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Wanted: A singer for this season


DEBOIT is the dry season quite alright. It is exceptionally so in my part of Nigeria. The sun rises early and scorches the earth. The harmattan, merciless when it is cold in the morning or late in the evening, burns the skin, yes, burns, like a raging fire. You need a soothing balm to thrive in this season.

I am told the condition is the same in almost every part of the country.
Even if that were not the case, another kind of dry season is true for the majority of the citizens. The current weather is, indeed, metaphor for the current living situation of Nigerians. With oil prices falling still, the national treasury is very lean and monthly takings by the states, many of which have been run aground by idle, unimaginative potentates, have dwindled to the extent that they are hardly able to live up to that description. Workers’ salaries remain unpaid over many months, even, egregiously, at Christmas! In states where the only employers are the governments, life, of course, has been harrowing.

Country dry is, therefore, the most likely answer to the typical Nigerian question, in the exchange of pleasantries in pidgin English: How country?
And that is no exaggeration. Even, I understand members of the ruling elite say so, though with a glass of premium champagne in hand, spilling the golden fizz as they try to impress you with their appreciation of the lean times. The season is indeed dry. You need a balm, of any kind, in this season.

But that balm, substantively and symbolically, is not available, at least not in the way the people would have appreciated it.
Many Nigerians may not know Robert Odell Major Owens, a United States’ Congressman who left indelible marks in the sands of history. An African-American, he was the quintessential Representative in the American legislature, a leader who cared not for power for its own sake but for its use for his people. In his life of service, he fought many battles for the less privileged or those for whom the season was perennially dry, and lost only a few. Even at those, his opponents could hardly savour their victory on account of the bloodied noses they got from Owen’s bare knuckles. Owens championed healthcare for all, education for all, better living for all. The battles were fierce but Owens was fiercer.

You need a balm to survive this season but there is none, not even in the spoken words of members of the ruling elite. In their goodwill messages over this holiday season, in vain did one search for any uplifting quotable quote

In the House of Representatives, he used his position on different committees to help liberate the creative energies of those who ordinarily would be consigned to the fringes by initiating laws that expanded the frontiers of enterprise, guaranteed equality, empowered people and gave them a chance at life. In 1990, for instance, he helped produce the Disabilities Act which broadened rights already given in earlier legislations and ensured grants to help the disabled with job training. Of the poor, there were few greater advocates.

But my fascination with Owens is not just about laws or policies but his ability to convey his passion for the people with rhythmic songs and poems. For him, the people must not only know their representative in government cares, they must hear it in his voice and feel it in their hearts. So, his submissions on any bill, whether passed or not, were often rendered in songs or rhymes, thereby earning for himself the description: ‘the Rappin Rep.’

When he opposed a plan for some state building project which would displace many of the working poor in the neighbourhood, he registered his protest on the floor of the United State’s Congress thus:
Fight the pain
Defeat the strain
Rally all together
Destroy eminent domain
Monster on the street
Grabs any home to eat
Greedy rape the snakes repeat

When the United States chose to go to war with Iraq’s Saddam Husein, Owens’ lyrical rendition in opposition to that war and the invasion of Baghdad on the floor of the house became an anthem of sorts for all who did not think America should go to war.
Stop the war
We need the cash
Give Medicaid families
All of Rumsfeld’s stash
Throw the body bags
Into the trash

As he once acknowledged, those rap lines, those ‘songs’, were veritable outlets for his political passion and frustrations, as the case may be, in the battles for the people. They were his way of engaging his constituents and it worked.
When Owens died two years ago, America lost one of its most quotable politicians, the ‘Rappin Rep’ who expressed his views with musical words and gave soul to the business.

Nigeria’s current dry season has certainly not been helped by the dearth of good singers among the leaders at all levels, in every arm, the absence of any uplifting message from those up to whom the people look . Of course, not since the Obafemi Awolowos, Nnamdi Azikiwes, Tony Enahoros, Ahmadu Bellos, Kingsley Mbadiwes and others in an almost extinct tribe has the nation had wordsmiths in leadership positions, men or women who, with their use of the words, could rouse an army to war or make the people think less of their sorrows while focusing on a promised better tomorrow. The late Chuba Okadigbo oftentimes deployed it for some mischief but he obliged Nigeria some of those lines that made politics colourful, interesting and engaging. Words may not provide the much needed ‘stomach infrastructure’ or real infrastructure but they do inspire.

And at no other time than now do Nigerians need re-assuring words. You need a balm to survive this season but there is none, not even in the spoken words of members of the ruling elite. In their goodwill messages over this holiday season, in vain did one search for any uplifting quotable quote.

The theme was the same: Love your neighbour; calls for sacrifice from the people even when they have already offered everything; tightening of belt around an increasingly shrinking waist. Nothing really comforting. If anything, only depressing words for an oppressed people. Not the type of goodwill message Owens would have sent to his constituents in such a shape as Nigerians are.
I feel the pain
I know the strain.

The country is dry. Must the words too be dry?
The only people who seem not to appreciate the power of words as a tool for leadership must be Nigerian leaders and it is little wonder many of them also do not lead or serve well. Only with clear thoughts can the moral compass for navigating the labyrinthine web of governance be found. It takes a certain application of the mind to the job, an intuitive feeling of the people’s pains, devotion to a study of their problems in order to address such; and occasional expressions that engage, especially at times like this. But inspiring words are impossible from minds that have not plumbed great depths.

Hence what is largely on offer today from all spheres and angles are bland expressions or platitudes which do not even qualify as empty rhetoric and through which the people only see dishonesty. And, as Ted Kennedy once said, integrity is the lifeblood of democracy. Dishonesty is poison in its veins.

So, Nigerians are tuned off empty words and yearn for genuine soul-lifters that are products of deep consideration for the people.
They want songs from the hearts of true lovers.

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