Charles Okeke started his revolution after a conversation he had with two friends from Algeria. Before then, he had a different mindset about politics in Sub-Saharan Africa and Africa north of the Sahara.
“But when I started talking to them, they made me realize that their politics was the same as ours – the politics of infighting, bad governance and corruption. I realized, then, that Africa has the same problem everywhere,” he says.
So he decided to create a network of Africans, Conscious African Network (CAN), who set for themselves the goal of educating, enlightening and sensitizing their fellow Africans, especially those living in China, on the need to get involved in the continent’s rejuvenation.
“I told myself that there is the need to create a forum where we could begin to sensitize ourselves on the problem of Africa and where our young people can be engaged for change. The problem with young people is that they are always not interested in politics. But what they forget is that politics is always interested in them.”
CAN is made up of Africans living in China who meet once a month in Beijing to deliberate on issues around African consciousness and work on nonprofit projects such as distributing free books to schools across Africa, sponsoring skills empowerment training and donating towards emergency causes, like the recent Mozambique floods.
I found Okeke through his first book, Road to Prosperity, where he argues that Nigeria should turn to a one-party political system if she is to accelerate her economic development and match up with her peers in other parts of the world.
Our first meeting was on the rooftop of the Bookworm café in Beijing’s Sanlitun last July in the thick of summer.
Okeke studied Communication Arts at the University of Ibadan before taking up a journalism career in the early 2000s. But, in 2005, he travelled to China to seek better economic opportunities. By 2007, he had established his own shipping company and, subsequently, business was good. But he never forgot his intellectual roots.
“I left journalism but it didn’t leave me,” he tells me. “I am still conscious of the things around me. It’s like being a soldier. Even when you are retired, the skills stay with you.”
In 2015, he decided to go back to school and enrolled at the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) in Beijing to study for a Masters degree in International Relations.
“It’s all about consciousness,” he explains. “During all this time I was doing business and, to be honest, making money, I was never carried away. I always knew my future was in academia. Even when I discuss with people, they find it very difficult to believe I am a businessman because I don’t talk like a typical one. So I always had that urge to go back to school. “
He is currently a PhD student.
An effusive intellectual
Okeke is passionate. His voice is deep and assured and he has a flair for world history and politics.
During our first interview, a Dutch woman interrupts our conversation, asking where we are from? Where is Nigeria, she asks? And then she goes on to inquire about why there is so much poverty in Africa.
Okeke’s responses are jarring. He gives the woman and her British friend a mini-lecture on the geography of white callousness, with footnotes on colonialism and apartheid. I guess it might have been longer, if we had not just started our conversation.
“Sorry I have an interview now,” he tells his new Dutch acquaintance. “I’ll get back to you later.” (The women leave before we are done)
A one party state, okay?
Okeke’s idea that African countries, Nigeria in particular, should consider adopting one-party systems is influenced by his time in China, Scandinavian socialism and the colossal failures of multiparty democracies across the continent. But I am worried about how such a system can be implemented, in a continent that has been raped consistently by military dictatorship and life-long presidents who build a monopoly of power that enslave their own people.
“If we are going to adopt a one-party system, who is going to initiate it?” Okeke asks, rhetorically. “It’s not going to be an incumbent president or INEC (Nigeria’s electoral body) or any electoral body. First, it has to come from the national assembly. Because we have to review the constitution, it is the responsibility for the national assembly to call for a review of the constitution, so that we can begin to look at adopting a one-party system. The constitution is what will guide this system of government.”
But is it possible for such a revolution not to get bloody?
“Yes, it is very possible,” Okeke replies. “If you follow the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi, India was colonized for 244 years. From 1701 to 1947, India was under the yoke of British colonisation. Then Gandhi took the approach of what he called Peaceful Disobedience. He singlehandedly, more or less, forced the British to vacate India. It was a revolution and it was very peaceful. There was no record of death or infighting. You see, it is not about the method, it is about the effectiveness. In 1967 to 1970, we had a civil war in Nigeria, was it effective? The Igbos lost close to about one million people. Today there is no Biafra. Sometimes it’s not about spilling blood. It is about effectiveness.
“I think that the most important thing for Nigeria, if we don’t want to use a bloody approach, is to start with education on why it is important to adopt this system.
“The case of Nigeria is not peculiar. The 55 African countries have the same problem. And it is that of leadership. Maybe Tanzania and Botswana are different, but it’s mostly the same. This was designed by the colonialists. They left us with a democracy that is not democratic.
“It was a democracy that was badly constructed and it has led to bad leadership. What that means is that it is a government of the elite; the trappings of power are such that you don’t want to relinquish it. It comes with a lot of razzmatazz, in terms of finance and clout.
“So the problem with this democracy is that you should not have been elected using that method, because the method itself is flawed, skewed, crude. The democracy we have in Africa today is a faulty democracy. That is why we have to review it. By reviewing it, we have to have a democracy based on merit.”
“If you look at the Nordic countries, it is very ironic that they have a monarchial system of government, which perhaps many of us do not know. And their kind of democracy is still such that the monarchy makes significant decisions and impact in their governance. After voting a Prime Minister, the monarchy still has to veto his appointment. Given that kind of scenario, I see it as a one-party state. Their system has been able to thrive, in terms of social democracy. Their tax system works. Tax is like a boomerang that funds social infrastructure and utilities. That’s why these countries have free education at all levels, even up to PhD level. They have a functional and a working tax system. In Nigeria we don’t have this. Apart from Norway that has oil, the others do not. They are leveraging on their capitalism to produce a socialist outcome.”
‘I saw Nigeria when it was still a young flower’
Okeke grew up in Surulere, Lagos and he tells me he had a “fantastic childhood.” His father was an army officer and his mother taught before delving into the world of businesses.
“My generation was the one that saw the transition of Nigeria from good to bad. I witnessed the 1983 coup when Buhari and Idiagbon took over,” he says. “I was made to understand that the civilian administration was very corrupt and the military had to step in to bring some sanity. The euphoria was there. Then we began to see a new wave when Ibrahim Babangida became president. That was when I knew there was something known as industrial action, that workers would go on strike. It was a mix of the good and the bad, where I witnessed a blossoming Nigerian to a troubled nation.
“I saw Nigeria when it was still a young flower and now that it has almost withered away.”
This sense of transformation is partly what drives Okeke; it is what gives him the confidence that it is possible to return Nigeria, and Africa to the path of prosperity. And it is what fuels his work with CAN, which still meets monthly in a Beijing hall, bringing together strangers in a foreign land, united by a sense of place.