By Tatalo Alamu
For my maternal uncles, Oyedeji and Oyekanmi, who perished in the smallpox plague of 1945
Every now and then, the entire world is jolted by a significant event which alters reality forever; or which gives the business of living and dying a startling new perspective. How do we describe this outgoing year? It was a year of monstrous deaths and sudden departures such as the world has never witnessed. It was the year a malignant virus felled mighty armies and mightier nations.
Up till the time of writing, friends, colleagues and associates are still falling left, right and centre. A few days earlier, it was the turn of Professor Tunji Oloruntimehin, urbane historian, polished raconteur and most clubbable intellectual of the highest pedigree. And then there was Bayonle Ademodi, a professor of Chemical Engineering and solid grassroots progressive organiser of the Afenifere hue. Somehow, the hand was beginning to feel numb and calloused from writing obituaries.
You remember the last time you sat down at the famed University Staff Club at Ife to have a conversation with Oloruntimehin. You had briefly returned from sabbatical abroad in September 1989. And there at the lobby of the club was the affable professor cheerfully reminiscing about the tyranny of military arbitrariness which ended an otherwise illustrious academic career a few months earlier.
Even though professors were better paid than the highest and most decorated permanent secretary in the sixties, university staff sought and obtained permission to be treated like civil servants and accorded the same entitlements. But somebody somewhere with a loaded sense of humour and long memory triggered the exit clause which stipulated that all civil servants must retire upon attaining the age of sixty or after putting in thirty five years of service, whichever came first.
And so Oloruntimehin who started teaching at the age of fourteen after his primary school education and had merged all his years of service suddenly found himself at the threshold of retirement after clocking thirty five years of service at the age of forty nine. This was a time when professors in other climes had just started warming up. He took it in his stride.
“My brother, see the way they managed to get us out of the system”, he lamented with customary conviviality taking a sip from his glass of beer as if he was lapping at a bar of pristine honey. Five years later in 1994, yours sincerely spotted the professor slugging it out amidst a crowd of rowdy commuters at the Marina Quayside. One had gladly consented to take him to his architect daughter’s place somewhere in Ikoyi or Victoria Island. It was the last time we would see.
Just to remind us that before this pandemic, there were other pandemics of a political, economic and academic nature. But it is obvious that no one has seen anything like this one in living memory. The viral visitant has even mutated to a more vicious variant which is far more infectious if not more deadly.
A doctor friend, who is in the most exposed frontline of the war against the pandemic in Britain, rumbled ominously that the mutant monster had already compromised about twenty three prophylactic possibilities of the new vaccine. While other countries were scrambling to ban all travels from Britain, the British authorities were claiming that South African visitors had brought the viral hag to Britain in the first instance.
Meanwhile in full tribute to the forces of globalization, the dreaded virus has finally reached the most remote human settlement on earth, the Chilean Antarctica, where the Chilean authorities have deployed emergency forces. It is fear and trembling from Patagonia.
To get a scale of the magnitude of the disaster that has befallen humanity, in one single day in December the combined figures of those who fell to the dreaded virus in New York city alone far exceeded the casualties of the infamous 9/11 blitz of 2001. On another day, more Americans died from Covid-19 and associated complications than the entire casualties arising from the Pearl Harbour fiasco when the Japanese imperial navy overwhelmed the American naval base.
The retreat from Dunkirk by British forces steamrolled by the German Wehrmacht, the subsequent attempt to obliterate Britain by the NAZI Luftwaffe and the carpet bombing of German cities by Allied air force did not produce such horrendous human casualties. It has taken a mere virus to flatten the entire modern world militarily, economically and spiritually.
In an irony of ironies all the humungous spending on nuclear armaments and cutting edge military technology of instant annihilation have come to naught in the face of an invisible enemy which has now shown a remarkable and deadly capacity to mutate and reinvent the order of battle thus making nonsense of human ingenuity and capacity to outwit and outpace unforeseen dangers.
In America which prides itself as God’s own country, if only a miniscule of funds expended on military hardware had been invested in health care for all, scientific developments might have been able to anticipate or even blunt some of the more deleterious effects of the raging pandemic. There is mounting evidence in that direction.
And if only a portion of the money earmarked for war-gaming and astronautic vanity projects could be re-routed to programmes of social and economic inclusiveness, the underclass in many western nations, particularly the racial minority, might have been better able to withstand the ravages of Covid-19 pandemic.
In the event, our streets have been deserted and emptied of life. It is like a long funeral procession without humanity. The stillness and utter vacancy of the hominid species that had dominated life in the last five hundred thousand years at least is overpowering. This is an apocalyptic glimpse, a sneak preview, of how things may appear after human beings might have vaporized themselves out of contention as a result of sheer fecklessness and wanton folly.
New York penultimate week was like a city of the quick and the dead as casualty figures kept mounting. The funeral homes themselves were gasping for breath. In London this past week, there was a saturnine melancholy everywhere as the stoic and glacially imperturbable English temperament finally came face to face with the depressing possibility of another complete lockdown. The light was far away from the tunnel and it felt like being entombed in a vast necropolis.
The global economy has taken quite a pounding, sending most nations on a fiscal tailspin. As the deep distress to many industries finally manifest, the prospects of a quick and immediate recovery appear to recede, leaving dazed and dumbfounded citizenry stranded in many countries.
Struggling Third World economies like Nigeria which appeared to have been on the verge of recovery after years of wanton mismanagement have now been pushed to their worst recession in recorded history. The situation is so dire that there are indications that it may trigger a social and political implosion the like of which has not been seen in the history of the nation. Nigeria already had what may well be a dress rehearsal with the EndSARS protests in October.
Perhaps it is time to begin to tease out the ironies and the pleasant paradoxes in this dark and dismal tale, this chronologue of a global catastrophe. As dire as the situation appears, it may not actually be the end of the world. There are certain points in history when some hard and bitter lessons had to be taught to humanity to help us achieve a fundamental reset.
It is akin to the process of creative destruction when the clutter of civilization appears to become an impediment to the very advance of civilization itself. In such circumstances something has to give. This is why despite the brutal decimation and horrific destruction of certain countries and civilizations, a newer and better country and civilization always appear on the horizon. Post-war Germany, China and Japan are great examples.
If we compare this current plague with earlier pandemics in human history, we ought to be cheered and astounded by the speed and capacity of response both at the national level and the level of international organizations. A country like Nigeria which lacks the medical capacity and facility of developed countries made up for this shortfall by the sheer heroism and bravery of the frontline staff.
Perhaps something can be said for this innate capacity of the Black person for kindness and compassion. About seventy five years ago, my late mother, during a smallpox epidemic that ravaged Yoruba land, had elected to follow her afflicted older brothers to the smallpox sanatorium in an adjoining forest from the town despite being told that it was a sure death sentence.
On the only occasion she ever spoke about this family tragedy, she informed me that the condition in the sanatorium was so appalling and the suffering so distressful that it could not be described. It was a fetid and horrendous mess.
On the final stretch, she lapsed into a frightful coma with her brothers in what is known in local parlance as eburu, a horrid hallucination of the terminally infected caused probably by inflammations and swellings of the brains which ended in death. But she came to and was ordered to leave by the herbalist.
It is a mark of the advancement of civilization that smallpox has now been eradicated. Coming back to our current affliction, it is also a profound irony that the race to the discovery of the vaccine for Covid-19 and the actual discovery owe a lot to the much-maligned gale of globalization and the destructive competition among leading nations powered by nationalism and racism.
It was globalization with its virtual abolition of time and space which was responsible for the swift spread of the pandemic to every corner of the globe. As we have seen this past week, not even the Chilean Antarctica has been exempt. The cross-pollination among human species and the sharp rise in international communion have brought out the most liberating aspect of the phenomenon of globalization.
Finally, it must be admitted that although globalization, by widening the scale of economic inequality, actually pushes nations into misguided populism, narrow nationalism and even xenophobia, the destructive nationalism and cut-throat competition so engendered have been pivotal in the race to find a vaccine for Covid-19.
The race is still on as to which of the emergent vaccines from many nations have been most effective and efficacious against the virus particularly in the light of its rapidly mutating capacity. Out of the germ of self-destruction comes a beautiful weapon of self-preservation.
From the above, it can be seen that there is still a lot to fight for in the struggle to redeem humanity and the race to save human civilization from going into extinction. America recently demonstrated the human capacity for heroic and redemptive self-correction by throwing out Donald Trump. It was a collective heroic exertion.
If the world can avoid a nuclear Armageddon in the coming decades, it will be easier to concentrate on the global issue of political and economic inclusiveness. Here is wishing our readers a happy new year.
It was said by Alexander Pope that for forms of government, let fools contend; whatever is best administered is best. So, while we are still on the subject of Covid-19 and the best governmental response to the plague across the globe, it is meet to report that Nigeria is also astir about the best structure to cope with the pandemic of misgovernance in the nation.
Last week, we received a bulky correspondence via e-mail from Femi Falana, the notable Human Rights campaigner and legal luminary. It was his lecture at the last convocation ceremony of the Ekiti State University, Ado Ekiti. It was a weighty intervention on the subject of restructuring which has held the nation spellbound for the better part of a decade now.
Given the Marxist predilection of his youth, Femi expectedly made a short shrift of clamours for restructuring based on tribal gang-up and the ethnic lobby. As far as he was concerned, the basic constituents of a nation are not the constituting ethnic groups but the autonomous classes therein embedded.
Although ideologically fine on paper, this is going to be as intellectually, politically and conceptually problematic as can ever be imagined. The reliance on and validation of “autonomous classes” that are barely recognizable on paper or even identifiable in praxis is bound to create problems of political identity and identification for the identifier.
Much as we wish otherwise, the ethnic groups in Africa have not been able to transmute into something else. And no hegemonic ethnic group on the continent has achieved a forcible homogenization of people such as we have witnessed with disastrous consequences with the native Amerindians in America and the Tibetans and Uighurs in China.
The French policy of evolue led to a cultural tragedy and a ferocious backlash. At the level of distinct nationalities, the attempt by Stalinist Russia to corral nations overrun during the Second World War has ended in predictable disaster.
Despite Femi’s Marxist sabre-rattling, yours sincerely can confirm that the legal luminary remains a nationalist, a Yoruba patriot and a quintessential Omoluwabi. A few years back, snooper met him at the Marina gubernatorial lodge waiting for Akin Ambode. When the former governor came out, Falana insisted that as his former teacher, yours sincerely should take his turn ahead of him and Akin Ambode cheerfully concurred.
Thanks to the searching scrutiny of the pro-democracy lawyer, the debate on restructuring will have to be re-opened in the New Year. But it will not be for the purpose of mere intellectual cogitations. Nigeria is already on the brink of disaster and state implosion, and those who have imposed themselves on the nation without having the requisite qualifications to lead must now see where they have led all of us.
When this past week, this column broached the subject of state emergency in Nigeria while deliberately pulling our punches, little did we know that the Financial Times of London was preparing to deliver a more devastating verdict on what it termed the imminence of state failure in Nigeria.
Readers should please note that this column does not need any validation from the Financial Times and neither do we take our orders from any intellectual listening post of western imperialism. Our preference for the terms, “state emergency” and state impairment was deliberate. There is a lot of intellectual dispute about the liberal concept of “state failure” which many believe is an IMF/World Bank prototype for scapegoating nations that have gone rogue on monetarist shibboleths.
It is meet to note that a consensus is emerging that as far as response to the Coronavirus plague is concerned and where inclusive health care is the subject matter, China’s developmental authoritarianism has delivered better than any of its other competitors, particularly liberal democracy.
But can the people of the west, and to a less extent the denizens of the traditional societies of post-independence Africa, afford to trade the liberal notions of free speech, free association, voting autonomy and a relatively independent press for fast-tracked economic development and relative prosperity?
Milton Friedman, the great American conservative economist, believed that once upon a time most human societies are forced to make a choice about which rights to trade in for the others. This unfolding decade will be very interesting for the human race.
Source: The Nation