By Olusegun Adeniyi
Tomorrow marks Nigeria’s 61st independence anniversary. While we lament about what might have been and politicians play their usual games that contribute nothing to the welfare of people, let me confess straightaway that the copyright for the title of this piece is not mine. But there is an interesting backstory to it.
Late in July this year, I received a call from the Director, Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Department of Outdoor Advertisement and Signage, Dr. Baba Gana Adam. He informed me that I had been nominated to chair a panel of Judges for an essay competition with the theme, ‘60 Years of our Togetherness: Nigeria Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.’ It is part of the activities initiated last October by President Muhammadu Buhari when he inaugurated an inter-ministerial committee headed by Secretary to the Government (SGF) of the Federation, Mr. Boss Mustapha, to plan and organise a befitting 60th anniversary celebration that would last one year.
The idea of the essay competition, according to Adam who headed the task team of the sub-committee, was to “celebrate exceptional writing skills of young Nigerians, while also projecting a greater Nigeria to the world at large.” Notwithstanding his patronizing words about the selection of Judges, I was inclined to decline the offer. If the idea was coming so late in the day (the year-long ceremony will end today, 30th September with a ceremony at the Villa), then the essay competition must have been an afterthought. But Adam followed up with a visit to my office where he explained the reasons for the delay which I could relate with given my own experience in government. What eventually tipped my hand was membership of the panel of Judges. All are highly regarded, including the editor-in-chief of 21st Century Chronicle, Mahmud Jega, cultural affairs specialist, United States Embassy, Bella Anne Ndubuisi, chair of the Blueprint Newspaper editorial board, Zainab Suleiman Okino, author and digital entrepreneur, Japheth J. Omojuwa and public affairs analyst and writer, Gimba Kakanda.
I accepted the assignment on two conditions. One, there would be no announcement of the names of judges to avoid any controversy that might detract from the essay competition and preserve its integrity. Two, I suggested that the subcommittee work with a consultant who would help publicise the competition, receive and collate entries and present a shortlist of the best 50 entries for us (panel of Judges) to choose from. This elimination stage was to consider the extent of the participants’ attention to the theme of the competition, depth and originality of ideas, clarity of thought and mastery of the use and mechanics of English which remains our Lingua Franca. The consultant was also expected to deploy digital tools that would automatically weed out plagiarized entries.
After preliminary meetings of the Judges, subcommittee members and the consultant, I suggested that Gimba collaborate with the government team to simplify our work in the interest of time. His assignment was to assist in the process of drawing up a list of outstanding entries which each of the Judges would then grade before determining the average scores. That turned out to be a good decision. Gimba’s concise review of submissions was not only apt, it helped us when taking the final decision.
With each Judge grading the 50 entries, we concluded that aspect of our assignment at the weekend, collated scores on Monday and held a virtual meeting on Tuesday to review the entire process and outcome. At the end, we decided that we would be doing a great disservice to ourselves and the nation if we shortlisted anybody for prizes, given the poor quality of essays. The abysmal lack of attention to detail, as Jega for instance pointed out, is best reflected in the fact that the entry with the highest score (the winner) wrote that Nigeria attained independence in 1690! Jega’s other concern was that the age bar of 35 was even too high as a qualification for the competition. “Some professors are in that age bracket.” But the question that informed the decision we eventually took was: How will Nigerians feel when reading a winning entry that begins with ‘According to Collins dictionary’?
The conclusion, and Gimba had earlier pointed this out to me, was that the quality of entries could be attributed to the reach of promoted calls for submission on social media and not necessarily a reflection of the standard of Nigerians within the targeted age bracket. A total of 1062 entries were received, but we felt there was not sufficient awareness about the competition. “Either the platforms targeted for publicising the campaign aren’t sold on the mouth-watering prizes for winners or interrogating Nigeria, to quote from the first line of one of the rejected entries, ‘no be moi-moi’,” Gimba wrote in his mail to me after the preliminary task. Readers of course can now see where the headline for my column came from.
For the competition, the first prize would win a million Naira, a MacBook, three-month internet subscription, branded laptop bag, journal and stationery. The second prize wins N750,000, HP Laptop, branded backpack, three-month internet subscription, journal and stationery. The third prize would take home N500,000, a Zinox laptop, three-month internet subscription, journal and stationery. Seven others would win a consolation prize of N100,000 each.
However, since today marks the eve of Nigeria’s 61st anniversary, let me share some of the observations garnered from the essays, including the hundreds that did not make the cut. A majority of the entries were repetitive summaries of Nigeria’s history, with authors even citing Wikipedia as the source of their information. So rampant was intellectual theft that excerpts from a particular piece published in The Guardian of 5th October 2020 titled ‘Nigeria… yesterday, today and tomorrow’ authored by a certain Dr Cosmas Ilechukwu were serially lifted by at least a dozen participants. Two entries copied and pasted the entire article for submission!
More disturbing is the absence of critical thinking and logical reasoning. In most of the entries that proffer solutions to Nigeria’s ethno-religious and regional fault-lines and our development dilemma, there was a disconnect between the content of the essays and the overall conclusions reached. For instance, some writers began with the assertion that Nigeria is ‘the best country on the planet’ or ‘the giant of Africa’ yet concluded with the usual cynicism and defeatism that nothing will change. At the end, what was intended to be an intellectual exercise to identify the best of thinking on Nigeria’s past, present and future strikes one as a series of audacious parody. Not surprisingly, the recurring thesis in the entries was the fatalistic resolve that Nigeria’s future rests not on the efforts of citizens but rather on divine intervention!
In his impression of the entries, Gimba said they “fail to interrogate Nigeria’s well-documented dysfunctions and, instead of inspiring sober reflections, they are a sad commentary on the dearth of intellectual ambition that characterises Nigeria’s education system and knowledge production today.” Despite that brutal summation which I find difficult to fault, Gimba also concedes: “It would’ve been convenient to conclude that the demonstrated lack of basic writing skills and civic education is a genuine reflection or sample of the generation’s best. But Nigerians within the declared age bracket (18 – 35) have been active in cerebral discussions and contributing to inspiring debates around people and policy in the media.”
I agree with Gimba. My experience, grading such scripts in the Kashim Ibrahim Fellowship (KIF) programme of the Kaduna State Government and the Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede-inspired African Institute for Governance (AIG)—which annually awards scholarships to six Nigerians and Ghanaians to study at the Oxford University Balvatnik School of Government—attests to the brilliance of our nationals in the age cohort. So, the entries received for this competition do not present a fair representation of the quality of minds. It remains the responsibility of Adam and his subcommittee to decide how to proceed, but our counsel is that it would be better if the exercise was extended and some of the criteria tinkered with.
There are bigger concerns though. In a country where it has become convenient to label people in order to discount their humanity and value, many of the entries are a rehash of the sabre rattling that we see on social media. On full display is the familiar bigotry and usual blame game that defines this season. Many also reflect the national mood of despondency. The dramatic opening line in one of the entries sums this up: “As I sit to write down this essay, I am tempted to sugar coat it, make it sound like what you’d wish to hear. Add a couple of lies here and there, so this article doesn’t get disqualified. However, my conscience would prick me till I bled…”
Going by the last Baseline Youth Survey undertaken by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Youth Development, Nigerians within the age bracket of 18 to 35 represent about 35.6 percent of the population. This is a critical demographic when you look at the numbers (more than 70 million Nigerians) and their productive capacity. The downside is that in our country today, this demographic group is the most marginalised in terms of access to opportunities for self-advancement (education, employment, financial/institutional support for creative ideas etc.) and political representation. It is therefore no surprise that most of the professionals who now emigrate out of the country are within this demographic group.
Using the inherent lessons in Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ in her 1974 collection, ‘The Wind’s Twelve Quarters’, I am tempted to believe that many of our young people shunned the competition because they are not interested in engaging Nigeria. I hope for the sake of our country that I am wrong. A major theme in the Omelas’ thesis, one very popular literature in Aspen leadership classes, is how different people within a given society accept certain norms while others simply walk away. This is the road most often travelled by a majority of the elite in any decadent society.
Overall, there is a way in which the essays mirror not only the frustrations of this demographic but also the reality of our existence today as a nation. The common thread in virtually all entries is that in Nigeria government does not work for the people and those at the helm do not care about the plight of the downtrodden. My take-away from the essays is that the social dynamics of our country suggest that we cannot continue in the way we manage our affairs. If there is no drastic redirection, not only will the judgement of history be harsh on our leaders at all levels and in all spheres, we stand the risk of losing our country.
Happy Independence Nigeria!
The Passage of Chike Akunyili
The death of Dr Chike Akunyili was heartbreaking for me. A first-class graduate of medicine from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, he was until his death the proprietor of St Leo’s Hospital, Enugu. Although my wife and children were not as close to him as they were to his late wife (‘Grandma NAFDAC’ as she was called in our house), he and I communicated regularly. Throughout the glorious career of his wife (first in Lagos, and later, Abuja), Dr Chike Akunyili was mostly in the Southeast where he served his people with everything he had.
The fact that he chose to stay in the background while the late Prof Dora Akunyili rode the waves of fame as Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) was a testimony to his strength of character. I had it on good authority that he would quietly sneak into NAFDAC building whenever his wife needed his help, render the requested assistance, and leave without any fanfare. This simple and unassuming man not only stayed out of the limelight, but he also never used his late wife’s ‘connection’ to peddle influence. It was therefore tragic that his life would be terminated so gruesomely as it was on Tuesday.
This tragic incident raises two concerns. The first is the situation in the Southeast where assassins, in the guise of ‘unknown gunmen’, seem to have been let loose. As we inch towards the November gubernatorial election in Anambra State and the 2023 general election, nothing can be more dangerous than allowing these killings to continue. I hope that critical stakeholders in the region will help in taming the madness wherever it may be coming from before it is too late. In his address to the state yesterday on the killings, Governor Willie Obiano asked a poignant question: “These are our own people dying every day and for what reason?”
The second concern is the lack of empathy for persons in distress in Nigeria. Some of the videos in circulation on social media indicate that Dr Chike Akunyili was still alive for a while after the shooting. Bystanders were apparently more interested in recording and sharing videos than helping to rush him to a hospital. While some people may have gotten into problems, especially with the police, simply because they rendered help to such victims in the past, we should not lose our humanity. Besides, a society that accords little or no dignity to people that are still alive would naturally have no respect for the dead as can be glimpsed from the manner the late Akunyili’s body was treated. I hope the National orientation Agency (NOA) will use this tragedy to commence reorienting the populace on the primary role of first responders and reemphasizing the principle of good citizenship.
While I join in calling on the security agencies to apprehend the killers of Dr Chike Akunyili and bring them to justice, I pray God to comfort the children and other members of his family and give them the fortitude to bear this huge loss.
• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com