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Thoughts and non-thoughts on Nigeria at sixty

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Kole Omotoso


The joke is told throughout Freedomstan. But it should not be a joke. It ought to be a serious subject of debate. In schools, in book clubs, in debating societies: when will freedom and independence end? When will it finish? And leave us to be a country to make and remake our history and her story. Or mar it. Make or remake or mar.

1960. I was in Form Four at Oyemekun Grammar School, Akure, the penultimate year of secondary school. Come 1961, I too would obtain my freedom, my independence and I and my mother will celebrate. My father will celebrate in London, where he had gone to bring our Christmas clothes, is how his disappearance from our lives, was explained to his three children. As we grew up as the burden of a single mother, “obinrin bi okunrin” ‘a woman like a man’, an insult to feminism alright but a figure of speech, we got to know that his was a journey of no return. At the end of that year, I was mistakenly appointed House Prefect because the chosen one had chosen that morning of the big assembly announcement, to bugle the school book store to steal a number of items.

The staff of the school could not make a thief a school prefect? Or could they? Should they? If I was consulted I would have rejected the offer of house leadership because mine ought to be the leadership of the school. But, as the French would say: that’s another matter!

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So, we had a state organised lunch of rice and tough beef stew with a bottle of cool drink or two for incoming prefects. Positions of leadership were positions of privilege and exception. Everyone received a plastic cup with a handle. Or two for you know who.

Beasts of England! Beasts of Ireland! Beasts of land and sea and skies! Hear the hoof beats of tomorrow! See the golden future rise! How does the life of an animal pass? In endless drudgery. What’s the first lesson an animal learns? To endure its slavery. How does the life of an animal end? In cruel butchery. Beasts of England , seize the prizes, Wheat and barley, oats and hay, Clover, beans and mangel wurzel Shall be ours this blessed day!

But the nozzle of our pig took time to achieve entrance into the compound of our material abundance. Yotomi lawa wa!!! We Dey for enjoyment. Even a political party named CHOP MAKE I CHOP was registered to contest our democratic elections. The leaders first took 10 percent off Government Business, of government business. Then they increased their take to 50 percent. New proverbs were created or old ones were updated. He or she who serves at the altar must, first eat at the altar, then feast at the altar, and finally banquet the altar sumptuously until there was no altar anymore. The leadership take became 100 percent.

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The people began to complain. The writers, the poets, the visionaries and the seers began to write, to compose, to see visions and prophesy doom. But the leaders would not listen. The present leaders are simply stealing the present. The next generation of leaders would steal the future, bankrupt the nation and drive first the educated workforce into slavery in the countries of the oppressors. They were followed by the thousands, on foot, through jungles and deserts, by the uneducated. They went there (no plurals for ‘there’ to indicate the tens and even thousands of countries where these modern day African slaves ended) washing the white dead, ministering to their few babies and plenty old men and women, doing work they would sniff at, at home. Because why? Because there’s no such place as Sugarcandy Mountain! Sugarcandy Mountain is a lie! Animals are slaughtered and then converted into pork or mutton pies Which are guzzled down the throat of men!

Our pen workers said the same thing but in tedious prose and monotonous fables of Tortoise and Hare. Their titles were more profound: The beautiful ones are not yet born, Not Yet Uhuru, Houseboy, My Mercedes is Bigger than Yours and so on and so forth.
Then the soldiers arose, spitting gun fire on the enemies of the people, people who stole so much, according to Chinua Achebe, the owners noticed and cried foul. The soldiers rekindled the Sugarcandy Mountain lie and the people shouted “Amen to that” again!

But their own anthems also became ordinary bar raillery and marketplace jokes. With the soldiers governance became a competition between classmates and course mates. Coups and more bloody coups followed another until the people cried foul again.

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The game cannot go on. But somehow the game will, the game must, life must go on any how. But the game can only go on well-well if the foul ‘thing’ was found and flushed out of the system.

All civilisations and all societies device games that spell the rules they must live by. Our society devised the infinitely engrossing AYO GAME. It survives in the Caribbean as WORRY GAME. Is this a corruption of WARRI as the source of the game? What this game teaches is that the game, like life, must go on well-well. To go on well-well each player must obey one basic unalterable rule which is that you cannot, you must never ‘win’ {win as transitive verb} never ever win all the seeds you are entitled to because of your dexterity in mastering the game. The leadership borrowed from the democracies of ideas and stole what they borrowed. They went and borrowed from the democracies of material tomorrow. These too they stole.

Finally, the struggle for independence became ‘so called struggle’ for ‘so called independence.’ A fool at forty. That was the verdict twenty years ago. Then at fifty, like the runs of cricket, Nigeria should hold up its bat to be hailed for achieving half a century of runs. But this fifty might be runs but it is not an achievement, merely number crunching to no purpose.

Where do we go from here? We cannot go forward. We cannot walk backward. Like those who have swallowed the pestles of their mortars. We cannot stand straight. We cannot stoop to conquer. Looking to the past, looking to the future, the present points to no direction for the country. Liberation has turned into a crime, a crime for which the leadership must answer.

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Kole Omotoso
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