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‘Nigeria is weak on national unity, propriety in governance’

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In this interview with Anote Ajeluorou, Jamaican-born poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, journalist and photographer, Lindsay Barrett, who arrived Nigeria in 1966 and became a citizen in the mid-1980s, has kept faith in the greatness the country can achieve that attracted him from Jamaica in the first place. but he argues that Nigerians need to do more to get there in spite of setbacks. Excerpts:

59 years of Nigeria’s independence. How far would you rate it?
Nigeria has developed a signature identity over the last six decades that many observers consider to be strong on self- determination and regional cooperation, but somehow weak on national unity and propriety in governance. I believe the true measure of Nigeria’s success as an independent nation has been its survival so far but there are serious threats to this achievement arising from misplaced priorities in government, and the mismanagement of internal security. We need to acknowledge these and find ways to overcome them in the immediate future in order to avoid possible disintegration. I believe Nigeria has achieved enormous strides in helping the rest of the continent. However, it deserves more recognition as a leader of the post-colonial world than its present political condition reflects.

After 20/21 years of democracy, how has the country fared? Has democracy worked? If not, why, and what are the ways forward?
While ordinary Nigerians have exhibited a profound desire to accept and adhere to the ideals of representative government, the political elite have tended to display a penchant for enjoying the privileges of office to a greater extent than they have shown any wish to provide service to the people. This duality of perception threatens to destroy the value chain of the political system and bring about a situation in which the leaders are largely regarded as parasites by the masses. The breakdown of trust in the electoral system which has become endemic over the last two decades is now becoming a dangerous reality at each election and this threatens to undermine democratic progress. Nigeria needs to reverse the breakdown of electoral probity if the democratic process is to provide genuine representation for the majority of the people.

What is your take on governance and democratic ideals so far?
I think my answer to the last question should give you an idea of what I really think about this issue, but I believe that Nigerians should consider one incredible fact, which is that democracy for a large and diverse nation such as ours is bound to be a very expensive undertaking. By now we must have realised that the cost of representative governance is far in excess of the authoritarian usurpation of the people’s rights. That does not, of course, mean that the latter form of government, which was represented in Nigeria for decades by military rule is better or more desirable, but the fact that military rule costs less is something that the political leadership must not overlook when considering the rationale for the maintenance of the democratic process. The people must be convinced that the extra cost of representation is worth it if they are to defend democracy and sustain its development.

Has the presidential system worked or should Nigeria look the way of the parliamentary where Nigeria started?
The presidential system has worked but it also needs to be refined. I do not believe that a return to the old parliamentary system after nearly six decades of regional transformation of the Nigerian territorial formula will be either feasible or advisable. In fact, I believe that any attempt to restore that system will amount to an attempt to re-impose errors of colonial territorial hegemony and reverse progressive efforts to create true federal autonomy that reflects historical ethnic and cultural values. What Nigeria needs is a genuine fine-tuning of its historical realities in keeping with contemporary formulae for the development of a national entity based on honest governance and equitable utilisation of resources.

Has Nigeria’s policy towards blacks of African descent like your brothers & sisters who are still outside the continent been the best? Should Nigeria replicate the Ghana model, for instance, that openly invites the historic diaspora?
Nigeria is a hospitable country. The average Nigerian receives all visitors with open arms, and in history most Nigerian communities have a tradition of interaction with foreigners or their neighbours as integral elements of their cultural customs. That is why the propagation of religious beliefs, especially of the Islamic and Christian varieties, has taken profound root in the nation’s cosmogony. However, the relationship between the Nigerian perception of the existential reality of its national philosophy and the perception of the global African diaspora as being relevant to its national objectives has not been codified into a legal formula of state policy. This has been achieved in Ghana because right from the founding of that nation this relationship has been considered important.

Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, the implementer of that nation’s independence, was deeply influenced and inspired by the philosophy and advocacy of Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey and believed that collaboration with the diaspora would open up the economic and educational horizons of Africa. It has taken more than six decades for the full realization of his dream to take root in Ghana’s formulation of policy; so, Nigeria is not late. I believe that eventually the black world’s most populous nation will recognize the need for formal policies of integration and cooperation with communities of people whose historical origins are emotionally tied to Africa. Nigeria must recognize that it is regarded as a leading nation by many people, not only in Africa, but throughout the world.

What is Nigeria losing for not pursuing a vigorous integration policy of the historic black diaspora?
I would not define the lack of a policy of formal integration of diaspora in terms of loss but rather in terms of unfinished business. In the process of nation-building, Nigeria is a work-in-progress and its relationship with the rest of the world is still undergoing transformation from its under-development as a colonial entity through its period of experimental growth as a military dictatorship to its present status as a buoyant but turbulent democratic leader in Africa. We cannot ignore Nigeria in African trade nor can we deny its importance as a guarantor of stability in the West African sub-region. It will be an improvement in the resilience of the Nigerian entity if the (historic) diaspora becomes an integral collaborator in the nation’s development but it is necessary for the democratic order to be fully consolidated before such a profound decision can be taken.

When you look back to your arrival in Nigeria in the 1960s, what memory does it invoke in you and how has that memory lingered or been trashed?
I came to Nigeria because I admired the dynamism of its people who I had met abroad. I still admire them and feel more at home in most parts of the country than I have ever managed to feel anywhere in the world. I have had disappointments in both my personal life and in my presumptions of achievements that I believe the nation has missed but I am devoted to the hope that Nigeria’s determined optimism will someday triumph. After 53 years I find it hard to give up on the hope that the sacrifices of the past will not be betrayed. If I have any regrets, it is that I sometimes feel that the contributions I tried to make to develop my adopted homeland have been rendered redundant by subsequent mismanagement of the governance process, but I realise that many native-born Nigerians were also involved with these eventualities. I cannot therefore put these disappointments down to my being a stranger. After five and a half decades I will never be less than a true Nigerian.

What lessons should the country learn from South Africa’s xenophobic attacks in building a liveable space?
Nigeria should realise that the world does not always recognize its good intentions for what they are but also that its image is larger than life in the African space. As for the South Africans who are behind the attacks, we must recognise that they are betrayers of a wider cause and hope that the country will heal its own wounds. Nigeria’s official reaction should be aimed at helping the country to overcome its deficient internal confidence, even while insisting on appropriate compensation and restitution for its affected citizens. At the same time, we hope our country will become more effective as a destination for growth in the next few decades rather than a place from which our dynamic people emigrate to build up others.

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Lindsay BarrettNigeria
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