Thursday, May 17, 2007
I say it is deja vu because, rearrange a few deck chairs on this our new Titanic, and you will surely begin to feel like these were the first years of the protracted struggle to 1)Wrestle power from General Sanni Abacha and 2)if possible reclaim the mandate which Nigerians had freely given Moshood Abiola to become President.
Abacha seized power in the early to mid nineties of the last century after a hugely free and fair election had been thrown into turmoil by another Military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, intent on staying indefinitely in power, and unmindful of the price his fellow citizens would have to pay for his ambitions to be realised. Babangida and Abacha after him, deployed all manner of strategies and tactics to first break apart all arguments being marshalled at that time to reverse the annulment. They bribed lawyers to suborn themselves in courtrooms, journalists were intimidated and where possible purchased outright, prominent citizens were recruited and mobilized with funds to travel the shiny glass and chrome capitals of Europe and the Americas to make them 'see reason' and remember the danger America's eight percent or oil supplies sourced in Nigeria was being put to unless a strong man was in charge in Africa's Most populous nation. Other 'darker emissaries' were sent out to assassinate opponents, or failing that to procure assasinations by other means.
Business men supporting the opposition were squeezed and their means of livelihood taken away. Nigeria's business by patronage system of government, which under normal(if anything even remotely resembling that word was ever known in these climes) circumstance makes up an obscenely greater portion of enterprise in our business structures was adroitly used to first strangle dissent and ultimately to reward loyalists.
At the end of the day the major sectors: oil, and all the other things which flowed because of the oil namely banking and construction, import and export of essential goods, and the largely governement controlled sector of electricity power generation, were concentrated in a few hands whom the ruling junta considered 'trustworthy'. Standards were jettisoned since results were no longer the aim of participation in business. The overall aim was to ensure that all movements of huge funds in the economy be in rotation among the Military government's bosses, who could now dispense them by way of favours in exchange for fealty.
The economy became unworkable and since rulership was now by contracts and huge kickbacks, even the few factories which were left over from the irresponsibility of the Shagari Government, the last civilian government from which the Army seized power, were run aground, their noses rubbed with brute force into the concrete earth that was the business climate under the Abacha dictatorship.
The next curtain call was for the institutions. The judiciary tucked its tails between its legs and declared a moratorium on truth and honour, the educational system threw in the towel mainly for lack of funding, which Lecturers took advantage of by becoming merchants of school grades and academic performance score sheets, ensuring that at least one generation of Nigerians would definitely all be knuckleheads, the civil service had nothing better to do but to collude with the military, for its own survival, rendering tutorials to the army on novel ways to raid the treasury for meat which even the army did not realise or believe was still in existence after they had gone over everything with a fine tooth comb. Oil wells and blocks which were yet to be discovered were auctioned off to the highest bidders who invariably were men in Military uniforms for whom civilian lackeys appeared as fronts, a single GSM Telecoms License was awarded to a a Telecoms company purported to belong to the Head of State (this in a nation of more than one hundred and twenty million people half of them potential users), which was now expected to act as an authority to sublet licensing to all other companies.
And the political class? What did the political class do? They all got together and at a huge party in Abuja surrendered their interest in the Presidency of the Republic to the same man who had orchestrated this rape!
Without a doubt Abacha's actions and the attempts by pro-democracy to checkmate him had both fed off each other. Because pro-democracy divined that Abacha had designs of hegemony, and some said even some kind of hereditary participation of his offspring as in a Monarchy, opposition to the whole idea of his rule was stepped up. Since government must necessarily abhor a vacuum, the option of Moshood Abiola as a resurgent President riding into Abuja to reclaim his mandate appeared to be God-sent.
However to each new declaration by pro-democracy did Abacha enact a new draconian decree until it almost became Treason to speak Abiola's name within earshot of a Military officer.
In trampling upon rights he created an image that was putrescent for Nigeria before the International community and these quickly began to sever every kind of tie formerly held. In the end it became impossible to source spare parts for the refineries, leading to fuel shortages. In addition Nigeria's power generating Monopoly NEPA was subjected to slow attrition so that in the end it was useless to everybody including its own offices, to which it could not assure a steady supply of electricity light for a few malnourished, short hours in every single day. So coupled with a shortage of petrol to power cars and NEPA, and the delinquency of NEPA itself in generating a steady stream of power for the factories to use and increase capacity, Nigeria soon started to die a slow death. Of course one would sy, in a very Marie Antoinettish way, "Why didn't the factories buy generators so that they could still be producing, even at a little increased cost?". Well, the answer: I did tell you a while ago that the refineries had all packed up and so petrol prices......
Since Transport in Nigeria was and still is mainly road-based and a majority of the poplulation was and still is involved in agrarian pursuits, the result was a very dangerous mix of spiking prices of foodstuffs which naturally affected all other prices. In the end life became troublesome, to put it mildly, for a majority of Nigerians.
This is the picture a lot of people remember when they see the leaders of the current opposition to April 14/21 stand up before television cameras and invite the poor, ordinary citizens of Nigeria to Mass action, a euphemism for street rallies and Moral ,or if necessary, physical pressure designed to force the government to buckle under and not go ahead with its plans to inaugurate Umaru Yar' adua as President, come May 29 2007. The question people who remember the years of the locust, but who also are mindful of the costs of inaction are asking, as those birds flutter wickedly over those perches, and prepare to land their ungainly frames in a roost we have neither built for them nor invited them to come and take over, is "why, why, why, and again so soon, after the fire the last time?"
It is indeed a not so sublime irony that the two leaders of this current opposition were individuals who played a prominent part in the activities which propped up Sanni Abacha as a maximum ruler in his heyday. Muhammadu Buhari headed a Petroleum Trust Fund set up ostensibly to help ease the problems which instability in the country at the time was sporadically throwing up, in addition to helping see to it that revenue from oil sales was disbursed quickly to sectors of the economy which needed the capital sorely, in a manner that bypassed bureaucratic obstacles. For his own part Atiku Abubakar was a top executive in one of the parties which banded together to anoint Sanni Abacha their presidential candidate even though he was still a soldier.
Oh and if you are wondering at the title of this post, well part of it is a description which the acronym of the new name of Nigeria's power generating monopoly has been twisted into. Its old name NEPA(National Electric Power Authority) was generally transfigured into Never Expect Power At all. The Problem Has Changed Names (PHCN or Power Holding Company of Nigeria) appears to do it much justice in terms of the place it occupies in the heated zones of our emotions as well as the metamorphosis which Nigeria's election debacle is expected to experience.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
To be so moved by a side in an account being rendered, whose beginning, as it where, does not yet reveal any art by which its end can be predicted, can actually hurt the object of one's support. Of course I have a side I support in the events of the past two months. I am not neutral. I cannot be neutral. I can't afford to be. I am too involved in how these arguments will end to just cast glances here and there through a prismatic bevel. And so it helps my cause and the cause which I support, which are not necessarily the same things, if I can help to disentangle, one from the other, the so far, confusing threads of arguments and counter-arguments which have up till this moment attended the General Elections of 2007.
The aim: without mincing words and at the risk of giving in to drama: Anarchy and bloodshed looms on one side and maybe on all other sides, Tyranny is posturing and the tragedy is that given Nigeria's recent history, there is actually something to be said for whichever side a person runs to in these confusing times. Make no mistakes about it these are troubling times, but these times appear to me to be more confusing than they are troubling.
There have been three great periods in the social-political history of Nigeria. Note that I did not say socio-political which sounds so academic and neutered of passion. Social-political for me describes the cross-roads at which the political trends and activity in society meet to cause pain and/or suffering, pride and/or shame, in the lives of a people. The first period was during the first part of independence movement during the national strikes and people's action to press for home rule in the Colony that was then Nigeria. This for me lasted only a few short glorious years before tribalism, ethnic triumphalism and all the methods the Colonialists applied to break the unity of the movement began to take their toll.
The second period was the post independence period which for me encompasses the civil war and the reactions to the end of the civil war and the suffering which followed. The third and most recent period for me has to be the pro-democracy movement of the nineties of the twentieth century. It is this period that has the greater similarity to the the few years at the start of the anti-colonialist struggle, enough to draw favourable comparison to that golden era, but only just enough.
In these three periods characters who animated all the sides enmeshed within the occurrences have been well defined, with antecedents falling as long as shadows, by which actions taken are easily analysed and motives clearly imputed. However in the drama that is currently unfolding one would not be faulted for likening the scenario to one reminiscent of a psychological drama.
Without the batting of an eyelid historical dictators like Muhammadu Buhari are presenting themselves as latter day democrats sworn to the protection of the people, the commonweal and freedom of speech, whereas democrats like Obasanjo have appeared to complete the turning of the cycle and placed themselves in positions clearly robbing Nigerians the right of determining who should rule them and how that leader must be chosen. (I know this last is arguable, but can anybody fault Obasanjo for the way he conducted himself in the years after he became the first Military Ruler in Africa to voluntarily hand power back to civilians in 1979, then became a voice of conscience against Military rule when the army seized power again, four years later, reaching his apotheosis when Abacha Jailed and sentenced him for his opposition while rewarding Buhari with executive headship of a lucrative Government Parastatal whose affairs, for being under the presidency in a military government could hardly be meaningfully be probed for accountability).
So even though the positions on the battlefield have remained the same, there has been an exchange of generalship, meaning that it is now up to Nigerians to either go for the Man who as far as recent history goes has been in democracy's corner all along, but who now appears to have taken charge of the Army of the fascists, or stick to the arguments of the historical democrats who now appear to be surrendering leadership to a well known fascist. I suspect that whatever positions they stake out, Nigerians will have a truckload of believable justification to advance for that choice. So let the games begin!
Those who are about to die salute you..........
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
For most of us who reside in the former Capital city of Lagos, much of what passed off as polling was sleepiness compared with happenings in the rest of the country. It therefore might be forgivable if we had regarded the near absence of violence and the seeming exhibition of a well practiced competence on the part of the officials in charge of the elections here, as a genuine sign of progress and National development. Unfortunately, there are over a hundred major cities, albeit less large than Lagos, in Nigeria, and electoral events in these cities hadn't been pulled off quite as easily.
A variety of reasons have brought us to this conclusion. Firstly, a massive logistics failure tore open the soft underbelly of the election plans which we had been made to believe would assure us of a very credible process. One of them was the late distribution of voting materials. For reasons best known to it, the Independent authority in charge of organising the elections only began to distribute materials less than twenty-four hours to H-hour. This had been without regard to the parlous state of Nigeria's transport and communication network. Coupled with a bungling of the printing and sorting process of the voter's forms, some of the foreseeable results were voters forms being sent to the wrong regions than those for which they had been printed, forms missing legitimate aspirants to office leading to outright postponement of the exercise in some areas of the country and security dilemmas thrown up by the confusion of leaving the army and police too little time to move into place to safeguard these materials.
A consequence - ballot papers and boxes were stolen in several places, some of them with attendant violence. Casualties among the security personnel have been declared to be as high as thirty dead, though not all the lives were lost trying to prevent election material theft.
However, these factors alone are not enough, in and of themselves to cause a deep disregard for the outcome of any electoral process. Trains will run late, buses and airplanes will require impromptu maintenance causing schedules to be grounded. So also can ballot boxes and forms arrive late. Elections can be pushed back an hour or two, as indeed they were in a lot of polling stations during the entire programme.
What perhaps brought the entire exercise into grave disrepute was the obsession of the current regime to dictate and indeed anoint its own successor based on reasons that had very little to do with the choice or desire of the electorate. Like most things Nigerian, the true reasons why this government felt things had to be so, runs deep in the underground caverns of conjecture, apocrypha, half truth, disinformation and pure delusional neuroses. The facts are that the Independent electoral body made a lot of questionable calls, no doubt encouraged by the government, aimed at disqualifying candidates who they felt did not sufficiently meet its standards as worthy successors. However they were playing a very obvious hand. There was no decision taken in this regard that was not read as serving this slippery agenda or any new law that was not seen as fortifying this dubious premise. In the eyes of too many people, this translated into desperation, a word so negative in its phonetics and meaning in Nigeria, that it is often used as a term of accusation for some kind of criminality.
With such a heady mix, in the thinking of the electorate, there was little surprise that these efforts were met with annoyance and derision. From that point on the government was fighting a losing battle. And that the independent electoral body seemed to be ticking off people to seek to 'ban' from contesting the elections, from an informal list of well known opposition figures and individuals who were very critical of the government suggested the government had written the music which the entire exercise had been set to.
So this state of affairs is what has brought us to this point. The true tragedy is, if the logistical nightmare of bad timing, inept scheduling and lousy project management are considered alone, if some of the less brazen and heinous incidents of ballot theft and brigandage are taken into the equation; even if some of the petty non-arrival of polling material in opposition strongholds are thrown into the mix, we would have been left with, at worst, an election beset with incompetent management, but an election nonetheless; we would have been left with a process whose strongest bad word would be about human resources with a lot to be desired, an uneducated work force scrambling to master a modern semblance of communal representation using a framework that still strains from the feudal burdens of long years of Military rule, but an election no less, that should have given us some hope that the challenges are only in terms of ideational semantics. Instead we have this sham, this travesty, which already is the beginning of a road, that with the correct mix of personalities and events to follow, would lead us only to hell and heartbreak.
And what do we have to thank for this? What has made the difference? A disrespect for democracy. Is it not painful that a government elected into office to carry the torch of our hopes away from the muddied past of Military rule towards the clear light of democracy has contrived to bring us full circle to that point, where the very loss of the goal we empowered it to pursue is a clear and present threat?
Friday, April 20, 2007
In the aftermath of Nigeria's elections to choose State governors and representatives in Various states' Houses of Assembly, I attempted to tick off the various missteps which we had made on our way to what ordinarily would have been an historic opportunity for us as a nation. The better to perhaps appraise our performance while encouraging and alerting us of other dangers which might lie in our way in future exercises of this kind.
Firstly, it is on record(and some besmirched record that is) that there has never been an occasion when democratic rule transited between two civilian regimes. The norm, twice achieved now, had been for a passing from the Army to civillians. Secondly, in the last eight years Nigeria had consistently approached its defence of the democratic impulse among much smaller surrounding nations threatened with the temptation of abandoning 'the way' with something approaching prosecutorial, if not messianic, zeal.
Our fever has coasted us as far afield as Mauritania, and as close to home as Togo, Ghana, Benin Republic and Equatorial Guinea(to which we despatched a battalion in their hour of need), and of course our usual suspects of Sierra Leone and Liberia. It therefore leaves a genuinely sour taste in the mouth, not to speak of an empty feeling in the pit of the stomach, to reflect that we could be in clear danger of needing our own medicine very soon. Beyond the relapse into comforting cliches it appears we had been experiencing an iceberg situation all along with respect to the hidden nature of all the irregularities which are only now coming to light.
In the days following the elections, it has become clear that the positive prognosis we granted the efforts of both the outgoing federal government and the Independent National Electoral Commission(INEC), has been misguided. The comparative near somnolence which the condition in the Lagos Megapolis had been described as has ratcheted up a bit with every widening of the field of focus so much so that the current impression has been that Lagos is sitting smack centre in the cunning eye of the storm, where there is an eerie calm belying the havoc and destruction being wreaked afield. From virtually all the other thirty five states of the federation has filtered in news of criminal interference and brigandage, practiced with immunity from prosecution, on the part of the ruling regime, with the INEC turning a scabrous eye to the whole silliness.
It turns out now that not only were ballot boxes stolen and carted away to unknown places, whole polling stations were dispersed, and not only were voters bribed publicly and their votes purchased, they were tutored by their paymasters and their thumbs guided to the frames for which they had sold all. Opponents were intimidated and hounded into hiding. Polling sheets were falsified. An electoral commissioner has gone into hiding in one of the few states the ruling government failed to win in, to as he inferred it, escape the wrath of the later for not agreeing to suborned. This rendition, by no means, indicates that it is only one party afflicting the electoral process with this leprosy. Virtually every party has interpreted its incumbency to be a translation into impunity. And this is only the first of two rounds of the process. Why are we not getting it right once more. Why are we getting more and more wrong, seemingly drawn into greater folly as the veil is raised to reveal the works of our own hands?
I fear that good men everywhere are gradually coming face to face with what will ultimately become a moral dilemma of gargantuan proportions, namely, will the system that arises from this exercise have true legitimacy especially if the second and last round of voting is also marred? We are living a system, which of itself is good and honourable but which has been hijacked by men of dubious character who introduce conflicts between the letter and the spirit of the rules guiding the process. Could this be, for want of a better word, the beginning of the 'Mugabization' of our polity, in which our recurring and waking nightmare would be choosing how to discard the bathwater while retaining the baby. A generation ago the generals would have had the next say, but these are meant to be better times. These should be better times. How can we exert a balanced repudiation of the expected result without harming the ecosystem which in our heart of hearts we all know can yield us something more akin to our needs as a people? It is necessary to retain the lessons we have accumulated over the last few years and not chuck them out, in a headlong, headless flight into frustration.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
I wonder if this is right. I am like most Nigerians very sensitive to the subject of the Military getting involved in any form in Nigerian politics.Like a lot of people I know, the fiction that the army has been our only "unifying force" since independence is annoying. This untruth is the province of the army's spin doctors and apologists for whom the continued practice of a painful aberration equates to immense profit. If anything, having entertained the army for so long and failing to confront it or at least engaging it in some robust dialogue has helped to not only impoverish us but also devalued every moral system we used to have.
I realise that there is still confusion about whether the Army's initial outreach to political power was an act of patriotism. The fact has however been that at the end of it we were not better off than when they had begun. Reams and reams have been written about the Army's talent for mismanagement and naivety, greed and barbarism and childish spite and brigandage. However it is easy to see that these traits came to light usually when material possesions seemed to be the bait. But then these things couldn't have been great losses since they could with some little effort be recovered. In my view they perhaps injured us most by revealing to us our smallness as a people and our almost total complicity as a community. By the time the army had finished with us(and of course our common wealth) we the people who were not in any way opportuned to be in high places where high crimes and misdemeanours were easy to perpetrate had begun to lust after that same heinous possibility.
We dreamed of such opportunities. We sold our souls and our mothers' to boot. We stabbed our brothers in the back, lied, cheated, betrayed, lied again, clawed-anything, just to enjoy the epicurean ease we discerned them to be enjoying. It was made clear to us that we were no different than they were. And whatever they were, whatever they are capable of, was just an innoculant taken from the pool whose integral part we solidly were.
I did not witness the violence, rape, beheading and the general talabanism a lot of otherwise intelligent people I know had made me promise them I should be on the lookout for.
The second dash of cold water came from the tardiness with which the electoral body carried out its duties after years of planning. First of all everyone had to mill around for close to a couple of hours or so before some sort of action was registered from polling agents. And then when they finally unfurled their lists, a legion of people seemed to have had their names expunged from the them.
Then there was confusion as to whether the later could vote using just their cards. Even the agents seemed to be ignorant of the INEC injunctions. And we all imagined these people had been immersed in a serious training regime! It all begins to give credence to the views which, to be honest, I had imagined were overly pessimistic, that the whole exercise was programmed to fail.
I got home and stuck myself before the TV to begin to hear the bad news swirling in from across the entire country. Explosions in Port Harcourt, a near war in Sagamu, disturbances in the North, no voting in Anambra and Enugu states. It was all getting too much until I looked myself in the eye and asked me if I had really imagined that we were going to get it right?
I mean, never mind that as a good, patriotic citizen who was brought up right by his parents to think only what is good and to practice faith and hope and all the other nice things - did I really believe in a reasonable, unimpeachable, verifiable manner that we were going to get it right?
Let me take it all one after the other.
First of all an election in a country like ours with lousy transportation systems and a telecommunication system that is off and on, with infrastructure crumbling to pieces, is not like a bowl of okro soup. We number close to a hundred million plus. With the proverbial sixty per cent eligibility we are looking at say anywhere between 40 to 70 million voters. We have a long history of fractious politicking largely fissured along ethnic lines. We have a lousy police force that is under paid, without morale and poorly trained. We have a work force whose education has been fitful where they have not been non-existent, from which these electoral bodies can only harvest their employees. This work force was nourished in a culture of dishonesty and malfeasance, their degrees are largely purchased. When they do get employed they receive just enough to pay transport fares to their work places for the next thirty days before another new entrapping payday. They are slaves rather than partners and are quickly open to illegal inducements. The planning for the voting, beginning from the registration to verifications, to the printing of votes and other stationery, catering to the welfare of staff, appointment of key election officials and other logistical elements, have been characterised by a nauseating ineptitude. There has been seeming interference in the electoral body's activities, or where this was not so, very strange and confusing steps taken to throw all reasonable people off track.
Stack all these against what we have going for us - that we really, really want these elections to succeed,;that we have prayed hard in church and massalachi, for there to be success in the entire exercise. We have enough faith that there would be success?.
Let's come off it. Everything I know makes it clear that good things usually have to be worked for. Anyone who believes it all came in the twinkle of an eye was probably asleep the whole time while other good people worked their butts off.
Another good side? Maybe the only good side. It's our first time so we are bound to get it right at some point. I am willing to take a long shot, and therefore a long view on this. I am willing to play this like a real contenda, with a lot of class. The next time will have to be better. I am not saying this in the manner of people who will tell us that what happened is an act of God and we should let it all be. That attitude is immediately despicable to me. What is important is to note the shortcomings of the current exercise and memorialise them for the future as armour and guide against their reoccurence.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
In attendance were such luminaries as Abiodun Jeyifo and Femi Osofisan, Stanley Macebuh, Ahmed Yerima, Olu Agunloye, Odia Ofeimun and Audu ogbeh. To be coy, it was a gathering of the usual suspects as far as Nigerian/African Literature in the past forty years is considered. Amongst those men they had singlehandedly contributed or inspired virtually every considerable expression of Nigerian letters in their era beginning from the freewheeling sixties to the somnolent seventies, through the ribald eighties and the decade of the end to chastity - the nineties, of Ibrahim Babngida's oily seduction and communal complicity and the brutish shortness of Sanni Abacha.
I realised while sitting in that room how intimately interwoven our Letters were with our protest. I thought back to the times of other cultures' greatness; the United Kingdom in the times of Henry James, who in spite of having been born American, lived their art in the most genteel of manners, being more certain of the road to Buckingham palace(Tipperary, anyone?) than of the road to Hyde Park, and of course T.S Eliot, another American Expat, whose closest to outright, clear and unambiguous protest as far as I can remember was probably the moving passages of The Wasteland. In any case his seemed to be a slight, easy railing against not just the two great contending forces of the period after WW1 i.e. Fascism and Liberalism, but a railing against contention of any kind that would likely result in friction and destruction of the civilization which he and his peers had come to so love and sing odes to in their works.
Never mind that it was this system that had metastasized into the Berlin Conferences of 1884 and was preparing to hand power to the Minority Boers in South Africa in defiance of the black majority, and would ultimately turn a blind eye while Mussolini ravaged Libya, Ethiopia and Somalia.
It is therefore easy to conclude that right from the beginning we had received a heritage of recognising our art, especially our literary art, to be a pure, potent weapon, and to constantly hone it and press it into services other than pleasure to the senses and worship of the hubris which being able to compare it to, for example the exertions of the Etruscans(who by the way are long dead and gone) might encourage. And those men in the main floor of the Jazzhole had made sure of this by more than half.
In that room today at the jazzhole, I felt a slight dizzying tremor as one after the other each speaker rose to his or feet and related an anecdote, generously infected with a dash of humour here and a pinch of history there, in which the celebrant Dr. Ogunbiyi himself was either the subject or an active participant.
Of course the evening would hardly have been complete if Wole Soyinka had been around and not put in an appearance. He was around and he did put in an appearance. In his unassuming manner, he had strolled in quietly, and when given the floor, had spoken clearly about not only his relationship with the celebrant but had also, by developing links amongst virtually all the friends of Dr. Ogunbiyi, clearly fleshed out the places in each others life which they individually occupied.
I got the impression while in their company, of a metazoic, living thing, this assemblage of men still holding up torches even as they bravely headed into the twilight. A substantial life form capable not only of surviving but generally of prevailing; of carefully nurtured relationships shaped by both trial and triumph but sometimes, severely tempered by the challenges which they have had to confront. And for all that I was very proud of them.
A friend, Chike Ofili, while we spoke last night discussing the reading in honour of Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi's 60th birthday, coming up today at the Jazzhole, let me know that Ebereonwu was dead. Last friday. Apparently the cause of death was yet not very clear but it was likely that it involved some kind of automobile accident.
I had got to know Ebereonwu in the late nineties to early 2000's when we were all actively involved in trying to make the Lagos branch of the Association of Nigerian Authors, in modern parlance, a 'go to' place. Ebereonwu was, to understate a bit here, unorthodox and didn't give a damn about it. Might even say that he got his rocks off on the number of people who threatened to blow a gasket at the sight of him. He was constantly driven to the expression of ideas which walked on the edge of rudeness to anyone who had gotten hold of the short end of his well known stick.
For instance I heard him once claim, face bland, to an association member whose detail at the day's meeting it was to oversee the attendance register, that the ownership of a surname was alien to Africa and Africans and as such he should be counted out of that bit of conformity. For him latter-day citizens of the sunshine continent had take much more baggage than was necessary and now suffered by being less than their forebears, in a desperate attempt to be seen as civilized. He held out in much of his living that joining the 'modern movement' was not a pre-requisite for joining the human race, which in any case, we had never left, or come to think of it, could never have left. So for him, to attempt to live up to somebody else's standard for inclusion into this was like living a blatant lie. The only truth for him, therefore, was to live a certain way.
But because he was essentially a poet, I believe, even before he was an activist, and therefore conversant with the presentation of truth and reality in a way that while defying reality, upholds the truth, I don't think he suggested that the way he wanted to live and work was the way our grand-fathers lived and worked. Simply put, he lived and worked to defy the conformism which he felt had inspired the losses we as Africans and as colonies of another power had been forced to bear. He was intelligent enough to realise that we could never reclaim all that we lost.
This I guess, was easy to divine in his dressing. I don't remember seeing him much in anything other than a pair of Jeans pants, and a top wear that varied narrowly from cotton shirts to an African print. His footwear - perennially, a pair of boating sneakers. And a variety of berets lofted on his head in a suprisingly non loquacious but all the same somewhat jaunty angle. I always imagined that he saw himself as something of a Che Guevara, with his uncompromising way of deconstructing all that his eyes beheld.
He could never return to the trust, the natal confidence which the burgeoning village square and community engendered in all that it enclosed. He could, however refuse to be embraced by what had evicted that community. He learned to live with his enemy but he never forgot who the enemy was.
Like all people who enjoyed the controversies traceable to them, whether they could help starting them or not, Ebereonwu had a theory about virtually everything he came across or that happened to him. For instance he had a tendency to blame the generations before ours for all ills of the nation. In my view he failed to see that while we subjected all others' shortcomings to the theatre spotlight of our criticism, the darkness surrounding that spotlight hid a festering, ours, whose final germination threatens ailments far greater than any that has come before it.
For instance it always galled him that there are hardly any publishing houses in Nigeria worthy of the name and practice. I read somewhere, remarks he had made that they had all fled the country because the generations after Achebe and Soyinka had not written much. This was in defense of self and subsidy publishing which he had unabashedly indulged in. If we had been handed a stable literary legacy, he reasoned, there would have been a robust market, able to produce successes and handle the failures which must inevitable arise in any mature literary terrain.
I believe he didn't get it completely right there because though I consider writing skills to a heritage of some sort, it is usually something that rewards development and practice.
As for our elders' constipation being cause for ours, I ask where is our heritage as writers? What have we done to carry it into enough temptation to see what fruits it would yield. The music business and film business, even, and especially in Africa, should convince all nay-sayers that if you are good with what you produce and create works that speak a thing or two to a sizeable audience, then the world will seek you out to publish and publicize you.
The problem is not so much that of a paucity of publishing houses as it is one of an absence of good writing. Publishers by the way are businesses. Successful publications are their lifeblood. It will be a bad businessman who invests in a material he has not been convinced will at least fetch him back his investment in the book market.
Where I think he got it very, very right however was in his belief that Nigerian writers would profit by taking a look at some of the methods in use by Nigerian home video makers. Now don't get me wrong, and I don't think he meant this either, but I am not in support of the often crass, formulaic, drivel that stand in for clarity of thought and plot in our movies. However to a large extent Nigerian films speak to Nigerians. They do not pretend that they want all Nigerian's to think with the incisiveness of Plato and express themselves in terms Voltaire would have envied. They attempt to engage Mr. and Mrs. Nigeria in their everyday living, in their fears, hunger, greed, wickedness, pain, suffering, kindness, loving and hating. Never mind that they do this remarkably unintelligently. But there is an enthusiasm in this attempt to engage.
I believe that is what commended the medium to Ebereonwu. I have read somewhere, a count taken of about thirty or so home videos he had made inputs either as scriptwriter or director. I always found this aspect of his work amazing. I can't say I saw a lot of his movies but I remember speaking with him after the first he had made, Behind the veil, I think it was called, and he expressed those same sentiments to me. I can't right now, say how successful or not, he was in dovetailing these two streams into a single mutually beneficial flow. But I still think that argument was spot-on.
I guess that having known somebody and having been deeply impressed by them, it is often not strange that news of their passage would elicit both a rush or memory and an attempt to straighten threads in known incidents involving that person. To seek a perspective that might have been lacking in the moments the events were unfolding. This clearly is as a result of some kind of emotionalism whose products in my view are somewhat suspicious usually.
I think it is better to do these things when distance has somewhat dulled frayed nerves and sentiment can be kept at bay. This is very important, for me, and I guess, also for Ebereonwu, because like it or hate it, the ideas he has represented, even though they are ideas clearly still in ferment, the work he has done, though they sadly might never be regarded as masterpieces, all these are important, very important because they I believe point to a road which our literature and our writing, though it might not be aware of it, is making progress on.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Up to twenty years ago this state of 'no-love-lost' had generally been limited to court cases and fist-shaking, no real menace worthy of the name. This was however before the continued expansion of Victoria Island led to an irrevocable strain in property availability, and before the boom in business experienced under Ibrahim Babangida when liberal rules allowed all sorts of banks, insurance companies and finance houses to be established in that era's version of smokes and mirrors voodoo national planning.
The need for offices and banking halls, guest houses and warehouses encouraged the householders who had bought property in the fifties and sixties to pull up, sell for huge profits and then leave in search of other accommodation that would still leave them with a considerable portion of their windfall intact for the rainy day.
For most of these people , Lagos Mainland was out of the question. With its disorderliness, street trading, high crime rate and noise pollution, it was usually left standing, a distant second in the race for the rent money of these newly rich ex-landlords. In addition, the population explosion brought about by the under-development of the Nigerian hinterland, had, ironically, stretched the mainland to spillage over the bounds of classical Lagos, until it was nudging those same hinterlands whose populations were being seduced by poverty into abandoning it. Rents and property prices had equally begun to rise.
For most of these people Ajah, Lekki, Epe and the host of suitcase towns straddling the corridor leading from Victoria Island to the Peninsula was the perfect option. It was the Petit bourgeois' perfect place of habitation. There was to it a genteel feeling without the cost associated with old Ikoyi and Victoria Island annex. It was close enough to merit a Victoria Island zip code but far enough for the old neighbors not to visit and and witness the ramshackle, run down roads and non-existent social services. It was the perfect place to be heard in and not be seen in.
The indigenes of the town however did not fail to notice this migration. In the beginning land which today can be purchased for about $200, 000.00 (2007 value) weighed in at about $500.00. 'In the beginning' was the early nineties. From disposing of land for as much, or as little, if you wish, as one would need to fund a three day drinking binge and maybe two nights of debauchery in a cat house, a veritable industry was built on a legacy that flew brazenly in the face of all known notions in Real Estate Economics. Only one road connected Ajah to the rest of Lagos. The last time that road was capped with a surface of coal tar was in the early nineties, when HFP, the huge construction giant built the Victoria Garden City which adjoins Ajah . And that road had become more notable for the presence of potholes than for any other thing. Yet prices kept rising, nourished for so many years by a myth that land and rent was affordable and amenities were aplenty.
It took the imperfections of NEPA or PHCN as it has now been disingenuously renamed(perhaps to alter the argument and start polemics afresh) to put the lie to those claims. But a little before then, it had already become too late for Ajah, because armed with a court judgment dating back (perhaps with radio-carbon isotopy) to 1899, representative of the Lagos Monarch arrived just in time to lay claim to what had in the previous decade, via foolishness and simple greed, become arguably the most juicy tract of real estate, taking costs vis-a-vis real value, social amenities, state of infrastructure and city planning, in west Africa.
Overnight town criers went to town and informed Landlords all over Ajah that they were squatters, that they had been duped for purchasing land from the former owners rather than the Monarch's representatives. And to make it all clear, in case there were any among the 'purported' Landlords who could not hear, another set of agents moved from house to house with stencils and red paint and published this news boldly for the whole world to see.
This was accomplished by large groups of people, with cutlass and gun wielding bodyguards embedded. Overnight the lucrative grip which the indigenes held on the neck of this gold-egg laying goose was being challenged in a very open manner liable to all sorts of interpretation. And the worst form of interpretation was given to it. A gauntlet had been thrown down, and there were to many hotbloods who would not let it lie there for long, not to talk of the businessmen ready to bankroll the war, in whose interest it was that somebody pick it up.
For the last one week the dogs of war have been straining at the terrible challenge of lifting that carelessly flung invitation to a bloodfest. It is a tradition now for both parties and in the way of measuring events, in Africa, with the birth and death of people, it can easily be said that children born in the first years of that conflict would probably be in the process of transiting from primary schooling to secondary education. And in all those years they would have known no peace because the fighting, though intermittent has been consistent, being practiced in season, like a ritualistic celebration of some one eyed god's feasting. And except for fools, the whole world knows that these spirits do not eat foofoo, nor do they lubricate the passage with soup, but with many sacrifices of flesh and the cold, numbing soporific that blood is. Especially blameless blood.
Saturday, March 17, 2007
This case of mistaken identity, for me, usually occurs around the Apombo area, at the end of the road draining traffic out of the Island of Lagos, into Surulere, Apapa, Ajegunle etc. For about a two hundred metre stretch of road lying beside the market for wholesale domestic consumables, the traffic usually grinds to a constipated crawl.
Hawkers of everything from children's toys to kitchen utensils and women's bras(are there men's?) pour through every crack in between like water finding its level. They challenge you to make purchases by proferring their wares, pushing them into your face. They all must have graduated summa cum laude from the School of aggressive marketing. Cars are lined up on either side, and because the road which was three lanes wide leaving the CMS overhead now begins to narrow to a claustrophobic two lane, a feeling of dread ensues in your head.
You begin to imagine the crush of mangled metal and flesh stewing together to make one huge mess except if you stood on your breaks and let the stream of madness on either side rush like legion into the swamp of Apombo.
That's when it usually happens. A rap on the windshield on your side. It's your only car so you treat it like a first son, the original bloom of you manly virility. You look up startled and before the 'rapper' withdraws it, you catch a glimpse of silver flashing. It could have been a metal or glass but instinctively you know it could only have been the former. A gold (coloured) chain, perhaps. A would-be Omega or Tag-Heur watch more likely.
But what catches your attention is the furtiveness or 'conspiratorialness' which the vendor contrives by withdrawing the article from the market no sooner that your eyes had begun to transmit a picture to your brain for further comparison with similar articles in your long term memory. That and the knowing dead-pan on the face of the man who might or might not be a real thief but desperately wants you to believe that he is, so that he can sell off his article which most likely is a fake for the vastly discounted value of an original, for it having been stolen. Except, if it was an original, then it would be most likely that you were dealing with an original thief and not fake one who most likely was selling some item that was part of a robbery in which case.....Confused already?
This is a trick schoolboys everywhere know. Whet their appetites for pete's sakes and then stretch a palm to collect their lunch monies in exchange for more! In school playgrounds, huddled in the group raconteur's corner after lights out, it is the same air with which the smarter boys had dispensed shady and cracked pictures of that moment's passing fancy, swaddled in nothing but her birthday clothes. Or even more intricate arrangements captured before lascivous photographic bulbs sweating to feed a worldwide hunger for smut.
The strategy is also to appeal to a sense of sleaze which modern civilization erects in all of us. We go to school to pick up every nuance possible between good and evil, and then are forced to agree with Socrates that good is better except we have also examined evil and know what 'goods 'it can proffer. So because we are also enamoured of finding the easier, more travelled path and following it to enlarge our coasts, we are confused to learn that the road to evil is paved with stones shaped exactly like that. Knuckles rapping against our windshields, a gold watch momentarily proffered then quickly concealed - all these things clear the confusion by suggesting to us that a possession of ease will quickly follow, if we can but negotiate the risks shared between them, once the seller has gained the buyer's attention.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
So what caused this shift in the first place. Taking further the argument of the Third generation Corporate bosses becoming more 'profit attuned', renders perhaps a further history lesson. The Nigerian economy began to unravel in the early eighties, in the tailwind of the old Shehu Shagari government. This was when these bosses were wetting their feet as far as corporate baptisms of fire were concerned. Prior to these years were the years of illusory denial, of somnolence; hitherto unheard of profits arising from the disturbances in the middle east and then the Arab Oil boycott of the Americans and their allies for support of Isreal. The fame of the Nigerian government that was in power for most of the decade prior to that was built on the wrongly mismanaged wealth accumulated from that imbroglio. For me that era is largely memorialised by the phrase often attributed to that leader Jack Gowon, though I now, to be safe, believe it a largely apocryphal one, of being asked on a visit to the states to elaborate for a group of journalists the problems he foresaw in managing such abundant wealth. His reply, historically has been, "In Nigeria we do not really have a problem with the money, our problem if any has been how to spend it", or something to that effect.
The years immediately following the first transition to democratic rule were therefore years of discovery, realisation of our near parlous state, and then after the remains of the patrimony bequeathed the civilians had been embezzled through and through, the attempt to begin making amends. A body of policies, famously for that period in our national history, called The Austerity Measures, was what the government of the day instituted to try and curb the slow creep that was already becoming manifest(that word again).
The main ethic in the measures represented an attempt to reduce expenditure, but expectedly this failed. I mainly think this was because of the dual nature of all government expenditure in Nigeria. There is the stream that is devoted to the formal projects which ministers dutifully present at budget formulation times at the National Assembly, and which are clearly monitored and contribute to drawing up of all the statistics used for projection. Then there is the informal part of it given as kickbacks, stolen directly from the coffers or that is wrongly ascribed in order to satisfy some primordial loyalty or the other. Both streams finally end up in circulation in the open markets and I believe the later is larger and thus more eventful than the first.
So the measures targeted the first while the second just grew and grew as the avarice and egos of the members of the day became more unbridled finding outlets in accumulation of wealth, planning and throwing of the most lavish parties, buying up choice property in the most exotic of places and having the best wineries all over France mint and bottle the finest champagnes, branded in their names.
Of course conservative economies nearly always see workers as the first casualty whenever the need for cost-cutting arises. They are the most easily replaced elements in the chain of production. A conventional wisdom has always arisen to firm up weak hands whenever questions of redundancy have arisen. No it is not always voiced but it is nonetheless not going to go away, and it is that 'better technology should replace even the best of workers'. This argument has never failed to be thrown up since the industrial revolution. And for a mantra that has never really quite delivered on all its promises, the surprise, for me has always been with how come it has been around this long and not become discredited along with things like Copernican physics etc. I suspect that there is something of politics skunking in there, but let me leave well alone for now. That fight is for another day.
Going forward, these workers became the first victims of the austerity measures. retrenchments(down-sizing or right-sizing, depending on how you like your eggs) followed, companies shut down, and why? Because the National Planners in the seventies got carried away and failed to read that the oil boom of the time carried in its center the secret poison that would do in all who fed from it.
This poison I think was in the fact that the American economy soon went into recession meaning that their hunger for the oil which was driving the boon would soon plateau off, as their own manufacturers who couldn't sustain the pressure shut down. They got used to a certain low consumption level of oil, and then I guess the North Sea projects of the U.K government came on stream, and the Saudi's broke the Arab Anti-American solidarity leading to oil prices plumetting.
The scenes in those days must have been harrowing as families in Nigeria had to readjust to the new regime of parsimony. I often heard my lecturers at UNN, who for the most part themselves were students in the seventies tell of the sheer pleasure they experienced as students in their time. To hear them tell it, they were pampered and fed like pigs, and were surrounded by the most startling(to our ears) ease. The government picked up every tab they cared to drop, and HR people from the leading companies of the day came into school in their penultimate year to contest for their hands in employment. They lived two students to a room and played squash all evening, that most English of all bourgeois pastimes. They drank tea and had siestas recognised even by the Vice-chancellor, and said 'Please sir, may I do this and that' etc etc
Is there the possibility that the shock of losing this life of privilege was all too profound for this generation to bear? It is not inconceivable that their reaction to it all was to work harder and longer and to eschew all pleasure and outdo all rivals in whatever it was rivals all do to make more money. So jack went ahead and became a very dull boy, not to talk of unhealthy one too.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
But then some of the other guys at the office back it up with statistics that would have been very refreshing indeed if they had be a relation of current affairs. Regular parties at Ikoyi Club, swimming and squash racket competitions whose outcomes graced newspaper sport pages, affairs at the Soroptimist and Island Tennis Club, People whose parents were of the Lions Club and Rotary Clubs etc. etc. Alas they were a recounting of a golden age, an era well dead. It seemed so strangely tragic to be speaking of happiness in the past participle. Participle because he didn't really participate in it, having been too young to really remember much, other than what he had been told after the era had been declared both clinically and really dead.
I felt doubly sad for him, the first time for what we all were missing, and again for him having been there and still not having much to show for it other that a hand me down story.
So how did we get to this impasse? Everyone seemed to lay the blame at the doorsteps of the generation who in the past four or five years have been wresting the steering wheels of the national economy away from the generation who had been in the Universities during the Biafran Civil War and who are now in their fifties and somewhat well into their sixties. To focus on a clear picture imagine the banking Industry for example and then its most well-known drivers to date - the Chief Joseph Sannusis, though he is an older version of the type, then Paschal Dozie etc. And for the generation that came of age after the civil war, think of Tayo Aderinokun, Herbert Wigwe, Aig-imokhuode and also Jim Ovia.
Well not draw so much of a wide gulf between both generations, into which the argument I am presenting might fall, the second group for whatever reasons history might adduce one day, created a work ethic that was narrow, demanding and unforgiving of even the barest minute spent away from the work desk.
Assessments were drawn up to include evaluations of how long you worked and whether you left the premises while there was still light outside. To better squeeze deposits off the streets banking hours were extended from about 1.30 pm to 3, 4 and even 5 pm meaning that cashiers and the establishment didn't start closing their books until the evening hours and this would usually drag on till 8 or 9 pm, after which it might be termed an act of irresponsibility to be found heading off anywhere but home, especially with a full day of work ahead the next day. This denial of time for social or recreational activities of course was done in an attempt to mop up more profit from whatever industry the organisation found itself in, though it did appear, in my jocular view, that is, to have had one upside which is that it intensified the hunger with which friday nights were enjoyed. Meaning of course that it had given the word 'enjoyment' and 'Friday Night' a sweeping toga of banality. The admixture of both words had resulted in a product which when viewed at full speed was of the most thoughtless desperation. It measured its satisfaction in terms of quantities rather than quality and was therefore empty outside of what one stuffed the mouth and by extension the belly with, to experience, and additionally it was meaningless since the incremental accumulation of it did not actually cause a discernible increase in the awareness of state of any kind.
Back in the office, we did, all of us agree that we in Nigeria had all become mere shiftless work buttons with only the off and on modes, no in betweens. Can there be a relationship between the way we manage our out of work lives and the social aetiology of heart attacks and diseases, cancer, liver and kidney ailments and all the other so called diseases of affluence. Even though I am one of the people who refuse to believe that the trend has assumed epidemic proportions, I must really confess that I have noticed the increase in younger people, by this I mean people under forty-five who keel over and die from these ailments. I think better access to the media for people who want to publicise an obit might be an issue here(though the obverse of that argument is that if this population who are finding new access is extrapolated to our entire population of which the overweening majority are illiterate, without media access and who are subjected to the same economy as the 'obited' deceased and might not merit an autopsy upon his/her demise, it might suggest that these deaths are actually higher than imagined).
Whatever conclusions one might draw, I think the situation really does bear watching, and closely too.
Saturday, March 10, 2007
Personally for me, the classic reaction is to go into analysis. No I do not mean endless meaningless trips to some shrink, which in and of itself soon becomes the object. What I do with my shame is a vice no less, not a virtue. For in shifting the elements of the experience around a room like an interior decorator who finds the best chemistry for a set of disparate, unrelated furniture pieces by continually shifting them together, I peer at the effects that the word elucidates against certain experiences until they encourage a meaning which then begins to seem meaningful and in no time becomes a suitable explanation for the word having jumped me at that particular point in time. Since no two points in time can mathematically and existentially be the same, the word, like the conditions that brought them into play in the first place only last as long as this point remains in time and can never exist again beyond this point. So I can confidently move forward, make progress if you will, by recognising that once it has passed, it can no longer be as harmful as it started off being unless by some contrivance I can be made to return to experience a point in time now past.
Therefore any lasting reading can only be made immediately, for once an important aspect of this vision has passed, namely, the point in time, all interpretations must needfully change and the interpretation of shame continue to be never-ending. I believe this is not unlike the science, if you can call it that which the old Roman seers used to interpret the auguries from amongst the remains of the stomachs of animals slaughtered for sacrifice or Gypsies with the remains of tea leaves after patrons at the cafe have had their pleasure. The tea leaves must meet up at the bottom of the tea-cup with a particular subject who obviously needs one interpretation or the other, and on a certain day and not another in which the seer might be suffering or not from a tooth-ache and was too hard up to afford his dentist's fees and therefore must tell the patron anything, but quickly, so that he might get paid quickly for the trip uptown to the blasted gnasher-doctor and.....
That in a few long lines is my vice. We all have one. Now back to what gives me great shame today, and what picture comes to mind when I think of the word SHAME! First the picture. Nakedness. That's what I see when the word comes to mind. Not my nakedness. Far be it from me, and I would be lying anyway if I owned up to such an embarrassing squeamishness. I mean I am a man, and what kind of man hides from his own nakedness! In any case I am too used to it for any shame that might have been hidden within it over time to still remain in place. The nakedness that comes to mind is that of old women, glazed along the eyelashes and brows by the grey of age and bent over crooked walking sticks with their armpits unshaven, and in their straining to see me through eyes long dead, parting their lips in a toothless grin. And what paints this ludicrous picture for me? The fact that on a blog I kicked off in April 2003, I have been tardy enough to generate only one post!