Once upon a time, I actually looked up to a number of older Nigerians.
Call it childhood naivety, youthful idealism or a need to believe in something, but for a long time I believed that the line in Nigeria’s national anthem that goes “The labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain,” actually meant something. Not a lot, mind you, but something. It had to mean something because every society on earth had heroes – icons to look up to because they laid the foundation for tomorrow.
As I got older, and especially since I got into a profession whose entire basis and purpose is accessing and disseminating information, this position has shifted drastically. With every passing year, it seems the information I have access to makes me become increasingly cynical about this country and the unique genre of homo-sapiens that live inside it. What I have found out in this time is that these “heroes past” were in fact, nothing of the sort. “Sanitised, fictionalised historical avatars of dodgy characters past” would be a more accurate description.
How many actual “heroes” existed? Not many
Every so often, while researching a story or working on a private investigation engagement, I bump into a nondescript scrap of information from the 70s, 80s and 90s that completely upends my understanding about a part of Nigerian public life, or my impression of a high profile Nigerian personality. A few years ago for example, I discovered that MKO Abiola, winner of the 1993 presidential election and purported hero of Nigerian democracy, was in fact repeatedly and credibly linked to gun running and coup financing.
Apart from the mind-shifting impact this had on me as a person who grew up with a broad feeling of goodwill toward the man, it hit home on an individual level because I went to school with two of his grandchildren. For the first time, I began to realise that “the people who spoiled Nigeria” were not just some distant species of alien mutants in Abuja, but also people in Lagos whom I knew and interacted with personally, or by a single degree of separation.
A similar mind shift occurred when I researched the 1999 democratic transition from military rule. I discovered that Bola Ige did not cover himself in glory, having bent over backward to prevent the proper weight of the law falling on a certain governor, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who had been clearly caught committing perjury when he lied on his INEC form that he attended Government College Ibadan from 1965 to 1968, then the University of Chicago from 1972 to 1976.
While Gani Fawehinmi rightly urged the Inspector General of Police to prosecute Tinubu for perjury and false declaration, Bola Ige chose to speak about how Tinubu was “qualified” to hold the office regardless of his criminal offense, because party politics über alles. Tinubu’s lawyer at the panel, by the way, was none other than a certain Femi Falana who was starting to get a knack for making the same pro-human rights noises as Gani, while also representing the human rights violators. Because, why not eat from both sides of the table? He too would also someday try to make a case for being remembered as one of said “heroes past.”
Why does Nigeria have so many bad actors in power?
Something I have come to understand very clearly in my few years of practise so far, is that Nigeria and Nigerians are not necessarily worse than other places and people. In some instances, in fact, Nigerians have often proven to surpass other people in terms of ethical behaviour and sound judgment – as long as sufficient information is available and a proper system of incentives and consequences exists.
The reason that such an overwhelming majority of Nigerian historical characters who would be “heroes past” turn out to be dreadful people when observed objectively is that Nigerians lack information to make proper judgments, and a proper system of reward vs penalty does not exist in Nigeria. How do I know this? I know this because history is repeating itself around us today and all we have to do is spot the parallels.
Like in the 80s and 90s, Nigeria is currently experiencing a great demographic and political shift. The people establishing themselves today as leaders in the business, media and civil society spaces will almost certainly be the leaders of tomorrow. The last time this happened, people like Bola Ahmed Tinubu were able to smuggle themselves disguised as pro-democracy freedom fighters, activists and journalists when they were actually conmen, thugs, drug peddlers, social climbers and consummate liars. They smuggled themselves in because there was no information in mass circulation with which to push back on them.
Tinubu in particular, had long been rumoured to be involved in the drug trade but without substantial documented evidence in the public domain, this was merely an “old wives tale,” as a recent column very imaginatively described it. His behind-the-scenes romance with Sani Abacha was known well enough to even be the subject of protests in front of his Washington DC Shell filling station in 1996 following the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa in 1996. And yet, just three years later, he won a governorship election in Lagos – because at that time, there was no internet or instant communication or affordable cable TV that could connect Nigerians living in Nigeria to the news cycle in Washington DC.
The same story is playing out before us today. This time around, we have prominent civil society figures who are in bed with the government and the security establishment that wantonly violates the very human rights these CSO types are supposed to protect. We have journalists who do no actual journalism, but constantly run commentary on the work of those who do, positioning themselves as gatekeepers where there is actually no gate. We have social climbers who have stolen credit for seminal journalistic work using office politics and sexual favours. We have “tech founders” and “innovators” who are categorically lying about having founded or innovated anything.
What will happen if their stories are not properly told and publicised, they will become the new cohort of 21st Century Nigerian leadership when the current cohort departs to the great beyond. Because, if not them, then who? Using strategic disingenuousness, clever social engineering, status signalling and bare faced lying, these types will follow in the footsteps of the faux-NADECO self-promoters who came before them, and Nigerians will find out too late that they also have zero substance like their predecessors.
The difference between the 90s and now is that the internet exists and is widely and cheaply available. Information – hitherto something that could be bought and controlled by the likes of Tinubu – is now freely available in excess. Total narrative control is impossible unlike before. Also unlike before, independent journalism is also a thing now, as typified by yours truly writing this article.
Long live the modern historians.