Nigeria: Between optimism and despair

In July 2014, Human Rights Watch published a report on the crisis in the country that starts with this sentence: “The Islamist insurgency Boko Haram in Nigeria killed at least 2,053 civilians in an estimated 95 attacks during the first half of 2014.” Many things contributed to defeat of former president Goodluck Jonathan at the polls a year later, but none as damning as his incompetence in the face of the Boko Haram crisis. The country was effectively at war and its commander-in-chief couldn’t offer the people protection. Four years and a full election cycle later, insecurity and the feelings of helplessness and despair Nigerians it caused in Nigerians is back to the order of 2014. Once again, the country is at war.

The explosion of an oil tanker on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway during rush hour was the end of a week that started with the news of killings in Jos, Plateau State. On Sunday, Nigerians–including Lagosians–sent text messages to their friends and family in and around Jos to enquire about their safety. On Thursday, Jos residents returned the favour with “Are you safe” text messages. 54 vehicles were burned as reported by CNN, and the death toll of nine feels false. We will never know the number of Nigerians who have died due to accidents and crisis in this week alone across the country, but Nigerians know a comparable number of people will be counted among the dead again, soon. And there’s nothing no one can do about it. Not the government, which has proven to be as lacking in empathy as it is inept. And, sadly, not the people who elected the government.

“The sad and unfortunate killings in Plateau State over the weekend have been turned to opportunity to once again play irresponsible politics, particularly by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which says it is declaring seven days of mourning,” wrote Femi Adesina, Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity in a statement where he gave a “quick checklist of some savage and brutal killings in Nigerian during PDP rule, between 1999 and 2015 for which no national mourning was declared.” Since his appointment, Adesina has continued a tradition of presidential media handlers whose idea of image making is to craft ridiculous statements that portray their boss as subhuman. “Those who take pleasure in twisting statements from the Presidency may claim we are saying that many more people were killed under people than under President Muhammadu Buhari,” Adesina writes. “It would be unconscionable to do so.” Well, it appears the man has diagnosed his own disease: a lack of conscience.

The last time any kind of mass action was taken against government was with the Occupy Nigeria protests, after the removal of fuel subsidy in 2012. Worst things have happened since then, events that in other countries would have led to an uprising. The citizens have advanced from Fela Kuti’s ‘Shuffering and Shmiling’ to suffering and shouting. People like Adesina know this: Nigerians are all noise no action. And even the most vocal ‘activists’ are just a government appointment away from silence.

“Governments have come and gone, some of these crises remain. More like new battles in a never ending war,” said Japheth Omojuwa, one of the most vocal critics of Good luck Jonathan’s tenure in the midst of the tribal comments that followed the Plateau attack. “It is definitely deeper than politics. Those who really want peace to reign must see the deep fault lines beyond the politics of the day seeing as it predates it.” This display of nuance and civility was part of a transformation that had greeted the character of one who was known for caustic criticism in the days of the former administration. After all, he’s the one that said: “Put a dead pig against Goodluck Jonathan at the polls. I’d vote for the pig and ago home and fulfilled.” This about face by many young activists makes the actions of Oby Ezekwesili–her one-woman march in Abuja is a good example–even more admirable. In a nation of political charlatans, she’s a Don Quixote of activism.

It seems the resilience Nigerians are famed for has turned to long-suffering and only in the worst ways possible. Many have said this behavior is typical of a country where religion advocates for peace and hope without justice. But a never-ending optimism isn’t the only part of our character that should be called into question. During the carnage on the expressway, for instance, opportunistic commercial transport workers raised the fare more than five fold to take advantage of the desperation of commuters. At a time when empathy and kindness was required, they responded with that ruthless hustling spirit Nigerians are famed for.

“Everything in Nigeria is going to kill you,” wrote lawyer and human rights activist Ayo Sogunro. For years, I’ve taken the Lagos-Ibadan-Oyo-Ogbomoso route, arguably one of the deadliest in the country. It was, therefore, impossible to react emotionally like many did to the carnage on the expressway because I’ve watched many fires engulf vehicles on the road, taking multiple cars and lives with them. To ply these roads is to constantly negotiate with death. And this is the same for living in Nigeria. Nigerians are now resigned to the state of the country. People die, we mourn, shake our heads, and say, “This is Nigeria.” The country is leading its citizens to the slaughter, and they simply march on like sheep.

The height of the Boko Haram crisis became a rallying point for pushing out the PDP-led government in 2015. At the time, President Muhammadu Buhari represented hope for many Nigerians who thought he would bring sanity to the system and hold it together with his firm military experience. Instead, the country has a president who has proven as incompetent as his predecessor. Unfortunately, the fervor that toppled Jonathan is nowhere to be found. Instead, Nigerians are in despair and looking for ways out of the country. It seems that optimism has finally reached its nadir. Instead of revolution, Nigerians now seem resolved to their fate. Where does the country go from here? No one knows. Worst still: no one really cares.