Afọ́jú tó fọ́jú tó sọ pé òun sùn ni, nígbà tí kò sùn taló rí. Atanni ń tan ara rẹ̀ jẹ. (A blind man who is blind but says he’s sleeping, when he’s not sleeping, whom does he see?) ~ Yoruba Proverb
When the government of a country starts demanding patriotism from its citizens, the country is either at war, under a dictatorship, or is in economic shambles. All three apply to Nigeria, as what we would call democracy is simply in name alone and not in substance.
Across the history of nations, there has always been that moment when a leader has called for citizens to give their all to the building of the country. The most quoted of such exhortations comes from John F. Kennedy during his inauguration speech as President of the United States of America. This was at the height of the Cold War, and Civil Rights movement. He said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
This quote is often recited by Nigerian elites to shield themselves from their duty. And with Ghana being made the headquarters for Twitter, sentiments similar to that quote resurfaced. The demand for patriotism by Nigerian leaders and the elite is often exclusionary, it involves everyone else except themselves. But what is this patriotism that the elite demand from the ordinary citizen?
It is difficult to discuss patriotism in a country that has not resolved the problem of nationhood. Identity is one of the biggest challenges this country is yet to tackle. While outside the country it is easy to identify as Nigerian. Inside the country, that is not the case. This is evidence that a cohesive identity is yet to be forged. So, who and to what must Nigerians be patriotic to when the country itself has not resolved what it wants to be? The faith that Nigerians should have in their country is shattered at every instance they declare their patriotism. And this disappointment, as aptly summarized by Chinua Achebe is because of nothing else other than the country’s problem of leadership.
The ability to gaslight comes very naturally to the Nigerian politician and elite. It is why the word patriotism is thrown in situations where Nigeria lost out as it did. The CEO of a certain bank blamed Nigerians for Twitter’s choice of Ghana on the fact that the country was demarketed by being called a zoo. Some days later, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed would tow the same line of argument. In fact, for Lai, Twitter’s decision should serve as a lesson to Nigerians who demarketed the country.
In the same breathe while preaching patriotism, a Nigerian minister saw it as a much deserved punitive measure that Nigerians lost out on jobs Twitter could have provided in the country. How does one explain such emotional and psychological sadomasochism coming from the elite of the country?
Twitter’s reasons for choosing Ghana as its headquarters were clear. It considered Ghana “a champion of democracy, a supporter of free speech, online freedom and the Open Internet, of which Twitter is also an advocate.” In short, both Twitter and Ghana had values that aligned. What values does the Nigerian state have?
Just few years back, Nigerian lawmakers attempted to pass two draconian bills that would have dealt a hefty blow to free speech and censored how Nigerians use the internet. In 2018, in broad daylight, the Nigerian Army opened fire at a Shi’ite procession in Abuja, the country’s capital, inflicting battlefield wounds on civilians. In 2019. Nasir El-Rufai, the governor of Kaduna State and a staunch supporter of President Muhammadu Buhari said during elections that those from foreign countries who interfere in elections would go back in body bags. In October 2020, the Nigerian military killed EndSARS protesters at Lekki Toll Gate who were singing the Nigerian national anthem and waving the Nigerian flag. What other height of patriotism can one demand other than your country gives you dignity?
When a government is failing, it employs a lot of political sycophants to sing its praises. It also considers critical voices as unpatriotic. It is the classic story of the naked King whom everyone praised for wearing the most elegant clothing. Who is deceiving whom? Denying the existence of a reality, does not stop that reality from existing. This is what those calling for patriotism fail to understand. Patriotism in Nigeria is another tool used to silence criticism against the government.
This talk about patriotism is rooted in the religious belief of making good confessions, as if any country automatically became prosperous by confessing good things or became destroyed by referring to it as a zoo. The failure to focus on the problems that citizens point out, and instead attack citizens for pointing out those problems is evidence that patriotism, according to this government, is a collaborative silence on failure and mediocrity that has enmeshed the country.
If patriotism is defined as country before self, then, Nigeria’s elites and the Nigerian government, is the culprit here. The very conditions they chide ‘unpatriotic’ citizens for criticizing were created by them. And herein lies the summary of patriotism according to the Nigerian elite; commend me regardless of the destruction I cause on the country. To be a patriotic Nigerian is to celebrate the pandemic of destruction that chips away the country.
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