Africa Today

Tatalo Alamu: Why caged birds are singing(On contradictions and overdetermination)

IT is the season of singing in Nigeria. And the birds are singing all the way in the post-colonial aviary. They sing all day and all night long, these strange birds of destiny. The caged birds of Nigeria are singing. Maya Angelou, the great American singing poet and lyricist of traumatic pain, famously wrote that she knew why a caged bird must sing. As a victim of serial rape and racism, she should know what she was talking about. But for the classic explanation, she may need to visit contemporary Nigeria.

Caged birds are singing because they want their freedom. And those who caged them are also singing. Great music may come from captivity but it is not sweet music. The caged bird must be able to sing freely and of its own free will. It is free music that soars and scales the heights of delight. Otherwise, it is a sad, sad song. This is why the music coming out of Nigeria is not always sweet to the ear.

It is lined and laced with the pain and trauma of aborted hope and caged expectations. Not since the struggle for independence has Nigeria been hostage to such a national cacophony. The music often touches raw nerves. Sometimes its sonority awakens old ghosts while its throaty wailing arouses ethnic animosities simmering just below the surface.

The people of Nigeria seem to have found their voice with the historic election of 2015. Those who voted for General Mohammadu Buhari found their voice. Those who voted against the man from Daura also found their voice. The result has been a violent collision of altars; a clash of competing indigenous civilizations the like of which has not been seen since the days preceding the civil war.

The pull of ethnic particularities and the dominant ethos of competing nationalities have made it impossible for the nation to transcend its tribal origins to become a national community of shared values, and with grave consequences. The spirit of the nation is broken at the shrine of its nationalities.

And just as it happened the first time around when the civil war was fought around an intellectual and ideological concept, history is also repeating itself this time around. Whereas the civil war was fought around the intellectual battle front of self-determination, this time around the war against tyrannical centralization rages around the intellectual leifmotif of restructuring. The rumpus over restructuring sets the demons a-howling.

For the sake of clarity, it is important at this point to exchange reality as grasped through poetic conceit for reality apprehended by analytic rigour. There are two philosophic motifs which allow us to review the whole gamut of restructuring. These are the concept of contradiction in its Hegelian dimension which brings thesis and antithesis together, and the concept of overdetermination in its post-Hegelian possibilities which recognises no such simplistic settling of accounts.

Whereas contradiction implies a dynamic conflict between two contending propositions with the possibility of resolution or sublation into a higher or superior realm of human endeavour, overdetermination occurs when several contradictory propositions are jostling for ascendancy at the same time with no possibility of a simple resolution or deflection. This is because there is no single cause or effect but many causes and many effects.

If we leverage these concepts against the current confusion in Nigeria over what “real” restructuring actually means or what “real” federalism is all about, we find ourselves contending with a whole gamut of possibilities. The whole idea of restructuring has been stretched to the limits of its linguistic possibilities, possibly to devalue its contents or render it hors de combat.
Even political and ideological opponents of restructuring realising that the whole thing is a game of endless linguistic possibilities have now latched on to the idea. The only problem with this is that outside the field of linguistic play, the nation’s crisis of nationhood festers and the complications multiply even as the ruling class in bipartisan unanimity shields it away from the radical surgery it requires to give the nation a new lease of life.

While it is great and heart-warming that the APC has constituted a committee to work out its response to the nation-wide clamour for restructuring of the polity, the choice of the implacable and churlish Nasir el-Rufai as the chairman of the committee might well be a backhanded and deft reassurance to the status quo that the party is not about to commit ideological suicide by embracing radical restructuring. Here is a man who had publicly dismissed proponents of restructuring as shameless opportunists looking for work.

Yet whatever it is worth, it is good that the party finally realised the limits of bluff and bluster when it comes to a clamour that seems to have assumed such a central position in the nation’s political psyche. It would have amounted to an act of extreme irresponsibility and political delinquency were the party to forswear what was advertised in its own manifesto.

In the web of seamless confusion and national disorientation, no one is now sure whether the APC committee is what the federal authorities also promised the nation when its spoke persons publicly reassured Nigerians that the government was studying the situation and would soon come up with its own position on the clamour for restructuring. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any correlation or cohesion between the ruling party and its own government. So, one can be excused for saying that the APC left hand does not know what its right hand does.

In all probability, and as already ominously hinted by Nasir el-Rufai, both the government and party are likely to come up with drastically watered down propositions in line with what can be termed administrative restructuring which does not threaten the current status quo or make a dent on the country’s monumental crisis of structural configuration and under-development.

If the prevailing balance of force allows them to get away with this token twitch, they can stave off the crisis for a while until it returns with a greater vengeance. If however the handshake has gone beyond the elbow as many suspect, hostile and hitherto unforeseen irregular forces would have taken over the forcible restructuring of the country with grave consequences.

From an opposite pole of the political spectrum, Atiku Ababakar, the former Vice President, appears to have reached the same conceptual dead end. What he has proposed as a series of structural reforms that can be accomplished within six months is nothing but a dollop of administrative adjustments or economic devolutions which could make life easier in the short run but which cannot resolve the crisis of the state as long as it shies away from the complete devolution of political power. At least Atiku must be commended for risking his political reputation as a scion of the northern establishment.

In fairness to the Wazirin Adamawa, this is a risk he has consistently undertaken since the early days of his political cohabitation with General Obasanjo until the romance went sour. But attempting to topple a political establishment that has outlived its usefulness is one thing, coming up with its radical replacement is another particularly if the reformer is also deeply implicated in the power nexus. It is like learning to become left-handed in old age.

Nowhere is the dilemma of restructuring in Nigeria and all its severe overdetermination more evident than in the phenomenon of local government councils. They are designed to bring government and its dividends directly to the people in a way that positively impacts on grassroots developments.

But more often than not, they are used by federal authorities as an instrument to destabilise and bring to heel sub-national governments particularly those in opposition to the government at the centre. It is like setting federal cats among regional pigeons. Often, there is no synergy between the two tiers of governance and what is supposed to be a symbiotic relationship is often beset by seething hostility and mutual misgiving.

Even more worrisome is the fact that they merely replicate the structure of tyranny at other levels. With the federal government tyrannising over an economically dependent and mendicant state government even as the state government tyrannises over the local government, a comprehensive structure of civilian autocracy at all tiers is put in place stifling and strangulating both economic development and the advancement of democratic culture.

The problem really is that unlike municipalities, associations, guilds, cooperatives and others in developed nations which are bottom-top affair of freely associating denizens, local councils in underdeveloped countries are a top-bottom affair imposed on the margins by the centre without any correlation to local sensitivity and culture.

It will be seen from the foregoing that restructuring a multifaceted and variegated country like Nigeria requires considerable creative innovation and thinking out of the box. There can be no universal manual for restructuring. Every country must proceed with sensitivity to its own internal requirements and unique political configurations while at the same time respecting the universal norms for devolution of political power and the decentralization of economic structure.

For example, it should be possible under a unique structural engineering to argue for a special status for Lagos in view of its economic pre-eminence as the catalyst for national growth without necessarily expunging the throbbing megalopolis from a collapsed state-structure. On the other hand, it is also possible to create six Autonomous Development Zones which will serve as economic hubs for each designated canton or mega-state without retaining the old regional arrangement.

In conclusion, it should now be obvious why the birds will continue to sing in Nigeria and why genuine restructuring is never a cat walk

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  • Charlie

    Chief/Mr. Alamu, Do we have to study George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s philosophy in order to understand what you are trying to say? You write beautifully, and you make a lot of sense in your write-ups, but you have to realize that most of us are not in academia or studied Hegel. By the way, I totally agree with your article.

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