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NIGERIA: WHAT TIME IS IT? (1) 10th Ojukwu University Convocation Lecture

Pressure from the VC made me hurriedly come up with a title as strange as this! However, it is a title that gives rise to many thoughts, particularly so as we look at our world, and more specifically, our nation, today.

The notion of time is philosophy or sociology. Time naturally means different things to different people. It generates different levels of adrenalin in each of us depending on the occasion. A long time with a loved one can seem so short. A short time with an enemy could seem like eternity. A winning team would wish to bring the time to an end, a losing team on the other hand would wish to borrow more time. Time generates different levels of anxiety for the hanged man or for the man waiting to hear the cry of his first baby.  Perhaps in the end, the greatest definition of time is what the holy Bible said, that for everything, there is a time, a time to live and a time to die (Eccl. 3: 1ff).

Julius Sevilla, a writer says that: Time waits for no one, stops for no one. Excuses will not slow down time. Indecision will not slow down time. Complaints will not stall time. Regret will not turn back time. Don’t waste your time in anger, regrets, worries or hate. Time will not turn around and cry along with you. It’s time to let go of the past and stop worrying about the future. Your only time is now. So, make sure you spend your time with the right purpose, right deeds, right emotions, right thoughts and the right people. Time flies: You can. You will not pass this way again. Do what time does, keep moving.

I believe that a reflection on the concept of Time is pertinent for a gathering such as this. For the graduands, your performance may have much to do with how well you used your time. For those who used it well, stay on that path because the future is waiting for you. For those who may not have done so well, remember that you still have time to re-set your clock if you want a happy life. For those just getting started, you have a chance to reflect on the road that lies ahead of you. How you use and manage your time will largely determine whether the investment being made by your parents pays off or not.

I use the concept of time largely as a metaphor for defining both identity and vision. Players and their team members must have a common sense and understanding of time. Equally so with actors in a film or play. Similarly, Students and the University staff know that all things being equal, if you register for this or that course, both sides know when you should graduate. Imagine what chaos there would be if each Student, Department or Faculty considered time differently from the University authorities. Imagine what would happen if Passengers had a different understanding of time to the managers of the flight or train.

In the drama of life, each and every one of us is allotted time, and our ability to make or not make any contribution in life depends on how we manage this gift, this investment. Every individual, every generation, every society must appreciate what time it is, the challenges of the time, and figure out how to use it well. Today we reflect on what we did with the time of yesterday. Tomorrow will depend on what we make of today’s time. Time is another word for the gift of life, an investment. The bank of time neither grants loans nor cancels debts. So, management of time is so central and critical that literally everything, success or failure in life, depends on its use.

In the next few minutes, I will not dwell on the philosophy of time, but reflect on how our country has used its own time. This of course sounds very ambitious. I wish to briefly look at what has happened to our own time, how is it that our dreams of yesterday seem to have turned into nightmares. I will argue that our inability to manage time efficiently is another word for what Onyeka Onwenu referred to a squandering of riches, akin to what the American intellectual, Lillian Hellman referred to as scoundrel time and Scripture refers to as the years consumed by the locusts (Joel, 2:25). Whether we can salvage something out of all this, pull out a few chestnuts from today’s inferno, remains the challenge for our future.

1. Time, Moments for Nations: How telling Time became difficult in Nigeria

I believe that the first signs of our confusion with time arose from the challenges over the synchronization of our African time with a new clock imposed by colonialism. To be sure, before colonialism, we can argue that we all had different clocks and used them differently as communities. We had no sense of urgency because everyone, individual or community, had their time and managed it as they wished. Traditional societies relied on a crystalisation and interpretation of the intersection between terrestrial elements such as the state and position of the sun, moon, stars, shadows, weather or such neighbours as the cock.

In traditional societies, there were no bells announcing that it was time for the farmer to head to his farm, nor was there a time for any farmer to return home. Communities however had an agreement on the times for the community festivals, market days or meetings at the village square for example. Community cohesion depended on a common understanding of duties and responsibilities of members of the community on the major issues that they had agreed upon.

However, the emergence of the modern state compelled us all to submit to a new sense of time with the emergence of the clock and calendar.  The new clock now became the centre and means of regulating all activities for the individual and his/her community. Metaphorically, and for nation building and progress, to attain a common sense of cohesion and act as a community, our nation’s Constitution, our national Anthem and our common currency could now be referred to as some form of a clock, marking our sense of common purpose.

In other words, the idea of time would be reduced to how a society saw adherence to a set of values or rules that held it together. As we will see, confusion later set in because just after the British left, we all seem to have reacted differently to the concept of time, values and rules.  Goals, vision and a sense of national unity and common purpose began to change as different persons, groups and institutions began to react differently to the dictates of a common clock. Even the titles of our novels would gradually suggest this: Things Fall Apart, My Mercedes is Bigger than Yours, Born without a Silver Spoon, Stillborn, or The Famished Road. In my view, the confusion we find ourselves in now is the visible manifestation of the fact that perhaps we may not all have had, or indeed still have, a common understanding of the clock and time, a set of values to serve as a moral anchor or to serve as a compass to lead our nation.

We have come to refer to the first generation of the political class as founding fathers. I think this reads too much into our history and the notion of founding fathers. In truth, can you found what was already there? You can only found something whose vision only you possess. The British had founded and named what would later become Nigeria, they designed a political, social and economic map for it. What those we call the founding fathers sought to do, and did commendably, was to put pressure on the British to step aside and the British did that on their own terms. They were not conquered in a liberation war. Indeed, as we all know, there was even no agreement among the three ‘founding fathers’ as to when the British should depart. I will return to this towards the end, but for the purpose of this lecture, let me turn to the experience of the United States from where I wish to draw inspiration.

I am turning to the United States largely to explain what we think founding fathers should look like and how their imprint vision and dreams have continued to drive the politics of that country. What today we call, the American Founding fathers were preceded by the Pilgrim Fathers who set out from Europe in search of a new land to practice their faiths and seek a new life a new land away from the oppression and persecution that they had experienced in Europe. In other words, they were looking for a place to feel at home, create their values and live their lives as they believed. The settlers would later decide to bring an end to British colonial rule by way of war.

The same people would still fight another civil war to decide what manner of country they would bring about, to decide whether all should be free or if some would be in servitude. This is why the country would later be known as the land of the brave and the free! These founding fathers were culturally of the same world view. They were White, Anglo Saxon and Protestant. These identities would later coalesce to become the categories of power in America captured in the acronym, White, Anglo Saxon Protestant, WASP. The local Indian populations paid with their lives and would become the victims of the brutality of their conquerors.

If you compare this with our situation, the confusion begins to show very clearly why it is more important for us to be modest in our application of the term founding fathers for our situation in Nigeria. Yes, like the American founding fathers, we were colonised, but unlike them, we did not go out to colonise anyone. Our colonisers had come to find and extract minerals and make profit. Colonialism was an economic adventure that became necessary when slavery ended and Europe had to industrialise. In the American case, the founding fathers raised a superior force, built an army, economy and ideology that would surpass that of their British colonisers. They conquered their oppressors and laid the foundation for a new and free nation based on its own new principles and ideology of freedom.

In our own case, events leading to our own independence would be fraught with the seeds of conflict in perception and expectations, suggesting clearly that even the founding fathers were looking at different clocks. For example, compare some servile aspects of our negotiation for freedom in the famous with the British with the American situation and we can appreciate the decisive difference.

In parts of what came to known as the Self Government Motion by Mr. Tony Enahoro in 1953 for self-government to be granted in 1956, we see highlights of our predicament. Among other things, Mr. Enahoro said: The question in the public mind since the end of the war has been self-government, when? What time, what date?….We do not want to part with the British people with rancor. For many years, they have ruled us. We are not an unreasonable people, and like a good house servant, it is only fair that we give our masters notice of our intention to quit, so that they can effect arrangements either to employ new servants or to serve themselves. We do not wish to take them by surprise. Clearly, we were asking for some form of dependent independence!

The British who had sowed the seeds of our division in the political arrangements would mischievously frame the issues differently. Independence would clearly be a set-up, burying in its womb, the seeds of conflicts the inevitability of instability.  Sir Bryan Sherwood Smith, the Colonial Governor of Northern Nigeria summed it all up when he said: The British were not the enemy. The enemy lay beyond the Niger in the persons of the political leaders and their followers who desired independence for Nigeria before the North was ready, in order, the north was convinced, to dominate the whole. Tragically, till date, attempted handshakes across the Niger, have exacerbated these fears.

These men had no common vision of a country because their views were the views designed and manipulated by the colonial government. Both Nnamdi Azikiwe and Awolowo had been exposed to the secular Democracy of the West whereas Ahmadu Bello had just come out of the womb of feudalism and an Islam inspired by the Arab world. Ahmadu Bello, on the other hand, was a proud Prince of the over one-hundred-year-old caliphate whose overthrow laid the foundation for British rule. He was proud of his ancestry and unwilling to trade its values for the new values espoused by the British. Azikiwe and Awolowo on the other hand looked into a future framed through the lenses of a western liberal worldview of modernity, individualism, progress and freedom. Whereas Ahmadu Bello was no stranger to privilege, having come from an environment of slave holders, his counterparts came from a background that celebrated egalitarianism, individualism, success and struggle.

On a broader note, Chief Awolowo’s exposure to Fabianism and Azikiwe’s exposure to the liberal culture of American Democracy ensured a coincidence in their world view, but the same could not be said of the Sardauna. Hence, according to the famous anecdote, when Azikiwe suggested that they should forget their differences and unite to move the new nation forward towards a liberal western worldview, the Sardauna suggested rather that they should understand these differences. Janus faced, our founding fathers looked in opposite directions for inspiration. The inability of these fathers to synchronise their clocks and agree on what time it was has haunted us and accounts for our seeming immobility.

It has led us to an internecine war and back. It has led us to several Constitutional Conferences with no final Constitution. Despite all these initiatives we remain inundated with the threatening clouds of fear, anxiety, suspicion, self-doubt, self-abnegation, lassitude, ennui, exhaustion and despair. With these twisted hands of the clock, we have been unable to tell what time it is. Today, by whatever name our confusion is called, whether we call it the quest for true federalism, resource control, Sharia, or restructuring, the essence is the same: we have one clock but no common agreement as to what time it is.

2: Lessons from the American Experience

Let me now turn our attention and briefly look at the American experience, with all its imperfections, and see what lessons we can draw from their history today. The American story of  Democracy is not perfect, but I believe no other country in the world has made such great sacrifices to institutionalise this system of governance than that country. They have since outclassed and outlived those from whom they borrowed the system, from the Greeks to the French. They received the statue of Liberty as a present from the French on October 28, 1886. The timeless and most inspiring words of the poet, Emma Lazarus, summoning all to freedom have the power of a sacred text. They still resonate till date. The Poem reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door. I know the flood of exhilarating emotions I felt when I climbed the edifice in 1986.

The very successful story of the United States of America illustrates what human beings, collaborating with the grace of God, can achieve when they work together under a common vision, or clock. Do not get me wrong. I am not naïve to think that the United States does not have its own problems. We can remember the history of the struggles for equality of the black race and others for justice and integration till date. We can recall the struggle of women to have their equality as citizens recognized. Time Magazine (March 16-23rd, 2020) has dedicated a two-week edition to the Women struggle in the United States and around the world. We can also afford to quarrel with the new restrictions imposed by the Trump administration today, whether on border walls, immigrants, visas, or how much you need to have to get their visa. But in whichever way we look at things, every struggle there still finds it legitimacy in the vision of the founding fathers of that country against the backdrop of commitment to freedom and human dignity.

In 1776 after they won their war against Britain, the founding fathers set about laying down the moral basis for what they had done. After the holy Bible, the Declaration of Independence can be considered the most powerful source from where the United States has continued to draw its moral authority. The writers (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston and Robert Sherman) stated very clearly the reason why they had fought a war and what kind of society they wanted to live in.

The Declaration of Independence opened with the following words: When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.

Who would imagine that these words, written over two hundred years ago are still so inspiring? They could pass for a text of agitation from any of the angry, frustrated and militant separatist groups spread around every nook and cranny of Nigeria today. So, what time is it for Nigeria? How does it happen that we have not been able to resolve problems whose solutions were offered over two hundred years ago by men and women of vision? How could we have offered to sit for their examination and sixty years later are still unable to graduate?

The founding fathers of America drew their strength from the Christian faith, calling their nation a City on a hill, a Nation under God and God’s country. The inscription on their currency reads, In God we trust.  Today, these appellations have paid off because faith, including today greater respect for all faiths, has remained the rallying cry for the people. Thus, we can all agree that, America may sway, but it remains a worthy reference point for how Democracy should be. This is the price we have had to pay for trying to merely understand our differences rather than hammering them out on an imaginative anvil that would enable us weld these differences together and subordinate them under a Constitution would serve as our secular sacred text?

Apart from the Declaration of Independence, two other speeches are important for understanding why American Democracy has stood the test of time and why honouring the time-tested principles laid down by the founding fathers has conferred a form of secular sacredness to these texts. The first is a speech that has come to be known as the House Divided Speech, delivered on June 16th, 1858, was an acceptance speech which Abraham Lincoln delivered after he accepted the nomination to run for the Senate for the State of Illinois. Although Mr. Lincoln lost that election, the contents of the speech show an ideological consistency that shows the depth of his moral convictions about human dignity. His entire political life would hang around the themes of the speech.

To be continued…

Dr. Kukah, Essayist and commentator is Catholic Bishop, Sokoto Diocese

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