Nigeria at 48: Looking Back, Going Forward

by Uche Ohia

October 1, the anniversary of Nigeria’s existence as an independent nation slipped by a few days ago. Aside from the usual tepid national broadcast by the President, little else stood the day out as special. Of course, listless squads of marchers went through the routine in various local government headquarters and state capitals. There were public displays, sumptuous banquets in various government houses and frolickers had memorable times at popular beaches, recreation parks, eateries and nightclubs. The usual prayers were held in various mosques and churches. Bemused viewers watched the special service held at the National Ecumenical Centre Abuja on NTA network: the richly attired and dazzling worshippers and the contented manner Mrs Patience Jonathan reclined patiently on the sofa provided for her and the Vice President!

For many Nigerians, after a long weekend stretched further by the two day Sallah holiday declared by the Federal Government on September 29 and 30, the 2008 Independence Day was just a tiresome addition to a prolonged frolic. For astute citizens, it was another day to ponder over the tragi-comedy that contemporary Nigeria has become: a tragedy for those who think; a comedy for those who feel.

But it was not always like this. October 1, 1960 was an emotion laden day. The night before, bells tolled, guns boomed, sirens wailed, and people rejoiced in the streets as Nigeria kept a date with destiny. When the green white green flag replaced the union jack, there was tumultuous ovation, fireworks and furious partying that went on till the break of dawn. That day, the national anthem “Nigeria we hail thee, our own dear native land; though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand” assumed a new meaning. There was joy and rejoicing in the land. Lagos, then capital of the federation, was bedecked with colourful decorations. The regional capitals at Ibadan, Enugu and Kaduna were equally decorated in awe inspiring splendour with Nigerian flags and buntings. The major roads swarmed with people. Exotic lighting, horsemen clad in national colours, gaily dressed men and women added colour and finery to a day that was destined to be like no other. The 20 or so kilometre road from Ikeja airport to Tinubu Square (now Tafawa Balewa Square) was filled with cheering crowds waving the green white green flags. Princess Alexandria of Kent who represented the Queen of England drove to the venue of the hand-over in majestic grandeur.

For years after, the independence anniversary remained a special day. After the civil war, the anniversary of Nigeria’s independence continued to be celebrated with aplomb. As youngsters, we looked forward to that day. These days, the Independence Anniversary just comes and goes. The apathy which many people show towards such a special day is palpable. The cause is less so.

At independence, the population of Nigeria was less than 40 million. Agriculture was the mainstay of the economy, providing employment for over 80% of working males and accounting for over 50% of national income. Nigeria was virtually self-sufficient in food production. The volume of agricultural exports was on the upward swing. Power supply was barely adequate but stable. So was water supply, postal and telecom services. The railway functioned and trains ran up and down the line from the North to the South. Vehicular traffic was sparse but the roads were paved with bitumen and maintained by the PWD. The crime rate was low and the police tried their utmost to bring criminal suspects to book. Civil servants abided by the rules and the citizenry generally had confidence in the system. Today, the reverse is the case.

The biggest problem of Nigeria at independence was how to make the federation of three regions to work in unison. It was like having three countries lumped together each with a keen sense of the differences between it and the other. The fear of domination was rife and the dilemma was how to promote unity in diversity. Today, national unity remains a mirage and the bane of Nigeria’s warped development. This has been a subject of many intellectual discourses. Corruption, uninspiring leadership, tribalism, ethnicism, lack of national values, lack of a national ideology, lack of consistency, and lack of stability are also regarded as fundamental causative agents in Nigeria’s underdevelopment. They are held up as reasons why Nigeria has followed a curious trajectory and defied all palliatives administered to push it onto the club of developed nations.

“An institution”, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) “is the lengthened shadow of one man”. So is a country. No country develops beyond the vision of it’s leader. Since 1960, the ship of the Nigerian state has been steered mostly by reluctant recruits. Before independence, speculation was rife about who would emerge as Prime Minister between Ahmadu Bello, Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Abubarkar Tafawa Balewa. With massive following in their regions, Awo and Zik were among Nigeria’s wealthiest and best educated politicians. But it was Balewa who emerged as Prime Minister of independent Nigeria. His formidable leader, Bello, whose region controlled 174 of the 320 seats in the federal legislature, was content to rule through a lieutenant.

Since then, Nigeria has been ruled by men who have been drafted rather than men fired by vision who voluntarily step forward to wear the crown along with the uneasiness that lies with it. Aside from Ibrahim Babangida who carefully plotted his own ascension to power under the self-bestowed title of “President”, all military rulers who (mis) ruled Nigeria from Gowon to Abubarkar were, more or less, accidents of history. Remarkably also, none of the civilian presidents from Shagari, to Yar’Adua ever really aspired to sit on the pilot seat of the nation.

At 48, uncertainty and corruption straddle Nigeria like a Frankenstein. The direction of government is unclear. Cases against public officials are lingering unendingly in various courts. In an interview published on page 11 of THISDAY of October 5, 1997, Shehu Musa, former Secretary to the Federal Government lamented about corruption thus: “It is not just that officials are corrupt but that corruption is official!” Eleven years down the road, the situation is worse, not better. Recent efforts by President Yar’Adua to exert authority and to restructure the federal apparatchik have raised fresh hopes in the polity but not enough for many Nigerians to celebrate: the discerning would rather wait for the President’s next move.

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