Metaphor of the Leaning Tower
ENGAGEMENTS BY Chidi Amuta
The cry is getting louder that the Nigerian state is about to fail. In the attractive parlance of some foreign reporter, the pessimists insist that the Nigerian house is about to fall. Not quite, I say. The note of perennial pessimism is merely a way of speaking, a cross generational refrain. It is not new. It has in fact been passed from generation to generation. The Nigerian house is merely maintaining its original form, a permanent tilt on a precarious brink.
Perennial discontent is the home ground of those left outside. Writers both local and foreign are united in their embrace of the spectre of the imminence of the Nigerian Armageddon. A collapse is imminent. But it never comes. A foreign writer, John Campbell, who used to be an ambassador here put it more urgently in his book title: Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink. In another seductively titled book, Thieves of State another foreign reporter, Sarah Chayes captures an aspect of Nigeria’s numbing existence.
Previous generations of fiery -eyed idealists crowed and cried about the creaky tower. Unknown to this generation of latter day pessimists, this tower, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, has always been on the incline. The four degree incline of the bell tower is the result of a faulty foundation. Yes, a faulty foundation created a miracle that has persisted to give the world something to be fixated on; a miracle of geometry and an attraction for tourists. Maybe Nigeria was accidentally designed to be the world’s permanent showcase of greatness unfulfilled.
My favourite metaphor for the enduring tragic lure of the Nigerian state in perpetual disrepair remains the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It is attractive because it is perennially on incline. To the observer, it is about to collapse. But it never falls over. It is beautiful because it is a tragedy always about to happen, but that manages never to happen.
From a distance, it looks like it is going to topple over any moment. But the years go by. The tower leans still but never falls. It was a design error that turned into an accident that never happened. Architecture professors have studied it endlessly to understand why. Mathematicians have gathered and propounded theories on the angle of inclination. Conferences have been held and scholarly disputations rage as to why the tower has not collapsed and may never collapse. Pessimists argue it may still topple over time. Optimists and vested interests praise it as one of the wonders of the universe, a heritage to be preserved for the posterity humanity. Secretly, they point to the millions of tourists who throng the site annually and leave behind hundreds of millions of dollars over which politicians debate the budget endlessly.
Nonetheless, its attraction is its perennial inline. The nightmare of permanent anxiety becomes a tourist attraction. From all over the world, people too bored with the humdrum of straight and normal towers pay to come and see this wonder of eternal tragic imminence. But this incline is in the very nature of tragedy itself. The tragic collapse could happen any moment but sometimes never does, for years, decades and even centuries. Instead, more devotees and tourists throng the site. UNESCO names it a historical site and one of the wonders of the world.
The incline becomes an industry that sustains itself. Vendors and retailers make a fortune from the tragedy that just wont happen but is forever threatening. Millions of merchandise; T-shirts, mugs, pens, fez caps, selfie stands and art pieces sustain throngs of curious tourists from far and near.
The government feigns indifference from a veiled distance. But government actually invests heavily to sustain the perennial incline. They have invested millions of dollars in payments to the best construction firms in the world to prop the tower in its incline. The challenge is never to make the tower stand straight. It is to keep it in its perennially inclined beauty. Beauty in deformity, something that the old Irish poet, W.B Yeats would call a “terrible beauty”.
If this tower were ever to stand straight, towering to the sky in magnificent splendor like other skyscrapers the world over, the tourist bazaar will cease and revenue will dry up. Retailers and vendors of sundry paraphernalia will close shop and the last revelers will follow. The street entertainers and musicians that live off the tourists will sound their last trumpets and their saxophone will retire in rustic disuse. The place will be deserted, no longer the United Nations of curious humanity that we all have come to know and treasure. Even the UNESCO list of famous historical sites will shrink by one significant entry.
For the Nigerian iteration of the leaning tower, the political behemoth bequeathed by the British, it has produced generations of patriots and idealists armed with a permanent discontentment, a habit of unhappiness. They see the leaning tower and scream for help. But the tower never topples and may never topple. Its attraction is a curiosity of appearance, the conclusion that it could fall at any moment.
But unknown to even the most patriotic idealists, it is in the interest of its keepers, the leaders, that it remains this way: perennially in disrepair but always in business.
Reciting the classic parameters of nation state health, decline or failure is pointless in this place. Nothing rational applies or makes sense here; Nigeria is like no other place on earth. This place was never intended as your typical nation state. Like the Leaning Tower, this place is a creation of a deliberate error in its foundation. At best, perhaps it was intended to be an arrangement, a convenience, a compromise, an understanding. Younger generations now call it a project, the Nigerian project. You embark on a project, hoping it will thrive and fly. If it does not, good luck to us all…The younger generation are careful to avoid the term citizen in describing themselves and the rest of us. We are now called stakeholders as in a joint stock company, voting demographics by political hacks, statistics by the economics minded or just variables by pure mathematicians and statisticians. To call us citizens would mean conferring us with justiciable rights and the state would then have obligations and responsibilities towards us. This state, if indeed it were one, now owes us nothing.
Instead, we are all made to feel like a multitude of guilty debtors to the state. If the state is dysfunctional, it is our fault. If some evil collective or crime syndicate makes off with the treasury, we are made to feel guilty and compelled to pay more taxes. We are made to pay tributes to the sovereign King for that original sin of being allowed to bear the title of a Nigerian. For that sin alone, you are visited with the worst calamities that humanity has ever endured.
You have to secure your own household from intruders, drill your own well or borehole for water, rent a few of the state’s police if you desperately need more security than you can afford. If you live in the township and dream of a good life away from the darkness of your village and the coven of witches after your success, be ready to buy a generator to dry your sweat if only to tell your less fortunate neighbor, “I pass you, my neighbour o!”
If junior decides to develop a temperature at night, you bear the extra burden of running to the local chemist or make shift hospital to pay for a cocktail of fake pills from the backyard laboratories of India and Pakistan prescribed by a quack in lab coat. In the morning, the school bells will ring and the certified illiterate in the neighbourhood school will mount a sentry at the school gate to ask for the overdue and overpriced school fees. He must have planned the assault with your landlord who made sure his was the first face that confronted you at the doorway this morning.
Against the insistence of those crowing that the Nigerian state has failed, there is a palliative position. The state has not failed totally. Nor is it likely to cave in in a catastrophe. But what we are presently witnessing is an incremental shrinkage of the Nigerian state in its capacity to discharge its functions to the citizens, to itself and to the rest of the world.
Wherever the state is overwhelmed by counter non- state forces, it yields ground and abandons post. If some local governments in Borno, Yobe, Niger, Katsina, Kaduna and Zamfara states are under permanent Boko Haram and ISWAP coalition control, the state takes flight. An effete officialdom just takes flight and quietly excludes the ‘ungovernable’ spaces from the map of the nation and moves on. Or better still, deceives those who cannot speak English or tune to the BBC that all is well. The latest illustration of this rule by abandonment or the tyranny of the shrinking state is the national rail network. The Nigerian Railway Corporation has just (August, 2022) announced the suspension of its services from Lagos to Kano and from Itakpe to Ajaokuta till terrorists stop bombing and interrupting rail services in an area that is equivalent to the entire length and breadth of the nation. Earlier, the rail services along the busy ad strategic Abuja to Kaduna route had been suspended after jihadist terrorists bombed the rail line, stormed the coaches and abducted over 100 passengers. Close to 50 of them remain in captivity after huge ransoms were paid to free the others. The rail lines and services paid for by Chinese loans are out for now in a nation that keeps crowing about the efficacy of infrastructure in alleviating poverty and uniting a divided nation. We are paying the loans and interests but have no trains!
Nearer home, Nigeria is beautiful because it is imperfect, even rough -hewn. It is not quite like anywhere else in the world. It is palin and simply Nigeria. I live in Lagos, the heartbeat of global cacophony and hotbed of instantaneous universal madness. The police want to arrest a young Danfo duo for traffic offences. They obey the police by clearing off the main street. They park their rickety sunflower bus by the roadside on a busy street in central commercial Lagos. But they decide on a drama sketch apparently rehearsed.
Instantly, both boys decide to strip butt naked, dangling in full view of all on the open street and adjoining market. Someone screams a warning to the police: “keep clear of them o! When madness degenerates to nakedness in the market, it is risky to go near the naked ones. If they bite you, you, too, will go raving maad!” Spectators gather. Some run away in horror. But the policemen looked at each other and did the wise thing. They run away! The Police College never trains you to arrest two naked mad men in the middle of a crowded street. The boys laughed at the fleeing cops and quickly put on their clothes. Mission accomplished. They zoom off in the yellow bus. Lesson: Fear naked mad men in the sun on a crowded Lagos street! Never a dull moment. The beauty of every Nigerian moment is the moving train of tragedy and comedy rolled into one. Nigeria: Always new. Always in motion.
Those who dream to correct Nigeria’s terminal incline do not understand where we are coming from. They may not even know us. Nigeria was born in deformity. It has lived with its cocktail of infirmities to become the bad place we all love to call home. When I consider the catalogue of woes that define today’s Nigeria and for which citizens and foreigners alike perpetually excoriate the country, it seems they have all been here even before the birth of the modern Nigerian state. It is a matter of degrees. Our ailments have always been there.
The corruption. The nepotism. The ethnic divisions. The religious divide. The sporadic occasional xenophobia. The compulsive bloodletting. The attachment to violence as a means of settling inter communal differences. The mercantilism and comercialization of even adversity. The preference for mediocrity and compromise over merit. The love of bend bend and wuru wuru over the straight and narrow route. All these have been with us forever.
The endless pre-independence conferences with the colonialists and the freedom rallies were not about building a nation. Looking back now, they were about the upliftment of the politicians; the early lawyers and their foreign friends who decamped from the logo of the United Afrcia Company (UAC) to embrace the flag of the new Nigerian nation. The nationalists were courageous men and some women nonetheless. They could look the British in the face and demand independence for the territory.
But each went to dine with the British with an ethnic or regional spoon. The hope was that after independence, the real business of nation building would begin. But alas, it never happened. The struggle for independence was replaced by a vicious scramble for the lion’s share of the pinnacle of power in the new nation.
Some of our revered founding fathers elevated sectionalism into a creed. Some of them signed the signatures of fraud with their toes instead of their fingers for fear of the colonialists fingerprint devices. What has matured is the magnitude and sophistication of vice and crookedness.
Looking at Nigeria reminds me of a curious oddity recreated in Ayi Kwei Armah’s classic novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. It is the image of the man-child, the newborn which at birth embodied all the decadence and infirmities of a decrepit old man nearer the grave than a crib. That is Nigeria, an ancient decadence dressed in modern garb.
But the metaphor of the leaning tower remains the most enduring and fascinating. The keepers of the tower site, our politicians, have come to depend on its infirmity for livelihood. It is not in their collective self- interest for the tower to be erect lest the gravy train comes to a screeching halt. Successive generations of idealistic citizens behold our collective patrimony and scream in desperate fright. All those who have lived and screamed themselves hoarse on the need to correct the leaning tower of Nigeria have all died in disappointment. I call it the fatal lure of the love for a woman called motherland. Love her so dearly and risk dying in love at the orgasmic moment between love, life and death.
The dreams of these patriots were honest and genuine nonetheless. Their patriotism was unstinted. But they failed to perceive the hidden curse of the Leaning Tower nation. See the roll call: Obafemi Awolowo, Ayodele Awojobi, Gani Fawehinmi, Christopher Okigbo, Isaac Adaka Boro, Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Ken Saro Wiwa, Beko Ransome Kuti, Bala Usman, Murtala Muhammed, Tai Solarin and more and more… One thing unites all these illustrious spirits: They lived for others. They dreamt for the rest. They screamed about the injustice done to us all in their day. They wanted the Leaning Tower to stand straight in their life time. They dreamt endlessly and screamed aloud on the need to end the Leaning Tower as a permanent metaphor of the nation they loved and lived to see. Then they all died.
And the tower remains in perennial incline, even more fortified today in its disrepair with more interests now entrenched in our permanent infirmity.
** Excerpted from my forthcoming Memoir, Broken Pieces