On Thursday morning, I stood on my upstairs balcony in Surulere in Lagos and watched the smoke from a burning building. It turned out to be the house of the state governor’s mother. (The family house in another suburb was also torched.) Nearby, the headquarters of our House of Representatives member was spared the same fate only because it was next to a hospital, although all the windows were broken. It later transpired that politicians had been hoarding food – beans, noodles, sugar, salt, garri, rice, vegetable oil – meant for Covid-19 relief, some dating back months, in warehouses up and down the country. Nigerians of all ages were aghast. In some instances, even the soldiers sent to guard the warehouses – the police had made themselves scarce – assured the looters that they were there to keep the peace and not prevent them from carting off what was theirs anyway.
I am far from alone in admiring the protesters’ growing sense of their own inherent power, gaining in confidence with every passing day. Their dignity and self-possession mock the shamelessness of those who have so carelessly squandered their future; and at the same time they are asking how we could have allowed this state of affairs to prevail, six decades after Nigeria’s independence.
It is cold comfort that this time around the wealthy cannot flee to London and Delhi for medical treatment, as they did during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Every day, we hear of prominent people getting tested, even when they don’t have any symptoms, while ‘ordinary’ Nigerians who fear they may have caught the virus are told to come back in 14 days’ time. Covid-19 is known as ‘the rich man’s disease’: you needed the wherewithal to travel abroad in order to catch it in the first place, and the wherewithal to get tested on your return, having infected the ‘masses’ in the process.
In the run-up to last year’s presidential election, Patience Jonathan, the wife of Nigeria’s then president, warned women what they were letting themselves in for should they reject her husband in favour of Muhammadu Buhari. The last time Buhari was head of state, as a military strongman in the mid-1980s, ‘he said women should be confined to the kitchen,’ she said. ‘But under Jonathan’s administration, women have been liberated to contribute to national development. If you vote for Buhari again, you will return to the kitchen.’ Her advice was ignored and Buhari was duly elected. Everybody was happy at first. Sixteen years of mind-boggling corruption had left the people clamouring for ‘change’, which quickly became the new government’s mantra. And then everything went horribly wrong.
Frederick Lugard is a pivotal figure in Nigerian history. The colony’s first governor general, he effectively created and named it in 1914, amalgamating a multitude of disparate ethnicities, languages and religions into one of the most patchwork countries in the world. He compared the subjects he conquered to ‘attractive children’. In 1894, Lugard had led an expedition through the ancient kingdom of Borgu on behalf of the Royal Niger Company, to secure treaties with the local emirs ahead of his French counterpart during the so-called European scramble for Africa. He succeeded except for the westernmost outpost of Nikki, which subsequently fell into what is now the Republic of Benin. I was recently part of a 22-strong delegation which retraced Lugard’s steps through what is now Nigeria’s Middle Belt region.
I have never made a secret of my distaste for Muhammadu Buhari – ‘the least awful option’, according to the Economist – and I am not doing so now that he has been declared winner of the presidential election in Nigeria. One of the more notorious dictators during the long years of the military, he now claims to be a born-again democrat. Perhaps so. All will be revealed after he moves into Aso Rock on 29 May, with the proviso that he will be obliged to work within the terms of a constitution he cannot abrogate by decree.
There is much talk here in Nigeria of the world’s muted response to the latest outrage by the Boko Haram Islamic insurgents who sacked the entire town of Baga in the beleaguered north-east while any number of heads of state gathered in Paris to mourn the deaths of 17 French citizens. Double standards? Perhaps. But if so, what should we say about the silence of President Goodluck Jonathan in the face of the wholesale slaughter of his citizens – 2000 according to initial reports; 150 according to the government – even as his French counterpart was to be seen everywhere exhorting his people to stand firm? Nine months ago, when Boko Haram abducted more than 200 schoolgirls, it took the president nearly three weeks to acknowledge that anything had happened. Nobody knows what Boko Haram want and perhaps they don’t know themselves. We only know what they don’t want, most famously ‘Western’ education.
Were 276 girls abducted from a government secondary school in the town of Chibok in north-eastern Nigeria on 14 April? That anyone could ask the question, as the president’s wife allegedly did last weekend, says much about the mess we’re in. It took the president more than two weeks to call a press conference to tell the world: ‘I don’t know where they are… there is no confirmation of the location of the schoolgirls, you are a journalist, you know more than me.’ We are still none the wiser, even as Western powers descend on the country to help find them. We are not even sure of the numbers involved, which have fluctuated between 200 and 300; but the story seems to have finally woken everybody up – both in Nigeria and abroad.