Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Poverty Tribe

The Poverty Tribe
By Tunji Lardner
Never mind those boastful allusions to greatness that we routinely make to the world. ‘The giant of Africa’ is the term usually bandied about, with its corollary being  ‘the most populous country in Africa with over 250 ethnicities and over 400 languages spoken.’  While that might be true when projected outwards and relative to other countries on the continent, at home these numbers dissolve into a tissue of lies about the veracity of our census and true our demography.  Since independence, we have kept up the big lie about the true and accurate numbers of the various ethnicities, especially the big three; Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba and with scant regard for the teeming minority ‘tribes.’ Our political leaders have instead preferred to maintain and legitimize this fiction, because in a mono-cultural petro-state, with most of the national income goes to the centre and revenue from the proceeds of Oil, how much you get, depends on dubious population claims or primordial claims to land rights, either way, we have collectively chosen to substitute fact for fiction.
The truth however is that contrary to all these demographic claims, there is one large and growing tribe that is possibly larger than the big three ‘tribes’ put together. The largest tribe in Nigeria today is the poverty tribe. Now before we start parsing what the definition of poverty is to confuse and distort its meaning and manifestations in Nigeria today, let me offer a UN definition that describes poverty "as the total absence of opportunities, accompanied by high levels of undernourishment, hunger, illiteracy, lack of education, physical and mental ailments, emotional and social instability, unhappiness, sorrow and hopelessness for the future. Poverty is also characterized by a chronic shortage of economic, social and political participation, relegating individuals to exclusion as social beings, preventing access to the benefits of economic and social development and thereby limiting their cultural development."
 Sounds familiar? It should, because all our socio-economic indicators validate the depredations of poverty that is so widespread and all around us that we have become inured to the destitution, desperation and death by poverty that afflict most of our compatriots; by some credible estimates, up to 70% of Nigerian live below the poverty line. In the last five years it has been estimated that the poverty rate in Nigeria has doubled to manifest as 112 million Nigerians living the very miserable lives articulated in the preceding UN definition.
 Recently the venerable Economist Magazine published a list of 80 countries that were measured on a quality of life index, with the title ‘The lottery of life’ Where to be born in 2013. According to them, the best place to be born this year is Switzerland and the worst, right at the very bottom of the list was Nigeria. Granted that it was not a comprehensive list of countries and a valid point can be made about the Economist’s predictably snarky reportage about Africa in general, even so, Nigeria has for a long time been one of the worst places to be born for mothers and children. The fact is that we have one of the world’s highest maternal and infant mortality rates, as well as one of the highest HIV infection rates.  Beyond the expected apologia about Nigeria being a developing country and as such should not be compared with Switzerland...blah..blah...blah,  and the present administration’s trope of a transformational agenda that is ‘sure and steady,’ the country’s vital signs do not look too good, Nigeria is sick, some might say terminally so.
 For the rest of us counting ourselves lucky enough not to belong to this tribe on the basis of access to material goods and services, well I have news for you. We all suffer from even more insidious forms of poverty. It is possible to be rich and still be poor at the same time. I’ve often wonder about this paradox, especially when engaging with Nigerian plutocrats, mostly the ever changing roster of the nouveau riche, the latest beneficiaries of a corrupt petro-state. One gets the impression that in spite of the outward, and I dare say, crass accumulation and display of material wealth, these individuals at close quarters resonate with a ringing hollowness, mental shallowness, and a startling lack of self awareness.
It is this mental shallowness that best describes the mental poverty, or better still, the poverty of the mind that seems to afflict many Nigerians and is especially rampant in its leaders. For all the buck passing and excuses we give about why Nigeria is so dysfunctional, one simple fact emerges and that is the very poor policy formation and decision making processes that we presently have in place at all levels of governance. When we examine government policies closely we discover that they are typically very short sighted and expedient, primarily designed to fulfil more privatized interests than ultimately the public good.
Stripped off the theatrics and insularity that Nigerian governments typically shroud their policy formation and delivery processes, a policy is really and quite simply what a government chooses to do, or not do. In this light, it simply means that the persistent and chronic poverty in the land is a reflection of what our governments and leaders have chosen to, or not do, over the last fifty odd years. And contrary to the frequent invocations by politicians and government officials of the devil or dark forces as being responsibly for our failures; poverty in Nigeria is man-made, an artefact of our collective creation, because we have failed to hold our leaders accountable for their misdeeds.
Now if indeed the devil has had a hand in creating this hell on earth, he/she must have done so with the active connivance of Nigerians, who display such callousness and abject disregard for their country and country men, that it can be argued that these group of people (and we all know them) must be indeed possessed by Lucifer. This poverty of the soul or spirit is writ large in our national psyche. We claim to be deeply religious, spiritual even, but remain stubbornly amoral, putting up an impenetrable moral firewall between our public ethics and our private morality. Take the recent and celebrated case of John Yesufu Yakubu a mid- level civil servant and our ‘thief de jour’ who is reputed to have made off N32.8, which in real money is over $140 million of the Police Pension Fund. His was let off by the Judge and fined N750,000 (about $5,000).
The rich irony of stealing from the Nigerian police aside, the opportunity cost of this grand larceny to the common wealth and wellbeing is astounding. I ran some numbers indexed against Nigeria’s 2012 national budget and came up with these figures.  Yakubu’s haul is 536.89% of the budgetary allocation for the Ministry of Police affairs and 777.31% of the budget for the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), which in lay terms means that Mr. Yakubu can technically afford to run the Police Affairs Ministry and the ICPC for five and seven years respectively-two of the instruments of state expressly designed to uphold law and order and put criminals like Yakubu behind bars for a very long time. Equally stupefying is the fact that one man and his cronies stole the equivalent of 48.07 of the National budgetary allocation for Universal Basic Education, which means that perhaps half of Nigeria’s school age children running into the tens of millions could technically be denied an education because the system we have co-created allows and encourages people to steal from the commonwealth, with no real fear of consequences.
At a personal level, and from the larcenous vantage point of Mr. Yakubu, I must ask...what accounts for such reptilian greed, such insatiable pillaging and worse still, such collective numbness and indifference to an act so dangerous and damaging to the common good, it must be considered high treason.  The answer in a word is poverty. Nigeria is a rich country full of poor people.
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Saturday, April 6, 2013

For Chinua Achebe: Writing is easy

For Chinua Achebe: WRITING IS EASY
By Tunji Lardner

The transition of Chinua Achebe on March 21 this year at age 82 signalled the passing a great African and a global man of letters. Widely acclaimed as the father of the modern ‘African novel,’ with the debut fifty-five years ago of his timeless classic ‘Things fall apart,’ Chinua Achebe can rest easy, and gaze proudly from his celestial writing desk at the many children he has spawned.
The richly deserved avalanche of glowing tributes and readings that will be held in his honour will
no doubt speak to the man’s literary genius, but might not fully capture the sage humanity of his personage that only a direct interaction with this great man might impress. My own tribute to the man is borne out of intermittent contact with him over the last three or so decades beginning with this essay fully reproduced below, and written as a preface to a cover story about the man and his work. After working feverishly to pen the said essay titled ‘Writing is easy;’ I was over the moon, when word got back to me that he liked it. Me....? Chinua Achebe liked my essay? Wow...unbelievable! As young journalist, this was to be my bragging rights for the rest of the year.
Now fast-forward to the early nineties in the US, when a handful of us rode up to meet him then at Bard College, not too long after his road accident. We were welcomed by his ever so gracious wife Christie and his son Ikechukwu and as I recall it, the sounds of Fela wafting in the background and emanating from his study. When I tentatively inquired about the music, he was to remark that ‘Fela was the sage of our times,’ clearly genius recognizes genius.
Sitting in the modest campus issue living room and enveloped by the love and attentiveness of his wife and son was the great man in a wheel chair, warmly dressed and a blanket draped over his knees cascading to the floor. His quiet, yet powerful presence had us acolytes awe struck; there was a luminous sadness and a sober happiness, coexisting side by side, without friction or contradiction. Like his writings, there was a measured, balanced, and weighted series of conversations that we had, mostly about Nigeria, (these were the darker days of the military as opposed to the present dark days of ‘democracy’) writing, and our sense of our  place in the world. Each point as I recall was carefully gestated before being delivered in a slow deliberate cadence, freighted with considerable moral authority and punctuated by his wry wit interlaced with deeper meanings that occupied my mind on the long drive back to New York City.  Here was an advanced and enlightened soul, whose humanity and spirit had fully embraced the wholeness life in its entirety, the good, the bad and the ugly.
I next met him at Wesleyan college during the joyous celebration of his 70th birthday surrounded by a large crowd of family, friends, and well wishers all enveloping him with love and admiration. The high point for me was when he lovingly embraced my then young daughter and somehow managed to cradle her for quite a little bit in spite of the hubbub of activities around him. Given the timelessness of his work, his spirit will undoubtedly live on, the man might be gone but his soul and spirit embedded in his wise words live on. My own little tribute is therefore to go back in time to uncover a past tribute that in my mind remains a timeless homage to a truly great man, who could and did write.

On the pale uninspiring walls of our rather prosaic newsroom is this acerbic epithet credited to Red Smith, an American sports reporter: “Writing is very easy. All you have to do is sit in front of a typewriter keyboard until little drops of BLOOD appear on your forehead.”

Peering unremittently from strategic positions in the newsroom, its message at various times elicits various attitudes. In the somewhat relaxed atmosphere of post-production recuperation, its sardonic wit can be laughed off.
Of course, ‘writing is easy,’ after all we have just put to bed another excellent issue of Newswatch. But in the pre-production madness, with the horrifying spectre of implacable deadlines — personified by the unsmiling countenance of any of the four big editors, the import is anything but sanguine.
Sanguinary it might be, if a crucial deadline is not met, but whatever the reasons, the writing must be done. "A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one: it comes as sincerely from the author's soul," Aldous Huxley wisely observed. True, and no less truthful, regarding a copy. After the expenditure of so much calories, a bad story in the end is perhaps twice as laborious as a good one. But what drives men to such torture?
Obviously the need to communicate in a more permanent fashion must have been the catalyst of this unending agony. Although evidence for the original alphabet is scarce, it is widely upheld that the first alphabet came from the lands bordering the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, including ancient Canaan and Phoenicia circa 1700—1500 BC.

The creationists, on the other hand, are typically quick to remind us that "in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God" (John chapter 1, verse 1). If so, man at some point in antiquity must have stolen the WORD Promethean-like from the gods, and like Prometheus, who allegedly stole fire from the Greek gods to give to humanity, writers have to perpetually suffer the retribution of the gods. Prometheus was chained to a rock by an enraged Zeus, with an eagle sent to eat his immortal liver which constantly replenished itself. A tale akin to the agony a writer feels when his pen is willing but his inspiration is weak. And a fate many would readily prescribe tor writers, having suffered the toxicity of a poisoned pen.

But Prometheus has since been unbounded. In his epic lyrical drama, Prometheus Unbound Shelly, the British poet and philosopher, captured the universal theme of the principle of good (Prometheus) triumphing over the universal principle of evil. And although the poetic licence validated by the writer’s muse permits the amoral, and even the immoral, the enforcement of poetic justice has been the ethical responsibility of the writer.

But this is a responsibility that has oftentimes been abdicated for reasons too wide for ready discourse. "The fact that many people should be shocked by what he writes practically imposes it as a duty upon the writer to go on shocking them,” Aldous Huxley again observes. But the shock and the bizarre themes explored by some writers, for example, Kafka, Tutuola, Fagunwa and Soyinka, are even more shocking when it is realized that although the writer might draw his inspiration from deep within his soul, his expiration is necessarily part of his environment. Writers with varying degrees of refraction mirror the foibles of man, which are considerable. It is this irksome and self-indicting reminder issued relentlessly by writers that, although we might be god-like, we must certainly have feet of clay, that more often than not gets the writer in trouble. Writers have been beaten, imprisoned and quite routinely killed for putting the word to paper. And their baffling stubbornness to recant, even in the face of death, has often times been their very end.

“The moving finger writes, and having written moves on; nor all thy piety and wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line. Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it,” remarked Edward Fitzgerald in the Rubbaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

It is the permanency of the written word that has encapsulated existence. Where would history be if the word was not put down in whatever language? And what would you read if somebody had not sat down to write it. But writing it, and writing it well, is the big problem which the opening quote by Red Smith addresses so wryly.

“Of all those acts in which the wise excel, nature`s chief masterpiece is writing well,” John Sheffield enthused in his Essay on Poetry, 1682. And the British man of letters, Francis Bacon, had about five decades earlier advised that “reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man.” Going by such wholesome advice, it is clear that a great many men are not “ready,” “exact” or “full.” Very few people can creditably sustain an idea through one or two paragraphs, and indeed anybody who can, should be warmly congratulated.

Chinua Achebe is a man who has driven his soul through many paragraphs. “Language has not the power to speak what love indites. The soul lies buried in the ink that writes,” John Clare profoundly observes. The soul of Achebe`s literature, unobscured by quaint Euro-centric literary appreciation, is organically entwined with his society, But his art and craftsmanship has successfully elevated indigenous themes to the heights of universality. His books speak of a man as a homogenous commodity in a society that is universal. For although Umuofia and Mbanta, the principal villages in Things Fall Apart, his monumental debut, are intensely Igbo homesteads, the clash of cultures, the nationalistic pride of Okonkwo (the protagonist) and his tragic end, have world-wide currency. Man is often times caught in the cross-fire of change, the shifting sands of time, and the rain storm of fate. To capture all these, for better or for worse, one has to write well. Albert Chinualumogu Achebe writes well.

Originally published as the ‘Preface to Cover’ of NEWSWATCH Magazine MARCH 24, 1986

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Through the glass darkly

Through the glass darkly
By Tunji Lardner
Lately I have been having this recurring vision that it is at once intriguing as it is disturbing. Now given the peculiar Nigerian interpretation of the word, I am compelled to preemptively quash any cynical retort about my ‘seeing visions,’ I must quickly add this disclaimer, ‘no hallucinogen and or religious epiphany were used in the production of this vision.’  There, as I was saying, in the vision I am on the second floor a house, peering through a square and clear glass window, twice bisected and thus framing the window into a quadrant of four neat squares. It is invariably dawn with the Sun rising and steadily brightening the vistas I see as I peer in wonderment through the glass brightly.
I see a wonderful land, lush and verdant, like an idyllic savannah, with wonderful and happy people purposefully  tilling the land, growing things, making things, building things and all harmoniously working together to build something in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This green paradise stretching far into the horizon and capped at the furthest point by bright luminous white clouds, with just a hint of azure skies in the background, immediately conjures up something familiar in my altered state of consciousness. Even as I struggle to make immediate sense of this green and white montage, the beguiling beauty of this landscape holds me spell bound; I look again in bold arcs of looking, taking in the view and tracing it right back, it seems, to my door steps. I look again at what should be my very own garden and I see the fractal geometry of this beautiful land fully replicated in my own backyard, suggesting that it is within reach, literally at my own doorsteps.
I immediately race down the stairs and in two bounds I am on the ground floor, pivoting on the balls of my left foot and making a sharp right, arms out stretched reaching for the door handle. I yank the door open to be confronted by something not all together unexpected, familiar even; as I taken in the sight I shake my head in amazement. What lay before me was a dank, grim and dysfunctional nightmare. I saw people suffering and shackled by their own fears, greed, violence, cowardice and deceptions, sloshing through the excrement of their own making, crying no, howling for someone, anyone, to save them, even though they could save themselves, if only they chose to. I quickly shut the door on this self-inflicted nightmarish hell on earth that I strangely felt was co-created by my own complaisance and the willful complicity of tens of millions of others.
I dejectedly make my way up the stairs and back to the window.  I hazard another furtive peek at the window and there it was again, that marvelous vision of a country in which everything worked in consonance and concert for the greater good.  As I take in the beautiful green horizon that lay boundless in front of me, the significance of the green and white motif hits me. This is Nigeria, or more realistically this is what Nigeria could be. I especially look sharply downwards to my own garden and again, I see my own backyard as being part of this greater whole, and I am tempted to again rush downstairs to frolick in my garden and partake in the collective of this joyful celebration of a purposeful, orderly and productive life, but I restrain myself.  I know what lies in my garden, Nigeria today.
As I scratch my head in bemusement, I wonder aloud about these two different realities.  The one the utopian vision of a country that has been endowed with everything it needs to be a successful global leader, and the other, the dystopian reality it has created and seems determined to sustain.  Lost in my thoughts, I gaze through this window, trying to reconcile these two phenomena, the illusions of greatness and the reality of mediocrity. What is the common denominator in this puzzle, then as my eyes pull back from staring at the horizon, I took a step back and actually looked at the window. Suddenly it struck me as I respectively trained my sight to look intently at the squares from the top right quadrant right through to the bottom left quadrant. It was the people. It is the people that can make the difference.
To fully share this vision, I want you to look in your mind’s eye and imagine that you are looking at the window and there are four contiguous squares that make up that framework of the window and each square that you see is a quadrant. You see them? Good. Now imagine with me as I seek to populate the quadrants with the type of people I saw in the vision.
The top left quadrant These are the ruling elite comprising mostly of the beneficiaries of the Military-Political Complex that capture the state in 1966, and have since then been rapaciously plundering the common wealth and deliberately impoverishing their own people to maintain this dysfunctional and unsustainable status quo. This band of thieves is composed of the direct inheritors of Nigeria’s political independence whose predation started almost immediately after the Union Jack was lowered on the 1st of October, 1960. This group comprises of three main classes, the military-having fought to ‘keep Nigeria one’ regard the wealth of the nation as war booty to be shared according to their whims, the civil servants and other apparatchiks of the state for whom the workings of government is simply a toll gate to extract bribes and rent for every transaction or contract that they care to implement, ostensibly for the good of the commonwealth, and the politicians comprising professional political operators and other assignees from the two previous groups that collectively sustain the graft and patronage machine, much to the detriment of the common good.  These kleptocrats know that the jig is up, and that after five decades of unrestrained pillaging, the Nigerian state is danger of collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions, but can’t stop stealing. It is too easy, and besides the odds of you being brought to justice is virtually zero. The present crop of brigands know that they are riding the tiger but are too afraid to dismount for fear of been eaten. The group numbering no more than 5% (five percent)t of the population have access to over 80% (eighty percent) of its wealth and are fully replicated at both the federal , state, and local governments of this country. Their educational attainment ranges from the barely literate, to the well educated, nonetheless they have found common ground in grand larceny and effectively they are ‘our ogas at the top.’
The top right quadrant This group is roughly the traditional middle class of Nigerians whose membership in the fluid and uncertain dynamics of Nigerian class formation is constantly changing with each regime. They owe their class ascendency by virtue of their kinship and proximity to the ruling elite in the aforementioned top left quadrant. They are the educated professionals in the main, but depend on the patronage machine to successfully ply their trade.  When called upon, they migrate seamlessly and sideways into the left quadrant, and once there, fight doggedly to remain in that space. For the rest of them, they wait with anxious anticipation for ‘their turn’ to feed at the trough. For this middling class, their constant complaint about the system without any real resolve to make the necessary sacrifices for real transformational change had come to define the nation’s character. This group has created a country where its potential leaders are too cynical, afraid and self-absorbed to fully understand the dynamics of its own extinction. For them salvation lies mostly in the ‘divine intervention’ that hopefully will nudge them sideways into the state subsidized creature comforts of life in the top left quadrant. Even though they frequently travel internationally to see and enjoy the results of other nation’s sacrifice, planning and hard work, their deluded sense of ‘Nigeria’s exceptionalism,’ and their inherent laziness and habituated value system of expecting reward and benefits without any real or meaningful effort or production,  means that they cannot and will not change the system for the better. And although they worry about the diminishing horizons for themselves and their families, they are immobilized by fear, uncertainties and doubt to mount a sustained campaign to transform their country. They constitute perhaps 20% (twenty percent) of the population and are fully represented at all levels of the body politic.
The bottom left quadrants This group is the potential creators of a utopian Nigeria, or more realistically a new Nigeria. They are drawn from all quadrants and exist in and out of Nigeria. And with the return in increasing numbers of members of the Diaspora, there exists the prospects of the formation of a new middle class with considerable intellectual and financial capital to deploy in a last ditched attempt to salvage Nigeria before it collapses. What they presently lack is the social capital to successfully organize to occupy the top left quadrant. This group is the brain trust of the nation and it is staffed by creative and innovative Nigerians who have the technical skills as well as the right moral attitude to bring the much needed change in the country. However, they are viewed with suspicion by the people in the top right quadrant who don’t want anyone to ‘rock the boat’ or in that peculiar Nigerian expression ‘heat up the polity,’ because any potential change of the system could possibly dislodge them from their positions in line for feeding at the trough. The sentiments from the top right quadrant is even more sinister, they do not want these potential change agents anywhere near their quadrant, so they invariably deploy their strategy of the three ‘Cs:’ conscription, cooption and finally coercion to neutralize them.  In spite of these threats, an increasing number of Nigerians from all quadrants are looking to this group for answers. They constitute perhaps less than 5% (five percent) of the population.
The bottom right quadrant The actions of this group over the next decade will determine if Nigeria survives as a nation. This is the largest demographic unit and comprises the over 70% (seventy percent) of Nigerians who are under the age of 30 (thirty) and not so coincidentally, the 70% (seventy percent) of Nigerians who are living below the poverty line. So as you look more closely at this quadrant, you do the math.  If 70% (seventy percent) of your population is  at once young and poor, living on the marginalized edge of destitution, disease, ignorance and hopelessness, then by proportionate extrapolation, your country Nigeria, is a rich country full of poor people. Furthermore, this ‘poverty tribe’ contrary to the usual ethnic classifications is the largest tribe in Nigeria. The poverty tribe in reality cuts across the broad demographics and ethnicities, whilst mostly hidden from view in our rural villages, in the large urban cities, we still see glimpse of this growing tribe every day in our streets, begging, hustling, stealing and trying to eke out a miserable living under the hot tropical sun. This group does not really care about the preservation of this system or political order, because the system historically has not cared for them. Even so, they are acutely aware of their privations and ceaseless hardships against a backdrop of the relative comforts and affluence of the other three quadrants and they are angry, very angry. We must recognize that we are all sitting on a tinderbox perched atop an oil drum of explosives and that this group will have no hesitation whatsoever to one day in fit of blind rage light the fuse.  They really have nothing invested in the system because the system has invested nothing in them, and therefore they have nothing to lose if the whole place goes up in flames.  As you read this, consider that you also might be collateral damage if this scenario ever plays out fully.
So, which quadrant or quadrants do you belong to?
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My Oga at the top Redux

My Oga at the top Redux
By Tunji Lardner
Poor guy; Obafaiye Shem, the Lagos State Commandant of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corp (NSCDC) , whose meteoric rise to digital media fame on account of a truly comical interview on Nigeria’s Channel TV must rue day he stuttered the words ‘my oga at the top.’  In a truly classic display of evasion in the face of pointed questioning and craven obsequiousness to his Oga at the top, jabbing his fore finger heaven wards, he unwittingly created an Internet phenomena, even as he spawned an instant cultural meme and wrote his words forever into the Nigerian urban lexicon.  The full story of the actual scandal he was ineptly trying to explain away and the extent of this viral contagion can be explored further in the links below:
Scandal Reports and the background:
August 25, 2012
February 17, 2012
Senate investigation:
Consider that the Lagos State Commandant of the NSCDC has a Facebook page:
The Channels Interview (a snippet):
Website: (Under construction already!) (Domain name speculators)
Facebook pages:
Music Videos:

To some readers an explanation of the meaning of the word ‘meme’ might be necessary.
Meme [meem] noun: a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes. In the digital world, this cultural item can go ‘viral’ as was the case here. Now, the meaning of the word ‘oga’ so familiar with Nigerians and other Africans as a distinctly Nigerian cultural trope requires some effort. The easiest transliteration is to equate ‘Oga’ with the boss, the big kahuna, the capo, the master, the big shot, the shot caller, de man, (as in ‘he de man’), you get the idea. Another variant is the ‘Oga pata-pata,’ as in the Boss of all bosses, or as my Sicilian friends would say ‘Capo de tutti capi’ a.k.a. The Godfather.
It is a safe bet to assume that when Commandant Shem was referring to his ‘Oga’ at the top, he was referring to the personage of  Dr. Ade Abolurin the Commandant General of the NSCDC ensconced like most other ‘ogas’ in that most hierarchical of cities, Abuja, where our own boss of all bosses, the President  resides. In sticking to the time honored script of publicly pledging loyalty and fealty to his immediate ‘oga’ on the hierarchical and mostly patriarchal totem pole, Shem was simply delegating upwards the task of revealing his agency’s web address, ordinarily a fact that should reside in the public domain. However his conditioning like most public servants was not to advance the public good, but to propitiate the gods of the civil service and damn the public’s right to know.
However in this rare instance, the public’s right, specifically the digital public’s right to know pushed back hard. In unwittingly creating Nigeria’s first real digital meme, Shem’s ‘my oga at the top’ faux pas, was in actuality the collision of an analogue thinking monolith with a digital generation whose domain the World Wide Web.  Shem and his numerous ‘ogas’ will have reasons to fear in the near future if these digital natives push home their advantage on all fronts to bring thieving politicians, inept and corrupt civil servants and irresponsible governments  to  heel to the tenets of open, transparent and accountable governance.
It was also a battle between the rigid, mafia like hierarchies where all knowledge is deemed to reside in the mounting stacks of different ‘ogas’ embedded in the civil service machinery and the newly evolving paradigm of flatten inclusive hierarchies of distributed knowledge and participation in which the collective wisdom and input of all stakeholders are deemed necessary for successful decision making as well as successful outcomes, in a word good governance.
The relentless social media parodies about ‘my oga at the top’ also signals the digital unmasking of the analogue Nigerian ‘big man-oga’ masquerade in the digital public square. For too long the myth of the invincibility of the Nigerian ‘big man’ and by extension that bogus self referenced titled of being ‘The Giant of Africa,’ has gone unchallenged in spite of  the declining quality of life for most Nigerians over the last five decades.  I would argue that to understand the Nigerian ‘oga’ mythos is to delve into the pre-colonial patriarchal system that existed in most indigenous cultures, which eventually evolved in the post-independence era into the African ‘big man’ archetype; the one man that kept fractious tribal sentiments in check, even as he, perforce of his personal strength, wisdom and political acumen kept these fledging states together. A critical look at the very mixed legacies of the various African Big men since independence suggests that they wound up doing more harm than good to their various countries. Even so, in Nigeria today the ‘oga syndrome’ persists in spite of all evidence to the contrary, he or she is typically an insecure but powerful office holder or authority figure, lacking in humility and compassion, more style than substance, and the benefactor of the grand patronage machine of the state. The technical word for this client-patron relationship is ‘clientelism,’ and its popular manifestation is the asymmetric power arrangement between ‘political god-fathers’ who are patrons to clients, who can be political aspirants, or simply  down trodden unemployed young Nigerians, desperately seeking  jobs, as was the case in the NSCDC fiasco. Since it can be safely argued that most big men or ‘ogas’ got to where they are today, not on account of merit, but  by simply riding the patronage machine  to the very top of their incompetence, the net negative result for us all is the triumph of mediocrity over meritocracy.  
Femke van Zeijl, a very insightful Dutch writer living in Nigeria put it so bluntly and so clearly when she wrote that; “ Nigeria is the opposite of a meritocracy: you do not earn by achieving. You get to be who and where you are by knowing the right people. Whether you work in an office, for an enterprise or an NGO, at a construction site or in government, your abilities hardly ever are the reason you got there. Performing well, let alone with excellence, is not a requirement, in fact, it is discouraged. It would be too threatening: showing you’re more intelligent, capable or competent than the ‘oga at the top’ (who, as a rule, is not an overachiever either) is career suicide. It is an attitude that trickles down from the very top, its symptoms eventually showing up in all of society, from bad governance to bad service to bad craftsmanship.”
In trying to think of a way out of this infinite regressive loop of mediocrity, while the logical place to start should be the very top with our ‘uber-oga,’ our own ‘capo di tutti capi,’ or more colloquially, our ‘Oga pata-pata,’ Nigeria again defies conventional logic. As it is, we can’t presently start from the very top to begin to change things, because it seems that our ‘oga at the very top’ also reports to his own ‘ogas at the top.’ ‘Das all.’

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Why I write

Why I write

Since I fired my warning shot across the bow last week, announcing through this medium that I would resume this risky business of writing a weekly column, I have been giving the whole idea a second and even a third thought.  You see this for me is like déjà vu, all over again. I somehow feel compelled to offer a tepid apology to all for firing that first shot; beating a hasty retreat into the familiar confines of my vacuous mind, and then carrying on as if nothing happened.
Having withdrawn from the Nigerian journalism space over twenty-five years ago (most Nigerians weren’t born then), you can empathize with me over this groggy sense of dread and trepidation that happens when you are suddenly jolted awake in a strange place, and this is a strange place. The only comfort so far has been the handful of congratulatory messages from my old time friends and some new ones encouraging me to  ‘keep the ink flowing.’ The responses have been in the main good, save one from the ever cynical Sonala Olumhense, himself a long in the tooth columnist for this paper. 
Congrats. Excellent start. The key will be whether or not you are willing to dedicate time to think deeply before each one in the months and months ahead. Then and only then will the quality be sustained and raised. Happy you are doing this. Well done” One of them sagely advised.
Another one issued a shrill note of warning. Beware all ye men of fragile character for he shall jab you here, gouge you there and excoriate you everywhere. He shall give no succor and plead for none. Long may his ink flow.”
 And then my cynical friend intones “Please join me in congratulating Tunji for finally finding his pen.  Some of us have tried to help him, almost forever, in the  search for it. But misery loves company, the self-same Tunji always says, every other cognac sip.  I welcome him to the land of frustration.  I hope he does not conveniently lose his pen again by Easter. Welcome, son.  Yes, your past awaits, the misery complicated by lost youth and ageless indigestion.”
Buoyed by these words of encouragement, I am now embolden to explain ‘why I write,’ instead of the lukewarm excuse previously offered. Even so, I am still somewhat self conscious, at least in my mind about the inevitable comparisons between the ‘Tunji Lardner jnr ’of perhaps thirty years ago and the hoary, ornery, and irascible geezer he has become.
 Recently I was sifting through the compilations of opinions and essays that I wrote three decades ago, and I was startled by two things. The first shock was the realization that I could never write like that again. I marvelled at the self assuredness of youth; the pointed inquisitions of any and everybody, the lightening rapier thrusts at goons in power, the monochromic clarity of my vision of the world, always laid bare in stark black and white relief, the moral certitude of my positions all driven by an unquenchable fire in the belly.
These days, the fire still occasionally rages in my rotund belly, but I have over the years been able to pinpoint its source as any one of three things acting alone or in concert; indigestion, constipation or flatulence.  My rapier sharp thrusts have over the years been blunted by the slow and steady abrasions of life’s experiences sand-papering  the serrated edges and bevelling its point into a rounded burnished finish-still sharp, but not pointed, better suited for slashing. The monochromic black and white contrasts of moral issues that were so clear in my youth have alas ceded ground not to a Technicolor view of the world, but the greyscales of relativism. I now see life in way more than fifty shades of grey. I have come to humbly embrace the uncertainties of wisdom, or perhaps the wisdom of uncertainties in fully acknowledging that the more I know, the more I know that I do not know. Or as Buddha puts it ‘true wisdom humbles.’ But even so, you can still expect to see flashes of the old Tunji in the new.
Yes, I expect the usual complaints about not writing for the ‘common man’ or for ‘ordinary people,’ to which my response is that at this point of my life, I prefer to deal with only uncommon and extra-ordinary people. There will be no pandering to the least common denominator, because while my ‘fight’ as it were is to prod the system into lifting from poverty the over 70% of Nigerians living in near destitution, I hope to speak directly to the perhaps 20% of literate Nigerians who can help make a difference.
 And yes, you might have to reach for a dictionary now and again, so I suggest that you also take an aspirin tablet whilst you are at it. Like the old Tunji, this new but old version will still arrogate the universal poetic licence to write about anything from quantum entanglement to local politics and everything in between hopefully for the entertainment and edification of my readers... all twelve of you.
 The second shocking and even more disturbing fact is that Nigeria more or less has changed little in the intervening decades. Indeed some of the people I was railing against as a young man are the same people I see in still pulling the levers of state and dominating the newspaper headlines today. It seems that in Nigeria, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
This leaves me with no options than to rail some more. However this time, I hope to educate, guide, persuade and influence the cadences of our national dialogue, especially among young people. I especially want to challenge the orthodoxy of the prevailing narrative about Nigeria, prompt new debates, stimulate new thinking that will hopefully galvanize positive action. Given our fractious nature and the present fragility of this divided country, I am not sure I will succeed, however it is my hope that by casting some empirical light on vexing national issues, explaining them, and persuading the reader to come to a place of enlightened self interest, we might be able to speak truth to power and make rational and informed decisions about whom we choose to lead us going forward and how we want our country to truly develop.
Why I write? Well, the truth is that this is also for my own catharsis. With a million ideas constantly ricocheting inside my capacious head (capacious because it is mostly empty) I find that the act of concentrating my thoughts and writing frequently about them helps to hold my brain in place so that when I shake my head you don’t hear my brain rattle. This is why I write.

I beg your pardon

I beg your pardon
By Tunji Lardner
This time, not even the fig leaf of hiding behind the National Council of State could morally justify and mollify public opinion about the decision of President Goodluck Jonathan to especially pardon his self described ‘boss and mentor’ the former governor of Bayelsa state Diepreye Alamieyeseigha. While embedding this egregious pardon in the cynical calculus of Nigeria’s ethic representational politics; a spineless ex-general here, a thieving bank manager there, one or two dead politicians sprinkled in for good measure to tote up the numbers for the arithmetic of national character, and as it turns out, even in this act of magnanimity he got his sums wrong. Three of those pardoned had already been pardoned before by another head of state. It is therefore crystal clear that the intentionality of President Jonathan was to free and rehabilitate Alamieyeseigha; possibly in preparation for his run in 2015.
It is also clear that he was, as is increasingly the case, playing to his South-South constituency gallery, while willing to sacrifice the larger Nigerian sensibilities and concerns about our international standing regarding the almost mythical fight against corruption. No surprise here really, like most Nigerian politicians, his parochial nativist instincts trumps National interests every time, and besides, he after all has publicly told us that he does ‘not give a damn’ about what we really think of him and his governance. So as his voluble and gratingly meretricious spokesman Doyin Okupe said directly quoting the president ‘that this is an action that has been taken by the National Council of States and I have no apology for that.’  
But what is to be said about our National Council of State, our own secular conclave of elders, the Nation’s pre-eminent congregation of leaders comprising the President, the Vice President, all former Presidents, all former Chief Justices of the Federation, the leadership of the National Assembly and all state governors. Indeed our national constitution stipulates that the Council of State is established under Section 153 of the Constitution. In the Third Schedule, it is stated that: “The Council shall have power to (a) advice the President in the exercise of his powers with respect to the – (ii) prerogative of mercy.”
 In the best of times this august body represents the collective embodiment of our values, ethics and morality as a nation-the gathering of the wisest men in all of Nigeria- what advice did they give Mr. President on this issue?  Granted that this enquiry is now moot and the question rhetorical; it none the less raises some very vexing issues about the moral bankruptcy of our present political elite.
In unanimously granting a cross-dressing felon like Diepreye Alamieyeseigha a presidential pardon, the council of state was taking care of one of their own, in him they respectively recognized a fellow wayfarer on that tortuous road to the destruction of Nigeria, and so their collective act of esprit d corps in the warped logic of national politics to date is perfectly understandable. There is after all honor amongst thieves, and in this instance, thieves of all political stripes.
However, what about the rest of us?  How does this explain the sociology of our corruption and our own collective reluctance to criminalize  and punish corrupt practices by establishing a rules based, legal, rational, fair and equitable justice system that ensures that if your do the crime, you will do the time. What does it say about great amoral wall we have collectively built (and maintained) between our private ethics and our public morality? What does it say about our willful ignorance and denial about tremendous opportunity cost of the grand theft ($400billion by some estimates) by our leaders since 1960?
What does it say that increasingly we are degenerating into a country where the usual societal disapprobation of shame and or guilt can no longer modify behavior? What does it say about our collective complicity in allowing this audacious act of state impunity to happen, with absolutely no fear of retribution? Above all else, what does it say that we as a nation have lost that collective sense of treason- treason for the avoidance of doubt, defined as ‘a violation of allegiance to one’s state or the betrayal of trust or confidence’ by engaging in acts injurious to the collective well being of the state to which one bears allegiance. By this definition it seems we are all guilty in varying degrees of co-creating this treacherous state of affairs.
With all the organs of state fully represented in executing this pardon, we can formally and without equivocation state that Nigeria as a country represented by its ‘democratically’ elected leaders has lost its moral bearings and the ship of state is unmoored and drifting in its own self created sea of anomie. We are all in a leaking ship, in dire straits, piloted by a Captain lost in the fog of his own confusion and heading for the rocks. Contrary to what the apologists might say, it is not the hard technical numbers about GDP growth and other economic indices that guarantee that nations thrive and continue to evolve; it is their collective sense of identity as a nation, their binding set of values, their body of laws and their collective moral codes and their clear consensus about what is good and what is bad, and their collective will to insist that their represented leaders always seek to do the public good, and punish them if they do the bad.  
Not so in this case, to fully understand our relationship with our ruling elite, we sadly must again turn to the president’s mouth piece and alter ego, Doyin Okupe, who rationalized the issue thusly, “It is like a parent, it is not every decision a parent takes that is palatable or acceptable to the children. But in due course, we always find out the parents were right,” His condescending characterization of Nigerians as children bound to obey the decision of their parent, in this instance, Mr. President and the council, while galling, actually speaks to a larger truth.
 Nigerians over the last five decades and especially since 1999 have allowed themselves to be infantilized by the political elite. In truth, we all are members of a large fractious and thoroughly dysfunctional family headed by immature, venal, abusive, violent, and untrustworthy parents who prefer the ‘do as I say, and not as I do’ style of parenting. A trait compounded by years of military misrule and our own lax moral values. We can pardon our leaders and not seek to hold them accountable, because we (the children) ourselves are always exonerating our respective bad behavior and do not want to be held accountable for anything. In this Nigerian family, any and everything goes, you are encouraged to behave badly, because everyone is doing the same and can statistically be assured with getting away with it.
 In the same way it can be argued that a nation gets the leaders it deserves, we can also make the case that the children of this grotesque family definitely have the parents they deserve. Our parents are right to expect that again in this instance, we will throw our typical juvenile tantrums, cry out in disgust, stomp our feet in muted rage, even fling a few toys, but in the end we will return to our humdrum sedated selves busying ourselves with the ever grinding business of life in Nigeria.
But I do beg your pardon sir… I find the decision unacceptable and unpalatable as well as wrong in its entirety.
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The Age of Consequence

I think a short explanation is necessary here. Well... I have started a weekly Sunday column at the Guardian in Nigeria, and here are the articles written so far, starting with this one. There!


By Tunji Lardner

“They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”  Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger.  The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close.  In its place we are entering a period of consequences”.  We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now”
Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936

The inimitable Winston Churchill made these remarks when speaking to journalists about the impending war in Europe. Against the ominous backdrop of Hitler’s sabre rattling, he was issuing a dire warning about the inevitability of the Second World War amidst the dithering, ill prepared, fractious, frightened and collective impotence of what was to evolve to become the Allied Forces in the European theatre.
His powerful words, expressing the ‘strange paradox’ of a wilful decision to be indecisive, irresolute, unmoored, liquefied and impotent; this might very well describe the collective state of the Nigerian psyche today.  Since last year’s fuel subsidy ‘wahala,’ there is a growing consensus among the chattering class that Nigeria is a very fragile state heading in absolutely the wrong direction. While the reasons adduced for this dangerous trajectory are as varied and as vapid as the respective commentator, it is clear that ‘something is rotten in the state of Nigeria.’
The prevailing zeitgeist is one of a limited national horizon as a viable and stable political entity and a severely circumscribed future for the tens of millions of young people under the age of thirty, by some estimates perhaps 110 million out of a population now adjusted upwards to 170 million frustrated citizens. Nigeria has run out of excuses for its failures, and ‘the era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays’ is truly over we are fully in it, we are in the ruthless grip of historical causalities, we are all, regardless of culpabilities in the age of consequences.
If we consider the past as prologue-meaning that our history has determined where we are today, we all must bear graduated responsibilities over the last five decades for taking what was once a promising nation and turning it into a failed state. While, I must concede that most of the damage to Nigeria was wrought by the ‘Military-Political Complex,’ still well and alive today, thank you very much, a substantial amount of blame must lie with succeeding generations whose collective apathy and inertia, all but guarantees that their future is permanently held hostage by the past. A past they can reasonably argue, they had no hand in shaping. However, that’s exactly my point, this IS the age of consequences, and our collective complaisance in maintaining this present status quo means that we are all guilty as charged, in varying degrees.
Presently in a wry and ironic twist of history, we are engulfed in that strange paradox of cascading failures of the state, undermined by maximum complexities and complications being confronted with a sorry counterpoint of minimum competence in leadership and governance. At federal and state levels, on the average, our political leaders are both incompetent as well as corrupt, and yet our citizens still look to them for salvation. Nigeria’s problems have outstripped the abilities and will of her leaders to solve them. Then again there is the paradox of expecting salvation from the very class of people who caused the problems in the first place, a clear case of doing the same things over and over again and then expecting different results-this by the way is an acceptable definition of madness.
It is as if Nigerians have all collectively decided that they are not subject to the laws of physics, and that the laws of causality do not apply and that we are not bound to the simple logical equation of A+B=C; in a word, cause and effect cease to apply in the Nigerian dimension of reality. However, the ‘reality’ of reality is that while the time and historical distance of a causal factor might have happened a long time ago, and not within the immediate purview of the observer, the effects will still happen, and continue to happen until its trajectory is changed. This is what young Nigerians have to fully understand; the fact that you did not ‘cause’ the problem does not mean that you will not suffer its consequences.
We are presently confronted by many existential threats, not only to Nigeria as a country but also to Nigerians as people. Up North, we have a raging civil and widening war, underscored by wide spread destitution and deftly disguised as a religious conflict, and deep down south, we are held hostage by war lords periodically threatening to destroy Nigeria’s oily life blood. Caught in between these violent pincers, the looting of the commonwealth goes on abated and unchallenged, our health and wellness indicators keep us abysmally in the lowest global ranking, our educational systems has virtually collapsed, we live literally in the dark ages and nearly 70% of our citizens are poor, creating again that strange paradox of a rich country full of poor people.
As often times as I scratch my head in bemusement and wonder aloud about if at all it is possible to right and repair this country, if at all this Nigerian experiment is in fact doomed, I am always amazed at the astonishing ignorance and incuriosity of Nigerians about the true state of Nigeria, and even more so, the breath taking arrogance and impunity of the people who rule them. In Nigeria, about 2% of the population have access to and control 80% of its resources. The ruling elite have demonstrated over the last fifty years or so, that they really do not care about the welfare of Nigerians, and even when they do, their egos, arrogance and incompetence prevents them from creating a fully realized and sustainable process of lifting their compatriots out of poverty.
So the question, is the past as prologue, are we doomed? The answer is yes if we continue to encourage and maintain the bad habits of the past, and no, if we decide to change the present trajectory and chart a new course. On a positive note, remember that the Allied Forces did eventually win the Second World War, but not without considerable ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ Are up to the task?

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