African American

We shall overcome, maybe

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Between 1955 and 1968, African-Americans particularly in the southern region of the United States received global attention for their unending pursuit of freedom, equality, racial dignity and economic self-sufficiency. They locked arms and walked several miles, organized protest sit-ins, carried banners and placards, withstood whiplashes and fire hoses, boycotted public services, endured the horrors of jail, fasted, prayed and worked to earn their place in a country which their ancestors helped to build. Through the voices of tireless advocates, through the writings of strong opinion leaders, through the sermons of firebrand evangelists and the sweat of hundreds of thousands, the American Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and paved the way for our appreciation of present-day America. The slogan was “we shall overcome”.

At the same time that African-Americans were fighting for their freedom on their own land, patriots of the Nigerian state were agitating for the same from the United Kingdom. We, however, did not have a unified slogan, because in spite of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s leadership, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the face of the westerners, Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe was the face of the easterners, while Sir Ahmadu Bello was the face of the northerners. Nigeria has always been polarized, and even in the forging of a spurious unification in our quest for freedom, tribal agenda still dominated public discourse and the eventual process of decision-making. Our failure to develop a collective agenda for our country at inception has led us, 52 years down the road, to a state of continuous haggling over minor issues at the expense of progressive matters.

All through our growing years, our history has been characterized by repeated military coups, needless tribal wars and political subjugation by a ruling class that seems to always recycle itself. Worse still, we have failed to agree on much, though we claim to be ‘one Nigeria’. Residents of the north are hardly ever satisfied with a southern leader; easterners have repeatedly agitated for a state of their own, citing unequal representation in our conundrum of a country; citizens of oil-producing regions have struck at will, rightfully claiming a hold on the country’s economic fortunes, at the same time that other ethnic minorities crave primary recognition. Our mismatched quilt work has failed to evolve into a beautiful canvas of peaceful existence that it could have been, and while we can trace its origins to our colonial masters, culpability lies squarely with us for our present state.

It is quite inconceivable that a nation that works to develop a common agenda for 52 years will yet find itself bogged by petty issues as unequal representation of minorities, uneven development across regions and a total failure of the centralized government to demonstrate its commitment to the ideals of good governance. Issues that should have been sorted out through the dysfunctional Federal Character Principle have turned out to be our albatross as we now glorify ethnic representation above excellence. We have simply not worked hard enough at building our country, and now that our weak seams are loosening, we feel the agonizing pains that should have been done away with several decades ago.  The nation, Nigeria has not worked and we all know it.

On this anniversary of what could easily have steered the ship of the country towards safety, we recall the unintelligent decisions of the ruling military headed by General Ibrahim Babaginda. For the first time ever, our experiment of a two-party democracy was about to yield dividends, but personal, ethnic and religious jealousies won the day and Chief MKO Abiola was denied his mandate. Nigeria has failed to recover after 19 years, and hope dwindles by the day. What could have been the state of our nation if MKO had been granted his term of office? What were our potentials for economic prosperity? What were the chances of our jigsaw puzzle ever coming together as one image?  How could our education system have been faring today? What were our chances of promoting human rights and equal representation for all citizens? Would we have been guaranteed stable power supply, clean water, good roads, and qualitative health facilities? We would never know for sure how our country could have turned out, but no one doubts that five years of retrogression under General Sani Abacha, and the subsequent 14 years that we have spent trying to find our feet have not helped our cause. We are still a parody of a nation.

We would never have MKO Abiola again, and June 12 1993 has refused to be committed to the pages of history, however there is a great chance that concerted efforts on all sides can bring us close to the collective state of our country in the run-up to 1993. Having our political parties rethink the concept of a National Republican Convention (NRC) and Social Democratic Party (SDP) whose divergent, yet mutually sympathetic agendas produced visionaries like MKO Abiola and Bashir Tofa as flag bearers will be a good place to start. Our current multi-party state has brought us to a realization that political ideology counts for nothing so long as individuals can construct arguments of dissent against the ruling class. The current political climate in the country further guarantees that willing and qualified intellectuals will almost always be frustrated in their pursuits to help build their country. Politically, we have failed, and economically we are performing much worse. Nigeria’s individual exports to the rest of the world have had tremendous success, yet they are daily frustrated in their good intentions to leverage their expertise for developing their country. Countries like China and South Korea have perfected the art of sponsoring their citizens to gain skills from foreign countries which are in turn invested in the development of their own countries; however Nigeria seems to continually push her citizens away with no incentives for returning. Oh, shame of a nation!

Recalling the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States; the inability of an African-American to buy food from a white restaurant or to walk into a hotel by the front door in 1960, and the emergence of Barack Obama as president in 2008, the significance of conscientious determination to make things work is easily understood. While African-Americans will continue to sweat to earn their place in America, they can look back on the progress which they have made and shed tears of relief, while on the other side of the Atlantic; we shed tears of sorrow seeing that the same span of time has not yielded commensurate results for us. The hard work of Martin Luther King and his compatriots has brought some meaning and reality to the words “we shall overcome”, but for us, this is not yet time to sing “Kumbaya”. Seeing our inability to justify the struggle that went into June 12, after 19 years, our otherwise reckless optimism must now be met with caution. Hopefully, Nigeria will someday outgrow this era of championing weak ideas, and break out as the soaring eagle that she can be, but for now, the reality of our commitment is this: “We shall overcome, maybe”.

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun

Crisis in the Village!

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These last couple of weeks, my mind has been fixated on the fate of black people at home and in the Diaspora, particularly in the United States of America. “The curse of complexion”, “The definition of black” and many other titles have jostled for top spot in my mind. African-Americans…I see them everyday; I live around them; I unwillingly inhale the smoke from their endless rounds of cigarette; I’m constantly regaled with sights of their (sometimes hideous) tattoos; actually, I suspect that one of them is responsible for the sudden disappearance of my bicycle from my front porch three weeks ago.

The black community in America has been the subject of ongoing discussions, protest marches, endless books, opinion articles and unbelievable derision. The grown men are in prison, older women have been described as ‘angry’, the young males have been dubbed lazy and insolent and the young females – uhhh… sluts. Oh, the curse of complexion! Whenever a crime is committed, the prime suspect is a black person; in his hit song ‘Changes’, Tupac Shakur sang about this – “…the penitentiary is packed and it’s filled with blacks”. According to www.finalcall.com, there were 548, 300 black males between the ages of 20 and 39 in American prisons in 2005 and as at 2008, one in 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 34 was incarcerated. Michelle Alexander explained in her book ‘The new Jim Crow’ that “there are now more African American men in prison or jail or probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850 before the civil war began”! It gets more devastating – “nearly 80% of African Americans in Chicago have been labelled felons for life; and a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during the slavery”, according to Alexander. These indeed are perilous times!

But, how did we get here? What is responsible for this catastrophic menace of unimaginable proportions? We need to go back to the roots – something is fundamentally wrong and we all know it! This present state of black people in America has been aptly described in the words of Professor Robert M Franklin, president of Morehouse College, Atlanta as a ‘Crisis in the Village’. Crisis indeed! Franklin outlines four sectors of the black community that have contributed to this failure and I concur wholeheartedly – the family, the church, educational institutions and civil society. Needless to say, this failure is not only evident in the African-American community; it is evident all across Nigeria, Africa and the entire black world!

On Saturday 24th September, I sat on a panel discussing ‘Crisis in the Village’ at the ‘Bridging the Gap’ conference jointly organized by the Africana Institute of Essex County College and the Newark African Commission in Newark, New Jersey. As I prepared for the conference, my thoughts were on the failure of black people in working hard enough to change their own situations (that mindset has not changed significantly), but it was altered by the volume of vituperations that were let out at that conference. I guess it is nearly impossible to know how disillusioned black people are; probably my feeble mind is not so developed as to understand why ‘white’ people hate black people so much (as almost all black people say – which is often true); probably my ‘brilliant’ mind cannot condescend to the level of many black people to wallow in the wilderness of pity; probably black people are quietly believing that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King will resurrect in some form and the civil rights movement will again yield some great victory; probably it’s a combination of all these but what I know for sure is that the fate of black people lies in their own hands. I believe that now is the time for black people to make the proverbial lemonade out of the sour lemons that ‘white America’ perpetually serves. We need to feel the urgency that Martin Luther King felt and diversify our strategies for black emancipation; blaming white America has not worked in recent times and I don’t see it changing much in the near future.

 What exactly does ‘Crisis in the village’ imply? A simple definition of the concept of a village should suffice. A village typically connotes serenity, peace, order, structure, mutual respect and friendliness; firmly contrasted with the hustle and bustle and ‘mind-your-own-business’ mode of the city. In the village, everybody is friendly with everybody, that’s why the famous African adage states that ‘It takes an entire village to raise a child’. In the village, anybody is free to correct a stranger’s child; a feat which must not be replicated in the city if the corrector doesn’t intend to spend some time in a correction facility. Crisis occurs in the village when worse characters than are found in the city make their way to the village. That seems to be the state of black people (within and outside Africa) presently.

Taking Franklin’s analysis, the average black family is the perfect picture of chaos – not that white families are any better, actually they have rubbed off more on the black community than vice versa. The statistics are dizzying – the National Fatherhood Initiative reveals that close too 65% of first marriages end within 15 years, 24 million children in the United States live without their biological fathers; 66% of African American children live without their fathers, over 1.35 million out of wedlock births were recorded in 2000 and African American children are 9 times more likely than white children are to have an incarcerated parent. More disturbing is the fact that 70% of children born to black mothers in 2000 were born out of wedlock!

One major ill that I have discovered in the American society is the fact that ‘everything goes’! America as a society has lost her values! The society is too liberal! The society accepts everything! That is a recipe for failure! We have failed to prove to the younger generation that it is not cool to have children out of wedlock; nobody condemns it because they are afraid of hurting people’s feelings. Well, maybe we should start to speak up right now! That’s what got us to where we are! When a 16 year old girl has kids and her 34 year old mum becomes a grandmother, and neither of them has a father, there is crisis in the village! Divorce seems to be an easy option for most black people – if it ain’t working, call it quits! How did they get together in the first place? Marriage should be a union of people with shared values, mutual respect and understanding and not the charade of false feelings that it has become! Again, the celebration of divorce in the society’s superstar celebrities has contributed in no small means to the state of black families in America and across the world. We need to speak up and condemn what is wrong; we need our values again!

The state of the black church also needs to be addressed. Church has become a place where the poor find solace and brainwash themselves into believing that everything will be alright when indeed they have no clue how that will happen; they have perfected the slogan ‘God understands’. On the other hand, church is also a place for the affluent to show off the ‘favour of the Lord’; dressed in the finest gold and very expensive hair-do. My pastor, Frank Fowler at Metro Harvest Assembly made a strong statement in church last Sunday, saying some women go out on Saturday to fix a new hairdo ‘for the Lord’ and spend more money making up for church than they give in the offering! Many don’t even tithe anymore, but they can spend fortunes on ‘make-up’ for the Sunday service. What is wrong with us?

The ‘prosperity message’ has led to an even more niggling crisis. People rely on God solely for jobs, cars, houses and promotions and pastors are measured by the aesthetics of the church edifice and the size of the church’s parking lot. It has become very difficult for any one with a desire to preach the true word to find an audience because they will never preach what the people want to hear. The simple message of Christianity is this – believe God for who He is and not what He gives! Oh generation of vipers! People with itching ears! Pastors have not only failed to condemn gay marriages; they will even conduct them all in a bid to grow their empires! The simple question which we have to ask ourselves is this – do you want a cool sleek church, or do you want the way of the cross? When churches have become what they are, we know that there is crisis in the village!

Need we say anything about the state of education for black and white? With the present situation of schools, one begins to wonder if the purpose of school is to prepare people for society and equip them with the requisite tools for community development or to show them how dull and ignorant they are and will continue to be. Most kids leave school more confused than they ever were and there is a louder debate today than at anytime in history if school is worth the stress. Has anyone found an alternative to education? Actually, yes! Everyman for himself, God for us all! That is crisis in the village! The average American kid graduates from college with $30, 000 debt and no promise of employment – yet feels grossly ignorant about the way the world works and one expects him to not question the relevance of college.

We are witnessing a gross failure of education across the world – the curriculum is warped, facilities are lacking, teaching methods are archaic, students are distracted and bullying is keeping more willing children away from elementary schools and high schools. Teachers are supposed to be mentors and models; guiding students to attain their highest potentials but mentorship in the black community is an alien concept because of territoriality. Nobody wants to be overshadowed by another; we keep forgetting that a candle that lights another has not lost its own light, rather it has extended it’s circle of influence. Schools need to be reformed to teach leadership, critical thinking, financial literacy & investment, ethics &etiquette, elocution & public speaking, entrepreneurship & business development, local and foreign languages, African history and values, creative writing and above all, institute a spirit of mentorship! School needs to become school again!

Without wide-ranging reforms in family life, religious institutions and education, we can expect the bleakest of scenarios in civil society. Most young people hanging around the streets, sagging their pants below their knees, driving fancy cars with deafening music, putting on rags and piercings, smoking pot and crack, sporting large tattoos and appearing scary are all in search of one thing – RESPECT. People want to be accepted, to be recognized, to be feared, but none of these things can be earned by these means. Respect is a product of value creation and nothing more. Respect is not demanded, it is earned, and if someone does not respect you, don’t demand it; give them a reason to respect you and they will! People need to be brave enough to speak out about things that aren’t right and get their hands dirty in working to reform society. Government will disappoint time and again, but collaborative governance will save the society. So far, the only time that black people come together is when they criticize the system and claim to have been victimized. That needs to change!

Now is the time for us to solve this crisis in the village. Now is the time for black people to unite along a common purpose and change our own stories for the better. White America will not do that for us; Barack Obama said it in clear words in 2007 – “We are the ones that we have been waiting for!” Now is the time to solve this crisis once and for all. A thousand feeble broomsticks can never be defeated if they stand together – all Africans and people of African descent must stand up and speak out for wide-ranging reforms in the way we lead our lives. This is our time! We can and we must make a difference!

God bless the black race!