The year was 2010, the month was October, and it was the first day. I crouched into a seat on the third row of the 18-seater Toyota Hiace bus at Ojoo, Ibadan and committed my trip into God’s hands. I was on my way to Lekki, Lagos where I was scheduled to be guest speaker at one of the numerous golden jubilee celebrations taking place across the country. I spent the next two hours searching the recesses of my brain for enough solid points to stun my audience with enough reasons to not give up on Nigeria. It was my intention to convince them to defy their better reasoning, ignore the voices of many who claimed that Nigeria had achieved nothing in 50 years of corporate existence and proceed with the belief that the future was bright. I don’t know how successful I was in passing that message across on Independence Day two years ago, but I know that my audience nodded with understanding intermittently. It wasn’t the easiest speech I have ever made, but I gave it my best shot and was rewarded handsomely with a fat white envelope. But wait, how did I get here?
Holidays are solemn occasions in Nigeria, but some holidays mean more to us than others. October 1, 2010 was very symbolic, as it marked the fiftieth anniversary of our independence from British rule. It was also the first opportunity that Goodluck Jonathan had to coordinate a national celebration as substantive president of the country and he wasted no time in issuing a N10billion budget. This was going to the mother of all celebrations because we were apparently the first country on earth to attain the pristine age of 50. All hell was let loose with the astronomical budget, with even the Nigerian Senate surprisingly condemning the budget and slashing it drastically to N6billion. The common theme for Nigerians was “What is there to celebrate?” Just like all commentators of the day, I found myself rattling off endlessly on the list of failures of the country until I got a call inviting me to be guest speaker at a golden jubilee celebration. I instantly picked my topic: “Independence or In-Dependence?” and continued to develop my thoughts along the lines of our inability to break-even after fifty years until I realized that I was expected to give an upbeat presentation and not state the obvious. My heart sank!
For several days, I struggled to string coherent thoughts together as I became overwhelmingly aware of the failures of civilian rule under Azikiwe and Balewa giving birth to military domination by Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gowon, Obasanjo, Buhari, Babangida and Abacha, with Murtala Muhammed’s regime being the brief interspersing of reasonable leadership. I recalled Shagari’s civilian docility and shook my head even further. It was much easier to narrate the history of politically-motivated killings all the way from Tafawa Balewa to Adekunle Fajuyi, Aguiyi-Ironsi and Murtala Muhammed. Political assassinations seem to be a Nigerian staple and having grown up on tales of S.L. Akintola, Dele Giwa, Alfred Rewane, Suliat Adedeji, Kudirat Abiola and others, it wasn’t much of a shocker to realize that the murders of MKO, Bola Ige, Marshall Harry and others would never be resolved.
When I finally decided to realign my thoughts and deepen my research, I began to glean some speckles of gold dust amidst the murky waters of Nigerian history. I remembered that in sports, our soccer team was ranked 5th in the world in 1994 and claimed Olympic Gold in 1996; I remembered that one of the most skillful footballers on the planet, Ronaldinho referred to a certain Nigerian number 10 as his idol; I remembered that our music has been heard across the world and the documentary on Fela Anikulapo’s life has aired successfully on Broadway; I realized that Nigerian movies have been premiered at the world’s biggest film festivals and our screen stars have rubbed shoulders with the world’s best; I realized that our writers have claimed the highest literary prizes on the planet and the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart was celebrated in 50 cities across the world. I realized that in 2001, the most beautiful girl in the world was a Nigerian teenager, as was the first winner of the Nokia Face of Africa contest; I realized that the designer of the world’s first hybrid electric car, the Chevrolet Volt was a Nigerian; I realized that the inventor of mobile polyphonic ringtones and the designer of the world’s most expensive phones and suits was Nigerian. I realized that the Managing Director of the World Bank was a Nigerian woman; and that the only African to ever be Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations was Nigerian. All in all, I realized that Nigeria had so much to be thankful for, but always found a way to hit the top of global headlines because of the failures of a handful of political hooligans and some beggarly elements. I turned my speech around, spoke from my heart and left Lagos the following morning with a renewed passion to seek out the best of Nigeria.
On this solemn occasion of Goodluck Jonathan’s first anniversary as President, I have found myself treading that familiar path to ask myself how we found ourselves once again complaining bitterly about the state of our nation. We never really liked Umaru Yar’Adua because of the circumstance of his emergence as President in 2007, but Nigerians almost unanimously supported Goodluck Jonathan’s noiseless push to succeed him as President. We somehow believed that he was going to be a different brand of leader and his first few utterances as President seemed to prove us right. When he declared his interest in the 2011 race, Nigerians voted for him en masse and they knew what they were doing. The race was a clear popularity contest between Jonathan and three-time contestant, Muhammadu Buhari and Nigerians overwhelmingly rejected Buhari. We were not hoodwinked. We liked Jonathan because we knew very little about him and the very little we knew appeared to be good. So, did we make a wrong choice back then? Hindsight is 20:20, but at the time, Nigerians did what they thought was right.
A lot has changed in our history over time. Gone are the days when one naira exchanged for $0.55 in 1980, now we speak of N159; gone are the days when we overwhelmingly sent Ghanaians packing in 1983 and laughed at their worthless currency, now there are almost more Nigerians than Ghanaians in Ghana and the Ghanaian economy rolls on like a locomotive engine. Perhaps the peak of embarrassment that Nigeria has received from Ghana, besides the fact that Ghana’s only oil refinery seems to be thriving perfectly with oil imported from Nigeria, was the coming of the Ghanaian Deputy Energy Minister to Lagos in 2009 to deliver a lecture on “How Ghana Kept the Lights On”. What a shame on us! Gone are the days when young Nigerian students received mouth-watering scholarships to study in the best schools in the UK and returned to lecture at Nigeria’s universities; these days, people who are lucky to escape to Uganda and Gabon are swearing to never set foot on Nigerian soil again.
When Abubakar Tafawa Balewa visited the United States in July 1961, he was accorded the highest honours in the land; received personally at the airport by Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President of the United States, met at the doors of the White House by President John F. Kennedy, accorded audience before a joint session of the US Congress (one of only 112 people ever to do so in US history), awarded an honorary Doctorate Degree of Laws by New York University (America’s largest private university), granted honorary citizenship of the cities of New York and Chicago (America’s two largest cities), granted audience with the UN Secretary-General and cheered endlessly by joyous Americans. These days, Nigerian politicians are being carpeted sheepishly by British lawyers, ridiculed and convicted while we struggle to explain our inability to bring them to judgment on their own soil. Far behind us are the days when Obafemi Awolowo built the Cocoa House (then Africa’s largest skyscraper) from the proceeds of agriculture, far behind us are the days when Nnamdi Azikiwe and Odumegwu Ojuwku fought tirelessly for equal representation of the Igbos; far behind us are the days when Ken Saro Wiwa gave his last drop of blood for the emancipation of the Ogonis; these days, Tompolo, Boyloaf, Asari Dokubo and their fellow militants strut confidently in the corridors of Aso Rock in defiant demonstration of the fact that their struggles were for personal aggrandizement.
So on a day like this, when there couldn’t be a clearer diversity of opinion between Nigerians in the corridors of power and Nigerians on the edges of rickety Lagos buses on the achievements of Goodluck Jonathan, it is appropriate to look backwards before looking forwards. Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency almost makes Olusegun Obasanjo look like a saint, but this is really not about Goodluck. True, he has done next to nothing to establish his credibility, but our challenges precede him and would possibly outlive him. No one can say for sure how we got here, but we find ourselves in a very desperate position and urgently in need of salvation. The call rings ever louder for true patriots to arise and take their places in politics, in business and in the civil sector. 2015 is far too long for Nigerians to wait for a comprehensive overhaul; we stand the risk of pandering yet again to the sweet talk of some phony politician who might have never had a belt to keep up his school shorts. The time is ripe for us, especially the young generation, to lay out a clear agenda for our future and design a roadmap for getting there. Nigeria belongs to us and our children and Goodluck Jonathan will not always be here to listen to our complaints. We have to reclaim our country by all means and shape her as a prime destination for progressives. We may not know exactly how we got here, but we can hardly move on into a bright future without a clear understanding of the past and a firm rejection of the present. Nigeria deserves better.
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