Saturday, January 21, 2012

Beyond the Rhetoric of Self-Representation in the Interrogation of Governance in Nigeria


Obododimma Oha

Suddenly, every Nigerian becomes a revolutionary, armed with rhetoric. From Facebook presence to listserv debate, from exchanges in street-side chance meetings to table talks in staff club unwinding, Nigerians are loud, combative, and amazingly creative as they critique the condition of the Nigerian state. For some, critiquing the nation state is already becoming a profession, as they explore one rhetorical strategy after another to impress their audiences. Perhaps this apparent renaissance of the spirit of revolution is part of the change that Nigeria, one of the most badly governed countries in the world, seriously needs. One is inclined to be sceptical, though, wondering if what one sees is the genuine spirit of change or some manifestation of a fraudulent desire to join the outraged multitude in saying what many want to hear and capitalizing on the popular emotions of the moment to achieve cheap popularity. Just as it is said in popular Igbo discourse, Ndi mekaniiki ekwezighi anyi mara ndi ara na-awi (Motor mechanics have made it difficult for us to know those who are truly insane), those who genuinely attempt to repair the broken down machine of the Nigerian civilization now seem to be competing with mad people in the art of wearing rags. Hasn’t it become difficult for us in Nigeria to tell the difference between the patriotic citizens and those opportunists who want to ride on the back of popular protest to answer revolutionaries, given that both seek legitimacy through their use of rhetoric?

Some benefit of democracy, we are told, is the right to free speech, the freedom to banish silence finally. Nigerians are talking. Yes, they have been talking and I like it. Nigerians are talking and asking questions, serious questions, about how they are being governed in their country. That is good. It shows that they want their rulers to be accountable to them. It shows that they themselves want to know how much about their country’s affairs they know. These days, when two or more Nigerians are gathered, some rhetoric about their failed nation state is on their lips. Goodluck Jonathan is on their lips. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is on their lips. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and Diezani Allison-Madueke are on their lips. What else does one want them to talk about? What else? Is it about how to become committed themselves in their own personal assignments, subsidy or no subsidy? Stop for a moment to listen to the conversations and you would quickly find someone playing the role of a professor of Nigerian affairs, analyzing, explaining, pontificating, predicting. Every professor of Nigerian affairs is highly informed, knows all the theories of development and the appropriate model the government should have applied. Every professor of Nigerian affairs is telling the impressionable audience of discourse Nigeriana that they know policy planning at their fingertips and should have been the right advisers to government.

At a newsstand down the street, someone picks a newspaper that has been touched by several hands, flips through the pages, and starts talking about Nigeria’s bad government, ethnic rivalry, terrorism, industrial action, or any other hot issue that is associated with the contemporary Nigerian world. Other people who have congregated at the newsstand listen to this “lecturer” for a while and then someone loses his or her patience and interrupts the lecture. A serious debate starts. Isn’t it why it is called “the People’s Parliament”? Previously, the Parliament used to attract retired individuals and few unemployed, but now it attracts a crowd of idlers who, instead of helping to boost the day’s sales, only helps in creating a “bad market” for the vendor and for the newspaper house. Previously, it used to be a case of “read and return” with twenty Naira, the vendor smiling home with the gain and returning the unsold papers to the newspaper house. The vendor used to be happy doing this, not knowing that the problem of bad market he was promoting would eventually get to him. These days, the crowd would gather and the lectures would begin, later followed by endless debates, but after that, not many are willing to do the usual thing!

At religious services too, the sermon, expectedly, shifts to the state of the nation. And who has the right authority to speak about this in a way the congregation would believe than the ukochukwu, the mediator between God and humans, the” man-of-God”? It does not matter if the man-of-God is a teacher in an unfortunate Nigerian institution and has been sharing his time between teaching his students properly and “pastoring” or “imaming” his religious group. It does not matter if he barely has the time to prepare his lectures and teach his classes or to attend to his other academic responsibilities, simply because he has to hurry back to his religious location where he is truly doing the work of God, or if he has to return to his class later, too tired to be of any use to his students after conducting endless prayers and vigils. It does not matter if he enjoys our love offerings and tithes on behalf of God, given that the labourer is worthy of his pay. Now, given the much-talked-about failure of governance, the man-of-God or man-of-Allah must help the people of God to understand that God is not asleep and will raise men to change the country. Now, that’s consoling! The preacher is on our side, speaking as God-with-us!

As the” lecturers” and revolutionaries gather at the newsstands or other venues, performing their excellence as “knowers” and lovers of Nigeria, so do loud talkers gather in web environments to demonstrate their sainthood. What remains to be acknowledged is that these same Nigerians may have contributed in one way or another in making it difficult for Nigeria to experience positive change in public life. The Nigerian irony is amazing: the Nigerian that condemns ethnocentrism turns out to be its practitioner; the Nigerian that is complaining about lack of commitment in public service turns out to be the person who would not settle down and work to justify the wages received monthly; and so on. One, therefore, is worried: Who is really on Nigeria’s side?

The whole scenario is worth observing closely, with the various forms of rhetoric emerging, especially with reference to the widespread protest against the removal of government subsidy on petroleum products consumed in Nigeria. Expectedly, as the government and its agents deploy various strategies including news management, those confronting government have used the social media extensively. But within this use of the social or other media are subtle rhetorical pursuits that must be noted. There are many who never marched but have made the loudest noise about how they confronted security agents, backing up their claims with photographs taken here and there. Photographs and video clips are forms of rhetorical proof that we can supposedly easily accept, after all, “seeing is believing.” And they are even more persuasive if the narrators are located in the videos or photos. There are those who, like the character Obinna in Tony Ubesie’s Juo Obinna, never saw “the battlefield” of the protest but have been going around (even in online platforms) boasting about their heroic deeds in anti-government protest. There are also those who want to impress us with stories about how they religiously followed the debates in the media and how they displayed their anger by almost smashing their television sets and personal computers for relaying information they did not like, and how they have written “bad” rejoinders to question government propaganda. It is about heroism, it seems.

How I wish that every Nigerian that claims to have stood up against government’s removal of petrol subsidy actually means to stand against fraud, including the fraud in the presentation of their involvement in the discourse on the Nigerian crisis. How I wish that all those who waged a battle against the removal of oil subsidy and against government’s squandering of resources are actually not squandering their own resources and cheating employers in their places of work. It is interesting that the situation presented by Benjamin Franklin in The Way to Wealth so very closely applies to Nigerians in this case: just as the crowd at the bazaar sales mentioned at the beginning of The Way to Wealth get ready to squander their resources while complaining about government’s heartlessness in its imposition of high taxes, so do many Nigerians who complain about the withdrawal of subsidy and government’s extravagance and corruption also overlook their own lack of wisdom in the way they manage resources to (re)build their society and their personal lives.

Indeed, Nigerians must go beyond the rhetoric of self-representation in the recent confrontation with bad governance in their country, to be able to make the protest more meaningful and well-focused.

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