By Femi Olugbile
WhatsApp is an interesting location in virtual reality. People struggle with their willpower daily, trying to avoid scrolling up and down, reading or responding to unsolicited communication, which may amount to several hundreds of messages. Many of the stories shared freely by all manner of contacts are of dubious provenance. Unfortunately, every so often, something comes through that cannot be easily dismissed as dross.
One such recent item has been a story credited to the daughter of a late Ooni of Ife. It transpired in January 1946, shortly after the end of the Second World War. Our protagonist had gained admission into a girls’ college in London. School fees had been sorted out by her well-heeled father. However, the only way to make the journey to the UK was by boat. The War from 1939 to 1945 had led to many British colonial officials being stranded in Nigeria. They were naturally eager to return home. As a result, all the places on the boats taking off from Nigeria and Ghana were fully booked. The young lady was distraught. Her father, the Ooni, observing her distress, travelled to Lagos and engaged with the Governor General, requesting his assistance. The Governor-General promised to do what he could.
He was as good as his word. A few days later, he called the Ooni to inform him that he had found a place on an outgoing boat for the young lady. She was ecstatic.
Entering the boat, she thought she was the only African on board. However, a few days into the journey, she discovered there were five other Nigerians on the boat. She was curious, because she had been told it was impossible for any Nigerian to get a place, and she remembered what lengths her father had had to go to to secure her place. The other Nigerian travelers, it turned out, were five VIPs of Northern extraction, including Sir Ahmadu Bello and Alhaji Ribadu. Her enquiries led her to believe that her fellow travellers were guests of the British government and that they were being taken to London to be ‘mentored’ on how to rule Nigeria. Her conclusion, strengthened by the experience of subsequent years, was that the colonial masters had decided all along that the North, and only the North, were to rule Nigeria.
The story, like many other WhatsApp stories, may well be true, or it may be apocryphal. What is incontestable is that it is illustrative of the psychology of mischief and mistrust that is embedded in the very core of the Nigeria project.
There are similar narratives concerning the body language of the British colonialists before independence. The controversial ‘confessions’ of a man named Harold Smith who revealed how census figures were manipulated to favour the North and confer it with political advantage, and the pronouncements of several colonial officials, starting from Lord Lugard’s metaphor of the poor Northern male profiting from an arranged marriage with a Southern ‘lady of means’, show that even if it was not official British government policy, it was the prevalent view of many colonial officials that the North should be assisted to have an edge in the union.
If the psychology of bad faith and underhanded scheming were merely a colonial legacy, it would be easy to ask – why have Nigerians themselves, in the sixty-two years since independence, not shaken off this vile inheritance, knowing that it would not work, as it clearly is not doing? If there is a psychological illness in a sexagenarian Nigerian state preventing it from growth, development, happiness, and self-actualization, surely Nigerians should accept responsibility for treating the illness, rather than blaming the colonialists? Unfortunately, the story of Nigeria, its governance, and its politics over the years has been pervaded by the same psychology of lies, subterfuge, and subterranean scheming to advance the interests of one group over another, and to confer unmerited advantage on some people. Getting along in Nigeria has been reduced to a choice between ‘going with the flow’ – what those people versed in Yoruba history may term ‘the Akintola option’, or ‘swimming against the tide’, which may label as ‘the Awolowo option’.
It is difficult to dismiss the Ike Ife process’s story out of hand. Some of the men alleged to have been on that 1946 boat ride with her were responsible in later years for the political decision to lower the entry requirements to the officer corps of the Nigerian Army and make it possible for a group eventually to dominate its hierarchy, permanently. The same ‘fast-track through lowering of standards’ has pervaded every aspect of the nation’s life and made it an under-achiever, a nation that crawls where it should fly. The madness of religious irridentism, the advent of hundreds of thousands of untrained and untrainable youths nurtured to adulthood under a feudal social system that used them as cannon fodder and failed to develop their human capital, and the intrusion of external players with their own sister agenda has taken the nation most recently to a new nadir. It is hard to see hope.
And yet the solution to Nigeria’s problems of identity, belonging, and performance lies tantalizingly close to hand – in the mind of the Nigerian. If all Nigerians truly believed they were as good as other Nigerians, they would not try to dominate other people, or seek unfair ethnic advantage. Nobody would school their children to grow up with the delusional belief that they were ‘born to rule’. Nobody would make unlettered herdsmen operate with a perfect conviction that they ‘own Nigeria’. If the ‘federating units’ were restructured and the people made secure in their ego boundaries, with the right, and duty, to choose answerable leaders who reflect their values and aspirations, the mad scramble for control of the centre would attenuate. If ethnic nationalities started to relate to others based on openly defined interests and readiness to negotiate, rather than lies, subterfuge, skullduggery and violence, a nation could yet emerge out of the peculiar Nigerian mix that would become a shining star for all of Africa and the black world.
Is it too late, or can the collective mind of Nigerians be psycho-analyzed and healed to snatch victory from the jaws of a pending doom and defeat?
It is a hope that looks tenuous from this remove. But it is a hope that must not be abandoned prematurely.