Nigeria and the Many Single Battles

Nigeria is not a nation of warriors, it is not a nation of cowards either; it occupies that fine space in between; moral and social indignation. Always erudite, the Nigerian will observe social and political phenomena from a distance, quietly or loudly seething in anger.

It keeps the print media and these days, the social media in good stead; especially in a country that spends considerable time lobbing verbal assaults over ethnic and religious divides; what it doesn’t do however, is advance social change or development.

It may be why as a people, Nigerians are adaptable to almost any environment; Darwinism by safe remove is what keeps the people going, but it is also responsible for the kind of leadership that the country has been stuck with.

The Lone Fighter

I encountered a story that plays out every day in different theatres in the country; cut to a scene at the Lagos International Airport, Nigerians are queuing in line, rueing the fact that theirs is one of the few countries where having the passport actually keeps you in queues longer, an Asian contingent approaches the immigration counter where one of them is singled out for not having the mandatory yellow fever certificate, instinctively he reaches into his pockets and provides a wad of cash in full glare of officials and returnees alike, accompanied with the internationally recognised wide grin which is easily translated into “we are friends”.

Without an attempt to feign embarrassment or outrage the official gently waves him to the side and continues with the processing of the next person; a pharmacist in line monitoring the situation becomes unnerved and begins to chatter, shortly after the official beckons for the unimmunized to step forward and swiftly proceeds to stamp his passport for entry, no doubt murmuring how the exchange should take place. The chatter soon becomes full throated protest, as the pharmacist draws everyone’s attention to the misdemeanour, and how it shouldn’t be allowed to stand. A few others comment on the impropriety of it all and how if the countries were reversed, entry would have been barred, but offer nothing in way of support to the lone crusader.

Sensing a revolt, the officials quickly remove the Asian contingent and the pharmacist who is later charged with disturbing the peace and inciting violence; a few murmurs later and calm returns to the airport; officials stamp and those who can, scheme on ways to cut the line.

The Single Battle

A similar story plays out in a popular Nigerian bank during a registration exercise where customers have been scared into believing if they do not get yet another banking number their accounts will be shut down. Enter another foreigner who is whisked to the front of the line, despite the many who have queued for hours. Naturally everything from curses to insults are hurled after which is grudging acceptance. A lone voice is heard above the din; a lady trader who couldn’t bear to contain her disappointment in silence, the reaction from her peers on the queue is that she is grossly mismatched and should accept the hand as it is dealt. She persists and soon finds a chorus, a kindred spirit who is more eloquent and bears her grouse. Sensing a revolt as well, the banking officials sweep in and remove their client to private offices upstairs, with a few more remonstrations, the queue takes its original form and life continues.

To be sure, this isn’t to single out foreigners, Nigerians do this to themselves every day, for every minute of living breath there is a Nigerian Big man or Madame who is cutting the line, receiving preferential treatment or manipulating the law, with the attendant crowd whispering curses and silently demonstrating.

The stories highlight what is interactions between simple people; our collective indignation and rage is even more muted in face of government tyranny and mismanagement.

A history of placation

It would be dubious and frankly lazy to suggest that the citizens always take it on the chin, Nigerians have been known to organise for peaceful protests and violent protests when you throw in religion or ethnicity. The National Labour Congress has often been the fulcrum of mass protests against government’s overstepping or high-handedness in socio-economic matters, usually mass entrenchment or the pricing of fuel.

A timeline of these protests will show organised labour taking the government to task only to cave in to some agreed middle ground and have fuel increased anyway; these protests do little but propel the leaders to national fame and recognition or become the cause celebre as the not too distant Occupy Nigeria demonstrated; it soon became a designer protest granting leave for artistes, entertainers, to lend their voice and brand to something beyond champagne and automobiles.

This lack of focus and staying power has often meant that once government shows its hand, quite literally, around the trigger of an assault rifle, or tear gas canister or bullwhip, then the advancing line of protestors recedes faster than my current hairline. It is important to note that for some, the battle against tyranny and government malaise is real, activists, politicians, musicians have been jailed, some targeted for assassination. Ordinary Nigerians have been teargassed, beaten and some even killed and for some history has recorded their sacrifices, for others history is beholden to them.

But this is for the many others who flee, turning what was once a potent force of mass discontent into a single fading line of submission, many retreating to the their laptops to air their grievances and take the fight to the man on social media; yes the irony isn’t lost on me.

Fight the fight worth fighting

No doubt, Nigerian ire will always find ways to be expressed and it may not be long before the streets are filled with the next mass protest, this is the nature of politics; you give, you take, you declare, you refute, you protest, you drink tea, you call the cameras and start again.

However in our little corners, in our daily lives, how quickly do we voice discontent at injustice in a place and at a time where it can make a difference, do we support that lone voice when the time comes, do we challenge authority that has sullied itself, do we try and win these seemingly isolated battles that may one day win the war?

Perhaps we aren’t wired that way, it is still a very patriarchal society, where you cannot question a teacher or students in a higher class for that matter, where religious leaders are still seen as infallible; perhaps we do not have the stuff to sustain prolonged battles with authority even when our commonwealth is at stake.

Whatever the sociological reasons, in a country as densely populated as Nigeria we cannot have lone voices, there should be several and they should all be disruptive, raucous and impatient, especially in this era of participatory citizenship.

In the spirit of that, I shall now write a testy letter to my bank for their sloppy stewardship from the safe remove of my house, it is too inconvenient to go there in person, they shall know my wrath from a distance; that is after all, the Nigerian way.

Babatunde Oyateru currently heads Corporate Communication for Shelter Afrique and is a frequent commentator on Nigerians affairs.

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