“Anytime I think of Nigeria… (sobs) I speak with passion (then sobs again) I have wept for this country on several occasions. I will try not to do such again but it looks like I am failing”
– Professor Oyewale Tomori at the National COVID-19 Summit organised by the Presidential Steering Committee in Abuja, Monday, December 6, 2021.
Crying, yelling and high octave shrieks are the inevitable gate passes of newborn babies to our world. Growing up to notice that crying and sobbing draw adult attention, children weaponise them to demand nurture, relief and regular meals. The world of adults is a different kettle of fish altogether. The older one gets, the more emotionally restrained one is supposed to become, implying that one should rarely shed tears, weep or cry, at least in public. It must be considered exceptional for a world-acclaimed virologist and a former Vice-Chancellor to be overtaken by such overpowering grief that he actually shed tears, almost inconsolably, over the Nigerian predicament.
The world is used to top politicians and Prime Ministers of countries in the Western world choking with grief, leading to their faces being covered with tears. Recall Justin Trudeau, Canadian Prime Minister, fighting back tears as he received the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in his office; Secretary of State and former presidential candidate of the United States, Hillary Clinton, overcome with tears during her last presidential campaign; former United States President, Barack Obama, tears-filled as he discussed the mass shooting in Newton, Connecticut of 20 young children. Last but not least, famed Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, almost sobbing as she left 10, Downing Street at the expiry of an eventful and long tenure. One can go on and on, notwithstanding the controversial example of a former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who shed tears so many times that the British became weary and wary of what was beginning to look like stage-managed crying acts.
Leaving the issue of whether sobbing in public can be a form of political histrionics, especially if done by politicians, let us observe, at least in passing, that this columnist does not recall that any Nigerian president or governor has openly fought back tears while discussing solemn or tragic matters of grave importance, including mass killings. One can remember, however, that in April this year, Senator Smart Adeyemi was so overtaken with grief while contributing on the floor of the Senate to a discussion on the issue of insecurity in Nigeria that he broke down and wept, saying that Nigeria had collapsed.
As mentioned previously, the executive arm of government at the highest levels has been marvellously immune from the kind of deep emotion and grief that overtook the revered Tomori last Monday. There are two celebrated instances of expatriates and lovers in Nigeria of tear-shedding on account of Nigeria’s dystopia. The first is Richard Joseph, who broke down and virtually wept in the 1990s at the launch of a seminal book on Prebendal Politics in Nigeria. There also was in 2013 the Kenyan scholar and poet, Professor Chris Wanjala, who wept for Nigeria while on a tour of the National Theatre, which he saw in its opulent state when he visited Nigeria during the Festival of Arts and Culture in 1977. Wanjala was so overtaken with emotion at the desolation to which the once magnificent theatre had been reduced, that tears freely flowed down his cheeks.
So, it is not altogether strange or unprecedented, though deeply touching that Tomori could not hold himself together despite valiant efforts while discussing the Nigerian story of missed opportunities, false starts and broken promises. What exactly moved the iconic scholar to such deep grief? He provides answers in his speech.
According to him, worse than the pandemics that afflict Nigeria are grievous political diseases, namely: lack of patriotism which he described as the destroyer of our nation, self-interest characterised by him as “the burial ground of our national interest,” corruption codenamed “the executor of our underdevelopment,” and shamelessness pinpointed by the scholar as “the destruction of our national pride.”
A world-class scientist, Tomori’s lexicon can be understood within the context of an almost formulaic narrative, employing abbreviations and a laconic style on bedevilling problems about which volumes of books can be written. In other words, he came across as a fairly introverted speaker, employing idioms in an almost algebraic manner that requires unpacking. For example, Nigeria, famously described by one of its nationalist politicians as a mere geographical expression still remains just that after five decades. Is this not attributable to the substitution of self or group interests for national interests? Very few will doubt that Nigeria, even today, is more of a market than a nation while some of its foundational problems include the lack of a ruling political elite with a national mission.
Additionally, who can doubt that shamelessness which touches upon the loss of the capacity to feel ashamed about anything, however egregious, remains an overpowering bane? Does this not explain why politicians have no qualms about making rosy promises during campaigns while they go to sleep instead of working hard after elections to achieve them? Do you want to talk about corruption, the ever-present albatross of successive governments, resulting in the constant and cruel shortchanging of a traumatised citizenry?
Doubtless, therefore, Tomori’s shorthand captures a good deal of Nigeria’s dilemmas and to paraphrase Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, the open sore of a country in anomie.
The matter gets curiouser and curiouser when you look at other countries with which Nigeria started the development race in the 1960s, considering how greatly they have outpaced us. Compared to several Asian Tigers, Nigeria remains a midget in power and economic terms and certainly on indices that measure the quality of life. The quandary remains the grievous irony of a country splendidly resourced but whose people are vegetating on the margins of survival, invoking the title of a book by development economist at the African Development Bank, Professor Banji Oyeyinka, entitled “Rich Country, Poor People.”
One suspects that what else moved Tomori to tears are not just the problems, most of which are becoming endemic, but perhaps more importantly the lack of a redemptive agenda among the majority of the current crop of politicians and power seekers. In a caustic and memorable remark, the scientist argues that if the youths, who he says are smarter than his generation, had “one-tenth of the enabling environment opportunity which good governance gave my generation, Nigeria today would be donating vaccines to Europe as India is doing and will be providing loans to China and not the other way round.” What this implies is that the scientist does not seem to see any uplifting vista in sight that will change the Nigerian story.
However trenchant and moving, a country cannot be healed by laments. What is important for the hour is for concerned civil society activists to join the political fray, organise, mobilise and strategise so that the country will no longer be discussed in unflattering terms.
Rather, with concerted action and social mobilisation of a constructive nature, it ought to begin to take its rightful place in the comity of civilised and developmental states.
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