Last Wednesday, I called my sister based in Lagos, Nigeria. The conversation was short and unusual. On any given day, our gist rides into thirty to forty minutes. Not today. She reminded me ominously that “fuel scarcity dey; I need enter petrol station”. Those were the words that ended the call. A reminder, a sad one; that, again, fuel is scarce.
That fuel is scarce on a land that produces one of earth’s best crude oils is a known paradox(another telling will not do). However, there’s something metaphoric and symbolic about the consistent scarcity. These elements are what I’d try to unpack in this piece.
Let’s make something clear before we journey into these search of symbols and metaphors. I think a basic equation will help us comprehend these complex paradoxes that plague not only Nigeria but the continent as a whole.
Think fuel; think riches. Think scarcity; think poor.
Fuel-scarcity = rich-poor.
To think on this level is to acknowledge the following truths: Africa is the richest continent and yet, is the poorest continent in the world. Africa houses more than eighty percent of the world’s resources and yet, imports all its finished products.
Let’s add another twist to the words “fuel scarcity”. Place the conjunction “and” in between these words to create the finished phrase: “fuel” “and” “scarcity”. Separating them would allow anyone assimilate the equation well.
We have fuel.
We have scarcity.
One can extract various images from the above truths. If Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis wakes up to find himself as a giant bug, Africa sleeps and wakes up as a bug. She knows she’s a bug. Unlike Sartre’s assertion that we are condemned to freedom, Africa is condemned to something sinister, a bug-life and suffers consistent swipes.
But, what’s safe? To love scarcity more than fuel or to love fuel more than scarcity? Edward Said in Reflections on Exile: And Other Literary and Cultural Essays argues that “it is what one remembers of the past and how one remembers it that determine how one sees the future.” Following Said’s argument, one can raise these potent questions: what do Nigerians’ remember about fuel? What memories are abound about scarcity? And, more importantly, where are we now?
I remember the lashes of scarcity. I trekked from Orile to Ijesha. Water left my body. Scarcity meant suffering. One hour and some minutes, I walked under Lagos’ sun which squeezed me. What I remember here is that long, tortuous, and painful work caused by scarcity of riches(word replaced as per equation). Every step tore my soul. The land’s abundance blurred in my mind. Scarcity weakens. It kills ambition. It, as Chuma Nwokolo puts it, makes one meek. If anyone had invited me for a question session or any other national activity after that walk, I would have declined respectfully.
However one tries to remember or to borrow Said’s words “determine the future” by remembering, it solves nothing. These paradoxical truths watches one and another reality never comes to the fore in between these blinking realities. Tides will ebb, the rivers in River Niger will produce fish, another black gold will erupt from another part of the continent but there will be scarcity in the land. That’s where we are now. There’s fuel and there’s scarcity.
Scarcity was constructed for Africa by Africans and non-Africans and abundance is an illusionary destination. It’s a bad dream with no end but sprinkled with good tales in the middle. Riches keep slipping away. Africa is that thirsty bug floating on water. To weave another narrative fabric for the continent becomes harder. Nigeria, as a giant of Africa, wears that synecdochal hat for the contient.
Scarcity spreads its tentacles wildly and widely. Moyo Dambisa in Dead Aid: Why aid is not working narrates another level of scarcity when she reminds us about lack of strong leaders and goes further to propose that poor countries acquire “benevolent dictators to push through the reforms required to get the economy moving”. What Dambisa forgets is that the continent has been blessed with “benevolent dictators” like Mugabe, Gaddafi, just to mention those two, who later pocketed their benevolence. It’s not hard to have tyranny and benevolence in one body as explained by Dambisa, Americans, the French, and the Brits have mastered the act, africans haven’t. I think Dambisa thinks Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is the “benevolent dictator” Africans must emulate. I mean, why not? Rwanda’s economy grew 1.7 percent in the first Quarter 2017. Let’s not forget, however, that Kagame, too, is described in other chimes as a dictator but not a benevolent one.
How hard it is to avoid the paradoxical discourse of the continent. Yes, I warned that it was another tale that needs no retelling but, what I have done is to give a holistic reminder. That feature of riches and poverty existing side by side sprang like a dubious masquerade in the 1914s and it is there, always been there and will always be there. This is a known fact. But, there’s nothing, I repeat, nothing that can be done to drive the masquerade away from town. Even if our eyes are watching God, the cycle repeats itself.
Or maybe there’s another level of scarcity—the scarcity of reasoning. Greg Mills was bold to make a dangerous, yet truthful summation that “Sub-Saharan African countries have not fulfilled their potential since independence.” Ouch! I don’t know any African country that’s independent. There’s none. That’s Mills first display of simplistic thinking. Again, Mill spreads naivety in this essay like an amateur artist spreading and mixing colour on canvas. At one point, Mills is telling Africans to ignore what Said describes in Culture And Imperialism as the “imperial context” in our contemporary existence and to solely focus on liberalising some industries to beat scarcity on the land. That’s like asking an adult to murder what Sigmund Freud describes as “infantile wish” in Interpretation of Dreams.
But, for some seconds, let’s focus on this potential described by Mills. Let’s give him a third ear. There’s potential but I think reasoning is missing. By reasoning, I mean that power to think critically, forge new missions and create a new existence. That’s what Nigeria and many post-independent(a useless term used here for lack of another descriptive word) nations need. Many Nigerians grew with scarcity and they’ve become comfortable with it. To not have, is normal. To know that things are in existence but can’t be had is a daily truth.
How did this scarcity come in 2017? I mean, to borrow Dambisa’s phrase, we have a benevolent dictator. He’s not only benevolent but has has three heads in one: minister of petroleum, the president and former dictator. Even with many eyes and heads, he can’t fix scarcity. He can’t change it.
The president means well or so he says but his actions depeens the meaning of well. His expedition can be compared with that man in search of water in a desert with no concrete plan. But, if we give room to his staunch supporters, they would innaudate the world with his great achievements, they would bring numbers of moneys collected back from thieves and they would tell you about the death of Boko Haram. However, there’s scarcity which his non-supporters will narrate: economic recession, increased tribal jingoisms and bipartisan politics. But, to be fair, all blame can be laid at his feet. He, with his cartel of old heads, have been steering this Nigerian ship for over thirty decades and have no destination.
Again, there’s fuel and there’s scarcity.
Scarcity altered the normal conversation I’d have had with my loved ones. When, one must ask, would we focus on the fuel on our land? When would individuals in Nigeria not worry about scarcity? When? I don’t know and I can’t predict. It’s Christmas, I’d call again, and hopefully, scarcity won’t direct our gist.
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