THE WAY WE ARE: Ideas for a Better Nigeria by Jonas Odocha; Eagleman Books; 2012; 265pp
One has lost count of the number of books published in recent times on the subject of Nigeria and the challenge of building a strong, united and prosperous nation. So when I was asked to review a new book, The Way We Are: Ideas for a Better Nigeria, on the same subject, I was not enthusiastic. However, a close look at the book and its content compelled me to read it and I am glad I did. This 265-page book of 27 chapters held me spell-bound for two days. The book is illuminating and of profound relevance to the present moment. It is a gripping read and should be made available to every Nigerian and to lovers of Nigeria.
Jonas Odocha has a compelling style that draws the reader like magnet. But perhaps what is so amazing about the book is that, though the subject matter - Nigeria and the challenge of nationhood - is a serious one, the reader derives great pleasure going through the book. This is largely a result of the author's style: a combination of humour and a type of native intelligence that I have encountered only in few writers who have written about the same subject. Some of the issues the author analyzes with remarkable competence are the climate of insecurity, violence and the culture of mediocrity that have beclouded and arrested Nigeria's development; the failure of leadership at different levels in the country; the acts of injustice inflicted on Nigerians, especially Ndigbo, before the civil war, during the war and since after war; and the bewildering periodic and meticulously planned massacres of people of different religious or ethnic origins.
The book is quite readable and different from others that deal with the same subject because of its structure, content and form. The twenty seven chapters of the book are essentially essays written at different times which have now been gathered in this precious publication. The essays represent Odocha's analysis of different issues that are of national and sometimes international import. Having served Nigeria in different capacities and various locations, and having travelled and lived in several parts of the country in the course of rendering this service, Odocha is in a vantage position to perceive, understand and analyze the multiple problems that have plagued the country over the years. Most of the essays focus on Nigeria but a few, like the South-Asian Tsunami and the hurricane that swept across Haiti, take up global issues that made world headlines. It is important to note, also, that the actual writing of the essays, before they were collected in a book form, was done between 1998 and 2011, with each essay examining certain issues that affected and still affect the country's socio-political, economic and moral growth since independence in 1960. The date when each essay was written was stated at the end of the text, helping us to put it in context and appreciate the realities surrounding its conception and articulation. The impression given is that things worked better for Nigeria in the colonial days and that the downward descent into anarchy, violence, indiscipline, corruption and irresponsibility in the nation reached the lowest ebb in recent times.
This parlous situation is attributed to the visionless leadership Nigeria has been saddled with over the years. The author makes us understand that other factors responsible for the country's abject condition are ethnic chauvinism, moral bankruptcy, individual and collective acts of injustice meted out to fellow Nigerians. Apart from the topicality of the essays, especially in relation to the time they were written, the literary quality of each essay is commendable. Odocha is not only bent on informing us about the problems but is also conscious of conveying the ideas in a succinct and effective style. Take for example the first chapter entitled "The Bee, the Butterfly and the Wasp".
The beautiful metaphor of the lower creatures is used to teach human beings to live a life of service and integrity just like bees. This mode of living is considered superior and preferable to the life of selfishness and cruelty exemplified by wasps. This metaphor captures vividly the condition and attitude of human beings on earth - either living a useful life or a life of greed and selfishness. The choice is ours. Odocha uses another metaphor to teach his readers about the importance of diligence, discipline and commitment. The Anthill Colony graphically illustrates the effectiveness of good organization and industry in the successful development of a nation. By using the analogy of the termite community, he demonstrates how these ants manage an anthill efficiently through effective organization and responsible action by each member of the group - workers, soldiers, male attendants and the queen. Odocha stresses the importance of government building and developing Nigeria by partnering with professional bodies as is done in Western countries.
Constructing his thesis around key subject areas, the distinguished author first identifies, then highlights and examines the various problems facing the country. We can thus classify them under the following headings: corruption; moral failings under which the author groups indiscipline, cultism, greed and loss of cultural orientation and values; security and safety consciousness; social responsibility; effective communication and the use of dialogue to solve problems. The various chapters are hinged on the issues or subjects listed above. We will site a few examples to illustrate the point being made here. On the theme of morality, the author observes that Nigerians see oath of office and swearing-in as mere rituals, for they have no moral obligation to abide by the oath. In addition, probe panels are usually set up to investigate corrupt acts but no one is ever convicted or found culpable; no one is punished. On the subject of corruption, the author has a lot to say. He argues that everyone is implicated. He highlights the various avenues through which corruption manifests and they include: lack of discipline and loss of family values; workers defrauding the government; retirees being defrauded of their pensions; policemen exploiting Nigerian citizens; certificate racketeering; examination malpractices and many more.
While discussing the need for social responsibility on the part of government and the individual, he touches on the deprivations and damage suffered by the people of the Niger Delta and the price they have had to pay for the petroleum resources located in their home land which is exploited for the benefit of the whole country. He calls for a people-oriented government keen on setting up adequate development strategy, especially in the Niger Delta. He advocates dialogue as a way of getting the cooperation of the people. On the other hand, he calls on wealthy Nigerians to come to the aid of the poor. He decries the paradox of wealth and poverty in the country. In the midst of stupendous wealth earned from petroleum products, most Nigerians wallow in abject poverty. He suggests that the lapses in the petroleum industry should be tackled by government and everyone concerned by eliminating corruption, privileging maintenance culture to increase the productivity of the existing refineries, thus limiting the massive importation of products which has been the norm.
He castigates the Nigerian government and those in authority for the many acts of injustice and the neglect of various parts of the country which he claims are caused by "our glorification of corruption, our inordinate ambition, our small-mindedness and our ethnic and religious bigotry" (p. 34). Odocha dwells at length on the acts of injustice inflicted on Ndigbo, in Nigeria, such as the marginalization and the neglect they and their zone have suffered since after the civil war; the "lack of federal presence" in Igbo land; the economic and political emasculation of Ndigbo; the hurriedly executed indigenization policy when Igbo business men and women were economically strangulated after the war; and the 'abandoned property' debacle through which Ndigbo lost many choice properties in some parts of the country after the war; the denial of parity to the south-east zone regarding the number of states each of the zones in the country has and the genocide and spate of massacres that Ndigbo have suffered in some parts of the country, especially in northern Nigeria. It is interesting that many of these same issues have been raised in Chinua Achebe's recent publication, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, which has generated controversies in many circles in and outside Nigeria. These acts of injustice have left Ndigbo demoralized and disoriented, leading to youth restiveness, kidnapping of people for ransom and some other societal vices. Odocha believes that the suffering of Ndigbo today is caused by two factors: a gang-up against them by the rest of the country and the current rudderless and visionless leadership situation of Ndigbo. He advises the Igbo people to rally round and change the condition in the south east. However, he does not believe that the situation of Ndigbo is irredeemable, for he ends on a positive note with the aphorism "No condition is permanent", meaning that the fallen may yet rise again; or in the words of the prophet Ezekiel, "Dry bones will live again."
Other subjects that receive Odocha's attention in this well-written book include the loss of Bakassi; Nigeria's overdependence on oil and neglect of agriculture; poor maintainance of public roads; exploring alternative sources of transportation; curbing fuel shortages and looking for alternative sources of energy; recruiting people into job positions based on merit; accountability in office; eliminating cultism in the institutions of learning and raising the standard of education; admitting only qualified candidates in the various institutions; the proliferation of churches for commercial purposes manifesting in the uncommon greed evident in the lives of some Christian leaders or priests; natural and man-made disasters plaguing the world today; lack of security consciousness in Nigerians leading to domestic and factory accidents; and other disasters like the Ikeja Cantonment explosion, crisis management and world energy resources and their impact on the environment.
The Way We Are: Ideas for a better Nigeria is an interesting and informative book. It gives incisive analysis of the challenges facing Nigeria today and proffers solutions to most of them. Odocha's style is riveting. He raises an issue and gives concrete examples of its occurrence in our national and private lives and then relates it to similar issues in Nigerian and suggests remedies or ways the problem can be tackled or confronted. He is like a medical doctor who does not stop at diagnosing a disease, but goes ahead to find a cure. For Odocha, the keywords are 'attitudinal change'. And this involves self-reliance, looking inwards, doing it ourselves; developing the "can do" spirit, in the words of Barack Obama, the great American President. Odocha believes and says so resoundingly: that the key ingredient in national development is human resources.
This is a book I can say has little or no flaws. Some people might consider it preachy in some portions, especially in those passages where the author moralizes or provides footnotes for the reader. This might be considered redundant or unnecessary by some readers, especially as the essays are written in simple language that is easy to understand. However, the author might be forgiven this propensity simply because he is only trying to make his point clearly by restating them as unambiguously as possible, thus ensuring that his reader grasps the idea being conveyed, at the end of each essay.
Indeed, this remarkable book is written in a clear, vivid and captivating style spiced up with humour and anecdotes. I find the penultimate chapter, "The Village Clown", supremely engaging and hilarious. The chapter, narrated with humour and great wit, has a moral underpinning that sparkles and complements the solutions proffered in other chapters, to resolve issues with dialogue, effective communication and peace. This is the most authoritative, engrossing, insightful and comprehensive analysis of Nigeria's 'troubles' I have read in recent times. I recommend the book to every Nigerian and to anyone who has the interest of Nigeria at heart.