By Pastor Tunde Bakare
Concerned citizens of Nigeria, please lend me your ears. I am here this morning to blow the trumpet once more in the hope that our sinking nation can be rescued before it drowns. And just before I am labeled a doomsday prophet by those banqueting inside this titanic of a nation, allow me to speak on the theme:
i. Isaiah 58:1
“Cry aloud, spare not; Lift up your voice like a trumpet; Tell My people their transgression, And the house of Jacob their sins.”
ii. Jeremiah 17:1-11
1. “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; With the point of a diamond it is engraved On the tablet of their heart, And on the horns of your altars,
2. While their children remember Their altars and their wooden images By the green trees on the high hills.
3. O My mountain in the field, I will give as plunder your wealth, all your treasures, And your high places of sin within all your borders.
4. And you, even yourself, Shall let go of your heritage which I gave you; And I will cause you to serve your enemies In the land which you do not know; For you have kindled a fire in My anger which shall burn forever.”
5. Thus says the LORD: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man And makes flesh his strength, Whose heart departs from the LORD.
6. For he shall be like a shrub in the desert, And shall not see when good comes, But shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, In a salt land which is not inhabited.
7. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, And whose hope is the LORD.
8. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, Which spreads out its roots by the river, And will not fear when heat comes; But its leaf will be green, And will not be anxious in the year of drought, Nor will cease from yielding fruit.
9. “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?
10. I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give every man according to his ways, According to the fruit of his doings.
11. “As a partridge that broods but does not hatch, So is he who gets riches, but not by right; It will leave him in the midst of his days, And at his end he will be a fool.” (AMEN)
Sometime in 1922, G.K. Chesterton, in a book on his travels to America, remarked that the United States is a nation with the soul of a church. It is a loaded comment, not quite as self-explanatory as it may seem, and therefore open to multiple interpretations. The church and the nation are two separate entities. They are similar in a number of respects but are dissimilar in various other ways, too. If the church in Chesterton’s statement is taken literally, then I wonder: How can a nation have the soul of a church and, come to think of it, how might a church have the soul of a nation? One way to unpack Chesterton’s statement is to regard it as a praise of America’s morals. It could mean that as a nation, their motivating virtues are religion-inspired, and they have a Christian slant to their national conduct. Since it is a country that started out with a significant measure of religious fervor, Chesterton’s observations could have a historical basis.
Chesterton was touched by the democratic spirit of America and its commitment to fair play and equality – the fact that the US was a place of opportunity for everyone regardless of who they are or where they come from, and this was reflected in his essays/travelogues. But, considering that the United States was rife with racial segregation in 1922, Chesterton might not have been as enthusiastic about the US as a place with religious character as many Americans might have read into his statement. His could have been a backhanded comment, which offers another possible interpretation of Chesterton’s observation – that the country is like a church and her citizens have a religious devotion to their country and her founding creed. A compliment, if you ask me.
Either way, one thing is unequivocally certain from Chesterton’s observation: The US has a soul. The soul of the country, to sum it up, constitutes its complete national vision, its ideals, ethics, rectitude and overall character. The soul of a country is reflected in its national disposition such that even a child, as long as he/she is the citizen of that country, mentally subscribes to that soul and enacts it throughout his/her life. The soul of a nation is informed by knowledge, definition and re-definition which shape its guiding philosophy. Where necessary, it serves as a reference for re-fashioning and re-negotiating its virtues. The constituent parts of a nation’s soul are not written in its constitution as a code of conduct everybody must subscribe to, neither are they necessarily decreed nor even enforced – they are, for the most part, intangible. Nevertheless, the citizens of a nation are aware of their existence at a subliminal level at least and are guided by their ideals. They live and act them; they protect, sustain and nurture them, and the ideals in turn energize them. The soul of a nation defines the people; the people define the soul of a nation. One acts on the other because both are essentially the same.
Let me at this point also assert that every country, for good or bad, positive or negative, whether it is obvious or sublime, animated or repressed, active or passive, whatever the case – every country possesses a soul. If we can take a country’s constellation of its ideas, ideals, identity, philosophy, principles, heroes, culture, moral standards, make up, mystique, founding visions, the general moral consensus, etc. and how all these are hinted at in their various modes of expression, ranging from the country’s national anthem to individual expressions of citizenship, we can deduce what I am driving at here. If we conflate all these attributes in one mixing bowl and thoroughly whisk them together, what we get will give us an idea of what the soul of a nation is and how it makes a country stand out and gives it its individuality in the assembly of nations. Also, if a country lacks all the aforementioned social and moral artefacts, or has them in anaemic proportions, it still does not take away the fact that it has a soul, albeit an impoverished one.
I want to bring this closer home by focusing on Nigeria in particular. If someone were to make a journey similar to Chesterton’s to this country and travel either through its entire geographical expression or maybe even stop only at those states for which travel warnings have not been issued by some countries, how would he or she describe the soul of Nigeria? Let’s say the person’s impressions start forming at the gateway into the nation, the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, and the person witnesses ineptitude, inefficiency, and an unabashed display of wanton corruption that ranges from airport staff begging for money from visitors to a total systemic dysfunctionality, how would our report card read?
Let’s say the person is a business person who has come to survey the terrain to determine whether it is a fruitful place to invest but finds every step of the way that, while Nigerians are enterprising, warm and even very generous, hardly any fruitful, reasonable business activity can be done without a wetting of the ground with compromise because one has to pay a bribe here and there. If the person realizes that Nigeria has been structurally conditioned to largely function only when its wheels are oiled with acts of corruption, and one has to bend one’s principles, shift one’s morals, panel beat one’s conscience, and rationalize these things just to achieve anything at all, how might such a person characterize Nigeria’s soul? Or let’s just imagine this visitor is simply a tourist who has come to see this great country that is home to the largest population of Black people in the world and is dubbed the Giant of Africa. Suppose this person has come with an open mind, a tabula rasa, having never heard any of Nigeria’s ills, how might the essential character of our nation shape the person’s perception of who we are as a people?
When the person sees all the energy and drive Nigerians invest daily to make something of their lives and how they are rewarded with the reality of truncated opportunities engendered by the culture of corruption, what does it translate to? If, for instance, on a given day, the person picks up a newspaper and sees reports on how the EFCC arrested a certain lawmaker and, after a pretend trial, the person is back to his ‘Honourable’ position and walks about freely without fear or shame; if the person reads of how many billions of dollars have been misappropriated through a sham fuel subsidy program, or how a certain minister has been accused of involvement in massive corruption to the tune of billions, and this minister remains unshaken and still presides over the affairs of the ministry he/she heads; if this visitor reads about the barefaced ease and recklessness with which Nigeria’s leaders steal from the treasury and still strut in public to the soundtrack of ‘Ranka dede, Baba kepe’ that has been engrafted into our public morality, how would such a person characterize Nigeria?
Now suppose the person is not even a foreigner gazing into the country with a burning intensity so as to capture Nigeria’s essence, but is instead a fellow Nigerian who wants to know what the country stands for. Let’s say the person is even you, a member of this distinguished audience. What would you see or say about your own country, putting all the aforementioned into consideration?
I do not find it necessary to highlight in numerical details the countless corrupt practices that have found a home in Nigeria, nor do I even want to attempt to capture their effects. They are all around us, clear as a sun-filled sky. From infrastructural deficits to a social collapse; from a lack of ambition to a collective sense of despondency, to a lackadaisical attitude and a general inuredness that makes us all look away from even the most outrageously corrupt acts, we are no longer strangers to the results of corruption, even though it is doubtful that we will fully comprehend its entire effect on our country for a long time to come.
Beyond the tangible and sublime effects, corruption has demolished our cultural and symbolic capital such that whenever we are ranked alongside other countries, Nigeria always manages to retain her space, almost incontestably, at the nethermost rung of the ladder. Recently, Nigeria was ranked the 20th saddest country on the Legatum Prosperity Index. This is one curious rating, considering that not too long ago we were rated the world’s happiest people – a rating which I do not recall hearing any state official reject with their usual vociferous denials. But, then, even if we quarrel with this latest ranking that qualifies us as one of the saddest people on earth, at least we cannot honestly disagree with the woeful indices used to adjudge us a miserable country.
The rating was conducted alongside 141 countries and computed with indicators such as economy, governance, education, health, entrepreneurship and opportunity, safety and security, personal freedom, and social capital. In all these, Nigeria performed abysmally low relative to her strength and potential. She could only be considered a champion when compared with struggling nations, unendowed with natural resources, and war ravaged countries.
Otherwise, Nigeria lagged far behind those who ought to be her peers. Our country was a letdown in virtually all ramifications. Not quite long ago, too, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation released a report card on African countries and where they presently stand. Nigeria was ranked among the worst governed countries in Africa. Our dear country was pushed to the same undistinguished corner as some African countries that should be looking up to her for sustenance and inspiration. We have so badly regressed that we can only shine, albeit with a dull glitter, when we stand among failed and failing countries.
It was just last month we were ranked the 35th most corrupt country in the world. Shortly before that, KPMG said we are the most corrupt country in Africa. If we consider that, within the past month, we have also been ranked the 7th most terrorized country in the world, and we sit at the bottom of the Positive Peace Index, keeping countries like Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Yemen and even Somalia company, the picture is as gloomy as it can possibly be. As if those verdicts are not enough, Nigeria was also ranked the worst place to be born in 2013. Can we quickly, at this point, pause and wonder: What has corruption done to us such that we are always at the top of the list when negative factors are analyzed and at the bottom of the list when positive attributes are ranked?
This is one of the biggest causes of concern: to say corruption is a bad thing in the life of a country would almost be trivializing a serious and complex problem. Corruption has been debilitating for Nigeria and this can hardly be denied. Corruption paralyzes a country’s soul such that the best she ever exudes is a warped sense of self. It cripples a nation’s character and drains her of substance. When we are confronted daily with news and reports of executive corruption in high places, assaulted with a legal system that has long lost respect for the sacredness of justice and resorted to worshipping and preserving certain sacred cows and even their sires; when we have a social system that makes a mockery of a country and her feeble efforts at self-reclamation to the end that even her entire existence becomes a running joke; when we have all these comprising the leitmotif of our daily existence, we should know that we are dealing with a country whose soul is being daily starved of the right nutrients and stuffed instead with frequent doses of junk. Gradually, we become morbidly obese with still-born chances, flatulent with disorder and, right before our eyes, we will continually see our country’s soul yield to the vagaries of ill health and maybe even social death.
This is not mere alarmism. Our country has long been distorted by corruption and corruption has progressively eroded her strength and undermined her potentials; corruption asphyxiates initiative and all good ideas wilt and die under its crippling presence. Corruption corrodes a nation’s soul, makes the people superficial – a nation full of religion, lacking in principles, short on scruples and totally devoid of a social conscience. To borrow the words of Apostle Peter, “…the people are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts of the field, will eventually perish.” (I Peter 2:12) The evidence that we are perishing people can no longer be ignored. We are citizens of a country that marks time on an inglorious spot. We make a lot of hot air motion without actually taking more than a few unsure tottering baby steps forward. And those steps are quickly countered by those times when we take huge strides backwards.
Tomorrow, we will gather again at the Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja, to cast a retrospective glance on the road we have trod for the past year since the Occupy Nigeria protests took place – that rally that shook everywhere when Nigerians uncharacteristically fought against the civilian regime that keeps pushing them beyond the endurance limit of their longsuffering souls. They not only actively resisted the bloodsucking agents of state; they planted a flag of resolve on the soil of weariness. It was unprecedented that Nigerians across the country, irrespective of religion and ethnic identification, would massively resist and on such a scale. From a little band of people who began to protest and clamour that Nigeria must be occupied, it steadily grew into a mammoth movement as each one told his neighbor that this was a chance to snatch our country back. While it lasted, people were energized. They wanted to question the answers they already had on the state of affairs in the country, and they also confirmed what they had always known. Yes, they saw that the country was hemorrhaging from every vein and artery. But more than that, the Occupy protests were a battle — a battle to retrieve the soul of Nigeria and set her back on a better path. Everyone was fed up with the state of the nation unless of course one was in cahoots with the vagabonds in power. Nigerians wanted a better Nigeria. We wanted a chance to start all over again.
We lost that chance in 1999 when former president Olusegun Obasanjo assumed office. Today, the old man (‘Ebora Owu’) conveniently assumes the stance of a statesman. He goes up and down telling everybody Nigeria will go up in flames; that the man he planted in power has allowed corruption to go unchecked under his clueless watch. What he expediently forgets is his role in facilitating our arrival at the sticky junction we presently find ourselves.
Obasanjo was one person who derailed Nigeria at a critical juncture in her life. In 1999, Nigerians were full of enthusiasm as they watched the military return to the barracks. We were excited because it was the dawn of a new beginning. We wanted a different and better country, one with a defined national character and with the possibility of creating a sense of self-pride we so badly needed after so many traumatizing years under the military. It never happened. Obasanjo squandered that enthusiasm and returned the country to a path of corruption, prebendalism, primordial sentiments and even administrative bullying. The Occupy Nigeria protests revived that enthusiasm in Nigerians and showed us that when we are ready, we can always have our country back. For now, we appear to be more of a makeshift country simply existing without ideas, vision and goals. Our ideas of planning for the future have never quite exceeded the annual budget. Well, maybe once in a while, we talk about Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and a certain Vision 20:2020 which even its own proponents know is just mere flightiness; something successive governments have been good at peddling to unsuspecting citizens. That might explain the average Nigerian attitude to this country: People seem aware that the country has no clearly defined future and, therefore, a sense of patriotism or identifying with the country is at an all-time low.
We seem to have stronger ethnic identities than a national one, and there seems to be increasingly little motivation or galvanizing energy to spur us on to be a people with a national character. This is one of the factors that enable corruption to thrive. When a people who have learnt to recede into their regional shells develop an attitude of double consciousness that makes them fiercely loyal to ethnic ties over nationhood, there is a problem. This sense of this-country-is-nobody’s-Fatherland allows corruption to thrive. Where we are supposed to be jointly vigilant, we look away. And that is another remarkable thing about the Occupy Protests: People protested without regard for ethnicity and showed that it is possible for us to cooperate along factional lines if we are determined; if we can articulate the kind of country we want to build.
Right now, Nigeria can be said to be far from having a properly defined national character that guides and mediates her overall behavior. We seem to just exist, floating in a terrestrial space and hoping that if we continue to string things along anyhow, we will get there, somehow – wherever ‘there’ is located.
This is one of the major problems I see with the whole national expression called Nigeria. We have continually failed to situate our national desires and aspiration within the scaffold of self-fashioning. Instead of just trying to be, we should first stop and ask: Who are we, where are we coming from and where do we want to go from here? How do we create this persona we aspire to? Please note that I started this address by talking about the soul of the American nation. In case somebody is planning to ask, should Nigeria aspire to be a nation with the soul of a church, too? My answer is no, not at all.
There is no point imitating the essence of another country when your founding principles, or lack thereof, are radically different. There is no point going to another country and coming back with a sketch of their latest banquet hall or the outline of their VP’s residence to inspire your own. You will not only fail to reproduce the same effect, it will also be an outright misfit. Let’s go to the land of Judah, the homestead of Ahaz the king of ‘copy and paste’, the progenitor of all clueless executives – II Kings 16:1-20. The end product of such copycatism is futility or dying without any significant accomplishments at best. A Yoruba proverb captures it well. It says, “Sokoto agba wo, bi o fun ni lese, a so ni nitan”, meaning a borrowed pair of trousers hardly fits properly.
In closing, let me go back to the road where we started this walk together. As Nigerians, let’s ask ourselves, beyond posturing and defensive patriotism, how do we define our own country and how does this country in turn define us? How do we live out this interplay in our daily existence? If we are asked to encapsulate the country’s character either in one pithy sentence or a grandiose speech, what are the things we would say about our Nigeria? And not to be neglected in this is the critical question: How will the corruption that has become a main construct of our cultural constitution play into this introspection? From both an outsider and insider’s perspective, how has informal and institutionalized corruption at micro and macro levels impacted our total national persona? What effect does it have on our national and individual conscience and general consciousness? Do we in our daily conduct instinctively limp to the beat of this national character, a people disabled and diminished by corruption?
Let’s still put one thing into perspective. Majority of us in this auditorium are adults. We have witnessed many seasons of Nigeria’s existence, many of which were not pleasant. The answers we are likely to come up with cannot but be tainted with our disappointments, frustrations and maybe even despair.
Naturally, that should be expected. But, then, what if we not only look backwards and begin to look forward? What if we ask, if a child were born today, Sunday, the 13th of January, 2013, what would Nigeria mean to him/her? How would Nigeria as it is presently composed shape his/her outlook on life such that in the next ten to twenty years, such a child will evince the country’s character in words and deeds? These are all questions and issues we have to bear in mind when we address issues bordering on the toll corruption has exerted on our country. What kind of country are we living in and what kind of country are we creating for our children? Let us, for a moment, suspend talks of our own generation’s loss and instead focus proactively on the coming generation. What kind of country are the thousands of children being born daily coming into and how will the quintessence of Nigeria define their lives from cradle to grave? As we deliberate on the one year anniversary of the Occupy Protests tomorrow, it is important that we not only lament corruption but also remember two things: One is that what we saw last year during the mass protest is a bunch of possibilities; Nigerians want their country back and they want it now. And if we join hands together, it is possible to reclaim the country. It is possible to ennoble the soul of our nation such that as we become Nigeria, Nigeria becomes us.
Thank you for listening. May the good Lord remember those who are good for good and repay every one working for the ruin of this nation consciously or unconsciously in their own coin. Amen.
Being text of speech delivered at the latter rain assembly on Sunday, the 13th day of January 2013 in preparation for the 1st anniversary of the “occupy nigeria” protest.
PASTOR ‘TUNDE BAKARE
THE LATTER RAIN ASSEMBLY.