By Osita Chidoka
mbassador Baba Gana Kingibe, then Secretary to Government of the federation called me and inquired about a meeting I had in London with then EFCC Chairman Nuhu Ribadu and Mallam Nasir El-Rufai to launch an international media campaign to discredit President Umaru Yar’Adua as part of plans by the Obasanjo boys to remove President Yar’Adua from office. I was alarmed. Shortly after that discussion another senior friend of mine Chief Mike Nwakalor frantically called me and said I should thank Amb. Kingibe for standing up for me and insisting that the Osita he knows would not be part of a plan to discredit a government he is serving as a Chief Executive. Chief Nwakalor had also told some of those peddling the story that unless Ojo Maduekwe was part of the plot he does not see how Osita would plan such.
The truth was that I had come out of Paris from a road safety conference with my wife and checked into the Hilton Metropole where incidentally Nuhu Ribadu, who arrived from a Thisday Event in New York was also staying. We met in the lobby and he told me he was waiting for Nasir to go and see Gani Fawehinmi who was very sick at the time in London, I quickly offered to go and see Chief with them as I hadn’t seen him since he was hospitalised. After the visit I left with Nasir and Jimi Lawal to join the Awujale of Ijebu for Iftar dinner as it was Ramadan. The following day I left for Nigeria.
The story of the plan to discredit President Yar’Adua was only symptomatic of a more fundamental problem of ideological differences between the so called “Obasanjo boys” and the emerging “Yar’Adua group”. This difference arose largely because the PDP at that time was not constructed along any guiding political philosophy hence the immediate effort to dismantle what some termed the Obasanjo hegemony. Subsequently Nuhu Ribadu was removed as EFCC Chairman, Nasir El-Rufai went on exile and in my case a Presidential Panel was set up to investigate allegations that my appointment did not follow due process and other sundry allegations, same petition was also sent to ICPC and EFCC. Luckily for me Ambassador Kingibe and then Permanent Secretary General Services Office Hakeem Baba-Ahmed stood their ground and saved my nascent career from the forces I worked day and night with President Obasanjo to bring to power.
President Obasanjo in his last year made effort to construct a new paradigm for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) by bringing to life a new manifesto with what he termed Irreducible Minimums on all the key areas to enable PDP elected official across all levels of government to deliver on an agreed set of deliverables that will distinguish PDP from other parties. He also worked on a document titled ”PDP Candidates: Desirable Qualities and Code of Conduct”, I will handover to the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library a version of that document with the handwritten corrections of President Obasanjo. Today is not about history but sooner than later I will write my own book to respond to the historicity of El-Rufai’s and Obasanjo’s facts and conclusion in their controversial books Accidental Public Servant and My Watch about my role in their various accounts.
President Obasanjo, is exceptional in his ability to spot talents and utilise them effectively. Age and tribe is no barrier to his unquenchable thirst for talents. I speak as a witness. Now l invite you to join me in spirit as we span over centuries and continents in the quest to locate the role of guiding philosophy in nation building and development of political culture.
Is Nigeria a mere geographical expression? Answers in this room will be varied but this sentence has continued to haunt our country and may continue to haunt us if we do not do the needful. That needful is the reason why we are here. First we are sitting in the presidential library of a former President. The first library so built, standing as a monument not to Olusegun Obasanjo the man but to the ideas, history and record of Obasanjo in the publc space. The construction of this library though of material nature made of stone, sand and concrete, is one of the pointers that as a nation we are marching towards transmutation of matter to the ethereal. The library is a symbol of Obasanjo’s pioneering role in the effort to transform Nigeria from a mere geographical expression to a geographical expression of ideas.
A library is a repository of knowledge. Its significance is not in the physical structure housing it but in the ideas it stores and the mind it transforms beyond the imagination of the authors of the ideas. Hence my job today is to give expression to ideas that will enable a new generation to rethink, remap and reimagine Nigeria as an expression of ideas providing a home to all who seek to dwell in a geographic space housing those values that unite disparate groups, breathe life into a constructed entity and create a sense of union.
Countries founded along homogenous ethnic or racial identities are widespread and yet at some point in their evolution they rise above blood, family, caste and tribe to find a philosophical reason for existence. The British wrote the magna carta, arguably the most important foundation of contemporary law making and such legal principles like habeas corpus. The Magna Carta underpinned the evolution of the British democracy and the rights we take for granted today. We can state that the magna carta transformed Britain from a patrimonial geographical expression to an expression of idea that propelled the rise of the British empire.
The French revolution institutionalised, if it did not invent, the philosophical underpinning of French society under the slogan Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. These thought triad continue to define and symbolise the ideals that French men and women live and die for.
The United States of America is a classical example of a nation founded on ideas. Ideas that speak of truths self-evident, of equality of men, of rights inalienable, of endowoment by their Creator and listed some of the rights to include Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
70 years later Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg spoke of a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. What is the philosophical idea that our nation was conceived in and to what proposition are we dedicated to? Lincoln was at Gettysburg to dedicate a burial ground for soldiers who gave their lives at the battlefield during the US civil war between the Northern and Southern part of the country. He defined the war, drawing from the declaration of independence, as testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived or so dedicated can long endure.
In the three examples we have cited above none spoke about unity, about progress, about faith, about peace rather they spoke of natural and legal rights. They spoke about the expectations of a human being from the union or state. When we today speak about supremacy of the constitution, habeas corpus, mandamus and other legal protection that individuals enjoy, we must remember that its origin is in the fundamental philosophy of states. These philosophies did not arise out of philosophers but a product of the struggle between contending forces be they economic, social or racial.
At independence our leaders failed to define the qualities of an exceptional country so diverse yet so similar that other African countries can discern a Nigerian no matter the ethnic origin. The emphasis was on replacing the colonial masters and enjoying the benefits of a distributional and extractive governance philosophy primarily designed to enrich the home government of the colonialist. In adopting that philosophy without the administrative competence of the colonial administration it was only a matter of time before the vacuous organising principle of the new state led to Africa’s worst pogrom and civil war.
The end of the civil war offered an opportunity for the wining coalition to redefine the organising principle of the Nigerian state and propose new ideals upon which, a state exceptional in its combination of three strong and many other small ethnic groups that had overcome a civil war, can be founded. Yet again we missed it.
The scars of the war and the psychological damage on both sides were covered with the wall paper of oil boom denying the country an opportunity for introspection and catharsis. On the Nigerian side, the psychological damage arising from a bloody three – year war to keep the country one did not find a healing outlet. We talk today of the Unknown Soldier and perform some perfunctory ceremony ostensibly to honour that soldier whose purpose and reason for dying remains unknown to the post-civil war generation or even to those who fought alongside the soldier.
On the Eastern side of the country the three Rs of Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation provided the convenient ointment to soothe the pains of the bitter pogroms and war. Together with the oil boom and the quest to survive, the necessary soul searching and existential interrogation that ought to accompany the reconciliation never occurred.
Taking an example from the United States of America, a country founded on the idea of freedom and inalienable rights, we look at the way those who lost their lives during the American Civil war and the Second World War are treated. Every June 6, the world celebrates the D-Day, the landing at Normandy. On the 50th anniversary of that landing, veterans, Presidents, Prime Ministers gather at Normandy to celebrate the most audacious military campaign by the Allies to fight back Nazism. At the National D-day Memorial located in Bedford, Virginia, the community suffering the highest per capita D-Day losses in America, the memorial is described “…as a permanent tribute to the valour, fidelity and sacrifice of D-Day participants. The memorial is encompassed by the names of the 4,413 Allied soldiers who died in the invasion”
Where is the memorial to the valour and the sacrifice of the soldiers who fought to keep Nigeria one or the memorial for those who lost their lives in the pogroms and the Biafra side? What is the reminder for ‘‘Never again”? What will make a post war generation conscious of the triggers of that war and the human and material cost of the war? We must confront our past to help in ensuring that a new generation does not repeat the mistakes of the past as the prevailing situation across the country suggests.
The generation that fought the civil war did not and have not defined the reason it fought to keep Nigeria one. We do not have the equivalent of our own Gettysburg speech that raised the reason for the war above the mundane. We have not honoured those who laid down their lives so that the Nigerian State will survive and exist. Since the colonial government amalgamated Nigeria, have we defined the concept of Nigeria along values and ideas? We talk about unity and faith, unity for what? Faith in what? For what purpose?
Our ethnic, tribal and religious diversity ought to provide the inspiration and aspiration to build a nation out of our different tribes and tongues. Our founding fathers missed the opportunity to inspire and construct a nation of ideas and not a mere inheritor of a British convenience store. It is in trying to sustain and build on the British foundation and scaffolds that we have missed our way and continue to do so.
As a Freedom child born on a Nigerian soil watered by the blood of young men and women on both sides of the war, I have decided that we have come of age to set new scaffolds and construct new pillars that will give new meaning to the idea of Nigeria. Those born after the war are gradually ascending to the commanding heights of the bureaucracy, economy, politics and academia and will sooner than later assume responsibility for managing Nigeria.
Our national motto speaks of unity and faith, peace and progress. Unity for what purpose? Faith in what? Our national anthem asks us to arise and obey Nigeria’s call to serve our fatherland, service to achieve what? That the labours of our heroes past shall not be in vain. Good enough we are at President Obasanjo’s Library and he is here with us, it will be good to know what informed the change of our national anthem in 1978.
Our first national anthem composed by a British expatriate Lilian Jean Williams, who won the contest to compose an anthem for independent Nigeria gave an indication of the Nigeria we should build as it talks of standing in brotherhood though tribes and tongues may differ, of sovereign native land and proclaimed that our flag shall be a symbol that truth and justice reign whether in peace or battle we shall honour truth and justice. At the end of the first stanza it demanded us to hand on to our children a banner without stain. Lets look at the lyrics of the two national anthem again
The concept of truth and justice, of standing in brother though we differ and the promise to handover a banner without stain resonates and have the aspirational qualities of an ideal.
The first stanza of the Obasanjo (yes he gave it to us) anthem calls us to arise and obey Nigeria’s call. It demands us to serve our fatherland with love, strength and faith hoping that the labours of our heroes past shall not be in vain. It ends with a declaration of a nation bound in freedom, peace and unity. The current anthem is a product of our post-civil war experience which has as its defining ethos peace and unity. The issue is, to what purpose?
Looking at the second stanza of the two anthems I have no difficulty aligning with the old anthem which asks the Creator to grant our one request, to help us build a nation where no man is oppressed. The idea of a black nation where no man is oppressed appears to me as a foundation upon which we can construct a nation so diverse and yet similar; where though tribes and tongues differ we can stand in brotherhood. A country where minority rights are protected and individual rights guarranteed.
My sympathy for the first national anthem notwithstanding its weakness was the fact that it did not emanante from Nigerians. Its foreign origin elicited strong protest at that time and made the words to lose its deeper meanings to its audience.
Sadly our first republic started without a coherent national aspirational philosophy and more seriously it took off as a divided country. This fact was well captured in an article by Ezekiel Mphahlele writing in African Today, a few months to independence, in an article titled Nigeria On the Eve of Independence.
Describing the three regions on the eve of independence Mphahlele wrote “So here we have three regions marching confidently to independence: practically three nations, the smallest having not less than five and one-half million in population. The British Colonial Secretary believes Nigeria could not have chosen better than to opt for a federal structure. But there is a body of enlightened opinion that holds that the worst legacy Britain could have left Nigerians was to have regionalized the country. Indeed, each regional government has over the years been “developing along its own lines””. Three strong regions sharing no unifying philosophy and dedicated to no ideal.
More disturbing is Mphahlele’s thoughts on the Political Parties of the day at that time. He posited that each regional ruling party generally reflects the traits of the national group it governs. He described the N.C.N.C thus “N.C.N.C. has a looseness of structure that has something to do with what one may call the republican spirit of the Easterners – the individualism and independence of mind of the Ibo.”
For the Action group he thought the “A.G. reflects the profound sense of authority of the Yoruba: almost as if, without someone to pay obeisance to, a man would not survive one day”
The Northern People’s Congress was in his words “Equally authoritarian is the N.P.C. Muslim sanctions give it a feudal look and character and indeed it is often feudal in its attitudes and in its dealings with those it rules”
For the intellectuals who have also consistently failed Nigeria in their inability to locate the organizing ethos for a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country like Nigeria Mpahahlele has very harsh words for them even then. “Intellectual opinion is not organized at all in Nigeria. Intellectuals are too busy consolidating economic gains that have accrued from positions they have taken from retiring or retired whites. And any how, the civil service, which has the largest concentration of intellectuals, does not promote, still less breed, intellectual freedom.”
Presciently, Mphahlele observed that the absence of a philosophical foundation or an existential challenge will leave Nigeria as a nation with unrealized potentials. In his words “If the challenge of independence can act on the Nigerian in anything like the same degree as the challenge of oppression does in South Africa, Nigeria can be a truly great country”
He also warned almost prophetically about the possibility of violence post-independence and the impact of colonialism “… only a fool is prepared to stake everything on the peace-loving qualities of Nigerians. Colonialism has an uncanny way of creating a host of ugly paradoxes by which it thrives. And when it recedes, these paradoxes appear to the unperceptive onlooker to be self-imposed.”
We have found a rather insightful witness in Ezekiel Mphahlele, a South African who was teaching at University College Ibadan at independence, to support our basic thesis that our founding fathers did not construct a strong philosophical foundation for our nascent nation. Our own Baba also agreed that “The only point on which Nigerian political leaders spoke with one voice was the granting by the British of political independence – and even then they did not agree on the timing.”. In the euphoria of independence we left undone those things which we ought to have done.
Our national aspirations should inspire the next generation and provide them with the existential meaning of Nigeria. A meaning that transcends geography, natural resources and ethnicity. To grow Nigeria we must build a society that harness human resources, provides equal opportunities and develop capacity for innovation.
It is on this foundation that I want to interrogate the presence or absence of a guiding philosophy for Nigeria and the consequential impact on our political culture. Many have argued that the trouble with Nigeria is leadership and other have asked When is a Nation? Some insist that the absence of ideology is at the root of our political crisis. In all the views the constant is the agreement that there is trouble with Nigeria. The leadership question is key.
During the civil war General Gowon could not define why the task to keep Nigeria one must be done. Unlike Lincoln he could not locate the sacrifices, injuries and deaths arising from that war in a larger philosophical construct. Another opportunity missed.
The regime of General Murtala Muhammed rallied Nigeria with a muscular Pan-African agenda and acclaimed effort to stamp out corruption. This was followed by a more radical Pan-African agenda under General Olusegun Obasanjo when he succeded Gen. Muhammed. The first Constituent Assembly, after the war, again saw politicians focusing on form and not content. Mid-wifed by the Military the Assembly could not craft a national charter that can lay the philosophical foundation for the country.
President Shagari’s ruling Party, National Party of Nigeria (NPN) spoke of One Nation, One Destiny. I am not sure much thought was given to either the nation or its destiny.
The war against corruption turned out to be the basis of legitimacy of the General Buhari administration. The regime had no time or temperament to consider existential issues like national philosophy.
The Babangida administration attempted to redefine the economic structure of the country through a World Bank inspired Structural Adjustment Programme that Obasanjo accused of “lacking milk of human kindness and a human face”.