November 16, 2019 was the posthumous birthday of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, first Nigeria’s president, and Prof Chinua Achebe, Africa’s foremost novelist. Zik would have been 115 years old while Achebe would have been 89 years old, if they were alive.
Even though they operated within two different spheres of Nigeria’s life, these two men shared certain things in common regarding Nigeria. They were from Anambra State, from towns (Onitsha and Ogidi) which are merely 16 kilometres away from each other. While Zik led the campaign against colonialism in Nigeria, Achebe led the campaign against the literary profiling of Blacks and Africa as a land of illogicality, irrationality and barbarism.
There was also a point of convergence between them: politics and good governance. They both pushed for a great Nigeria that would be the pride of Africa and the Black race. While Zik contested elections to achieve that, Achebe participated marginally in politics in the Second Republic, but dedicated the greater part of his life to pointing the way to a great Nigeria. In 1983 he published the book The Trouble with Nigeria in which he made the famous statement that the “trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.”
Sadly, both of them did not see the Nigeria of their dream like most of their contemporaries. In 2004 and 2011, Achebe rejected the offer of a national honour in protest against the lawlessness and mis-governance going on in Nigeria.
Has anything changed since then? Yes, there has been a change, but clearly not for the better. Before now, Nigeria was not ranked as the country with the highest number of poor people on earth, even though it is not among the top five most populated countries of the world. Similarly, the level of insecurity was not as bad as it is now. Public infrastructure was not as deteriorated as it is now. And Nigeria was not as divided as it is now.
The sad part about Nigeria is that beyond “hope,” there are no signs pointing towards the growth and development of Nigeria. If there are no signs showing that Nigeria is on the right track, how then will it become great? Is there a record of any country that woke up one day and became great via a miracle the way people win lottery and become rich overnight?
When Achebe diagnosed Nigeria’s problem as “simply and squarely that of leadership,” he was applauded like the man who discovered penicillin. He is regularly quoted as a man who has identified the key problem with Nigeria. To many Nigerians, the only thing that needs to be done is to get “the right leadership” and Nigeria will blossom. The question nobody seems to be asking is why Nigeria has not been able to find this so-called “right leadership” in 60 years. Are Nigerians sub-human beings with sub-human intellect? Why do Nigerians excel in their private endeavours and other countries but fail in Nigerian governance?
Nigeria first experimented with parliamentary type of democracy without any good result. It then tried military dictatorships. Then it returned to democracy and tried the presidential type of government without satisfaction. It went back to military dictatorships and got disastrous results. The military eventually handed over to the civilians who have been in charge of the country non-stop for the past twenty years, the longest period democracy has lasted in Nigeria. It is obvious that even though military rule is not better, the democracy that has run in Nigeria in the past twenty years has not made Nigeria better.
Teachers have ruled Nigeria. University lecturers have ruled Nigeria. Military generals and retired military generals have ruled Nigeria. Those who were elected have ruled, and those who shot their way to power have ruled too. Those in the 30s and 50s have ruled Nigeria and those in their 70s have ruled Nigeria. People from the North have ruled. Similarly people from the South have ruled. Muslims have ruled, and Christians have ruled too. Yet, the assessment of Nigerians is that Nigeria has not had exemplary leaders.
One wonders then where this long-awaited “right leadership” will emerge from. Will it drop from heaven? What qualities will those who will make up this “right leadership” have? Will they have two heads and four legs? Will they be 12-foot tall? Will they have wings and fly like birds?
By now, Nigerians should have been questioning the assertion that the problem of Nigeria is “simply and squarely leadership.” If Nigeria were to have an amalgam of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Lee Kuan Yew (named Lincoln Churchill Yew) as the President of Nigeria, would he be able to transform Nigeria, or will he fail like other Nigerian leaders? There are no precedents to show that such an exceptional leader will be able to lead Nigeria out of mediocrity and backwardness.
Judging from history, the problem of Nigeria is not leadership. It is not corruption. The trouble with Nigeria is a clash of contrasting cultures and worldviews. Note that I did not say “different cultures and worldviews.” Peoples with different cultures and worldviews may find it easier to create common grounds. But when cultures and worldviews of peoples are in direct opposition to one another, it is a recipe for crisis. After colonising a united India, the United Kingdom knew that having such a country with India and Pakistan run as a nation would be disastrous. Therefore, the UK split the country into two at independence. India faced its path, while Pakistan faced its path. In 1971, Bangladesh pulled out of Pakistan and faced its path. It is the same opposing views that faced Malaysia and Singapore. It is the type of fate that would face Israel and Palestine if they were to be one nation.
Surprisingly, Nigerians have been living a lie and avoiding facing this glaring reality. The belief is that if it is left un-discussed, one day it will miraculously vanish, and all will be well. But rather than avoid it and pretend that it does not exist, the best option is to discuss it and create a system that will recognise those differences and allow each group to run its life according to its culture and worldview. That is what is working for countries like Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, United Kingdom, and United States. A structure that grants a great measure of autonomy to the different parts was put in place, making it possible for each people to be themselves within the country and pursue their dream without encumbrances. No part would feel suffocated. No part would feel that it is being pulled back and stopped from reaching its desired height.
It is this problem of contrastive worldviews that has made it impossible for Nigeria to have pan-Nigerian heroes and villains. A hero in one part of Nigeria is seen as a villain in another part and vice versa. It is this problem of opposing worldviews that makes it hard for “right leaders” to emerge in Nigeria, because any transformational policy introduced by a leader is seen by another part as an attempt to undermine it and put it at a disadvantage. It is the same reason that delayed Nigeria’s independence. It is the same reason that makes the use of merit impossible in Nigeria.
Nigerians from all parts have been forced to move at the same pace and adopt the same standard. Those who want to move fast are forced to wait for others. Those who want to practise their faith in a particular way are forced to practise it in a way that suits everybody. The result is backwardness, perennial conflicts, distrust, and detachment from the country. That is what fuels corruption, as anybody who holds a public post sees it as an opportunity to grab his or her own national cake from “this country that belongs to all but to nobody.”
Nigeria needs to stop running away from its demons. The most sensible way to stop the demons is to face them squarely. The failure to face these demons has been wreaking havoc in this country. The more Nigeria delays facing them frontally and honestly, the more dangerous it is to Nigeria.
– Onwuka, a respected columnist, writes for The Punch