Time to Reclaim Nigeria (Essays 2001-2011) by Chido Onumah
AFRICMIL, 2012, 280 pp
Review by Uche Peter Umez
Two powerful essays came to my mind while reading Time to Reclaim Nigeria by Chido Onumah: one was 'On National Culture' by Frantz Fanon, the other 'National Liberation and Culture’ by Amilcar Cabral. Fanon and Cabral were, in their own time, committed to exposing and invalidating the foreign demon, masked historically as colonialism. Both men symbolised the spirit of Pan-Africanism, a revolutionary response to colonialist hegemony. On the other hand, Onumah confronts the familiar masquerade of national domination, now widespread among many African countries. It is not presumptuous to state that Onumah is Pan-Nigerianist at heart, although he is also inclined to Pan-Africanism. Pan-Nigerianism suggests itself as a repudiation of acquisitiveness in the indigenous political system. I would like to emphasise that all three essayists railed against domination and liberation.
Because Onumah identifies with the aches and aspirations of most people, he combines the ideological clarity and intellection of these two great thinkers to deliver a thought-provoking exposé of our nation; a testament to our collective (in)actions. Time to Reclaim Nigeria spans a decade (2001-2011), and comprises essays that are sincere and unbiased in their thrust, completely void of bombast. Two motifs recur throughout the collection: one, Nigeria seems headed for implosion, and two, Nigerians have the capacity to change – for good.
It is to Onumah’s credit that each essay speaks directly to you, as though he is standing on a podium right in front of you; his voice clear, his tone measured, yet his message urgent and full of portent. Yes, there is more than enough urgency and augury in the collection. The prevailing theme is summed up in this stirring quote by Cabral: ‘We should recognize as a matter of conscience that there have been many faults and errors in our action whether political or military: an important number of things we should have done we have not done at the right times, or not done at all.' It is this theme Onumah foregrounds with glaring instances of our national misadventure engineered by a brigand of narrow-minded rapacious opportunists, who, over the years, have been able to forge institutions that facilitate depredation and depravity. His whole argument revolves around five major paradigms: the problem of leadership, the actions of politicians, the inaction of the people, the imminent implosion of the nation, and our capacity to change or fashion a new Nigeria.
Time to Reclaim Nigeria extrapolates the actions of political actors and projects them onto the public space, for every Nigeria to weigh up and, possibly, act upon. Divided into three parts and eight chapters, the collection consists of 65 essays. The first part has three chapters, the second two chapters, and the third three chapters. Chapter 1 is entitled “The Trouble with Nigeria”; Chapter 2: “In Praise of Dictatorship”; Chapter 3: “When Democracy Insults”; Chapter 4: “Corruption Incorporated”; Chapter 5: “Globalization and its Victims”; Chapter 6: “Dreams Deferred”; Chapter 7: “Beholders of a New Dawn”; and, Chapter 8: “Time to Reclaim Nigeria”. The sixty-five essays are grouped under these chapters. The collection opens with the first chapter “The Trouble with Nigeria” and ends with the last chapter “Time to Reclaim Nigeria”.
Onumah is unapologetic when he makes us realise in chapter 1 that the question of leadership is the bane of all national problems. Here, we encounter the wanton irresponsibility that defines democracy in Nigeria, particularly when public fund is involved. The federal government, for instance, received and disbursed 11 trillion naira between June 1999 and December 2005, which never actualized any democracy dividends in health care, job creation, education, security and petroleum sectors, et cetera. Accordingly, Nigeria ‘doesn’t show any sign of a country that has received and spent so much’. He urges Nigerians to go beyond celebrating ‘flag independence’, and establish a true fiscal federalism, so we can hold the government accountable at all times. He also calls on the ‘leaders’ to first rebrand themselves before attempting to rebrand the nation, since sloganeering has never advanced any country’s economic growth. Onumah reminds us of Achebe’s timeless quote that, ‘the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership’. This problem gave rise to underdevelopment which, in turn, created a country of low expectations where nobody is interested in engaging the government in critical national discourse; where illogic and bigotry define the manner with which we handle the matter of homosexuality instead of letting ‘ideas contend’; where oil wealth has failed to ‘translate into (all-round) development’.
Chapter 2 highlights the role of propaganda in government, and how propagandists, disregarding the rule of law outright, ‘play their dangerous games for the benefits it offers.’ Paradoxically, these same people still feed fat off the government, even now. Furthermore, the monstrosity of the third term agenda embodied by President Olusegun Obasanjo’s ‘maleficent regime’ and his rash of hangers-on is dealt with. Obasanajo’s self-succession agenda must have informed his indifference towards the religious massacre occasioned by the infamous cartoon incident in Denmark, even when he had enough reasons to step forward, ‘and dispatch security forces to the areas the crisis was simmering’. Quite ironic that Obasanjo himself spoke against Abacha’s self succession bid, only for him to reprise the same role eight years later, by appropriating a divine script, so he could be allowed to revamp the economy, since ‘God is not a God of abandoned projects’. This chapter clearly illuminates how the various stances of government contributed to the debasement of democracy at different times. One should commend Atiku’s effort nevertheless – even though it was anything but altruistic – in scuttling the third term plot.
Chapter 3 replays the reappearance of General Babangida in the political arena, the slew of intrigues that dogged June 12, thereby culminating in the death of Abiola; Babaginda’s treachery to his friends, and the fact that he ‘ought to be on trial for his crimes against Nigerians’; and the motley attempts by Obasanjo to select a successor instead of allowing ‘Nigerians to elect their president in an open, free, and fair election.’ This chapter also details INEC’s complicity in elections, largely orchestrated by Maurice Iwu; the Supreme Court’s as well; the politics of Yar’Adua’s ill-health, the villainous contributions of his lapdogs, and their reckless attempts to undermine Jonathan Goodluck from becoming the acting president; the ensuing impasse and nationwide confusion, and the consequent rallies in key cities of Nigeria and worldwide organised by the Save Nigeria Group. Onumah posits that political rhetoric in Nigeria has never translated to political reality, which explains why our infrastructure all in stark disrepair. Moreover, the problem of moral authority on the part of President Jonathan is examined as well as his penchant for more rhetoric and less political action.
Corruption occupies much of Chapter 4. Here, Onumah draws attention to the relationship between corruption and the failure of democracy in Nigeria, how corruption has become the ‘directive principle of state policy in Nigeria’, hauling a bandwagon of distinguished political profiteers. This chapter also explores America’s predatory foreign policy, how she ‘can survive only by aggressively expanding and conquering new markets from which to extract profit’; the role America played in decimating the destiny of Haiti, reducing it altogether to a ‘lifetime of poverty’; and, how African rulers, grasping at best, turned willing quislings to the Western world, thereby furthering the continued (re)domination of Africa. Free Trade Areas of the Americas (FTAA), AIDS in Africa, the Middle East conflict, Ghana under Rawlings, Congo under Kabila and Sese Seko, and the ‘new face of imperialist expansion of capital’, that is, globalisation, were also highlighted.
Chapter 6 and 7 reflect the author’s musings on his 40th birthday celebration, the rich influence of Wole Soyinka, Chinweizu, and Edwin Madunagu on his career and worldview; Ezenna Nwanganga, a ‘story of hope in the face of adversity’; Nuhu Ribadu and the possibility of a new Nigeria, Onumah’s ideal Nigeria. This part also focuses on the martyrs of democracy like Kudirat, Saro-Wiwa, Ubani and Gani. Quite tellingly, Onumah exhorts the Nigerian youth to ‘stand up against a system that keeps them unemployed’, by invoking the Obama phenomenon and the lessons derivable from Obama’s victory, since ‘nations are built through sacrifice and struggle’.
Chapter 8, the title collection, comprises three essays, same title though in series. In these concluding essays, Onumah sounds the rallying cry of Obama’s Yes, we can! But before laying out the onus of responsibility on the citizenry in the fight to reclaim their fatherland, he chides Nigerians for being ‘inured to reports of corruption or wanton waste of public resources’. He, however, affirms that economic prosperity is possible, but only when we solve the political dimension of the Nigerian problem, assert our citizenship rights. In short, ‘the choice is ours’.
Time to Reclaim Nigeria is certainly a robust commentary on the parlous state of contemporary Nigeria; an honest indictment of the ruling political class for having turned Nigeria into a ‘wobbly giant’. The book is flawless except for a few slight errors such as the misspelling of Ekwere(n)madu (pg 111), omission of ‘as’ in the sentence ‘Abiola was (as) much a victim...as’ (pg 101), use of ‘the’ before Maurice Iwu (pg 133); and, ‘opacity’ instead of ‘obscurity’ in Fanon’s quote (pg 228), although the right word was later used in another page. Overall, Chido Onumah has produced an invaluable reference material for students and scholars of history, political science, and international relations. It would be gladdening if some copies of the book could be forwarded to the presidency and national assembly, so our beloved representatives could study, and better put themselves at the service of fatherland – not in the sole service of self and kin, as is the norm.
Uche Peter Umez is an award-winning short story writer, poet and children’s novelist.