A young man walks up to Nigeria’s Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka and asks him to move to another seat on the plane, asserting his right to sit in his allocated seat. Social media reporters said the young Nigerian stood his ground in spite of howls of indignation from elders at the apparent effrontery of the young man. A few commentators asked why the Laureate will sit in another’s seat in the first place. If the nation knew much of the incident, it would not have lost much sleep over it. Nor would it have agonized over the Laureate’s contribution to the local cacophony over cattle, herders and communities that want neither around them. Then, last week, the United Nations honoured a local Muslim clergy who saved dozens of Christians from being slaughtered by a chasing Muslim mob in a part of the nation deeply committed to frequent religious clashes. If the nation noticed the event, it would have had to compete for attention with dozens of reported killings in many parts of the country by bandits and ethnic militia, kidnappings and shrill voices quarreling over where the nation’s cattle should go.
Ours is a nation that grows in size at worrying rates and shrinks in substance at alarming speed. The country that can feed, cloth and house half of Africa today houses the largest percentage of its population in the poor category, and scrapes the bottom for respect and space in Africa and the world. It is too big and too endowed to be ignored, yet too troubling to be accorded the respect and confidence it deserves. It limps into decline from cumulative abuse and gross mismanagement, fifty years after it lost the promise to be a great African nation and a key player in a world that respects only real economic and political clout. We are a big nation of little people and we are progressively shrinking as we fight over what we have, and agree on what keeps us fighting.
With more than a century of existence, our nation cannot agree on what defines it. Fragments of great achievements are disappearing as our historians stop recording our journey, sociologists fail to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses and our economists stop counting our lost opportunities and turning points. Our politics recycles drudgery and mediocrity as quality of leaders progressively worsens, and cynicism and alienation of citizens become more pronounced with each major development of a perverted democratic system we run to impress a world that will not be fooled. We have failed to create a Nigerian out of all the identities that make up Africa’s most populous country. Every one carries bits of ethnic, regional and religious identity and an experience as a member of a sub-group with its own unique set of grievances against others.
Every leader who emerges reminds the nation of the shame of its past, and history begins afresh only with new leaders. You would not hear President Buhari speak of the outstanding statesmanship of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa to inspire northerners to achieve self-respect; or speak of the vision and character of Obafemi Awolowo to remind Yoruba of a great past of principled politics with pride; or remind the Igbo that one of them, Nnamdi Azikiwe, inspired the great decolonization process in the entire African continent when minions among them today seek to carve out little enclaves out of a nation that was built for them with sweat and blood. Obasanjo erased a chapter in the nation’s history when he played second fiddle with one in which he emerged in charge through a process and circumstances he would not acknowledge. No northern leader at any level speaks of the stubborn determination of Ahmadu Bello to create a region befitting his vision of northerners, or mention the pioneering radicalism of Aminu Kano or the brief but inspiring leadership of Murtala Mohammed, the humility of Shehu Shagari or the sacrifice of Group Captain Usman Jibrin.
The deeply-disputed history that created June 12 was recently perverted by the most gross opportunism of the Buhari administration (which may be just as well, since real history will chalk up that period as the worst in terms of the manner Nigerian politics fed on personal greed and ambition at the expense of the nation) .It was not so much that the military damaged a major turning point in Nigeria’s history, as it was a chronicle of the vilest treachery of the politicians that served as its undertakers, and they are still walking the corridors of power today. Events leading up to June 12,1992 diminished a nation struggling to build a different foundation. The celebration of that monumental betrayal as Democracy Day has compounded a major injury with an insult, an outcome that makes sense only in the context of a nation that reads its history as the record of current rulers.
It is tragic that our leadership today emerges out of bitterness and rancour, and visits its limitations on the nation. Instead of inspiring the nation to achieve greatness, our leaders pull it down until everyone is like them or worse than them. Then they leave a legacy that can only be made worse because they have left nothing to build on. New generations of Nigerians inherit a nation gutted-out by incompetence and greed, and they behave in a manner that suggests that their mission is to make their nation worse. No one teaches them of chapters of inspiring history; of times when Africa and the world looked up to Nigeria for leadership; times when Nigerians swaggered across the world with confidence instead of being hounded and killed in foreign lands; of days when Nigeria stood in defence of human freedom and liberty.
Young Nigerians learn to hate in a nation that once had a large heart for all its citizens, and to cut corners because no one teaches them the values of hard work and honesty. They have low and short-term expectations in a nation where nothing is certain, in which life has little value and where you have to fight or cheat to survive. A young Nigerian could ask Soyinka to move because he grew up in a nation without heroes. Nigerians will fight over strips of land and different faiths because they have not been told the story of the Imam who saved Christians from fellow Muslims. We are a big nation of little people because our leaders today have no business leading a country that should be great, by right.
Abubakar wrote this piece from Abuja