“We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.” I do not know under what condition Bob Dylan wrote that song line. All I know is that it serves my purpose as I sit here at the bank of Nigeria searching for the right metaphor for what the country has become. For those not privileged to have a seat in Abuja, this is the ultimate end-time. ‘Japa’ used to be an option for the stranded, but that option is dead now; they’ve killed it. Yet, speaking out has become a big risk, especially in Yorubaland. A cackle of attention seekers is on the prowl looking for poets to pummel and drummers to drub. Because they desperately seek Bola Tinubu’s face of mercy, they say the pounder’s pestle should stop pounding; the grinder’s stone must be still. All because the president is Yoruba. If you are Yoruba and you maintain a newspaper column or you write simple opinion articles that bemoan the state of the nation, the aspiring phlegm eaters have a name for you – ‘Akótilétà’ – the one who auctions his inheritance. But the asset sellers they seek are right there in the mirror – if they look properly. The inheritance we have is a culture of loud resistance to and rejection of what is bad. Is it hunger for position, and privilege, and luxury that drives this unhired army’s expedition? They can learn from this snake – monamona – a beautiful snake that is forever hungry because it hunts the wrong way.
In their scramble to be counted among inmates of slave castles, they say we hate the president. Madam Efunroye Tinubu, the first Iyalode of Egba, was an aggressive money-maker who would “rather drown her twenty slaves than sell them at a discount.” Slaves are worth nothing more than a push into the ocean depths; still, some people are working very hard to be admitted into slavery. But President Tinubu does not know them; they do not exist. Or they are mere chattels of his politics. Yet they fight the wind to announce their presence. I watched a belching guest on Arise TV last week describing his host as a “badly brought up little boy.” The anchor’s offence was that he asked an uncomfortable question on the state of the economy and the mass suffering in the land. I sat up and sat back, sad as the ‘boy’ smiled the insult away. Some of us get variants of such insults daily, weekly. It got pretty bad this last month. Should we all just keep quiet and tell Comrade Napoleon, Father of All Animals, that he is doing well?
We all perish if we all sleep with all our heads on a straight column. Conformity, acquiescence and a surrender to today’s creepy spiral of silence is certain death to the republic and all who value good life. The Nigerian Tribune which I write for hates no one. It will be 74 years old in the next 10 days. It has not lasted this long by sleeping on duty or giving applause to regimes of pain. Four years ago, when the newspaper turned 70, the current president of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu, in a letter to the organisation described the Nigerian Tribune as “the home of independent, fearless journalism” which had “throughout its illustrious history, continued to shine the light of truth into every corner of the Nigerian public space.” That was Tinubu’s verdict four years ago. Nothing has changed. If anything has changed since then it is that Tribune journalists have added more energy to their commitment to the founding philosophy which Tinubu rightly described as lighting “the truth into every corner” of the human space. Indeed, “service to justice, fair play, and public morality in the life of our great republic” is the charge we got from our founder, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. On November 16, 1970, Chief Awolowo wrote in celebration of the newspaper’s 21st anniversary: “The Nigerian Tribune was founded with one and only one aim in view: to champion fearlessly the cause of justice and fair play in every sphere of our public life.” Papa looked at the emerging Nigeria and said with so much concern that in Nigeria “democratic practices are in a state of suspended animation” and “immorality enjoys so much favour and approval in high places that it now has the audacity to threaten mass conformity.” If a pushback is noticed in our operations, it is a resistance to what Awo aptly described as immorality’s “audacity to threaten mass conformity.” On November 16, 1949, when the Tribune journey began, Chief Awolowo promised that the paper, its journalism and journalists would forge “a frank tongue and a pungent pen. A tongue and a pen that will be careless of what the opponents might say or how they might feel, and will have enough courage to call hypocrisy, humbug and tyranny by their names. Such a tongue, such a pen, will mortify the proud and provoke despotism to repent its ways.” That is the goodly heritage we have and which we will, God-willing, pass to the next generation.
The media and the government are said to be partners in national development. True. They should be without one acting slave to the other. Today at sundown, look up at the sky. There is a bright star following the moon up and down. Astronomers say it is the planet, Venus. Growing up in the village, we called that star Ajá Òsùpá (the moon’s dog). But knowledgeable elders were always quick to tell us that we were wrong; the two are just companions, the star is no dog of the moon (Àgùàlà nbá Òsùpá rìn ni, wón sebí ajso a rè nííse; àgùàlà kìí se ajá Òsùpá). The relationship between Venus and our moon is the relationship between the media and the government of Nigeria. Their paths cross by design as part of the cosmic roles assigned them. Neither is the dog of the other. They work as co-travellers on a journey of fate. But ‘friends’ of the government and ‘brothers’ of the president do not think so. They say the writer is an enemy of the president; the columnist is driven by hatred for ‘his brother’. They throw bones of bigotry at the dog; they say it must keep quiet or be taught how to be silent.
When unknown soldiers destroyed Fela’s Kalakuta Republic, the Afrobeats king asked: “Wetin this Fela do…?” In the same vein, we ask what has the journalist done apart from asking questions? The country was progressively run down by its leaders. Young victims of the state quickly packed their little nothings, sold them and hurried out. The sad escape abroad they gave the psychedelic name, ‘jápa’ (bolt out). They thought what stunted their fathers must not also wreck them. They remembered the story of the old woman who broke her back gathering firewood in a forest. They also remembered the follow-up question to that tragedy: Should her daughter be found groping for ropes in the same jungle? (Igbó tí ìyá ti ṣẹ́ igi, kò yẹ kí ọmọ rè d’àgbà tán, k’ó tún wo inú igbó náà lọ já okùn). Where I come from, the philosophy of resilience is encased in the anecdote of the elder who repeatedly sets the bush on fire because the bush has refused to burn. The elder says he won’t stop striking his matches; he says one day he will achieve his purpose (Bí àgbà ńkùn’gbẹ́, tí ìgbẹ́ kọ̀ tí kò jóná, àgbà náà ò ní yé ìgbẹ́ ẹ́ kùn). There is always an end to cycles of injustice, it breaks at a point. Nigeria is work in progress; its good won’t be birthed by acquiescence.
Jápa was an escape option; now it is no more. On Monday, October 31, 2016 (seven years, seven days ago), I wrote a column with the title, ‘Creating scapegoats, spreading misery’. I warned in that piece that Nigeria could become like a broke and broken country called Venezuela unless we changed our ways. I could remember a private message sent to me on that piece by my late friend and brother, Yinka Odumakin. He said I was late with the warning; he said we were there already. What was my warning about that time? I wrote about a Nigeria where companies were running out and throwing their workers overboard; where governments couldn’t pay salaries; where lucky doctors and other well-trained professionals were in queue to receive half pay. I wrote of a country where less fortunate workers were on the street looking for what to eat. It was about a nation where, sitting in every verandah in every village, town and city, was an army of well-trained jobless young men and women. I said that in the idleness of their chatter, Nigeria would taste the bile of their anger at a system that was rigged against them. I wrote that the depths of misery and joblessness were filled up, bursting at the seams. It was the story of a nation of all possibilities; a country of poor market, rich palace. A rich nation controlled by poverty and misery. I warned that the country was tragically becoming unhinged. Now, see where the ship has anchored.
Yet, they say we should not ask questions. Some say the critical media is envious of the president. And you ask envious over what? Jerome Neu, an American author and professor of Humanities, once warned that legitimate resentment of injustice should never be called envy. Neu wrote many books and essays, the themes of some of them fit in this piece. They include ‘Jealous Thoughts’ (1980); ‘Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults’ (2009); ‘On Loving Our Enemies: Essays in Moral Psychology’ (2012); But I am interested more in his 1987 work: ‘A Tear is an Intellectual Thing.’ And that is because I see some people crying when no one is bereaved. “Why do we cry?”, Neu asks and gives an answer: “We cry because we are sad, or grieving, or ashamed, or otherwise upset.” I assume his thesis on tears and crying is correct. But why are some spectators in Nigeria crying when the jabbed says the injection is not painful? A former president of the Students Union of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Adeola Soetan, has a name for the flies on the wall who applaud every bad move of the king and get distressed even when the palace feels no pain. He calls them Abóbakú (persons who die with the king). President Bola Tinubu told his ministers on Friday at the end of a retreat that the situation today in Nigeria is not about “just leave me alone, I am going home. You may not have a home.” He was right, there is no quitting. If we keep quiet because the president is our ‘brother’, he will fail and we won’t have a home and the outside will reject us. Our situation will be “Ilé ò gbàá, ònà ò gbàá” (rejected by home, rejected by road). With our fingers snapped over heads, we reject that portion; it is not ours.
No normal person praises failure. Leadership is like a game of tennis; if you don’t serve well, you can’t win and be applauded. I owe that sense to John Mason, author of ‘Why Ask Why: If you know the right questions you can find the right answers.’ No one here hates Tinubu and/or his presidency; no one wants him destroyed. We pray for his twig so that our birds can perch peacefully. But, see, amidst mass poverty and hunger, how do you keep quiet reading these headlines? Tinubu seeks Senate’s approval for another $7.8 billion, €100 million loans; Nigeria set to acquire presidential yacht for N5 billion; Renovation of president’s official residence in Lagos to gulp N4 billion; Renovation of VP’s official residence in Lagos, N3 billion; Construction of office complex in Aso Rock, N4 billion; Cars for First Lady’s office – N1.5 billion…. All in a supplementary budget! And the year will expire next month! Everything looks like Tinubu and his government are being lied against. That is why I will ask someone to please tell us that these are lies. If they are lies, we will all rise in defence of our president.