Agnostic Issues

I have some thoughts about the past two governments.

The Buhari government has been quite a disappointment in its first couple of months. It has wasted the unprecedented national goodwill which heralded a government of change, entirely bungled its response to an admittedly difficult macroeconomic situation, and, most astonishingly, seems to have lost the high ground in its fight against corruption–where it seems long on boots and short on brains.

But the Jonathan government (for which we have the benefit of a lot more data) was no great improvement, if that at all. That government has the distinction of having been at the helm during possibly the richest 6 years in the history of this country (judging by the inflation-adjusted revenues it generated). Given how much revenue the nation earned during the years of the oil super cycle (which coincided with President Jonathan’s time in office) what happened to all the money? This question inevitably elicits one of two responses: (a) Wild applause from the supporters of the current government who insist on fixating on the mess they inherited; or (b) Protests from folks on the other side incredulous that we are still talking about the past. Neither side is being completely honest. It is absolutely valid to point out the hole we dug ourselves into during the GEJ years while also pointing out that we simply dug even more furiously when President Buhari assumed office. Quite besides all of this, the recent past is a microcosm of the not so recent past. We’ve stumbled from oil boom to bust without building any shock absorbers into the system. So we are either having a blast or eating groundnut husks off the floor. The point to all this is that the debate between the two sides is largely irrelevant since, within the context of the nation’s history, the boom followed by recession was quite normal.

In short, neither side thrills me. The real question is how are we changing to prevent a recurrence of this old boom bust cycle and to address the numerous existential threats facing this country. The past is a template we want to step away from, our job is to make sure the present government does precisely this and does not simply pay lip service to it.

This sort of position perplexes many people. It appears we are supposed to take sides if we are commenting on Nigerian matters. And ‘sides,’ for the most part, means I have to be sympathetic to one of the major political parties. When I say something which agrees with one side’s version of reality, I get retweets from that side of the divide; when I say something that agrees with the other, that group cheers me on. I have never understood this. It is baffling since, as far as I am concerned, there is very little substantive difference between the two political groupings.

The other divides seem to be tribe and/or religion. For the most part, Southern Christians have one version of reality which says that the Jonathan years where a great period, and Northern Muslims can’t say anything negative about the Buhari government. (Of course there are other groupings, but I’d rather not get into that here.)  I understand this divide quite acutely. We are Nigerians after all, we have a pathological condition. We have been socially engineered to think the fellow whose mother tongue is different from ours or who prays to God in a different way or who eats a different tuber or whose tribal marks look different or who sets his soup plate on the left not right and so on is an enemy or at the least not someone you can trust. Our formal systems have institutionalised this distrust at the very core of the nation in the form of cascading requirements for the rotation of responsibility among the various tribes. North 8 years South 8 years, presidency, governorship, Senate, House of Reps, managing director, director-general, everything na turn by turn. I get it.

But it bores me. I don’t particularly care for this highly distracting contest between tribes and geopolitical regions.

I care about development and growth. I care about practical things like employment, education, health and so on. These things are agnostic. My dad likes to say: “A Yoruba man’s hunger hurts just the same as an Igbo man’s.” Better is better, improvement is improvement. A tarred road doesn’t care who built it. The folks in my village don’t care if a Fulani Muslim from Daura which they couldn’t indicate on a map built a port near the village, they care that it is built. Yes, there is a Nigerian context which must be considered here. We cannot simply say let’s forget the geopolitics of Nigeria and create employment. But the conversation should genuinely start with the latter and not the former.

But we just keep arguing and exchanging barbs and remaining distracted. It sometimes appears that the Nigerian national discourse seldom rises above the level of the Manchester United v. Arsenal jousts. And here I am genuinely perplexed because even the most sober commentators seem to forget that most of this beer parlour talk is  a distraction from the fundamental problems. The agnostic problems. Hunger is agnostic, it speaks every language and worships no God. Unemployment is agnostic, it speaks every language and worships no God. Lack of opportunity is agnostic. Terrorism is agnostic. 3rd mainland bridge is agnostic. Spending over 70% of your earnings on salaries and diesel is agnostic.

The contest is not on which vaguely different set of leaders or political grouping will deepen the rot, the contest is to arrest that rot. It seems we’ve forgotten the point of everything. We’ve grown so accustomed to the constant din of political banter and the dopamine high that comes from the uproarious approval of whichever herd we belong to that we forget that they, the leaders and parties we are so enamoured of (or opposed to), are mostly the same. And I feel the need to, once again, stress that I am not naive to the geopolitical context in which we must face these problems, but that cannot be a crutch. A friend recently pointed out (within the context of competing businesses in the same industry) that, for the most part, the extent to which one firm can seriously grow its revenues and profits is a function of the market it operates in. As he said: “You cannot be bigger than your market!” This is a truism that is often forgotten. If we accept this, then, for self-interested reasons, it is entirely sensible for competitors to work together where it will increase the size of the market. The alternative is a fierce, soul-sucking race to the bottom over a trivial pot where everyone is more or less malnourished. In a sense, this is what we are doing in Nigeria. We have staked our claims to a national cake which isn’t growing fast enough to feed everybody, and so the competition is just getting fiercer for a smaller pot.

I don’t know, but I hope more people start to see this reality and skip the mindless partisanship. Sure, there’ll always be party or tribal hacks, but they are usually easy to spot. They only ever accept one, simplistic narrative and reject all else.  The rest of us should really be focused on the agnostic issues. This is only possible if you see or accept an ‘us’ or the shared frustration of all our destinies regardless of religion, tribe or political affiliation. I have often found that this inability (or, perhaps, refusal) lies at the heart of the problem. It is impossible to consider our equality in penury if our entire frame of reference in engaging the Nigerian question is the narrow interest of our family or tribe or religion. That is precisely the game we have played for 56 years, and here we find ourselves.

How we do this is not always apparent because the current structure of the country almost enforces this partisanship. You are judged by your state, or tribe, or even local government area. Constitutionally, we have a hugely expensive national service programme to deepen the oneness of Nigeria but have entrenched the custom that a citizen can only serve the nation from her state of origin. And so, almost by default, the notion of a oneness of Nigeria is nonsensical. An Ibibio man who has worked and schooled and lived and embraced the state of Kaduna will never regard that state and its people as his. He will always be an Ibibio man. It is remarkably senseless.

But we must engage, even in a broken framework. And we must engage constructively. It is no good to simply refuse to engage, wash our hands off everything or resort simply to insults (edifying though this is). We must face the issues, the agnostic issues especially. That or try to move to Canada, a vast country in the Arctic Circle.

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