The Making of a Nation
No doubt, European colonialism destroyed Africa’s legitimate institutions and structures of authority. The initial military triumph of European power over the local rulers was itself enough of a strain on the historical prestige of indigenous monarchies and institutions of governance. That triumph was followed by decades of European over-lordship with policies deliberately calculated to retard Africa’s political process forever; a situation which the greed and irresponsibility of the leaders of independent Africa did not help either, Nigeria inclusive.
The name ‘Nigeria’ happened to many people like a historical surprise for it took British colonialism to inform Nigerians that they were Nigerians. In the 1914 amalgamation by Lord Lugard, the previously stateless societies were enclosed with ancient monarchies to form a new nation. In the view of pessimists, such unification of peoples with different cultural continuities was destined to disintegrate.
But the Nigerian nationalists saw the country as bigger than the sum of individual ambitions, greater than all differences of birth or wealth or religion. They believed that Nigeria’s multi-cultural and religious heritage was a blessing. That was why, the arrival of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the doyen of Nigerian politics and nationalism, in the country in 1934 marked the beginning of non-violent militant nationalism. Combined with the nationalistic spirit of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Herbert Macaulay, and Sir Ahmadu Bello, the struggles to alter ruthless distortions of colonial rule and make Nigerian people subjects of their own history began.
The Birth of a Nation and Experience of Self-Rule
History was made when on October 1, 1960, the then Governor General, a Briton by name Sir James Robertson handed over the reins of power to a Nigerian who would step in his shoes as the country gained her independence. Thus, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe became the first Governor-General of the new independent Nigeria. It was a significant victory for our forebears who worked till their hands were swollen so that we might live a better life. To an average Nigerian, independence had brought a vista of hope as imperialism gave way to self-determination and resource control, the beautiful brides of autonomy.
At independence the country was overtly ‘mighty’ but inherently ‘vulnerable’. Yet, living true to their dream, the heroes of the new independence immediately set in motion policies and programmes of action to prove that the Eldorado had come. In the Unity Government that was formed immediately, Azikiwe became the first Head of State and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister.
Not long, the Unity Government presented signs of fatigue; both the centre and the federating regions were anything but prudent. Profligacy was the order of the day, corruption, nepotism, religious bigotry, ethnicity were parading with pride in public and private offices. Petrol and kerosene bombs were common sights at campaign grounds. It was a celebration of decay as anarchy was let loose upon the country.
It was not surprising when the jackbooted majors allowed their marshal music sift outside the confines of their barracks on January 15, 1966, and before long, the politicians were scampering for safety. A killing spree ensued and the lives of the Prime Minister and several high ranking politicians were snuffed out. The government landed on the bewildered laps of the President of the Senate, Chief Nwafor Orizu, who not knowing what to do, invited the military. That was how Major General Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi became the first Military Head of State in 1966. Truncated in the process was the dream of a progressive Nigeria under Nigerians.
However, barely six months in office, Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi was murdered in the avenging coup of July 29, 1966, by Gen. Yakubu Gowon led-army. An unfortunate chapter in Nigerian history had begun as the country was thrown into ethnic genocide which was followed by a full blown civil war that raged like wild fire for three years. One consequence took the appearance of another. The seed of marginalization developed; corruption, greed, political assassination, tribal sentiment, looting of public treasury, and the politics of winner takes it all became entrenched in the polity of the country.
Gowon did not do much to heal the wound of the three years of plunder, chaos, and violence. His government became extravagant, plunging the nation into further economic ruins. Gen. Murtala Mohammed did not hide his feelings when he bloodlessly ousted Gowon on July 29, 1975. His government was short-lived as Lt Col. Bukar Sukar Dimka’s bullet snuffed life out of him on Feb. 13, 1976. History gave Dimka’s exploit to Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, who, bowing to pressure from within and outside, paved way for civil rule on October 1, 1979.
When eventually Nigeria pulled through the torture of the military to her Second Republic on October 1, 1979, every Nigerian rushed into the conclusion that the country had come of age. The general elections conducted in 1979 produced Shehu Shagari as the first executive president of the country. The political mathematics of 122/3 of the 19 states being 13 gave victory to Shagari.
The years 1979 to 1983 were perhaps the freest years in Nigeria during the last century from the point of view of open society and candid dissent. The names and reputations of the rulers were not spared; those in power were denounced as pirates and robbers in their own country. These were the golden years of press freedom in Nigeria. Sometimes the press would come close to inciting violence; and sometimes the opposition leaders did incite violence and got away with it. Political dissent reached its highest order as official secrets were flagrantly made public in a matter of seconds.
But the administration was one of the most economically corrupt and incompetent in Nigeria’s history. The country’s oil resources were rampantly abused, its finances substantially depleted, its laws of contract desecrated, its laws against corruption ignored, its teachers unpaid and its people impoverished. Shagari’s balance sheet was stark: impressive political and press freedom against incredible economic anarchy. The stage was set. The military boys would intervene to ‘save the nation’.
On December 31, 1983, the non-smiling, tough-talking duo Generals Muhammad Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon, stopped the president from coming back from Kampala where he was attending the meeting of the defunct Organisation of African Unity (OAU).
Then, there came an attempt at the third republic. The Armed Forces Ruling Council under General Ibrahim Babangida not long bade farewell to Buhari’s government in the celebrated coup of August 27, 1985, and promulgated the Transition to Civil Rule Decree. He formed two political parties- National Republican Convention (NRC) and Social Democratic Party (SDP).
These parties held power at the state and local government levels. There was also a successful election for the National Assembly members but, as the legislatures waited in the wings for their inauguration, Nigeria went into the 1993 presidential polls that pitched the SDP flag bearer Chief M. K. O Abiola against his NRC counterpart, Alhaji Bashir Tofa. It was a straight fight; but Abiola was believed to have won before the election was annulled by General Babangida, an event that did not go down well with many Nigerians who saw it as a rape of democracy.
The breakdown of law and order in Lagos, the stronghold of Abiola’s kinsmen, led to the death of many innocent Nigerians. The general dissatisfaction, legitimate public anger combined with international pressure swept General Babangida away from office. But he could not “step-aside” for the interim government of Chief Earnest Shonekon without a kangaroo handover that paved the way for his fellow compatriot, Gen Sani Abacha who walked into the Aso Rock after a palace coup.
Abacha’s political madness cost Nigeria a great deal. But that ended on June 8, 1998 when the cold hand of death gripped him in what Nigerians believed to be a decisive moment. Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar prepared way for transition that saw that power return to the ex-military head of state, Gen Olusegun Obasanjo as a democratically elected president on May 29, 1999.
Unfortunately, Obasanjo’s government suffered military hangovers: executive rascality, political killings, electoral manipulation, disregard of court injunctions, emasculation of the press, institutionalized official corruption, and disrespect for the fundamental human rights. The Government’s eight years in office was a ridicule of democracy, turning illegitimacy into state-craft, and political criminality into a grand act. Government’s policies and programmes never accorded with the general aspirations of Nigerians. It became so hard for honest people to earn a decent living in Nigeria.
When Obasanjo was to leave, he bequeathed to the nation an ailing presidency, the product of the 2007 electoral fraud that put the moral credibility of all the beneficiaries into serious doubt. The highest beneficiary of the fundamentally flawed elections, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, inherited baskets of rotten sectors. The highly militarized Niger-Delta, collapsed power sector, internal party crisis, inflated economy, corrupt judiciary, general insecurity, sectarian violence, the inflaming public anger, and many more combined to give Yar’Adua sleepless nights. Yar’Adua’s probes of the previous reckless government spending suffered heavy blow as not long, some members of Probes Committees were indicted for similar corrupt practices.
Today, the succession of events which culminated in the death of Yar’Adua on May 5, 2010, has seen Dr. Goodluck Jonathan as the President. Next year’s elections present litmus test for electoral reforms which, besides probes, uneasy truce in the Niger-Delta and constitutional amendment, sums up the achievements of this regime.
The Challenges before a Nation at 50
Nigeria’s unfortunate political history has dire consequences, facts now well understood. The nation’s economy was badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some leaders, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for new age. Our health care has gone into coma, our schools rot away, evidences that corruption is thriving, dishonesty rewarding, and illegitimacy paying off. Each day brings further evidence that the way we sabotage our economy strengthens poverty and threatens our future. The worst is the sapping of confidence among Nigerians who have lost hope in the system. These weaknesses are subject to data and statistics.
The state of the economy calls for bold and swift action to create new jobs for the teeming unemployed and lay a new foundation for growth. The infrastructures require urgent attention; we need to build the roads, bridges, and industries, the electric grids and digital lines to feed our commerce and utilize our abundant mineral resources. Science needs to be restored and modern technological wonders innovated to raise health care quality and lower cost. Our agricultural abundance deserves harnessing to run our factories, fuel our economy, and keep inflations at single digit. Schools, colleges, and universities need to be transformed to meet the demand of the ICT age.
Our democracy, though growing, poses great challenges. The electoral process falls short of credibility, political maneuvering is high, the judiciary suffers executive patronage, and the way we make laws demands more prudence. That Nigeria has managed to carry on to 50 is not because of the skills and vision of those in high offices, but because the people of the country have remained faithful and true to the ideals of our forebears: hope over fears, unity of purpose over conflicts and discord. This is the foundation for the future.
Towards a Sustainable Nigeria
At 50, Nigeria has tasted bitter civil war, emerged from dark political, socio-economic chapters stronger and more united in proffering solutions. Although the challenges we face are real, serious and many, what we have achieved gives confidence as to what we can do. We cannot but hope that sooner old hatreds shall pass, and lines of tribes and religions dissolve.
Already, visible signs of hope are emerging each day by the way we plan, implement and execute policies and programmes. The judiciary is becoming independent; the legislature is coming of age. Financial institutions led by the banking sector are consolidating and less flexible to external factors, local production is picking up through private investments; above all, more than ever, Nigerians are resolved to trust their own system. When cynics neglect these, they betray their short memories and overlook what can be achieved when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.
Two routes will guide us to the future. One is the imperative of looking inwards towards our potentials. The other is the imperative of looking outward to the wider world of humanity at large for enduring ideologies.
Inwardly, Nigerians should reaffirm their greatness, greatness that must be earned. To reclaim it, we must avoid taking short cuts or settling for the less. It comes, not when we prefer leisure over work, or seek the pleasure of riches and fame. Greatness goes to risk takers, who trod the long, rugged path of sacrifices.
Fortunately, Nigeria has a productive populace. Our minds are no less inventive, nor our goods and services less needed than decades ago. Our capacity has remained undiminished, an indication of our unlimited capacities to greatness. But, to walk close to that greatness, time of protecting narrow interests must pass.
To restore vital trust between Nigerians and their government, power must be prudently used. Leaders who manage people’s Naira should be held to account- to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and conduct transparent businesses. This will enable government develop resilience and extend opportunity at all times to every willing heart, not out of charity but because it is the surest route to common good.
Next is to look outward for enduring system! The question we should ask is whether a system helps families find a job with decent salary, delivers health care we can afford, and a retirement that is dignified? Where the answer is yes, Nigeria should move to adopt. Where the answer is no, programmes should end.
These challenges may be new to Nigerian leaders, but the values upon which they depend- hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism- are old. These have been the quiet force of the progress of great nations. Nigeria needs a return to these eternal truths and urgently too.
What is therefore required of every Nigerian is a new era of responsibility- a recognition on the part of all, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world. Duties we are to seize gladly rather than accept grudgingly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price that can nurture our future and decide our fate. Congratulations Nigerians! I see hope!
An Article written for Intercontinental Bank Essay Competition for Nigeria at 50 and published in Torch Magazine 140 Edition, Enugu