Thoughts on Things

NTA, Nigerians and the Delusion of Grandeur


Watching ‘Africa’s largest TV network’ sucks. That is why Nigerians, supposed proud owners of this unwieldy beast called the NTA, do not bother. They, like most humans of appreciable self esteem, do not fancy mirrors that project their hideous warts and hairy moles in 3D.

 Seriously, understanding Nigeria’s problem is not rocket science. And you don’t have to read Chinua Achebe’s seminal piece, The Trouble with Nigeria to figure it out. If you still have the heart to examine what the trouble is with the ‘Giant of Africa’ all you need to do is subject yourself to the torture of watching the NTA. Not in lethal dose, just enough to shed light on things. Consider it, if you like, a sort of purgatory for sins done against your country, say handing out that N20 note to the policeman at the road block, or receiving it, or making away with drugs meant for people who really need it, or asking that fine girl to meet you at that hotel or else she would most definitely fail her exam, or asking for kola for things that kola aren’t meant to buy, and other such things. Consider it a purgatory for those.

You see, the NTA will tell you everything is well with the country even if students of Nassarawa State University are being massacred by brutal soldiers because the students, in the puckish spirit of youthful exuberance, have taken to the streets to protest water shortages on campus. The NTA will not tell you that soldiers washed the dirty students with a rain of bullets, and blood. The NTA will show you pictures of students barricading the road and tell you something like, ‘It took the prompt action of security agents to disperse the unruly students.’ or other such inanities.

Don’t be surprised, they are just tapping into the Nigerian ‘It-is-well’ mindset. Nothing can happen that is worse than what has happened before. And seriously, we have about 150 million Nigerians competing for space, so if a mere four, who could, by some freak fate, be the next Einstein or Soyinka are wasted, there is absolutely no need bugging anyone about it. The parents of the deceased will go home and bury their children. Nigeria will move on. No one will ask for justice. The NTA knows this so it will not bother you with such trifling details to ruin your dinner. If it’s not your son who was gunned down, you really don’t need to bother.

The NTA, you will notice, during your hours of purgatory, will inundate you with looping news of the good things happening in the country. They know very well that Nigerians are the world’s happiest people so they won’t broadcast anything to sully that reputation. NTA capitalizes on Nigeria’s delusion of grandeur and overwhelm you with the good things happening in your backyard that, for some bizarre reason, are invisible to your naked eyes; Multi-billion naira road projects that terminate just a few meters beyond the camera frame, big-budget water projects that manage to trickle out some drops for the ceremonial drink of the President, governor or commissioning government official and then quickly fall into disuse because the pumps were never good to start with, and are soon sold off by the government employees charged with putting it to public use.


News of bomb blasts or people in relaxation spots  being gunned down, or the little trouble of civil unrest in Jos or Kafanchan or other such places where Nigerians are being killed daily are not good for public consumption; but thanks-giving services by thieving politicians like Bode George or the resurrecting first lady will surely be aired live. Miserable Nigerians, famished or depressed because their sick relatives can’t experience this death-defying miracle that seems to happen only in German hospitals, will see other happy Nigerians dancing in flowing gowns, and the world will think we are all happy.

When Nigerians were enraged by fuel subsidy removal, bad governance and blatant corruption and took to the streets to protest for days, bringing the nation to a standstill, the NTA played mute and occasionally, aired pictures of some rented rascals carrying placards pledging eternal support for the subsidy removal. That is the NTA for you.

The NTA, like Nigerians, abhors changes and all attempts to be dragged into the first world, or any semblance of it, is a change sure to bring some discomfort. NTA prefers to remain antiquated, as it has always been. Consider, for instance, Ben Bruce’s spirited attempt to modernise the NTA. He made the logo trendier, used some cool colours, something more in sync with the new millennium, he made the NTA watchable, put it on air for 24 hours with some innovative programming. But then he was kicked out and Tony Iredia cleaned out everything he did, brought back that old, rusty logo and that iconic but annoying sig tune that kicks off the news at nine.

The NTA is reliable. It supports every government in power. Have you forgotten how they were busy singing General Abacha’s praises, saying he was the only man, out of a hundred million others, capable of running Nigeria? They were busy singing ‘Who the cap fits’ – a great disservice to the legendary Bob Marley, when Abacha keeled over and died. And the tune changed immediately the following morning and Abacha suddenly became a criminal, and his aides wanted men.

Ironically, even under democracy, this humiliating arse-licking has not ceased. It seemed ingrained, primal even. Ahead of the 2011 elections, I had reasons to do a content analysis of NTA’s coverage of the run up to the presidential elections. A pattern emerged. The ruling party and every reprobate who will speak in its favour were given precedence. The ruling party always got the first 18 minutes of the news; that is a minimum. The opposition parties shared some eight minutes, some getting four at most. And when I asked NTA’s Executive Director News, Malam Garba Mamu about this in a published interview, (Sunday Trust, March 6, 2011), he said they were under no compulsion to favour one party over the other and that no one had ever come from the government to sanction what they broadcast or didn’t.

Well, during the subsidy protest, we knew there was a directive from the ministry of Information barring NTA from reporting on the protests, but when they were under no compulsion, as Mr. Mamu claimed, during the campaigns, the NTA chose to censor itself in favour of the clichéd powers that be.

So how does the NTA mirror the trouble with Nigeria? And why do Nigerians loath, or at best disregard, Africa’s biggest network?

Because it reflects, rather too vividly, our shortcomings as individuals, and as a people. For one, we are always talking, like the NTA, but are we saying the right things, are we talking about the things that matter?

We disregard the bigger picture for irritating frivolities and when we have a chance to seize our destiny and do with it as we please; we are given over to this incurable affliction of arse-licking, whether for petty regional, tribal or religious sentiments. We praise our thieving leaders only to rain curses on their balding heads once their backs are turned. We are fixated on an idea of imagined glory, for which we have the potential, but for some inexplicable reasons seem unable to realise.

We hate the NTA because we are just as annoying. And the trouble with Nigeria, frankly, is us—the Nigerians. We may shout revolution all we want, but if we don’t start the change within ourselves, we might as well be casting pebbles in the belly of the great, big sea. And what good would that do anyone, really?

Book Talk

Perpetual Infatuation

Flaubert-obsessed Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa speaks on his passion at Hay Festival Cartagena (Photo: Joaquin Saramiento)

Flaubert-obsessed Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa speaks on his passion at Hay Festival Cartagena (Photo: Joaquin Sarmiento)

One is a Nobel Laureate, the other a Booker Prize winner. They don’t come bigger than that, do they? And yet they sit in Cartagena’s packed Teatro Adolfo Mejia to discuss the book of a French writer who died over 130 years ago.

Peruvian Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa and Englishman Julian Barnes have had great successes in their literary careers from their different corners of the world, the first writing in Spanish, the other in English. But one thing they have in common is an infatuation with Madame Bovary, the classic novel by Gustave Flaubert. Both men have written about Flaubert –Vargas Llosa, a book-length essay (Perpetual Orgy, 1975) and Barnes a novel (Flaubert’s Parrot, 1984). And now they are here, in the Colombian seaside town of Cartagena, at the Hay Literary Festival, to discuss Flaubert.

There is something about rereading Madame Bovary in Cartagena, with its colonial style architecture and narrow streets, (thanks to the Spanish influence) that is quite similar to the city of Rouen in which Emma Bovary had her escapades, this city could easily pass for the picture of Flaubertian Rouen Geoffrey Wall published in his biography, Flaubert: A Life. The clip-clops of the horse-drawn carriages ferrying tourists around the walled city could just as easily have been the soundtrack of Emma Bovary’s life. And the gilded Teatro Adolfo Mejia, where Vargas Llosa and Barnes sat to discuss Madame Bovary, could have been the theatre where Emma Bovary, bored housewife and jilted lover, met Leon and fell in love with him, yet again, opening yet another adulterous chapter in her life.

But again, why the fascination over the years since it was first published in a French newspaper in 1857 and caused so much agitation that the author was dragged to court for obscenity?

Well, for one, Madame Bovary is the story of a French house wife married to an average man of average ambitions and who, bored with the tedium of her life, indulges in affairs that thrill and eventually torture her.

And reading this book the first time, I could see Emma Bovary in many Nigerian housewives, whose husbands believe their wives, because they are quiet, are happy and content, much as Charles Bovary assumed. I could see these women whose idea of a life consisted of reading Mills and Boons or Soyayya novellas, telenovelas or kannywood movies that infuse them with false notions about reality, much as the romance novels Emma read did to her. After her first adulterous encounter with Rodolphe, Flaubert writes of Emma:

“She remembered the heroines of novels she had read, and the lyrical legion of those adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her.”

The Teatro Adolfo Mejia, splendid in all its glory, was a fitting setting for one of the biggest events of the Hay Literary Festival in Cartagena. It was packed full, all four rows of balcony included, and when the Nobel and Booker laureates mounted the podium, there was a resounding applause for them.

“I think Julian and I are the last writers who are still heavily influenced by French ideologies,” Vargas Llosa began. He is 76, Barnes is ten years younger. Twenty years ago at the Hay Festival, the two men sat down in similar circumstances to discuss Flaubert.

Nothing has changed in the last 20 years with regards to their passion for the French Writer. But since then, Vargas Llosa won the Nobel in 2010, and Barnes the Booker a year later.

Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes at the Hay Festival Cartagena. (Pic: Joaquin Sarmiento)

Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes at the Hay Festival Cartagena. (Pic: Joaquin Sarmiento)

“Flaubert has changed only in terms of new translations, but I think I have remained very much the same,” Barnes said.

They gushed praises for Flaubert’s work, and their passion was evident, Vargas Llosa more so. When the moderator, Colombian Journalist Marianne Ponsford ventured to suggest that Emma Bovary was a vain and simple woman, Vargas Llosa vehemently interrupted her.

“No! No! I am going to defend Emma Bovary. I am serious!” For him, Emma was a woman whose perception of reality was twisted by the books she read, romance novels that implanted false notions in her head and this coincided with the inadequacies of her husband.

“I should have warned Marianne beforehand that Mario is very much in love with Emma Bovary,” Barnes said to great laughter from the audience. And Vargas Llosa, happily conceded to this declamation with a broad smile and assenting gestures.

But if it is love he has for this fictional woman, it is a strange one. One of his favourite parts of the novel is Emma’s suicide. He reads it, he said, each time he is depressed and, while her act of poisoning herself saddens him,  for some strange reason, Flaubert’s description of Emma’s tortured expression, how her face contorts in pain, always thrills Vargas Llosa and brings  him back to a good frame of mind. Odd, perhaps.

Beyond contributing one of the most famous characters in literature, remarkable only in her universality because she could so easily be the woman on the street, or sitting next to you in the theatre, or perhaps the woman next door in Kano or Rome, Flaubert’s style has enchanted both men.

And moving away from their mutual admiration for Emma Bovary, Vargas Llosa said: “The idea that for fiction to be more convincing, more believable, the narrator has to vanish. That is something Flaubert introduced. For me, he was the novelist who gave the novel form.”

Before Flaubert, a meticulous writer whose attention to details and diligence to the craft has made outstanding, novels were often serialised in newspapers and served in instalments as they were being written. Flaubert worked for five years on his novel and waited until it was completed before he serialised it in the newspaper, and vehemently refused to have his novel illustrated as was the practice in those days.

And even if Flaubert dismissed his own works as a mockery of realism, Vargas Llosa and Barnes passionately dismiss such claims by the French author, citing Flaubert’s penchant to disregard even his own statements. It was almost surreal watching this authors obsess over Flaubert, even if one acknowledges, as they did, that Flaubert’s model of novel writing is something that persists till date, and this is the basis for Vargas Llosa making this bold assertion; “I think all writers, whether we like it or not, are Flaubertian.”

Vargas Llosa’s obsession is not only evident in his essay on Madame Bovary in which he gives account of his early years and the influence Flaubert has had on him, not to mention the detailed analysis of the text and themes of the novel. He is also much taken by the ‘vulgarity’ of the novel. His own novels are famed for their salacious content.

But in the case of Barnes, there is something else, apart from Madame Bovary’s vulgarity, that catches his attention.

Madame Bovary is a novel about failure,” he said.

It is this theme of failure that has characterised his novels over the years. Most of his lead characters have been modelled somewhat like Charles Bovary; they are average, unambitious. It is this same theme that characterises his 2011 Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, the story of Tony Webster, an average man with average ambitions whose life is regardless characterised by failure. He failed in his relationship with his friends, failed as a husband and a father and is unsuccessful with women. And his recollection of events in his youth, the only things he can truly claim as his own, turns out to be quite the opposite of what he believed.

Whatever the case, and this is what most of the audience went away with on the night, Madame Bovary is a novel that affects different individuals on different levels; Vargas Llosa, the vulgarity and the sheer love he has for Emma; Barnes, his obsession with the theme of failure that has echoed in his novels; the average house wife, the depiction of her tedious life; and for the average man his illusion of success in the absence of any obvious shortcoming.

It is a masterpiece, as Barnes sums up; “I can’t get over how good it is. It is annoying”