It is October 1st, Nigeria’s independence anniversary. Winter is fast approaching in Washington. It is unseasonably cold, and as dawn retreated for daylight, you could smell the sharp and biting Arctic air as if one is trapped in a giant refrigerated tent. Like a practiced flaneur, the celebrated hangabout, snooper has slipped out of his hotel room and is already on Thomas Circle.
Very soon afterwards, you arrive at Massachusetts Avenue. The name itself evokes power and glory; it exudes historic distinction and the very essence of American greatness. You remember the Boston Tea party and the beginning of the end for Imperial Britain. Empires always begin to unravel at the very moment of their maximum power. You remember the great learning institutions of Massachusetts. That is the intellectual engine room of American supremacy. Armies of ideas clash relentlessly, transforming America and changing the world in the process. You remember the dashing and dazzling Kennedys and their Hyannis Port. And you remember and wish Barack Obama well.
There is nothing more exciting and exhilarating than taking an early morning walk in a historic and powerful metropolis. The power and magic of the great city draw and tantalize you. You are lost in the anonymity of the surging crowd. But somehow you manage to retain your distinct and discrete identity. As you watch, you are also aware of being watched. As you gape and gawp at the modern pyramids, you marvel at the infinite fecundity of the human imagination. You may not appreciate the arrogance and boorishness of many Americans, but this is the summit of human advancement for now, and there is nothing anybody can do about that.
Snooper is a notorious walkabout. Twice in this incarnation, he had been accosted on suspicion of wandering with intent. But ambling about in post 9/11 America in the early hours of the morning has its particular perils. And not when you are very close to the White House, the greatest power complex on earth for now. As the polite and courteous Indian-born driver taking you to your hotel from the airport darkly hinted, there are at least twenty five different undercover agencies operating in the Washington area. Walking is not a crime, but you must mind your body language. The possibilities are quite dreadful and spine-chilling. What if one is suddenly pulled over as a suspected disciple of Ibn Khaldun, the great fourteenth century Egyptian historian, philosopher and cultural theorist? Fear chills the spine. Even as one knocks this out on the computer, you have a feeling that something might trigger off the alarm bell.
But back to Massachusetts Avenue, the fear of being pulled over forces snooper to affect an elegant royal carriage; a Black Edwardian dandy in the manner of the political Liberator and uber-nationalist , Herbert Samuel Heelas Macaulay. True to its name, Massachusetts Avenue is indeed suffused with power and glory. The Avenue houses so many foundations, the power-houses of American restless regeneration. It is only in America that you can have so many foundations, a glorious tribute to the redemptive and restorative power of ruthless capitalism. Money-making can be stretched beyond the limits of logic and human possibilities just to prove a point. But that is where it ends. Sam Walton, the owner of the Walmart chain, was still driving his old banger while making his astronomical sums. And what about Bill and Melinda Gates who are models of rectitude and restraint despite their outlandish wealth?
You walk rapidly pass the John Hopkins University school of Advanced International Studies and the Brookings Institute. Massachusetts Avenue is truly living up to its billing. You are truly in the precincts of some of the major totems of America’s cultural imperialism. The wintry cold begins to bite harder. Against one’s better judgment, one had departed Nigeria without adequate preparations for this mugging weather. Now, one is being gradually mauled into a state of disorientation by the freezing atmosphere. You remember once again that back in Nigeria, it is Independence Day. In anger, you curse the memory of the leaders who have made it impossible for you to spend the day at home in Nigeria and in rest and reflection.
Now, you are passing the Australian embassy and all the pent up demons suddenly erupted. How was it possible for a bunch of no-hopers and scoundrels to create a first-class First World country in a record time while sub-Saharan Africa continues to sink deeper in a historic hellhole? As the cold bites harder and a state of semi-stupor sets in, a dandified and regal-looking man with majestic walrus whiskers suddenly appears to be walking with snooper. He was straight out of Victorian Lagos, and was quite a splendid sight to behold. His diction was English public school with crummy and creamy velvet.
“It is Independence Day, and how are you people coping?” he asked with stentorian authority.
“We are not coping at all”, snooper moaned in distress.
“You must take heart and be bold because nation-building is not a colonial tea party or a one-day wonder”, the old man noted with avuncular pity.
“Take heart, take heart, that is what they all say, but no heart is made of stone”, snooper noted with a churlish whine.
“ I understand that….”, the old man began but was rudely and brutishly silenced.
“Don’t understand. I’m cold and feverish. In any case, one of our leaders once referred to Nigeria as the mistake of 1914. I agree with him”, I mumbled rather disjointedly.
“Who said that and when?” the old man asked in quiet alarm.
“Ahmadu Bello in 1953”.
“Ah, you know I left the scene in 1946. In any case, who is Ahmadu Bello? I handed over to Zik”, the old man noted in regret.
“Zik lost command and headed for Enugu. Even Awolowo said Nigeria is a mere geographical expression”, I noted.
“Ah that Ijebu boy again? I knew he was up to no good. I thought he disappeared for good before the good lord recalled me”, the old political wizard croaked with good-natured mischief.
“He went to London to read law”, I replied.
“Ah that meant that he found a way round his bankruptcy? All of you must know that it is too late to start complaining about the size of Nigeria. The sacrifices have been too great. Do you know that I died from the pneumonia contacted in Kano?” the great man queried.
“You left it too late”, I moaned in acute distress.
What?” the old man asked in disbelief.
“The handshake across the Niger”.
“But the white people wouldn’t allow us to interact. You know I fought them to a standstill”, the old man noted with an expansive flourish.
“May be, they have a point there”, I noted.
“What point could they have had ?”, the old man wondered aloud.
“It was not the first time contact with strangers will prove fatal to you and your family”. I observed with an intellectual frown.
For a long time, the old man eyed the younger man with a mixture of suspicion and wary respect. Then affection and warmth returned to his majestic hooded eyes. “I know what you are talking about, but it doesn’t matter. Out of evil comes great good. In 1809, the slave raiders from the north sacked the village of Osogun and captured the father of my mother, the great Samuel Ajayi Crowther. They sold them to Portuguese slave traders. But we thank god for small mercies. Without that incident, there would have been no Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, no Abigail Macaulay, my mother, no CMS Grammar school, and no Herbert Samuel Heelas Macaulay, my humble self. Tell your compatriots not to despair and that adversity has its sweet rewards”.
With that the old man vanished into thin air, like the old wizard of Kirsten Hall that he was. I was also beginning to feel warm and comfortable. It was not a question of magic or dramatic recovery. The mundane truth is that we have arrived at our destination on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington and the place is warm and cosy. A different kind of fireworks was already in the works that morning.