As the temperature rises…
By Femi Olugbile
Elections, in Nigeria, always carry an air of excitement.
You have vague recollections of the 1959 Nigerian Parliamentary elections, through the eyes of a little boy living with his grandmother in Ijebu Igbo. The adults were all agog. The snippets of their conversation that filtered to your ears kept you awake at night, with your fevered imagination conjuring up images that you could see vividly in the darkness. Awolowo’s ‘aeroplane’ had been sighted several times in Ijebu Igbo. It flew in a pattern, writing the word ‘AWO’ in the clouds, said one story. Another story had it that if you looked closely at the sky at night, you could see Awolowo’s image on the moon.
About the other contenders there was very little said. Everyone agreed that the outcome of the election was a foregone conclusion – Awolowo and his party would win by a landslide.
In the mornings, before Mama Odo – your grandmother woke you up to get you ready for school, you sometimes heard the voice of an itinerant ‘Aladura’ preacher who had chosen the front of your grandparents’ residence as the preferred sport for his early morning preaching to the community. He wore a white soutane and had a fearsome beard.
‘Repent’ he would shout, ringing his bell. ‘Repent and be saved from hellfire’.
The community tolerated him, just as they tolerated the muezzin at the nearby mosque calling the Muslim faithful to prayer before sunrise, and just as they tolerated the Egungun with their cane-wielding procession in their season.
As the election approached, he came up with a song that became imprinted on your child’s mind, so that you sometimes found yourself humming it during the day.
Awolowo ko le gba ni la
Azikiwe ko le gba ni la
Sardauna ko le gba ni la
A fi Jesu loke
The song, and the man’s unsolicited preachments in the early morning warned people not to expect salvation from their politicians, but to look to God. The music had a strange fascination for you, though you believed in your heart, because the adults said so, that Awolowo would win, and he would make everything right.
‘Why are you humming,’ Mama Odo would ask sternly? ‘Finish your moinmoin so I can take you to school and get on with my work, or I’ll give you one big abara that will make your ears sing.’ Her kindly face belied the threat, though the searing pain of her open palm exploding on your backside, which you experienced from time to time when you stepped out of line, was not to be trifled with.
A lot has changed since that child experienced his first election in Nigeria. But a lot has remained the same.
Later in this month, and early next month, Nigerians will be having elections to choose their next President, as well as most of their Governors and Legislators.
The widespread perception of the public is that the nation, over the past few years, has sunk to a nadir on human development and citizen experience. The currency is in a black hole. The economy is in shambles, assaulted by a hostile operating environment. Security is in chaos, with widespread conspiracy theories of invasion, expropriation and taqiyya, and herdsmen and bandits, and deep distrust of the nation’s security agencies. Trust of government, and trust of other Nigerians – essential ingredients for the most basic nation-building, lie in a deep gulley. An ‘Ottoman’ style of governance holds sway, with the sovereign standing remote and inaccessible. Operatives of sister agencies of the same government bicker openly, and sometimes pull guns on one another. An official is threatened with arrest for major crime by a security agency. Next moment the same man is received and shown favour in the very centre of power. Who is hero, and who is villain? Who speaks for the ‘sovereign’, and who is the ‘enemy’? Nobody knows – nobody who would tell.
A few days to election, there is discontent in the land. Just the other day, you had the galling experience of picking up a take-away at an eatery and being unable to pay. Your old currency had been ‘mopped up’, and you were yet to get the new one, try as you did, because most ATMs were ‘dry’. When you presented your GTB bank card for the POs, payment was declined. You heard the immediate ping as the money was deducted from your account.
‘Try it again’ you told the girl, anxiously.
Another ping, as payment was declined again, and the money again deducted from your account. In your mind you wondered how the market women and street traders were coping with the currency change and currency squeeze, and the shenanigans of the banks, despite government’s assurances it would all be over soon.
It was not their only worry. In the past week, you had broken with tradition and bought fuel on the ‘black market’, unable to face the unending queues at the fuel stations. Every moment you expected the vehicle to conk out from adulterated fuel.
Nigeria is a complex nation, with challenges, and even greater possibilities.
In your heart, in February 2023, the same heart that was beating in the chest of that child on the side-lines of the 1959 elections, you are certain that Nigeria will be a great Black Power, someday, perhaps sooner than people ever dared hope.
Change the Nigerian. Restructure his country.
Simple-sounding prescription, a world away from present reality.
It is difficult to see how the elections of the next few weeks alone will deliver on that prescription.
It is tempting to lapse into familiar Nigerian religiosity and echo the Aladura man of your youth by singing that ‘Only God’ can save Nigeria, and Nigerians.
But everyone will have to roll up their sleeves and grapple with the practicalities of improving themselves and building that nation that is so far, and yet so near, even as they pray for the hand of God.