By Chidi Amuta
I have an ancient method of measuring the mood and state of the nation. And it has always worked for me. It is a casual greeting in normal Nigerian street parlance. Simply put, it is just a simple greeting cast in the mould of a universal non- committal question: “How Country?” You throw it around at people at the roadside, in barberss’ shops, on the drive way or as you walk into a shopping mall. You don’t expect any in- depth answer. All you normally get is at best a reflexive response that quite often gives you a quick snapshot of the way things are in the country at any given time. It is a sort of everyman’s instant state of the union address. No partisanship. No contemplative choreographed answers. Just straight from the hips knee jerk instant response. The answers you get reflect everything from the misery index, the state of security, the ease of finding work , paying your bills or just getting by on a daily basis. Most importantly, the answers are a function of how ordinary people are faring and how they generally view the prospects of our commonwealth.
Because ‘how country?’ hovers as a hybrid between bad English and pidgin, dangling between serious enquiry and a casual perfunctory greeting, you mostly get variants of answers in mostly hybrid lingo as well. In normal times, you get: “We dey”. In times of political turmoil, you are likely to get: “Country bend small!”. In times of economic hardship, you are likely to get: ”We dey manage!” When economic hardship joins political confusion, you get: “God dey”.
Somehow, it had always worked for me in journalism as a public opinion sampling technique. It was at once a way of expressing cordiality and fellow feeling, a reaffirmation of shared feelings as members of a national community of feelings. What irks me probably pains you. What pains me gnaws at your innermost feelings. Thrown at a troubled soul, the question suggests that perhaps there is someone out there who shares your pains or feels your hurt even without your telling them. But in the end, it is a way of saying that we are partakers in a community of feelings, caring about each other in a common patrimony whose state of health resonates in our private lives. As compatriots, we share something intangible, a common concern for the state of the nation and the state of the state that presides over us all.
Deploying the ‘how country?’ informality, I usually use a crude sampling method to get a rough idea of the state of the nation or the feelings of ordinary citizens. This is something that neither my training in the humane letters, social sciences or media studies specifically taught me.
On a given day, I would throw the friendly greeting/question at a cross section of ordinary strangers irrespective of class, ethnicity, circumstance or countenance. By the end of the day, I am likely to have greeted a cross section of fellow countrymen and women ranging from my gate man, cook, steward, secretary, driver, managers, policemen at the checkpoint, labourers at a building site or my customer, the woman who roasts corn or unripe plantain (year in, year out) at the roadside on my way from work.
When I come home in the evening and in the quiet of my privacy, I would recall and rewind from the barometer of memory the findings of the day. I get a rough idea of the way things are at least from the eyes and gut responses of ordinary people, uncoloured by partisanship, self interest and the arrogance of position.
At other times in past years, I would go out to unusual places where ordinary folk gather for the same sampling. This was before I lost my anonymity to the prominence of media exposure and the wild frenzy of the hearsay world. My favourite place used to be Ikeja Bus Stop, at the news stand where our informal trade union –The Free Readers Association- used to gather every morning to read newspapers that the vendors had spread on the bare floor without paying for any title. The vendors did not pay for retail space so we too do not need to feel guilty for reading their newspapers free of charge. There was an understanding that no one dared state. Our reading skills are first rate because you needed to get a quick glance of the day’s trend before the vendor asked you to pay or leave. That was our way of catching up with the news, our unique window to the day’s news. That was before the internet of all things began to deliver the news and more to the smart phones in our hands!
At Ikeja bus stop on an average morning, in the midst of the ordinary people, you will encounter some of the most knowledgeable Nigerians on matters of public affairs, civics, national history and crude mangled versions of world affairs. There, above all, you encounter the unvarnished soul of our nation in its unfiltered essence. These were just people. I once encountered a cross section of them. Someone had spent decades working as a factory hand at textile factories that have now shut down. Another, a train ticket assistant had followed the old rail roads in endless journeys from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, from Lagos to Kaura Namoda and from Enugu to Zungeru. These men were mobile encyclopaedia of current affairs. They came to Lagos and other towns when our people shared life in ‘face-me-I face -you’ yards irrespective of nationality.
Here at the bus stop, the hunger for news used to unite us in an endless and perhaps aimless quest for something in the midst of nothing. We engaged each other often in fruitless arguments peppered with half truths and glorified hearsay. Someone would occasionally deliver an impromptu lecture on nearly every regime and administration that has ruled over our country. These were unaccredited experts on nearly every subject under the sun with travel histories that spanned Accra, Libreville, Luanda and faraway Freetown!
They would apportion blames and pass verdicts with neither fear nor favour. They would casually recall past scandals, past heroes and villains and generally deliver judgments not coloured by partisanship or ethnicity. On most days, they have this uncanny ability to read through nearly every newspaper title on the stand with amazing rapidity in no time. They could make cross references across time and point out who killed who, who stole more money from the common till or who betrayed who in the macabre dance we call politics. I must confess that the bus stop crowd is predictably biased against successive governments. For them, it is a ‘they’ versus ‘us’ equation, which I find excusable but disturbing. They justify their anti government stance by insisting that our present rulers have not been different from the whites who were on the ‘other’ side.
On the guiding question of “how country?”, the answer you get at any given times has kept changing with successive regimes. Most times, however, it is a function of what policies touch the people where it matters most. Let us take the contrast between a past administration and the present one for illustration.
Under an elected Obasanjo presidency, the introduction of the GSM cellphone revolution gripped the public imagination. The new technology suddenly put a lot of power in the hands of the masses. Ordinary people in the villages, in the farms, in the markets, simple artisans and the army of youth on campuses and street corners suddenly found themselves armed with this powerful tool of communication and infinite possibility. Nothing like it had happened previously. Added to it was a policy of financial inclusion through the banking consolidation and the popularization of the stock market. Market women and simple traders in the markets were encouraged to measure their net worth not just in the quantum of cash under their mattresses or in their bank accounts. More common people began to operate bank accounts and to invest in shares and the bond market. Telecommunications and banking expansion provided the two growth sectors under Mr. Obasanjo with infinite multiplier effects that sucked up a sizeable percentage of the unemployed. Apart from sporadic and isolated disturbances such as Odi, Shagamu and Zaki Biam which were decisively put down with a level of ferocity that offended the human rights community. These incidents did not however graduate into nationwide insecurity. Nor did they douse the momentum of economic upliftment that swept the nation and put smiles on the faces of ordinary people. If you asked most of the people in the bus stop crowd then: ‘How Country?’, the resounding answer was most likely : ”We dey kampe!” or they simply showed you their new cell phone with pride ans a smile. This was a reaffirmation of confidence in national stability and the abilities of the national leadership of the time and the possibility of hope in the horizon.
Fast forward to the period between 2015 and now. The prospect of a Buhari return to power elicited the resurrection of all sorts of populist myths in the popular imagination. The essential outlines of that leadership, I daresay, derive from a nightmarish past that most Nigerians would rather forget but chose to forgive. Undoubtedly, President Buhari has a retrospective fixation, constantly relishing his brief tenure as military despot as his brightest legacy in our history.
Against the background of Mr. Jonathan’s later bumbling , Mr. Buhari was coming into office in 2015 shrouded in a larger than life messianic mythology. He had briefly headed an unsmiling military junta that abducted fleeing politicians in Western capitals, publicly flogged people in queues for scarce basic goods, jailed politicians and journalists for minor infractions and marketed an ancient austere and pastoral economic style and subsistence vision.
Buhari’s glorious past is the ancient world of state control of the economy and export of primary produce. His golden age is that brief regrettable dark spot in national history when sirens tore through the night as the goons of state knocked on nearly every door with pre-signed detention orders. It was that period when no debate was allowed except the deafening rants of regime apologists. No dissent was brooked and freedom of assembly was treasonable. In that world, to be a politician was anathema as errors of commission or omission earned people the equivalent of several life times in jail. In that dark valley of our national history, to be a journalist was dangerous since the state defined what was the truth, how and when best to tell it.
The populist mythology around that despotic interregnum appeals mostly to two groups of Nigerians: a small group of elite ideological simpletons and a vast army of unschooled and desperately poor young Nigerians who see Buhari’s so-called ascetic discipline as the antithesis of recurrent recklessness among successive political leaders.
Five years into the return to the Buhari myth, Nigerians know better. In a video clip doing the viral rounds in the social media, a newly elected Buhari is heard bragging, fortuitously, that Nigerians will soon know the difference his return to power would make. Most Nigerians now retort that they indeed know better.
In the last three months, gasoline pump prices have been increased three times. Beyond a 2.5% hike in value added tas, tariffs on social goods and services ranging from electricity to air travel have been increased. In the trail of a rather mild incidence of the Covid-19 emergency, jobs have been lost in droves as many small and medium scale businesses have ceased to exist. Youth unemployment has ballooned further, creating a huge army of young and unemployed people. The anger in this maelstrom boiled over recently during the ENDSARS protests.
Youth anger at the excesses of a rogue police outfit spilled into the streets in waves of angry looting, pillage, jail breaks and arson. Under Mr. Buhari, Nigeria has entered a record second recession in five years, a record never before recorded by any previous leader, elected or self appointed. The same leader who presided over a nation dogged by poverty and scarcity of basic goods in the early 1980s is today presiding over the most difficult economic landscape in the history of peace time Nigeria a an elected president. The highest demographics of poverty in any one nation in the world (over 100 million) is the distinguishing badge of Buhari’s Nigeria.
Everything is not bread and butter. But even the impoverished cannot find peace in their homes, farms or on the highways. Squads of bandits have taken over the northern half of the country just as casual kidnappers and sundry robbers roam freely throughout the country. Major highways, though hardly passable from disrepair, have become theatres of limited wars in shootouts between armed criminals and security forces. Never since the end of the Nigerian civil war has peace time Nigeria been so unsafe, so insecure and so dangerous.
In the present circumstances, it has become hard to even pose the casual question: “How country?” The answers are benumbing. They range from ‘which country?’ to a studied long sigh and silence of the cemetery.