment on Nigeria’s budgets. As a writer, I eschew clichés and hackneyed expressions. Every budget that has been read in this country has come with some hackneyed sobriquet or another. “Budget of Hope”; “Budget of Reconciliation”; “Budget of Consolidation”; budget of this, budget of that. Hasn’t President Jonathan’s own been tagged “Budget of Transformation”? Insufferable mantras and irritating nonsense, so galling in its utter disingenuousness. And, by the way, what is the percentage of implementation of these budgets? In what ways have they improved the lives of ordinary Nigerians?
Every year, the Nigerian government votes huge sums for transportation, education, health, agriculture, security, etc. Take a look at our death-trap roads, decrepit educational system, procrustean agricultural facilities, death-inflicting healthcare, and ask where have all the budgeted monies been going? Our rulers steal us dead; it’s as simple as that. So I don’t waste my thought on their budget. Security, yes, the lion’s share mapped out for it. But then I ask again, whose security? How much of this is going to the fight against Boko Haram? Maybe a lot, but as I hinted earlier, Boko Haram is not something you can fight with money; no. This is why I say that our rulers should think; they need to think. Boko Haram is so grassroots that even when you see the enemy, you don’t recognise him. It’s more than anything we can fight with money. Bank robbers, highway robbers all over the place; are you going to distribute the money to them or are you going to arm the police?
How many police men and women do we have in this country? Nobody has done the ratio of policeman to criminal in this country. I don’t know but I think it’s very high. I pity our policemen in. Sun and rain, they are there, with many of them really looking scruffy and hungry. This is not how to treat people that you expect to protect you; no. The security of a country is its people. Let people have enough to eat, decent housing; let them have good education for their children; let there be hospitals when they are ill. Let life be more meaningful to them; it’s not likely that they will go out at night to rob their neighbours.
I knew this country when it was a country, when people went to bed with their doors unlocked. Nigeria didn’t have so many desperate people. The way Nigeria is today, nobody can maintain adequate security in it. You don’t know what your next door neighbour is up to. Parents task themselves to send their children to school; the children suffer in order to gain an education. They finish and there are no jobs. Our streets are bursting with hordes of able-bodied but jobless youth, desperate and down and out, a terrible waste to a society that needs all hands to be on deck. This is a country that creates desperate citizens, and that is why Nigerian citizens look very much like the enemy of their rulers, because their enemies are their rulers. Those who rule us don’t care; they don’t do anything to show us that they care. If they care, they won’t be stealing the funds meant for development the way they do.
Some describe the impoverished citizenry as being too docile. Is there the possibility of the Arab Spring Uprising in a country like Nigeria? Can Nigerians confront their leaders the way the Arab people did recently?
Good question. In the past five years or so, I have been reconsidering my long-held opinion about the relation between leadership and followership. Time there was when I laid all the blame on leadership. Now I’m beginning to say that the followership should also take their fate in their own hands. This is what I see most of the time, for example, in the plays of Femi Osofisan, one of our top writers. Play after play after play; the leaders are there doing things. But the address is to the people. Why must you continue to be ridden like a donkey? Why can’t you, too, get up in the saddle?
Nigerians are too docile, too forgiving of bad leadership. Why are they this way?
A number of reasons, the first one is religion. The kind of religion we have in Nigeria is one that puts you to sleep, and after that, puts you to death. It’s not the kind of religion that’s after social justice; it’s not the kind of religion that is after the welfare of the people and the independence of their existence. Particularly guilty in this regard are the Prosperity Gospellers of the Pentecostal variety who hawk faith on the air and convert religion into superstition. If you have no job, we are told, it must be because of your sin. Your poverty (or pauperization) is a result of the offence you have committed against God. Blissfully indemnified are the rogue-rulers whose greed has corrupted and ruined our social estate; those whose policies or lack of them have made job creation impossible by sabotaging our productive capacity? So, if you have no job, blame your sins; if you wallow in poverty, you only have yourself to blame. In the thinking and preaching of many of these latter-day evangelists, every scoundrel in power in Nigeria is “God-chosen” and must be treated as such. Religion in this country is a dangerous opium; really dangerous opium. And that is why our rulers are encouraging the building of churches and mosques all over the place. When in December last year the newspapers carried the picture of a kneeling President Jonathan with a ministering Pastor towering above him in prayerful supremacy, we were presented with an image so symbolic of the relationship between the state and religion in Nigeria. No picture could have been more emblematic!
Religion has killed rational thinking in this country. I say this all the time; our country is still in a pre-scientific era. That is why things are like this. We don’t think logically; that is why any ruler, any fool would seize the reins and rule us, because we would always find an excuse for being ruled or being led by the nose.
Not long ago a pastor said he was between two cities and he discovered that the fuel in his car had run out. He actually checked and saw the fuel in the car was completely gone. But because of his act of faith and on the strength of his prayers, he was able to do two hundred miles on an empty tank! When he declared this testimony, people clapped and shouted “Hallelujah!” I never heard anybody say how can? Nigerians don’t ask questions; that is why the imams and the pastors lead them by the nose, and the politicians also complete their humiliation and disempowerment. And between the clerics and the political functionaries, there is a very close liaison.
It’s a kind of power structure; one controls the political, social realm, the other controls the spiritual, metaphysical realm and they are together. Many Nigerians are not rational, interrogative people. In fact, in this country today, if you are the interrogative type you are easily labelled, branded, and condemned. People even wonder: why are you always asking questions?’ When the blessed Tai Solarin was alive, he agonised and agonised over this issue. The way he was misunderstood, the way he was misinterpreted and his anger at the way many of our people were going - that we should be up in the streets.
Another problem: well, our people are docile and the reason why they take all kinds of cheating is that many of them envisage themselves in the position of power someday, too. If I am X and the oppressor is Y, and the oppressor is oppressing me, stealing all the money, and making life difficult for me and my children, I am not likely to attack him. I’ll pray to God to let my own “miracle” happen so that someday, he will go and I will be in his place. No; I am praying for him to go but for the structure to remain.
This is the social psychology of Nigerian politics. So many people don’t see it as wrong. When they see it as wrong, it’s because it is putting them at a disadvantage; they are not really concerned with the social order or the commonweal. That’s a very important issue.
‘Fuel Subsidy Removal...
The IMF Is At Work Again’
Now government is talking about subsidy removal and we have the Minister of Finance, Okonjo Nweala, who is the coordinating minister for the economy in her second coming to that position. She is coming with IMF and World Bank background, with a certain skewed orientation towards Africa. What do you make of this mix?
The subsidy issue is going to decide the fate of this country in year 2012, whether we are still going to have a country called Nigeria or whether there will be none at all. That we are talking about subsidy or no subsidy now takes me back to the point I made earlier on. We don’t have rulers who think and feel; we don’t have rulers who have the interest of the people of this country at heart. But we’ve been through all this before. Who can forget in a hurry the way the then President Babangida got the country debating whether we wanted the IMF or not, how the country roundly rejected the IMF’s ‘conditionalities’, but Babangida and his group smuggled them in through a subterfuge called Sap (Structural Adjustment Policy). This was when the drastic devaluation of the Naira began, and with it the devaluation of the Nigerian life. Nigeria is still reeling in the fever of that economic-fiscal fiasco.
IMF is at it again. Its new president, France’s Christine Laggarde, has just visited Nigeria and has given a pass mark to the Jonathan administration. With Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, the IMF’s Trojan horse at the helm in the finance ministry, that international task master and global finance police has a jolly good friend in a powerful place indeed. There is no country in the world that has swallowed the IMF pill without spinning into retching bouts and, at times, rigor mortis. For, as I said in one of the poems in Songs of the Season,
The IMF Is a doctor Who heals the patient By killing him first
Yes, those clinical undertakers of vulnerable economies are at it again, and the very life of every Nigerian is on the line
Let us look at the ‘subsidy’ conundrum. Is there a subsidy really? Then who, what, is being subsidized? We all need to go back to Prof. Tam David West’s recent interview on this issue. If there is anybody who understands the oil and gas industry and how it works, it’s David West, Nigeria’s former Petroleum minister. Because Nigeria cannot run efficient refineries, and therefore it has to import the refined products, the government is now asking the Nigerian people to pay for its inefficiency and criminal mismanagement and corruption. The questions we should be asking are: who are the people responsible for the non-functioning of our refineries? Who are the beneficiaries from this dysfunction? Who are the lucky owners of oil blocks and instant billionaires from oil quotas?
If our rulers were people with a sense of shame, they wouldn’t be talking about subsidy at all. They should cover their faces in shame and apologize to the Nigerian people; for if anything, it is the Nigerian people that need some form of hardship allowance from their incorrigibly incompetent government.
And our President and his officials have been going from church to church (have they called at the mosques yet?), asking for God’s blessing for the kind of socio-economic mayhem they are about to unleash on the Nigerian people through the removal of the so-called subsidy; asking the pastors to pray to God to make Nigerians compliant to and accepting of their impoverished situation, begging Almighty God to soften the minds of Nigerians. But no one entered a plea for God to smash the incubus of corruption and mismanagement that has brought this country to its knees. Our President never asked God to grant him the courage and candour to make a public declaration of his assets as required by the constitution of the country he rules...
Nigeria is a country tottering on the precipice. Our rulers are doing everything to tip it into the abyss. As a student of history, I know that revolutions do not just happen. They are caused almost invariably by rulers that are blind, deaf, insensitive, and megalomaniacal. It is this insidious cocktail that produces the ‘Distance of Power’, that affliction that has always engaged my attention whenever I ponder the use and misuse of power. And I ask: President Jonathan, are you close enough to hear the heartbeats of those you rule? Can you hear the wailing in the land? Can you see the hunger in the streets? Can you see the protuberant stomachs of kwashiorkor-ravaged children? Can you see the hordes and hordes of our children who roam the streets because their parents are too poor to send them to school? Can you hear the unending screams from those face-to-face shacks where spouses tear each other into pieces over the non-availability of house-keeping money? Can you hear the interminable rat-a-tat of the sophisticated guns of armed robbers as they bloody our days and terrify our nights? President Jonathan, can you hear? Can you see? Can you feel? Your predecessors flogged us with whips; will you advance their various acts of cruelty by whipping us with scorpions?
President Jonathan, do you still remember that young, ambitious boy from Otuoke who never had shoes until well into his teenage years? Well, now he is a King in the Marble Palace with a wardrobe large as a house. Look through the tinted windows of power. You will see millions of children whose shoeless feet embarrass our land. You will behold thousands that have no feet to call their own. Some people say your government is under pressure to remove the ‘subsidy’ because Nigeria is broke. Ask: who broke the country? Can you confront corruption head-on? It is the giant monster responsible for all the holes through which the vital juice of Nigeria is leaking. The Nigerian people are not responsible for the heedless squandermania and arrant improvidence that got us into this mess. Don’t heave the burden on the backs of those already bent and bruised by the consequences of the foul actions of the powerful and well connected.
President Jonathan, our country would not be broke if our rulers stole less and served more, if our governments were not so bloated with redundancies, if we did not squander most of our resources on the maintenance of a parasitic political class of which you are an affluent member.
Mr President, please do not toy with the fate of this country. A still restive Niger Delta is simmering in the south; Boko Haram bombs make a mockery of your government’s security system in the north. Most of our people are poor (no, impoverished) and desperate and angry. They are like the savannah grass in the harmattan. Do not throw a flaming match into their fold.Remember: the country over which you preside (just like the election that brought you into office) is fragile and frighteningly flawed. Tell the IMF and its Trojan horse in your cabinet that you are not ready for the suicide which they are so heedlessly asking you to commit. Tell them you are not ready to commit ‘Nigeriacide’. A word, they say, is enough for the wise. For the wise, that is.