The shoe as metaphor – by Tolu Ogunlesi

Published in two parts (here and here) in the Nigerian Compass, Tuesday 17 February and Wednesday 18 February, 2009

The shoe as metaphor

By Tolu Ogunlesi

GEORGE Bush, the man at the centre of the incident, called it “bizarre.” I call it funny. The image of the then most powerful man in the world nimbly dodging a ‘sole’ of mass destruction will not fail to make anyone laugh out loud. Shoes have long appropriated to themselves disproportionately more attention than other bodily accoutrement; from the Biblical account of Moses and the burning bush – “Take off your shoes for where you are standing is holy ground” to the story of the old woman who lived in a shoe to Imelda Marcos, the ex-Filipino first lady whose private shoe collection (estimated at a few thousands of shoes) made it into the Guinness Book of World Records.

During the run-up to the recent US Presidential Elections, Time Magazine published a photo showing the worn-out soles of Barack Obama’s shoes. I found the images quite touching, an emblem of his tortuous journey from unknown quantity to serious contender, as well as a necessary reminder of his humanness at a time when he was in danger of being regarded as the newest member of the Council of gods. At times of disaster around the world, shoes appear to be the most poignant symbols or reminders of lost human life.

Whenever there’s a pipeline explosion in Nigeria, or a bomb blast elsewhere in the world, photo journalists offer us images of shoes lying forlornly at the disaster scene, stained with blood, devoid of human owners, tear-evoking mini-memorials of lives brutally cut short. And of course, one of the most popular cliches you will come across on the pages of Nigerian newspapers will be something to do with the “shoes” that one person or the other has “left behind”. Sometimes it is used in relation to someone who has died, other times simply a person who is still living but has moved on to other responsibilities. This is how I have chosen to see it: Some are born with shoes on their feet, some sew their own shoes themselves, and others find other people’s shoes thrust upon them.

At this time in the life of Nigeria, no metaphor seems more appropriate than the shoe metaphor. Let’s start with Nuhu Ribadu and Dora Akunyili. Whatever else may be said, there’s no gainsaying the fact that these two individuals burst onto national – and global – consciousness by audaciously creating – from nothing – giant shoes for themselves, in the field of anti-corruption and food & drug regulation respectively. Nuhu Ribadu – at a time when the noun ‘Nigeria’ was no more than a synonym for internet fraud – took on powerful fraudsters and fraud syndicates, and hounded them out of their comfort zones into the prisons they deserved, or into exile. No one was too big to be labeled and punished for corruption, and, perhaps for the first time in Nigerian history, hitherto untouchable classes of people were exposed, and Nigerians got to know the full extent to which their country was in the throes of organized corruption.

Of course it didn’t take long for the global community to acknowledge that change had arisen like stubborn sunlight upon Nigeria. Not that there were no thieves any longer, but at least stealing public money was no longer something to be flaunted. We went from chop-and-throw-party-to-celebrate-your-chopping to if-you-must-chop-then-chop-very-carefully-and-clean-mouth-well-well! But today, the hunter has become the bush meat. Mr. Ribadu’s powerful enemies, having patiently lain in wait for him, are hell bent on disgracing him until there is nothing left to disgrace. They have demoted him, accused him of buying mansions around the world, assaulted him, and declared him wanted. They are smiling, laughing even. No one knows if they will laugh last.

What baffles me is this: Not one person has come out with proof that any of the persons arrested, charged to court or convicted by Ribadu is innocent and merely the victim of a frame-up or unjust prosecution. From Tafa Balogun to Emmanuel Nwude to Joshua Dariye to Diepreye Alamieyeseigha et al, not one of these persons has been able to confidently declare that he did not do what Ribadu accused him of doing. They have all sang other songs – Ribadu was being used by Obasanjo to punish his enemies, Ribadu was practicing selective justice, Ribadu sold off the properties he confiscated to his cronies at ridiculous amounts – but they have not said they didn’t steal. I am now forced to wonder when or how it became a crime to punish incontrovertible cases of crime. Of course we knew that Ribadu would not be in those shoes forever, but no one imagined that his powerful foes would not only prematurely eject him, but go ahead to set fire to those shoes.

And then there is Dora Akunyili, arguably one of the most internationally famous -and most decorated -Nigerians, who has fought drug fakers and adulterators to a standstill. Now that she has been appointed a Minister of the Federal Republic, I’m left wondering what will become of NAFDAC. A recent cartoon in a Nigerian newspaper has a band of fake drug manufacturers / importers rejoicing at Prof Akunyili’s ‘elevation’ from NAFDAC. Someday I actually expect some of the bolder ones amongst them to take full pages in a few papers to congratulate her for finally ‘leaving’ them alone – and taking her giant shoes along. In an ideal world, a change of leadership should not elicit the kind of anxiety that I feel regarding Akunyili’s exit from NAFDAC.

In an ideal world, structures and systems should be put in place such that newcomers can focus on improving on the mistakes of their predecessors, not on jeopardizing their successes. But in the kind of country we live in – a country without a government, and without the kind of sense of shame that one would expect in normal human communities; a country driven perpetually in reverse gear – anything can happen. Where, I ask, are the reforms in the educational sector started under Obasanjo? What is the fate of the National ID card project? Yar’Adua wasted no time in undoing the ministerial structure left behind by Obasanjo.

Now we hear that the same Yar’Adua has just set up another review panel to review the recommendations of his earlier review panel. A case of reviewing reviewed reviews? Not even government houses are spared the “let me demolish the old and build my own” syndrome. The lesson of the Ribadu saga is simple: Ours is a country in which excellence and stand-out-from-the-crowd thinking are actively discouraged. Whatever the EFCC has achieved in the last few years has in my opinion been destroyed; sacrificed mercilessly on the altar of vengeful, sacred-cow politics. And with what has been done to Ribadu, is there any incentive left to encourage Waziri to be a “tiger” in the fight against corruption; to further enlarge the big shoes that Ribadu left behind?

Apparently the 1st ‘Rule of Law’ is this: Anything that can be reviewed will be. And the review will most likely be done in the most unprofessional and vindictive manner possible. The EFCC has fallen victim. Will NAFDAC be next? While we wait to find out, please do me this favour. If you’ve seen Nuhu Ribadu’s shoes anywhere, please hand them over. I’m compiling a list of Nigerian politicians I’d love to throw them at. I hope the potbellies will allow them to duck the way George Bush did!

(c) Tolu Ogunlesi

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