We’ve been here before…

By Tolu Ogunlesi

While Nigeria may not have thrown up much great leadership in its history, we can find consolation in the fact that she has never suffered a deficiency of memorable speeches. Right from Tafawa Balewa’s Independence Day speech, through to the 1964 Akintola victory speech (whose broadcast a certain masked gunman prevented), to Ojukwu’s May 30, 1967 declaration of secession, to Obasanjo’s 1999 presidential inauguration speech (the first by a democratically elected President in sixteen years), what we have lacked in transformational action we have more than made up for in talk.

Scattered amidst these examples outlined above are several coup speeches; for the history of Nigeria is one of coups and rumours of coups, pistol- and rifle-wielding men in khaki tossing – or attempting to toss – one another off the seat of power.

There are some unforgettable coup broadcasts. Kaduna Nzeogwu’s Jan 15, 1966 speech is a good example. Nzeogwu said:

“Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 percent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds.”

Then there was, in 1976, the speech by an edgy Bukar Dimka, which imposed a “dawn to dusk curfew” instead of the “dusk to dawn” one the speech-maker must have had in mind (an episode memorialised by the poet Niyi Osundare in his poem, “February”: “Dimka’s dark daring / and the drunken curfew / of a gang so afraid of the dawn…”).

And how can we forget the illustrious coup-announcing career of Sani Abacha. He it was who announced that the Shagari era had come to an end, setting off waves of rejoicing across the country.

Barely two years later, Abacha was back again, this time to announce that the Buhari revolution was going to be replaced by the Babangida one. And then there was the 1993 coup speech in which, finally, he was the beneficiary, no longer an errand boy.

Olusegun Obasanjo’s 1999 inauguration speech is the one speech amidst the myriad that I actually remember listening to. I think I can still feel a residue of the exhilaration and pride that filled me as I watched the televised broadcast, for the first time in my conscious life (I was barely two when Shagari was tossed off the wall) I saw a civilian president of Nigeria.

The two words that stand out from that speech are “sacred cow.” Obasanjo declared: “Beneficiaries of corruption in all forms will fight back with all at their disposals. We shall be firm with them. There will be no sacred cows…”

Confident words; inspiring resolutions. Which inevitably raises the question: What good have all these great speeches brought us, in the last fifty years? Aren’t we worse off today than we were in 1960, and in ‘84, and in ‘99. Isn’t the only constant thing in the Nigerian story the inexorable regression into hitherto-unheard and unimagined levels of distress and despair?

One wonders what the class of 1966 would be thinking today, seeing the extent to which corruption has progressed. From ten-percent we have gained momentum and sped past even the 100 percent mark, defying all known rules of mathematical logic. Were Nzeogwu to repeat his broadcast today he’d speak about “the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand one hundred and ten percent…”

Listen to these words of Sani Abacha, on December 31, 1983:

“You are all living witnesses to the great economic predicament and uncertainty, which an inept and corrupt leadership has imposed on our beloved nation for the past four years. I am referring to the harsh, intolerable conditions under which we are now living. […] Health services are in shambles as our hospitals are reduced to mere consulting clinics without drugs, water and equipment. Our educational system is deteriorating at an alarming rate…”

A decade later Abacha would begin to preside over an era that made the above scenario look like a mini-paradise. If hospitals were consulting clinics under Shagari, by Abacha’s time they were government-certified mortuaries.

Now, the list of Important Nigerian Speeches has just grown longer. Last Sunday, the 29th of May, 2011, one more speech joined the multitude, courtesy of our new President, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

Like most of the speech-makers before him, nothing he said can be flawed or faulted. Speech after speech Nigeria’s leaders have always managed to hit all the right notes. Ignoring a tradition of uninspired delivery (no Martin Luther Kings or Barack Obamas this side of the planet?), what we have been treated to over the last fifty years has been a litany of tick-all-the-right-boxes speeches.

Last Sunday’s speech was no different. In fact I’m not sure you need to read it. If you heard Yar’adua’s speech in 2007 then you have heard Jonathan’s 2011 own. If you liked Nzeogwu’s 1966 speech you will like Obasanjo’s 1999 speech (interestingly both men were very good friends, and Obasanjo has written a book about him).

Compare these two extracts:

“Like good soldiers we are not promising anything miraculous or spectacular.” – Nzeogwu (1966)

“As I have said many times in my extensive travels in the country, I am not a miracle worker.” – Obasanjo (1999)

And these two:

“…we must devote our best efforts to overcoming the energy challenge. Over the next four years we will see dramatic improvements in power generation, transmission and distribution.” – Yar’Adua (2007)

To drive our overall economic vision, the power sector reform is at the heart of our industrialization strategy – Jonathan (2011)

The real tragedy lies in what all these speeches share in common, apart from their structure and content: the fact that not long after they are born they are bound to drop dead. Without exception. They find themselves compelled to invite us, the hearers, to be dismissive (of them and all they stand for), to invoke an infinite blanket of amnesia – a self-protective mechanism against the painful memories and paralysing disillusionment associated with broken dreams and promises. (“If we ignore his promises then we can avoid the pain that comes with realising, down the line, that we’ve been swindled yet again!”) A leader’s deliberate amnesia (regarding his vows) thus effortlessly summons forth an instinctive, self-protective amnesia amidst his followers.

Yes, why should we, the “promisees”, continue to remember promises after they have been forgotten by the “promiser.” If Obasanjo, when he was courting the Adedibus and Andy Ubas of this world, couldn’t remember his “sacred cow” vow, who were we to attempt to hold him to it? Ditto Yar’Adua and his “power emergency” vow.

Now let’s wait and see how long we can hold on to Goodluck Jonathan’s Sunday speech, before he – followed soon after by us – consigns it to that giant green-white-green bin of failed this-and-that which holds all the passionate and powerful presidential and Head-of-State speeches that have gone before it.

Or, miracle of miracles, will this latest one be the exception to the rule; the presidential speech that will finally smash a grey-haired jinx of uselessness? 

(This article was written in May 2011)

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