By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
Last January, thousands of Nigerians stormed the streets to oppose an insensitive government policy that suddenly hiked the pump price of petrol by over 100 percent, in a country where 99 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Victory was soon declared by the historic ‘Occupy Nigeria’ protest movement. The government backed down on its stance and reduced the price of fuel. A year later, I have not stopped wondering how many ill, newborn and pregnant citizens lost their lives during that period. The week-long strike declared by the labour and trade unions not only ground commercial activity in the entire country to a halt, hospitals were instructed to close their doors.
A doctor friend told me that members of the local labour union invaded the main government hospital in my hometown, Umuahia, on the first day of the strike, and chased away the medical personnel attending to patients. When my aunt suffered a partial stroke and was rushed to a private hospital at which my septuagenarian father, assisting my cousin, had to carry his limp older sister up the stairs because the hospital made no provision for such purposes, my mother returned from a visit to the ward and relayed her observations in a state of horror: the hospital corridors were strewn with patients bleeding from grotesque wounds reportedly sustained in a bus crash. Those accident victims might have been better attended to at more spacious and affordable facilities—if the government hospitals had not been unnecessarily paralysed.
Most Nigerians were in support of the strike. The government had to be forced into being more considerate of the people that elected them. But, surely, the protests could have been more strategic, with minimum suffering extended to the masses? Banks, markets, filling stations, etc, were shut. Did health facilities have to be as well? A spokesperson for the oil workers union, while threatening on TV to shut down oil production if the government didn’t budge on the fuel subsidy removal by the following weekend, reeled out a list of grave repercussions if the group’s impending action was not averted. “People will die in the hospitals!” he boasted with self-importance, repeating his threat over and over again.
This blatant disregard for human life and insensitivity to suffering displayed by the strike organisers is proof that the problem with Nigeria goes beyond inept politicians. History shows that the foundation for development is value for human life, the present-continuous consciousness of a society that each person in their midst—poor, rich, weak or strong—is entitled to live and live well. Nigeria’s leaders arise from among us. They don’t fly in from Uranus. Their attitudes are simply an extension of our customary predisposition towards one another.
Unfortunately, the Nigerian society has been socialised to believe that the origin of all our troubles is elsewhere. Our intellectuals perpetuate the impression that we are some sort of rag doll people at the mercy of the next oppressor, with no willpower or responsibility over whatever direction we are tossed. Slave merchants. Colonial rulers. Western powers. Government. Fingers always pointing. Particularly interesting is how former government officials suddenly don new cloaks as soon as they leave office, and metamorphose into voices of the people and champions of the masses. The masses hardly ever seem to notice or mind these infiltrations. They are too busy focusing their hatred on the sitting government—or whichever enemy is in vogue—and any additional fuel to the flames of hatred and blame is always welcome.
The blame game has its benefits, without a doubt. It is cathartic, generates causes for activist careers, and garners huge followings from among the helpless aggrieved. But it can keep us busy right into the next millennium, with no substantial progress being achieved. Motion without movement.
Some of us happen to believe that the dire conditions in this part of the world are subject to change. Rather than playing games and whitewashing sepulchres, we are eager to investigate possible solutions by catalysing a process of frank dialogue, cultural criticism and, toughest of all, self-examination. Being honest with ourselves is a risk that Nigerians—and Africans—must, at some point, be willing to take. Any insider or outsider, who genuinely seeks to help us, should encourage this.
My aunt eventually died in that hospital, by the way.