The saddest country in the world…By Ayo Sogunro
There is something baffling about the constant need by the people who do these things to measure human happiness. For example, in a 2010 Gallup Poll, Nigerians were described as the happiest people on earth, last week, some five years later, Nigeria was ranked as the third happiest country in Africa. Well, so what? True, the economic rationale behind such research is understandable, but the philosophical basis for this almost literal pursuit of happiness is—and will probably always be—unclear.
If you ask average Nigerians about the validity of these reports and polls, they will probably shrug and sum it up as an example of Fela’s iconic phrase: suffering and smiling. Or, to use the unsympathetic slang given in response to a narration of one’s catalogue of woes: “But, did you die?”
Which is exactly what I thought when I nearly broke my legs after being thrown out of a reckless keke in a highway accident on the second day of the New Year. I got up from the road, checked for the absence of broken bones and boarded another keke. I had more tangible things to deal with than a private contemplation of the dilemma between the quality of our mass transit system and the associated stress of private transportation. And so, within a few hours, the memory of the accident had receded to an irritating but occasional throb in my ankles.
Suffering and smiling.
Yet, it seems to me that Nigeria is gradually slipping into a darker and sadder phase of its existence. There seems to be an almost imperceptible shift from smiling to sighing. This shift in social psychology dawned on me when, a few days ago, I noticed a consistency of pathos in the entries submitted by secondary school pupils for a creative writing competition I was judging. The themes explored by the pupils were stark and worrisome: rape and sexual assault; ethnic conflict; terrorism; IDP camps; domestic violence; mass rape; illness and disease; Biafra; social disharmony; rape again.
Some stories end tragically, others are more hopeful. One writer wonders about the futility of using bombs to send political messages; another traces inter-ethnic violence to the personality cult phenomena. Some dwell on family upheavals; others on private anguish. But the themes reflect broad strokes of our national life in varying shades. The big picture is a sordid socio-political drawing visible to a collection of teenagers but which a lot of people in my own generation are too self-absorbed to see.
But, did YOU die?
Now, because a lot of these kids are yet to come into direct contact with life’s economic push and shoves, none of them submitted stories involving falling crude oil prices, declining foreign exchange revenue, inflation, devaluation and a world where no country is really interested in Nigeria’s offerings anymore. But, although they could not quite see how bad things were, they could still sense the deterioration. I could see from their writings that they had lost faith in the old myths; and there was a generic understanding that the omnipotence of gods and governments was a big idea that did very little.
We have nothing to offer the next generation except our political dramas. Some fundamental value of being a Nigerian is being lost and there seems to be nothing available to resolve or replace that loss. The next generation understands that we are leaving nothing for them because we have nothing. They have nothing to smile about.
But we can still smile and laugh and cheer about nothing. Nothing is what amuses my generation: a focus on the day-to-day political dramas being played out by the previous generation. We are caught in the cinematic grip of the latest corruption figures: oohing and aahing at the vast amounts stolen by our seniors. Our reactions are predictable in their banality: “One person stole ALL that money?” “Another GOAT has been caught!” “We must recover our YAMS!” “We need to get our MONEY back!”And so we keep applauding the search for money like kids watching a hide-and-seek game: “Find the money! Where is the money! Show us the money!”
Because our generation was trained in the belief that money—and the allocation of money—is the answer to every social problem. And, God willing, if the government can make enough money, recover enough money, or prevent enough money from being stolen, then everything will be fine and our happiness will be grounded in objective reality. As for the social problems that cannot be resolved by money, these can be banned, fined or jailed.
Look, I hope—for the sake of building a just society—that we will convict treasury looters and recover lost money. But the recovery of money should be the bonus, and not the point of law and order. Otherwise, what will we achieve with the trickles that we were not able to execute with the boom? What astonishing dance will the latecomers perform at the party that’s about to end?
The success of Nigeria’s future is not going to be dependent on the amount of money in the federal treasury. The current state of our social psychology is a philosophical issue, not a financial—or physical—problem. And it is an issue that can be solved only by a vigorous mapping of the big questions, and the consequent reassurance of the populace that someone “up there” is thinking about these things and knows where the country is going.
But the omnipotence of gods and governments is in doubt: is anyone “up there” really thinking about these things or are we just floundering in our arbitrariness?
Today, the “progressive elements” of the past are now in charge of government. In theory, we have a chance at redemption. Yet, so far, their grandest ideas amount to no more than a renewed attempt at “fighting corruption” and building tolled roads. If the proposed 2016 Budget is any indication, there is—in fact—an almost stubborn insistence on running the affairs of country just as it is while expecting an improved result. And most of us who are aware of these things seem happy enough about this.
Is Nigeria a happy country of sad people? Is it a sad country of happy people?
Well, as far as happiness goes, there is one silver lining for the benefit of our Happiness Index. President Muhammadu Buhari’s mode of fighting corruption is giving a lot of us smiles. And, while this fight may not address the root causes of our social depression, it could help with the symptomatic treatment. Yes, maybe the anti-corruption fight does not focus on future or present corruption; maybe it seems more about personalities than about process; maybe it disregards the rule of law it is supposedly trying to uphold; maybe it is just a big nothing. But, did you die?
At least, this anti-corruption war offers us—except the kids who cannot follow these dramas—a ready escape from the reality of our own refusal to admit an imperfect basis for our national existence. And, as anyone who has dealt with frozen software can testify, a ready escape is something to be happy about.
Sogunro is the Senior Legal Advisor at The Initiative for Equal Rights