Tomori’s tears, emotional patriotism and Nigeria’s future
By now, a large percentage of Nigerians are aware of the name of Prof. Oyewale Tomori.
The venerated scholar has doubled his reputation not only as a world-renowned virologist but also a staunch patriotic Nigerian.
At a December 6, 2021, Summit in Abuja, Prof. Tomori wept for the Nigerian state’s many lost opportunities at national greatness and the receding possibility of national redemption. His public emotion should be taken as a deep metaphor for gazing at Nigeria’s future through a prism of depression. When the ancient elders of Israel saw the replica of the Solomon’s Temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, they were brought to tears at the pale comparison of greatness.
And Tomori’s tears was unarguably a patriot’s lament of the shadow of what Nigeria has failed to be. This is the same Nigeria that provided the context for him to become the world-class intellect that he is today. Nigeria is an emotional narrative, and that became obvious from Tomori’s trajectory of intellectual development, vis-à-vis what we have today. Who would not have wept?
There is however more to that public show of emotion than meet the eye. Emotion is not just about the tears. “Your intellect may be confused,” says Roger Ebert, the American film critic, “but your emotions will never lie to you.” What were Prof. Tomori’s tears telling us? Has he reached the point of resignation? Has his indebtedness to his country reached a point of bemusement? So many significant Nigerians have enunciated the pessimism about the future of the Nigerian state. From Chief Obafemi Awolowo, we got the thesis of Nigeria as a “mere geographic expression” that he tried governing with his ideology of democratic socialism, and that we are yet to make any sense of.
The essence of the Nigeria Project is to ensure that Nigerians find a sense of belonging in Nigeria in ways that translate the mere geographic expression into a fulsome civic nationalism we all believe in. This has not happened. Awolowo’s heart must have bled to death. Chief Bola Ige also got to the point of “siddon look,” a deep and disenchanted resignation with all things Nigerian. And even despite that, Nigeria still reached beyond that withdrawal to take his life. But then, siddon look is one attitude most Nigerians would be familiar with. It is an attitude that the bitter experience of infrastructural failure has taught us. The 89 million Nigerians who live below the poverty line will understand not only Ige’s siddon look attitude but also the tears of Prof. Tomori. In their own case, they weep with their very lives.
Wole Soyinka’s assessment of generational failure is even a more encompassing assessment of the pit that Nigeria has fallen into. First asserted in 1984 and then restarted 35 years later in 2019, the belief that Nigeria has failed to tap into its generational capital, is one that must have come from a deep place of emotional torment.
For me, Tomori’s tears can be directly translated into the deconstruction of Nigeria’s greatness by the former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, Princeton Lyman. In his 2017 presentation titled “The Nigerian State and U.S. Strategic Interest,” Lyman took every element that is taken to constitute the framework of Nigeria’s greatness and undermined their relevance in concrete terms. It no longer makes any sense to rejoice in Nigeria being the most populous country in Africa when the Nigerian state has consistently failed not only to tap into that population strength but has not alleviated the infrastructural agony of Nigerians.
That Nigeria had contributed to continental liberation, according to him, is now just mere “history.” And that is because Nigeria is no longer a strategic player even on the continent. We have more significant players in South Africa and Ghana. And oil is no longer even a comparative advantage when so many other countries are producing oil now, and Nigeria’s erstwhile buyers are seeking alternatives. In essence, Nigeria is fast becoming irrelevant not only to the United States but even on the continent. To proclaim the Nigerian state even as a crippled giant would be an inadequate description of how far we have fallen in relevance.
And Lyman’s sharpest criticism is aimed at the Nigerian elite: “Among much of the elite today, I have the feeling that there is a belief that Nigeria is too big to fail, too important to be ignored, and that Nigerians can go on ignoring some of the most fundamental challenges they have…: disgraceful lack of infrastructure, the growing problem of unemployment, the failure to deal with the underlying problems in the Niger-Delta, the failure to consolidate democracy….” And so, we come around a full circle to where we started. Nigeria is complicated because her elites are implicated in her complicated state. Nigeria stands at the precipice and it’s the elite we need to look up to. The destiny of a state is often deducible from the decision-making dynamics of the elites. That is what I have consistently read as Nigeria’s elite nationalism. And at this juncture, emotion will not cut it.
As much as one identifies with Prof. Tomori’s anguish at how the Nigeria that made him the giant intellect has failed to make the destinies of millions of Nigerian youths possible, tears have little place in the hard sociological and sociopolitical understanding of how to get Nigeria from where she is now to where those potentialities are realized. Indeed, resignation is a defeatist attitude also. Any elite that wants to stand akimbo and ‘siddon look’ has essentially betrayed the essence of what it means to be an elite in post-independence Nigeria. No elite can run away from the charge of complicity in Nigeria’s present predicament. We are all involved, from politicians to civil society. We all are familiar with the slogan—organize; don’t agonize. Organizing at the national level involves so many things. The first for me is the need for faith and hope rather than tears—except that tears solidify into a resolution to keep believing.
What Nigeria needs now is faith in the possibility of what can happen, despite the trajectory of failures since independence or the present state of hopelessness. I am a believer in Nigeria as a matter of spiritual affirmation. And if anyone has had some terrible and sobering encounters with Nigeria’s institutional frameworks and dynamics, it is I. I have confronted dysfunction in all its ramifications. I have an idea why Nigeria does not work. I have an idea of where we are institutionally coming from and where we should beheaded.
And so, I still hope. My hope has context. According to Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Well, Nigeria makes sense to me, despite the present predicament. And that’s the point of my hope—and optimism. Agreeing that Nigeria and her future makes sense demands a lot, beyond any spurious patriotism or emotion people may display. It demands the need to fight for what makes that sense.
Fighting for Nigeria means taking her seriously. For the political class, it means taking her seriously enough to commit elite suicide. By “elite suicide,” I mean the willingness to abandon the patronage sensibility and the rapacious spirit that the Nigerian political class is known for, and to side with Nigerians in order to put Nigeria back on track.
All over the world, what makes the difference between a prosperous nation and a poor one is the decisions that the political class make; it is the kind of politics that it plays. The patriotism of the Nigerian political class is suspect. It is a patriotism funded by the commonweal in ways that impoverish the well-being of Nigerians. It is a patriotism that exploits institutional gaps and fissures for self-aggrandizement. Nigeria’s greatness requires more than emotional display and tearful reminiscences about the past. It requires more than a resigned attitude that allows the bad players to infuse the politics of the country. Nigeria requires collective and patriotic actions that make participatory democracy that ground for good governance founded on efficient institutions.
Nigeria is a great country whose future lies in the hand of those who see that future and work towards making it happen. But then, the future is not something we are waiting to happen. On the contrary, the future of the Nigerian state and the Nigerian people is what we start to make happen through the thoughtful and foresighted decisions the political elite begin to make from now. This is the type of elite nationalism that is transformative; the type that the Founding Fathers of the United States instituted many years ago that laid the foundation of a great nation. It is the type of nationalism that Lee Kuan Yew pursued that transformed Singapore into a first world state. It is the type of nationalism Nigeria requires now to become a major global player in the fourth industrial revolution of the 21st century.
• Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professor of Public Administration, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos. firstname.lastname@example.org