Abubakar Tafawa Balewa

We shall overcome, maybe

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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”.

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun

How did we get here?

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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!

English: Seal of the President of Nigeria Cate...

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.

English: Abubakar Tafawa Balewa
Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun