Fellow Nigerians, I'm happy to send you this letter from Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, where I'm attending the wedding of a young Nigerian journalist, Jide Agbeniyi and his Zimbabwean colleague and partner, Miss Josey Mahachi, the beautiful presenter of the popular Click Africa Show on Africa Magic. This piece was inspired by the manner of greetings I discovered here: "A refreshing noon or a refreshing evening to you", are the commonest ways of salutation in this tranquil country. It is almost a mantra as everyone I met greeted me thus and it sounded so sonorous and genuinely welcoming that it then occurred to me that what human beings require in essence to enjoy life to the fullest is a refreshing existence. This is what has eluded most societies that are in deep turmoil such as ours.James, my Zimbabwean driver, an interesting companion at all times loves his country to bits. I asked him why and his answer was excitingly revealing. He said Zimbabweans find it hard to smash their heads in the name of politics and if ever they do the police will catch up and deal ruthlessly with the political thugs. He was proud that the level of violence in his country was very low compared to that of South Africa. He lectured me on the essence of peace and that no one should allow politicians to waste their precious lives. I was hoping he would ask me about such things in my own country. I was uncomfortable that I wouldn't have known what to say or how to direct my response candidly without rubbishing a country I love so dearly.
It was another lecture session at an upscale salon where I met a very intelligent therapist who gave me a clean cut. My barber provided the answer to the question I was itching and aching to ask the citizens of a country that has been totally monopolised since Independence by Pa Robert Mugabe but was too timid to venture: "How come President Mugabe has been winning your elections permanently these several decades!" As if reading my mind, David volunteered that the old man has managed to hold Zimbabwe together by offering strong and purposeful leadership and that whosoever wishes to show him the way out of office would have to clearly convince the people about what he has to offer and not just assume that he would win on a mere platter of discontent. He rhapsodised about how President Mugabe at 89 is still as fit as a fiddle. According to him, their President can still play the game of soccer. There was no way to verify this seeming hyperbole.
These two guys made a lot of sense to me and I'm indeed grateful for their great insight into what many Africans don't understand about their own continent. They provided me with simple, practical and straight-forward analysis which many Professors of political science may have found impossible to proffer. I do not have enough empirical data about Zimbabwe but one thing is certain life here is not as grim and grievous as being regularly portrayed abroad by the international media. Like other countries, Zimbabwe would have its dark parts, but however what is readily visible to the visitor is a showcase of relative development. I saw beautiful and clean roads all the way from the airport to the city centre. As a matter of fact, the road out of the airport has been recently upgraded and dualised.
The airport itself is small but very elegant and incredibly functional. Immigration was friendly, welcoming and brisk. I did not see Customs rummage through any bags unnecessarily. Police presence around the city was minimal but effectively competent. There were a couple of good hotels but the one I settled for was homely with well-mannered staff who greeted you endlessly as if pleasantries were going out of fashion. I met the director of Tourism by chance over dinner and I was told tourists now flood the country after surmounting the rash of negative reports about the country. Shame that I couldn't make time on this occasion to visit the famous Victoria Falls shared by Zimbabwe and neighbouring Zambia. I was astounded by the number of white people I saw everywhere. I had to ask what happened to our own legacy of colonial participation in Nigeria. It was as if we deliberately obliterated the whites completely out of our system as a result of boundless xenophobia and unbridled nationalism. On our part, we were too much in a hurry to settle indigenisation, nationalisation and lately local content. Whatever Zimbabwe and other Southern African nations are enjoying today must have come from the contributions of those white settlers who have been cleverly assimilated.
Somehow the people of Zimbabwe have learnt to cope with adversity and it seems the leaders are also trying hard providing enough dividends of their strange variant of democracy despite daunting challenges. Many Zimbabweans I met are scared that their country may fall apart after Robert Mugabe. They have pungent examples from what befell many African countries on the exit of powerful leaders like Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga of the Republic of Congo which he changed to Zaire, Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast, Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak of Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and others. This is the true secret of how President Robert Mugabe is able to hold on to power till kingdom come.
If I was expecting to see a dilapidated country and a wretched people, I was pleasantly disappointed. I marvelled at how a supposedly bankrupt nation was forging ahead while the so-called rich nations were floundering aimlessly and without visible signs of intending to change for the better in the near future. I was told a loaf of bread used to cost billions in their old currency but today the country has wisely and dramatically taken steps to douse the rooftop inflation by adopting American dollars and South African rand as its currency. A cash machine is able to vomit up to 1,000 US dollars from your credit or debit card at once. You pay for virtually everything in those currencies and there is no confusion whatsoever about the conversion.
The job of a leader is to find solutions to problems and not to be unnecessarily defensive about why things are not working each time questions are asked. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case in our neck of the woods. If aged but ageless leaders can still manage a country what's stopping our new crop of leaders from aspiring to greatness? The little progress I can see on ground in Zimbabwe is the platform from which I'm launching this column today. It has re-assured me that our problems are man-made and they must be man-solved.
These are extremely difficult times in our long-suffering country. The only time I felt as depressed about our situation as this was during those days of the agitation for the revalidation of the June 12 Presidential election which was won fair and square by Chief Moshood Abiola. The crisis was so terrible and suffocating that many people actually thought Nigeria as a nation was going to collapse and break up into smithereens. An election that miraculously unified Nigeria was soon broken into pieces by expert counterfeiters who turned it into a war of ethnic jingoists. No one was able to persuade the gladiators and garrison commanders to pause a minute and consider the collective gains of validating that wondrous election against the selfish advantages that encouraged the cold-blooded murder of our best election. Perhaps we would have had a strong and refreshing Nigerian leader in Abiola who had demonstrated beyond doubt in words and in deeds that he loved Nigeria and all its inhabitants. But that was not going to happen.
That was the point at which the rickety foundation for our present mess was laid. As we continue to shilly-shally and refuse to get serious about changing our silly ways of doing things at this end, it is pertinent to once again remind ourselves of where we are coming from and what we need to do to get off this road that can only lead our country to perdition. Truth is we all know the solutions to our problems, but it seems no one is willing to risk his comfort zone, to make that change we all dream about realisable at the shortest time possible.
Let's now try to break it down to brass tacks. Ethnicity has suddenly become the number one contributor to our backwardness. The most educated Nigerian becomes rabidly myopic and stupidly sensitive once a matter affects his tribe and community. He instantly wears a toga of illiteracy and foolishness. But someone needs to tell us once and for all that Nigeria is going nowhere but down the drain unless we wake up from our somnambulist state and narcoleptic stupor to follow the modern trends of copying good manners from the comity of responsible nations. Where you come from can never be the only prerequisite qualification for selecting national leaders. The fact that our Constitution promotes Federal Character is no excuse for us to continue committing serial suicide by electing or selecting incompetent and ill-mannered people into sensitive positions of authority. The world has moved beyond such primordial sentiments. Two perfect examples are the recent appointment of a Canadian, Mark Carney, as the Bank of England Governor and the earlier monumental election of a first generation American, Barack Obama, as the most powerful President on planet earth.
Those who promote ethnicity in Nigeria have never been known to do so because they expect their people to benefit anything tangible from such appointment but because they expect a few crumbs to drop on the plates of a few people from their zone. They live perpetually on this misplaced hope and phantasmagoria even when it is obvious what cataclysmic result would come out of it. Let me therefore advise those already warming up for the murder of all battles for the body and soul of Nigeria come the year of our Lord 2015 to sheath their swords and find something better to do.
The Nigerians I see today may be slow to action but we are being steadily united by suffering. Even those who have are not too different from those who do not have because the pressures on the privileged ones have made nonsense of enjoying alone without consideration for others. Only a most wicked fellow would follow the litany of woes in Nigeria and not feel a compulsion to do something that could drastically reduce the cycle of debilitating poverty in the land.
All Nigeria needs now is a strong leader who has the capacity to unite and not further divide us. The way to go about it is for all interested politicians to see themselves as Nigerians first before talking of tribes. Those campaigning for President Goodluck Jonathan are spoiling his chances by resting his qualification wholly on his Niger Delta pedigree. It is in the same vein that those screaming that power must return to the North are heating up the polity. What we need is a good leader from any part of Nigeria. Nothing stops Jonathan from getting a second term if his score card is excellent. And nothing stops others from kicking him out if they can show how they are better in practical terms. Those who expect the heavens to fall if one candidate or the other does not win are enemies of Nigeria. The President more than anyone else knows what he has to do in order to win the election in resounding and convincing manner.
We must urge him to ignore those preventing from treading the better route of performance. The new people he decides to inject into administration will demonstrate what he has decided to do. He still has a chance to perform and shut up his critics. But if he prefers to play politics with the lives of country men and women, he would have bungled the opportunity of a lifetime. God save Nigeria.