Kole at 60: The challenge of an alternative Nigeria and the dwindling tribe of patriots



By Y.Z. Ya’u

As we are celebrating a child of the Northeast, it is not out of place to start the discussion with that region. We have spent close to 10 years fighting a war which we appear to be incapable of winning. In fact, things appear to be looking more bleak than three years ago. We have run from pillar to pillar to apportioning blames on the failure to win the war yet what we have not brough to the table is the power of ideas. We are waging a war against an idea and only a counter idea can win the war.

The failure to successfully address the insurgency question in the Northeast is but a reflection of the general collapse of the Nigerian State. It is incapable of meeting its basic responsibilities to the citizens including providing security, education and healthcare. As it is, at home or on the streets, in school or the market, at work or resting, in places of worship or sites of leisure, Nigerians are not safe. The monopoly of the means of violence has been wrested out of the state and bandits, terrorists and kidnappers have parceled out areas of control among themselves, away from government, threating to make Nigeria the Somalia of the 21st Century.

Poverty and unemployment have become so normalized that we are not shocked by their prevalence or their manifestation. But their consequences do. These two evils have made the population desperate, despondent and hopeless. It is such hopelessness and despair that is driving the country along two dangerous paths. On the hand, many are increasingly recoiling to their cocoon of safety, and turning rabid ethnic and religious chauvinists, incapable of rising above that and thinking that salvation lies in one form or the other of ethnic cleansing. The other road is that taken by those who think that they have to get back their own pound of flesh from the society that they think has pushed them into the marginal spaces of criminality. These are the bandits, kidnappers, armed robbers, terrorists, etc.

We are all here, united behind the idea which is that a just, better Nigeria, as an attentive to the current Nigeria that has failed us, is possible. Our faith in this idea is what is keeping us hopeful in spite of swimming in the sea of pessimism.

The sort of people who have continued to bind with Kole and share his ideas and activism as well as influencing his thoughts and action and in turn, he is also influencing and shaping their own activism, are men and women, today old enough to be looking forward to retiring, who were fortunate to have had very good education that Nigeria could give them, allowing them to explore ideas as diverse as possible, coming to their own conclusions and united behind an agenda for the progressive transformation of Nigeria. They are where they are today not because they were born with silver spool in their mouth or gold lining in their jackets, not because their parents wielded power or influence, not because they have inherited stupendous wealth. On the contrary, they are where they are because of hard work, focus, determination, dedication and believe in their capacity to excel.  

In that tribe, your religion was irrelevant so was where you came from or what other languages you spoke apart from the common discourse language that we inherited from our colonial adventurists. We might not have achieved our primary goal of transforming Nigeria but many of these men and women have occupied positions of influence, have discharged and acquitted themselves honorably. They have left shining legacies of enviable achievements. They can be found in the public sector, private sector and in the development world, where Kole is a key example. They have been influencing policies and people, extending hands of solidarity and fellowship to others, always ready and willing to answer the distress callas of humanity and be at the forefront in any battle for justice, fairplay, rule of law, human rights, gender equity and democratization. They have against all odds, kept the dream for a better tomorrow alive. They have conducted themselves with integrity, self-sacrifice, patriotism and always ready to go the extra mile in their quest for a better Nigeria.

They are people whose names will not be in the books of EFCC, even if they filled volumes of files in the DSS. They do not dangle money or carrot but speak about ideas and humanity. Kole is one of the thousands of this tribe of Nigerians with compelling and inspiring stories of hard work, achievements and integrity.

In spite of our commitment, clear ideas, personal accomplishments and experience in the struggle, we seem to be falling to the seductive space of pessimism, with many already taken over by cynicism. We cannot change the country, those who have become pessimists chorus. This country is doomed beyond redemption the cynics counsel. Yet, we know this is not true. We are capable of changing Nigeria because we have our human agency for change. We are the architects of the society we want. The reality however, is that our number is dwindling and we are getting to become deponent and unreflective and uncritical. It is time to get back on the tracks. Doing so of course requires we address the many challenges that we face, some of our making.

I see three key challenges that we have to address. The first is that of keeping faith with united, secular Nigeria. We have over the years as part of the decline in the quality of discourse in the country began to internalize the ideas of identity and parochial politics. Suddenly and sadly, we realized that among us, we have silos of cranky ethnic chauvinists and religious bigots, masquerading as nationalists. We need to bequeath to our younger ones and generations to come the belief and faith in a united Nigeria, driven by ideas of justice, equity and humanity and not one perpetually in conflict with itself over particularities such as religion, ethnicity and geography.

The second challenge is that we have stopped raising new cadres of progressive ideas. It is like the builder wants to run away with the ladder or to borrow from Fukuyama, we have come to the end of cadres raising. We should not be happy to walk into our graves as the last generation of conscious progressive people who are committed to an alternative Nigeria. Raising new cadres is critical because it is the key to self-renewal and growing the movement. This is much more complex than the first challenge and I do not pretend I have the answer to how we can address this challenge.

In the past, before graduating we had clear ideas about where we would work and why. Invariably we almost always ended up there. The choices were the academia, the trade unions and the media.  The rationale for these choices is self-obvious as they allowed us not only to remain men and women of ideas but also gave us the space to engage and contribute to raising new cadres. Today all three sites are incapable of providing the space for us to do these.

The education system, like most things Nigerian, has gone under and is difficult for it to produce critical minds with clear ideas about what the alternative is to the staled staple of monetized contraption called democracy in Nigeria. We need to think deep on how we can create the spaces to engage young minds and help in molding them to discover their critical assets and to be part of the movement to transform Nigeria into shining example of a nation build on the basis of social justice.

The third challenge is finding the new and appropriate tools for the social transformation of Nigeria. In a world that has nearly settled for electoralism, a revolution has become like a hate word or terror code. Taking arms when you have no power is an invitation to be classified as terrorist and labeled as good meat for arbitrary state-sanctioned murder. Hate speech after all, has class content.  Content, context, times and tools have changed so this will require a hard thinking about what methods we have to deploy. We ourselves have changed. This change is not in our believes, ideas or commitment to a better Nigeria but in our capacity to engage as those activists of yesterday are today getting old, to slow to be on the streets or on the picket lines. In the past we will not hesitate to pick our jackets and run to the streets because we believed power lies on the streets. Today, many of us will rather remain glued to our laptops or handsets, tweeting and sharing Facebook posts of the streets, waiting for the analytics and providing insights of what ought to be done. Not that this in itself is bad. What is bad is when we remove ourselves and speak like we are some consultants, missing in the field but ready to offer better ideas to those who are out there.

We cannot play the politics that mainstream politicians play because it negates all the values we hold dear. We cannot continue to be mere advocates, engaging in our monologue, looking for data to attribute the slightest shift to our efforts. Although we believe that there is time when quantity transforms to quality, in the context of our pilotism, we can hardly reach the critical mass that would allow for that passage of quantity to quality.

Some have even accused the rise of NGOsm as the curse of our time and the reason for our failure. While NGOsm has its many drawbacks, it would be naïve to think that it is the cause of our problem. It would seem to me is that here is why we are failing as men and women of ideas. We are not able to put our thinking gloves and develop bold innovative ideas to respond to the changing times of our struggle: what new methods, ideas, strategies and tactics can we develop to lead us to the destination, which his to reinvent Nigeria in the images of the ideas in our mind.

Finally, as activists, we are not self-conscious of history. We are too engaged and too committed to changing the narrative and the trajectory of Nigeria that we have no time to reflect and record Nigeria as we saw it. We do not tell our own History and our own engagement with that history. We have left the field for onlookers to document and write this history, often deliberately missing out on the heroic role that people like Kole and others have played.

How do we hope to inspire others, especially younger people if they do not know what we did? How will they learn from our mistakes and build on what we have done right? How do they make sense of the past and plan for the future if they are left orphaned in terms of the history of the ideas that should inspire them? As we grow older and many years away from our active years in the trenches, we become subject to the decline in capacity to remember and be beholden by a growing capacity to forget the experiences and the insights that we gained in engaging. If we are to honor people like Kole and keep honoring men and women of repute and commitment to the transformation of Nigeria, we must begin to document what they did so that their experiences and engagements as well as their sacrifices would be bequeathed to generations yet to come.