by Femi Akomolafe
(Swans - July 27, 2009) It was recently announced that Nigeria's film industry (Nollywood) has become the second biggest in the world after India's Bollywood. The reasons shouldn't surprise anyone who has had even the briefest encounter with that unlucky land of my birth. Nigeria is a place where art does not simply imitate life; it's a place where the distinction between the artistic and reality is just indistinguishable.
Nothing about Nigeria makes any sense whatsoever. It's a place where the simplest of life's basics has been turned into major productions. It is a place where citizens believe that laws, rules, and regulations are mere suggestions. Nigerian governments throughout the ages have set up myriad agencies to enforce its laws, all to no avail. In Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, for example, there are four or five agencies set up to ensure the free flow of traffic, but citizens still spend inordinate hours at the famous Lagos gridlocks.
There were lots of sniggers when a few years ago a poll declared Nigerians as the world's happiest people. How on earth could that be, other people wondered. But Nigerians knew better. The late Nigeria's Afro-beat music giant Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, dubbed the Nigerian system "Suffering and Smiling."
It's probably a psychological phenomenon afflicting only the nationals of that unfortunate country. Nigerians are inured to all forms of indignities and sufferings. They don't go out to protest the lack of water in their residences. They dance for joy when the electricity company doles out its pitiable dose of electricity. Armed robbers sometimes lay siege to whole neighborhoods without Nigerians ever thinking of forming neighborhood committees to protect themselves. There is a constant lack of petrol in this OPEC-member nation ranked sixth or seventh among the world's oil producers. Nigerians tend to make light of the most harrowing situation. Nigerians will simply laugh and shrug off circumstances that would send other folks to go nuclear. And Nigerians are people who have absolutely no concept of irony; they're simply beyond it.
A sad parade of military adventurers ruled the country for a long stretch of time. They so thoroughly bastardized the body polity that today the country easily qualifies as a "failed state." Such is the depth of corruption in the Nigerian system that gaining access to public offices has become a do or die affair. So massive is corruption that people today see public office as the safest and fastest avenue to instant wealth.
Yet most Nigerians refuse to see anything wrong with their dysfunctional nation. They continue to wallow in old glories of yesteryears when Nigeria was a continent power with global pretensions. Take this for example: some years back, some smart fellows thought having a state motto was the "inthing." And before long all the thirty-six states of the federal republic of Nigeria were spouting one. Sokoto, the semi-arid state in northwestern Nigeria and home of the powerful Islamic Caliphate, which happens to have produced some of Nigeria's inept leaders, arrogantly boasts in its motto: "Born to Rule."
Lagos, the former political capital and the nation's commercial capital, chose "Center of Excellence." Now, now. Take even a blind, deaf and dumb person to Lagos and let him spend a whole year there. Excellence will never come into the vocabulary he'll use to describe the gigantic unplanned ghetto that remains Nigeria's premier city. There is simply nothing excellent about Lagos unless we are talking about rowdy, uncontrolled mayhem. Lagos is such bedlam that it remains a source of constant bafflement to yours truly how any human being can survive a day there and still retain a semblance of sanity. Although some houses in Lagos are opulent beyond belief, the lackadaisical manner in which they are thrown together totally destroys whatever architectural delights they might possess. Some houses in Lagos have not seen a new coat of paint since the day of independence in 1960. One will still find in Lagos ghettoes of such primitive nature that they would have found a place in a Charles Dickens novel.
Ekiti, one of the thirty-six states, chose "Fountain of Knowledge," as its motto. Okay, given the fact that almost every family from this state, where education is much beloved, has a PhD degree holder, the state rightfully can lay claim to being knowledgeable. But then recent happenings in the electoral department have cast that claim in serious doubt.
For those who have not followed the shenanigans that pass for elections in Nigeria, a little information should come in handy. Since the 1970s, when Nigeria stopped being an agricultural nation, it has relied almost exclusively on easy petro wealth. The oil comes from the southern delta part of the country. Nigeria is a federation of thirty-six states with a very strong federal government that controls the nation's revenue. Controlling the nation's purse gives the central government the power to play Father Christmas. For instance, the federal government determines the formula it uses to allocate resources to the other two tiers of government -- the states and the local governments. Since, as mentioned supra, the bulk of Nigeria's income comes from easy petrol dollars, there's little or no incentive for anyone to be productive. The state governors travel monthly to Abuja (the capital), collect their state's allocation, and proceed to lodge large chunks of it in overseas bank accounts. It should now begin to make sense why politics remains the most lucrative profession in Nigeria and why control of the federal government is so vital that it has led to a civil war.
Since the British left in 1960, Nigeria has had no credible election. Today, the nation's population (touted at 140 million) remains just guesswork. And elections in Nigeria are so full of mago-mago (local parlance for fraudulent practices) that it'd have made old Chicago politics look saintly. Fraud does not even begin to describe what takes place during elections in Nigeria. While near-neighbor Ghana is earning international kudos for impeccable elections, Nigeria's elections are still occasions to display primitive savagery.
The last general election was held in 2007 and the wheel of the judicial system is still clogged while trying to unsnarl the massively rigged results. The presidential election itself was only resolved early this year in favor of (gasp!) the incumbent. The ruling party is the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and it boasts of being the largest political party in Africa. Nothing new there, as Nigerians' love for the hyperbole is legendary. The claim remains unverifiable since it has refused to open its books for scrutiny. The truth is that there is nothing remotely democratic about the PDP. It is simply a motley collection of seriously rich Nigerians whose allegiance is only to their fat stomachs and bulging bank accounts. The PDP has neither a guiding philosophy nor an ideology. It is simply a case of birds of the same feather flocking together to loot the nation's patrimony. The lack of orientation or guiding principles of the ruling party has largely resulted in a country floundering at every level. Life has never been easy for Nigerians, but no one can remember when things were this bad! The county is adrift with absolutely no sense of any direction.
Those who believed that the successful resolution of the electoral petition against the president would result in a rejuvenated government were sorely disappointment when the president stubbornly clung to his "Mr. No-Motion" appellation. Reports of the president's ill health continue to fill Nigeria's newspapers. Yet, PDP chieftains continue to behave as though all is well with the country. Despite rumors of his ill health and obvious non-performance, the president's handlers are already positioning him as "God sent" for a second term.
Nigeria is a country that never ceases to amaze. When the world's top guns met at their G20 meetings, President Yar'adua led the chorus of Nigeria's indignation at the perceived slight of their country, which, to their warped minds, remains the "Giant of Africa." Nigerian press had a good time lampooning their president and his colossally corrupt ministers and advisers. How on earth can a nation where basic things like water, food, and light remain a daunting challenge expect to parlay with the world's top leaders? How can a nation that cannot organize a credible census or violence-free elections expect to be taken seriously?
Now back to my beloved Ekiti State. The Ekitis, a branch of the Yorubas (who inhabited Western Nigeria), have a well-deserved reputation for stubborn resistance against any form of imposition or oppression. They were at the forefront of protests in the 1960s when their election results were tampered with. The massive violence they launched in their "operation wetie" soon engulfed the then Western Region. It was an event that directly led to Nigeria's first coup d'état in 1966, which is the antecedent to the civil war that followed a few months later. Also in 1983, the protests by the Ekitis against another election rigging led to another military takeover a few months later.
The PDP ruthlessly rigged itself into power in 2007, taking Ekiti among its spoils of war. In a move that baffles many, the Ekitis resolved to go to the law courts instead of mobilizing street violence. It took over two years, but on February 17, 2009, the Federal Appeals Court ordered a rerun of governorship elections in about 63 wards across 10 local government areas of the state.
All hell broke loose in Ekiti when April 25, 2009, was announced as the date for the re-run. The PDP, which has seen the courts reversing its governorship gains in six other states, was bent on holding on to Ekiti state at all cost. The party deployed all its big artillery pieces, including the vice president, to wage the battle in Ekiti. In more ominous moves, the federal government not only dispatched the inspector general of the Nigerian police to the state, it also sent elements of the Nigerian Army to beef up security.
The Ekitis felt overwhelmed. And they there and then chose to resort to more traditional means of defense. Elderly Ekiti women stripped themselves naked and went on a protest parade at Ado, the Ekiti state capital. Protest by naked women is viewed in many parts of Africa as high taboo and is regarded as the highest form of dissent. Ekiti men went to their jujumen, who procured and adorned them with all forms of amulets and charms with the belief that such talisman would not only guard against evil forces but that they possess magical powers to repel bullets.
Nigeria and the world were thus treated to a grand spectacle of an otherwise highly educated (even in the Western sense), highly urbanized people brandishing all and very form of university degrees resorting to the ways of their ancient forebears. Not even Nollywood could have done better!
Africa will forever continue to baffle and boggle. It is indeed a place of mind-boggling contradictions. Africa is a place where someone will go through the rigors of a university education, follow rigorous scientific training, acquire all the degrees available, yet will believe that tying a talisman to the waist is protection against a car accident. Many people in Africa still believe that there are juju (voodoo) that are more potent than the best of bulletproof vests. It is a place where people still believe that nature is governed by supernatural forces that could be appeased by bathing in olive oil and dancing senseless at "prayer retreats."
A voice from Africa worth hearing... Femi Akomolafe asks you to make ato keep Swans going. Money is spent to pay for Internet costs, maintenance and upgrade of our computer network, and development of the site.