On Being Nigerian and the Luxury of Hope

I’ll never forget the day Nigeria’s last military dictator, General Sani Abacha, died. Like many other Nigerians, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the news came. I was in the kitchen with my mum when she suddenly dashed out and ran into the street, dancing and shouting with our neighbors. I remember being confused as I looked on from our balcony, watching my usually poised mother dance and sing so hysterically at the news of someone’s death. At the end of that day, we had a dead dictator and a burnt pot of rice (which is a good enough trade, if you think about it). For many Nigerians, that was the end of a painful era that we thought would never end. Finally, we could believe that, indeed, things would get better. Regardless of how unfounded this belief was, we broke through our acceptance of the status quo, we reveled in this change and we collectively believed in something.

Now, 17 years later, Nigeria has given me my Abacha moment. Ironically, this moment has me celebrating a former military General becoming our new President. Nigerians headed to the polls on March 28 to vote for a new President. For many who voted, the choice was tough: a clueless incumbent with zero leadership skills or a former military dictator. However, this wasn’t the only choice we made that day. Nigerians also made a choice between a grudging acceptance of the status quo and hope. You see, hope is something we can seldom afford. We learn to cope with our government’s many failures: the inexistent power supply, the dismal education system, crippling corruption, the stolen girls, a spiraling Boko Haram (to mention but a few). Almost a year after about 200 girls are yet to return from captivity, we’ve learned to say a silent prayer for their return because it’s almost futile to hope in a government that bluntly refuses to be effectual. That’s what we do: we accept, we smile, and we pray through it all. “This is Nigeria”, after all, where the people’s will has historically been symbolic at best. So when elections come around, we wait for power to change hands so that we can go back to our usual business of jaded acceptance.

On March 28, this changed. Nigerians voted for hope, and we shocked not only ourselves but also the world. I never believed that “the people’s will” was something that would ever have any material manifestation in Nigeria. Many of us saw this day as a simple procedure; the incumbent would come back to power and we would accept and keep moving. I sat on my bed in America, thousands of miles from home, watching the election results being announced. I wasn’t the only one watching: millions of Nigerians stayed glued to their TVs for two days, watching and, for the first time in a long time, HOPING. My mother (and many others) crowned themselves election result collators, starting Excel sheets to tally the results and run analyses as they were being called. We tweeted, called and texted each other during announcement breaks as the numbers started to indicate a win for Buhari. Could this be happening? Were we about to unseat an incumbent and the ruling party since the democratic era? No, don’t get too excited yet; this is Nigeria, anything can happen. Let us wait until the final results come in. In the end, we did it. The people of Nigeria did what many, including us, believed to be impossible. Just like that day in 1998, I got to share this moment with my mother. She called me and shouted “It’s like a dream! This is like that day Abacha died!” before she broke into a song of victory. I stayed with her on the phone, stunned for the most part because I had just watched history happen from my bed in Durham, over 5000 miles away from home.

Throughout the nation, people are celebrating this moment and, just like when Abacha died, we are full of hope. Again, this hope might be unfounded but the fact remains that my people believe in something for the first time in as long as I can remember. The road ahead is long and brutal; Buhari and his government have a lot of work to do and we must remind ourselves that change doesn’t come in one day. However, in this moment of victory, I look at Nigerians and I have never been so proud to be part of these people who smile through the pain and get up every time we fall. Nigeria, I am proud of you and proud to be from you.

As my friend said, “the dictator of my mother’s youth is now the president of mine,” and I’m more than ok with that.

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PS: Speaking of mothers, mine just signed up for Instagram and leaves comments on my pictures with words like ” I am y2k compliant”. STRESS!