Hurting on the Inside
In my teenage years, there was a song I loved very much: On the Inside, by the Mary Jane Girls, the American R&B group mentored by the mercurial Rick James. To be exact, the reggae version by Sammy Levi was part of my daily diet. I must have listened to Levi’s version a million times – or more. The song talks about falling in love with someone who keeps hurting your feelings. As I became more politically conscious, it meant more than a love song to me. With the 2019 elections beginning to dominate the airwaves, this song has come back to play in my head again and again. Nigerians have become adept at falling in love with politicians every election year -- but the heartbreak never seems to stop.
For the purpose of this article, I have deliberately abridged the lyrics thus: “Here I go again/Falling back in love with you for the second time… Here I go talking out of my head again/Feeling like a stranger to my heart/I believe that we could fall in love again/But you keep stepping on the one that loves you/Anyone could know the pain and misery… hurting on the inside… Here we go again/Starting off a romance/That will surely end in pain/I have tried time after time/To keep our love together/But still I find you’re playing games/There I go talking out of my head again/Feeling like a stranger to my heart/I think that we could fall in love again/ But you keep stepping on the heart that loves you…”
I have nothing but pity for us Nigerians: we keep renewing our hopes and keep getting hurt by the choices we make all the time. My first recollections of elections in Nigeria were those of 1983. I was holidaying in Lagos at my aunt’s place. I read every newspaper and watched the nightly Verdict ’83 on NTA. The signature tune – “verdict eighty-threeee” – rings in my head till this day. So also do the allegations of massive rigging in the “moonslide” victory of then-ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN). We had been promised all sorts by NPN, including cheap food, but we got hyperinflation and untold hardship instead. Quite a lot of Nigerians were glad to see their backs when the military came calling.
We were never to see civil rule again until 1999. It was the beginning of a new era. Government of the people by the people for the people! It sounded so lovely. Under the military, we did not have a right; we did not have a voice. We did not put them in power and we had no right to any expectations. The military did not owe us anything, not even fundamental human rights. With democracy, we had legitimate expectations. We expected our elected leaders to make us the centre of their policies and programmes. We expected that making our lives better would be their priority. We started hearing the phrase, “dividends of democracy”, and we fell madly in love again.
I recall the enthusiasm that welcomed President Olusegun Obasanjo to power. Even his political opponents fell in love with him. Most of our governors were young; some of them in their 30s. We voted for legislators at both national and state levels, all of them promising to legislate for the good of Nigerians. They promised us sunshine. None of them promised to break our hearts. All was set for “dividends of democracy”. But what did we get? The president started saying he needed a new presidential jet, even once taking a commercial flight to blackmail us. The federal lawmakers started throwing tantrums over furniture allowance. It was no longer about us. It was all about them.
To worsen matters, the governors began to go berserk. We started hearing of how they were swooping on the black market every month – specifically a day after the arrival of federation allocations. The naira always lost value against the dollar after the sharing of allocations. The monies were growing wings and flying abroad, mostly under the guise of looking for foreign investors. Governors were buying multimillion dollar houses all over the world. We started producing political billionaires. Governors were setting up militias to harass and eliminate their opponents, both real and unreal. They became tin gods, worshipped and feared in equal measure. Democracy was no longer about us.
As the ruling class continued to pillage the country, giving us toothpick for the price of toothpaste (apologies to the late Senator Chuba Okadigbo), we did not surrender. After all, democracy is about choices -- using your thumb to make a statement. We were hard pressed on every side, but not crushed. We were perplexed, but did not despair. We were struck down, but not destroyed. Another round of elections came. We heard new promises. We renewed hopes. Here I go talking out of my head again/Feeling like a stranger to my heart/I believe that we could fall in love again/But you keep stepping on the one that loves you/Anyone could know the pain and misery. It goes on and on and on and on…
I am very glad that our democracy has survived for 19 years non-stop, even though it always felt like we were one step away from another military coup. Having tasted military regimes and civil rule, I will vote for democracy anytime any day anywhere. But the time has come for the Nigerian political elite to start taking a look at themselves. They need to start asking themselves sincerely if they have been fair to the rest of Nigerians. They are more at home chattering aircraft for political meetings while the public transport system rots. They are more excited about building “befitting” governor’s residences while slums are growing around them. They collect billions in severance pay while pensioners languish.
Check the statistics. Over 60 million Nigerians do not have access to clean water, according to WASHwatch. By the structure of Nigeria, potable water is provided by the state and local governments. WHO/UNICEF estimate that 122 million Nigerians do not have access to basic sanitation – a proper disposal system for human waste -- and most of them are the poor people in rural areas and urban centres. Combine lack of clean water with poor sanitation and the end results, in case you are wondering, are water-borne diseases as diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery and Hepatitis A and B. Every year, we have cholera outbreaks in Nigeria. Is this the romance the poor Nigerian voters signed up for?
Not so long ago, Prof. Timothy Nubi of the Housing and Urban Regeneration Department of the University of Lagos (UNILAG) alerted us to the chronic housing shortage in our country. The slum population, he said, is estimated at 70 per cent with an annual growth rate of 4.55 per cent – all as a result of poverty. He illustrated it thus: “As stagnant water is to mosquitoes, so are slums to criminal activities.” It is generally estimated that housing deficit in Nigeria is 17 million units, and more than half of our population are essentially homeless or living as squatters. These are the people that queue up come rain or shine to declare their love for these politicians. Is this what they deserve?
I will deliberately avoid talking about the hospitals. Nigerians are still dying from diseases that have been eradicated or contained in other African countries. There is never bed space at public hospitals. We do not have enough doctors either, and the ones we have are poorly paid, compared to the overfed guys ruling over us and collecting millions in allowances every month. Many young people want to become medical doctors, but we do not have space for them at medical schools. The ones we train here at enormous costs have little incentive to stay. Patients are heartlessly extorted at government hospitals, totally dehumanised and humiliated by those who should care for them.
Ordinary Nigerians feel jilted and are hurting on the inside with a sense of helplessness. Their hearts are being trampled upon by those who rode to power on the claim of loving them. I think our leaders need to have a genuine conversation with their consciences. As they bask in the sunshine from the balconies of their yachts, they need to ask themselves if this is the reward for our love. As they lavish billions of naira to arrange weddings for their sons and daughters and designer cars for their wives, they need to examine their consciences. The reckless display of wealth in the midst of poverty is an insult on injury. Nigerians are justified to expect the dividends of democracy.
It is not as if it has all been bad news for the past 19 years. Give or take, a few leaders have sought to improve the lives of our people. But given the enormous resources they have collected and the results we can see, it is quite glaring to all that our politicians and their allies have been the biggest beneficiaries, not the ordinary Nigerians who are supposed to reap the benefits of democracy. Unfortunately, democracy is at risk when people are pushed to the point that they can only see politicians and their allies as the winners. That puts all at risk, including the politicians themselves. In the case of a reversal, they stand to lose.
Thank God for democracy, another general election is around the corner. There will be wonderful manifestoes and breathtaking posters. They will tell us what we want to hear. They will whisper sweet nothings to our ears. They will play on our emotions, tell us how bad their opponents are and how great their own plans for us. We will start off another romance that, unfortunately, may end in pain. Some will turn around and blame us for voting the wrong people into office, as if we had the power to know tomorrow. When are we going to unanimously agree that it is the leaders who claim to love us that are trampling on our hearts all the time? For how long are we going to be hurting on the inside?