Nigeria Needs to be Rediscovered, says Barrister Onyeisi Chiemeke, radical Lagos lawyer and author
In this short but evocative interview, radical Lagos lawyer and an author reveals the mindset of a member of that generation of Nigerians groomed in the progressive waves of the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s. It is quintessential of that tendency which has, however, been basically eclipsed in the country.
During your time as activists in the 1980s, up to the mid 1990s, the issues in politics were those of ruling class versus the masses; imperialism and under development; national democratic revolution and military dictatorship, not ethnicity, religion and restructuring. How well would you say products of that generation have transited or still experiencing a crisis of transcending the logic of their own time?
I don’t know if it is the crisis of transcending anything on our part. Basically, I think the problem is with the concepts in place. Take restructuring as an example. What does it mean? Is it the same thing as the right of self-determination? Is it the same question about whether Nigerian federalism is properly structured in the classical sense of what K C Wheare says or not? But, even if you start with K C Wheare and where we are today, there have been shifts. So, it has not been properly contextualised. Are its proponents talking of the same thing as Anthony Enahoro and his MNR’s framework? Is it that we want to conceive of restructuring as ethnic groups going back to their shelves? The concept of restructuring has not been properly articulated. Based on where I am coming from, I would say the Nigerian federation is perverse but that doesn’t stem from ethnic politics but from a historical process of weakening federalism in this country. I say this because if restructuring is embarked upon but does not bring about democratic empowerment of the people, we would be heading for the Somalia situation in Nigeria. I hope those pushing it are aware of this.
So, are you then dismissing restructuring or you just want it clarified?
Before you believe a thing, you must be told what that thing means. Otherwise, it is band wagoning. Restructure Nigeria, yes but into what? If the present system is not working, then what next? Before I support it, I should be able to know what the structure will be. But nobody is concretely putting that. Take IPOB or OPC, have they articulated self-determination in a way that I can buy into it? People must understand what it is we are talking about. If you don’t do that, then you are creating problems from the beginning. I have taken time to look at the agenda of the key platforms that are fighting for self-determination. Take the Indigenous People of Biafra, (IPOB), for instance. IPOB’s new map of Biafra also includes the areas that did not accept the concept of Biafra before. But why that? If the old problem has not been solved why do you want to repeat it? It is either that you do not understand or you want to create new ones.
When you link restructuring to the power elite, what connection do you see?
What comes to mind is that the power elite may not have a correct picture of the global context. For the liberal wing of the Nigerian ruling class, people like Pat Utomi and co, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore has become the standard bearer. But are they disciplined enough to bring that kind of change in Nigeria? Do they have that kind of intellectual discipline Yew brought to the Singaporean society? This is somebody who came to say, this is the vision I have and these are my templates. In that equation, he saw that communists were going to create a problem for him and he moved on them. If a ruling class is able to say this is where we are going, it must be able to anticipate the problems on its way rather than leave it as a matter for providence. So, a patriotic and intellectually sound leadership is required. All societies that have made progress, it is the leaders who said this is where we are going. So far, it is only Obasanjo that has tried to posture on that. He is still the only one you can go to the bookshop and find books by a former Nigerian leader. Whether you accept what he is saying or not is a different matter. After all, Yew didn’t shy away from identifying his enemies and dealing with them.
From what we see here, if Fanon had any society in mind when he wrote The Wretched of the Earth, it must be Nigeria. We all followed the recent American election. You must have noticed how younger ones were being groomed, as canvassers, as whatever. You and I came from a movement. We were trained. The movement created a platform for debate and consensus. Does APC or PDP have any such processes in place? If political parties do not have cadres or elements that will push its position, how can they develop any society? Is leadership grooming not what gave Christianity its staying power if we must cite an example? Here in Lagos, you encounter the cadres of the faith here and there asking you to accept Jesus Christ, quoting chapters why you should do so and so on. Where is that sort of practice in ruling class politics in Nigeria? It doesn’t exist. What exists is, every four years, they gather people and ask them to vote for so, so and so persons on the basis of north and south or Christian/Muslim or whatever. Are these the paradigms you can use to develop society? The best of the intellectual elite of Nigerian Christendom would be Bishop Mathew Kukah but would he be comfortable espousing Liberation Theology? Yet, he is part of the cream whose followers can follow to death.
In 2012, the Ecuadoran president, Rafeal Correa, invited Norman Finkelstein, the author of The Holocaust Industry to be part of a debate on terrorism. Now, you wonder why any predominantly Catholic Latin American country would be interested in talking about terrorism. But that is strategic thinking, the culture of thinking ahead instead of waiting for a problem to become manifest. That step must be a reckoning with the fact that terrorism has become an industry and it is important to understand it. Boko Haram in Nigeria didn’t just drop from the blues. But Nigeria did not attempt to understand it. Now, after some progress that has been made against Boko Haram, the country is jumping from it to Fulani herdsmen. But who are these Fulani herdsmen? Where is the connection between agricultural husbandry we have and the herdsmen phenomenon? Nigeria is likely to be the one place where animals roam everywhere today. It is like somebody using analogue telephone when the world has already gone digital. But the world didn’t go digital in one day. It took time.
How do you see it playing out, anyway? It seems to be a powerful motion on the ground.
It is in the interest of everybody to be vigilant. If it is not driven by forces with capacity for moderation, then it could be taken over by people nobody would be able to control. As I said earlier, I am doing a book on the politics of self-determination. OPC and Niger Delta militancy benefitted from left orientations but, as soon as they got off the ground, the left became peripheral. But, compare that to other places. I will give you an example. Very recently, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) declared it was going to turn their assets to the state. That is after the negotiated peace in the country. Last Monday, I think, they were able to do that, they were able to say, these are our assets, these are what we have, the schools we were running, the hospitals we have. They could do so because it is an ideologically driven organisation, not one man show. Where can you find the assets of OPC or any of these similar platforms in Nigeria?
Restructuring is not Ali Baba magic wand. In my state of Delta, local government workers have not been paid for 10 months. Between 2013 and 2015, that state borrowed N200b domestically. It could be higher but let’s leave it at that figure yet. It is there in the Debt Management Office website. Between that period, it earned astronomically from federal allocation. There is so much resources in that state but they are not being developed. Rather, it is earning from Abuja that is in attention. Similarly, Niger Delta states earned a lot from federal allocations between 2010 and 2015 but those are also the years they borrowed more than those states that are not earning what the Niger Delta states are earning. So, the problem is much deeper than we are talking. For me, resource control has created a new class of billionaires within Niger Delta region on the one hand and millions of poor people on the other side. So, if we are restructuring, it is for whose benefit?
Under Arap Moi in Kenya, there was his slogan of “nyayo” which means “follow me”. Ngugi Wa Thiongo who symbolised opposition said yes, we are ready to follow you but follow you to where? Similarly, the question can be posed in terms of what are we restructuring into? We can end up like Somalia if we don’t ask this question. A failed state makes it impossible to even organise a revolution. Because the mob is in charge. We need to be careful. There are problems in Nigeria, serious ones at that. But, we should be able to manage our situation.
You wrote a book on June 12 Election: Campaign for Democracy and the Implosion of the Left. How has the book performed in the market?
I would not be in a position to judge that. It is people like you I may be asking that question. Generally, I have not heard anyone rebutting anything in the book. We belonged to a generation that saw all the problems we are having today. It is that advantage that led me to put pen to paper. The snag of the Nigerian left is that nobody writes. We have an oral literature approach to it. But if people like Lenin had not written, where would the world be today? Coming from that placement, I suspect I have written what has not had a bad press so far. One or two persons have called to complain that they were not well represented. My response has been to say, well, my job is not to criticise myself. Anyway, the book is not doing badly. In any case, that issue is being extended. There is a sequel to that book which should be ready soon. I have titled it The Politics of the Right to Self-Determination.
What generally is your politics of books? Why do you write?
Some of us are too old to manoeuvre ourselves into the system. So, I gave myself the challenge of putting down somethings especially in case my children want to understand Nigeria better. Nigeria needs to be rediscovered. There are many issues that have been neglected. It is not true but one of the reasons Africa was captured or defeated is that it doesn’t have literature in the first place. What they had as literature was not written. Oyibo people simply came and defined literature as what is written. So, we need to write.