Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Life Beyond the Curve of the Road

Author: Tundé Oyateru

There is more to the political realities of Nigeria, and Africa, than meets the eye. Exploring the experiences of ordinary Nigerians, and the absent role of their government, the author comments on perceptions of right-wing and left-wing attitudes, safety nets and community. At best, Nigeria's government and others on the continent will have to affect a change in the lives of all, if the continent's citizenry is to buy into the successes of democracy.

After a while, the road curved beyond the line of sight; it was a long road and it could have been leading anywhere. On both sides of the road, mud huts appeared; their attendant inhabitants casually displayed their wares, produce and crops for sale as they watched vehicles whiz past, vehicles which were often their only connection to the world beyond that curve in the road.

He was certainly beyond 15 years of age but not quite 18. As he stood there looking in the distance beyond the curve, he uttered not a word, neither did a flicker of emotion betray what he was thinking or feeling. His face was a plain solid canvas for this writer to design.

It must be understood that by default, Africans are communal, social beings; our history, our traditions, our stories are replete with images of matters - good or bad, gladdening or shameful - being brought to the village square for discussion. Throughout our history, the records that were left by previous generations suggest that most things were shared. Welfare and the general well-being of the village were communal. To be sure, every man and woman earned what the sweat of their brow could give, but where or when they lacked it, it was not uncommon for the collective of a village to step in to fill an individual’s gaps.

In this regard, traditionally, the African is left-leaning, and puts into practice the belief that government and society have a responsibility to provide services, amenities and guarantee the welfare of the greater society. However, modern African societies have made the African right-leaning, with the belief that each individual is responsible to provide for him or herself and to shape his or her fate.

For most Africans this belief is not one that was made by choice or over dinner while discussing the pros and cons of political philosophy. Instead, this belief – this choice of the right-leaning politics - was forged by everyday realities, everyday experiences that reveal for many that government simply does not exist. For most Africans in the post-modern era, it is not a matter of government being inefficient, ineffective, negligent or corrupt; government is a far away thing, a myth of some mystical faraway place; government is absent.

The middle class in most societies lives and carries on under an illusion that their toils and advances in life are the same as those of most people. I call it “the deceit of the middle class,” and in Nigeria it is jarring. The numbers show that the majority of Nigerians are under the poverty line and will remain there for a long time to come, the last recorded World Bank study shows that number to be about 55 per cent in 2004, other recent reports have it at 68 per cent in 2011. If you were to scan the headlines of Nigerian news outlets, you would see reports of corruption in high offices, protests over the removal of one subsidy or another, a state challenging the federal government over how much it can borrow. We in the middle class believe these problems to be true for everyone. After all, how could they not be? People only see what is in front of them, and what is in front of most of us are people just like us.

These are not the problems of the real Nigerians. Real Nigerians, the ones that live and remain under the poverty line, are severely lacking health facilities and services. It is no wonder that Nigeria has one of the highest maternity death rates in the world. The Real Nigerian does not have access to information, it is little wonder that despite Polio having a vaccine, Nigeria has yet to eradicate it completely.

There are communities in our country that have never experienced Benjamin Franklin’s miracle of electricity, who have lived decades under the dim glow of a lantern or a candle and have never experienced the convenience of plugging an Iron into a wall outlet and having their clothes neat and presentable within a matter of minutes. There are fathers and mothers who can never really appreciate the complete smile of their child after the sun goes down.

There are communities in our country that have waited and waited for their first community school or health centres, in places where education is not yet an ordinary part of life, but much rather a sacrifice, a hardship miles away from home. There are places where if you were to fall ill, you have little choice, except to place your faith in native practices and the spirit of your ancestors. There are communities that are inaccessible, where there are no roads and you make your way into them either on the back of a motorcycle or a human being. There are still places like these in Nigeria, and on the continent.

Yet, our Independent National Electoral Commission records that they vote, that they come out in throngs to enthusiastically exercise their franchise. We manage to successfully deliver election materials to these places but continuously fail to deliver amenities, healthcare and infrastructure. Either this is the truth or our Independent Commission is not as independent as it makes itself out to be. Either way, we have misrepresented or underrepresented most of our communities.

It is not for the middle class or the rich to feel survivor’s guilt, to each their lot in life. It is, however, instructive every now and again to remember that the Nigeria that most of us experience, the Nigeria that you, the reader sitting in in front of your computer or reading on your mobile device experience, is different from what the vast majority experiences.

That experience includes not worrying about the cost of cement because they still bend the knee to the earth to make the mud from which their walls are built; ironically, it includes not fretting when schools strike and are not in session because education ends when they have learned how to till the ground to eat.

Admittedly, Nigeria’s government’s problems affect all and sundry, but it is instructive to note that while government is ineffective for some, for others it is invisible. If for nothing at all, it will remind us that there is no way the country can move forward if the vast majority of its inhabitants have been relegated to the shadows, shadows they can only hope to illuminate with candlelight or lanterns.

The positive reports and statistics from our economy cannot be true for some and untrue for others. Until that boy standing on the road looking faraway into the distance can begin to dream about a broader world and life beyond the curve… until he understands that there is a world with enough space for him beyond the curve, our democracy and development have yet to begin.

Babatunde (Tundé) Oyateru is a political communication consultant and speechwriter. He has extensive experience in communication strategy and project management. Babatunde lived and worked in the Republic of Ireland for some time, but has since moved back to his native Nigeria where he works as a partner at ESFAJ & Partners. He can be reached at for questions and inquiries.

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