EUGENE, UNITED STATES – JULY 24: Gold medalist and world record holder Tobi Amusan of Team Nigeria poses during the medal ceremony for Women’s 100m Hurdles final at the 18th edition of the World Athletics Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, United States on July 24, 2022. Mustafa Yalcin / Anadolu Agency (Photo by MUSTAFA YALCIN / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu Agency via AFP)
By now, almost everyone across Nigeria has heard of Tobi Amusan, the Nigerian superlative athlete who just won a gold medal at the World Athletics Championship Women’s 100m hurdles in Oregon, the United States. That singular feat, the first of its kind for Nigeria, has generated lots of social media attention and traffic. When Tobi climbed the podium to collect her well-deserved medal, the Nigerian national anthem was sung, and she wept profusely. Those tears have not only generated countless emotional fellowship across the world, especially among Nigerians home and abroad. Standing on that podium, and struggling with her tears, Tobi represented the very feature
of a hero who had struggled with most herculean predicaments, personal and national, to arrive at that particular point in history. Receiving that deserved medal was not the social media story. What is, is the singing of the Nigerian national anthem, and the evocation of national pride and national revulsion in equal measures among all those who have different understanding of what Nigeria means. Especially for sportsmen and sportswomen. Why would Tobi play the national anthem when the Nigerian state nearly destroyed her ambition? Why would the Nigerian government associate with the success of someone it nearly cast, as is usual, into the rubbish heap of destroyed talents? These two questions have generated serious social media furor.
My point of entry in this piece is Tobi’s tears. In depth and context, it is similar to that of Prof. Tomori who, some months ago, teared up in agony over Nigeria’s protracted predicament. Prof. Tomori lamented the idea of a country that provided all it took for him to become a world-class scholar and virologist; the same country that is failing its own citizens now.
On Tobi’s face, one could imagine the many thoughts rushing through her mind as the national anthem played – thoughts of pains and depression at what could have been her lot if she had not got the scholarship to the University of Texas; thoughts of winning at the Nigerian Olympic Trials but the officials did not turn on the electronic timer; thoughts of the injury that the Nigerian government neglected which could have ruined her aspiration forever; thoughts of all the greatness the Nigerian state encodes.
Like Prof. Tomori, what was Tobi’s tears telling us? Tears tell many stories, and more so tears shed within the crannies of Nigeria’s governance failures. Let me borrow a sense of this from Washington Irving, American historian and essayist. According to him, “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.” Of course, anyone who insists that Tobi’s heart is not grieved, even to the extent that she was joyous at her triumph, does not know her story, and does not understand the pain of not being encouraged to shine by one’s country. Her personal trajectory before she arrived at Texas and at that moment of fulfilment.
In an interview, she said with tacit grief, “When I was injured, they didn’t care about me. That is how my career ended.” How could her tears not have been motivated by such incidence of not fulfilling her dreams because of an injury the Nigerian state could have intervened in?
However, the power behind Tobi’s tears lies in her stubborn patriotism. Standing and crying while the anthem washes over her speaks eloquently about a sacred belief and, indeed, unspeakable
love for a country that has the potential to be more.
Citizenship in Nigeria is a baffling phenomenon. Outside of the spurious nationalism of the political class and elite, Nigeria has lumped almost all Nigerians into the same space of suffering and lack of fulfilment. There are so many Nigerians who have fled that space in search of greener pastures. Who is to blame anyone who is searching for meaning outside of the limiting confines of national space? Imagine the many professionals whose professional competence have almost been put to shame because of the constraint of practicing in Nigeria. Many medical doctors/professionals recently left for Saudi Arabia where the medical infrastructure not only attend to their search for personal meaning but also enhance their professional skills and capacity to serve humanity.
But you also have those, like Tobi, who have been offered opportunities to become better in terms of career opportunities abroad, but who doggedly still fly the banner of the Nigerian state. This is the category of Nigerian citizenry that Tobi Amusan represented when she stood on that podium and sang the words of the national anthem. It was a moment of contrition; as if she almost made the decision to reject Nigeria and all her woes, but she drew back at the last minute and chose to believe in Nigeria’s possibilities.
But there is also a last category of Nigerian citizens; those who do not have the opportunity or simply chose not to travel out and seek greener pasture, but who have equally been worsted by the Nigerian government, but who have counter-intuitively latched on to the Nigerian dream in its very absence. In the dark space of the Nigerian streets and several informal spaces, these patriotic Nigerians shed tears of frustration. And yet they have a glow in their heart, watered by the possibility of Nigeria becoming great soon.
When the Nigerian youth carried the banner of the #EndSARS recently, it was a demonstration of tough love for a country that must be forced to become better. No wonder many turn to the religious and the spiritual as the anchor to hold the soul in the face of the battering of life and the government misdeeds in the Nigerian existential space.
I have had reasons to shed tears for what I have come to call the missing pieces in Nigeria’s development—the obstacles, misgovernance, lost opportunities and all sorts that keep putting Nigeria backward, and delaying her possible greatness. In 1992, I was on my own quest for meaning. I had started a family, and the responsibility to make ends meet had become quite daunting. I had started working at the Speech Writing Unit of the Presidency when I then got a job at the UN. But then, the late Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade had compelled me to stay on in the Nigerian civil service rather than pursue the more prestigious UN appointment. We had both shed some tears in my office at the Aso Villa that day.
It was as if I was watching the promise of a better future flying away out of my reach. Aboyade was my mentor; and I had to believe his dream about Nigeria. He regaled me with the story of how, as a student at Cambridge University in the late 50s, he was a part of a core of dreamers who were determined to redefine Nigeria’s greatness in the comity of nations. Those dreamers later reconstituted into different levels of multidisciplinary teams that began mapping Nigeria’s developmental path. Aboyade himself played a huge role in Nigeria’s development planning. Unfortunately, by the 80s, Wole Soyinka had dismissed that generation as a wasted one.
With the Tobi Amusan story, we are forced to ask: how many more generations will the Nigerian state waste? How many more heroic acts would the state reject from those who believed in her? I think it is most providential that the Tobi story is unfolding in the build-up to the 2023 elections. The electoral promises have started piling up without any significant nudge yet towards an ideological and issue-based itemization and discussions about what matters in taking Nigeria seriously.
How, for instance, could the heroism, energies and patriotism of the many Tobi Amusans all across Nigeria and around the world be harnessed to facilitate progress for Nigeria?
Nigeria, like the continent itself, is a youthful nation that embeds enormous human capital development that could drive national progress. This makes education, across all spheres, a significant matter for electoral engagement by aspirants for the highest offices in the land. How do we make education the bedrock for national development? If any of the aspirants does not have the blueprint for a genuine and realistic engagement with education, then such an aspirant does not deserve our votes. Any aspirant that does not have a plan for youth engagement is just a player who wants four years to squander Nigeria’s chances at national greatness. We have got to a stage in Nigeria’s national trajectory where political rhetoric should not sway us again.
A final message to Nigerians: Tobi Amusan demonstrated the dogged will to survive despite Nigeria’s crippling limitations. With her success, no one has any excuse to keep blaming Nigeria. The dreams we hold should become the touchstone of our successes. My dreams withstood the terrible dysfunction of the Nigerian administrative system and even an untimely retirement at my prime. Tobi’s dreams withstood the terrible mess of sporting organization in Nigeria. Our collective aspirations can become the foundation for greatness; not only personal ones, but also our collective greatness as a nation.
• Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a Retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor, National Institute For Policy and Strategic Studies
(NIPSS), Kuru, Jos. (firstname.lastname@example.org)