Between 1955 and 1968, African-Americans particularly in the southern region of the United States received global attention for their unending pursuit of freedom, equality, racial dignity and economic self-sufficiency. They locked arms and walked several miles, organized protest sit-ins, carried banners and placards, withstood whiplashes and fire hoses, boycotted public services, endured the horrors of jail, fasted, prayed and worked to earn their place in a country which their ancestors helped to build. Through the voices of tireless advocates, through the writings of strong opinion leaders, through the sermons of firebrand evangelists and the sweat of hundreds of thousands, the American Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and paved the way for our appreciation of present-day America. The slogan was “we shall overcome”.
At the same time that African-Americans were fighting for their freedom on their own land, patriots of the Nigerian state were agitating for the same from the United Kingdom. We, however, did not have a unified slogan, because in spite of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s leadership, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the face of the westerners, Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe was the face of the easterners, while Sir Ahmadu Bello was the face of the northerners. Nigeria has always been polarized, and even in the forging of a spurious unification in our quest for freedom, tribal agenda still dominated public discourse and the eventual process of decision-making. Our failure to develop a collective agenda for our country at inception has led us, 52 years down the road, to a state of continuous haggling over minor issues at the expense of progressive matters.
All through our growing years, our history has been characterized by repeated military coups, needless tribal wars and political subjugation by a ruling class that seems to always recycle itself. Worse still, we have failed to agree on much, though we claim to be ‘one Nigeria’. Residents of the north are hardly ever satisfied with a southern leader; easterners have repeatedly agitated for a state of their own, citing unequal representation in our conundrum of a country; citizens of oil-producing regions have struck at will, rightfully claiming a hold on the country’s economic fortunes, at the same time that other ethnic minorities crave primary recognition. Our mismatched quilt work has failed to evolve into a beautiful canvas of peaceful existence that it could have been, and while we can trace its origins to our colonial masters, culpability lies squarely with us for our present state.
It is quite inconceivable that a nation that works to develop a common agenda for 52 years will yet find itself bogged by petty issues as unequal representation of minorities, uneven development across regions and a total failure of the centralized government to demonstrate its commitment to the ideals of good governance. Issues that should have been sorted out through the dysfunctional Federal Character Principle have turned out to be our albatross as we now glorify ethnic representation above excellence. We have simply not worked hard enough at building our country, and now that our weak seams are loosening, we feel the agonizing pains that should have been done away with several decades ago. The nation, Nigeria has not worked and we all know it.
On this anniversary of what could easily have steered the ship of the country towards safety, we recall the unintelligent decisions of the ruling military headed by General Ibrahim Babaginda. For the first time ever, our experiment of a two-party democracy was about to yield dividends, but personal, ethnic and religious jealousies won the day and Chief MKO Abiola was denied his mandate. Nigeria has failed to recover after 19 years, and hope dwindles by the day. What could have been the state of our nation if MKO had been granted his term of office? What were our potentials for economic prosperity? What were the chances of our jigsaw puzzle ever coming together as one image? How could our education system have been faring today? What were our chances of promoting human rights and equal representation for all citizens? Would we have been guaranteed stable power supply, clean water, good roads, and qualitative health facilities? We would never know for sure how our country could have turned out, but no one doubts that five years of retrogression under General Sani Abacha, and the subsequent 14 years that we have spent trying to find our feet have not helped our cause. We are still a parody of a nation.
We would never have MKO Abiola again, and June 12 1993 has refused to be committed to the pages of history, however there is a great chance that concerted efforts on all sides can bring us close to the collective state of our country in the run-up to 1993. Having our political parties rethink the concept of a National Republican Convention (NRC) and Social Democratic Party (SDP) whose divergent, yet mutually sympathetic agendas produced visionaries like MKO Abiola and Bashir Tofa as flag bearers will be a good place to start. Our current multi-party state has brought us to a realization that political ideology counts for nothing so long as individuals can construct arguments of dissent against the ruling class. The current political climate in the country further guarantees that willing and qualified intellectuals will almost always be frustrated in their pursuits to help build their country. Politically, we have failed, and economically we are performing much worse. Nigeria’s individual exports to the rest of the world have had tremendous success, yet they are daily frustrated in their good intentions to leverage their expertise for developing their country. Countries like China and South Korea have perfected the art of sponsoring their citizens to gain skills from foreign countries which are in turn invested in the development of their own countries; however Nigeria seems to continually push her citizens away with no incentives for returning. Oh, shame of a nation!
Recalling the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States; the inability of an African-American to buy food from a white restaurant or to walk into a hotel by the front door in 1960, and the emergence of Barack Obama as president in 2008, the significance of conscientious determination to make things work is easily understood. While African-Americans will continue to sweat to earn their place in America, they can look back on the progress which they have made and shed tears of relief, while on the other side of the Atlantic; we shed tears of sorrow seeing that the same span of time has not yielded commensurate results for us. The hard work of Martin Luther King and his compatriots has brought some meaning and reality to the words “we shall overcome”, but for us, this is not yet time to sing “Kumbaya”. Seeing our inability to justify the struggle that went into June 12, after 19 years, our otherwise reckless optimism must now be met with caution. Hopefully, Nigeria will someday outgrow this era of championing weak ideas, and break out as the soaring eagle that she can be, but for now, the reality of our commitment is this: “We shall overcome, maybe”.
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