Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Behold, a heartbreak unfolds

Three days is long enough for a descent into reality to be accomplished. That has been how long ago since the General elections were held. That has also been the case with the aftereffects of what would probably go into the record books as the worst General elections Nigerians have ever afflicted themselves with since the tragedy of 1964.
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

It begins....the aftermath

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

Sightings on an election day

With the election day finally upon the entire country I find that the reality is a constant oscillation between the much prophesied days of thunder and well....a whimper. For instance my trip to the polling station began with quite a dash of cold water on the face because of the heavily armed military troops stationed at well known points of intense activity around Ajah.
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?
Truly, no.
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

Dr. Ogunbiyi's Birthday book reading

Just returned from The Jazzhole on Awolowo Road in Ikoyi where a book reading was organised by Dr. 'Yemi Ogunbiyi's friends and peers to celebrate his 60th. Obviously a happy day for the great man, it was made even more poignant for the intensity of the gloss the stellar retinue of his friends imbued on the occassion.
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.


To my regret I have left this blog fallow for a forthnight now, against my earlier promise to myself to do all within my power to visit and add meaningfully to it, at least three times in a week. Truth is I fell behind on a development work I was doing, and therefore had to break every speed limit to bring it in on time. Unhappily part of the penalty was my inability to post.
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.