I was ruminating on the death of democracy which the recently concluded elections in Nigeria represent when the sad news on Sunday came to me from Bola Akanbi that my friend and brother, Professor Pius Adesanmi, was among the dead passengers on Ethiopian Air that crashed six minutes after take-off.
The death of Pius is a monumental tragedy that I cannot find words to capture yet, just like the Nigerian malady. I met Pius in the United States in his late thirties and was marvelled by the fecundity of his intellect that I had to invite him to Nigeria to deliver the Save Nigeria Group inaugural lecture after discussion with Pastor Tunde Bakare. He held his audience spell bound. It was not long after that he became a regular in many discussion events in Nigeria.
In celebration of the life of this great intellect who has now joined the ancestors, I present the text of his maiden lecture in Nigeria. May his soul rest in peace.
What Nigeria Owes The Tortoise – Pius Adesanmi
Protocols! My hosts, Pastor Tunde Bakare, esteemed convener of the SNG, and Mr Yinka Odumakin, irrepressible spokesman of the group, must be used to thankless jobs by now. After all, they were both at the forefront of a recent epic struggle to restore constitutional order in this country by liberating a self-declared formerly shoeless compatriot from the chains of uxorial fealty to the wife of his boss. The woman in question had held us all to ransom, running a ghost presidency, cabalised (apologies to my bosom friend, Patrick Obahiagbon) all the way from Saudi Arabia. As you all know, the Save Nigeria Group was at the forefront of that patriotic struggle. No sooner had the Beneficiary-in-Chief of the said struggle been liberated and helped to his rightful constitutional station in Aso Rock than he assumed the role of the nine ungrateful lepers who forgot to return and give thanks to their benefactor in the Bible.
But Nigeria’s own incarnation of the nine ungrateful lepers does more than just walk away from the scene of his blessing. He soon surrounds himself with the usual suspects, always the worst and perpetually recycled characters in our polity, who hastened to convince him to spit on the same people on whose backs he rode to constitutional validity. Down the road, when the same people rose up in response to another historical imperative of struggle, he had been sufficiently tutored in the art of placing a knife on the rope of the people’s legitimate struggle. Thus, in one fell swoop, Pastor Tunde Bakare, Yinka Odumakin, Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti, Joe Okei-Odumakin, and all the patriots who tirelessly conscientised our people in Lagos and the rest of the country to the task at hand were contemptuously dismissed as mobilisers of a motley crowd of sufferheads bribed with food, bottled water and comedy.
You must understand therefore why I started by saying that my hosts here today, Pastor Tunde Bakare and Mr Yinka Odumakin, must be used to thankless jobs. Indeed, so used are these gentlemen to the thankless job of patriotic nation building, so inured are they to the insults and sorrows of the terrain, that they may not even find anything amiss if I went straight to the heart of this lecture without first thanking them for the extraordinary honour and privilege they have accorded me by taking the baton of the distinguished SNG lecture series from Professor Niyi Osundare, Africa’s most decorated poet, one
of my immediate mentors in the business of thinking and writing Africa, and handing it over to me. By inviting me to deliver this lecture after my mentor’s passage on this same podium a few months ago, SNG has saddled me with a near-impossible act to follow. What makes my task bearable is the redemptive rite of passage known in my culture as iba!
To Niyi Osundare who was here before me – iba!
To Pastor Tunde Bakare and Mr Yinka Odumakin who invited me today – iba!
To Mrs Priscilla Kuye, chairperson of this gathering – iba!
To you whose ears are here in this hall to drink my words – iba!
I pray you,
Make my young mouth harbor the elder’s tongue
On which the kolanut blossoms to maturity
Grant me, I pray, the wisdom to render unto the Tortoise
That which belongs to Ijapa
Now that I have poured cold water in front of me, may my feet be rewarded with the kiss of cool and soothing earth as I set forth in this lecture! Pastor Bakare, Mrs Kuye, audience, have I earned the right to proceed with this lecture? Thank you. Nigeria’s betrayal of a certain Caesarian covenant with the Tortoise is at the root of every problem that has made responsible nationhood and statehood a mirage since October 1, 1960. If you are in this hall and you are above the age of forty, then you belong in a generation of Nigerians raised on a diet of folktales and other forms of traditional pedagogy. If you are not an “ara oke” like me and you grew up in the city, you may not have memories of returning from the farm with your grandmother and waiting patiently for storytelling sessions after dinner. However, you probably still got your own dosage of folktales from NTA’s Tales by Moonlight.
Growing up in Isanlu, my hometown in Yagba East LGA, Kogi State, I got my own stories principally from my mom and my grand aunty. We call my grand aunty Mama Isanlu. She is still alive and kicking well into her nineties. Tales by Moonlight on television was just jara, an additional icing on the cake whenever we were able to successfully rotate the antenna of my father’s black and white TV, suspended on a long steel rod outside, in the right direction for reception of transmission signals from Lagos. Mama Isanlu’s stories were the real deal. I particularly loved her animal tales. Animal tales are a sub-genre of folktales. There is usually a bad guy, a trickster figure, whose adventures and escapades kept us awake long beyond the telling of the stories. In the Yoruba tradition, that trickster figure is Ijapa, the tortoise, often trying to outsmart everybody, including his own wife, Yannibo.
This is where the problem begins. You see, the Yoruba corpus of folktales in which Ijapa operates as a trickster figure presents a worldview – what German philosophers like Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel call Weltanschauung – rooted in the twin ideas of the collective good and the commonweal. If we consider that the most basic philosophical definition of the commonweal is the idea of the welfare of the public, then we will understand why “imo ti ara eni nikan”, which we shall translate clumsily as selfishness because the English language is inadequate, is one of the most serious sins and character flaws imaginable in the worldview to which Ijapa belongs. The rounded personhood concept of omoluabi, which I explored fully in a public lecture in Detroit last year, is one of the cultural matrices of that worldview and nobody who undermines the collective good can be deemed a proper omoluabi. Indeed, if the tragedians of ancient Greece were working with the folktale character known as Ijapa, selfishness, the sort which constantly seeks to undermine the collective good, would be his hubris, his fatal flaw.
So engrained is this foible, selfishness, in the persona of Ijapa that even his own wife is never spared. Thus, after years of childlessness, Yannibo impresses it upon her husband to seek help from a babalawo. The babalawo prepares a delicious “aseje” – porridge – which Ijapa is instructed to take back home to his wife. The instructions were strict and severe. Only your wife may eat this “aseje.” But Ijapa won’t be Tortoise if he didn’t err on the side of selfishness. Oh, the porridge was delicious! Oh, the aroma wafted into his nostrils! Oh, how he salivated until the urge became too irresistible. He settled down under a tree and ravenously consumed that which was meant to help his wife get pregnant. And his belly began to swell. And swell. And swell. Shamefacedly, Ijapa returns to the babalawo, singing a song I am sure most of you know very well. Those of you who do not know the song surely have heard the kegite version of it made very popular by Tony One Week in his gyration album. Pardon my poor singing talent. I don’t have the gifts of Tonto Dikeh in the singing department but here we go:
Babalawo mo wa bebe
Ogun to se fun mi lere kan
Oni nma ma fowo kenu
Oni nma ma fese kenu
Mo fowo kan obe mo fi kenu
Mo boju wo kun, o ri gbendu
Babalawo mo wa bebe, Alugbinrin…
As it goes for Mrs Tortoise, so does it go for the rest of the community. They are also victims of Ijapa’s selfish wiles. In a society organised for the collective good, nothing tests the solidity of the social welfare system than famine. Therefore, during a great famine that threatened to wipe out all the animals in Ijapa’s village, the villagers discovered a coconut tree that was still yielding bountifully. In order that this life-sustaining bounty might go round, it was decreed that each villager was entitled to one coconut per day.
At your allotted time, you went to the coconut tree and intoned a song which caused a single coconut to fall from the tree and drop directly on your back. Having the coconut drop on your back, I suppose, was deterrence against the temptation of greed.
Mr Tortoise gets to the tree at his appointed time on the first day and sings the magic song for his share of one coconut for the day. Your chorus, this time is “oturugbe”:
Ori mo so
Ori mo so
Okan ba ja lu mi inu mi a dun, ori mo so
One coconut drops on his back. Another day, another time. But, wait a minute, says Mr Tortoise to himself, what happens if I ask for two coconuts instead of one? I’m all alone by myself. Who is here to announce to the other villagers that I took more than my fair share of this communal property? If the other villagers are all mumu and they come here each day for one paltry coconut, what’s my own wahala? Ijapa, why you dey dull yourself like this? Shine your eyes now. Let me try my luck and see if this tree will give me two coconuts jare. So, our friend listens to the voices in his own head and sings:
Ori mo so
Ori mo so
Eji ba ja lu mi inu mi a dun, ori mo so
To his amazement, two coconuts drop on his back! He went home dancing and singing maga don pay! Another time, he asked for tree coconuts to drop on his back. Then four. Then five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Finally, he’d had enough of the daily trips to the tree. The voices invade his head again. What if I asked everything to kuku drop on me? I could take the entire load of coconuts home and hoard it, abi? When the storm clams down, I could even begin to sell some to trusted villagers at an exorbitant price and make a killing. So, to the tree he went and sang:
Ori mo so –
Ori mo so –
Gbogbo re ba ja lu mi inu mi a dun, ori mo so
The full text
I’m sure you all know the end of this story. A mountain of coconuts came crashing down on Ijapa, crushing his shell and causing him grievous bodily harm. Alas, as soon as Ijapa recovers from this near death experience with coconuts – perhaps the other animals took pity on him and rushed him to a German hospital for treatment! – he was onto his next prank, this time to cheat all the birds of the air who had been invited for a feast in heaven. Ijapa convinced each bird to donate a feather to him in order to be able to fly along with them to the party in heaven. The Nigerian practice of “mo gbo mo ya” was also trendy in the animal kingdom of Ijapa’s era.
As the animals got ready for the trip, Ijapa, the most cosmopolitan among the animals because of his wide travels, told everyone to take a new name, as was the norm in civilised climes. Naturally, Ijapa adopted the name, Mr Everybody. Off they went to heaven. The hosts were generous. There was plenty to eat and drink. Oh, the hosts also announced that the feast was for everybody! Ijapa was of course quick to remind his fellow guests who everybody was. At the end of the day, the hungry and, therefore, very angry birds, took their feathers from Ijapa, flew back to earth, and abandoned him to his fate in heaven. If you want to know what subsequently happened to Ijapa, get Ambassador Abass Akande Obesere omo Rapala’s album, “Diplomacy.”
One crucial dimension to these animal tales in the Yoruba corpus is their didactic mandate. The lessons which these stories teach wear a severe warning label: do not behave like the trickster figure. Our case in point, Ijapa, takes intellectual ownership of his exploits extremely seriously. We, his human audience, are not in any way allowed to imitate Ijapa’s foibles. Even in the case of mixed tales, where the human and the animal worlds meet and their temporalities overlap, the human characters in those tales must heed the same warnings as those of us who are external to the narrative process. Those of you who have read D.O. Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola, and their London-based literary offspring, Ben Okri, will readily understand what happens to man when he violates the fundamental condition for dealing with the animals’ actions in the tales. That condition, the covenant we must all enter into with the trickster figure, is to avoid plagiarising his actions.
When Ijapa offers his picaresque adventures in folktales as a pedagogical canvass of behaviours that the individual must avoid, we know that those deviant behaviours almost always come down to two things. The first is greed, especially that form of greed which privileges consumption above all other areas of human experience, transforming the subject into an unthinking slave of Opapala, the Yoruba deity of hunger, the god of food, gourmandising, and untrammeled Sybaritism. Hence, Ijapa is at his most outrageous, most reprehensible when he elevates his belly above the collective good of society. In story after story, his punishment for the sin of excessive greed of consumption is swift. Often, he barely escapes with his life to return in the next story to enact another scenario of what we call wobia (excessive consumption at the expense of others). The second behavior to which the trickster figure in the folktales holds an exclusive copyright and which we are consequently not supposed to plagiarise is even deadlier than the first sin. It is individualism. Individualism is the father of selfishness and the mother of nombrilism. It is what enables the will to undermine the commonweal, to harm the collective good.
It should be clear from the foregoing that Ijapa in these folktales comes from an ethno-national imaginary in which resides a specific welfarist vision of society and her institutions. The commonweal is the base of this vision. All the rules of social organisation, all the institutions of society, including monarchy, have meaning insofar as they are able to guarantee the collective good and the commonweal. It is in fact safe to say that the commonweal is sacred. Ijapa’s sin during the party in heaven is worse than selfishness. By claiming to be Mr Everybody, he was violating one of the most sacred aspects of his culture. The commonweal, the collective, the “us” is so important that even his language does not permit synecdoche in that area. When it comes to the sanctity of the collective, no part can represent or claim to be the whole. Ijapa’s language makes this clear in the proverb: “enikan ki je awa de”. A single person does not announce his presence in the plural by shouting: “here we are”!
In essence, you must always be conscious of your responsibility to the collective. For instance, there is a reason why that river or that stream is called “odo ilu” (communal river). Institutions and codes of behaviour exist to guarantee equal and fair access to this river, especially in the dry season. To take more than your fair share of this water is a serious ethical breach, it is deviance of the sort that could give you an “oruko buruku” (bad name) in the community. Even the protocols of fetching water from that stream devolve from a deep-seated social consciousness, a certain respect for the collective
good. If you are the first to reach the stream, you do not just jump in and begin to cast your keregbe (gourd) or water pot all over the place. You have spent your entire life being socialised into responsible membership of the community with stories of Ijapa. Your traditional education emphasised the mandate not to be like Ijapa. You know that you do not want to stir the water in the river so vigorously as to make the water turn all brown with disturbed mud and particles from the riverbed, making it impossible for other members of the community to fetch water when they arrive.
In other words, you don’t want to “ru omi odo”. Above all, you also don’t want to start suddenly thinking of creative ways to divert the entire river – or 90 per cent of it – for your own private use. That would be breaking the covenant with Ijapa not to plagiarise him. That would be violating all the life lessons you were taught about how to avoid behaving like Ijapa. Do you want me to go on? Okay, here is part two.
It is no secret that we love foreign things in Nigeria. Our encounter with modernity, especially the version of it associated with the material trajectory of Western Europe after the enlightenment and the rise of the culture of late capitalism in the United States after the World Wars, has been a history of uncreative aping of Western culture, tastes and modes of being. Alas, our knowledge systems are not spared, hence we seek Western paradigms and explanations for things rooted in our own history, culture, and environment. Such is the case with a great deal of the literature on what most Nigerians agree is the country’s most successful postcolonial experience of statehood in terms of the management of resources and human capital. This experience, which has entered the history books as one of Africa’s most successful cases of the harnessing of resources for the betterment of the collective, is none other than the political polity known as the Western Region.
If you explore the social science literature on the Western Region and why the man at the centre of it all, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was able to record developmental strides for his region that are still largely unsurpassed in our annals, you will find no shortage of Western-derived explanations for what happened in the Western region. You will encounter every Western theory of statehood, especially theories and models of the modern Welfare state, from its origins in Otto von Bismarck’s Germany to Canada via Scandinavia that Obafemi Awolowo and the bureaucracy he harnessed and led for the betterment of his people were supposed to have mastered. You will even encounter the reflections of a great 19th and early 20th-century German thinker known as Max Weber, whose reflections on the bureaucracy and the legal bases of the Welfare state have led to the emergence of a theoretical construct known as the Weberian state in the social sciences. You will hear that the Western Region was a micro-Weberian state at its most successful level of actuation. What you will hardly encounter in the literature on the Western Region are studies which trace the origins of this spectacular success to the cultural capital of Chief Awolowo and the energies he mobilised to implement his vision.
It is true that the leader of the Western Region was a man of great learning. A polymath whose intellectual depth and erudition are still here with us in his speeches, lectures, and books. Added to his own talent and intellectual capital is the fact his generation of Nigerians is the last generation to have acquired what qualifies to be called great learning. You will understand what I am talking about if your father was roughly in Chief Awolowo’s generation. This is the generation that read the Greeks and the Romans, studied Latin, and spoke Queen’s English, stressing the proper syllables unlike those of us in subsequent generations who stress every syllable. So, it is true that Chief Awolowo had read Weber and many of the great thinkers of modern welfare statehood. However, Max Weber and European philosophers were not what happened in the Western region. What happened was cultural. What happened to and in the Western Region was respect for the covenant between man and Ijapa.
Although the free primary education scheme, which was launched on January 17, 1955, has become a leitmotif in narratives of the Western Region’s success, we need to dig deeper to account for the philosophical bases of the vision of the man who dared to dream it in the first place. Let us examine, for example, the core themes of Awolowo’s 1955 budget speech: “Of our total expenditure of £12.45 million not less than 82.6 per cent devoted to services and projects which directly cater for the health, education, prosperity and general welfare of our people. Of this high percentage, 27.8 per cent goes to education, 10.7 per cent to medical services, 5.4 per cent to agriculture.” The key terms here are health, education, welfare of the people, and agriculture. These are all areas directly related to human
However, which humans? That is a logical question because if Squealer was able to perfectly rationalise the fact that all the resources of animal farm were to go towards the health, education, and welfare of the few pigs at the table, the envisioners of the Western Region budget could also perfectly have reasoned that human development was synonymous with the welfare and the gastronomic preferments of a chosen and privileged few. So, which humans is a legitimate question. The answer to who Awolowo had in mind as he evolved a carefully-calibrated budget philosophy for the Western Region on his
assumption of office lies in his famous three principles of budgeting by which he meant the resources of the region would be expended on human development in the areas of health, welfare, and education. The overall goal of this budget philosophy was freedom of the people from ignorance, disease and want. In Awolowo’s vision, the Western Region was going to be the very embodiment of the collective good and the commonweal.
What was being born in this project, the Western Region, was a modern, postcolonial political apparatus whose formal institutions, bureaucracy, and modes of functioning devolved from the legacies of British colonialism. However, the ethos and the vision which transformed the project into a vector of generalised human development were not British. That ethos devolved from the cultural bases of the region’s chief envisioner and his greatest asset – his people. I will elaborate on the point about his people presently. Suffice it to say that the persona speaking in Awolowo’s description of the principles
that would guide the budgeting process of the Western region and become its humanizing foundation is one grounded in the traditional pedagogy of the tortoise. We have explored how the cultural imaginary which produced Ijapa and his adventures promotes a conception of personhood, omoluabi, defined by a subscription to the superiority of the collective good and the commonweal. The budget of the Western Region respected Ijapa’s mandate: do not emulate me. Do not plagiarise my actions. Remember, I am all about my belly and how to get more than my fair share of things meant for all of us. You, on the other hand, are people of the commonweal.
This is the cultural praxis which informed Obafemi Awolowo’s conception of statecraft and shaped what became the Western Region. I am saying, in essence, that we did not hear of the welfare state and the social contract for the first time from jean-Jacques Rousseau, Max Weber, and other Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers of Europe. Our ancestors were already using those philosophies to raise their children and forge ideas of society and social responsibility long before our modern scholars and thinkers dragged these Europeans into the argument.
Something else is often left out in narratives of the Western Region. I prefer to frame this second omission in the interrogative mode. Why did Awolowo’s vision and altruism work in the region? To render unto Ijapa what is Ijapa’s is to subscribe to the supremacy of the commonweal by not plagiarising the trickster figure’s selfish and individualistic proclivities. My submission is that that is exactly what Awolowo did but was this adherence to the collective good the only ingredient of his success? The answer, evidently, is no. For Awolowo’s budget philosophy to be successful, those who were helping him run the vision and examples he was setting in Ibadan across the entire region would have had to be believers in and subscribers to the same ethos of the commonweal. His role was to provide the vision, leadership, sense of purpose, and example but all these would have come to naught if he wasn’t leading a people who subscribed to the same ethos of the collective good. Awolowo’s greatest assets were, therefore, his people and the ethos of the commonweal to which they collectively subscribed at the time.
The success of Awolowo’s lion share budget for education depended on implementers of that budget across the region. If they did not share his ethos, if they decided to behave like Ijapa and steal all the money, if every time they received allocations for education supplies across the region, they burst out singing:
Ori mo so
Ori mo so
Gbogbo re ba ja lu mi inu mi a dun ori mo so
What do you think would have happened to free education? Do you want me to go on still? Nobody is bored to death yet? Okay, here is part three.
The ethos of the collective and the commonweal as I have explored it above is not an exclusive preserve of any people in the immediate afterlife of colonialism in Nigeria. The landscape I have been mapping in terms of the cultural values that regulated one’s relationship to society in the period of our national history under discussion must be familiar to everyone, irrespective of your ethno-geographic belonging in Nigeria. I may have tried to explore the foundation of our national civic process during the era of the regions from the purview of my own culture, I am sure you have all followed my train of thought thus far, drawing parallels between the scenarios I have sketched out and what obtained in your own corner of Nigeria. North and South; East and West, Nigeria was once relatively a postcolonial space for ethos of the collective good and the commonweal. This explains why Nigerians of a certain generation look back and wax nostalgic about that era, irrespective of our deadly faultlines of ethnicity and religion.
I am harping on these two concepts – collective good and commonweal – to underscore the point that the physical and material fact of modern statehood, of modern political arrangements, are just as important as the metaphors with which citizens conceptualise such polities at the symbolic level. As strange as this may sound, metaphors of self-fashioning are in fact what give solidity to the political identities we refer to as nation and state. Such metaphors may be foundational, coming from myths and legends passed on across the generations, as is quite often the case here in Africa. A good number of Western thinkers of nation and nationalism also understand the centrality of metaphors and myths to national identity. Ernest Renan understood this in his famous treatise, What is a Nation? Ernest Gellner also understood it in his master opus, Nations and Nationalism. And so did Benedict Anderson in his influential book, Imagined Communities.
By defining a nation as an imagined community, Anderson was stressing the importance of the collective mental image that the people have of their nation and hold dear. That mental image, more rooted in metaphors and myths than in concrete actualities, defines a people. When members of a nation speak about “who we are” or “our values” – you’ll get an overdose of these if you listen to American politicians in an election cycle – they are talking about the time-tested metaphors and myths of self-fashioning to which they collectively subscribe. This is what gives vigour to their peoplehood.
One of the most significant metaphors of American self-fashioning is the concept known across the world as the American dream. Such is the mobilising power of this metaphor that nobody is indifferent to it – whether we are Americans or not. A visit to the gate of the American Embassy here in Lagos will give you a window into the sub-human indignities that Nigerians endure from rude and insufferably imperious American embassy officials just to get a chance to gain access to that dream. And we know that in the tortured logic of Al-Qaeda, it is better to die through self-immolation than hang around here and deal with the inevitability of the American dream.
So, what do Americans throw into the philosophical cauldron of a concept which represents the heart and soul of their nationhood? They throw into it their freedoms and the institutions which underwrite them; they throw into it their self-awareness of being the authors of a system which invests the most in the infinite possibilities of the human spirit; they throw into it the unquenchable optimism of the can do American spirit; they throw into it the idea of the fair shot which guarantees a certain level playing field for the pursuit of happiness; they throw into it their faith in a system which makes it possible to take out a car loan, a mortgage, and the occasional vacation if you work hard; they throw into it their faith that America’s got your back, always ready to do right by you.
These metaphors of national self-fashioning can mobilise even more effectively than the material manifestations of nationhood and statehood. The American flag as a concrete symbol is important but what drives those boys in Afghanistan is their belief in the need to lay down their lives for abstract notions such as “our values”, “our way of life”, “who we are”, in short, the American dream. They are defending not the American flag but the American dream. Where the American boasts the American dream, the French man responds with “impossible n’est pas français”. Impossible is not French. Time and space will not permit me to fully explore what this self-fashioning does for French nationhood so let me just quip that it does for the French what the American dream does for the American.
Like the Americans and the French, the metaphors of the commonweal and the collective good once defined us as Nigerians building the country, building nationhood from our different ethno-regional locations. Then we had coups and countercoups. Then we shed blood, a lot of blood. And we lost the regions to our self-inflicted follies and gained a perverse form of federalism via military fiat. And things fell apart. No, I am not talking about the civil war. I am talking about what we lost symbolically in our transition from regionalism to federalism. Do you want me to tell you what we lost? Okay, you must wait for the answer in part four.
So we formed a federal nationhood in 1966 – or, to state it more correctly, it was rammed down our throats. As is the case with all beginnings, we had to name the new beast and give it an identity in the province of the symbolic. We had to equip it with foundational myths and metaphors. We had to come up with narratives that could confer on our new project nationhood the capacity to mobilise us as citizens. We had to come up with an identity mythos that would define us for the rest of the world. Remember, nations define their political being-ness at the symbolic level by reaching deep down into the collective soul of the people for the ideals they believe best represent their values. That is the psychic function that the American dream performs for the American people. Closer to us here, in South Africa, that nation rode on the crest of the Mandela mystique and symbolism to give herself the post-Apartheid identity of the rainbow nation.
What did we do when we had to make the mental leap from building the symbolic identity of our regions – as I have tried to show with the Western Region – around the ethos of the commonweal to naming and conceptualising the federal entity which emerged from our self-inflicted régimes of violence between 1960 and 1966? The choice was to emulate other nations in the act of psychic self-fashioning or self-naming or veer onto other paths that would eventually evolve into something others, down the road, would describe contemptuously as uniquely Nigerian. We could privilege a galvanising ideal, an aspirational identity. That is the case with the country which decided to construct its identity based on the ideal of dreams and unflinching belief in human potential. Another country says impossible is not French and takes on the world on the basis of that ideal. Yet another country says she is rainbow, the very embodiment of human efflorescence and diversity.
Federal Nigeria responded to all these ideals, all these possibilities, with the base instinct of the belly. We travelled far and wide, looking for metaphors of debauchery to name our federal state. We visited Hedone, the spirit of pleasure and enjoyment among the Greeks, we visited Bacchus, the roman god of wine, and we worshipped at the feet of Opapala the Yoruba god of the belly. Our search for a befitting self-defining metaphor of consumption was far more frenzied than the search of Tutuola’s palmwine drinkard for his wine tapper. Out of these peregrinations came one of the most outrageous acts of self-naming the world had ever seen. We reduced our federal being-ness to a name that an average Nigerian knows better than his own father’s name: national cake!
No matter the culture you come from, we know as Africans that there are consequences to naming. The consequences operate at many levels, ranging from the physical to the psychic, from the affective to the emotional. As the proverb goes, he who hosts an oyinbo man must not be allergic to pet dogs. When you call yourself food, you must be prepared for a psychology framed by and dependent on the registers of consumption. Such registers as gorging, cramming, consuming, devouring, gobbling, gulping, guzzling, stuffing, swallowing, and wolfing food become the symbolic markers of your relationship to a state metaphorically equated with food. Notice the recurrence of these
registers in our media whenever affairs pertaining to the Nigerian state are being discussed.
When registers of excessive consumption shape a people’s national psychology, it induces the sort of laziness which prevents the effort needed to envision the production and sustenance of that which is consumed excessively. Thus, successive generations of Nigerian leadership have approached their national cake only from the perspective of how to gorge on it, how to share it wantonly like tomorrow will never come. Nobody comes to that Federal theatre of debauched gorging sparing one second to think about how to bake that cake, where to get the flower and the icing and ensure continuous supply of the material and labour necessary to bake the said cake. No, you approach the Federal table with the mental laziness of one only required to gorge and share that cake according to agreed-upon principles of rotational gorging by the political élite. Hence, the only ideal around which they gather in Abuja is the ideal of the allocation formula. When the metaphor of food digs too deep into the soul of the polity, it begins to condition the social identity of your youth. You begin to foist on your youth a certain predisposition towards a culture of “awoof no dey run belle.”
Perhaps the worst consequence of the national cake approach to our statehood is the atrocious élite psychology it has nurtured over the years. From an élite and a followership who more or less subscribed to the ethos of the collective good and the commonweal during the era of regional governments, we transitioned into a élite of Ijapa-imitators once our travesty of Federalism came into the picture, concentrated itself essentially at the centre, named itself national cake, and made a brood of salivating élite all over the country come rushing to the centre for a piece of that cake.
If you look at our post-regional history, you will easily determine that we have produced at least three generations of leaders whose ethos and philosophy of governance devolve from wantonly plagiarising the playbook of the Tortoise. Each generation of rulers has been worse than the one immediately preceding it; each generation has been inching closer and closer to a near-perfect imitation of the Tortoise in terms of their approach the proverbial national cake. It is very easy to map and contrast the evolution of social mores under the different national metaphors that have governed Nigeria. When the regional governments defined themselves as the commonweal and the collective good, one leader came up with a budget philosophy rooted in the idea of the welfare of the people. Now that we are governed by the consumption ethos and greed of the Tortoise, one leader budgets about a billion naira for feeding himself and his wife every year. Now, what do you think a leader who allocates a billion naira to gorging on the national cake is doing under the coconut tree? He is singing:
Ori mo so
Ori mo so
Gbogbo re ba ja lu mi inu mi a dun ori mo so
Wherever a crooked head goes, a crooked body wobbles along. So, the budget philosophy of the states is no different. Mallam Nasir El Rufai has gotten into a lot of trouble for performing an invaluable but thankless national service of placing a critical gaze on the Tortoise budget philosophy of the federal and state governments in this country. If you read el-Rufai’s budget exposés, all you will see are federal and state budgeteers struggling to out-Tortoise the Tortoise. The rush to corner all the coconut for oneself like the Tortoise, to be Mr Everybody and eat all the food and drink all the palmwine like the Tortoise, is what accounts for the mind-boggling figures in which corruption is now denominated in Nigeria. Our state and federal officials steal only in billions and trillions because whenever that allocation comes from Abuja, all they can see is the coconut tree and all they can hear is the Tortoise asking for all the coconut to be added unto his own inheritance. And the Tortoise-scale looting stretches and stretches until the EFCC begins to forget files, needing to be reminded of old cases as PM News did recently in a report entitled, “Forgotten Cases of Looting.”
And the patriarch sings: “Ojo to ro s’ewuro, lo ro s’ireke”! The rain falls, sings the patriarch. It falls on sugar cane and bitter leaf. The same rain falls on sugar cane and bitter leaf. Sugar cane takes its own rain and travels the path of sweetness while bitter leaf takes its own share of the same rain and travels the path of bitterness.
Ojo to ro s’ewuro, lo ro s’ireke.
The rain of oil falls on Dubai and falls on Nigeria. The rulers of Dubai use their own share of the rain of oil to send their people on the path of sweetness while their Nigerian counterparts take same rain and condemn their own people to the path of bitterness, lack, and hunger. The difference is that the rulers of Dubai are what the rulers of Nigeria’s regional governments, especially the Western region, used to be: believers in the collective good and the commonweal while the current crop of leaders in Nigeria are the most successful plagiarisers of the playbook of the Tortoise the world has ever known. We are therefore not surprised that they are doing what we knew and predicted they would do to the Ribadu report: set it up for failure from the very start and contrive a crisis along the way to discredit it.
I am saying in essence that Nigeria’s corruption is not even original. I am saying that we have been looting and stealing the intellectual property of the Tortoise. Nigeria’s presidents, past and present, Federal Executive Council members, members of the National Assembly, state governors, and local government chairmen have been robbing the Tortoise blind of his strategies of greed and selfishness since 1999. Nigeria’s unauthorised use of the Tortoise’s playbook is plagiarism. Do not be like me; do not touch my intellectual property; do not copy my ways, the Tortoise warned but we did not listen. We stole his playbook of always trying to take more than his fair share of what is collectively owned and applied it to our so-called national cake. Because we stole his intellectual property, Nigeria owes the Tortoise reparations!
Ojo to ro s’ewuro, lo ro s’ireke.
And the beat goes on. And once a week, the Federal Executive Council meets. And a Minister briefs the press about the outcome of deliberations, once a week. And week in, week out, the briefing never changes for Council Chambers in Aso Rock is for the meeting of Tortoise-wannabes. So, they come out every week reeling out trillions of naira worth of approved contracts, representing that week’s sharing out of the national cake to friends and cronies. Those contracts will never be monitored, the funds will disappear, and new friends and cronies are already queuing up for next week’s sharing. They share and
share and share because the only song they know is that which makes all the coconut fall within their restricted circle of the one per cent while the 99 per cent go hungry.
And so we need to change this song if we are to stand any meaningful chance of witnessing change in this country. The “we” here does not include those currently singing the Tortoise’s song in the corridors of gorging. They have no reason to change that melodious tune and I have given up on them when it comes to my vision for a new Nigeria. If Nigeria as is works for you, we do not see you in the Nigeria of tomorrow. Therefore, we, who bear the brunt of their greed and selfishness; we who understand the consequences of the collapse of the commonweal and the collective good, must find a way to change the song. Our new song must be one which encompasses what the owner these lyrics was thinking when he sang:
I no go gree
Make my brother hungry
Make I no talk
I no go gree
Make my brother homeless
Make I no talk.
If 150 million people sing this song and believe in the philosophy which informs it, that their own welfare is inclusive of the welfare of the brother, they will gradually find their way back to the commonweal and to our much-desired national renaissance.
I no go gree
Make my brother hungry
Make I no talk
I no go gree
Make my brother homeless
Make I no talk.
I thank you for your time”