Obafemi Awolowo

Moving Forward (1): Rethinking the Idea of Nigeria

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Nigeria, a country with an estimated population of 167 million people drawn from about 400 indigenous tribes is an idea that many argue should never have been in the first place. So much has been made of the decision of Lord Frederick Lugard and the British regime in 1914 to amalgamate three divergent groups of people; the northern and southern provinces and the Lagos colony into one distinct body and to permit his girlfriend, Flora Shaw to give them one name. Apparently, the flagrant display of disrespect for the individuality and uniqueness of each class of people did not go down well with the citizens of the day and has not been forgiven almost a century after. The country somehow survived 60 years of colonial dictatorship and 43 years of inconvenient communal dwelling, before making her case for independence in 1957; still bearing the grudges of the turn of the millennium.

The vision of the country’s independence fighters for a unified country encompassing the north and south, and amassing the individual strengths of each part was laudable, but has proven to be unsuccessful since then. The polarization of the country along religious and tribal lines appeared to be too deep a gulf to bridge and even the smartest brains of the independence era; Awolowo, Azikiwe and Bello failed to devise a unified message about the proposed new nation. The westerners had their political party, the Action Group (AG), the northerners had the Nigerian People’s Congress (NPC) while the easterners had the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) and thus attempted to form a government of national unity. The population and land size of northern Nigeria somehow served as key factors in convincing the politicians of the day that the northerners had a birthright to the throne of the country, as the NPC dominated the newly-constituted parliament with almost half of the members. With Tafawa Balewa’s emergence as Prime Minister and the collaboration of the easterners in the unified government, the westerners under the leadership of Obafemi Awolowo instantly became the opposition and dashed all hopes of unified governance in a country that had barely taken off.

Between 1960 and now, Nigeria has suffered the pangs of a growing nation, but the pains have been more pronounced partly because of the prominence of individual greed and preference for personal glory and partly because of the glorification of pettiness. As has been discovered over time, every venture that requires groups of people to agree to a common purpose will require patience, dedication and sacrifice. Patience has been demonstrated across board in the Nigerian case but dedication and sacrifice not so much. Forming a representative government, defining a common purpose, appointing public officials, managing scarce resources, providing social services to the needy and energizing the populace are difficult tasks for any administration around the world, and Nigeria’s soaring population has clearly not helped the cause. Every respected country in the world has come through long periods of chaos, confusion and uncertainty, but common purpose has often triumphed over conflict. Building a nation of diverse groups was never expected to be an easy task, but the question of the people’s dedication to its success arises very frequently.

The phrase ‘unity in diversity’ encapsulates the hope that Nigerians have sustained for nearly a century, but there seems to be such strong resistance to its realization in the hearts of all citizens. Laying off politicians and elected officials for once, traditional rulers and cultural thought leaders have not made significant efforts to disabuse the minds of their constituents about citizens of other tribal groups. Yorubas still view Hausas as ‘wicked’, Hausas still view Ibos as ‘greedy’ and Ibos still view Yorubas as ‘deceptive’; every tribe has its own interpretations of the character and behaviours of other tribes and these stereotypes cloud our minds in all situations. Inter-tribal marriage may not be subjected to the stigma and discrimination it once faced in Nigeria, but it is still not as widely appreciated as it can be. Our parents have placed the protection of cultural heritage above the promotion of national unity, and while this appears reasonable, it is definitely a significant factor for our lack of collective appreciation of each other. Schemes like the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) which were intended to introduce citizens to different parts of the country to foster national appreciation in the hearts of the youth have sadly been clouded by incidences of insecurity, underemployment and protracted manipulation.

On the political side, the Federal Character Principle was drafted into the country’s constitution to ensure that citizens from different parts of the country are equally represented in government positions and through political appointments, but the failure of each tribal group to put their best brains forward has led people to criticize the political appointments that the country has witnessed. Very few people would have problems with a northern Minister of Defence whose tenure witnesses peace in the country, anymore than they would have problems with an eastern Minister of Finance whose tenure witnesses large scale economic growth. The grouse of Nigerians has been the allotment of political offices to different parts of the country and then filling those offices with grossly unqualified loonies who drag the country into the same abyss from which she seeks to be rescued. It is quite a difficult task for Nigerians to continue to bear with the leadership of the country when they see a person who was instrumental in the coup that brought General Ibrahim Babangida to power in 1985 and who served as his Aide-de-Camp make a return to government as National Security Adviser almost thirty years later; or to see a person who has served in multiple offices in every single administration for the last 13 years earn a promotion as Ambassador to Canada. In the quest for equal representation, quality is often sacrificed and the resultant poorly considered choices serve to agitate the populace much more than they were before such appointments were made.

Nigeria is indeed a beautiful country whose diversity should be her strength. From the dedicated agriculturists and merchants of the north to the skillful business hands of the east; from the creative comedians of the south to the witty storytellers of the west, Nigeria’s unique conception is unrivalled. We are blessed with oil in the south, solid minerals in the mid-west, fertile soil in the north and beautiful weather all around; we are endowed with breathtaking wildlife, astonishing sceneries, amazing waterfalls, evergreen forests, and remarkable marine life which are evenly distributed across the country. While we have come agonizingly close to parting the country along her weak seams, we have held on so long for a purpose. There has never been a more opportune moment to rethink the idea of Nigeria and make a commitment to help make the country work. We might be frustrated politically, disappointed economically and disillusioned socially, but this was never going to be an easy task. The responsibility of nation-building is not reserved for the handful who are privileged enough to make it to the nation’s capital; there needs to be a burning sense of urgency in all Nigerians to face down fascism and tear down barriers in a quest for a better tomorrow. It is extremely easy to criticize false starts when one has refused to make any personal moves, but it is far nobler to take the less-traveled path and labor for future generations. Nigeria is ours, Nigeria we must serve. The revolution starts now.

This is the first in a series of commentaries on moving Nigeria forward. Subsequent pieces will focus on specific policy issues that would help to advance certain aspects of the Nigerian economy and mesh into a creditable whole in the near future.

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun

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