Reuben Abati: In This Same Country

There is today in Nigeria an entire generation of Nigerian-passport wielding men and women who do not actually know, to borrow Achebe’s words that indeed “there was once a country”. These children born in a season of austerity, and raised during the years that the locusts ate, have become angry citizens. They are angry because they live in a country that makes them feel less worthy than the human standard.  The only Nigeria that they know is a country that makes them feel ashamed of their own origins. Many of them have enjoyed the privilege of foreign education and exposure to some of the best traditions in other parts of the world, but when they return to their own country, right from the airport, the snow of failure and inefficiency strikes them in the face, leaving them with no option but to wonder quo vadis Nigeria? It is the same question that their parents asked and the tragedy is that their own children except something else happens, are likely to ask exactly this same old and vexed question.

The angst of this young generation is made worse when they are told that Nigeria was not always like this. In their late 20s to thirties, these children have only known that Nigeria where fuel scarcity is a fact of daily life, and part of the mechanism of survival is to know how to draw fuel with your mouth, or negotiate black market purchase of fuel, while lugging jerry cans, either at the fuel station or a roadside corner where you cannot be sure of the quality of fuel- all of that in a country that is the world’s sixth largest producer of crude oil. These children have only known a country where the roads are bad, services are sub-standard, people are mean, criminality is rife, and electricity is available once in a blue moon.

What they know is a country where the pastors and malams are better known for lying, swearing, cheating, calling the name of God in vain. In their Nigeria, public and private officials are lazy, and unproductive, they just want to reap, and they have sucked the country so dry, her glands are wasted, flat, going South and no more presentable, the balloon has suffered a blow out, even the blind can see that this is so. These angry children are no longer proud of the green passport; because the Constitution allows dual citizenship, they’d rather grab the citizenship of another country, and remain linked to Nigeria only by blood, and that is the case because they have parents who would not want them to de-link completely, but if they don’t, their own children and their own children after them, are already being lost to countries where things work, where the basic necessities of life are taken for granted and where the future is not a distant, unknown, and impossible destination.

The anger and the nonchalance of this generation of Nigerians is the pain and the agony of an older generation that knew a different country before all things went kaput and Nigeria became a byword for the unhinged, the dark, the ugly and the regrettable. Our generation and the generation before us knew a different country.  And because that is so, memory is an affliction, a source of torment, nostalgia and regret, more so as that distant past now seems so unattainable not because distance often makes the past look better, but because in Nigeria, the past is sorrily idyllic. Those who lived in that other country and are still alive could not have forgotten so soon, because to forget something that important is to self-deny, it is to pretend, it is to abuse, it is in all, an act of pitiable abnegation.

How could we have forgotten? How can anyone possibly forget? That this was once a country where Nigerians felt at home in virtually any part of the country.  Igbos lived peacefully in the North, and Fulani herdsmen were at peace with other Nigerians, and there was no issue with the planting of yams or the grazing of cattle.  In this same country, Southerners lived for decades in the North, acquired property and spoke the language of their hosts. We grew up knowing Baba  Kaduna, Daddy Kano, Mama Kafanchan, Uncle Porta, just as persons from the East and the South South contested for elective positions in the West and won.  There was a civil war yes, and things began to change but even after the war, it was never this bad. Nigerians from the South still went on national assignment in the North, Christians and Muslims tried to live together in peace, but today, things have fallen apart.

The author, Dr. Reuben Abati until May 29, 2015 served as a media aide to the President of Nigeria

The author, Dr. Reuben Abati until May 29, 2015 served as a media aide to the President of Nigeria

There is no open civil war, but this country is at war on all fronts, the worst fronts being the ethnic, the religious and the political, and these post-civil war children just can’t understand why the generations of their fathers and grandmothers can’t run an efficient country. They have been taught in school that every nation has problems, but leadership is about managing those problems and building a happy nation. They hear about the big names of Nigerian history, the statesmen who fought for independence, the Amazons who defended the place of women in national decision making processes, the accomplished scientists, the literati and cultural workers, but the historical figures who have made the biggest impression on them are the ones who ruined the nation with their acts of omission and commission.

In this same country, the Naira used to be at par with the pound and was for many years stronger than the dollar. So strong was the Naira that many Nigerians, including the lower middle class could afford to travel to London on Friday evening, attend a party in London on Saturday, attend church service on Sunday, check out one or two mistresses in paid-for flats in different parts of London, and return to Nigeria early enough on Monday morning to be able to go to work. All that was no big deal. Everyone in London knew the Nigerians. They were the biggest spenders and they threw the best parties. There was Nigeria Airways; owned and operated by the Nigerian government and it was one of the best airlines in Africa. Its pilots were rated among the best in the world. Its safety record was superb. And it was affordable. It was the pride of the nation.  Within the country, Nigeria Airways was also efficient. A trip from Lagos to Calabar in those days was just N44!  Students enjoyed rebates too.

In this same country, once upon a time, public transportation was impressive. In Lagos for example, the public transportation system was almost exactly a version of what they have in London. This may sound like something being made up to the younger generation, but it is nothing but the truth. The railway system worked too, and one of the most prestigious jobs was to be a railway staff.  That same Nigerian Railway Corporation that is now a parody of its former self, used to link up the entire country and it helped to build cities and villages, as the various major train stations became commercial centres. Today, railway transportation looks like something we are trying to reinvent.

Once upon a time in this same country, those who sent their children abroad did so majorly out of choice, not necessity, because Nigerian schools were among the best in the continent and the world. Teachers from different parts of the world, the best and the brightest, sought employment in Nigerian schools. The Naira was strong, investors -both commercial and intellectual – trooped to this country in droves and they enriched us in many ways.  The schools were well-equipped; they attracted students and teachers based on their reputation.

Parents sent their own children to their alma mater out of loyalty, and regard for tradition. That pattern of grandfather, father and son attending the same secondary school seems to have ended; the public schools in Nigeria have failed, the missionary schools of old have been destroyed by hostile government take-over, back in the hands of the missions, the destruction is yet to be fully corrected. The younger generation reflects on all this: mostly products of private schools, they can’t understand why a country that still prides itself as the giant of Africa cannot run a decent education system or provide jobs for the products of its school system.

In this same county, we used to have industrial estates. In Lagos, Apapa, Ikeja and Isolo were industrial estates.  In Kaduna, Jos, and Enugu, manufacturing companies created jobs and wealth. We had uncles and aunties who used to do shifts in many factories and this country produced things: from refrigerators to bulbs to vehicles to metals to books, to textiles to shoes. Sad: many of those factories have become churches! In those days, if you went into a bookshop, you could not miss the mint-fresh smell of the books on display. I miss that smell. There are fewer bookstores today and the books no longer smell the same, because by the time they are imported and passed through dirty containers and the hands of thieving handlers, the books lose their soul.

Once upon a time in this same country, there was so much hope about tomorrow. Salaries were paid as and when due. State governments offered students bursaries and scholarships.  School was attractive because the teachers were dedicated and they were smart. At the university level, the government provided subsidized tuition and feeding; the rooms were kept clean by staff, the libraries were well-stocked; there was light and water and town-gown relationship was just fine. In the larger society, the present regime of no water, no fuel, no electricity was unheard of.  You may have heard of the British standard, there was in fact at a time, the Nigerian standard, and this was the standard that other Africans looked up to. This same country dominated the continent, morally, intellectually and culturally. Financially too: so rich was Nigeria that a former Head of State reportedly boasted that our problem was not money but how to spend it!

But, sorry, we lost it all. And the rains began to beat us. The victims are the younger ones who have not known any other country but this new one. The danger is:  they may never know how to make a difference when they inherit this poisoned chalice called Nigeria.