For Nigeria, a Strange Paradox

Credit: @ThisIsBuhari

Credit: @ThisIsBuhari

It’s an eerie paradox: an ex-military general, for the second time, has won the general election in the short eighteen years since Nigeria returned to democratic rule. Even writers and journalists who have been adamantly opposed to military rule, and had suffered its repression seem to have thrown their lot in with former General Muhammadu Buhari. So, what is going on here?

In a recent introduction to a collection of essays by a number of Nigerian scholars, Nigeria: What is to be Done, they described both candidates as perfectly unacceptable. For many, Goodluck Jonathan’s lackluster response and ineffectiveness with Boko Haram’s terrorism in the northeast of the country only exacerbated years of frustration with the status quo of festering corruption and the lack of any real change for common Nigerians in terms of improved infrastructure, education, or jobs. It is no wonder that General Buhari, on his third run for the presidency, looked so appealing. However, before we look closely at General Buhari’s appeal and prospects for Nigeria’s future, it might be important to ask some questions about Nigeria’s path toward democracy thus far.

As a historian, I can’t help but start the process of making sense of this path with a reflection on the twentieth anniversary of the state sanctioned execution of nine Ogoni activists – including beloved playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa – in 1995. They were killed because they dared to question, and raise international awareness of, the looting and environmental damage linked to oil extraction in the Niger Delta, a region that is devastatingly impoverished despite providing 70% of Nigeria’s revenues. Their execution was a harrowing climax of the brutality of what was by then par for the course under almost thirty years of military authoritarianism. The strength and visibility of the Ogoni struggle raised the possibility for other Nigerians to hold their government accountable, and this is why they were such a threat to the Nigerian state.

How can Nigerians develop the kind of robust civil society needed to establish its own democratic culture? In a country where most of the government’s revenue comes from extraterritorial, multinational corporate investments in its sweet oil, and where a good portion of Nigerians make less than $2.00 a day, what leverage does the average Nigerian have on his/her government? Who are its real citizens? The Ogoni Nine’s tragic end showed us most strikingly who the real citizens of Nigeria were…and still perhaps are. As I recall this potent example, I am wary of this transition.

It is worth noting that Buhari has tried multiple times to run before his success in this election. How can we make sense of a political environment that allows a man who was notorious for his brutality and aversion to democratic principles when he overran a democratically elected president more than thirty years ago, to contemplate – without any sense of irony – contesting for office again? In Nigeria, former General Olusegun Obasanjo, a popular dictator who was the first to hand over power to a civilian government in 1979, set the precedent for a born-again democrat to win office. Like Obasanjo, Buhari’s character and some of the actions he took as dictator made him a plausible candidate, especially when Nigerians had endured the clumsiness of Jonathan’s administration. Buhari made it his primary goal then, as it seems to be now, to wipe out corruption, a scourge that has plagued Nigeria for most of its life as an independent nation. That he left office without enriching himself increases his appeal. Nigeria, at the moment, stands to gain plenty from correcting this deep flaw if it is to embody the economists’ characterization of it as the largest economy on the African continent.

President-elect Buhari has a lot to accomplish in the coming four years. If he pursues his anti-corruption campaign, and he is able to bring discipline and order to a dysfunctional military (necessary in the fight against Boko Haram), as he has outlined as part of his agenda. His plate then, is already quite full.

We must also acknowledge a fundamental element in what just happened in Nigeria: we just had a relatively peaceful transfer of power from one party (which has ruled for the entire sixteen years since the end of military rule) to its opposition. President Goodluck Jonathan, to his credit, did concede graciously. For these things, we must be proud and cautiously optimistic.

On Citizenship

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14 May 2007

Location: My home, Benin City

Efe and I have had to travel to our state capital, Asaba, to get our Nigerian passports renewed. It has cost us far more than it should at over a hundred dollars each. Efe thought it best we use a middleman in the immigration office to cut through the bureaucracy and expedite the process. It can take several full days spent at that office before one can obtain a passport. Mr. Tijani is our middleman. He is a fair, cherub-faced Hausa man with deep horizontal scars across his face. It is hard for me to decide whether I trust him or not, much less whether I like him. He has taken quite a bit of our money, and even that we negotiated down from what he originally asked when he found out that I was an Oyibo and not a full-blooded Nigerian.

At the immigration office, an albino officer called me in for interrogation. This wasn’t supposed to happen with all the money I had paid. I went in, Efe accompanied me (he was extremely nervous about the whole thing), and the officers didn’t seem to be too comfortable with his presence either. We were all uncomfortable. They asked me whether I was a Nigerian. I said yes. By what right, they asked: was I married to a Nigerian? They glanced at Efe. “No, he’s my cousin. We share a last name because his father and my father are brothers. My father is a Nigerian.” They asked me from what local government area and I answered with ease. They seemed surprised at this. All my documents were correct. We had spent a good couple of days in April going round to get them. I now have a certificate from my local government authenticating me as native to Ughelli South Local Government, as well as a drivers license (obtained by yet another middleman who was much easier to deal with), and an affidavit on my paternity from my cousin who is a civil servant in the Ughelli South Local Government Area.

After some consultation among themselves, the immigration officials called me for further interrogation; this time by a stout Hausa man with a thick accent. I could tell they had settled on making this process difficult. I was seething with anger over this, because Efe informed me in a text message that he actually slipped the Albino two thousand naira (my money) in the hope of getting him off our case. The stout officer began his questions. Why do you want a Nigerian passport? “I am a Nigerian. I should have a Nigerian passport.” But you don’t look like a Nigerian. “My mother is an American, and my father is a Nigerian.” I ventured to ask them, “What is a Nigerian supposed to look like?” He didn’t answer. Yes, but why do you want to have this passport when traveling with your American passport is so much easier? “I have come to do my fieldwork here, and establish my own social and professional networks for my future career. I would like to eventually buy a plot of land here and have a home I can come to from time to time.” Doesn’t your father already have a home? “Yes, but I would like to establish myself independently of my father. I plan to come and go.” He smirked at this. He didn’t seem to believe me. Clearly, he found all this amusing. It is as if it was a joke that someone with the most coveted American passport would consider holding a Nigerian passport (shunned by most First-World nations). Or perhaps it was that I, an unmarried woman, should venture to establish myself independently of my father. After some silent deliberation, he decided that I would need to give proof of my father’s citizenship. I would have to give them a photocopy of my father’s Nigerian passport. This meant speaking to my father, who I had not spoken to in over a year. Is it worth it? I haven’t decided.

I left with Efe feeling so angry at the whole system. So much money lost, and still things are made so difficult. The Albino and the Hausa man watched me walk away, gloating with satisfaction at the frustration they had inflicted on us, swollen with pride in the money they had extorted in the process.

On our drive back, on the freeway leading out of Asaba, we passed a dead, bloating body laying on the side of the road; a man with a yellow shirt. He was just there, lifeless on the side of the freeway. His body had clearly been there for some time, with rigor mortis and the vultures ready to begin their work. It is not the first time I’ve seen a dead body on the side of the road. It is not easy to write about this; not easy to think through. How did these people die, and why had nobody (including me), especially the state, been moved to dispose of their lifeless bodies properly? Efe and I speculated that the man may have been homeless and was hit in the night by a vehicle and left there to die; or he may have been involved with criminals, or perhaps he was involved in the recent politics of the elections. Who knows? Everyone, including me passed this man’s body and we do nothing about it.

I don’t know what this says about the value on human life here…or if it is any indication of value at all. People die here everyday without any claim on, or identification of their bodies. The Nigerian state does not, perhaps cannot, keep track of its citizens. Why bother to get a Nigerian passport? What does it really mean in the scheme of everyday life here, when a person can be missing, be dead and no one (not even the police…and they are ubiquitous on the roads here, busy extorting hard-working citizens) cares to search for him or her? There are more questions to ask, but my anger and despair is choking my ability to think through this further today. How can I claim to belong to such a place?

Lazy Rainy Day

29 April 2007

Location: My home, Benin City

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The rainy season has begun. I love the smell of oncoming rain, especially when the water meets the air and the thirsty, dry earth. It is a charged smell, almost electric. I ache for the fresh coolness…relief. The rains have come a bit late this year. I look forward to the lushness of green foliage, and the sweetness of fat mangos, my favorite fruit of the season.

I was supposed to begin my interviews this month. I returned to Benin partly to avoid any madness associated with the elections, and partly because I had planned to start talking to people. If I knew better, I would have just stayed in Ibadan, in the sheltered environment of campus. I would have gotten quite far with my documentary research; I left so much undone. I struggle with self-criticism daily. As it is now, I have spent the better part of this month waiting. Uncle Newman and cousin Otite, who are to help me make connections for interviews, had cautioned me to wait until after the elections to start. It is now time to begin.

I have been in contact with a lawyer who has worked with the Delta State government these past few years as the Speaker of the House. He has some experience carrying out oral history for a couple of projects, one of which was led by a well-known Niger Delta historian, E. J. Alagoa. It may be better to work through this man than with my family connections, since he has some experience, and he is not kin. I may be more efficient working with him. He has already drawn up a list of people to speak with, and I have created an introductory letter and questionnaire.

Let’s hope I can get started, regardless of the swearing-ins, and political transitions going on in Abuja. The elections have come and gone, and now people are saying they really won’t be available until after the swearing-in of office, and after the electoral disputes have been settled. So many government positions are under dispute at the moment. It is unclear how they will be resolved. The courts seem to be struggling to stay independent of the politics, and some of the state government positions are under scrutiny. I hope we can start to have a wee bit of faith in at least our judiciary. I might be too optimistic.

I am not sure whether to qualify my stasis as boredom or depression. I have more and more days where I do not feel like getting out of bed, and sometimes I don’t. Part of it has to do with avoiding my hypervisibility when I step out of my front door. I just don’t want to be seen, and therefore targeted for the various kinds of attention and extortion that being “white” carries here. Another part of it has to do with not having the energy to go out there and hustle, as we all must do, everyday. We exert so much energy just to physically get around on these mad streets and through these rotten institutions.

Sorry for the pessimism. I can’t push myself through it right now, and I don’t like myself like this… So, I’m sitting with it until it subsides.

Democracy, Naija Style

15 April 2007

Location: Home, Benin City

Democracy Naija Style…or the “N” Factor

Today is tax day in the U.S. How smoothly that system seems to work, at least from this vantage point. I know that I have to pay taxes every year, and I have a general idea of how those taxes are used. Of course, there are certain things that I wish more of my tax dollars could be applied to: for instance, education and health care instead of increased militarization and the prison industrial complex. There are also those things my taxes pay for that I don’t think too much about in my day-to-day life in America, things that I take for granted: functioning roads, park maintenance, infrastructural upkeep of electricity and water supplies. Here in Nigeria, the only people who pay taxes are civil servants, and even in that sector, it is not consistent nor can it be tracked well by government due to disorganization, incompetence, and corruption (it is hard to enforce regular taxation when most civil servants don’t even get paid regularly).

Nigerians buy plots of land and put up houses without a thought of property tax. Driving through GRA (this acronym, a colonial hold-over meaning “Government Reserved Area,” when colonial officials segregated themselves from the African population), I often wonder at the incongruence of palatial homes lined up on unpaved pot-holed streets, littered with refuse because there is no such thing as a municipal waste management system. There is no property tax to regularly pay for these basic public needs.

The more fundamental question remains: who are the real tax-payers in Nigeria? The answer is quite simple: the multi-national oil companies. Shell, British Petroleum, Chevron, Texaco, and Agip are responsible for more than 80 percent of the national revenues. In exchange, the government supports and preserves their interests. These multinational companies can make claims on land, on military resources (for protection and for punishment, in the case of resistant communities…just think of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni situation), and on special access to government contracts. These are the real taxpayers. If we regular citizens are not responsible for government revenue, we cannot expect that this government be accountable to us. It is that simple.

Today is the day after our federal elections here in Nigeria. Thankfully, there wasn’t too much violence, and things were relatively quiet here in Benin City. In fact, the streets were mostly deserted; most people stayed home, including me. As we watched the local news, we found that many voting centers opened very late, if they opened at all. Election workers had not shown up or the voters didn’t come. Some centers did not even have ballots. There are rumors circulating that over 60,000 ballots were still sitting in South Africa, the printers of our ballots. Supposedly the federal government paid for them, but requested they stay in South Africa. I hope this is just a rumor. A very small percentage of people turned out to vote. It would be a high guess if even 15% of the eligible voting public actually voted.

Days before the election, the government mobilized the army, posting them at all the major thoroughfares in the big cities. It felt very much like the military days of past years, in the 1980s. The tension has been high for the past couple of weeks, as many people scrambled to get to their hometowns to prepare for staying indoors. Aside from possible violence there was fear of a fuel hike, as well as soaring food prices. Thankfully things have remained fairly stable.

This whole election process has been surreal. It was only in December that the President- and Vice President-elect were even announced as candidates (very late in the game), and since then most of the other opponents have fallen away like ants on Raid. The governors’ races went the same route. They are going to announce Yar’Adua as our new president and Emmanuel Uduaghan as Delta State’s new Governor. For Edo State, even though the Labor Party’s candidate, Mr. Oshiomole is more popular, the PDP (People’s Democratic Party) candidate, Mr. Osunbor, will take the seat of Governor. The PDP has this thing wrapped up in most, if not all states, and even within the PDP there is a select hierarchy. There is no viable alternative party.

This was not a free election. People are afraid. And most of the people who ran for office have been recycled from past gluttonous, authoritarian regimes. It is a tragic comedy, the images of people queuing up to cast their votes, knowing that it really doesn’t matter.

 

April 20th

They’ve announced our president. As we’ve all known, the ruling PDP party took most governmental seats. Only Lagos and a couple of other states voted in other candidates (voter turn-out must have been higher in these states, or at least the resistance to the ruling Party was strong enough). In Benin, the women have been protesting for the past couple of days. They stormed the streets wearing black, protesting the PDP candidate, Mr. Oshiomole. The Labor Party candidate did not win the election, even though he was the favorite here in Benin. Today, more women will come out and expose themselves. This is a longstanding practice of protest among women in this part of the country. If a woman exposes herself (her privates) in protest, especially an old woman, it is considered a strong curse. In the midst of their protest, they also condemned the former governor, Lucky Igbinedion, one of the most corrupt governors of the former regime.

Former Governor Lucky Igbinedion of Edo State, Nigeria

Former Governor Lucky Igbinedion of Edo State, Nigeria

Lucky Igbinedion became governor of Edo State in 1999 under the newly formed PDP and new elected President (and former military dictator) Olusegun Obasanjo. Under Igbinedion’s watch, Benin became notorious for its contribution to the global sex trade, especially to Europe; the city’s infrastructure further deteriorated, and Benin continued to roil in an epidemic of armed robbery and thug violence. The people of Benin view him with absolute contempt and vitriol.

People are sick and tired of the political process, but I am always amazed at how much Nigerians can stretch themselves to accommodate this abuse of power. It is so excessive, and so obvious that it is almost a farce.

Postscript: In 2008 the Economic Financial Crimes Commission of Nigeria charged him with 142 counts of fraud and embezzlement, claiming he embezzled over $24 million of government funds. He was convicted of these crimes, but he never served any time, nor has this money been restored to the public coffers.

HOUSE 2

Igbinedion’s mansion in Abuja (courtesy of Jide-Salu.com), 2011

Keeping Wake in Obubu

10 April 2007 (my flat in New GRA, Benin)

My grandmother, Mewe, died twenty-three years ago and was buried in her home village of Obubu, in Udu Local Government Area. In Urhobo tradition, their daughters are not buried with their husbands, in their husbands’ hometown, as is customary in many other Nigerian communities. Their families return their bodies to their home village. A structure, or dwelling, is constructed over the grave. Mewe’s funeral was an elaborate two-day celebration. I was only eight at the time of that funeral, but it remains vivid in my memory. So many people came, and there was so much food and drink, plenty of music (much of it live), and I remember the exhaustion in the faces of my parents and my aunts and uncles. They had made all the arrangements, welcomed hundreds of visitors, and kept energetic wake through the night in Obubu.

I have just returned from Obubu to bury Mewe’s sister, Mama Beokuta. She was over ninety years old when she died. Her children originally gave her a Christian funeral, even though it was not her wish; she was not a Christian. She wanted to be buried as Mewe was buried, in the traditional way. We returned to Obubu because we learned that we did not in fact bury Beokuta; we had buried the wrong woman. My uncles: Areriobor, Friday, and Newman believe her spirit resisted the Christian funeral by evading identification at the morgue. Apparently another woman named Victoria (Beokuta’s English name), a fair woman with the same birth date as Beokuta, who was also toothless (as was Beokuta), was being kept at the same morgue. Sometimes when the morgue is overcrowded, they rotate storing the bodies in the freezers. Beokuta may not have been in the freezer when Uncle Friday and Cousin Minene went to identify her. In fact, they didn’t really see her at all. When they presented “Victoria,” my uncles and cousin did not recognize their mother; but the birth date was the same, and she was toothless…so, they carried her buried away to bury her. When Victoria’s real family came for their mother, they couldn’t find her. Uncle Friday got the call a few days after the funeral. We had to go to Obubu and return Victoria to her family and bury our own Beokuta.

The women argue over how things should be done.

The women argue over how things should be done.

Since I wasn’t able to attend the Christian funeral, I came along with Uncle Newman and Sissy Mary (my father’s oldest sister) to bury Beokuta in Obubu. I had not been to the village since Mewe’s funeral. Obubu is a small, quiet village and its inhabitants are petite, small-framed people. The women, however, are strong and vocal; they were the ones who came out to greet us and to help us with the burial arrangements. I watched as they prepared the food under a cluster of palm trees just outside Beokuta’s resting place. The children trekked back and forth between the cooking site and the well, carrying large, heavy pails on their heads. When anyone was not immediately at work, they danced to the DJ’s music, which syncopated everyone’s rhythm as we got ready for the funeral: from the smallest of the children to the oldest of the women. The DJ had set up a small canopy with raffia leaves and thick bamboo trunks. Throughout the afternoon, the skies threatened rain as we prepared. I watched and listened, the raspy, rolling sounds of Urhobo floating around me; spice and root smells, mingled with subtle human odor and schnapps, occasionally tickling my nose. I felt at home.

Beokuta’s burial place is just beyond Mewe’s. As I walked past Mewe’s resting place, I was struck first by how far it had deteriorated over the years. The windows and door had long since fallen away, and the walls had not been painted in all these years. Brother Mail performed a quick remembrance ceremony in her resting place, with an offering of rice, kola nut, and libations. Uncle Newman later took us into Mewe’s room to communicate with her. It felt surreal standing over my grandmother, in an empty room and gin splashed on damp cement floor in libation.

Keeping wake...dancing through the night.

Keeping wake…dancing through the night.

Back outside, I gratefully breathed in the fresh air. As night drew near, we began to perform the burial rites for Beokuta. The elderly men began by going out to the edge of the village to welcome Beokuta’s spirit. They call her to come and rest. This is done by setting up a kind of welcoming post, with two lanterns on each side of the path leading to the burial compound. Some rites are performed there to ensure she comes through. Later on, in the night, three fires are set. This is part of the process of settling her to rest. The music plays in the background, and people began to eat and drink. We, her kinsfolk, kept wake throughout the night, as the other rites were performed. A goat was sacrificed to “feed the ground.” The blood of the goat is distributed over her grave. Other offerings are made such as yam and plantain, along with dried fish in fulfillment of the homecoming. I did not witness how or when these offerings were made, however. As we kept wake, we were called three times to dance round the fires, as the men sang out to Beokuta and our other ancestors. The DJ then took over, and we danced and ate throughout the night, keeping ourselves awake in order to keep company with Mama Beokuta.

Groggy and fatigued, we greeted the morning with the final rites. We implored Beokuta to enter her resting place finally. The elder men then led a small procession through the village, a short call and response to accompany our steps. We were announcing Beokuta’s life and death, offering a sip of Ogogoro (a local clear liquor) to bystanders along the way. This concluded the long ceremony. We went round to embrace each other. I breathed in deeply the earthy odors of my kin, trying to create a sensory memento of this experience to keep with me and remember. My life is so far away from this small place, but a piece of it is in me. It is because of this place, these people that I exist.

The Ibadan National Archives

5 April 2007 (Ibadan)

It’s been a lovely couple of weeks, having a routine, some much-needed solitude, and finally getting some good research done. The intense amount of traveling I’ve done over the past several months has really taken its toll on me, and Ruth’s house has been a Godsend. I’ve been hanging out with the other Fellowship scholars, and have gotten particularly close to Helen.* She’s a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, mostly short stories. I like her wit. She’s down-to-earth and has a sophisticated sense of humor. After a long day of staring at documents, it’s nice to unwind with a cold beer and some fresh Suya or Akara.

MLGI try to put in a minimum of five hours at the archives each day, but find that my resolve doesn’t last much beyond four hours. Inconsistent electricity, inadequate lighting, and a fair amount of dust floating around in the air really work to slow me down. Mr. Abraham, a senior staff member here, has been a savior. He checks in on me, making sure I get my documents as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, not all the documents I request actually surface. They are somehow lost in the system, and even though Mr. Abraham puts in a search for them, I don’t have much hope that they will resurface. Some of these are really juicy files too: mostly on grievances lodged against the colonial government by local communities. (I know: I’m a nerd…) I have a clue about how files might easily go missing. Frequently the junior staff are not present in the reading room, leaving the users in the room alone with the documents. I could easily walk out with a file without anyone noticing. There is a television in the reading room (yes) and it is always on (at low volume, of course, but audible none-the-less), and the staff often station themselves in front of it, their backs turned on the readers, to pass the time away. Some mornings, I arrive a bit too early, say, 9 a.m., and I sit out with some of the staff at the entrance to the Archives. I’ve learned that they haven’t received a paycheck since the end of last year. It is clear: morale is low, to say the least.

WP91-2Over time, hovering over documents to snap digital photos can take its toll on one’s back. This, along with the lighting difficulties, makes for a tricky choreography. I’m sure I look comical to the staff, shifting this way and that, sometimes standing on tip-toe to get a good, unobstructed, well-lit shot of the documents. The files often come to me in unruly, jumbled, yet fragile compilations. I am often afraid to handle some of the documents because they are on the verge of disintegrating completely. These are twentieth century documents. They are not old.  And, as I slowly make my way through these files, I observe other users casually, roughly handling similar documents at their tables. Because the staff have not been properly trained, there is no one to advise users on proper handling of the documents. The lack of a controlled environment, along with a lack of institutional support or value is quickly destroying this archive. Everyday, I watch fragments of paper flake onto the tabletops and to the floor without notice. I feel helpless.

I wish I could have begun this work earlier…had not wasted so much time in Benin. But how could I have known that Benin was not the place to start? I try not to panic at the thought that I have yet to begin conducting interviews in the Delta. And I am so far away, here in Ibadan, sifting through documents. Then there is the consistent, nagging doubt that the documents I am going through are the right ones. I constantly question whether I am recording enough information, or selecting the right files. Then there is the awful thought that I may not get enough, that I won’t finish…and then…finally…what if I don’t finish this dissertation? The downward spiral of negative thoughts circle round the stale, fuzzy words on the pages in front of me, and I have to catch my breath; call myself back to the task at hand.

I return to Benin in a couple of days. I have to get back before elections begin. The Archives will close due to the Easter Holiday. They shut down for a Muslim holiday last week and on Monday this week there was another civil servant’s holiday. Early last week, the staff arbitrarily announced, at around noon, that they were going to close the Archives at 1:00 that day. There was no forewarning, no explanation. Come to think of it, the routine I had mentioned earlier really isn’t much of a routine. I just have it in my head that I am on a campus, and that my daily focus is to get as much information from this place as I can.

I dread the upcoming elections. I should have begun my interviews this month, but everyone I’ve spoken to, who are helping me arrange them, have asked me to be patient until elections have passed. I have also been advised to return home, to Benin; it is safer to be in a familiar environment, close to family, than far away in an unfamiliar place. This means two weeks of no work. My mouth gets dry just thinking about it.

 

* Name changed to protect identity.