Considering that today is the last day of a surprisingly eventful yet indolent year, I thought it would be prudent to go out on a tender note. More so, because it is my birthday, not a day to be riling up people. So, I have decided to leave aside the article I started writing about the Bishop Kukah’s controversy, on which quite a lot has been written already, and instead look back on 2020. And maybe look ahead at 2021.
New Year for me has always meant no more than flipping the page of the calendar and carrying on with things that one needs to carry on with. But the first few weeks of 2020 were almost luminous, full of optimism and good vibes. In my heart of hearts, I believed it was going to be a great year. It started well, in all honesty.
But by the second month, the warning bells that perhaps this was going to be a year unlike any other could no longer be ignored. Those deceptive butterflies of optimism that had gathered on the branches of hope fluttered away, leaving only traces of their presence and a growing sense of disbelief.
I was in France when the lockdown across the world started. It really did feel like a horrible joke. A virus, invisible to the naked eye, is shutting down a world of supercomputers and iPhones in 2020! My dramatic escape from that country is a story for another time, as was the anxiety of being in isolation for two weeks.
What is humbling about the whole of it is the fact that we, as humans, despite our scientific and social evolution, could not foresee or predict this little virus that would shut down the world or even the possibility of such a thing happening. It is a glaring reminder of how vulnerable humanity as a whole is.
This lesson in humility evolved a face through the death of powerful figures in Nigeria and beyond. The death of the president’s chief of staff, the powerful and maybe shadowy figure of Abba Kyari was a first wake-up call that the bowel of the villa is no safe haven for the powerful. And that his access to the best medical care available in the country, by virtue of whom he was and the resources at his disposal are no guarantee of surviving.
One after another, the rich and powerful succumbed, as did the poor and vulnerable. And for those who thought COVID-19 killed only the elderly, the death this week of US congressman-elect, Luke Letlow at the age of 41 is reminder enough.
A reported post by a daughter of a Portuguese billionaire perhaps best captures the humbling of humankind by this virus. After her father’s death, it was reported that she said her father, one of the richest men in that European country, had all the money he needed in the world yet died gasping for something entirely free—air.
Such a year it has been.
Humbling as this experience is, it did not stop humans from being humans. The lull in wars and insurrections that the world witnessed in the first few weeks of the lockdown was only that—a reluctant hiatus. Movie theatres remained shut but the theatres of war stayed open. In Libya. In Tigray. In Yemen. In North-East Nigeria. In what has to be an irony, in the first few weeks of the lockdown in Nigeria, security operatives trying to keep Nigerians indoors and away from the virus, ended up killing more people than the virus had done at the time. They killed over a dozen Nigerians before the virus killed half a dozen.
It was no surprise that as the year advanced, protests against police brutality erupted, grabbed the country by the throat and shook it, well, maybe not to its core. Nothing like that has ever been seen. But the methods used to suppress the protests were textbook divide and rule. That has been seen before. It was a glimpse at what we could be as a people and what we are at the moment. A beautiful people infected with a severe case of self-cannibalism.
But while Nigerians died and languished in the lockdown that our socio-economic structure was never designed to cope with, the inevitable happened. The corruption and graft and the fact that many public officials profited from the situation. Medical supplies were bought at inflated figures, and food supplies, tagged palliatives, like bad medicine, were cornered by those who had absolutely no need to corner them, keeping them away from hungry Nigerians.
While 2020 showed us our vulnerability and the vulnerabilities of our systems, it also showed the best of us, in how people rallied to support each other, provided relief for each other and created families of strangers over the internet. A personal highlight has been the fellowship I found in the Afrolit Sans Frontieres community—a band of African writers, who made the first virtual festival in the world to happen, and who maintained a strong connection afterward.
This year has been a difficult one for my country. An economy that went belly up and snowballing insecurity that means Nigerians now only inhabit increasingly shrinking bubbles of safety, outside of which bandits and kidnappers prowl, outside of which a “technically defeated” Boko Haram has been terrorising and massacring with little or no response from the country.
The outlook for 2021 is not looking great in that regard. Neither is it in other areas, like stemming the annual floods that have continued to devastate communities across the country, costing lives and great economic losses. One thing is certain in the coming year. Ambitious politicians will jostle to be in a position to contest elections in 2023. The arm wrestling that has been going on in the dark, under the tables, will soon turn into open political fisticuffs.
That and the belief that a COVID-19 vaccine is coming next year. At least 40 million Nigerians might get the jab. No one is saying anything yet about the 160 million who won’t.
But it is New Year’s eve and we should keep a positive outlook. After all, we are incurable optimists here. One has to be to survive this place. So we will continue to hope for the best, as our parents before us did and as our grandparents before them did. Even if the picture before us is bleak.
Happy New Year.