Reworking Achebe’s ‘Where the Problem Lies’

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ABDUCTION, kidnapping, rape, banditry, insurgency, ‘unknown gunmen’ are now very common words in the lexicon of Nigerians. They are so frequently in usage such that even babies with the littlest cognition, or even stark illiterates who have never stepped into any formal school setting, have come to understand what they mean.

We are being told that with the exception of the period leading up to, during and after the Nigerian civil war, there is yet to be any other period as precarious and terrifying as now. Indeed, no one and no place is safe, including the institutions and personnel meant to ensure our safety. If the highest seat of power in the land could be so easily robbed without the perpetrator being caught, then you can better imagine the fate that has befallen the average man and woman!

President Buhari

If these are not signs of failure of leadership, what else could be? Nigeria’s greatest challenge has always been the crisis of quality leadership. Chinua Achebe continues to shout this to Nigerians with prophetic certainty in “Where the Problem Lies”, which remains as refreshing now as it was when he penned it.

“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example, which are the hallmarks of true leadership,” Achebe says in his essay, first published in 1983 under the title “The Trouble With Nigeria.

In the absence of an ideology, pure nationalism may suffice. But so far, the blunt truth is that beyond rhetoric and theatrics of electioneering, the entrenched passion and tendency of our leaders is lootology (defined here as stealing or theft or robbery). That is why our presidents and governors, and many who had been in positions of authority, by the end of their tenures, usually come out stupendously rich; oftentimes many times richer than the states they governed. It is also because of the lucrative nature of public office being the shortest route to inestimable wealth, wealth without responsibility; that it is practically impossible to dissuade them from imposing their successors.

If Achebe had lived up to now, his incredibly fertile imagination would have called for a review to reflect the tragic realities of contemporary leadership. Since he is no longer here to do that, we can only imagine how he might have captured the bizarre scenarios that continue to unfold. Achebe would have seen that in those days, the leaders had some modicum of character deserving of being called leaders; only that they were deficient in their unwillingness, in their inability to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example.

Obasanjo

These days, leaders no longer deserve the honour of being addressed as leaders. They are total opposites of what leadership is. They instead have, literally and figuratively, transfigured into dreadful monsters. They are, in the context of the prevailing criminality, aptly qualified to be called bandits or kidnappers or insurgents in power, holding the Nigerian state hostage and extorting the resources in the public treasury, just like bandits demand and get paid ransoms.

The uncontrollable criminality that currently engulf the country – the insurgency, banditry, kidnappings and abductions, armed robbery, unknown gunmen, daily murder of police and army personnel; all lumped together as insecurity, inexorably mirror the brigandage going on in ruling class circles across the country. Though the areas of plundering are uncountable, the monthly allocation from the federation account illustrates the stark reality of the looting in the country.

Every month, the three tiers of government share billions of naira but we hardly feel any impact of these huge funds in our lives at any level of governance. Ironically, a huge chunk of these allocations go as security vote in which no one except the chief executives (president and governors) are entitled to know. Yet there is no security.

The daily blood spilling and the trauma that come with it, make life more worthless and creating an aura of general hopelessness in a society that already lacks basic necessities at the social, economic and infrastructure levels. But those who administered us to this condition continue to blossom.

But if leaders are incapable of devising answers to crises and challenges of this nature, then they are not worth the name. What are leaders for? Challenges exist in every nation; in some cases, far worse than ours, as they are compounded by natural disasters, in countries without the type of human and natural wealth that we are endowed with. But these nations have been able to overcome the challenges with the help of imaginative, charismatic and caring leaders. Unfortunately for us, ours instead are human disasters lacking remedy, at least for now.

Take for instance, former President Obasanjo. We were told that when he was set free from Abacha’s gulag, he had in his bank account less than twenty thousand naira. His poverty was such that when he was commandeered by a section of the ruling elite to stand for election, the entire project was funded without a kobo from him. Today, after being in power for 8 years, Obasanjo is arguably one of the richest Nigerians. Obasanjo is not alone, for in Nigeria, no one leaves office as president or governor and remains poor.

The most ruthless looting and state capture occur at the state and local government levels. At these levels of governance, governors invest on themselves imperial powers in such a manner that they beat their chests and demand praises for even the slightest bureaucratic function, for instance, the payment of the slave wage salaries to workers. While in power, the president and governors dispensed patronage in such a manner that portray them as gods; they can make millionaires and billionaires of whom they wish; all this at the expense of development and the welfare of the people.

The usual excuse of lack of resources to fund development is a ruse if the monthly allocations shared between the federal, state and local governments are put into context vis-à-vis the entrenched poverty and decayed infrastructure, especially at the state and local government levels. In fact, the local governments exist these days only as channels for federal allocations, which, as soon as they are received and pooled together, are usually shared to fund things other than the purposes for which the local government system was established.

That is why contemporary local government chairmen no longer perform any tasks other than serve as signatories for the looting of local government allocations. In almost all instances, local government chairmen cannot award contracts for construction of even culverts, let alone bridges or grading of rural roads, and all those things we were told that the local government system effectively accomplished under a colonial system that was structured for maximum exploitation.

Here we are in the 21st century, and in a democratic dispensation; the local government system has been so undermined to the extent that even to maintain the Spartan infrastructures put in place during colonialism, the first republic and military regimes, has become an impossible task.

It is not by accident therefore that we are in the mess we are now. Our ruling elites break all the rules of decency enunciated as grand norms of democracy and have refused to abide by the known rules of democratic contest and good governance. They blame everything and everyone but themselves for our underdevelopment challenges – they fault the constitution, the federal system, corruption, religious and ethnic bigotry, etc.

But if leaders are incapable of devising answers to crises and challenges of this nature, then they are not worth the name. What are leaders for? Challenges exist in every nation; in some cases, far worse than ours, as they are compounded by natural disasters, in countries without the type of human and natural wealth that we are endowed with. But these nations have been able to overcome the challenges with the help of imaginative, charismatic and caring leaders. Unfortunately for us, ours instead are human disasters lacking remedy, at least for now.

A fundamental character flaw in most of our leaders and those who always aspire to lead is that they usually have no commitment to any known ideology which ought to drive their aspiration for power. As a result, they lack the basic guide that ideology or an imagined worldview provides in terms of governance ethos and development paradigm. They therefore easily get carried away, or confused or even totally lost, when they come face to face with the awesomeness of power.

In the absence of an ideology, pure nationalism may suffice. But so far, the blunt truth is that beyond rhetoric and theatrics of electioneering, the entrenched passion and tendency of our leaders is lootology (defined here as stealing or theft or robbery). That is why our presidents and governors, and many who had been in positions of authority, by the end of their tenures, usually come out stupendously rich; oftentimes many times richer than the states they governed. It is also because of the lucrative nature of public office being the shortest route to inestimable wealth, wealth without responsibility; that it is practically impossible to dissuade them from imposing their successors.

I think that if Achebe were alive to rewrite “Where the Problem Lies”, he certainly would have framed the character of the current leaders with stronger pessimism than his invoked imagery of unwilling leaders not being able to rise to the responsibility or the challenge of personal example. He would perhaps have stated that Nigeria’s misfortune derive solely from our inability to recruit the leadership with the required imagination to steer Nigeria to the island of our dreams; or our unwillingness to hire leaders with the passion for social and economic justice, or our failure to elect leaders with will, courage and conviction for Nigeria – these certainly are not the right steps to building and sustaining a great nation!

Onah is Editor-in-Chief of National Record. Reactions to this column, which will be out every Wednesday henceforth, can be sent to: 0803 320 9749, via sms and whatsapp only or email @: [email protected]

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