A Swiss gentleman in 1960 left his car parked on a northern Nigerian road, walked six miles on a bush path to a tiny village where he stayed with the villagers for four days. On the fifth day, he gestured goodbye to his kindly hosts and returned to his distant car to find it still there – unmolested.”
That short story was from a man called Tai Solarin. I am sure we have all forgotten him. Solarin lived a life of ascetic struggle, always in his khaki shorts and shirts. “I fight with an indomitable spirit, my back to the wall. Defeat is for those who accept it,” he wrote. The name his parents gave him was Augustus Taiwo Solarin. Then he renounced the foreign name ‘Augustus’ and shortened his ‘Taiwo’ to Tai. For most parts of his life, Solarin was either teaching or in detention or on the streets fighting injustice or by his table writing about Nigeria and how to save it from itself. In his twice-a-week column in the Nigerian Tribune which he christened ‘State of the Nation’, he engaged the present and the future in fearless gaze. The man belonged to an iconic cast of resilient rights defenders who wove their affection for the good of their world in personal adversity. They opposed evil, never made excuses for failure in governance and, for this, they were always in and out of jail.
In that team was Fela Anikulapo Kuti who needs no introduction. Fela’s cousin, the undying Wole Soyinka, was (and still is) a key member of that axis of activism. Alone and aged now, he is still by the hearth, keeping the fire burning. There was also Fela’s brother, Beko Ransome Kuti, a medical doctor who saved lives in hospitals as well as on the streets. The apple and the tree are never too far apart. Fela’s and Beko’s mother was a pioneer in making trouble against excesses of power. A newspaper in 1947 described her as the ‘Lioness of Lisabi’ following her leadership of Egba women’s revolt against taxation. The then Alake of Egbaland, Oba Ladapo Samuel Ademola, lost his throne to that crisis. History describes that ‘trouble’ as ‘Egba Women’s Tax Revolt’; Soyinka called it ‘the Great Upheaval’. The Oba was not sacked; he did what the white man called abdication of the throne. What does it mean to abdicate the throne? Never bother to check what it means; it is useless doing so in 21st century Nigeria. You won’t find it. Abdication and all other words near it – like resignation – are no longer in our political dictionary.
In Solarin’s group was also this ‘troublesome’ professor called Ayodele Awojobi. He didn’t live long; he died at 47. Then, there was Gani Fawehinmi who fought long drawn battles and saw the end of the military in government. But he did not live long enough to see the overthrow of democratic values by generals who reaped the fruits of his struggles. Solarin and these other men fought all through against Nigeria’s blood-sucking principalities, jointly and severally. Their unrelenting efforts slowed down the rot you now see poisoning everything all around you. Without them, the Nigeria you live in today would be worse than the leprous land you daily groan about.
On Sunday, 5 April, 1987, in his Tribune column, Solarin recollected that in 1954, two years after he returned to Nigeria from Britain, he made a projection of what the deeply religious Nigeria and the world would look like 30 years going forward. That 30-year mark came in 1984. What did he see? He saw that in Europe and America, “all men and women became one another’s keepers and Hungary’s three million permanent beggars, when Roman Catholicism reigned supreme, disappeared.” So, what happened with Nigeria? A strange strain of humans had infested the landscape.
Solarin said: “Changes occurred in Nigeria, too, in the same period. What was there of honesty and sincerity and doggedness evaporated. A Swiss gentleman in 1960 left his car parked on a northern Nigerian road, walked six miles on a bush path to a tiny village where he stayed with the villagers for four days. On the fifth day, he gestured goodbye to his kindly hosts and returned to his distant car to find it still there unmolested. No single person of any nationality could dare that deed today in Nigeria. Whoever dares it today risks losing the entire car. The old groundnut and cotton pyramids have disappeared from Nigeria. Honesty, of all attributes, has gone for good; more so that today, any act of savagery including murder, could be pardoned by the priest to whom the murderer confesses his guilt. And as long as there is, somewhere, a priest to listen to confession and pardon the guilty, there will be the growth, not the diminution, of guilt. Sloth and trickery have taken over from industry…The will to do or die has been siphoned from the marrows of the new generations of Nigerians.”
That was what he said happened to Nigeria in 30 years – 1954 to 1984. Then he asked himself what Nigeria would be at the dawn of the 21st century, which was then 13 quick years away. “In a setting like this,” he wrote, “what do I think is the possible state of this republic in the year 2000? With universal education going by the board and alongside it religious antagonism and bitterness bursting everywhere, what would be left of the federation in 13 years would be much less than a confederation. The nearer we are to this frightening fiord, the louder the voice of prayers, just as we have them today.”
He looked deeper into the future and added rather darkly: “National literacy will have fallen below 10 percent/There will be more of disillusionment/There will be more of discontent. /There will be more of the idle rich sucking up the life blood of the less privileged./ The less privileged will be less likely to defend themselves as the level of universal education will have hit its bathos, the very nadir of human indignity./Where do we go from there?/An Ataturk would, – no, might then arise.”
That was Solarin’s dream of Nigeria for the year 2000. The prophet himself died seven years after the prophecy but his shot hit the bull’s eye – except his longing for a Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Nigeria. Ataturk was the revolutionary statesman whose emergence and sweeping reforms sacked the Ottoman Empire and its corrupt, incompetent caliphate. Ataturk came and firmly put the resultant Republic of Turkey on the road to becoming a prosperous, modern nation state. This is year 2019, nineteen years into the 21st century and 20 years of nursing the wounds of democracy. We have had no redeemer. We entered the one-chance bus of this democracy just seven months before year 2000. And, since then, a lot of water has continued to pass daily under the bridge. We are the world’s poverty capital and host to world-class disillusionment, discontent, banditry and terrorism. There has been no Ataturk here; there will never be one. The country will celebrate 59 years of independence tomorrow, October 1, 2019. In the next 367 days, it will be 60 years of motion and movement backwards. But why? Is it a curse? We’ve focused on the troubled load on the head of the giant, not on the limping carrier. The deformity of Nigeria has its source in its knock-knee creation. How?
In a January 2, 2018 blog post, Jack McCaslin, a research associate for Africa policy studies at the US Council on Foreign Relations in Washington noted what he called “the many and varied problems colonialism created in Nigeria and around the world. “As early as 1898,” he wrote, “the British considered combining the then three protectorates (of Nigeria) to reduce the administrative burden on the British and allow the rich south to effectively subsidize the much less economically prosperous north. (The Lagos colony was later incorporated into the Southern Nigeria Protectorate for budgetary reasons). This is what Lord Lugard was referring to in his infamous description of how a marriage between the “rich lady of substance and means” (the South) and the “poor husband” (the North) would lead to a happy life for both. Some have suspected that Lugard was also referring to the political supremacy of the north over the south.”
Marriage by force is a sleep with the enemy, a snake in the handbag. Nigeria is a forced marriage conducted by Lugard – he himself called it “a forced union of marriage” which he prayed would result in “peace and prosperity” and would “last forever.” But, he couldn’t have been right. No forced marriage has ever truly worked to the satisfaction of the parties. A ‘continuum of coercion’ is the tonic that sustains forced, involuntary unions. But is it not said that hundreds of tiny threads of love, not chains, hold marriages together? You can renegotiate a union of crises to one of peace and prosperity. But unworthy husbands are always afraid of the wisdom of their wealthy wives. They resist and ban family conferences and enthrone a dictatorship of the privileged weak. That is the case with Nigeria – the husband won’t smell dissent; he calls it treason. The abusive union has grown like cancer tumors killing destinies north to south and birthing hungry, ill, uneducated, chained and frustrated kids. The poor husband has remained laidback and poor, living off his burdened wife. He sees no reason why he must work or why he must educate his kids when the “lady of means” he used for money ritual is still vomiting cool cash from all her public and private pipes.
Tomorrow, drums will be rolled out to mark Nigeria’s ‘independence’ from Britain, its abusive guardian. There will be much merriment in the Villa in Abuja. The powerful will wine and dine in Government Houses. The hungry, across the land, will increase the volume of their yawning and whining. The deprived will line the streets to salute and shout ‘oraisha’ to their loaded kings and chiefs. Beyond tomorrow, Nigeria remains a desert with all the inclemency. It drains and pushes its youths to the coziness of foreign, alien embrace. The stream of life flows backward wherever wrong reigns. Desert sands shine in mirthful degeneration. An Ataturk won’t come out from here.