Nigeria: Democracy, ominous prophecies and service delivery

By Kayode Soremekun

The problem with a keynote address is that, the speaker has to contend with an informed audience whose members are very conversant with all the issues, which relate to the Nigerian condition or non-condition!! Some of them are even probably more informed on the issues of Nigerian democracy and service delivery. It is therefore something of a herculean task to come up with fresh perspectives on the Nigerian condition.

What strikes me however is that the NPSA appears to be travelling on an old road. For one can almost yawn that the discourse for this conference is on democracy. Even for the casual observer, it is possible to ask: again? But then it should be appreciated that, the democracy project, or better still, democratisation project can be described as an infinite process, in which on a perpetual basis, we will continue to work on this all important project. This is because at one level, it appears that there is really no alternative.

The point I am making here has been amply articulated by Adebayo Williams, a literary scholar whose academic interests border on the encyclopedic. According to this scholar, in his work titled: The fictionalisation of Democratic Struggles in Africa: The Nigerian Example, democracy is best seen as a process of perpetually becoming. He contends further that all arguments for and against it are stricken with intellectual futility since the thing at issue is indefinite. And if I may be allowed to add, the process is so indefinite that between now and eternity, the discourse on democracy and Nigeria will endure. The NPSA is therefore to be commended for adding its own weight to this eternal preoccupation.

Understandably and naturally, I have given some thoughts to what will constitute the kernel of my brief discourse today. Matters have not been helped by the fact that the situation in this social formation is in a flux. Despite this flux, a certain and inclement reality appears to pervade the atmosphere. Living conditions continue to worsen with the concomitant and deepening misery of the populace.

As far as I can recall, this regression or descent into hellish existence has been with us from the dawn of time. Here, permit me dear listeners, to recall one of the seductive phrases, which in the seventies spoke to our unwholesome situation. It was coined by our departed and inimitable colleague-the late Professor Ayo Olukotun. As far back as the seventies, our dear and departed compatriot spoke along the following lines. Broken Promises In Search of Reasons….

What becomes clear from the immediate foregoing is that our current and dire situation goes back to the seventies and even well before then. Therefore, and in order to fully apprehend the situation, an instant coffee solution will not do. We must think hard and long for us to appreciate fully our untoward circumstances. In contending thus, we may as well ask: When did this rain start to beat us?

Which is why, I have had to draw on famous Nigerian writers like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka to, as it were, come to grips with our contemporary and harsh realities. Even then, a Chinua Achebe appears to be steeped in some smug assumptions when he laconically deposed in his last famous work that: There Was A Country.

However, and in the course of this address, attempts will be made to challenge Achebe’s presumption that, There Was a Country: My pointed counter to this deposition of Achebe is this: Did we even, ever have a country? At first glance, this question, counter and irreverent assertion may sound outlandish. But in the true intellectual spirit, which is supposed to hallmark our vocation, evidence can in fact be marshalled to indicate that indeed; there was never any country.

And the immediate foregoing may well explain why, since 1960,this country has lurched from one portal of gloom to another. For let us face it, a thoughtful survey of our political and economic circumstances since 1960 will reveal that what passes for Nigeria, has merely stumbled from crisis to the other.

At this juncture, If I may be allowed to reiterate, the inherent assumption as deposed by Achebe is that, there was a country and that somewhere along the line, we lost that country. But the counter point here is this: Can you ever lose what you never had?

One can easily forgive Achebe for this presumption. After all, as he went through the formal and informal motions of prestigious institutions like Government College Umuahia and the University of Ibadan, there was that euphoric wave which carried him and others along such that the thinking was that we indeed had a country.

Incidentally and ironically enough, Achebe himself appeared to have sign-posted us as regards what we never had, in his classic and seminal work: ‘Things Fall Apart.’ Since things have fallen apart, my dear listeners have we been able to put them together? I leave you to answer this question in the light of the searing realities, which continue to hallmark our existence.

And given the high-voltage profile of this audience, ladies, and gentlemen, you are best placed to answer this question.

Again, this stark pessimism of mine has been borne out by yet another literary giant our own, Wole Soyinka. In one of his books, he revealed the epiphany, which dawned on him when he encountered our nationalists who had gone to London to negotiate independence for us.

According to him what he saw, was a bankrupt and desiccated lot who would not be able to take Nigeria and Nigerians anywhere.

Up till that time and as he revealed in one of his books; his avowed aim was to go to South Africa and take up arms against the then apartheid regime.

But when he saw the binging and the wrenching as well as the other indices of decadence which hall-marked the behaviour of our so-called Nationalists during the constitutional conferences which eventually led to independence, he knew that our nation was going to be something of a still-birth at inception. And as such, he, Soyinka, was forced to jettison his martial ardour on the South African issue in favour of the impending struggle at home.

It was not surprising therefore that when the then young play-wright was commissioned to write a play to commemorate Nigeria’s independence, he came forth with a work titled: ‘Dance of The Forests’. Predictably, the play spoke to a dark, uncertain and ominous future for Nigeria. The tone was sober and somber like a dirge. The play spoke to either the birth of our death or the death of our birth in 1960.

This funereal tone was completely at variance with the euphoria of that celebratory time in 1960. In less than a decade down the road, events were to prove him right. This is because, as we all know, what passed for Nigeria, unravelled disastrously and tragically. So tragically that only external forces were on hand to prevent a total disintegration of the social formation called Nigeria. In other words, the entity called Nigeria was propped up by the self-serving benevolence of London and Washington.

Possibly unknown to many, there was another social force who in the late fifties also ominously predicted a lot of the tragedy which continues to haunt us. Our reference here is to Adunni Oluwole. As revealed by Olusanya and Kole Omotosho, in two separate works, Adunni Oluwole went all over Lagos, Ibadan and Akure, dressed in rags with a millstone around her neck. Was she mad? People wondered. No! She retorted. She was only showing people what would happen to Nigerians as soon as the colonial master formally leaves the scene. In other words, her contention, which she vividly dramatised, was that Nigeria under Black rule was going to be like hell on earth.

The remarkable thing is that this sad state of affairs was predicted way back in the fifties when the black man was yet to fully preside over our affairs. According to the records what impelled Adunni Oluwole towards this ominous disposition was that there was a brief period of self-rule in the regions in the run up to independence. According to her, she observed on a first-hand basis, the shenanigans and the various forms of stinking opulence of the then politicians. She therefore came to the unassailable conclusion that a second colonialism was in the offing for Nigerians, and Nigeria, come 1960.

The least that we can do is to credit Adunni Oluwole with some uncanny insight as regards her ominous foresight on what internal colonialism will look like. The sensitive listener may have noticed the nuance here. Our colonial masters as stated above, formally left the scene, but as revealed by Segun Osoba the historian, they managed to put in place a welter of laws and institutions, which enabled them to retain control of what passes for the country.

This was particularly pronounced in the oil industry where till date Nigeria continues to be a by-stander in this critical area of her life. One telling instance of this is that whenever a major oil company like SHELL decides to declare a ‘force majeur’, the consequences can be felt all the way from the Niger Delta to the hallowed portals of Aso Rock. Indeed, it is this ominous and dependent situation, which has inspired the comment that the Nigerian State is a shell; while SHELL is the Nigerian State.

If I may be allowed to revert to Adunni Oluwole and her prophetic, stance, it is instructive to note that her ominous prophecy transcended her person. Partly arising from her tragic anticipation, an unusual political party was formed in Agege, which was then in the Western Region. The name of the political party was Egbe Ki Oyibo Malo. Let me quickly apologize to non-speakers of the Yoruba language here.

In essence, what that political party stood for, was the retention of colonial rule- that the white man should continue to rule us.

On this note, I have often wondered, in an admittedly counter-factual way that, in a free and fair election in which there is a choice for the Nigerian masses as regards who to choose, between the colonial masters and the post-colonial masters, chances are that the former will be preferred.

Beyond sheer conjecture is the fact such a voting process is already on among our young folks. The Japa syndrome has clearly sign-posted their preference between these two social forces-the colonial masters on one hand and the post-colonial masters on the other. Again, another dimension of the ominous prophesy vis-a-vis Nigeria could be glimpsed from the work of Ian Brook- a former and white district officer.

In the book tellingly titled: The One-Eyed Man is King, Ian Brook, took one long and serious look at the then nationalists. He came to the conclusion that these nationalists were very deformed in terms of thinking and behaviour and such they were clearly not equipped to take Nigeria to the Promised Land despite their professions and depositions.

Equally important was his observation about the shallow profile of our democracy. In this respect, he pointed out that as soon as people learnt that the white man was going away, they were confused, came to him and enquired about what would be their fate. What this translates into was that the democracy project at that point in time was elite-driven and largely detached from the general populace. This may well partly explain why even till date what passes for government is largely viewed by the populace in imperial terms: Ijoba!

For those who understand this, the term Ijoba runs counter to the tenets of democracy. In this type of atmosphere, what can we make or say about Service Delivery (SD)? SD in the abstract sense involves a two-way corridor between the government and the governed. But for much too long, the former has been left to its own devices without any push or urgings from the governed. Under such a circumstance, SD has been very poor in terms of basics like: security, potable water, power supply and basic nutrition.

Whereas strictly speaking democracy is not a spectator sport. There must be active and constant involvement by the populace. Even among members of the elite, these elements of apathy and passivity can be seen.

The irony here is that someone is representing every inch of this country at least in nominal terms. My concrete references here are to social forces like Councillor, Chairman of Local Government, Members of the House of Assembly, Members of the House of Representatives and of course Senate. Starting with this informed audience, how many of us here have interacted in any sustained and vigorous way with these various stewards of our democracy?

Which is why the struggle for SD must start from this very room.

So, I am charging and urging all of you present here to take it upon your individual and collective selves to know and interact with your various representatives all the way from Councillor, through the various Houses of Assembly up to the Senate, if we seek in any meaningful way to ensure and guarantee service delivery and by extension the health of this democracy.

Let me conclude by saying that in a comparative context the bitter fruits of post-colonial rule are by no means confined to Nigeria. Similar situations continue to unfold in other social formations like Ghana, Kenya, Algeria and South Africa. In each of these countries, issues are being raised along the fashion of Oscar Wilde, ‘that the present is the past entered through another gate’.

Which is why the quest for democracy, democratisation and service delivery is an eternal one, which requires the active participation of us all.


· Soremekun, professor of International Relations, writes from Lagos