In one of those instances of fuel scarcity in Lagos State, I drove to a fuel station, and, like the other motorists, parked my car in the line for petrol. In a more sane society, motorists will sit in their cars, and inch their way up, as the line moves, to the fuel pump and buy petrol. But because of our general distrust of the Nigerian system, we, of course, doubted that the pump attendants will impartially dispense fuel on the basis of first come first serve. So, to ensure impartially at the fuel pumps, most of us stepped out of our cars and crowded around the fuel pumps.
Irked by the clustering of people around the pumps, the petrol station manager wanted us to return to our cars. Although there were some decent ways to do this, he, in the characteristic Nigerian show of power and disdain for others, took a Maze (pepper spray) from a policeman stationed at the petrol station, and started spraying it into peoples’ eyes; and they started scrambling away from the pumps. I refused to run. As he closed in on me, I asked him: are you a policeman? He was taken aback; he stopped, and handed the Maze back to the policeman.
My very limited knowledge of law tells me that under certain circumstances, a policeman is authorized to use the Maze. Why then was a petrol station manager pepper-spraying his customers? It is because any Nigerian with any iota of power must exercise it in the abuse and oppression of others. Why were grown men and women intimidated by that unlawful act of a petrol station attendant? It is because due to the cultural shocks of colonialism and prolonged periods of military rule, Nigerians expect that power should be cruel, ruthless and unquestionable. Therefore, no matter how lawless and inhumane an exercise of power is, Nigerians docilely submit to it.
That event at the filling station was an epitome of the unsavory cocktail of the abuse of power by those in power and the passive submission of Nigerians to power, no matter how abusive, unlawful and exploitative it is. It is a nasty blend that allows the political elite to treat the generality of Nigerians with inconceivable contempt, steal public funds and consign a disproportionate number of Nigerians to poverty, ignorance and fear. It permits the religious elite, with their convolution of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to fleece and intimidate their congregants. They preach fallacies that enable the pastors to line their pockets in exploitation of their members. Quoting bible verses out of context, they frighten their members into total submission to the personal will of the pastors. It leaves the Nigerian masses stoically bearing the unbearable, and cringing in fear of pastors, government officials, and agents of the government.
But in all these, Nigerians are to be blamed. A corrupt former politician attested to this fact when he said, “we steal (public funds) because you do not stone us”. His point is succinctly clear: the political and religious elite will not, on their own, stop their abuse of power and exploitation of the masses. It will take the actions of the people to stop them. The 19th Century Black American leader, Frederick Douglas, was making a similar point when he wrote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand”. It will take demand – strident, vociferous and determined demand – from the public to force the elite to subordinate their selfish interests to the public good, rein in their proclivity to steal public funds, stop fleecing and intimidating the people, respect the right of every Nigerian to be treated with decency, and concede the right of every Nigerian to equitably share in the enormous wealth of this country.
That indefatigable maverick, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, in one of his mournful songs, “Sorrow, Tears and Blood”, lucidly captured the mindset of the average Nigerian, that of unmitigated cowardice, cowardice borne out of self-absorption: a prepossession with narrow, petty, selfish interests and goals, and the consequent unwillingness to commit to anything that does not readily and directly benefit him, especially, materially. So, the average Nigerian is so terrified to take a stand in defence of the public good, freedom and other ideals of life. According to Fela, he rationalizes his cowardice: I no wan die, I no wan wound, I get one child, I wan enjoy, etc.
However, the cowardice and selfishness of the average Nigerian do not make a campaign against the evil rulers of this country and their religious allies impossible. Ordinarily, the masses cannot get anything done unless they are led. It is leadership that motivates a people, and
galvanizes and channels their courage and will towards stated objectives. So, to change the Nigerian social order and make it responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people, the people need leadership. Usually, the masses are not led by one of their members but by the educated and financially independent. It was a scholarly, debonair journalist, Nnamdi Azikiwe, who spearheaded the Nigeria struggle for independence from Britain. It was an erudite, urbane Doctor of Theology, Martin Luther King Jr., that led the civil right movement in America. In addition to knowledge and financial independence, the leader must be principled and governed by courage and absolute commitment to the cause.
A onetime president of America, Richard Nixon, once wrote that: a true leader is so consumed with his belief in his ability to change the course of history to the point of being indifference to his own personal survival. In making a similar point, the great Indian spiritual and nationalist leader, Mohandas Gandhi stated, “only if I die for India shall I know that I was fit to live”. And the foremost American civil right leader, Martin Luther King Jr., also made a similar point, “I have conquered the fear of death”.
There is a dearth of this urgently needed leadership. With everyone angling for his own piece of the pie, there is not that leader, who in the full transport of his messianic mission, has “conquered the fear of death” or believes that “only if he dies for (Nigeria) shall he know that he was fit to live”.
Ezukanma writes from Lagos via [email protected]