By Farooq A. Kperogi
I was in Nigeria from December 12 to December 19 for the public presentation of Dis Life No Balance: An Anthology of Diasporan Nigerian Voice in Abuja and to present a guest lecture on the inclusion of youth in governance in Ilorin, Kwara State. It was my first visit since June 2016, and it was both rewarding and intense.
My self-imposed moratorium on periodic visits to Nigeria for more than seven years was, of course, the consequence of my well-founded anxieties about being hounded, harassed, framed, or even murdered by agents of the Muhammadu Buhari regime. Although I had convinced myself that I was only being (justifiably) paranoid, several people in the upper reaches of Nigeria’s law enforcement agencies had told me that my unrelentingly searing critiques and exposés of the shenanigans in the Buhari regime had made me a marked man.
Since it is said that discretion is the better part of valor, I chose to stay away from Nigeria when Buhari was in power. It’s better to be paranoid and later find out that you had no reason to be than to be unjustifiably overconfident but end up in the gulag.
During a recent conversation with Governor AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq of Kwara State, my home state, he asked when I’d be visiting Nigeria. Although I missed Nigeria, I told him I had no plans to visit any time soon. He then asked if I would come if he gave me a reason to visit.
Although Governor AbdulRazaq had met my wife and me in Atlanta in 2021—and I found him to be a compellingly humble and straightforward man—he was (probably still is) a Buhari supporter. It was unlikely that he would agree to aid security agencies to entrap me, but I voiced to him my unease about falling into the snare of security agencies.
He assured me that the Bola Ahmed Tinubu administration had no plans to hound or harm any critic. Given that he appears to have a spot in the inner chamber of the Tinubu power structure, I took him at his word.
When I agreed to visit Nigeria and mentioned it to Professor Moses Ochonu and Dr. Osmund Agbo, co-authors of Dis Life No Balance, they suggested that we plan the public presentation of our book around my 10-day stay. We agreed on December 14.
Meanwhile my wife and my mother were crippled by apprehension about my safety and would probably have stopped my visit if they had had their way. My assurances to them that I would be fine, that my state governor had assured me that I wasn’t in danger of being detained at the airport by security agents, and that I had informed the US embassy in Nigeria about my visit did little to assuage them.
Nonetheless, my visit turned out to be one of the pleasantest I’ve had. From immigration and customs officers at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos who recognized me by face or by my name and enthusiastically welcomed me, to domestic airline staff in Lagos and Abuja who hailed me in the crowd and extended preferential treatment to me, to scores of people in Abuja and Ilorin who identified, greeted, and took selfies with me, I felt at home, even if a little overwhelmed.
Even though I was persuaded that I was safe in post-Buhari Nigeria, I didn’t, in my wildest dreams, anticipate the depth and breadth of warmth I encountered everywhere I went in Nigeria.
Although the public presentation of our book was ancillary to my visit, it was the high point of the visit. But because an elaborate, Nigerian-style book launch was an uncharted territory for us, we grappled with many awkward ethical quandaries. How do you write a critique of the dysfunctions of the Nigerian society and of the political establishment but turn around to invite politicians to it?
Upon deeper, sober introspection, we found out that there was no contradiction or moral compromise in inviting politicians to the public presentation of our book. For one, if politicians whose policies and politics shape the nation aren’t invited to the public presentation of a book about policies and politics, who should? Plumbers and mechanics?
We recognized that inviting serving government officials in the executive branch might render us vulnerable to charges of sucking up to the powers that be, which is inconsistent with our personal histories and ideological temperaments.
But an exception was made for me to invite Information and National Orientation minister Mohammed Idris Malagi with whom I’ve been friends for 25 years. Since my relationship with him precedes and transcends his being in the government, we decided to invite him.
When he spoke, Malagi reiterated that he and I have a longstanding relationship, and cracked everybody up when he joked that he told me he would give me a bulletproof car when I got to Nigeria because I had shot multiple people in government with my words.
Deciding who would be our chief launcher was the hardest decision. I suggested former Sokoto State governor and current senator Aminu Waziri Tambuwal whom I had the privilege to meet in Washington DC some time ago. He bowled me over with his intimate mastery of the complex ethnic tapestry of Nigeria.
He demonstrated incredible grasp of the minutiae of the history, relations, and interconnectedness of the Igbo society. Even the Igbo people present at the conversation confessed to learning more things about themselves from him than they expected. Then the conversation moved to northern Oyo with which I have deep familiarity. He was no less impressive.
I told my colleagues that he would make a good chief launcher because he strikes me as someone who loves knowledge for its sake, who cherishes intellection, and who would appreciate our work. We might not get a hefty donation to defray the cost of publishing the book in Nigeria, I said, but we might get other kinds of symbolic mileage from his participation in the public presentation of our book. After the event, my co-authors said my judgment was accurate.
Former Bayelsa State Henry Seriake Dickson probably surprised me the most during the book presentation. He skimmed through the book and happened on a page that offered a devastatingly withering critique of the Nigerian politician. He read it out loud. After admitting that it was hurtful, he conceded that it was true and should invite self-reflection and change, not anger and vengeance. That sort of self-conscious distancing and self-reflection is rare among politicians, particularly in Nigeria.
It was easy, of course, to choose Femi Falana as our guest speaker. He has a well-earned reputation as a defender of the defenseless, as the scourge of oppressors, and as a principled lawyer. His equal-opportunity criticism of everyone, including us the authors, enlivened the occasion and invited thoughtful, productive pushbacks from Professor Abdul Rasheed Na’Allah, Vice Chancellor of the University of Abuja and chairman of the occasion, and from Senator Aminu Waziri Tambuwal.
My egbon, Mr. Segun Adeniyi, gave such a thoroughly brilliant, absorbing, insightful, and engaging review of our book he kept all three of us on our toes. He apparently read the entire book within a short time and provided a rich, deep, contextual review of its content in admirably elevated diction.
On October 18, I was in Ilorin to deliver a talk titled “Youth Inclusion in Governance in Nigeria: Bridging the Gap.” My mother, my siblings, and my nieces and nephews all came from home, Ilorin, and Lagos to receive me. It was an unplanned, unanticipated but deeply emotional family reunion.
I had intended to use the lecture to call attention to rampant reverse ageism or gerontocratic condescension, that is, the wrongheaded notion that youth is a disability, that only old age should confer authority on people, which contributes to the systematic exclusion of young people in governance in Nigeria.
I discovered, however, that Kwara State has more young people in positions of authority than any other state in Nigeria. For example, the commissioner of Water Resources by the name of Usman Lade who welcomed me looked like he was in his late 20s or early 30s. Just yesterday, the governor swore in a 26-year-old lady by the name of Nafisah Buge (from my local government, no less) as the Commissioner of Youth.
When I discovered that the governor’s cabinet was dominated by young people (and is divided equally between men and women), I honestly didn’t know what to tell him to do differently. I was compelled to acknowledge what I saw and to recommend Kwara State as a model for youth inclusion in governance.
We need policies at the national level that lower the barriers for youth participation, platforms that facilitate the interaction between young citizens and their representatives, and most importantly, a cultural shift that values and respects the input of our youth—exactly that things I saw in Kwara State.
In all, I had a great time in Nigeria and look forward to more engagement in the future.