The late Toni Morrison once suggested that contemporary literature would be spared a good number of novels if authors would only write letters home once in a while. This one is long overdue. I used to think it was enough for me to address Nigeria’s problems in fiction. I now realise that will no longer suffice. – Sefi Atta
Dear Aisha Buhari,
Last Christmas in Lekki, Lagos, where I live, I saw a street beggar and I thought about you.
She sat on a pavement near a busy junction. She was barefoot and wore a hijab. She breastfed her baby as pedestrians walked by. I was in my air-conditioned car with a hired driver and we were on our way to a shopping mall.
These days, whenever I see beggars at the road junctions they frequent, I have taken to looking down, or putting my hand up to shield my eyes. Sometimes I murmur to myself, “Oh no,” over and over until they’re out of sight, then I let out a sigh.
I am no stranger to the moments of guilt that plague privileged Nigerians, and I’m sure you recognise that despite your recent health challenges and domestic troubles at Aso Villa, you are one of the more fortunate, and visible, women in our country. From my brief observation of the woman who caught my attention, you and she had nothing in common, except being a Northern Muslim and a mother.
I have followed news reports on you over the years, some of which have taken me by surprise. For instance, your October 2016 interview with BBC News Hausa in which you accused a certain cabal of hijacking the president’s administration and said you would not campaign for him if he sought a second term in office. I wasn’t overly surprised, however, when he, in response, said your place was in his kitchen and “the other room”. Nor was I amused by the general ribaldry and jocularity that followed, in the Nigerian press and on social media, over his choice of words. Throughout this event, I never questioned your loyalty to your husband, but I had no idea what your motivation was in making those statements. I couldn’t decide whether you were speaking out of concern for Nigerians, or out of personal frustration with him.
In October last year, when the video of you giving your in-laws an ultimatum in Aso Villa went viral, it didn’t faze me one bit. The standards of conduct for first ladies are especially high, and I know wives who have thrown worse tantrums having had enough of their husband’s meddlesome relatives.
In December, however, after the president left Nigeria to attend a peace summit in Egypt, and you gave an interview to TVC News in which you said you no longer had pillow talk with him over how he ran the country, and went as far as to name members of the cabal, I must confess that I was again in doubt as to why you shared all that information. I came to the conclusion that perhaps you just had to have your say and didn’t care about the consequences – the public speculation and castigation from all sides.
I can attest to being in that frame of mind whenever I write, and if nothing else, you shattered the myth of the subservient Northern Muslim woman – and the oppressed African woman, I should add. For even though you enjoy unusual entitlement as first lady of Nigeria, your counterpart Melania Trump, in the United States, where I spend most of my time, would dare not open her mouth to chastise her husband publicly the way you have. Should she ever do so, he might send her back to Slovenia.
As the Nigerian press often reminds you, Nigerians voted for your husband, not for you, and the office of the first lady is not provided for in our constitution. It is granted because of the public duties and services you perform. I am aware of your programmes for Northerners who have fled Boko Haram, for Nigerian mothers and children, and for infant and maternal well-being. Perhaps that was why you came to mind when I saw the woman and her baby. They would fall into all these categories. She was just one of a number of displaced Northerners in Lagos, some of whom send their children to beg on our streets the way Lagosians who can afford to send their children to school.
On my trip to the mall, I passed several primary and secondary schools, all of which were privately owned, as educational institutions that rely on public funding are now in varying stages of dilapidation. At the mall, I bought some ankara fabric, which I later took to my seamstress. She is from the East and not a fan of your husband’s. I have wondered if this is due to tribalism, but she once said, “He promised us change. Where is the change? We’re still waiting for it.”
She made me a dress which I wore on Christmas Day at a family function with my in-laws. My husband is a Ransome-Kuti. His last name may ring a bell. His late father, Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, served as health minister under General Babangida’s regime. His Uncle Beko spent several months in detention during General Abacha’s regime, and his Uncle Fela was jailed during your husband’s regime in 1984.
Frankly, the Kutis’ past conflicts with the government have put me off political activism, as I have witnessed its devastating effects on their family. I’ve only heard about the fate of my husband’s grandmother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who sustained severe injuries when she was thrown from a first-storey window in a military raid on Fela’s house during General Obasanjo’s regime. She once led a women’s protest that forced the Alake of Egbaland to abdicate. I come from the Atta family, who are descendants of titled men and have played key roles in government over the years. We’ve had diplomats and civil servants, a state governor and an inspector general of police. My Uncle Abdulmalik was Nigeria’s first high commissioner to the United Kingdom. My Aunt Sefi, among her many accomplishments as a pioneering woman, served as an ambassador to UNESCO, and to Italy, and was head of the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development. My father, Abdul-Aziz Atta, was Secretary to the Federal Government during General Gowon’s regime when he died in 1972.
None of our previous governments has been above reproach, but with the end of military rule in 1999, Nigeria had a chance to usher in a new era of democracy. Yet what did we choose to do instead? Like a nation with Stockholm syndrome, we began to recycle our former leaders in a political landscape dominated by two parties that were so similar in their lack of ideas it made no difference to us whenever their members changed side.
I was not on the Never Buhari bandwagon. I was for any presidential candidate who would cause the least damage to our country. I believed the news reports that said the Nigerian economy couldn’t withstand another term under Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. I was also willing to believe, when your husband assumed office in 2015, that he despised corruption and terrorism enough to take steps towards cleaning up the government and defeating Boko Haram. But during his first term, his administration appeared to be more preoccupied with attacking members of the opposition party. I reasoned that he was finding it difficult to manage Nigeria as a civilian president because he didn’t have the power he once had to rule by decree. Still, I continued to wish him success only because I wanted conditions in our country to improve.
Regrettably, his war on corruption stalled. He wasn’t able to bring a halt to Boko Haram attacks and didn’t seem keen on curbing raids by Fulani cattle herders. His promise to bring back the rest of the Chibok girls fell by the wayside and judging by what I hear in the marketplace, our economy has lagged in terms of personal income growth.
My driver was from Cotonou and I had noticed a significant increase in the number of casual workers from his country on Lagos Island. Some of them were underage, but he assured me that they had come to Nigeria willingly, to increase their earning capacity. As a casual worker himself, he was paid three thousand naira a day by his boss. He said he’d had more jobs during Jonathan’s administration. I gave him extra money for food. Sometimes I shared my takeaway meals with him. I once asked him why so many Beninese men worked on building sites in Lekki and he said it was because Nigerians were reluctant to work for meagre wages.
As you know, Nigerians do work for negligible pay. We work as hard as it takes to achieve our goals. Most of us are in fact overworked and underpaid, which is why we are loath to pay taxes. We provide our own water, electricity and security if we can. We survive with little or no support from the public sector. We resent government interference, especially if it ends up making life more difficult for us. We are all, as the owner of a private school once told me, our own governments. Complaining about our country, meanwhile, has become one of our national pastimes.
About two weeks after I arrived in Lagos for Christmas, I went to Murtala Muhammed International Airport to pick up my husband and daughter, who were flying in separately from the United States. Both flights were delayed and I ended up waiting for over six hours, during which time a mass fight nearly broke out. Other than that, I had quite a few pleasant encounters. I saw an old friend who had just arrived from England, and a fellow alumna of Queen’s College who, like me, was at the airport to meet someone. I got into conversations with total strangers: a woman who had read my books and two men who were arguing over politics. I grumbled to the woman about the state of the airport. Actually, the word “grumble” may not be emphatic enough because I said our airport was a complete and utter disgrace. I was twelve years old when it was named after General Muhammed, and in all my years of travelling in and out of Lagos, I had seen it in better – and, admittedly, worse – shape.
Whenever I arrive home, I expect the moving walkways not to function and anticipate the carousels will get jammed. Roof leaks are inevitable. After I get past Customs, I am prepared for touts, as we call them, to approach me and offer services I don’t need or goods I have no interest in buying.
With the two men, I initially listened to their debate before I chimed in. One of them was in his early thirties and his position was that he was indifferent to politics because he had never known a time when Nigerian leaders were competent. The other criticised the president’s handling of our national problems and then said he knew someone who could solve them. That was when I chorused with the first man, “Who?”
I laughed when the second man indicated that he was referring to himself.
After I met up with my husband and daughter, we headed home. It was night-time now and the journey took us about three hours. We went via Maryland because someone else I befriended at the airport warned me to avoid going through Oshodi as robbers were smashing car windows to steal mobile phones.
We finally reached Lekki and got stuck in yet another traffic jam, our slowest so far, on a dual carriageway. A woman in a black velvet dress parked her car on the hard shoulder and used her door for privacy while she crouched down to pee. I was watching her when I heard sirens on the other carriageway where the traffic was moving freely. I looked over to see police escorts clearing the way for a government official, but got confused because they were heading in the same direction we were going, at top speed.
A long line of unrelated vehicles followed them. Consequently, that side of the road transformed into a dual carriageway of its own and of course all the vehicles got stuck at the next roundabout where they faced oncoming traffic. By then, our side of the road, which was supposed to have three lanes, now had five. Yes, the three lanes on the tarmac became a haphazard four and an extra one developed on the hard shoulder. I was holding my head at that point because I could not have conjured up a more perfect metaphor for why our country, with its two-party political system, was going nowhere.
When your husband ran for a second term, I was fed up with his administration. I didn’t want to hear a word he had to say about change any more. I didn’t even want to listen to the vice president, who seemed earnest, except he reminded me of my born-again friends who ignored transgressions in their churches. I got the impression that he was trotted out to placate Southern Christians. Sometimes, he played the role of apologiser-in-chief, calming down angry citizens; other times, he was explainer-in-chief, such as in January 2019 when he and the president took part in a town-hall meeting moderated by Kadaria Ahmed, and he kept interjecting until she suggested that he let the president speak for himself.
Nigerians voted for them nonetheless, and barely a year later faced an escalation in their administration’s autocratic measures. Take the case of Omoyele Sowore, for example, which I won’t go into because the details have been repeatedly rehashed, and hashtagged to boot. I’m glad he has since been released on bail, but how could a Department of State Security agent flagrantly walk into a court of law during his hearing and physically restrain him in an attempt to re-arrest him against court orders? Haba, in what kind of democracy does an incident like that occur?
It is no wonder that Punch started referring to your husband as Major General Buhari. His government responds to critics in ways that show he is indeed a military man in mufti. But he cannot run Nigeria as if he still heads a martial law regime without incurring some public pushback. Nor can he get away with taking counsel from a group of men who comport themselves like feudal lords. Our constitution provides checks and balances to ensure the executive office doesn’t overstep its boundaries of power. It derives its power from the Nigerian people, not from any cabal.
During the December interview in which you named members of the cabal, you said this about being afraid of the consequences of speaking out: “Everybody is talking in the country.” That may be so, but not without repercussions. You then said that everybody was free to talk, and I will take the liberty of assuming you meant that you were an ally to those who stood on the side of free speech, including government critics.
Nigerians revere them because most of us don’t have the courage to do what they do. We’ve had a democratic system for over twenty years and they will not willingly go back to a state of silence. Those who remain quiet may do so for fear they have something to lose. Those who speak out recognise our nation has everything to lose if we go down that route again. A vote represents one voice only. A voice represents many others, from a street beggar to a writer who steers clear of political activism.
The late Toni Morrison once suggested that contemporary literature would be spared a good number of novels if authors would only write letters home once in a while. This one is long overdue. I used to think it was enough for me to address Nigeria’s problems in fiction. I now realise that will no longer suffice. I am therefore addressing you, woman to woman, in the spirit of Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, please try to find a copy. First published in 1979, it is an epistolary novel set in Senegal. The protagonist, Ramatoulaye, recently widowed after thirty years of marriage, writes to her younger, more progressive friend, oddly enough called Aissatou, a variant of your given name.
I hope my letter resonates with you as hers did with me.
Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1964 and currently divides her time between the United States, England and Nigeria. She qualified as a Chartered Accountant in England, a Certified Public Accountant in the United States, and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.
Atta was a juror for the 2010 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and has received several literary awards for her works, including the 2006 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and the 2009 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. In 2015, a critical study of her novels and short stories, Writing Contemporary Nigeria: How Sefi Atta Illuminates African Culture and Tradition, was published by Cambria Press. Also a playwright, her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC and her stage plays have been performed and published internationally.