Cry, Nigeria, my beloved country

In this the 50th anniversary of the civil war precipitated by the May 30 1967 secession of the state of Biafra in the east of Nigeria from the rest of the country, it is sad to reflect on how much has changed – and has not changed – in the intervening years.

Despite Biafra’s surrender and reintegration into Nigeria in January 1970, after a war in which more than a million people died, including children suffering from kwashiorkor, Nigeria remains as ethnically and culturally fractious, economically unsustainable and religiously intolerant as it was in the years leading up to that war.

That Nigeria continues to exist as a geopolitical entity in spite of corruption, tribalism and Boko Haram is a minor miracle.

Of course, not every Nigerian is corrupt or dishonest. Not every Nigerian will sell their grandmother for a pot of porridge. Not every Nigerian is a 419 scammer. And yet, and yet …

Rarely has a country so richly blessed with human, mineral and natural resources been so often dogged by bribery and criminality, crookedness and cronyism, and deception and dishonesty, in both high and low places.

Nigeria is a lovely country with many wonderful people, all of whom have been badly let down by all levels of government, from the local to the federal tiers.

The rampant egotism, selfishness, sycophancy, megalomania and sense of entitlement of the pompous, pampered and privileged classes must not be allowed to get in the way of telling the truth as it is, with all its gritty, edgy, tawdry manifestations.

There are many Nigerians who are exasperated by the vanity and venality that mark the mind-set of their so-called leaders, who are nevertheless hailed by sycophants and hangers-on. But not enough is being done to root out corruption in all its guises.

In truth, Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries on Earth, and it has continued to squander its abundant resources. Corruption from top to bottom, from bottom to top. Nigeria is to corruption what a fish is to water.

Those in positions of privilege or power are ever eager to enrich themselves and, for all they care, the whole country – schools, universities, hospitals, roads, bridges, amenities, facilities, structures and infrastructure – can all be run into the ground.

With ailing President Muham-madu Buhari currently in London receiving medical treatment for an undisclosed illness, the Nigerian government, being led by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, needs to find a way of rehabilitating or revitalising public services, and making a point of ensuring equal pay and working conditions for men and women alike.

As Oluseun Onigbinde, a Nigerian entrepreneur, open data analyst and the lead partner of BudgIT, a Nigerian civic organisation that works to engage citizens on how public budgets work, suggested in The Guardian last October the Nigerian government and its financial advisers ought to think very carefully about whether to put the country’s national assets up for sale.

He said they should be especially wary and cognisant of the rapacious sycophants and assorted cronies who will be hanging around, all too eager to sell the nation’s natural and mineral resources to the highest bidder and fill their pockets with their loot.

Nigeria’s desire to raise within the past year $1-billion on the eurobond market to reduce or eradicate a budget deficit might have been a pragmatic plan in the short term, but how is it that a nation that gained independence from Britain in 1960 has yet to develop structures sturdy enough to maintain a fiscally transparent setting of interest rates by the Central Bank of Nigeria?

Why have Nigeria’s leaders not learned from the travails of the 1980s, when their involvement with the International Monetary Fund and structural adjustment programmes combined to sap the energies – moral and spiritual, as much as economic and financial – of ordinary, hardworking Nigerians?

The fall in the price of crude oil, the depreciation of the naira and the arbitrary fluctuations in the exchange rate, the inevitable rise in inflation and the resultant recession constitute the logical culmination of a badly run economy in conjunction with Nigeria’s customary craving for corruption.

Buhari should not forget the anti-corruption pledges he made in seeking an electoral mandate. He should surround himself with men and women of integrity, who can offer him and his administration sound advice on how to attain and maintain a strong economy, while enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for corruption and the corrupt.

The Nigerian government must also find a way to halt the flow of ill-gotten wealth to the affluent and fraudulent who exploit the poor. It must ensure relief and respite for the impoverished and downtrodden.

They come in all shapes and sizes, and it is important to consider, among others, the sufferings and travails of people like the Otodo-Gbame community living in the riverbank slums of Lagos, whose homes were destroyed and who were driven out of areas they inhabited.

We have been here before; the destruction of slums can be traced back to the 1920s.

Since independence, the demolition of homes and dispossession of impoverished inhabitants were occurring even before Abuja replaced Lagos as the capital of Nigeria in 1991. In July 1990, the residents of Maroko, another poor, densely populated part of Lagos, vulnerable to flooding and located near the contrastingly affluent areas of Ikoyi and Victoria Island, were forcibly evicted and their homes destroyed.

Maroko used to be part of the Eti-Osa local government area of Lagos state. Colonel Raji Rasaki, then the state governor during the military dictatorship of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, gave the orders for what has been described as one of the largest forced evictions in the history of Nigeria.

The state government offered the excuse that Maroko’s infrastructure required renovation and the area needed filling because it was below sea level.

As the eviction was deemed a violation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Social and Economic Rights Action Centre joined forces with Debevoise and Plimpton, a law firm in the United States, to try to get justice for the evictees.

On December 3 2008, they tendered, before the African Com-mission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, a communication “against the state of Nigeria on behalf of the victims of the July 1990 brutal demolition of Maroko community in Lagos state, who were forcibly evicted from their homes and businesses by the government of Nigeria in violation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights”.

Yet, the Maroko residents’ bid to obtain justice through different agencies, including the Nigerian courts, have come to nothing.

It’s high time the governments of Nigeria realise how inhumane they are being when they turf the country’s poorer citizens out of their homes, without any thought for their welfare and needs.

If richer, more advanced countries co-operated and collaborated with well-intentioned Nigerian agencies and human rights organisations, they could help to put pressure on governments that have no moral or ethical qualms about razing the homes of the poor without providing basic, adequate, alternative accommodation.

Since Nigeria gained its independence on October 1 1960, a succession of military despots and their civilian counterparts, profiting from cronyism, corruption and rigged or annulled elections, have contrived to set the nation back several generations.

That is why the country’s greatest writer, Wole Soyinka, sounded that prescient note of pessimism about Nigeria’s aptitude and capacity for honest, conscientious self-governance, all those years ago, in his 1960 play A Dance of the Forests. It was written for the independence celebrations but, because of its bleak portents about the new nation’s prospects, was never staged at the festivities.

The fruits of independence have long since turned sour. Now Nigeria urgently needs men and women of sterling character, strong political will and moral force to effect a radical and truly transformative overhaul of its current parlous circumstances.

The disappointment is all the more crushing that the homegrown ruling classes, who should have had a greater stake in the progress and development of their newly independent country than the departing colonial masters, have been so relentlessly and ruthlessly complicit in the constant betrayal of their nation and its promise.

Idowu Omoyele is a student at the graduate school in humanities at the University of Cape Town

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