Call Me October First

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DIALOGUE WITH NIGERIA BY AKIN OSUNTOKUN, Email: akin.osuntokun@thisdaylive.com

Question: Will somebody like you go on exile if President Muhammadu Buhari is re-elected?

Answer: You must be a mind reader, of course, there is a likelihood of that because he is going to come back more vindictive. Then there is going to be intense power play within his own circles because his incapacity can only get worse. So what we are seeing now is going to get multiplied if he is re-elected. The only problem I have is that I cannot imagine myself living elsewhere. I am so emotionally and mentally attached to my roots.- Akin Osuntokun-February 15th 2019, Punch.

In the latter half of 1994, I received an invitation from Radio Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) to be their Guest (editor) from October 1st to November 30th 1994. I arrived on due date to begin, with immediate effect, an informal schooling on a conspicuous aspect of the sociocultural life of Germany. I landed smack in the thick of the din and revelry of Oktoberfest, a multiple days’ long festival of swigging lager to your heart’s desire and getting indulged in all manners of libertarian excesses in between. Hither and thither, strewn with broken bottles of lager beer, the streets tell their story and the culprits were to be found in the ranks of gangland parade of inebriated youths-the momentary denizens of the Night. Amongst other couplings, Germans and lager beer tend to go together and Bacchus, I am reliably informed, is a native of Munich.

Beyond the inherent hooliganism, the festival runs the dark stretch of unseemly overreach. The spectre of ladies in distress, were the occasional collateral damage. Roused from drunken slumber, otherwise innocent gals were, now and again, rudely awakened (the following morning) to find themselves ensconced in strange masculine arms and unfamiliar beds in alien environment. Shame faced and smarting from deep embarrassment, they begin to blame the guys for taking advantage of their alcohol induced mindlessness. Matters only get worse were the putative culprit to be of black complexion. From such misadventures, (uniquely unlucky) African Rambos often begin a journey to jail or back to what and where they were running from (in Africa) in the first place.

A few days to my arrival and unrelated to Oktoberfest, a policeman went to knock on the apartment of my cousin and requested to see the “nigger” who lives there! Following the logic of between the rock and the hard place, this is the stuff of indignity Africans are compelled to put up with it (take it or leave it). It is the stuff of the Hobson’s choice between remaining at home in Africa to endure the despair and hopelessness of interminable governance crisis fostered by rogue regimes on one hand; and exposure to the often dehumanizing racist criminalization of African émigrés in Metropolitan Europe, on another. Remember, this was October 1994-a year into the virulence of the Sani Abacha phenomenon.

I spent the two months fulsomely immersed in the experience of the post-Cold War heralded unification of Germany. But in somewhat extracurricular manner and beyond the ken of innocuous journalism, I was tapped and debriefed by the German authorities on two occasions. First I was called to authenticate the case of a supposed Nigerian ‘Major General’ fleeing treason charges (attendant on being implicated in a Military coup) and seeking political asylum in Germany. It turned out a typical case of Nigerian 419. Save the phantom one incubating in the dark recesses of Abacha’s imagination I didn’t know of any coup neither have I heard of a ‘Major General’ Lancelot Odidi. In the improbable event I might have missed out on this ‘General’ I requested to speak with him. Of course, he declined and that was the end of the gambit.

The second occasion was an invitation from the Foreign Affairs Agency (Auswatigen Amt) to help clarify the general attitude of the Nigerian public towards the annulment of the 1993 presidential election crisis going forward. I subsequently learnt Nigerian labour leaders including the Deputy President of the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC (at the time)-who, latterly, served as a two term tenure State Governor, were equally invited. To my shock and disbelief, the labour leader spoke more as an emissary of the military dictatorship that annulled the election rather than the representative of the Nigerian masses of which NLC was a critical constituency. He said the Nigerian masses were not interested in democracy so long as their economic survival and interests were guaranteed. He could afford to speak out in this dubious manner because we were in a classified session-in which nothing could be recorded or written down-haven been divested of any recording or writing instrument (including biro) at the point of entry. Following this grand betrayal, my task was cut out for me. Given how fast and far this camp betrayer has ascended on the Nigerian political Ladder, his tribe has definitively thrived and prospered-to the misfortune of Nigeria.

On September 2, 2019 and in a replay of 1994, I received a letter from the University of Oxford granting me a one year Academic Visitor Fellowship to write a book on the politics of the Fourth Republic in Nigeria-and the fellowship runs from October 1, 2019 to July 30, 2020.The key words I want you to note here are October first. Twenty five years hence and without any input or suggestion of a preferred date for the commencement of the fellowship, here was this preeminent educational institution replicating the prior October 1st choice of Radio Voice of Germany. Being a loose and long limbed Sagittarian, I tend to get uniquely in sync with providence. As attested by the excerpts above, it was only seven months ago in February I wistfully concurred with my interviewer on the imminence of some sort of exile for me in the event of the by hook or crook reelection of President Buhari. Beware of what you wish, you may just get it!

Both occasions (1994 and 2019) were bittersweet for me. For me personally it was like being gifted a therapeutic respite from the political trauma of Nigeria, with the bonus of career uptick to the bargain. But what about the country I was leaving behind, no matter how brief? What are its realistic projections in the short, medium and long term? The only certainty here is that if the Buhari administration remains on course, on the same trajectory (without a course reversal) the chances are that the end game may equal the nation disintegrating potential of the Abacha dispensation. Quite beguiling is how the prevailing circumstances in Nigeria on the two occasions are interchangeable in style and substance. If the hood does not make the monk, then the mere event of being ‘elected’ in a parody election does not diminish the six and half a dozen analogy of Buhari and Abacha. Despite the different appellations of military dictatorship and civilian president, no two (Nigeria’s) governance dispensations are as similar, in almost all materials particular, as General Sani Abacha and General Muhammadu Buhari-in the tendency towards crass regionalisation and personalisation of power, the same willful provocation of the worst case scenario; making the spectre of the disintegration of Nigeria look very realistic; the arrogance of ignorance. And we have the comparisons of Generals Yakubu Gowon, Obasanjo, Babangida and Abdulsalami to prove the point.

Extrapolating from the personal narrative above, what is clearly discernable is that the date October first has met Nigeria in a twist for the worse on the two occasions. And bearing in mind its larger than life symbolism for Nigeria, the date has become the birthday of an entity whose existence is regretted and regrettable. What makes the sorrowful existence of Nigeria even more regrettable is that it is far from inevitable-rather it is borne of options and directions we willfully choose in repeated manifestations of self-destructive streak. On my way to the United Kingdom a week ago I was counseled by a prominent stakeholder in the Buhari administration that I should bear in mind we don’t have any other country than Nigeria and must reflect this consciousness in the prime time provided me by Oxford. In truth I couldn’t have received a more patriotic counsel and it is to this cause and call I have dedicated the better part of my adult life. Where we are likely to diverge is the definition of patriotism in contemporary Nigeria. It is a cliché but nothing better captures the spirit of authentic Nigerian patriotism today than the following four words-speak truth to power. This is the virtue The Punch newspaper has characteristically demonstrated in its October 1st editorial

“Unless a drastic change is effected, criminality, terrorism, economic ruin and joblessness could conflate with the broken political system and mutual hostility among the components to tip the country into implosion. So dysfunctional has the state become that the otherwise national task of confronting Islamist terrorists and violent herdsmen has been hampered by the centrifugal forces as consensus on strategy could not be achieved. Between them, they shot Nigeria to the No.3 spot as the most terror-affected country on the Global Terrorism Index. Kidnapping for ransom has conflated with armed robbery, gang wars and random killings to provoke travel advisories by major investing countries to their nationals to steer clear of Nigeria”.

“To rescue the country from its global laughing stock status, it is urgent to make the right choices. The first task is to stop operating Nigeria, a natural federation, like a unitary state. Though federal in name, the country from 1967 onwards has moved steadily into a highly centralised administrative and economic mode with disastrous results, rendering the country increasingly unviable and moving it inexorably towards failure “Ultimately, Nigeria must urgently reform, operate true federalism and organise to allow for peaceful resolution or separation. There is nothing sacrosanct about a political contraption, which Nigeria is. The amicable separation and success of the Czech and Slovakia Republics prove this. There is no viable alternative to restructuring and unless we make the right choices, an untidy implosion is neither far-fetched nor too far away. Far from being celebration time, this is a time to act to save the tottering.”