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In July 2005, aboard an Egypt Air flight from Cairo to Lagos, a number of Nigerians spent hours discussing the state of the nation. We were from different parts of the country and different religions. We discussed virtually every topic — from the horrible roads to the unending importation of petroleum products, from the inhospitable hospitals to the abysmal education sector. We spoke extensively on corruption in public institutions across the country, the bazaar of contract awards, the hyperinflation of contract costs, as well as the obscene lifestyles of civil servants, politicians and political appointees. I was fully charged as passengers narrated their experiences.
Then something happened: we could not land at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. The pilot said a cargo aircraft had broken down on the runway and flights were being diverted. He announced that we were going to land in Kano. That clearly meant we would spend the night there. The first question I asked was: is there only one runway at the Lagos airport? Someone, who seemed to know a lot about the airport, said there were two but the other one was undergoing maintenance and had been shut down for a while. We were all frustrated because spending the night in Kano was not part of the plan. It added one day to our journey.
And then a young man from the Niger Delta dropped a bombshell: “All this nonsense will not stop until there is resource control! Nigeria is paying for the injustice being meted out to the Niger Delta! The rest of Nigeria will continue to suffer too!” I was shocked. The cabin initially went quiet, and suddenly we started arguing over the outburst. It soon became a bitter exchange about how the rest of Nigeria was a parasite on “our oil”, how the federal government needed to urgently organise a sovereign national conference to take a final decision on how to divide the country, and so on and so forth. I was disappointed. I gently withdrew from the discussion.
My disappointment stemmed from just one fact: for nearly two hours, we had discussed as Nigerians and reached a consensus that we had a serious leadership problem. We agreed that the political and economic mismanagement of Nigeria at all levels was at the root of our backwardness. We complained about how our council chairpersons were not up to scratch and how the governors were having fun at our expense. We agreed that the federal government was failing in its responsibilities. We went as far as saying all Nigerians, irrespective of “tribe and tongue”, were victims of this gross mismanagement. I was delighted that we could discuss so frankly without bitterness.
We collectively reasoned that ordinary Nigerians did not have problems with one another; we were just victims of elite manipulation for political purposes. We concluded that Nigerians needed a united front to confront the leadership deficit pervading the land. We all appeared to be on the same page! Then the Niger Delta “activist” dropped his bombshell — despite having been part of the “consensus” we had reached at the impromptu “national conference” on the flight. My spirit dropped. How could someone ruin such a beautiful conversation by introducing a divisive item on the agenda? Why are some people never satisfied until they play up our faultlines and frailties?
A few minutes earlier, the “activist” had been complaining about how the governors of the oil-producing states were wasting the 13% derivation payment and leaving the people of the Niger Delta poorer and poorer. He was complaining about a state governor who had bought up houses in Lagos, Abuja, UK and the US. He said some Niger Delta governors were arming militias to take out their political opponents. Virtually all of us made damaging allegations against our governors. Abruptly, the Niger Delta “activist” arrived at another conclusion that it was lack of “resource control” that led to the breakdown of an aircraft on Lagos airport runway.
In my previous article, “Nigeria and the Hegemony Ideology” (April 14, 2019), I adapted the theory of “cultural hegemony” propounded by Antonio Gramsci, the 20th century Italian Marxist philosopher and communist politician, to explain how the Nigerian elite class has successfully diverted the public agenda from bad governance and, instead, got us talking about our ethnic and religious differences every minute and every second of the day. This they do through institutionalised processes, with their intellectual sidekicks and pressure groups using up prominent pages in the newspapers to discuss all issues — except the ones that impact directly on the welfare of ordinary Nigerians.
As a follow-up to my proposal that we need a new generation of “thought leaders” in the media, academia, civil society and polity that will focus public discourse on issues of development and stop blaming Lord Lugard for all that is wrong with Nigeria, I would love to argue that there are several things Nigerians already appear to agree upon which should form the basis of our engagement with the political system. If we are able to discuss these issues openly and sincerely, we may just be able to evolve the Nigerian Dream and arrive at a consensus on the best way forward. I have not met a single Nigerian who says this is the best Nigeria can be. We aspire to have a better country.
I will point out at least three plagues most of us seem to have agreed upon as impediments to the progress of Nigeria, and these cut across ethnic, religious and regional lines. The first is “leadership without conscience”. Contrary to what you might have been led to believe, we run a multi-layered leadership structure in Nigeria: federal, state and local council. Each layer has its responsibilities and failings in the underdevelopment of Nigeria. However, if we are ruled by men and women of conscience, I believe our story would have changed. A moral morass is severely plaguing Nigerian leadership — and that includes commissioners, ministers and perm secs, to name but a few.