Good Luck, Nigeria
For many years, as a young columnist, I ended my independence anniversary essays with the following words, 'Happy Birthday, Nigeria.'I was offered my first column in 1980. In those early days, for me, such occasions as National Day, Children's Day,
Christmas and New Year's Day offered wonderful opportunities to reflect on the state of the nation.
In those days, I did not know how to spell cynicism. I saw opportunities, not closed doors. I saw vast expressways to development, not torchlights blinking in the dark.
Since then, here are some of the key figures I have seen: Shehu Shagari, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Ernest Shonekan, Sani Abacha, Abdulsalam Abubakar, Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar'Adua, and Goodluck Jonathan.
There have also been some pretty remarkable figures among them.
I saw Umaru Dikko, who nearly travelled from London to Lagos in a crate. Dikko did not believe there was true poverty or hunger in Nigeria, because he had never seen anyone eating out of a dustbin.
I saw-and interviewed-Joseph Tarka and Godwin Daboh, two men of Benue State stock who were among the early confronters of the corruption question in the streets.
I saw Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon, who put together something called the War Against Indiscipline to confront the social vices that are now out of control.
I saw Moshood Abiola, who thought that one Ibrahim Babangida was his friend. Babangida had no friends.
Babangida was a stage actor who enjoyed playing the role of President. The original Landlord of Abuja, he was the one who defined and refined Nigeria's corruption enterprise.
Abacha would become the first Head of State to die in Aso Rock, working under imported Bollywood-style women. He may have developed that taste from watching Indian movies, but Jeremiah Useni, perhaps the only one who knows, has never been asked.
Until the death of Abacha, who was feared from Borno to Bayelsa and back, nobody had ever heard of a man called Abdussalam Abubakar, but his job it became to organize another transition to democracy. Some of the people involved in that exercise paid themselves very well.
Abacha's natural successor might have been Moshood Abiola, who had won the 1992 election. Denied victory by Babangida, Abiola would die mysteriously under Abacha, leaving Abubakar with the challenge by which Nigeria returned to civil rule in 1999.
That was when an old name became new: Olusegun Obasanjo, who was handing power over to Shagari in 1979 as I was becoming a journalist.
In the years in which I have seen these men, I have learned that absent in almost all of them is that burning patriotic zeal it takes to be a builder. That courage of that zeal is what makes a true leader to deny himself and to sacrifice.
Nigerian leaders usually cannot summon it. These tin-gods love themselves far too much.
They are also often distinguished by their hatred of Nigeria and its people. This is why not one of them can stay awake long enough to ensure that one patriotic thought is completed or one major road constructed.
Oh, they award contracts all year-long, but that is because it is through the contracts and contractors that national wealth is converted into private riches. Other countries want to extend opportunity to their citizens, Nigerian leaders want to extend Nigerian opportunities to themselves.
The inner manoeuvres never end. Babangida had Mamman Vatsa shot by a firing squad. Vatsa had throughout his life mistakenly thought Babangida to be his friend. The same Babangida it was who expunged a historic election that would have brought Abiola, who also called Babangida a friend, to power. Abiola did not survive that perfidy.
Babangida, like his 'friend,' Obasanjo, did not walk the path of honour. None of them could permit the development of institutions, such as Nigeria's medical infrastructure. In the end, each man lost his wife on a foreign hospital bed: there were no hospitals they ruled and ruined.
Hiding behind dark glasses, Abacha wanted to stay in power for life. Actually, he did. His true story then began to unravel as the world found out what a thieving clown he had been.
With our resumption of United States-style democracy in 1999, Nigerians hoped things would change, not simply for the better, but in a hurry. We were getting left behind.
Unfortunately, our fate has only deteriorated. The only business in town is the government. You go there to grow rich, not to serve, and then you retire to a life of hypocrisy, opulence and godfatherism.
Nigeria is simple: When you are rich or powerful enough-an overnight job if you are ruthless-you buy private jets. That way, you do not have to see, or be bothered by, the rot that is below.
That is why Nigeria's educational system has collapsed and our children are begging for schools in South Africa and Ghana.
That is why former Ministers of Works, having refused to construct roads, travel abroad for treatment when they are in a road accident.
That is why our chiefs of state and their wives choose foreign hospitals in seedy places abroad for anything and everything from beauty treatments and liposuction to Churg Strauss syndrome and dying.
And that is why Nigeria is closing in and choking right before our eyes. Our leaders used to head for the public square to celebrate National Day with the people, shaking hands with them, laughing with them, and dreaming with them.
Not anymore: for his National Day performance for the second year in a row, President Jonathan dressed in a fortified flak jacket and hid in a corner of the presidential villa behind layers of 'security' and behind rows of Ministers and columns of Special Advisers and Assistants. Ignoring the crying need for good governance, he ferried in an additional supply of the elite Brigade of Guards.
But then the most shameful thing in 52 years happened on National Day in the once peaceful town of Mubi, in Adamawa State. As though to remind Mr. Jonathan of the true rules of engagement, gunmen walked into a college and took their seats. Methodically, from a prepared list, they called up and murdered student after student: 43 of them. Even for us, this is a new low.
Mubi had been under a blanket cover of the Joint Task Force (JTF) for over one week. Two days before National Day, the JTF had triumphantly reported the surrender to it of 40 suspected terrorists and the recovery of over 100 types of Improvised Explosive Devices.
Mr. Jonathan immediately called for an investigation. As we say in Nigeria: for what? What has he done with all the reports he has received up till now? What has he done about the electoral promises he made last year? What is he doing with Abuja's army of thieves and looters that is inspiring deep resentment nationwide?
For as long as we lack a leader bold and patriotic enough to see himself as the answer rather than the question; for as long as governance continues to be a power, rather than a performance game; as long as our top-heavy government is sniffing for scandalous 'notorious facts' in the press to buttress its game of pretence, this country will continue its steady march to chaos, if not disintegration.
Good luck, Nigeria.
By Sonala Olumhense