Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Much Ado About a Name

19 years ago, an election was held in Nigeria in which a Yoruba muslim by the name of Moshood Abiola, won the majority of votes in both the north and south of the country. Stunned at the unexpected development, the then junta decided to annul the elections, plunging the country into a crisis from which it is yet to fully emerge.

The winner of that election was arrested and tossed into a dungeon to await the pleasure of Khalifa. His wife, who carried on the fight for him on the outside, was brutally murdered for having the gall to demand that her husband’s victory be recognized and his mandate restored.

Khalifa, then began his own transition program, with the aim of emerging from the cocoon of military dictatorship as a beautiful, dark-goggled civilian butterfly. The plan was going smoothly, the people had to endure being told that Khalifa was the key to their future, and the only man “the cap fit”. And then, one day, right out of the blue, Khalifa died. To this day, speculation surrounds his death, ranging from a poisoned apple wielded by a nubile assassin of Asian origin, to his heart giving out because he ignored the warnings on Viagra packets about mixing the erectile dysfunction medication with alcohol.

Either way, Khalifa passed on, and we held our breath to see if now, finally, Abiola would be granted his mandate. Alas, it was not to be. In the midst of discussions with the new junta, Abiola slumped and passed on, conveniently solving a rather knotty problem, but that is a discussion for another day.

The new junta quickly organized elections, and on May 29, 1999, a civilian President was sworn in. Calls began for MKO to be recognized as a hero of the struggle for democracy, and immortalised as such. These calls were largely ignored by the new rulers who, it quickly emerged, had by and large come from the ranks of the sycophants, apologists, and collaborators who had done their level best to prevent the return of democracy to the country. It was also quickly established that these new rulers had little patience for the rule of the ballot, preferring rigging and outright brutality as their route to attaining and retaining power. For these people, Abiola remains a reminder of what they could never hope to achieve: power through legitimate, free and fair elections.

In 2011, Nigerians trooped to the polls to elect Goodluck Ebele Jonathan as their President. It is safe to say that his administration has been an unmitigated disaster, and we still have 3 years to go. The GEJ administration has lurched from one crisis to another, with flagrant corruption and stupefying incompetence as its hallmarks.

Surprisingly, on May 29, 2012, 19 years after the election he won was annulled, GEJ decided to do something for Abiola, announcing that the University of Lagos would be renamed the Moshood Abiola University. Cue bedlam.

Students took to the streets to protest the renaming of “their” university with poorly-spelled placards. Twitter erupted, some people taking to their handles to question whether there weren’t more important things to deal with than the names of universities. Some simply poured scorn on the man. Others pontificated on the value of the name of the university, saying that it had to do with its heritage. In short, there were so many soapboxes “clumb” upon, it is a wonder that there was any space left for listeners. It is a measure of just how unpopular this administration is that a move meant to recognize a hero of the country swiftly became another stick to beat the President with.

One particular accusation that has been leveled at Mr. President is that this decision was taken to distract Nigerians from the epic failure his administration has been thus far. And I must wonder, have we, as a people, not yet reached that stage in our development in which we can say to Mr. President, “We are glad that you have finally decided to recognize the contribution of Abiola to your being in office today, and we say thank you. Now, how about implementing the recommendations of the subsidy probe report, and firing your hopelessly inept Minister of Petroleum? And oh, while you’re at it, where in nine hells are the allowances for our Youth Corps members?”

Are we not capable of engaging multiple issues in this manner? The furore over the name change of UNILAG ignores one fundamental factor, which is that UNILAG is owned, operated, and funded by the Federal Government of Nigeria, which can consequently call “UNILAG” whatever the hell it wants. As such, those saying that similar protests would occur if the US Government decided to rename Harvard University completely miss the point as Harvard isn’t owned by the US government. Others say that GEJ does not have the power to change the name of a University by executive fiat, but nothing stops Mr. President from submitting a bill to the National Assembly seeking to amend the University of Lagos Act accordingly. (Where it may well wallow for another 20 years.)

We have complained for over a decade that our “democratic” Federal Government had signally failed to recognize Abiola's contributions to democracy. We argued that June 12, not May 29, should be recognized as Democracy Day. We said recognizing Abiola had to go far beyond naming one road after him in Abuja.

At long last, the man receives official recognition and this is how people react? I am willing to wager that many of the students protesting have no idea who Abiola was, or know that Lagos was the epicenter of the protests for the man’s mandate to be restored. I wish the ghosts of those UNILAG students who were killed for daring to protest the annulment of the freest and fairest election in our history, could rise up and give these kids a history lesson they would never forget.

Indeed, if the objective of renaming UNILAG after Abiola was to distract people from the fact that one year into his first full tenure, GEJ is yet to give Nigerians any reason to smile about their choice at the polls, and instead has foisted increasing hardship, unprecedented levels of corruption, and Keystone Kops-esque ineptitude on the country, then I must congratulate GEJ for finally achieving something he set out to do. People are so busy preparing arguments and counter-arguments over what should have been brushed aside with a “that’s nice”, that they have lost sight of the fact that once again, our President has given us a speech with zero substance to it. He did not unveil anything in that speech that we can say was aimed at checking the rot in the security situation. He didn’t say anything about the corruption that has risen to eye-popping levels under his care. He hasn’t told us how he intends to tackle the members of his party who are sponsoring terrorists, a situation that prompted his NSA to speak out in frustration. Hell, the man even refused to say “Amen” to a prayer against corruption and corrupt politicians a couple of days prior to this speech, and in our uber-religious society, that should have raised all sorts of red flags.

Instead, we have once again demonstrated our unmatched capacity for supremely energetic shadow chasing. GEJ and his advisors must be thrilled.

I say to GEJ, “Thank you Mr. President, for recognizing a hero of democracy. Now, how about doing something substantial for once in your administration, like implementing the recommendations of the subsidy probe report, doing something about the Boko Haram sponsors in your party, or are you only capable of bending your knees to terrorists and telling us to endure their actions?”

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I love my country, enjoy a cold beer once in a while, rabidly support Arsenal FC, but I don't get Diet Coke...