In a sentimental mood for Nigeria

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*Burna Boy, WizKid

Simon Kolawole

In 1935, Duke Ellington — God rest his soul — gave the world ‘In a Sentimental Mood’, one of the greatest jazz pieces ever. He composed it impromptu at a party for a friend, reportedly to calm the nerves of two feuding ladies. They stood by either side of his piano as he did his thing. The 1962 version which he recorded with John Coltrane is one of the most beautiful and magical jazz compositions I have ever listened to in my young life — and I say that with due respect to Miles Davis, arguably the greatest jazz artist and composer that ever lived. Davis, I have to say, made me love the trumpet when I ordinarily would choose the sound of a sax, even deep in my sleep.

Why do I love ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ so much? I wish I could say. I go to sleep many nights listening to the insanely delightful ballad in which Ellington played the piano and the supremely talented Coltrane blew the alto sax. Two geniuses spinning my head with piano and saxophone, and me lying down there under the duvet trying to forget all the struggles and stress in the land of my birth. I put it on auto replay at times to meditate, sleep or just lie idle. Someone commenting on the track on YouTube wrote: “If heaven had a waiting room, this would be the music played.” Coltrane died of liver cancer in July 1967 at 40 while Ellington died at 75 seven years later. Geniuses, both.

This Saturday morning, I am in a sentimental mood for my country. I am at my desk, gently tapping my laptop keyboard and thinking deeply about the future of my dearly beloved country. I have switched on my wireless speaker and connected it to my iPhone by Bluetooth. I have put ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ on auto replay on my iTunes. I am hoping that the ballad would keep me calm as I reflect one more time on our dearly beloved country. Is there really a future for Nigeria? Can we ever get to a stage where we would jointly and genuinely be proud of this country? Are we cursed? Are we doomed to fail? Are our problems impossible to solve? Is our case hopeless?

Whenever I am tempted to give up, something happens and I beat a retreat. One moment, I would say: “It is finished!” Another moment, I would say: “Not so fast. There is hope!” Last week, two home-based Nigerian artistes grabbed a couple of Grammys, the most prestigious awards in the world of music, and I got sentimental and renewed my hopes again – in the midst of this turmoil. ‘Twice as Tall’ by Burna Boy (real name Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu) got the Best Global Music Album, while Wizkid (Ayodeji Ibrahim Balogun) shared Best Music Video with Beyoncé and Blue Ivy for ‘Brown Skin Girl’. You see, it is very hard to give up on Nigeria with this ocean of possibilities.

But how do you see hope when you are surrounded by gunmen who are asking you to either surrender or be captured? How do you preach hope when kidnappers are having a field day? How do you preach hope when breaking news is always about abductions and killings? How do you dream when you keep hearing of billions and billions of naira being stolen and wasted in a country where so many people are so poor they cannot afford quality education and decent health care? How do you dream in a country where separatists and rabble rousers are getting all the applause? You really have to be in a divine sentimental mood to see beyond the prevailing travails.

I’m not stupid: I know that the Nigerian condition is very critical right now. Apart from the mindless corruption at all levels, the insecurity is enough to kill our hopes and dreams. Sadly, I expect things to get worse before they get better. We are paying the price of corruption, incompetence and neglect. We have not been making the right social investment. Poverty, unemployment and crime are the consequences. I am not as sentimental about Nigeria as not to see these failings. But he that observes the wind shall not sow, as the scriptures say. I stubbornly believe that Nigeria will still overcome its demons and become great someday. But when? That’s the part I don’t know.

Sometime last year, my attention was drawn to a tweet by a lady who accused me of misleading her into believing Nigeria would be great. She said she used to read my articles religiously 10 years ago and truly believed Nigeria would be better but now she had seen “the light”. I was very downcast. I knew what she was talking about. Nigeria can kill you. I was tempted to engage with her, but, as a matter of choice, I don’t participate in social media discussions. So, I let it pass. I wanted to tell her that if we focus our minds on the negatives, we will miss the positives. There are enough pointers to a greater Nigeria that are not obvious – largely because our current condition is depressing.

The Grammys won by Burna Boy and Wizkid are part of those pointers: pointers to possibilities, pointers to the Nigerian talent. A few decades ago, home-based artistes were not getting international recognitions, no matter how good they were. The notable exception was Fela – our biggest, if not only, export. Most artistes who went to perform abroad only served Nigerians in diaspora. Today, our artistes are celebrated worldwide: packing out major places like O2 Arena in the UK, appearing on major talk shows, getting featured in global media and being played at major airports and TV/radio stations. Globalisation has helped to display our talents around the world.

Nigerians get little or no policy support from government but have been squeezing water out of stone. Look at Nollywood. They built it from the bottom. When people used to criticise the technical and artistic qualities of Nigerian movies, my point was that with competition, there would be differentiation. The talent was there. You could see it. Today, we can testify that the quality of production is much better, even if the acting and storylines still need some polishing. But we will never polish anything if all we do is condemn and despair. Apart the creative industry, tech companies such as Interswitch, Paystack, Flutterwave and Systemspecs are also flying our flag high.

Many things keep my hopes alive in the midst of our struggles. Some things appear to be negative today but there will be value in the future. One, we are still building human capacity – although in a warped way. With the Nigerian public education system not up to scratch, we are paying through our nose to send our children to good schools home and abroad. This is not right but at least we have not stopped building capacity. Someday, these brains will play their part in the development of Nigeria. The best option, of course, is to make our public education world-class and give access to all classes of people. The worst thing is to stop building capacity altogether. Lemons and lemonades.

Two, there are thousands of Nigerians doing well in diaspora. It may look sad that our best brains are leaving Nigeria all the time, but many are excelling in various fields of human endeavour. Although many have been tapped up by the governments of those countries, I can say that for every one we have lost, there are at least 10 waiting in the wings. Many of them will willingly come back to be part of the process of rebuilding Nigeria if the conditions are right. All they desire is a habitable country where you have power, water, security and good roads. I know many who are willing to return today if the conditions are right. If we can get just power and security right, many will renew hope.

Three, even though the economy is in a terrible state, I am seeing projects that can turn things around in the next 10 years. Our infatuation with crude oil got us to where we are, but at least we seem to have agreed to break the yoke. Apart from various agricultural and agro-allied initiatives in virtually every state of the federation, the federal government is also building transportation infrastructure that can change the shape of the economy, assuming we keep focus. If the various projects and policies in power, water, rail, road, agriculture and industry across the states and regions are pursued and implemented with diligence and passion, our story will change.

Above all, we have the Nigerian spirit which cannot be killed. It is a never-say-die spirit. We have seen hell in this country but we are still standing on our feet. If Burna Boy and Wizkid had allowed the Nigerian condition to conquer them, they would not be world champions today. Outside of the creative and tech sectors, Nigerians are also shining everywhere: Amina Mohammed at the UN, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at WTO, Akinwumi Adesina at AfDB, etc. While we are at it, we are still waiting for Chimamanda Adichie to bring home the Nobel Prize. Imagine what Nigerians have achieved without proper leadership. Imagine where we can be when we finally get things right. Unstoppable.

And four other things…

Burning dollars

On Wednesday, the federal executive council approved $1.5 billion for the rehabilitation of Port Harcourt refinery. Mr Timipre Sylva, minister of state for petroleum, said the rehabilitation will be done in three phases of 18, 24 and 44 months by Tecnimont SPA, an Italian company. I really don’t know what to say. Right from the time of Gen Sani Abacha, who was head of state from 1993 to 1998, we have been burning money on repairing the dead refineries and we have gone nowhere. Every single government has been “repairing” refineries. The end result is that we keep importing petroleum products. For goodness sake, these refineries should be sold, not repaired. Waste.

Hijab ‘ija’

Kwara, a relatively peaceful state, has been engulfed in a religious crisis over the issue of wearing of hijab in public schools. I saw some disturbing videos of violent clashes in the state capital during the week. Unlike most northern states, religion is the least of issues in Kwara. I have never hidden my view on hijab: I have absolutely nothing against people wearing it to school, same way I don’t care if you wear “Deeper Life” scarves. The schools where crisis has erupted are owned and funded 100 percent by the state, not by any church or mosque. Anybody who feels aggrieved by government policy should please go to court rather than stir strife. Self-help will only worsen matters. Avoidable.

Kaduna bandits

Is there a link between the renewed attacks in Kaduna and the declaration by the state governor, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, that he would not negotiate with bandits? I should think so. Although Kaduna has had its unfair share of insecurity over the years, the spate of attacks in recent times is disturbing and suspicious. While the state has been very transparent with crime reports – with Mr Samuel Aruwan, the commissioner for internal security, briefing the media every day – the fact remains that we are bleeding profusely. The government must exert its full might on these criminals. For the record, I am firmly behind el-Rufai on his stand against negotiating with criminals. Resolute.

Cat and mouse

A couple of weeks ago, President John Magufuli of Tanzania, a reckless COVID sceptic like Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi state, suddenly disappeared from public glare. “Tanzanians be calm, your president is there, in good health, he is working,” Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa said, ironically at a mosque. “He has loads of files. Now when he stays in his office going through documents, you say: ‘He is ill, let him appear.’ Following your own schedule or according to his work plan?” Magufuli died on Wednesday, with the government putting the cause as “heart problems” amidst rumours that he had been down with COVID. Why are so many African countries so alike? Loyalty? Sycophancy.

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