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A case note of two African giants

A case note of two African giants

(Why restructuring is a coded battle for modernity)

In medical science, comparisons of case notes often illuminate and enlighten.  They throw up unusual and startling insights into the nature of human organism and how similar pathologies can drive dissimilar afflictions. They can also show how and why certain dreaded human afflictions can be largely absent in a particular race even as they become the dreadful scourge of some other races. For the ill and the ailing, comparison of ailment is a known and probably analgesic exertion.

As it is with human beings, so it is with nations, particularly post-colonial nations suffering from the trauma of colonial gestation and induced labor. If this medical hypothesis is applied to the study of two African giant nations, Nigeria and the Congo Democratic Republic, we may begin to understand why in certain nations compound fractures never manage to heal simply because the external nourishment is not there and the internal organs are incapable of growing regenerative tissues.

Last week, Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba, the veteran Congolese opposition leader, returned to his country after a two-year absence to begin a fresh round of hell-raising and agitation against Joseph Kabila’s despotic rule, just as he has done in the past forty years or so against Kabila the elder and Joseph Mobutu. It is useful to note that unlike Nigeria which has held several elections and had managed a historic regime change through the ballot box in 2015, Congo has never since independence in 1960 effected a change of government through democratic means.

Mobutu finally took power in 1965 and remained in place until 1996 when he was deposed in a civil war, while Kabila ruled till 2001 when he was assassinated in a failed coup bid. His son has been at it ever since, managing to hang on to power through egregiously rigged elections and sheer authoritarian savagery when all else fail. Between Mobutu and the two Kabilas, fifty one years of the modern Congolese nation have evaporated in a bonfire of Equatorial despotism.

As this drama unfolded in the Congolese Republic,  and as if a cruel and neat symmetry of shared post-colonial fate is at play, Nigeria also witnessed the revival of a fifty year old national festival of hate and mutual loathing. While the west was mourning the assassination fifty years earlier of one of their most illustrious sons ever, the east was grieving over the summary execution of their son and former head of state in the same momentous bloodbath.

Meanwhile the north was commemorating the anniversary of the leader who told the world that the rest of the country would hear from his people at the appropriate time. Fearsome rhetoric of ethnic exceptionalism echoed and reverberated throughout the length and breadth of the country. It was as if the country was on the verge of war and disintegration all over again. Unlike 1966 when the country was relatively prosperous and financially viable, the looming economic apocalypse has not helped matters. Once again, the idols of the tribes are on rampage.

It goes to show how Nigeria is powered by a reverse nationalism in which the valorous myth of the nationality is more powerful and all-suffusing than the myth of the nation. It is as if nothing has been learned or taught in the intervening five decades or half a century. In a bitterly polarized nation, politics of remembrance can easily degenerate to the politicization of institutional memory as can be seen in the attempts by rival ethnic sections to call to question the very heroism and altruistic nobility of a man whose exemplary courage in the heat of savage battle against Congolese rebels had earned him a colonial medal just a tad short of the ultimate British honor for a soldier. It was the first ever awarded to a Nigerian combatant.

This desecration of sacred memory as a way of evading debts of gratitude and the burden of honorable obligation or as a strategy of demeaning the stellar import of heroic national sacrifice in order to obviate guilt and the shame of insensate revenge shows the diabolic imagination at work in the construction of mutually cancelling narratives of a nation in the context of permanent de-nationalization. It demonstrates why the Nigerian story will never be an authoritative narrative but a story of many stories in a conflicted atmosphere of polyphonic strife and tension.

Yet as the Americans will put it, stuff do really happen even as we seek to authorize and notarize them from the point of view of primordial sentiments and ethnic subjectivity. Perhaps the most significant event of 1966, apart from the two momentous coups, was the declaration of independence from Nigeria by a ragtag band of Ijaw militants led by Isaac Adaka Boro. It was a forlorn and doomed bid summarily degraded by force of superior arms. Last week, fifty years after, a predominantly Ijaw group known as The Adaka Boro Avengers (ABA) sought to declare a Niger Delta Republic. As we write, the entire region is crawling with military personnel hunting down the rogue secessionists.

As we have noted in this column once and appropriating the seminal insight of Leo Tolstoy, arguably the greatest novelist the world has seen, all happy nations are the same, every unhappy nation is unhappy in its own unique way. From different routes but similar debilities, both Nigeria and the Congo Republic, like so many African post-colonial nations, have arrived at a state of unadulterated unhappiness.

All happy nations, however they arrived at modernist rationality, be it through Western Enlightenment, Confucianism, Shintoism, Hinduism or even benign variants of Islamic modernization, look suspiciously alike. You may go to bed in Stockholm and wake up in New York. But you expect certain benefits of modernity to be in place: regular supply of electricity, potable water, public utilities that function with seamless efficiency, particularly public transportation that run on time and with clockwork precision, decent housing for most and adequate medical facilities even for visitors.

Local topography and native fauna notwithstanding, or the complexion of local politics not standing in the way, everything seems surreally alike. Indeed in some of these countries, you often develop an overpowering sense of Déjà vu. That is what we call the homogeneity of national feel-good or happiness. It comes with the territory.

Conversely, because they exist in a whirlpool of political, economic and spiritual irrationality, a time-warp of stalled motion that derive  their peculiar dynamics from specific internal disorganization, all unhappy countries are unhappy in their own unique way. Apart from the underlying solidarity of human aberration, they have absolutely nothing in common. To the unwary visitor, African countries, particularly Congo and Nigeria, may appear the same as iconic monuments to underdevelopment, but they come as special brands in the unwavering commitment of their respective political elite to national ruination. In the heterogeneity of national unhappiness, no two nations are alike.

The reason for this momentous paradox is simple.  Whereas the achievements of scientific modernity is open, universal and for all time, all remaining human societies that seek to dominate nature and overcome political, spiritual and economic adversity through the sheer power of poetic  or religious imagination become stranded in a peat bog of fetishes, risible rituals, superstitions and wild irrationalities that are localized, society-specific and time-bound. These are the last bastions of Early Man.  Modernity solves problems for all human societies, while mythology deflects the specific problems of specific societies through the fabulous and imaginary resolution of pressing contradictions.

We must now return to our case file in order to press conclusions. The chaotic colonial amalgams of Congo and Nigeria, despite seeming structural similarities such as vast landmass, mighty life-enhancing rivers in each country, improbable natural riches and a vibrant and indomitable populace are plagued by country-specific contradictions.  Since independence, the Congo Republic has seen many civil wars, summary dismemberment, virtual excision of remote parts of the country and periodic descent into ungovernability.

If Nigeria has been spared such horrific extremities, it is because the nation is powered along by a micro-pluralism of power in which competing and countervailing centers of power cancel out each other and make it impossible for any despot to stay put or for any group to lord it over the nation on a permanent basis. Potential potentates and regional power mafias should note that Nigeria is not the Congo.

The obverse of the coin of the regionalization of power elite is the absence of a genuine national and nationalist elite group which makes it impossible for the Nigerian political elite to act with a pan-Nigerian concert when a pressing national conundrum surfaces. The engrossing historical irony is that it leads Nigeria to the same democratic and developmental impasse as the Congo Republic. Whereas in the Congo, national elections are a rarity, in Nigeria the electorate rouses itself once in every four years to do the needful before it is summarily disbanded by the electorate until another electoral season in a political ecology of compulsory hibernation.

It is this absence of a truly functioning and viable electorate that has made it impossible for the Nigerian electorate to successfully recall a single erring lawmaker in seventeen years of post-military democracy. Once elected, the electors are summarily vaporized while the elected join the selectorate in a macabre enactment of the ritual of national immolation. Yet while the political tomfoolery goes on the nation sinks further in the abyss of societal anomie.

Despite the fact that competing centres of power have managed to thwart despotism and the phenomenon of political overlordism in the country, what stares us in the face is the reality of uneven political consciousness among the competing power groups that has led to growing disillusionment and widespread disenchantment with the state of the nation.  In a situation of stark economic decline, if the current muted cries of dismay and disappointment are allowed to reach their 1966 decibel, it has horrific portents for the continued viability of the country. The future may well be the past.

It can now be seen why the current shrill cries for the restructuring of the country are mere shorthand or coded battle signal for the swift and urgent modernization of the country’s economic and political parameters. All over the modern world, the trend is for a gradual devolution of power from a stifling and suffocating center to other loci of potential and accelerated development. The sterling and stellar example of contemporary Lagos state is a model that commends itself to other sections of the country. Unfortunately, while vital segments of the nation hunger and thirst for economic and political modernity, some other sections take a dim view of this as an invitation to a summary dismemberment of the country.

Had the country been blessed with visionary military modernizers, this conundrum would have been overcome. But you cannot give what you don’t have.  Yet until that dawn when a truly modernizing political elite who will seize the nation by the scruff of the neck and drag it to modernity arrives, the more likely possibility is that impatient sections of the country will eventually resort to self-help to plot their way out of the iron cage of colonial contraries. That is likely to be messy and anarchic.

  • Tatalo Alamu



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About the author

Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field