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We will fight for the soul of Nigeria

By Tolu Ogunlesi, special to CNN
  • Ethnic and religious violence is just the latest problem to hit Nigeria
  • Insiders have strugged for power in the absence of President Yar'Adua
  • The real story is the audacity of the Nigerian people, Ogunlesi says
  • We have resolved to actively participate in the battle for the soul of Nigeria, he says

Tolu Ogunlesi works as Features Editor with Next, a daily newspaper based in Lagos, Nigeria. He was awarded the Arts and Culture prize in the 2009 CNN MultiChoice African Journalist Awards. He writes a weekly column, Ongoing Concerns, for Next, and regularly contributes to online and print magazines inside and outside Nigeria. You can read his blog here.

Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) -- Last Sunday the world woke to news of ethnic and religious violence in Jos, central Nigeria.

Television footage soon emerged of hundreds of bodies, mostly of women and children, hacked to death by bands of marauders who invaded defenseless villages under cover of darkness. It was the second time this year that Jos would be making breaking news on CNN.

On both occasions, while Jos burned, Nigeria's corridors of power battled their own "fires": A series of intrigues that raged as insiders struggled for power in the absence of President Umaru Yar'Adua, who in November 2009 traveled abroad for medical treatment and has not been seen in public since.

Jos is not the only tragedy that has happened in the absence of the president. On Christmas Day 2009, a month after Yar'Adua literally vanished, a 23-year-old Nigerian national was arrested while allegedly trying to detonate explosives aboard a U.S.-bound flight, minutes from landing.

That action put Nigeria in the news and earned us a place on a United States terrorism watch list. Alas, there was no president to defend us before a curious world.

Nigeria is a strange country, a veritable laboratory of ironies. We are simultaneously one of the world's most corrupt and most religious countries.

Video: Ethnic tensions in Nigeria
Video: Nigeria's myriad of problems
Video: Nigeria's sectarian violence

We are Africa's biggest producer of crude oil, and one of the top 10 in the world, and at the same time one of the world's biggest importers of refined petroleum products (simply because none of our refineries is in working condition.)

A few years ago we were adjudged the world's happiest people, despite occupying a land teeming with frustrations. The award was a commentary on our genius for refining our angst, partly into apathy, and partly into happiness.

On the other hand our country's history is littered with demonstrations of people power -- evidence that we are a people who can sometimes get very angry.

It's hard to forget the public protests that took place 17 years ago after military dictator Ibrahim Babangida canceled the results of a presidential election generally adjudged as free and fair. The subsequent revolt forced the dictator to relinquish power.

The five-year reign of terror of Sani Abacha, the dark-goggled tyrant who succeeded Babangida, galvanized pro-democracy activists in an unprecedented manner. Tens of activist organizations operated within the country and outside, alongside an array of underground magazines and radio stations, until Abacha's sudden death in June, 1998.

But if Nigerians imagined that the arrival of democracy in 1999 would enable them to sheathe their swords and allow their poets to take a well-deserved break from writing about blood, bullets and handcuffs, they were hugely mistaken. A decade of democracy has now convinced us that if care is not taken, new oppressions are always waiting in the wings, eager to replace conquered ones.

Our civilian governments have taken us for granted too often over the last 10 years, over-promising and under-delivering. One example: Today, Nigeria generates roughly the same amount of power as it did a decade ago, despite the billions of dollars spent on power infrastructure over the years. South Africa, with a population much less than half of ours, generates more than twelve times as much power as we currently do.

It is a pathetic story.

But that litany of woes is not the whole story, or even the real one. The real story is not about the severity of Nigeria's woes, but about the audacity of its people.

The real story is of the staggering confidence that we possess regarding the difficult mission ahead of us
--Tolu Ogunlesi
  • Nigeria

The real story is of how young Nigerians, who grew up hearing themselves addressed as the "leaders of tomorrow," have realized that it is time they rose to take their destinies into their hands, if they want to stand any chance of witnessing that much-touted "tomorrow."

The real story is of the staggering confidence that we possess regarding the difficult mission ahead of us, against the backdrop of the many passionately-envisioned failures that litter our country's history.

Before now our success as young people was in assembling ourselves into an impressive army on Facebook and Twitter, armed to the teeth with wit and hyperlink.

But we have since realized that the Internet is not potent enough to serve our ends. It is a great tool for networking, no doubt, but we have realized that it can be a hugely delusory medium; quick to dissipate constructive anger and to replace real impact with a numbing self-satisfaction.

We have therefore resolved to actively participate in the offline battle for the soul of Nigeria. To mark the beginning of our (re)awakening, we will be marching to the premises of the Federal Parliament in the capital, Abuja, on Tuesday, March 16, to make our voices heard. It will be the first step towards creating the conditions for a Nigeria that will no longer make breaking news on CNN.

As I write this we are in the middle of organizing this rally; raising funds, printing banners and posters, mobilizing young people and aggressively publicizing our mission.

We do not believe that rallies alone will transform a nation, no, we are not that naive.

But we are endowed with enough faith to believe the timeless words of the Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu, that "the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tolu Ogunlesi.