In an ever-evolving world, it is not entirely strange to look to the past to garner inspiration for moving forward, but it is quite unsettling to persistently agitate for the glory days in history. This exactly is what Nigeria has grown to personify at the moment. Very little in the present gives satisfaction to the older generation or the new breeds; we have expertly documented the several challenges that cripple our country’s economic and social fibre and concluded that we were much better off in the past than we are now and that the most prosperous era in our history were the 1970s. Actually, many Nigerians would much rather live again in the 1970s if telecommunications and internet access could be guaranteed. But what is it about the ‘70s?
The four years that preceded the ‘70s were perhaps the darkest years in our history. The loss of 200,000 military and civilian lives in Nigeria and the loss of about 3,000,000 military and civilian lives in the Republic of Biafra left both regions of the country extremely weak and dependent on each other for survival. In spite of the relative victory of the Nigerian army over Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu’s troops, the nation was wounded almost beyond repair and desperately needed the words of Gen. Yakubu Gowon on January 16, 1967: “The tragic chapter of violence is just ended. We are at the dawn of national reconciliation. Once again we have an opportunity to build a new nation. My dear compatriots, we must pay homage to the fallen, to the heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice that we may be able to build a nation, great in justice, fair trade, and industry.” Whether or not the nation heeded the justice and reconciliation call specifically, fair trade and industry seemed to thrive in Nigeria in spite of the instabilities in government.
Between 1970 and 1979, Nigeria witnessed perhaps her best extended period of social and economic growth; characterized by a massive explosion of revenues courtesy of the oil boom. So great was our wealth that General Yakubu Gowon famously declared that “the only problem Nigeria has is how to spend the money she has”. When his government was overthrown in 1975 on account of corruption, his successor General Murtala Muhammed instantly demonstrated his resolve to build an equitable and prosperous country by using the words “Fellow Nigerians” for the first time. Murtala is reputed in the country, not only for his forthrightness, but more importantly, his courage. His tenure saw the mass retrenchment without benefits and trials of over 10,000 public officials on accounts of age, health, incompetence and malpractice. He ensured that his reforms cut across the diplomatic service, the judiciary, the academia, the military and the civil service; pruning government and diversifying public offices between the military and civilians. Within the seven months of his presidency, Murtala Muhammed faced inflation in the Nigerian economy and attempted to reduce the amount of cash flow in government, promoted private sector expansion, and adopted a ‘Nigeria First’ foreign policy. Unfortunately, good things never thrive in Nigeria and Murtala Muhammed was brutally assassinated on February 13, 1976, but not before laying the foundations for a successful economy managed by his successor, Olusegun Obasanjo.
Obasanjo’s military rule was much shaped by the oil boom which saw Nigeria gain a 350 percent increase in oil revenues. Several sectors of the Nigerian economy were boosted both by this unexpected windfall and the dedication of public servants to national development. Infrastructural projects were multiplied across the country; long-lasting roads were built, hospitals were constructed, steel factories were established, and manufacturing was greatly promoted. During Obasanjo’s tenure, the Nigerian manufacturing industry witnessed so much growth that vehicle assemblies sprung up in the country, most prominent of which was Peugeot Automobile Nigeria (PAN); the five existing Nigerian universities were equipped and eight more established; universal primary education was instituted in the country and the northerners who had hitherto lacked much investment in education began to derive some benefits from increased schooling opportunities; and the green revolution was sparked with massive distribution of seeds and fertilizers to farmers all across the country leading to increased productivity in the nation’s agricultural sector.
The ‘70s were such blessed years for Nigeria that the country’s currency had a much better exchange rate than the US dollar, durable commodities were produced and sold at cheap prices, food was available in abundance, and oil flowed endlessly through the nation’s refineries. It was also during this period that several easterners and westerners earned foreign scholarships to study Medicine and Law in the United Kingdom, several others secured employment in the federal civil service, health facilities were less crowded and more effective in treatment, solid structures were constructed across the Western Region under Chief Obafemi Awolowo, smooth roads which have defied wear till this day were built, leaving the country with fewer road accidents and making the country much more peaceful and stable.
The ‘70s are the years that our parents can never stop speaking about; they were the years when every single parent purchased those mathematical sets which they still brandish before their children; they were the years when two kobo purchased a good meal of ‘amala and goat meat’; they were the years when every one of our parents were top of their classes, even when there were 40 students in a class; they were the years when Government College, Ibadan, Government College, Umuahia, Government College, Ughelli, Government College, Zaria, Wesley School of Science and Kings College, Lagos, were the pride of the Nigerian education system; they were the years when ‘National’ brand fans and radio sets were purchased at ridiculously cheap prices, and on the foreign scene, they were the years when Nigeria had almost zero external debts.
There was something about the ‘70s that made Nigeria very prosperous, and it was not just about the oil boom; there were visionaries in government who made the decision to administer the country with a clear purpose and to invest the country’s resources into lasting projects. There were no thieving legislators who took bribes from successful businessmen to cover up corrupt practices and subvert national interest, there were no governors who embarked on 22 foreign trips in 24 months to ‘attract foreign investors’ to their states, there were no anti-corruption agencies which seconded the prosecution of big name politicians to the British government; there were no senators who served as covert sponsors of northern terrorist groups and there was no president who claimed to be ‘saddened’ by the wanton loss of lives all across the country while maintaining a disposition that displayed extreme comfort in crisis. The ‘70s were the years when Nigeria was governed by democrats who put the interest of the country above theirs; the ‘70s were the years when military subordinates kept a very close check on their superiors and made it clear that they could be ejected at a moment’s notice for non-performance, and more importantly, the ‘70s were the years when Nigeria conducted a peaceful election and made a smooth transition from military rule to democracy for the first time.
There is an urgent need to revisit the practices of the ‘70s as we forge a path forward for Nigeria. National interest was at its peak during those years; the efforts of General Murtala Muhammed and General Olusegun Obasanjo on the local and international scene were tremendously great influences on local administration and regional integration. The ‘70s were the years when Nigeria truly earned the toga of ‘the giant of Africa’, and we demonstrated across the continent that we had a system that worked. The ‘70s were the years when Ghanaians flooded the country because of the widespread economic development which we offered not only our citizens, but all citizens of Africa. We need the ‘70s again, but more importantly, we can make this decade and future ones more successful and more prosperous than our past. The same values that guided our leaders then can be revisited and we can collectively build a nation that we can be proud of. If Ghana could rise from the ashes of economic desolation, reclaim her citizens from Nigeria, attract Nigerians en masse to her markets and then flush out illegal Nigerian marketers within a span of thirty years, it will be a massive shame for Nigeria to stand aside and allow ethnic, religious, political and other roadblocks to hamper our development. We would be haunted forever by the memories of the ‘70s if we fail to act. The time is now; let’s rebuild Nigeria.
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