(Managing Sadness & Joy in the Aftermath of Elections)
A few years ago, on a road trip from Gombe to Abuja, I paused for dinner in Jos and watched a sunset from a restaurant balcony. I was tempted to spend the night, but it was an easy two-hour drive to Kafanchan where I’d earlier planned to sleep. So, I hit the road.
I was driving alone, deep in thought, which was probably why I missed my right turn at Makera. By the time I realised my mistake, I had driven thirty minutes down the A3, on the lonely alternative route to Abuja that bypassed Kafanchan. I looked out for the nearest hotel, but the villages I passed were too tiny for tourism. The night grew older. I drove on. The highway was treacherous: stretches of decent tarmac seduced a car built for speed into the sin of acceleration, only to end abruptly in a clusterfuck of potholes.
It was 10.30pm when my speeding headlights picked up a shadow the width of the road. I braked hard, but it was too late. It was more ditch than pothole. The car took the punishment like a Toyota. Bouncing out on the other side, I was relieved to find my engine still running. But the car was now waddling like a duck. I rolled down my window and heard an ominous hiss. Pulling up, I stepped down and watched as my two driver-side tyres, which had suffered the sharp edge of the ditch, deflated completely.
I killed the engine and headlamps and took stock of my situation in the darkness. It was some thirty kilometres since I last passed a village and about eighty kilometres from the next major town of Akwanga. Yet, if I changed one tyre I could perhaps roll towards Abuja at four kilometres per hour, rather than two. Not much of a plan, but I got on with it. I fetched the spare tyre, jacked up the car, and tackled the first nut.
Another car passed, nosing more carefully into and out of the ditch, spilling a sickly yellow beam, and reggae from a scratchy stereo. It was interesting how, on nights like this, you’d pray to be ignored by other road users, because the attention of the wrong people could prove fatal. Yet, when the lights and the reggae died away, and you were left to the darkness of your road-trip nightmare, with a crippled car in the middle of a no-man’s-land, you do feel like the last man alive.
A passing motorcycle paused fifty metres beyond my car. Then it turned around and approached me, its headlight lighting up my nightmare. Two young men alighted from the bike.
‘Can we help you, sir?’ they asked.
‘Yes, please.’ I said.
They got cracking, rendering me completely redundant. While they worked, we talked. They told me about the other dangers of the road, besides the ditches. For all their age and intimidating size, they were still in secondary school. Their English was excellent but stilted, but the mysterious language they used to facilitate their work flowed like music… Perhaps Menai would have sounded like this? One of the lads was serious and soft-spoken; he wanted to be a lawyer. The other was brawnier, and even more soft-spoken and mostly let his dexterous hands speak for him.
Soon the spare tyre had replaced the front wheel. According to my new friends, the closest vulcanizer lived in the village I passed thirty kilometres earlier. They offered to take me there, but they warned that my car could be vandalized before I returned. They invited me to park it at their village a few kilometres ahead. I accepted.
We loaded up the deflated tyre and tools, and set off. I bumped along at some 4 kilometres per hour behind the motorbike. Presently, they turned into a footpath which led to their village. It was too small for car traffic so I waited by the highway. The village, or hamlet, was invisible from the road, and to Google Maps. I was alone for about ten minutes. It was enough time to attempt an escape before they returned, perhaps with an armed gang of hoodlums. I chose to wait. They returned with reinforcements alright, but they had come to guard my car while my future learned friend took me on his brother’s motorbike – which was stronger and had more petrol – in search of a fix for my tyre.
This was in the middle of a national fuel shortage, you see.
We rode some thirty-five kilometres with the heavy wheel between us. The wind and the bike’s engine were too noisy for conversation, but we managed it. His name was Francis and he told me about his daily commute by bike to a distant school. He pointed it out, as we passed, but – like his village – the school was invisible from the highway. Eventually we reached the large village. It was fast asleep, but for a few customers around a suya seller’s grill. Francis pulled up by the vulcanizer’s shed under a maybe baobab. While I stretched my legs and chatted with the patrons of the mai suya, he went in search of the vulcanizer’s house.
At a quarter-to-midnight a sleepy technician reopened his shed and fixed my tyre. He did not try to gouge me for forcing him to work a midnight shift.
‘Oga,’ he said, ‘pay me anything you like.’
So I did, effusively.
We then rode back to my car where young men were resting protectively on my hood. Once again, they changed the second tyre for me.
A sliver of moon had appeared, and we talked some more. To be perfectly honest, I was in no hurry to leave. I felt right at home. In that anonymous roadside in the heart of Invisible Nigeria, hundreds of kilometres from my living room, I felt like I was among sons. Eventually I bid them goodbye, in the way of a grateful father, and hit the road once again, arriving in Abuja well before dawn.
The Lie of Tribalism
Now, here’s the point of this mini-travelogue: not once throughout that night did anyone use my different ethnic nationality as a reason to exploit me, or a basis to meter what generosity I deserved. It was enough that I was a traveller in distress for them to open their hearts and to give sacrificially of themselves, without thought of reward.
The Nigerian road has a bad reputation. I have not let that rep keep me home, and my personal journeying has allowed me to establish a truth that contradicts that reputation: Tribalism is a Lie.
My truth is born of decades of traveling the states of country and continent. I have had my share of bad stories, of course, but they are far outweighed by my experience of friendships from unexpected quarters, kindnesses impossible to repay, except by paying them forward to other fellow wayfarers on my life’s journey.
Although tribalism is a lie, the more it is reiterated, the more it becomes the reality of its apostles. Tribalists inflict, and suffer, tribalism everywhere they turn.
Tribalists live in mental prisons, sometimes through no fault of theirs. Sometimes the bars of their prisons are grudges from recent injustices that have gone unpunished. Sometimes they are historic traumas imbibed from the maternal breasts of a wronged ethnic nation: festering wounds inflicted in our past and present, which continue to wound our collective future.
There are two main types of tribalists.
⦁ The Predator Tribalist has weaponized tribalism, using it as a tool to manipulate others to achieve his personal goals. From politics, through religion, to society, the Predator Tribalist walks into a united assembly, blows his dog whistle, raises an ethnic war cry, and breaks away with a fraction to exploit.
⦁ The Victim Tribalist is mentally disabled by tribalism. For the crumbs of the predator tribalist, he is led by the ethnic nose to his own disadvantage. He is content to embrace suffering in exchange for the cold comfort that his clansman is in authority. He is fine with mediocre service, if it is offered by his clansman. It is a mental disability that prevents sufferers from imagining an alternative universe where, by loving and affiliating across ethnic lines, they harvest a geometric escalation of blessings from across ethnic lines.
Africa’s middle-class is full of Victim Tribalists aspiring to become Predators.
Wherever tribalists – predators or victims alike – are given centre-stage, they draw out the ugliness in society. They foul up their environment with a stench that cripples progress. Children raised in the sewers of tribalism absorb a ‘body odour’ that they are blissfully unaware of. They repel the dizzying possibilities of life and grow societies too dysfunctional to flower into their full potential.
To say that tribalism is a lie is not to deny its existence. Far from it. It is to recognise the perpetual war between the lie and the truth. Only when the truth is silent can the lie dominate. A thousand people may pass a road in peace, but if they stay silent, the road’s reputation will rest on the vocal five who bear false witness.
Therefore, I speak my truth.
My life’s story is a bullet in the head of xenophobia. It is a testimony to the kindnesses of peoples across ethnicities. Where I could have felt alien, I have often been made at home. I have drunk the milk of human kindness from peoples not my own who looked at me and saw a human first.
… I will
criss-cross ‘borders’, clad by ‘foes’
that call me brother, fed by
the ministry of my
‑ This Land is Mine, [The Final Testament of a Minor God]
Once again the air is full of a stench from the sewers of the tribalism that midwifed Nigeria’s civil war. On social media, people who have never left their birth towns poison our national conversations with hate speeches on peoples they do not know, and have never met, spewing prejudices soaked up from beer parlours, flattening the complexities of our ethnicities into stereotypes and caricatures.
Each retweeted hate speech is a bullet in the rifle of the war next time.
Tribalism is a lie rooted in colonialism. For a few shiploads of Europeans to enslave and colonise hundreds of millions of Africans for centuries, it was necessary for those Africans to spend their lives fighting themselves rather than a mutual enemy. To hunt down and sell their brothers to slave traders to satisfy their own greed, it was essential to define those brothers as enemies. Our contemporary tribalists have inherited the idiocies and shortsighted greed of their ancestors.
Politics is our new tribalism. Armed with PVCs, 80 million voters do battle, sometimes to the death, over brooms and umbrellas and the other faultlines of the new Africa. Yet, the only real battle is between Predators (who can fit into a few airplanes) and their 200 million Victims.
Every election, incendiary talk by the leaders lead to division and bloodshed at the base. Since 1960, tens of thousands of Nigerians have been murdered and hundreds of thousands displaced in election violence that have burned their homes, businesses and places of worship. Thus divided, 200 million people are distracted from the centuries-old battle against the predators that are now their colonists.
The irony of the new tribalism is that at the top, it has all the conviviality of a Premiership League: on the pitch, highly-paid players play a beautiful game where the occasional casualty is the stomped ankle. Whatever the outcome of the matches, players on both sides go home to their billionaire lifestyles. But in the terraces and the slums of Africa, hooligans fight and kill themselves over ‘their’ clubs. Yet, for all their emotional investment, their ‘ownership’ is only in name. They pay taxes, buy jerseys, but they only read about the billions raised from their sweat.
In his campaign for the Championship of Aso Rock, President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) has transferred from the ‘Military party’ to the ANPP, through the CPC, to the APC, while his main challenger in the 2019 polls, Atiku Abubakar has transferred from the SDP, through the PDP, the AC, PDP, APC and is currently back with the PDP. On the eve of the 2019 elections, dozens of presidential candidates from the 76 registered parties signed over their support to the same candidates they were attacking ‘viciously’ only hours earlier. There is no bloodshed at the top. Their bluster is the theatrics of heavyweight boxers at pre-fight press conferences: designed to improve audience turnout on match day.
But the masses never learn. At the base of the political pyramid, the conviviality of the carpet-crossing predators is missing. Elections are soaked in blood by brothers trained from the womb to hate themselves, while worshiping their predators. Nigerians are a simple people. The masses are still as wowed in 2019 by a locomotive as their ancestors were in 1898 when the British colonists built the first railway line. The middle-classes of 2019 are just as compliant as those of the 18th century who were bribed by mirrors and gin to become the staunchest defenders of slavery and colonialism. At the drop of a coin, today’s middle-class pseudo-intellectual is still willing to sell out the People in defence of their colonists.
Our new predator-colonists use ethnic and political tribalism as a shortcut to power. Yet, it is a foolish shortcut for gifted statesmen: politicians who climb to the top of their ethnic foothill on a tribalistic ladder are stuck there. They cannot cross over to the national mountain of their destiny.
Tribalism survives in Africa largely because we continue to operate colonial systems. Rather than break up the exploitative systems inherited from the colonists, our leaders continued them, running governments that are not accountable to the People. Across Africa, statehouses are guilty of the same impunity that governor-generals and colonial administrators once practised, shipping billions of dollars to the exchequers and banks of the west while their people languish.
Managing Election Joy & Grief
Wherever the pendulum of Nigeria’s election swings, nothing fundamental will change. A transformative change that will liberate the African People will come ONLY when a new crop of Africans firmly explodes the lie of tribalism – whether ethnic or party-political – and focus on changing the system. We must stop being distracted by divisive elections, these periodic personnel changes to the colonial system via electoral soap operas conducted at colossal costs.
The New African must be vigilant; he must deny, defuse and repudiate tribalism everywhere it emerges, especially when it emanates from friends, family and mentors. No ethnic national can commit any crime in the name of his entire ethnic nation; so, we must condemn and punish criminality without criminalising the entire ethnicity of the criminals.
When Predator Tribalists from our own ethnicities beat the tribal drums, we must refuse to dance. Like my future learned friend, Francis, we must extend our kindnesses to our fellows without first asking their ethnicity.
In over-focusing on our electoral charade of democracy, we betray the dreams of Africans like Francis in their invisible villages, their invisible schools, and their inchoate futures, futures endangered by states that are heedless of their dreams.
Our leaders enter our statehouses, assemblies, and courthouses as democrats but rule like sovereigns, living large with delusions of grandeur that would have become Emperor Haile Selassie: living a life of stupendous wealth and consumption on the prodigious resources belonging to the poorest people in the world.
As Nigeria proudly dons the distinction of home to the largest number of the most wretched of the Earth, we must take urgent, intelligent, steps to ensure that the anarchical bloodletting that terminated the royal blindness in Ethiopia is not necessary here.
True Structural Change
The #Bribecode can deliver this systemic change by making it impossible for occupants of the seat of power to abuse their power. It does three main things:
- It rewards and protects whistleblowers,
- It punishes grand corruption with the penalty of corporate liquidation and total assets forfeiture for convicts.
- It introduces universal prosecution for grand corruption offences, allowing our 37 attorneys general to prosecute such offences at Federal High Courts across Nigeria.
This is how to truly restructure our country so that the managers of our commonwealth ARE servant-leaders, not autocrats. The most powerful people in the land must be powerless to prevent their own investigation, prosecution, conviction and ruin – when they abuse the powers entrusted to them.
The New African should neither overly rejoice nor be depressed at the outcome of elections. Like Premiership football supporters, they must learn how to be neither murderous nor suicidal over the outcome of matches.
Win or lose, the championship cup is going to a clubhouse far away. It is not coming home to our living rooms. Our own battles have just begun: how to prevail upon the new government and the 9th National Assembly to restructure the state, not just to bring looting closer to predators with short, state-level hands, but to make Government serve the People rather than the Few.
The New Africans must fix their eyes firmly on the colonial system behind the old and new tribalism and end it decisively with the golden bullet of the #Bribecode.
When this happens, power will truly belong to the People, enabling the continent to fulfill her destiny on the wings of the dreams of her invisible children – such as my future learned friend, Francis.