It is again another sombre anniversary


It is again that time of year when Nigerians, contemplating their country’s troubling past and uncertain future, engage in an orgy of collective self-flagellation, when an anniversary that should be an occasion for rejoicing  and renewal breeds, instead, recrimination and resentment.

Those were the opening lines of my column for this newspaper on September 29, 2009, as a preface to the National Day, our independence anniversary,  a day when, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, many Nigerians consider their country’s unflattering profile and wonder why, and many others contemplate what their country could be and ask: why not?

In his National Day Broadcast four days later, the guileless President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, of fond memory, would warn that the anniversary should not be turned into an occasion for “self-flagellation,”  using the very term I had employed in my preface to the milestone.  It is not the kind of term you find in presidential speeches.  Even for the most practised speakers, it is a tongue-twister, and the meaning is unlikely to be immediately apparent to the general audience.

I claim no copyright on the term, to be sure.  Still, I could not but be gratified that, although the speechwriters employed that term as warning against what the day should NOT consist in, and might even have intended a gentle rebuke to this columnist rather than what Oscar Wilde designated the sincerest form of flattery, its invocation by the president was heartening evidence that the column commanded attention in high places.

Even while warning against self-flagellation, Yar’Adua enjoined in the 1,040-word speech that the day should serve as “a forceful reminder of the promise yet to be fulfilled, of the dream deferred for too long, and of the work that is still outstanding.”

Yar’Adua’s warning was right on the mark.  Considering all and kvetching and inveighing pervading the anniversary, it might as well be called National Lamentation Day.  Or National Moaning Day.  Or National Self-loathing Day.  Or National Self-flagellation Day. This anniversary will be no different, I wager.

October 1, I suspect, is also the day policy-makers and political officials dread most on the national calendar.  What can they claim to have achieved since the previous anniversary that they had not claimed the year just past with great eloquence and even greater vehemence, and for the year before that?

I don’t envy those who write the speeches and those who make the speeches for that day.

I am here reminded of the budget writers who plan to buy for the Presidential Villa the kitchen equipment and accessories they had bought the previous year and the year before that, as well as computers and servers and communications hardware they had purchased the previous year and the year before, and to sign a contract they had awarded the previous year and the year before for that geo-strategic bridge that was “nearing completion” at the time of the last appropriation.

In his 2009 Budget speech, Yar’Adua spoke about “positioning” Nigeria, “sustainable development,” providing electricity on a “sustainable basis,” and about “holistic measures” aimed at “ensuring requisite macroeconomic stability.”

That was ten years ago today. Those goals and terms are strewn over practically every National Day Broadcast since then. I will be surprised if they do not perfuse President Muhammadu Bihari’s National Day Broadcast today.

Since then, a thousand conferences have been staged on national development, housing for all, food self-sufficiency, water for all, electricity for all, mass transit for all, and generally on how to move Nigeria forward, to translate its vast potential into actual power.  Yet the image it conjures up is that of a stalled caterpillar, its antennae probing in every direction but its body inert.

They say, following the great writer Chinua Achebe, that the problem is the failure of leadership, by which they mean the political leadership.  Taking a related but different tack, others locate the problem in the accession to power at independence.  The prize, they say, was presented on a “platter of gold” to marginal actors for the most part, not to those who were bloodied and jailed and exiled in the struggle.

If it was the latter that had succeeded to power, they argue, Nigeria’s history would have at the very least mirrored, in terms of development, that of former colonial dependencies in the same league, like India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the so-called Asian Tigers.

Who knows?

Of course, leadership matters.  Leaders dream great dreams, define and articulate goals, enlist public support for the goals, map out strategies for pursuing them and stay steadfast on the long road to actualizing them.  They set the tone for public discourse.  They strive to see that rewards and sanctions are distributed justly.  They lead by example, not by precept or preachment.

They see their position as a summons to service, not as an invitation to “come and eat,” as one former minister memorably phrased it.  They appreciate that public service should not be a path to great personal wealth.  They will not engage in an obscene display of wealth from that provenance and dare the pubic to do its damnedest.

When they call for sacrifice in the national interest, they do so from a moral pedestal, having slashed their own perks and privileges.   You cannot call for sacrifice when you appropriate unto yourself as monthly “wardrobe allowance” twice the monthly minimum wage of N30, 000 you are loath to pay.  You cannot, under the guise of making laws for the good governance of Nigeria, allocate more than one-tenth of the national budget to meet your fancies and fantasies.

Leaders are rarely solitary figures.  They work with like-minded persons to define goals and seek solutions; they seek actively to bring others of a different persuasion to the fold. But when necessary, they are prepared to act alone and take responsibility.

In the Nigerian experience, such figures are rare.  Yet they constitute what Nigerians have in mind when they bemoan the failure of leadership.

Others blame the structure of the federation, the obsessive drive for uniformity in the guise of unity, for the failure of the promise of independence.  The answer, as they see it, lies in restructuring the polity to achieve “true federalism.”

Nigeria’s present structure is without question a serious impediment to development, what with too many unviable states, and funds that should have gone into meeting worthier goals being used to maintain a bloated political bureaucracy that serves little purpose.  But that is only a part of the answer.

If leadership in Nigeria has been dysfunctional, what of the followership?

Can leadership be divorced from followership?  The one and the other are but two sides of a single coin.  Thus, the failure of leadership in Nigeria is no less remarkable than the failure of followership.

When the followership behave as subjects rather than citizens, when they continually make excuses for bad leadership, when they embrace policies that are not merely inimical to but are actually subversive of their interests, when they are easily bought off or bribed, they become an integral part of the problem.

When followers do not see it as their duty to help maintain facilities and structures built at great expense for their benefit, no leadership can accomplish much in the area of infrastructure.  To take as an example:  Where today are the guard rails for the bridges and highways built in the 1970s and even more recently?  Why are the drainage systems clogged with solid waste and even disused tyres days after they were decongested?

Nigerians of all classes will kvetch and moan and lament as usual on this independence anniversary, the followership more than the leadership.  But the followership has been an equal-opportunity actor with the leadership in perpetuating the national malaise, and must resolve to be an equal partner in ending it.