Nigeria @ 56: A Twisted Journey To Nationhood

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When the curtain fell on colonial administration in Nigeria some 56 years ago, the expectations of a great and prosperous Nigeria were high. 56 years down the line, OMONU YAX-NELSON examines what has been described as the country’s twisted journey to nationhood.

The lowering of the Union Jack, the British flag, which represented oppression and the hoisting of the green-white-green, the Nigerian flag by Capt. David Ejoor of the Nigerian Army became the symbol of freedom and liberty. The late anti-apartheid icon, Nelson Mandela once said, “There is no greater joy than farming new wishes and seeing them gratified”.

That wish for self-determination became a reality for Nigeria on October 1, 1960, exactly 56 years today. Standing on the tripod of three regions, North, South-west and South-east, expectations were very high that, with the oppressors out of the way, the glory days had arrived.

These expectations propelled patriots like late Pa Benedict Odiase of the Nigerian Police Band to compose the national anthem, which reads in part: “To serve with heart and might.” 56 years down-the-line, rightly or wrongly, the prospects of those sky-touching expectations are becoming dimer, glimmer and slimmer.

Though, political commentators have said the club of the founding fathers of the nation, Dr. Nnamdi Benjamin Azikiwe from South-east, Chief Obafemi Jeremiah Awolowo from South-west and the duo of Ahmadu Bello and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa from the North did their best to lay solid foundation for Nigeria.

This assertion was predicated on the healthy competition that powered development in their time. Socially, economically and politically, they were able to set the wheel of development in the three initial regions of Nigeria running. The three premier universities we have in Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello in Zaria, OAU in Ile-Ife and university of Nigeria in Nsukka was as a result of their desire for rapid transformation.

They were able to leverage on the competitive advantage of their zones to accelerate socio-economic development. The North had grains and groundnut pyramids for export, the South-east became a hub for oil palm and mining activities while the South-west took advantage of its topography to become the largest cocoa exporter, out of which it was able to build a 25 story cocoa house still standing in Ibadan and the establishment of the first television station in Africa.

However, since the collapse of the first republic, there has been a steady decline in Nigeria’s leadership capital. The character and quality of post-independence leadership that exploited, almost entirely, an agrarian economy to lay foundation for a prosperous Nigeria, have virtually dwindled to a vanishing point, except for some exceptions.

Today, there seems to be loss of meaning and essence to leadership engagement in Nigeria, unlike the patriotic, energised and selfless first republic leaders. The post-independence leaders knew in clear-cut terms what the purpose of political power and leadership is which is to provide the needed examples and point the way for individuals and groups to realise their individual and collective objectives.

For instance, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the first Premier of northern Nigeria, accomplished giant strides from the largely agrarian economy. In a bid to bridge the gap in human development, not only did the region witness widespread establishment of secondary schools, his administration introduced adult education in 1957. By 1957, the primary school enrolment in the region had reached 205,769 pupils.

To accelerate economic growth in the region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, established the Northern regional development corporation (NRDC), which later became the northern Nigeria development corporation (NNDC), and the bank of the north, now, unity bank. To solve the challenge of information dissemination, he established the Broadcasting Company of Northern Nigeria (BCNN) and the Nigeria citizen newspapers which was renamed, new Nigeria newspaper.

The North was less developed economically than the South, and Bello argued that it was necessary for the North to catch up with the South for the sake of national unity. He travelled constantly across the north, meeting people and listening to their concerns. Because of the multiplicity of the ethnic and religious configuration of the North, the Sardauna did everything to encourage religious and ethnic harmony.

In appreciation of the need for an all-round harmony, the Premier, in a Christmas message in 1959, said, “Here in Northern Nigeria, we have people of different races, tribes and religions who are knit together by common history, common interest and common ideas, the things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us. I always remind people of our firmly rooted policy of religious tolerance. We have no intention of favouring one religion at the expense of another. Subject to the overriding need to preserve law and order, it is our determination that everyone should have absolute liberty to practice his belief according to the dictates of his conscience”.

Sir Ahmadu Bello was acknowledged to have built a formidable civil service for Northern Nigeria. In Eastern Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe was in power as Premier from 1954 to 1960, while Dr. Michael Okpara was in power from 1960 to 1966 as Premier.

With revenue, only limited to palm oil, coal and limestone, Azikiwe and Okpara were able to transform all areas of Eastern Nigeria. Elitist projects such as airports, fleets of aircrafts and large entourage with exotic cars is what is in vogue in the midst of huge unemployment, stricken poverty and diseases nowadays. A culture despicably detested by our pioneer leaders.

To accelerate economic development in the region, two banks were established: African continental bank and Cooperative bank of Eastern Nigeria. The east had the first industrial development plan in Africa. As a mark of leadership ingenuity, almost all Eastern townships/cities had designed within them, an industrial zone: Aba factory road, Umuahia factory road, Calabar factory road, Enugu and Port-Harcourt had industrial free zones – the Emene industrial lay out and the Trans-Amadi industrial lay-out. In the same vein, Owerri, had an industrial layout, so did onitsha etc. Owerri, aba and Port Harcourt were already designed in what was called “a three city nexus”

The administration of chief obafemi awolowo in the west was reckoned for pace setter projects in the first republic. Awolowo himself was variously described as restless and a workaholic. To ensure that the people were empowered to take their destinies in their own hands, Awolowo offered free and compulsory primary education in the west.

In justifying his declaration of free education, Awo said, “In order to attain to the goals of economic freedom and prosperity, Nigeria must do certain things as a matter of urgency and priority. It must provide free education (at all levels) and free health facilities for the mass of its citizens.”

The declaration of free education in the Western region accelerated school enrolment in 1956 by 11.1 per cent. The number of primary school intake rose from 42, 952 in 1953 to 1, 037, 388 by 1959. Between 1955 and 1956, the number rose from 457,000 pupils to 811,000. The number of secondary schools also rose in tandem from 46 to 139 during the same period.

According to Hon Idoko Ejumale, “if the first republic leaders could do much without oil money, what is hindering the leadership at our various states from tapping into the massive resources that lie under the ground in Nigeria?”

Despite the socio-economic strides of that era, it was not all rosy. Public affairs analysts have said the political class was not able to get their arts right due to some inherent contradictions.

These contradictions have been explained variously as the glim understanding of each other before the independence was granted. Some have claimed that the colonial powers deliberately planted a prejudice among the leaders of the first republic.

For instance, they said, between 1914, when the south and northern protectorates were amalgamated and 1947, the leaders and people from the two sides never met. The administrative transfer of personnel between the two sides, which would have created understanding between the north and south were ‘deliberately’ ignored by the colonialists.

Despite the eventual collapse of the first republic on January 15, 1966, analysts have acknowledged the phenomenal landmarks of the first republic leaders. The military coup that overthrew the first republic did much to compound the already existing mutual mistrust. The military government that came up as aftermath of the coup could not really find its rhythm because of lack of understanding of the mood of the time.

The JTU Ironsi’s six months government could not survive the ripples from the introduction of decree 34, as another military government took over power in 29 July. Political book makers have consistently argued that, the intension of decree 34 was genuine but was misunderstood.  It has also being noted that by seven years into independence, the deep seated animosity between the ethnics that constituted Nigeria’s architecture had degenerated.

The agitation for self-determination was on the rise. Lt Col Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu will not take it anymore. He initiated a succession plan. On the other hand, ‘go on with one Nigeria’, as the head of state, General Yakubu Gowon’s name implied then, could not accept a divided Nigeria.

This set the stage for needless, bitter and bloody 30 months of civil war between 1967 and 1971, at the end of which Gen  Gowon declared it was a ‘no victor, no vanquished’ adventure. A 3R’s —reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation-programme was launched by Gowon to heal the wounds of the civil war.

With the broken promises of a return to democracy by Gowon, Gen Murtala Ramat Mohammed overthrew Gowon’s government, when he was in far-away Kampala, Uganda for Organisation of African Unity (now AU) meeting. He immediately set-out a four years transition to civil rule programme and muted the idea of a change from the parliamentary democracy of the first republic to the American-styled presidential democracy.

Political pundits questioned this decision because it was not the parliamentary system that was the problem in the first republic. The problem was with the actors. Despite gruesome assassination, on February 13, 1976, of Murtala, (exactly 200 days in power) in a coup, his Chief of Staff, Gen Olusegun Obasanjo, followed through the transition programme, culminating in a presidential democracy on the 1st October, 1979.

The quick note from public affairs analysts at the time was that the almost 13 years of military rule has severely weakened the architecture of the Nigeria Nation. Another thing the 13 years military rule did to Nnigeria was the balkanization of the country into 36 states and 774 local governments arrangements. Analysts have blamed the current system for the inability of states in Nigeria to be self-sustaining. It has been argued that, the military would have left Nigeria on the viable regional structure.

The return to civil rule in the second republic, it was thought, would help to correct the military alterations. However, four years into the second republic, the expectations of Nigerians began to dim. Analysts said, the military class saw that, the civilians were not yet ready for governance.

They predicated this judgment on the massive corruption, intolerance of opposition. Even the 1983 election ended in a fiasco. Once more, the country was thrown into another military junta, headed by the current President, Muhammadu Buhari on December 31, 1983. With accusations and counter accusations, the military class kept at each other’s throat, producing Gen Ibrahim Babangida, Chief Ernest Shonekon, Gen Sani Abacha and Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar.

With the return to democracy in 1999, it was thought that another journey to Nigeria’s nationhood had begun. Political observers have argued that the 17 years of the democratic rule in the third republic have really delivered the expectations of Nigerians. The believe is that a lot has been achieved, especially, the successful relocation of the Federal Capital Territory to its current location. But on the average they say, it is not yet uhuru.

Some have argued that the behaviours of the political class in the fourth republic has not changed significantly from the first, second and third republics. They opine that Nigerians were better fed, forty years ago. They also cite the deplorable quality of education in the country. The roads are death traps, they submitted. The economy, they say is still dependent on oil. Statistics/poverty index are not palatable and crime is on the increase.

The question that has consistently agitated the minds of Nigerians is why is the nation going round in circle? In a recent exclusive interview with leadership, an elder statesman, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur identified three ‘diseases’ that has been the bane of the making of the Nigerian nation; “ethnicity, tribalism and religion.”

According to tukur, these three have consistently constituted sources of tension among Nigerians. “It has stifled our development for years because they create suspicion.” He asserted further that, “if a Hausa-Fulani man is in power, there will be problem because others will say he is not for us. If you put a Yoruba there, there would be gang up from other ethnic groups. It is the same case if an Igbo becomes the president.”

The first take from the assessments of the president of African Business Round table is that, something is ‘fundamentally’ not right with Nigeria. And, those contradictions can be readily explained from the stand point of the way we treat and see ourselves.

Public affairs commentators are unanimous on the effect of ethnic, tribal and religious sentiments on Nigeria’s journey to nationhood. Another thing analysts are also unanimous on is the fact that, the same is deeper and more indelible than the ‘Nigerianess’ in us.

The order sealing the amalgamation of Nigeria was signed on November 13, 1913 in London by the trio of King’s most excellent majesty, Earl Spencer, Lord Stamfordham and Lord Emmoff on behalf of the government of united kingdom of Britain and Ireland and took-off effectively on January 1, 1914.

Regardless of the push and pull, a ‘Titanic nation’ was formed. Remember Titanic? The British passenger liner that sank in North Atlantic Ocean in the early morning of April 15, 1912, after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, United Kingdom to New York city, US.

Meanwhile, the ill-fated cruise liner was named titanic because of its exceptionally great strength, size, force and power. Similarly, Nigeria is likened here to the ill-fated British cruise liner because of her capacity, power, great size, force and enormous human and material resource and yet faced with monumental development challenges.

Nigeria has all it takes to become a true giant. A brief overview of the country’s supposed greatness goes thus: firstly, Nigeria’s population is estimated to be about 170million, making the country the most populous in Africa and the single most populous black nation-state in the world. Population it must be noted is a significant factor in socio-economic development.

Given its abundance in human and natural resources, Nigeria is potentially Africa’s rallying point and largest economy. Every year, the country produces over 300,000 graduates of tertiary institutions, has the sixth largest gas reserve in the world and is the 8th largest oil producer.

Nigeria has abundant but largely untapped mineral resources comprising gold, columbite, bitumen, iron, ore, coal, limestone, etc., and has 60% of her arable land lying fallow. Nigeria also has millions of its citizens in diaspora –an estimated 100,000 Nigerian medical doctors and scientists abroad.

Secondly, Nigerians are noted for their love for formal education, which is the bedrock of rapid development and it is therefore not surprising that we have the largest number of universities in Africa, 131 as at last count and still counting.

Nigeria has over 53 publicly owned and 78 privately run universities. This figure is exclusion of the numerous federal, state and privately owned monothenics, polytechnics and colleges of education that spread across the land.

In the same token, the revered American civil rights leader, Jesse Jackson said, “…the nation nigeria is too rich for her citizens to be poor.” This line of thought gave impetus to the widely held believe within and outside Africa that the ‘burden’ (destiny) of the African continent lies on Nigeria’s shoulder.

Indeed, Nigeria gracefully bore the burden, as was evident in her peace efforts in the congo in the 60’s: Liberia, Somalia and Sierra-Leone in the 90s and also most recently, South Sudan and Mali, not to talk of Nigeria’s giant efforts at annihilating the dreaded apartheid system in South Africa, in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.


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