Ireland in the early 20th century was a place so handicapped by its troubled past that Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce’s everyman hero famously exclaimed, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to escape.”
Poor Stephen should have tried living in Nigeria in the early 21st century. Almost everything that happens in Nigeria today echoes some nightmare from the country’s recent past.
Take for example, the illness which has had Nigerian President Muhammedu Buhari in treatment in London for several weeks. It’s not enough that Buhari’s absence has slowed the anti-corruption campaign for which he was elected in 2015, but an apparently intentional vagueness about what his medical problem is, and how long it will keep him away from home, has stirred uneasy memories.
For months in 2008 and 2009, former President Umaru Yar’Adua received months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. Details of Yar’Adua’s illness were kept even more secret, and by the time he returned home he was a virtual dead man. He lived, largely incapacitated, for only a more few months.
But the dismal resonances don’t end there. Yar’Adua was a Muslim from Northern Nigeria. His Vice President and successor was a Southern Christian, Goodluck Jonathan, whose hapless and corrupt regime predicated the return of former President Buhari to power to clean things up.
Buhari is also a Northern Nigerian Muslim. His Vice President Yemi Osinbajo is, you guessed it, a Southern Nigerian Christian, and even though, like Buhari, he is neither spectacularly incompetent nor notoriously crooked, in the religiously divided, tribally diverse Nigeria, a culture of suspicion, stirs of a pot of terrible governmental history.
Nigeria has huge reserves of oil, but historically, they have been simultaneously a blessing and a curse. Before the recent price crash, oil made a lot of money for Nigeria. Unfortunately, much of that money has been stolen or misappropriated by corrupt politicians and private businesses both inside and outside the country. Furthermore, oil extraction has often let loose environmental nightmares which have helped sustain popular support for a related problem, armed rebels who have stolen from and destroyed pipelines and refineries.
These diversions have so affected Nigeria’s oil output that is no longer #1 in Africa, but has fallen behind the less generously endowed Angola. Vice President Osinbajo has proposed amnesties and negotiations to get the rebels to call off their raids, which has made his Southern roots even more suspicious to Nigeria’s northern citizens.
As my late Uncle Benny was wont to say in the face of trouble: ay ay ay!
Michelle Faul is the Associated Press (AP) Bureau Chief in Lagos, Nigeria. She first reported from Nigeria for AP in 1990 and worked her way up to become AP’s chief Africa correspondent based in Johannesburg in 2005 sub-Saharan Africa.
She won an Associated Press Managing Editors’ award for Enterprise Reporting for her coverage of unrest in eastern Congo in 2009 and for coverage of violence in Ivory Coast in 2011. From South Africa, she covered the 2009 elections that brought Jacob Zuma to the presidency, the police killings of striking miners in 2012, an event that had echoes of apartheid, and Nelson Mandela’s declining health.