I respect the aged. Indeed, much of my day is spent combing through the words of extremely dead men. Born before Christ and alive by the wisdom which they left the young and hungry of mind, which, of course, embraces all biological age. Of those still revered, Aristotle died in 322 BC, Thomas Aquinas in 1274, Descartes in 1650, and Rousseau in 1778. John Rawls is a more recent addition to the canon of western moral philosophy; but only by some. Others refuse to accept his ascendance possibly because he simply has not been dead for long enough. He lived till 2002. Though the catalogue of ancient African philosophy is not so well studied, when our search for its record brings out its light, I will surely bury my head in its lessons because I will know that those who wrote it will be even more dead than Plato. So, I respect the aged. And I give ancient words and old thoughts a greater space for consideration and interpretation than I do the new fangled modes of the modern day young with their social technology, and their twitter, and their blogs… Nevertheless, the age of a thing, though I respect it, has never – by itself – compelled me to unthinkingly absorb its teachings. Aged learnings which demand to be accepted must be able to bear the scrutiny of reason. I respect aged things and aged beings and that is why I challenge them.
This is how the post I had in mind for last week was supposed to begin. I was going to object to the seemingly persistent perspective of a generation of Nigerians who believe that Nigeria today is a version of itself they do not recognise from their youth. This notion, which is widely traceable to Nigerians somewhere between the ages of 45 and upwards is aptly indicated in the refrain “this is not the Nigeria that we knew.” It is a phrase, or some version thereof, that is voiced with a mixture of sorrow and indignation at the state to which our country is viewed to have descended since gaining its independence from our former colonial masters. I was going to write that this idea, held by our elders, is based on a false and damaging understanding of what Nigeria once was and what constituted our Nigeria. I was going to take us through the history of colonial development and have us rest assured that not only is this Nigeria the only Nigeria that has ever belonged to us, but is also the only one over which we have ever been in charge.
I was going to employ Mamdani’s now well-worn theory of authoritarian colonial importation and show how the relationship between master and colonial serf which once existed has been usurped by the now independent upper classes who impose the old colonial structures of dominance and exploitation on the poor and marginalised as it once was on them. I was going to take on an analogy of architecture to suggest that while it may be the case that many Nigerians did in fact work very hard for the gains made under colonial imposition there is a vast and important difference between being a builder who lays bricks to his masters commands and being the architect who employs the whole system from design inception to site completion. I was going to admonish us for yearning for and hanging on to things that were not really ours and for refusing to imagine a Nigeria adorned of only our dreams.
And then I was going to end with a triumphant flourish: Nigeria now, I was going to declare, is the best version of itself it has been since the beneficial hangover of a well and tightly managed colony faded somewhere around the mid 70’s. We may still have a long road to carve, but at least we were now living in a time of our own framework and in which the threat of presidential political opponents being assassinated was null. The threat of presidents unconstitutionally maneuvering the overturn of elections only to bring in an interim government and eventually a return to military power was now unthinkable. This was no longer June 12, 1993. That was last week.
On February 14, I went to a “rally for democracy” organized by various civil society and advocacy groups. Femi Falana spoke. A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), which is akin to being Queens Counsel in the United Kingdom, Mr Falana is immersed in the law. There is not much he says that falls outside the law or to which he does not make the law refer. And rightly so. The law by which any society lives is that by which it organises its freedom and upon which it stakes the colour and texture of its future prosperity.
But while Mr Falana quoted sections of the constitution in defence of those such as Attahiru Jega‘s – the head of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission – constitutionally derived independence from political tampering, one could not help but doubt the use of his legal protestations in a country where even Falana himself acknowledges that the president is nothing more than a power crazed hooligan. Last September a judge in Ekiti state was beaten up in a politically motivated attack, after which all courts in the state were shut down on the orders of the state’s chief judge. Earlier this month, the reopening of the courts in Rivers State were thwarted by coordinated and politically suspiscious bomb attacks on a series of courts across the state. Not to mention, the jaw-dropping revelation of the flagrant disregard both of the law and of the people of Ekiti State, by one Musiliu Obanikoro who stands accused of being involved in the extraordinary election rigging scandal that “won” Ayodele Fayose the Ekiti State governorship in June last year. It is quite clear just how revered by our politicians are our laws.
Over the last couple of weeks Falana has repeatedly joked that at the very least Nigerians deserve a right to change their oppressors. And that is the state of our nation. One false set of power peddling impostors after the next. Our legal system is not strong enough to withstand their barracking and our political system has been too contrived by these same dead-weights to enable any real competition between truly worthy citizens who have worked their way up the political ladder by proving themselves to their local constituencies. A young twenty-something year old lady spoke at the rally on valentine’s day with the passion and hope only young people tend to be able to muster in all their naivety. She screamed at the crowd – she did not want her daughter living this same pained life in 10 years time. Despite her innocence, she knows, and I know, that this will not be the case.
So, I was wrong. We may have a lucky escape, elections may very well hold in March, we may not see an interim government, and no military returns; but it has been made clear this past week for anyone with eyes to see that our country has not moved very far in the last 20 years. Only 3 days ago did it have to be clearly stated by an Abuja Court of Appeal that any proposed use of the military during this year’s elections would be unconstitutional. As if nobody knew that before.
My caution still stands to that generation that has had the supposed benefit of having lived both under colonial and indigenous management. They have mistaken the left over effects of the efficient bureaucratic structures built by the British that lasted at least a decade after the British took their leave for the prophecy of Nigeria’s future under its own steam. That was not your Nigeria, and it certainly was not my Nigeria. You might have worked in it but you did not construct it and even less so did you design it. The vast majority of Nigeria’s young population (over 60% of the population is under 24 years old and those under 50 compose well over 70%) has no experience of this colonial past beyond the indirect, and largely negative, structural effects it left behind in a state that was primarily designed to extract resources from the centre for transport to the British crown – it is no wonder that so many Nigerians continue to view the federal government as a blank cheque. That is the everlasting structure of the Nigeria some remember.
But if we are to move on, it is no point taking lectures on a past that was not only foreign to us in almost every aspect of its imagining but continues to be at least part of the source of our current disposition. We must begin to imagine a Nigeria that is ours, a Nigeria that we designed and can effect. Do not paint over rotten buildings when you can construct good ones. Ones that work for us. Ones where presidents are too afraid of their owners to annul elections, where political parties are real representatives of the people not fake conglomerates of corrupt and wealthy hoodlums masquerading as political agitators, and where the political class is a class we have built, not one that has shamelessly imposed itself. A meritocratic class built on intellectual worth and driven from the ground up. If our elders wish to help the majority young who must suffer the consequences for many more years to come then they will be well advised to teach us these lessons and save their nostalgic reveries for their grand children’s fairy tales.