The golden age of Nigeria’s National Theatre was between the early 1970s and 80s, when Nigeria participated in cultural activities around the world and hosted cultural troupes from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Caribbean. Nigeria hosted the unmatched 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts, dubbed FESTAC ’77. It was a grand art and cultural assembly of Africans and peoples of African descent that brought visitors of all races and nationalities to Nigeria.
With its booming petro-dollar economy of the 70s, Nigeria hosted the most lavish and extravagant festival before and since. Its date might have been unintended, but it served to divert attention from the impending economic decline that some observers had warned about, as oil revenues dipped and manufacturing activity declined.
Politicians and other leaders have different ways of diverting attention when faced with social, economic and political crises. Some sidetrack attention or simply distract the polity in order to carry out political maneuvers or implement hidden agendas, while others spend their ways out of trouble, as the King of Saudi Arabia did at the start of the doomed Arab Spring. The King bought peace my massively increasing the allowances payable to all citizens. Even if temporary, it diverted attention from critical issues and brought respite to the kingdom.
However, not all leaders have the purse to buy off public anger and resentment, so must find others means. Former French president, Nicholas Sarkozy picked a foreign fight by orchestrating the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, never mind that French and British forces could not have succeeded in Libya without American help, or that ultimately, the overthrow of Gaddafi did not save Sarkozy from humiliation at the polls.
Yet, other politicians create imaginary enemies, then mobilize the entire population into a war-footing, as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair did with false dossiers that led Britain to war in Iraq. Similarly, former US president, George Bush deliberately kept most Americans in fear of imminent terrorist attacks, and in the process, rolled back freedoms that would have been regarded as invasive and dictatorial in any ‘developing country’.
In Africa, it is easier to whip up religious and ethnic sentiments to deflect attention from major state failings. And in Nigeria, where leaders can ignore laws and even the constitution, they prefer to allocate unbudgeted sums without legal appropriation to gather a mish-mash of actors and jesters to entertain the court in a calculated attempt to divert attention from pressing national issues.
For example, before the start of the ongoing National Conference, the major issues in Nigeria were Boko Haram’s relentless and possibly drug-induced massacres of innocent citizens. Another issue was the spread of herdsmen/farmers clashes to states like Kaduna and Katsina. The carnage and ethnic conflicts in Benue, Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba state were other issues, not to talk of fuel scarcity and the small matter of a missing $20 billion.
But in the two weeks since the conference started, all of those issues suddenly disappeared from the headlines or became appendages to the drama at the conference. While subjects like the religious and regional composition of the membership dominated the debate, President Goodluck Jonathan quietly admitted that indeed, $10 billion was missing, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. While the statement by the Lamido of Adamawa took over headlines, the Senate quietly confirmed a new Central Bank Governor and President of the Court of Appeal – two arguably pro-establishment figures.
While the jesters at the national confab were shouting themselves hoarse over voting percentages and perks, few people had time to notice that the entire national electricity grid suffered a near total collapse; while newspapers carried photos of snoring delegates, not many had time to remember that the National Assembly was probing our ‘do-no-wrong’ minister of Petroleum for spending tens of billions of naira on private planes because traveling by commercial airliners, even first-class, was beneath her status.
As the overdressed charlatans struggled for attention, nobody had time to reflect on the words of former head of state, Muhammadu Buhari, who reminded us that the confab was not only illegal because its funding was not duly appropriated by the National Assembly, but a waste of time because all their decisions had to be voted on by the same National Assembly – after N7 billion of public funds had been wasted on what amounts to no more than dubious distraction.
For those who continue to underestimate President Goodluck Jonathan, he has shown again, that he may look like a dunce, but behind that façade of insipidity is an obdurate political tactician who is bent on remaining in power at all costs, regardless of the consequences. And part of his strategy is to deflect public attention from our worsening insecurity and rising poverty by converging a theatre of the absurd.