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Chinua Achebe's Op-Ed appeared in the NY Times on 1/15/11

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Op-Ed Contributor

Nigeria’s Promise, Africa’s Hope


AFRICA has endured a tortured history of political instability and religious, racial and ethnic strife. In order to understand this bewildering, beautiful continent — and to grasp the complexity that is my home country, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation — I think it is absolutely important that we examine the story of African people.

In my mind, there are two parts to the story of the African peoples ... the rain beating us obviously goes back at least half a millennium. And what is happening in Africa today is a result of what has been going on for 400 or 500 years, from the “discovery” of Africa by Europe, through the period of darkness that engulfed the continent during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and through the Berlin Conference of 1885. That controversial gathering of the leading European powers, which precipitated the “scramble for Africa,” we all know took place without African consultation or representation. It created new boundaries in ancient kingdoms, and nation-states resulting in disjointed, inexplicable, tension-prone countries today.

During the colonial period, struggles were fought, exhaustingly, on so many fronts — for equality, for justice, for freedom — by politicians, intellectuals and common folk alike. At the end of the day, when the liberty was won, we found that we had not sufficiently reckoned with one incredibly important fact: If you take someone who has not really been in charge of himself for 300 years and tell him, “O.K., you are now free,” he will not know where to begin.

This is how I see the chaos in Africa today and the absence of logic in what we’re doing. Africa’s postcolonial disposition is the result of a people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves, forgotten their traditional way of thinking, embracing and engaging the world without sufficient preparation. We have also had difficulty running the systems foisted upon us at the dawn of independence by our colonial masters. We are like the man in the Igbo proverb who does not know where the rain began to beat him and so cannot say where he dried his body.

People don’t like this particular analysis, because it looks as if we want to place the blame on someone else. Let me be clear, because I have inadvertently developed a reputation (some of my friends say one I relish) as a provocateur: because the West has had a long but uneven engagement with Africa, it is imperative that it also play an important role in forging solutions to Africa’s myriad problems. This will require good will and concerted effort on the part of all those who share the weight of Africa’s historical albatross.

In Nigeria, in the years before we finally gained independence in 1960, we had no doubt about where we were going: we were going to inherit freedom; that was all that mattered. The possibilities for us were endless, or so it seemed. Nigeria was enveloped by a certain assurance of an unbridled destiny, by an overwhelming excitement about life’s promise, without any knowledge of providence’s intended destination.

While the much-vaunted day of independence arrived to much fanfare, it rapidly became a faded memory. The years flew past. By 1966, Nigeria was called a cesspool of corruption and misrule. Public servants helped themselves freely to the nation’s wealth. Elections were blatantly rigged. The national census was outrageously stage-managed to give certain ethnic groups more power; judges and magistrates were manipulated by the politicians in power. The politicians themselves were corrupted by foreign business interests.

The political situation deteriorated rapidly and Nigeria was quickly consumed by civil war. The belligerents were an aggrieved people in the southeast of the nation, the Biafrans, who found themselves fleeing pogroms and persecution at the hands of the determined government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which had been armed to the teeth by some of the major international powers. My fellow Biafrans spent nearly three years fighting for a cause, fighting for freedom. But all that collapsed and Biafra stood defeated.

It had been a very bitter experience that led to the hostilities in the first place. And the big powers got involved in prolonging it. You see, we, the little people of the world, are constantly expendable. The big powers can play their games, even if millions perish in the process. And perish they did. In the end, more than a million people (and possibly as many as three million), mainly children, died either in the fighting or from starvation because of the Nigerian government’s economic blockade.

After the civil war, we saw a “unified” Nigeria saddled with an even more insidious reality. We were plagued by a home-grown enemy: the political ineptitude, mediocrity, indiscipline, ethnic bigotry and corruption of the ruling class. Compounding the situation was the fact that Nigeria was now awash in oil boom petrodollars. The country’s young, affable head of state, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, ever so cocksure following his civil war victory, was proclaiming to the entire planet that Nigeria had more money than it knew what to do with. A new era of great decadence and decline was born. It continues to this day.

What can Nigeria do to live up the promise of its postcolonial dream? First, we will have to find a way to do away with the present system of political godfatherism. This archaic practice allows a relative handful of wealthy men — many of them half-baked, poorly educated thugs — to sponsor their chosen candidates and push them right through to the desired political position, bribing, threatening and, on occasion, murdering any opposition in the process. We will have to make sure that the electoral body overseeing elections is run by widely respected and competent officials, chosen by a nonpartisan group free of governmental influence or interference.

And we have to find a way to open up the political process to every Nigerian. Today, we have a system where only those individuals who can pay an exorbitant application fee and finance a political campaign can vie for the presidency. It would not surprise any close observer to discover that in this inane system, the same unsavory characters who have destroyed the country and looted the treasury are the ones able to run for the presidency.

But we must also remember that restoring democratic systems alone will not, overnight, make the country a success. Let me borrow from the history of the Igbo ethnic group. The Igbo have long been a very democratic people. They express a strong anti-monarchy sentiment with the common name Ezebuilo, which translates to “a king is an enemy.”

There is no doubt that they experienced the highhandedness of kings, so they decided that a king cannot be a trusted friend of the people without checks and balances. And they tried all kinds of arrangements to whittle down the menace of those with the will to power, because such people exist in large numbers in every society. So the Igbo created all kinds of titles which cost very much to acquire. In the end, the aspirant to titles becomes impoverished in the process and ends up with very little. So that individual begins again, and by the time his life is over, he has a lot of prestige, but very little power.

This is not a time to bemoan all the challenges ahead. It is a time to work at developing, nurturing and sustaining democracy. But we also must realize that we need patience and cannot expect instant miracles. Building a nation is not something a people do in one regime, in a few years, even. The Chinese had their chance to emerge as the leading nation in the world in the Middle Ages, but were consumed by interethnic political posturing and wars, and had to wait another 500 years for another chance. America did not arrive at its much admired democracy overnight. When President Abraham Lincoln famously defined democracy as “the government of the people, by the people, for the people” he was drawing upon classical thought and at least 100 years of American rigorous intellectual reflection on the matter.

Sustaining democracy in Nigeria will require more than just free elections. It will also mean ending a system in which corruption is not just tolerated, but widely encouraged and hugely profitable. It is estimated that about $400 billion has been pilfered from Nigeria’s treasury since independence. One needs to stop for a moment to wrap one’s mind around that incredible figure. It is larger than the annual gross domestic products of Norway and Sweden. This theft of national funds is one of the factors essentially making it impossible for Nigeria to succeed. Nigerians alone are not responsible. We all know that the corrupt cabal of Nigerians has friends abroad who not only help it move the billions abroad but also shield the perpetrators from persecution.

Many analysts see a direct link between crude oil and the corruption in Nigeria, that creating a system to prevent politicians from having access to petrodollars is needed to reduce large-scale corruption. For most people, the solution is straightforward: if you commit a crime, you should be brought to book. But in a country like Nigeria, where there are no easy fixes, one must examine the issue of accountability, which has to be a strong component of the fight against corruption.

Some feel that a strong executive should be the one to hold people accountable. But if the president has all the power and resources of the country in his control, and he is also the one who selects who should be probed or not, clearly we will have an uneven system where those who are favored by the emperor have free rein to loot the treasury.

Nigeria’s story has not been, entirely, one long, unrelieved history of despair. At the midcentury mark of the state’s existence, Nigerians have begun to ask themselves the hard questions. How does the state of anarchy become reversed? What measures can be taken to prevent corrupt candidates from recycling themselves into positions of leadership? Young Nigerians have often come to me desperately seeking solutions to several conundrums: How do we begin to solve these problems in Nigeria where the structures are present but there is no accountability?

ONE initial step is to change the nation’s Official Secrets Act. Incredible as it may seem, it is illegal in Nigeria to publish official government data and statistics — including accounts spent by or accruing to the government. This, simply, is inconsistent with the spirit and practice of democracy. There is now a freedom of information bill before the National Assembly that would end this unacceptable state of affairs. It should be passed, free from any modifications that would render it ineffectual, and assented to by President Goodluck Jonathan. This can and should be achieved before the presidential election in April.

In the end, I foresee that the Nigerian solution will come in stages. First we have to nurture and strengthen our democratic institutions — and strive for the freest and fairest elections possible. That will place the true candidates of the people in office. Within the fabric of a democracy, a free press can thrive and a strong justice system can flourish. The checks and balances we have spoken about and the laws needed to curb corruption will then naturally find a footing.

And there has to be the development of a new patriotic consciousness, not one simply based on the well-worn notions of the “Unity of Nigeria” or “Faith in Nigeria” often touted by our corrupt leaders; but one based on an awareness of the responsibility of leaders to the led and disseminated by civil society, schools and intellectuals. It is from this kind of environment that a leader, humbled by the trust placed upon him by the people, will emerge, willing to use the power given to him for the good of the people.



Chinua Achebe, a professor at Brown University, is the author of “Things Fall Apart.”