Sixty years after flag independence, Nigeria is still (some will say, just) hanging in there. Bring out the cymbals!
The challenges of cobbling a nation out of disparate peoples were evident from the beginning. On the eve of independence, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Premier of Northern Nigeria said, “It is true that we politicians always delight in talking loosely about the unity of Nigeria. Sixty years ago, there was no country called Nigeria. What is now Nigeria consisted of a number of large and small communities all of which were different in their outlooks and beliefs. The advent of the British and that of Western education has not materially altered the situation and the many and varied communities have not knit themselves into a composite unit”. That statement might as well be validly made today.
Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was, however, upbeat about Nigeria’s prospects: “Each of our three Regions is vastly different in many respects, but each has this in common: that, despite variety of languages and custom or difference in climate, all form part of one country which has existed as a political and social entity for fifty years. That is why we believe that the political union of Nigeria is destined to be perpetual and indestructible”.
We chose the British system, possibly with the hope that it would lead to rapid development since we had already undergone tutelage in that system. Three years before independence, the man who emerged Prime Minister in 1960, Tafawa Balewa, was confident that the system would deliver the goodies. He said, “I am pleased to see that we are now all agreed that the Federal system is, under present conditions, the only sure basis on which Nigeria will remain united. We must recognise our diversity and the peculiar conditions under which the different tribal communities live in this country.”
But we have since distorted the kind of federalism Balewa was talking about. Were he to come back from the grave today, he wouldn’t recognise the counterfeit system we are now pretending to run. We forget that, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.”
The single most important factor dogging Nigeria’s march to greatness is leadership. Those who have emerged leaders over the years have mostly made it to the top by compromise or accident, or a combination of both. None was formally groomed for the role. The leadership recruitment system seems patterned to rhyme with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island:
Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—
…Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
From one era to the next, hopes are raised, the people are mobilised to prepare for the greater tomorrow only to find themselves in a worse situation. Yet, we make empty boasts about our potential greatness as if one could take that potential to the bank. We demand respect instead of earning it.
Path to responsible leadership? Listen to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Premier of the Western Region: “The influence which a nation exerts, the respect which it enjoys, and the prestige accorded to it on the world scene, depend on two important factors: the size of its wealth and the calibre of its leadership.”
I can’t wait to see Nigeria take its rightful place among the comity of nations. And where better to start than the very foundation? The pseudo-federalist constitution we currently operate can only lead to grief. Although it is convenient for some people to pretend that they don’t know the spelling of true federalism, they can only postpone the doomsday. It is strange that we have failed to do the rightful thing as matured people — sit down together and fashion out a better structure that will have everyone’s buy-in.
The wonky structure is also part of the problem that our leaders at various levels have been contending with. In my corner of the woods, the 50’s were glorious. Free education. School buses running on schedule. Public taps spewing potable water. Security (you could trek from one town to the next if you had the strength). Modest living. Pride in local goods. High hopes for the future.
The 60’s were trying years. The army toppled the civilian administration and we fought a civil war. The decade ended up being worse than the 50’s. When the 70’s rolled in and the war ended, we thought we could finally pick up the pieces and fly. We had so much oil money that, all things considered, we ought to have done better. The 70’s were, in spite of developmental strides here and there, years of underachievement. The 80’s were worse than the 70’s and the 90’s not as good as the 80’s. Each decade (and each leader) has been progressively worse than the preceding one.
We love sloganeering. We once had “Health for all by the Year 2000”. Then we shifted the goal post to “Vision 2020” as if that year would never come. When 2020 caught up with us, we shifted ear to Agenda 2050 designed to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty within the next 10 years. The World Bank projects that Nigeria will become the world’s third most populous country by 2050 with over 400 million people.
Nigeria has no business being the poverty capital of the world, blessed as the country is, with assorted minerals and agricultural potentials. According to the World Poverty Clock, 82.9 million (40.1%) Nigerians are poor, the highest by any country. However, Somalia (81 per cent), South Sudan (80 per cent) and Central African Republic (78 per cent) have the highest ratio of poor people to population size.
Elsewhere, Nigerians are bursting the charts. Although they make up a tiny portion of the US population, a whopping 37 percent had bachelor’s degrees, 17 percent held master’s degrees while 4 percent had a doctorate, as at 2006. Compare that to 8 percent of white Americans with master’s degrees, 1 percent with doctorates and 19 percent with bachelor’s degrees. Asians come closer to the Nigerians with 12 percent holding master’s degrees and 3 percent having doctorates.
Anyone who knows anything about Nigeria will readily concede that the situation at home could have been worse. With all the swindles that have ravaged the country — from pension flimflam to P&ID scam — you’d wonder what manner of human could so cheaply betray the country of his birth for filthy lucre. The more we underachieve, the more we reinforce the prejudice of racists who say we are not equipped to govern ourselves.
I can understand the frustration of Shaka Momodu in his analysis of the P&ID scam: “The main problem with Nigeria lies with the people who populate this geographical space. It is the people who structured the country into this dysfunctional unworkable giant contraption, full of potential, short on progress”. So, Fellow Citizen, look in the mirror!
On Nigeria’s 60th birthday, I invoke Pope Francis’ words on how we can live a more meaningful life by living for each other: “Rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruit; the sun does not shine on itself and flowers do not spread their fragrance for themselves. Living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help each other. No matter how difficult it is…Life is good when you are happy; but much better when others are happy because of you.”
Join me in raising a calabash of palm wine to the Giant of Africa: Cheers!