Inequality and the Encounters with Recent History
This article concludes with a brazen quote about Nigeria's yawning inequality problem. In essence, "Nigeria is fast becoming a country in which the poor cannot sleep because they are hungry and the rich cannot sleep because the poor are awake.."
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In many respects, the public presentation of two books in honour of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi last week in Lagos provided those who attended the occasion the opportunity to look back into episodes and policies in our recent history. The organisers of the event, The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), achieved their aim of making it an intellectual feast. It was a fulfillment of a promise made during the 70th birthday of Akinyemi last year. The publications - Perspectives on Nigeria’s National & External Relations: Essays in Honour of Professor A. Bolaji Akinyemi and Nigeria and the World: A. Bolaji Akinyemi Revisited - were efficiently reviewed by Professor Nuhu Yaqub and Ambassador Marc Egbe respectively. This was fittingly accompanied by a symposium on the Technical Aid Corps, a signature foreign policy initiative for which Akinyemi is still remembered.
The occasion was, however, more than the usual book launch; there were some snippets of history on display and more remarkably some deep reflections on the Nigerian condition. First, there were intriguing encounters of some personalities which probably justified the saying that “time heals wounds”. As THISDAY reported the event last Friday, what happened was like winding back the hand of the clock. But the historical clock keeps ticking.
On the podium was a smiling former President Ibrahim Babangida, the chairman of the occasion, who held the hands of Colonel Anthony Nyiam. Nyiam stood on the floor and raised his hands towards Babangida on the high table. They had a brief chat. Chief Great Ogboru actually walked to the podium to exchange pleasantries with Babangida. Ogboru and Nyiam also exchanged warm greetings with Brigadier Halilu Akilu, the one-time dreaded Director of Military Intelligence during the regime of Babangida. Akilu was in the Babangida’s entourage. Now, this sort of meeting was not conceivable even years after the bloody April 22, 1990 coup attempt against the regime of Babangida. That was the coup in which Nyiam and Ogboru played prominent roles. In the tragic events, Babangida’s ADC, Lt. Col. Bello, was killed and a number of the coup-makers including Major Gideon Orkah, who announced the coup, were later tried in a military tribunal and executed.
Nyiam and Ogboru went on exile for years after the aborted coup. Both of them left the venue of the event last Thursday in the same car. Only a reporter with historical memory would readily smell the big story in what took place. This probably explains why only our senior colleague, legendary photojournalist Sunmi Smart-Cole, concentrated his camera on the drama unfolding where the younger folks were busy with other faces in the room. Mr. Smart-Cole, a septuagenarian, masterly got the news for the front page of this newspaper last Friday, confirming his status as the owner of the game!
Babangida got a warm welcome in Lagos and characteristically seized the moment to make a resounding statement. He once said that Lagos was the place where the great things in career happened to him. So, was it a homecoming? In providing the urgent answer to the National Question, Babangida, called for a “grand consensus”. He said: “That after nearly 100 years of existence, people and national groups still have grievances provide us with an opportunity to address these grievances. That these grievances are of sufficient magnitude for them to demand a dissolution of the nation show the extent of the grievances and therefore should point to the magnitude of the seriousness with which we should address the grievances”. You can see what the passage of time can do political views.
In the aftermath of the coup attempt, radical lawyer and former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, the late Alao Aka-Bashorun and other patriots organised in August 1990 a conference at the National Theatre in Lagos in response to the National Question that was sorely put in the foreground of the polity by the coup. It should be remembered that leading elements of the coup were those grouped in the geo-political language of the Nigerian establishment as “southern minorities” and “northern minorities”? It was in this context that the military government of Babangida stopped the conference. Since then, of course, no President has ever countenanced the idea of a Sovereign National Conference. Here we are today with Babangida calling on his compatriots to join “the rescue effort to secure (Nigeria for the) maximum benefits of all and not... temporary advantage of one group over another”
Babangida spoke on an optimistic note and he was really at home with the intellectual ambience of the occasion. Akinyemi gave an insight into Babangida’s life-long engagement with ideas. Akinyemi’s relationship with Babangida predated the appointment of the former by the later as External Affairs Minister following the coup of August 27, 1985 against General Muhammadu Buhari’s regime. At the age of 33 in 1975, Akinyemi became the director-general of NIIA and Babangida was then a young Lt. Col, commanding the Armoured Corps and strategically a member of the Supreme Military Council. As Akinyemi revealed, Babangida was a constant face at the public lectures of the institute.
Babangida would “... sit in the back row and leave immediately after the lecture. He never asked a question, never joined us for the after-lecture reception but was here for most if not for every lecture...”, according to Akinyemi. It was no surprise that the chairman of the board of the institute and also a minister in the Babangida’ s regime, General Ike Nwachkwu, and Governor Olusegun Mimiko of Ondo State, who was guest of honour, acknowledged Babangida’s embrace of ideas. For instance, Mimiko wondered how Babangida operated with “ so many professors” in his government.
The reflections on the occasion were indeed varied, but there was a thread to all of them: what is to be done about the Nigerian condition? The reflections of the man in honour, Akinyemi, bear a resonance beyond the room. He reviewed the grim statistics of poverty and called “for a robust debate about how to build a more just, equitable and egalitarian society where there will be a safety economic and social net below which no one will be allowed to fall...” His premise is that Nigeria is fast becoming a country in which “ ... the poor cannot sleep because they are hungry and the rich cannot sleep because the poor are awake...” Those who are in power today should find these voices based on experience worthy of further reflection to guide their action.