Darkness in a city of light

(by Rev. Fr. Akodu Peter Kehinde)
My candid opinion, however, is if we truly want to rebrand Nigeria, we must work on the whole person, not a jigsaw of elements. We must work on the totality of our culture. Culture is our life, our way of doing things. Culture drives the economy, politics, science, technology, arts, and socialisation process as its sub-systems. If culture, which is the switchboard centre, crumbles, then the fabric of the sub-systems of the switchboard centre will not stand.

 TWICE, I was in Onitsha, the sprawling city in the east of the Niger – though in transit. Twice, I was scared stiff. On the first occasion, I was on my way to Ilorin Park to board. The town-service bus we boarded led other buses, cars, and motorcycles popularly called Okada in our colloquial parlance – in a rather discordant file, each rushing to a safe haven. Traffic waded through the same muddy road in both directions. Before we could pronounce ‘Jack,’ one Okada man and the woman at the back were inside the mud with the bike over them. The two bellowed an awful cry, “Chim ooo.” People in the area ran to lift the bike so they could be eased of the painful situation. This quantum neglect of Onitsha city roads scared me stiff.

The second time, I alighted from a bus rushing to board at the Uyo Park. I entered a town-service bus within Ilorin park premises. The bus started moving after the driver got the full complement of passengers. On the way, he said: “A driver was killed last week. As a result, drivers have been protesting the death and some have been using the opportunity to rob unsuspecting passengers of their money and valuables.”

He continued: “If you have money on you or handsets and other valuables, please keep them in your bags.” Believing him, I thanked him on behalf of other passengers for letting out the information. “At least this will help us to make informed decision about a proactive action to take,” I said to myself.

I did as he said. However, I became somehow suspicious when the conductor came, and without courtesy took my bag from me and dropped it in the boot. I protested vehemently, but I let go after the driver said: “Nothing will happen to your bag. The boy is my conductor. I asked him to keep the bags in the boot for safety reasons.”

We kept going, but at a point, they stopped. From behind, they hurriedly passed our bags to us insinuating and pleading: “A car is coming behind us and there are thieves inside. We don’t want them to harm you. Please come down quickly!” First, we scampered for safety. Then, we looked around for that car; none was within sight. I decided to check my bag – my money was gone, so was my phone. The city people call this phenomenon, ‘one chance.’ Onitsha gave me this first experience as a baptism of fire.

It was already evening so I decided to leave for Uyo instead of shouting or calling people to attention. I have learnt a lot about material things from my Christian formation. Such formation informs my attitude to always detach myself from material things. Material goods are fleeting by their nature. You will part with them either because of death or by other reasons. Therefore, I was able to maintain my psychological balance. This issue of value decay also scared me stiff. Therefore, the twin issue of underdevelopment and value decay became the albatross around my neck.

In the past, a broken bridge tormented Onitsha. Being the gateway to the East, the city was haplessly receptive to the taunt and the salvo of the Nigerian forces during the Nigerian civil war. This traumatised the people and stalled city development. Supplies of food, drugs, and medicals were not forthcoming, as these could not be ferried through the Niger Bridge to the East. However, the bridge was mended, but there are still cracks in the wall. The story of Onitsha is the story of a dilapidated building. The mending of the building needs integrated reconstruction instead of mending a part of it.

Today, a broken people have replaced the broken bridge. And this is where the crack is most profound. However, Onitsha is destined to be a city of light. In Onitsha, churches of several Christian denominations compete for space, prominence and relevance. In Onitsha, the only Basilica in this part of our world sits pretty and shines as gold. Nevertheless, the darkness in the city is the bane. The values painted in this write-up and other negative, anti-development, and anti-social values define the actions of men.

The story of Onitsha is a replication of the Nigerian story, too. Hence, the title: Darkness in a city of light. I have carefully chosen the article ‘a’ in the title. I prefer this to the article ‘the.’ To use ‘the’ is to single out the city of Onitsha as the only city where this kind of darkness prevails in Nigeria. I don’t want to offend the sensibilities of my friends and mentors who come from this part of the country. I respect them a lot and I respect their attainment in education, health, humanities, business and other fields here and abroad.

Their lives have become living parables to the myth of some people: The myth of crime for example. However, if the truth must be told, we must admit that there is a fundamental problem today about the kinds of values that drive people’s activities in Onitsha, in Lagos, Ibadan, Kano, Bauchi, Yobe, and other cities in Nigeria.

Another problem that borders on value decay that may disconnect us from the refrain, “Great people, great nation” has to do with the experience I had trying to block my line after my travail in Onitsha. The day after the robbery incident, I went to MTN office in Uyo to block my line so that the thieves would not use it to defraud people. After collecting my certificate and identity card, and working his hands on the computer keyboard, the MTN official in one of the counters told me: “You have not registered. Go and register there.” He was not even showing any warmth and the zeal to see a customer through. I told him I registered last year in Ekiti State.

As he was not interested in my case, I went to a lady in the other counter. She looked through the computer and said: “Your registration is pending. It has not been fed into the national grid. So you have to do it again.” Then I asked: “Who is at fault? Me or MTN!” Since around August last year that I registered my sim card, they failed to feed my registration to the national grid to enable their workers access it nationwide. I was downcast and disappointed. There were many others like me who felt the same way, too. Can we say these people are hard working? Do they have the ethics of hard work and patriotism? Many of such examples cut across all sectors of our economy.

During the Obasanjo administration, the government mouthed the need to rebrand our country. Dora Akunyili, minister of Information then, and her rebranding team canvassed for a Nigeria that we can package and sell as a product to our foreign friends. The rebranding process must acclaim Nigeria as a destination of choice. Their plan was to package Nigeria as a great nation and Nigerians as a great people: A country that is made up of hardworking people. The Jonathan administration wants us to write our stories ourselves. They want us to emphasise more of positive events and play down the negatives. Not that negative events do not happen in Nigeria, but life in this country is not all about bomb blast, poverty and disease, as western media would claim.

My candid opinion, however, is if we truly want to rebrand Nigeria, we must work on the whole person, not a jigsaw of elements. We must work on the totality of our culture. Culture is our life, our way of doing things. Culture drives the economy, politics, science, technology, arts, and socialisation process as its sub-systems. If culture, which is the switchboard centre, crumbles, then the fabric of the sub-systems of the switchboard centre will not stand.

In Nigeria, we need to examine where we’re coming from. We need to examine where we’re now and where we’re going. It’s through this integrated examination that we will know what we need to do right. We will also know the wrong things, attitudes, ethics, and dispositions that we have picked up in the course of history that now make us a pariah nation in the international community.

Finally, we need to think of the rituals (ceremonies), like the children’s day that we could convoke to celebrate our myth: The good ethics (values) of the past that will eventually constitute where we’re going. This must be the outcome provided the examination process is right. If we can get the question of culture right, we will relate in a way that will produce a robust economy, science, politics, and technological feats – and we will stop constituting clogs in the wheel of our nation’s progress.

Through rituals, like the children’s day, we will be able to transmit national and civic values of patriotism, respect for elders, hard work, warmth in human relationship, and loving service to our young ones. They will learn how to be good and responsible Nigerians. If you like, you can call it ‘catch them young’ approach. After we have finished building capacity and actualising goals, then we can talk of selling the country as a product to our foreign friends.

• Rev. Fr. Akodu Peter Kehinde writes in from Lagos.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”