Nigeria: A Social Experiment in Parallel Lives

Published on 4th April 2014

Ahmad Sanusi’s response to Hamza Baba’s article in Huffington Post--So Boko is Haram After all?--aptly captured the mood in Nigeria. Sanusi in addressing the issue in response to Hamza’s statement: "Boko is haram in my local government, Dawakintofa in Kano state. Yes western education has become a sin for anybody dreaming to make him/her available for any elective position;" highlighted the dichotomies and parallel existence which have come to characterise Nigeria. Sanusi cautioned against such mentality--“them and us, illiterates and literates”; and advised on practical measures of engagement and to promote realistic hope and optimism in the down trodden Hamza regarded as menace to the society.

History, Cicero said, is the great instructor of public life. However, history is an eccentric educator and its wisdom does not come to us pre-packaged. As Christopher Clark puts it, lessons are “oracles whose relevance to our predicament has to be puzzled over.” We can either blindly plod on to the future or place some reliance on the past. However, in a country which recently removed history from its school curriculum based on the fact that students are not keen on the subject; and the lack of new job opportunities for history graduates; and the dearth of history teachers; it all signals that Nigeria is determined to chart a future devoid of history and lessons from the encumbrances of its past--a futile fatuous exercise.

An excursion into Nigeria’s history is indicated at this point in order to appreciate the parallel lives--a recurring decimal in its society and polity.

Prior to 1914, there was no country called Nigeria. In a social experiment to maximise the economic viability of the two Protectorates,--Northern and Southern Nigeria--and reduce the cost of administering both independently, Lord Frederick John Dealty Lugard, 1st Baron Lugard, amalgamated both Protectorates. He was a man--like most colonialists--known for his idiosyncratic leadership. It was reported that he spent about 50% of his time in England while Governor General of this complex country and resented educated Nigerians who lived in the Southern part of the country. This approach to leadership characterised not only his tenure, but largely influenced the polity and leadership of Nigeria during its period of colonisation and post-independence.

Further, the lumping together of disparate ethnic groups with different languages, tribal proclivities and religious inclinations, and thus aspiration would influence and become the defining hallmark of Nigeria’s polity and ultimately its society.

In the build up to its independence in 1960, the largely Muslim Hausa/Fulani North-- that had administrative structure and skill which was a legacy of the caliphate that the British came to value, given the ease of administering by indirect rule--were more comfortable to remain under the colonial rule. On the other hand, the mostly Christian South, who were better educated and resented by the first Governor General, were restive and demanded the end of colonial rule without figuring what nation-building would entail in a complex social experiment as Nigeria.

Prior to independence, the parallel lives were predictable--the colonialist and the natives. With the benefits of western education, the overall texture of this dynamic morphed into a more complex arrangement. The educated natives who were now public servants metamorphosed into the eyes and the ears of the colonialist and represented the British in the interfacing space with the ‘real natives.’ These real natives who lost out in the new power dynamic in the nascent social arrangement were still reeling and nursing the wounds of subjugation and were craving status quo ante--prior to the paradigm shift and life under the colonising masters. Chinua Achebe’s protagonist, Okonkwo in his remarkable statement in Things Fall Apart aptly captured what the natives who were going through a painful process of adjustment disorders felt: "...the white man has cleverly put a knife in what held us together and things have fallen apart."

This captured the extent and the essence of the nostalgia that pervaded communities, particularly Okonkwo’s ethnic group, the Igbos, where rigid hierarchies were not the norm and a majoritarian social structure of leadership mainly influenced by meritocracy was evident in their social life. The Okonkwos and his ilk hankered after the past and the re-enactment of the status quo ante; this permanently put them on the back foot in the new dispensation. Those who made a volte face and gleefully demonstrated their loyalty to the new masters were rewarded with the imprimatur of a nascent authority.

With the benefits of western education and “demystification” of the white man, particularly after the great world war--where some of the natives fought alongside the allied forces against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire--the environment was now ripe for a challenge of the colonial status quo. The Second World War became the catapulting catalyst in the change of the narrative--the natives have the right and desire to self-determination, rule themselves. Change had finally come to town. Its name was independence. In the hasty preparation to see off the last representative of Her Majesty and roll out the celebratory drums, circumspect engagement of the rational--as regard to nation-building and governance--gave way to high octane emotionalism. This was visible and vibrant and drowned any other competing concerns or stimuli.

This clamour for independence and a new narrative in the country unwittingly sapped the energy from tribal/ethnic fault lines and religious allegiance, but did not slay the hydra headed monster. The monster went into hibernation waiting for a more clement period--the departure of the British.

What happened to Nigeria is not too dissimilar to what happened to South Africa--extravagant celebration of the collapse of Apartheid that paved the way for freedom without reckoning that freedom is attended by responsibility. As Hugh Masakele, the talented trumpeter once said in a radio interview with the BBC, about his native South Africa: “The problem is that we fought for freedom and got democracy; there are minimal requirements for participation in any democracy.”

This is very true of Nigeria. Its nascent leadership soon found itself mired in the soft clay of ethno-tribal politics which soon hardened into an unrecognisable insensitive blunt instrument of disputing and navigating the complexities of alliances within its regional parties. It was unsurprising that the insensitive blunt instrument could neither plumb beyond the earthy dross of ethnicity to unearth a new foundation--an independent nation that needed attention and construction. Nor as a navigating instrument was it to navigate the complexities of the society in addressing the continual and often challenging dialectics of empowerment and stability. The latter was mainly to prove the down fall of the first republic.

It did not take long post-independence for the unravelling of the experiment called Nigeria--two coup d’états in one year with some ethnic and quasi-religious underpinnings that presaged the civil war that lasted three years. The civil war further deepened the ethnic and tribal fault lines and the quasi-religious differences transmogrified into overt religious existential threats that became an indelible, recurring decimal in its political landscape.

With the foregoing, the Biblical brother wronged aptly comes to mind: A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle. So became the contentions within the Nigerian politics.

The concatenation of the foregoing gave rise to different dichotomies in the Nigerian politics--tribal/ethnic, North/South divide, Christian/Muslim, Khaki/non-Khaki, etc. This sordid state of affairs continued and complicated the already complex situation in Nigeria with perennial exacerbation of one of the dichotomies at any given time until the arrival at the apex of the political scene of one President Ibrahim Badamosi Babaginda.

Mr. Babaginda remains an interesting character in Nigerian politics. He is about the most educationally challenged amongst the Presidents, Prime Minister and Heads of States. However, he was adept with courting and wooing intellectuals who surrounded his administration. In terms of his educational history and achievements, the only other man who will give him a good run for his boat load of looted money was the late General Sanni Abacha. Both Generals belonged to the same phylum.

Mr. Babaginda became the President through a bloodless coup; and charmed Nigerians with his toothy smile. Behind the facade was a very brutal dictator who understood the psyche of the average Nigerian. He took the title of President despite being a military man. It can be argued that President Pervez Musharaff of Pakistan may have borrowed a leaf from his political shenanigan, but going a notch higher, given that his title of a CEO after coup d’état that overthrew the elected Prime Minister was unprecedented.

Mr. Babaginda was a master of impression management, a hallmark of Cleckleian psychopathy. He understood the psychology of the average Nigerian, particularly after the brief period of his predecessor, Major General Buhari. Under Mr. Buhari, the prevalent dichotomy was that of Khaki/Non-Khaki. The military were markedly visible in public spaces with their flogging cane as part of their moral management of errant Nigerians. Rough and ready justice was a major offering with a very low administrative cost. Mr. Buhari and his deputy Mr. Idiagbon did not disguise the fact that they had the power. With them, what you saw was almost what you got. Life was hard, but Nigerians simply soldiered on. Then came Mr. Babaginda, who initially appeared to be collegial and engaging with the population not with whips, but a concealed scorpion in an attractive velvety material. Nigerians quickly warmed up to him and his gorgeous wife, Maryam, now deceased. It was at their peril.

Mr. Babaginda took one look at the political ecosystem and knew immediately that things had to change. Why have those levels of complexities with various dichotomies when the whole system could be collapsed into parallel lives as the colonial masters? Although a military man, the Khaki/Non-Khaki dichotomy was not appealing to him. He was more sophisticated. Further, he had learned a lot from his immediate predecessor--Mr. Buhari. This dichotomy was immediately rendered null and void to his grand master design. His immediate desire was to re-enact a parallel lives devoid of too much complexities taken from his master plan.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Nigeria, there were steady decline and declension in the civil society due to accrued period of lack of investment, bad governance and lack of vision and leadership. Babaginda’s administration took the level of declension to another depth, altogether. Under his watch, he bequeathed the country a legacy--complete collapse of the middle class and every social institution in Nigeria. The country was left with parallel lives--life of the cabal and life of the pauperised.

His successors to date have neither the vision nor the desire to arrest this acceleration toward the precipice; this status quo has become so entrenched and the political class basks in it. Ever wondered that Nigeria’s legislature is the highest paid law makers in the world?

The first thing Mr. Babaginda did was to identify the most restive group in Nigeria--professionals--professional politicians, doctors, lawyers, lecturers, journalists, political scientists, educationists, writers, poets, etc. The next strategy was to woo and whisk them off their feet--as many of these professionals as possible. He got them busy in the name of pseudo nation-building and for their time and effort, he heavily incentivised. His era introduced a new paradigm, everyone had a price and individuals had to figure out this. His toothy smile and impression management went to work, before you could say Jack Robinson, professionals were all coming out of the woodwork to identify and align with his strategy. Some of his quasi nation-building took the form of creating institutions and agencies with agendas that were only known to him and a very small group of cabal who had a sneak preview of his master plan.

The professionals that he was not able to woo, he threatened and frightened them out of the country. The most tenacious and diehard bunch that refused to leave were not spared. He resorted to the nuclear option. This option took the form of defanging and systematically destroying all the institutions and their infrastructures while dulcifying the ‘arm’s length bodies’ he created out of his master plan. With the collapse of the traditional institutions and infrastructures, these tenacious restive professionals were now completely bereft and pauperised. Those who could not withstand this level of hardship opted out of Nigerian via the brain drain train. With the now nascent and recognisable political landscape--the impoverished and the privileged--that was devoid of other layers of complexity; the pathway for his installation as President for life was well and truly on course.

Unbeknown to Mr. Babaginda, was a man close to him who had nothing to lose. As the saying goes, the world has a lot to fear on a man who has nothing to lose; because a man who has nothing to lose is a dangerous man. This man, the late General Abacha was a fly in the ointment; he did not read Mr. Babaginda’s master script; if he did, then, he did not understand it.

Without Mr. Abacha, the well choreographed stage would have trammelled Mr. Babinganda to a life President, given that almost all the professionals that were of any consequence were already aligned to his vision while the rest of the population was too impoverished, and the daily grind of life kept them almost completely decoupled from the political process. Given that Mr. Babaginda did not have his way to keep the chalice he drank from, he poisoned the chalice.

This broken system left by Mr. Babaginda continues to be integral to the society and the resulting parallel lives present a clear and present danger. The continuation of this pernicious system is untenable. It was this system that created an enabling environment for the birth and nourishment of Boko Haram; needless to say that its profligate politicians are fully paid up members of the system and the list goes on. Mr. Babaginda in some ways was like the late Margaret Thatcher, both defined the politics of their countries in the 20th and 21st centuries.

It can be argued that the previously decoupled members of the population through ‘aspiration’ navigated the tortuous journey and made the cross over. This argument is too simplistic, given that the wastage rate in talent and treasure is too high a cost in a country that requires all the treasures and talents it needs to build a viable enduring nation. Parallel lives are unsustainable; the marginalisation of the majority of its population is neither healthy, nor make any economic sense in modern times.

Unless Nigerians, particularly the cabals come to the realisation that this pathological arrangement where most of its population are completely disenfranchised from its institutions--educational, judiciary, healthcare, welfare, etc; its attempts at real progress--without benefits of its complex history--will continue to remain a speedy chase after a moving cloud.

By Dr Anayo Unachukwu

The author is a medical doctor in the UK with interests in medico-legal matters and social inequality and their effect on health. He has a Masters of Law Degree (LLM).

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