The Young and Disenchanted

“Na Nigerian government e-yo/Na dem talk be dat” – Politics, African style

Posted on: 7 December, 2009

Nigeria, my Nigeria…

Anyone who knows me is probably sick and tired of the amount of times I’ve said “I cannot WAIT to go home” in the past month alone. But I can’t help it – it’s been almost ten months since I was last in Nigeria. Ten long months since that red earth/hot sun/blue sky/sea breeze/palm trees/roast corn/go-slow/fast talk that signifies home for me. If you haven’t been to Lagos, start saving your money for a plane ticket right now. Seriously. There is nowhere else on this planet that is the same combination of cool/crazy/dangerous/beautiful/intense as my home city. Not only that, but going home means that I’ll be reunited with my family again. I haven’t seen my mother since April, nor have I met my adorable new niece, Amina, who was born in August. We’ve also moved into a new house in a different part of the city and have acquired a new dog (who’s butt ugly, but still). In just over two weeks I’ll be eating beans and plantain, watching MNET and indulging in the feel of the scorching sun on my back, a welcome break from the miserable cold of New York City in December.

But as much as I am looking forward to going home, I am also very sceptical about returning. Reading 234Next, a Lagos-based newspaper, has made me very concerned about the current state of political affairs in Nigeria – and by “concerned” I mean furious. For those who aren’t up on Nigerian Politics 101, let me explain: my country’s current president is Umaru Yar’Adua, a former chemistry professor who is a member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The PDP has been in charge of Nigeria for the past ten years of “democracy” following the death of the military dictator General Sani Abacha. President Yar’Adua has been ill for most of his presidency. He has been making regular trips out of the country for “medical check-ups,” is rarely seen in public and has been neglecting some of his presidential duties. When he ran for the presidency in 2007, there were persistent rumours that he was suffering from a kidney ailment, and his doctors have recently revealed that he has a “heart condition.” Many Nigerians are worried that he’s going to die before his term is over in 2011, and as a result there have been calls for his resignation. In any other country, this would seem perfectly logical, right? Not my people. This weekend, six of the politicians who had led calls for his resignation were threatened by members of the PDP who showed up at their homes with thugs, ready to assault them. And it will only get worse. You see, the PDP is not so much a political party as a crew of old army friends who have ruled Nigeria in some form – whether democratically or in authoritarian fashion – since the 1970s and who have no intention of letting go of power. They are drunk on the country’s oil and the money that it keeps flowing into official coffers, and which they believe they have free rein to siphon off for their multi-million dollar mansions in London and fleets of cars. And President Yar’Adua is their personal puppet – despite his probably good intentions, the power of the PDP is so deeply entrenched that efforts to prosecute the corrupt have been severely hindered by political wrangling. One example is the treatment of Nuhu Ribadu, the head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, who was dismissed from his position by the Inspector-General of Police for actually doing his job rather than stealing. The president was powerless to do anything to stop this move, a sign of his political weakness that his physical ailments are doing little to help.

So why doesn’t it make sense for him to step down and the vice-president to take over? Again, my dear people: politics. The current vice-president, Jonathan Goodluck, is from the oil-rich South-South region of Nigeria (the part of the country from which I also hail). The PDP, which is dominated by Northerners, instituted a “rotational policy” of sorts regarding the presidency: they unilaterally divided the country up into six zones between the north and south, which the president is to be elected from in turn. However, the ethnic group that dominates the North (the Hausa-Fulani) benefit from this arrangement the most: in 24 years they would hold the presidency for 12 years in total (their exclusion of smaller ethnic groups in the same geographic region make it unlikely that they would allow someone from a minority tribe to be nominated for president), while the other two large ethnic groups (the Yoruba and Igbo) and the mix of Itsekiri, Ijaw and others in the South-South would only rule for 4 years each. Not only is this a problematic power fixation, but it also does nothing to dismantle the artificial ethnic divides put in place by the British during colonial rule which split Nigeria between North and South.

A further complication is the current constitution and how it defines the role of the Vice-President. Goodluck’s powers, now that Yar’Adua is technically incapacitated, are fairly limited: he can only act as president if Yar’Adua writes a letter informing the Senate and House of Representatives that says he can – which Yar’Adua has not done.  This isn’t surprising – I highly doubt that the people that actually run Nigeria would let Yar’Adua cede his “power” to someone who may, quite possibly, want to do the job of president properly and prevent them from taking advantage of the political system for their own benefit. What frustrates me is the way that the game of politics in Nigeria is played out within the confines of such a small circle. There is zero political transparency and no true representation in government – our supposed leaders make no effort in hiding the fact that they seek power for their own benefit, not for the benefit of their constituents. No popular movement or revolution can take place if people aren’t aware of the political process and the ways that they are being excluded from it.

Or are they? The Western media has increasingly picked up on one particular anti-government group in Nigeria: the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). This is a group of “militants” (for lack of a better word) who are seeking greater resources for the people of the South-South, one of the most woefully under-developed areas of Nigeria. Their main tactics have involved kidnapping and disrupting the oil production process – not the most savoury methods, but nonetheless highly effective at putting the divide between the people of Nigeria and their government on the national stage. The government couldn’t just ignore or shut down the militants when the oil money was being threatened – they had to negotiate with the fighters and are now finally channelling money into the region (and bypassing the corrupt state governors in that area by giving it directly to local governments). There are still tensions in the region and the self-interest of many of the militants who feel hard done by the recent ceasefire (read: they didn’t get the money they were expecting) could lead to more violence at the expense of the ordinary people in the area. There is, of course, far more to the current political situation than my knowledge allows for, but from my perspective these are among the most crucial because of their potential to destabilise the country.

I remember reading the Odyssey my freshman year of college and discussing with my professor the inevitably bittersweet nature of returning home. Sitting in this miserable library with a ton of homework awaiting me, the thought of warm, sunny Lagos, good food and the love of my family seem so incredibly perfect. But then I read the news that leaves me increasingly fearful that my country could potentially plunge back into civil war and wonder about the place that I want to go back to so much. Despite the problems hanging over Nigeria, I know that being home will be good for me on some level, at least as I am right now. What exactly the future holds for me and my country… I suppose I’ll have to wait and see. Right now, everything seems as devoid of answers as the paper I have due tomorrow is of words =/

P.S. Had to bring back the main man Fela for the title.

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1 Response to "“Na Nigerian government e-yo/Na dem talk be dat” – Politics, African style"

For me, home sickness multiplies exponentially as the day for my travel draws nearer. Good to see I’m not the only one in that department, hehe… all the best in your ‘enjoyment of the Naija sun’ I envy you.

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