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Letter from Benue

Why is everything in Nigeria designed to kill us?

“Dele Giwa was letter-bombed. Uproar followed, then silence, then forgetfulness. As we do today, too, forgetting the sins the country commits against us.”

“How can I participate in a government with a dead conscience, where people die because of failed governance and what the so-called leaders do is apportion blames and invent alibis?”

In 2015, before President Buhari was elected President, I was working as a Primary School Administrative Officer. During a discussion on national issues, my boss, at the time, gave me some first-edition copies of Newswatch, the magazine founded by Dele Giwa. Within those original, brown pages were essays by Dan Agbese, Ray Ekpu, Tunde Fatunde, Adebayo Williams, and Giwa. Since I was only born in the 90s, these essays read, to me, like papyrus scrolls of the lost Book of Moses. But something else happened as I read; I sensed, in their writings, Nigeria’s ultimate failure, a country on the path of wastage.

Before 2019 general elections, a variety of this wastage was the violent farmer-herdsmen clashes around the Middle-Belt, especially Benue state, where my roots sprout from. When I was miles away from this tragedy in Abuja, I had the insulation of psychological distance, but when I moved to Benue to start a programme at the state’s university, I have been directly affected by the killings. The constant flow of human blood has left me devastated. I am horrified and traumatised – the same way I was when Boko Haram almost decimated Buni Yadi, Baga, Chibok, Maiduguri and other places.

During the fiery heat of farmer-herdsmen clashes, I began to reflect deeply, especially after the massacre that birthed Black Thursday in Benue – an event I, unfortunately, did not write about (though I penned two poems, ‘This blood’ and ‘Coming for your head). I questioned my existence, Nigerian death, and what it meant to have faith in the political future of this country. During this time I had the revelation – although it lurked in my subconscious – of how one becomes a puppet. Being this puppet involves being the unsuspecting believer in a country run on a rigged Operating System where even available options are frauds. Yet you believe in it with all your commonsense and education. You gamble with the promise of change, of better days, that the country of your dream may not happen in your time but will in the days of your children. You argue for patriotism with the other agnostic citizen. You preach the good word. You elevate a sacrosanct Nigeria and believe your words. Because all this was instilled in you in your impressionable primary school days by reciting the National Anthem and taking The Pledge every day on assembly. Or years later because you’ve grown, you make the mistake of gambling for Buhari 2.0, for a protracted four years, and there’s no snake on a stake for you to look up to, to remedy the snake bites of a government that doesn’t give a dime about you and looks on as people die.

One of the Newswatch columns (I photocopied them from my boss since he was not willing to part with any, leaving me white paper copies) is Adebayo Williams’ ‘A Diary of Wastage’ (Newswatch, October 26, 1987). In it the mood is sober; it forces introspection and retells a similar story: Why is Nigeria like this? Why the wastage in this country? Or like Williams writes in it: ‘Wastage has become the dominant metaphor, the all-embracing formula for the tragedy of our collective existence’. This was thirty-two years ago.

The template of wastage is still run since Buhari collected the baton in 2015. While the economy is on a suicide watch by investors, the innovativeness of the Nigerian death crosses new lines. The latter variety of wastage has been elevated to art so the philistine politicians under Buhari’s leadership, ever averse to art, look upon it with nonchalance. Why, is it not innovative? The Nigerian state has enjoyed itself with the destruction of life as a tool and side attraction of governance.

The year before Adebayo Williams wrote ‘A Diary of Wastage’, Dele Giwa was writing his own eulogy. In a tributary essay, ‘Death and Destiny’ (Newswatch, November 3, 1986) for then Gen. Murtala Muhammed, he recalled how the leadership of Nigeria was always placed in the hands of unprepared or unwilling men – ‘Ahmadu Bello [who] chose to stay in the north, but moving to Lagos, was felled’, Tafawa Balewa didn’t want the job, Aguyi-Ironsi, Gowon. Murtala Muhammed didn’t seek the job either but knew what to do with it. However, he, too, was thrown into the pit of wastage. Giwa decried, ‘. . . good men, men of purpose who are true heroes, get cut-down in mid-stream on their way to achieving greatness’. Is the wheel of wastage intense here? Dele Giwa was letter-bombed. Uproar followed, then silence, then forgetfulness.  As we do today, too, forgetting the sins the country commits against us.

We learn to forget in this country, which is one of the grand schemes of Nigerian political puppetry. Our politics reduces us to become too reactionary that we easily forget its atrocities and plunge into the next hullabaloo about the next political totem to raise in arguments, analysis and debates on nationalism. The political system is so protean, negatively so, distractive and unstable, that sometimes we are in random motion like the gaseous molecules of a chemical compound: We become the exact political creatures that the system wants us to become.

Rather than be committed to this kind of chaos, I choose something else: commitment to the memory of the deaths of unfortunate Nigerians and the probing of our daily wastefulness. How can I participate in a government with a dead conscience, where people die because of failed governance and what the so-called leaders do is apportion blames and invent alibis? An option would be to satirise – that pastime of Nigerians – the state of the nation. But am I finally sane, that I live in a country I constantly make fun of?

So I was fortunate in the beginning of last year, when I was almost entering another phase of nationalism inertia, that I happened upon Ahmed Maiwada’s poetry collection, We’re fish, in which I found some kind of salvation.

In We’re fish, Maiwada’s uses fish and the sea to explore the limits of human plight and survival. ‘Fish’ are we humans, and ‘the sea’ is the world. But the sea is dying. He writes in the 70th poem, ‘Why the Dead Sea? Why do seas die/ Knowing they teem with us fish . .’ This kind of mood is what you experience throughout the collection, with its theme of loss by extinction, or in our case, of wastage. You can stretch those lines even: Why does Nigeria die when it knows it teems with us, citizens? This is not far-fetched from the poetry collection, which runs with undercurrents of the country in contextual and historical references. It is to this book I owe my emancipation from the mental slavery Bob Marley sings of, from the unwary political creature I became in Nigeria, being a puppet to the shenanigans – to use the glorious cliché of Nigerian political-speak – of Nigerian politics.

One recent afternoon, after feeling too melancholic in my cubicle in Makurdi, I stepped out and went to a beer parlour opposite the university’s Teaching Hospital for a drink. Atiku Abubakar was visiting Benue for his presidential rally. I had heard earlier in my room, which isn’t far from the Gboko Road highway, his convoy’s siren. It was a mad rush of vehicles with party posters, and trucks with big speakers booming with panegyrics. But these worked as road disinfectants, as Dami Ajayi would say. Atiku was still on his way. While this spectacle was on, some group of macho looking guys arrived in a Toyota Corolla ’96 nicknamed First Lady, their heads and arms pouring from the window and limbs from the boot. They stepped from the car raising an intimidating air of faux political affinity to their perceived political gods. In their normal herd-think and showman braggadocio they flagged down bikes to continue their mad rush to the Air Force Base where Atiku eventually took off. Why they had to take bikes to continue their madness, I don’t know. But I think money was in the action.

Later, at District 4, a nightclub in town, boys and girls wore fez and tees bearing PDP with faces of Ortom and Atiku. I wondered what was cool about it. But the psychology is not strange: The same fake political affinity displayed by the guys from the Toyota is the same the young boys and girls were trying to display, too. (In street parlance, we’d say they were showing themselves.) Buried in this manner of behaviour is the pollution of the mind of the follower of the political situation in Nigeria. For our youths, I see it as a conspiracy that destroys their mind, the sort that engenders the unmindful disposition of the average young Nigerian towards his sense of responsibility and sense of the world.

It is funny. Four years ago, by the time he lost the primaries for the presidential ticket under APC, Atiku used to be a joke. All that had to happen was for him to be pimped and presented to us – and Nigerians began to invest their faith in him, appropriating Christmas carols in his name; suddenly he became an apotheosis. Are we this blest that we keep getting insulted? Why does Jack’s tribe reign so that Ralphs and Piggys get tormented?

Another insult was the gearing up of our politicians in the last months of 2018 for this year’s elections. Politician A defects to party B, B to party C and C to party F; and C goes back to party A. It is not the first time; it keeps happening: it’s a formula. In Benue, as well as other states in North Central, if not the whole country, during election periods, parties rent roadside shops and mount party billboards and flags and play political praise songs; they hire thugs or jobless, giddy political enthusiasts to stay in these shops they’ll call office. They’d talk vain politics, drink beer, insult people, live in euphoria, and raise the legends (stories) of their state’s political history from oral catalogues. The beat goes on. Once elections are over, the shops close. So does the promises made, jobs promised the exploited thugs, keke napeps or motorcycles promised to ‘the youths’. The cycle is supposed to repeat in four years.

Three months of wastage – ASUU strike – was called off in March. Upon resumption my university did not arrange a re-integration programme about the psychological implications of our epileptic academic life, even if it was an informal address by lecturers to their students in their resumption lectures. It is already expected that our minds are abused, or that we are not demoralised by sudden academic interruptions. The Nigerian system does not know or care about the dents this causes in the lives of the undergraduates it is grooming for the future(?). What of our lecturers who seem to glory in their industrial action? Don’t they get demoralised?

The musician Banky W sang in his spanking single Ebute Meta, ‘We can make it, make it . . Naija, we can make it ahh . . .’ It reminds me of the many songs along this national sentiment: TY Bello’s The Future, Morayo’s Stronger Than Before, Eldee’s One Day, Funmi Adams’ Beloved Country. All these songs decry our diary of wastage; or when Ahmed Maiwada reinforces in We’re fish, ‘We know how the breeze/ Knows that time/ Is stray out here/ When the robber pulls out his arms/ And takes it by force’. Except the belligerent Eedris Abdulkareem that says, point-blank, that the country jaga jaga.

I withdraw from being involved in Nigerian politics in the meantime because I don’t understand it, even as it pains me that I have to make this decision, to maintain the sanity of my mind. (I made a post on Facebook in January 2015 in this sentiment: ‘There shall come a time when I will understand Nigerian politics; that time is not now’. I still don’t.) This means I did not vote this year.

After voting in 2015 on March 28, I made a Tumblr post (blog now deleted) about the election. I expressed a sentiment about not being certain of what we were settling for by casting our votes. That feeling is no longer contemplative to me; it is certain. Too much aberration in the system. Richard Ali, who wrote a wonderful essay, ‘The Age of Buhari: Regicide and The Post Ethnic Youth’, in 2015 with some sort of enthusiasm that was in the air for Buhari during that time, tweeted a day after Election Day, ‘I wonder which sociology scholars are studying Nigeria right now’. I retweeted with the comment, ‘Same thoughts here’. Same thoughts still. And then, as if we hadn’t enough aberrations, the photograph of a broom monument signifying the All Progressive Congress political party, raised beside Abuja’s city gate, happened.

When I saw it on Twitter I became four philosophers at the same time: Socrates, Cicero, Bertrand Russell, and Henry David Thoreau. I wondered, like Socrates, what unquestionable answer justified the raising of the gnomic monument. Like Cicero, I wondered how the world was changing and how everyone was writing a book. Like Russell, I mused over what could be more rational, how could our country do this to us? Like Thoreau, I concluded that it is a matter of courage that men must find a way to live through these trying times.

As someone with an atrophying national spirit, The Broom Monument dents my faith, and Chinua Achebe returns to me in his poem, ‘1966’, ‘absentminded/our thoughtless days/sat at dire controls/and played indolently’. In my mind’s eye a trick plays: Time pauses, the Nation pauses; I recount all the insults on my sanity I’ve endured in this country – the droppings of goats that have fallen on my head, sounding like the first drops of rain it is pelting. What happened? Is this the same land brimming with talent? Wole Soyinka said it right when relating the country to Chinua Achebe in his poem, ‘Elegy for the Nation’: ‘There sits the nation/ All faculties intact, but wheelchair bound’.

Buhari’s second term is here. I wonder about the slow growth of the ensuing four years. I watch in street corners and Kai-kai joints how jobless young men, none-the-wiser, debate politics, pitch tents with political parties, groups or causes, while they remain wretched where the nation leaves them. I see them and wonder, why? Why are they wasting saliva over nothing, talking about people who don’t know about their existence? Why can’t they emancipate themselves and think for their betterment? Is this the extent of their abused mind?

Teju Cole, ever mindful, once asked what Nigeria is to him, answered:

‘Nigeria is an ideal for me in two ways, One, it’s a space of possibility; an opportunity for its people to move beyond the pressures of tribe or ethnic group. This opportunity is often squandered. Two, it’s a soccer team, one that could be one of the world’s best – there’s certainly enough talent to be, at least, on Uruguay’s level. This opportunity, too, is often squandered. So, Nigeria haunts me in terms of being a space of unfinished histories.’

And wastages. I can’t agree less. ✚

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