Book Title: Nigeria is Negotiable – Essays on Nigeria’s Tortuous Road to Democracy and Nationhood
Author: Chido Onumah
Publishers: African Centre for Media & Information Literacy, Abuja
Date of Publication: July 2013
Reviewer: Nnimmo Bassey
Chido Onumah warns of the truth of this saying a few times in his book, Nigeria is Negotiable: that when history repeats itself, and it happens quite often in places where people do not learn from history, what takes place is a farcical replay of tragedy.
It must be said right away that this 460-page book is a work of passion and deep concern for all who live in the geographical contours that define Nigeria. It is an unrelenting critique of the political class as well as the deep display of disappointment that we keep moving in circles without paying heed to the lessons that are thrown at us.
The critical praise for the book, the foreword by Hafsat Abiola-Costello, the preface by Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, the prologue by Anthony Akinola, the introduction by Yakubu Aboki Ochefu and the author’s note speak volume about what the reader is to expect from this collection of essays.
Divided into five sections, four of which are prefaced by poems by Chiedu Ezeanah, the first section deals with June 12 and the Democratic Alternative, the second deals with Heroes and Villains while the third section is on Matters Miscellaneous. The fourth section zeroes in on the subject of the book, Nigeria is Negotiable, while the last section looks at the next political games and gives away the author’s lack of faith in the processes from its very title, 2015 and all that jazz.
Taking Nigeria is Negotiable as just another compilation of articles will be erroneous. Just like Chido Onumah displayed in his Time to Reclaim Nigeria, this is a serious addition to the library of contemporary Nigerian history. The good thing about this book is that whereas historians crave the impression of being disinterested in their subjects, this tome does not pretend to be an impartial analysis of our fetid political history. Nor could any serious writer of fact or fiction afford that luxury except such a writer is part of the cohort immersed in what Chido calls sick intellectualism.
Anyone who has personally lived through the period of coverage of the articles that form this book will find it a brutal reminder of the repeated cycles of rot that has passed for politics over the last decades. Sections one and two are brutal renditions of the patently sick era of direct military dictatorship in Nigeria with the earliest article dated 1993. To appreciate and accurately understand this book, the reader must step back and take in the larger picture of what makes states and statesmen behave the way they do. Beyond the military dictators Babangida, Abacha, Abubakar and Obasanjo (especially in his first stint in the state house) we must of necessity see the systemic superstructure that made their ascendancy and sustenance in power possible. That same system has sustained the largely cash-and-carry politics that pervade Nigeria to this day.
The book chronicles and analyses the numbing realities that we have had to live through, including the phantom coups, the utter disregard for human life manifested in unresolved murders such as that of Dele Giwa, Chief Bola Ige and Chief Alfred Rewane among others, as well as the convenient deaths of Shehu Yar'Adua and M.K.O. Abiola. The murder of Alhaja Kudirat Abiola is one of the most notorious smears on the history of political/military leadership in Nigeria. And quite rightly, despite attempts to sweep the dastardly murder under the carpet, the struggle for justice in that regard goes on to this day. The book reminds us of the assault on human rights activists and returns repeatedly to the murder of four Ogoni chiefs followed by the brutal hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni leaders. The manner in which the Ogoni environment, the entire Niger Delta environment and the environment of the entire nation has succumbed to the powers of multinational companies and the corrupt and corrupting power of capital speaks volume.
This chronicle of our sordid history should not make you merely cringe as you read, but angry enough to stand up and demand answers to pertinent questions.
The title, Nigeria is Negotiable, shows the author’s complete rejection of the notion that anything about the geographic expression called Nigeria is set in concrete and cannot or must not be negotiated. We are reminded that the Nation was cobbled together by the colonialists in 1914 without as much as a consultation of the various ethnic nations living in the territory about whether and how they wish to live together and under what system. The painful reality is that ever since then the political leaders have pandered to the desires of the erstwhile colonial masters in subtle and in not so subtle ways. Let us see an extract from Chapter 11 of Section 1:
Like Babangida, Abubakar and his disciples who now serve as the overseers of this neo-colony called Nigeria, are not perturbed by the economic crisis convulsing the nation. Their attempt at democracy is nothing but a design to placate imperialism and maintain the neocolonial state structure. While it took some years for Babangida to initiate the transfer of the national economy to foreign control; the present monstrosity, a grotesque mediocre by all standards, has vowed to undertake the complete transfer of the Nigerian economy to his foreign backers before he leaves office in May.
We make a link in the next chapter where Chido writes that:
Not surprisingly, the international community, led by the United States and Britain, who are clearly detached from the Nigerian debacle and whose commitment is matched only by the amount of oil available for sale, have become the cheerleaders of this theatre of the absurd that Abubakar is directing; an absurdity that has the potential of consuming the unstable theatre. There cannot be any meaningful electoral process in Nigeria no matter the support of these vultures hovering over it. Western leaders pressing for the lifting of sanctions or applauding Abubakar’s transition must appreciate this feeling.
Note that, "commitments matched only by the amount of oil available for sale." You may replace the world “oil” with any other critical natural resource and you will see the same “commitment.” This means that talks of democracy are the hymns that are intoned at the altar of exploitation. Chido reminds us of the posturing of world leaders including those of African and Nigerian extraction when it comes to dancing to beats portending quaint transitions wired to have military despots translate into civilian presidents. We give examples here:
When General Abacha declared that the cap of the Nigerian presidency fitted only his head, a leader like President Clinton of the USA said he wouldn’t mind if Abacha ran for president provided he ran as a civilian. Kofi Annan, then General Secretary of the United Nations called on Chief Abiola, four years in detention, to denounce his mandate thus emboldening Abacha to cling on to power (page 115). Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Commonwealth Secretary General declared that the Commonwealth would accept any one of the Nigerian people elected (page 17). Chido reminds us that when journalists asked Tony Blair, then Prime Minister of Britain, if the Commonwealth would welcome Abacha as president he retorted: “That was a hypothetical question.”
On the local scene there was no shortage of sycophantic politicians and intellectual hangers-on falling over themselves in promoting the dark goggled “messiah.” Even the youths were not left behind. Under the infamous Youth Earnestly Ask for Abacha (YEAA) led by one Daniel Kanu, the cacophony spiraled. We are reminded of the many costly jokes that were called transition programmes including the several banning and unbanning of politicians who continued to kowtow to their masters with no sense of shame.
General Babangida’s place in the military history of Nigeria is assured. His play in the political terrain including the engineering of two political parties, the National Republican Convention (NRC), a little to the right and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a little to the left, left him firmly in the centre of things. When the 1993 elections inexplicably broke religious cleavages with a two-Muslim presidential ticket winning the election, the general stepped forward to annul the results before eventually “stepping aside” from the seat himself on account of the massive and persistent resistance of the general public to that inglorious act.
Nigeria is Negotiable contains loads of facts and analyses on the sequence of events, the warning signals as well as the players whose acts of national betrayal will not disappear from our memories and from records such as the one in our hands today.
With reference to general Abacha, Chido’s chronicle reminds us that
It was not for nothing that Abacha bore the tag “Africa’s No1 outlaw”.
When he seized power on November 17, 1993, he promised a quick return to democratic rule; but that was not to be. In the five years that he reigned, Nigeria witnessed an archetype of military despotism which marks the period as the cruelest and most shameful period of her national history.
This allusion to Abacha’s brutal rule is not overdrawn; neither is the epithet that he was the most vicious and most corrupt ruler in the history of Nigeria. Abacha mindlessly engraved his name on the plaque of notorious dictators. Under Abacha, Nigeria became an absolute police state. He declared war on every aspect of the nation without batting an eyelid. The bestiality of his regime knew no frontiers. He unleashed wanton viciousness and terror. The press was shackled and citizens jailed and assassinated indiscriminately.
Abacha’s vicious jackboot was lifted from the neck of Nigerians on 8 June 1998, when perhaps by non-military exertions, the General succumbed to death. And another army general took over and eventually handed over to another army general in agbada. It had been a transition of marshal songs all the way.
Permit us to state the obvious at this point - that Chido Onumah is a clear-headed analyst with a firm popular ideological foundation. To add to that, he is a consummate writer as evidenced by his writings and by this new book. You may not agree with him, but you will not easily fault the premise upon which he builds his arguments and draws his conclusions. What we are reviewing today is a shocking collection of essays on shocking events and equally shocking actions of the oppressors and often even the oppressed.
The flow of the essays and the laying out of the Nigerian story is unrelentingly smooth. Until you arrive at Chapters 27 in Section 2 where the author brings on a rather abrupt injection of reflections on Dame Jonathan and the circle of manipulative image-makers around her. And in chapter 28 we see a snapshot on matters around Nuhu Ribadu former head of the EFCC.
Beyond these and a few other interruptions, Chido dwells on the annoying assertion by some politicians and commentators that Nigeria is not negotiable. Such claims, which the author debunks, include the suggestion that the nation’s creation was divinely orchestrated and thus should not be questioned. The essays in this book expose such arguments and pleas as puerile and such as are promoted only so as to secure the stranglehold on power of powerful interests, both local and international, whose main dream and pursuits are the exploitation and bleeding of the territory.
The book wraps up on a very concrete note. It sees the planned centenary of the amalgamation of the nation as wrong-headed and suggests that it should be a most “auspicious moment to negotiate Nigeria.”
We agree that there must be something basically wrong with a position that we should celebrate the day we were forced into a union and have since then been disallowed from even simply having a conversation about the nature, state, purpose and future of such a union.
Some may wish to dismiss Achebe’s assertion that Nigeria is not a great country but one of the most disorderly, corrupt, insensitive and inefficient nations in the world (see page 214). But if we take a sober look around us we should take caution from the caustic comments of the sage. The disorderliness cuts across every sphere – spatial, social, economic and very vitally political.
With these and the deep reflections presented in this book we completely agree with Chido Onumah that it is foolhardy for anyone to say that we cannot interrogate and even negotiate Nigeria.
Nnimmo Bassey is Director, Home of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)