“I am saying that Nigeria can change today if she discovers leaders who have the will, the ability and the vision. Such people are rare in anytime or place. But it is the duty of enlightened citizens to lead the way in their discovery and to create an atmosphere conducive to their emergence. If this conscious effort is not made, good leaders, like good money, will be driven out by bad.” – Chinua Achebe, The trouble with Nigeria (1983)
When it comes to describing the predicament of Nigeria, some of her greatest writers have already supplied the required adjectives and analogies; according to Chinua Achebe, Nigeria is a deeplytroubled country, and according to Wole Soyinka, Nigeria is the open sore of a continent, and let me add: without an attending physician. First, from Achebe’s The trouble with Nigeria (1983):
“Whenever two Nigerians meet, their conversation will sooner or later slide into a litany of our national deficiencies. The trouble with Nigeria has become the subject of our small talk in much the same way as the weather is for the English. But there is a great danger in consigning a life-and-death issue to the daily routine of small talk. No one can do much about the weather: we must accept it and live with or under it. But national bad habits are a different matter; we resign ourselves to them at our peril.” (1983:2)
And from The Open Sore of a Continent (1995), here is Soyinka, speaking about the “terminal case” that is Nigeria:
“… [the] general consumption habits [of Nigeria], to name just one aspect, have overqualified it for the cemetery of nations for the past two decades—that is since after the Biafran civil war.
When for instance we call upon the outside world to isolate a parasitic regime whose ravages merely exposes the body’s condition of the walking dead, to impose comprehensive sanctions against such a chronic affliction, it is only because our medical analysts have concluded that further feeding along its customary diet critically endangers the already slim chances of recovery for the full body.
Certain forms of fever need to be starved. Unfortunately this concern seems to be misinterpreted by such regimes: They accuse us of attempting to starve the nation to death. In our very simple-minded worldview, we insist on the distinction between the people and the state.” (1995: 18)
At this point, young Nigerians are not disappointing Achebe because un-resigning street protests have taken the place of idle small talk, and Nigerians want to put an end to the national bad habits, especially those of SARS, a special branch of the Nigerian Police Force, once and for all. And what is very clear during these #EndSARS mass protests is that there is a clear distinction between the people and the state, like Soyinka observed decades earlier.
I had been recently re-watching Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976)when the constantly-trending #EndSARS seriously attracted my attention, and a scene from that prescient movie immediately supplied the title for this article because I believe it captures the sentiments of Nigerians today. In the scene Howard Beale, who was the Network news anchorman at UBS TV, tells Americans in the throes of a depression:
“I don’t have to tell you things are bad, everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody is out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild on the streets. There’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat.
We sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes, as if that is the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad. Worse than bad, they’re crazy. Everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore… and all we say is, “Please at least leave us alone in our living rooms… Just leave us alone”.
And here is the zinger, “Well I’m not going to leave you alone” Beale said, “I want you to get mad!” “You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, goddamn it’. My life has value. So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs… and go to the window, open it and stick your head out and yell: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GONNA TAKE IT ANYMORE!”
Before I delivered my own version of a Howard-Beale-clarion-call, I wanted to know more about the causes of the protests. The root causes. So I telephoned a friend, currently living and working in Nigeria. She is a University of Cambridge educated development policy analyst.
She is young and bright, and a member of the class of erudite Nigerians who are equipped with the required nation-building intellectual apparatus and more importantly possess with the right heart and classical values required,but-severely-lacking in the current crop of African politicians and leaders: honesty, integrity, and compassion.
She belongs to the generation eager to steer Nigeria out of its current gerontocracy and more importantly out of the darkness of poverty and underdevelopment into modernity. With people like her in leadership, we can expect a modern Nigerian state which is capable of fulfilling what Achebe said only could Nigeria do, as one of those nations “commandeered by history to facilitate mankind’s advancement… [That] the vast human and material wealth with which she [Nigeria] is endowed, bestows on her a role in Africa and the world which no one else can assume or fulfill.”
She is an active participant in the on-going protests. She told me that the #EndSARS activism dates back to 2017. I did not know this. She hypothesized that this time around certain latest local and global developments have coalesced to amplify the voices and wailings of 2020’s protesters: hyper social media activity and activism, the social and economic deprivation already caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the ripple effects of the recent George Floyd mass protests in America.
But what struck me is that she said this time the protesters are better organized and well-prepared to fight what is going to be a long battle with a useless government. The pain and anguish in her voice was palpable even across the telephonic waves that carried her lachrymal words into my ears in Ghana. She told me:
“… small groups of women organizers had set up the infrastructure over the years to coordinate these protests… and now that this big need has arisen they are ready… so they started getting funds in and they started organizing these protests across the country …and they were demonstratingfour things:transparency, accountability, efficiency, effectiveness… making sure that everything is running smoothly… and their demands were simple…we have been protesting for four years and every year the government releases a statement saying they’ve‘disbanded SARS’, or ‘SARS will be restructured’ and nothing will work… and now the 2020 protest, we believe that this is going be the year that we are going to get this change. Why? We’ve all watched protests around the world; we’re more coordinated now, so there is no excuse why ‘#EndSARS’ shouldn’t succeed.”
Don’t mourn, organize!, said the songwriter and labor activist Joe Hill and re-echoed by the late South African anti-apartheid campaigner and professor of political science Adrian Leftwich, in an article of the same title, which is worth reading at this time.
Nigerians are doing just that, they are organizing and this time change is gonna come, like my friend believes. So now, my in-the-spirit-of-Howard-Beale clarion-call to an entire continent in turmoil and distress:
The pain of a nation Nigeria, the pain of a people Nigerians, echoes the pain of an entire continent sitting in darkness, darkness brought on by evil leaders. I believe this pain needless though it is, isn’t useless, they’re the birth-pangs preceding the borning of a modern Nigeria. I don’t have to tell you things are bad everywhere else on the continent, everybody knows things are bad; it has been for a long time now.
Plus we’re in a pandemic.Most people are out of work or scared of losing their job, and many already were unemployed. Our currencies are worthless compared to the almighty dollar. Our nations are broke. Politicians are constantly embezzling state funds and lining their pockets to our taxes.
There’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know most of our politicians are unfit to lead. We sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had violent clashes in the DR Congo and Zimbabwe’s economy has collapsed and over 300,000 people have died from HIV/AIDS this year, and many more from malaria, as if that is the way it’s supposed to be.
Things are bad, probably worse than bad, THEY’RE CRAZY. Everything everywhere is going crazy. And we must all get mad! This is a time for revolutionary change and Nigerians are leading the way. They’re fulfilling their destiny and I believe victory is certain. Let’s pray for strength and the peace of God for all Nigerians.
The writer, Etornam Kenny, is a Ghanaian Essayist and Cultural Critic. Twitter @etornamkenny Email: email@example.com