Nigeria @ 53, the journey so far, not so good (1)
As Nigeria prepares for the celebration of her independence from British colonialists every year, I always remember the scary profundity of Wole Soyinka's Dance of the Forest. This play was which staged as part of Nigeria's Independence anniversary in 1960 was Soyinka at his prophetic best. Although he was just 26 and freshly back to Nigeria after his educational pursuits abroad, Soyinka passed a scathing judgment on what Nigeria's political leadership was inheriting from the colonialists, warned the citizenry of the need for vigilance and predicted that the dance of the tribes, may go awry if all hands were not on deck. Although the political establishment did not take kindly to this daring effort from the author, the work was an apt foreboding of what was to come, as just four years after independence, Nigeria's political leaders ventured on a series of events which led to two military coup-detats in quick succession and a debilitating civil war from which Nigeria is still struggling to recover.
Consequently, as optimistic as I like to be about Nigeria's future, I am worried and dismayed that this country has not made much progress in the 53 years of political independence. To be more precise, I hold the opinion that we have been stagnant in a lot of ways, we have degenerated in so many more ways while very little, if any progress, has been made in our march to meaningful nationhood. A key reason for our lacklustre performance at nation-building as Soyinka prescribes in the Dance of the Forest is the failure to draw lessons from the past at every turn in our history. That is an enterprise in which Nigeria still fails woefully. The country reminds me of the following exchange between two characters, Adenebi and Rola, in this Soyinka play, where the latter asked if the former had any sense of history and the latter replied; 'What history?' It is a country that just refuses to learn from the past, a reason for which, it has circled round the same mountain forever like the Biblical Israelites.
For example, for close to one decade before 1960, leaders of the three regions could not agree on whether the nation was ripe for independence or not. While leaders from the southern part of the country began to forcefully demand the political freedom of the country as early as 1953, their counterparts from the north thought it was too early to ask for such freedom. They believed the colonialists' conjecture that Nigeria was soon sure to destroy itself in a civil strife if independence were to be so early granted and stood solid rock against such a possibility. Hear what Chief Obafemi Awolowo, one of the active participants in the move towards independence, said in a speech he delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives in Lagos on March 31, 1953; '…It has been customary for our friends from the North to threaten the rest of Nigeria with secession if this is done or if that is not done… We find the northern majority is not only being used (by the colonialists, I presume) in having their way, but it is also being used in preventing the minority from having their say…' Such was the suspicion and distrust that existed amongst major ethnic nationalities in the country at the attainment of independence. This suspicion eventually led to the coups and then the civil war to which millions of lives were lost.
Now, has Nigeria learnt anything from this? I think not. Fifty three years on, national integration is still abysmal. There are verbal missiles across the country by individuals who desire to promote the interest of their ethnic groups, all of them fanning the embers of strife and war. Ethnic militias exist in different parts of the country threatening the lives and existence of those who do not share their ethnic or religious pedigree. As I write this, about 50 young Nigerians were just murdered by the Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram, in Yobe State, for no reason other than being in school. We have even seen the 'deportation' of hapless Nigerians from one state to the other and the attendant emotional outbursts that followed it.
There is also no letting off the steam on the political scene. At the moment, seven governors elected on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party(PDP) are on do or die mission to get a politician of northern extraction into the office of president come 2015. To them, it does not matter that the north had held that position for 37 out of Nigeria's 53 years of independence, and that the region in particular and the nation in general, has nothing to show for it, all they are interested in, is the bragging right that the next President is from the North. To drive home the urgency of their desire, some of their supporters have actually threatened that Nigeria would be history if this pet project failed.
The North is not alone in this retreat into ethnic covens though. The country has defenders of ethnic rights in abundance. Of prominence are the kinsmen of President Goodluck Jonathan. In the case of Jonathan, whose Ijaw group hasn't recovered from the sudden fortune of having one of their own in the highest office of the land, threats of war come from the old and the young. Even Chief Edwin Clark, one of the few surviving participants in the politics of the First Republic is on the train of those threatening to support the pulling down of this country if Jonathan does not return to power in 2015. None of these war mongers cares about what their man has been able to add to the country since he mounted the throne three years ago, what matters is that one of their own is the man of the moment!
It is no surprise therefore that Nigeria is plagued with one of the most pathetic leadership deficits in recent history. When a country discards merit for ethnic expediency in the attainment to political leadership, it is impossible that anything other than mediocrity and failed potential would be the lot of such a nation. Legendary writer Chinua Achebe puts its succinctly in his seminal work, The Trouble with Nigeria: 'But whereas tribalism might win enough votes to install a reactionary jingoist in a tribal ghetto, the cult of mediocrity will bring the wheels of modernisation grinding to a halt throughout the land' That is the state of affairs in Nigeria currently. It is as bad as for past and present leaders in the country to brazenly tell the world that Nigeria's major challenge is the lack of honest and dedicated leadership even as none of them has the nobility to plead guilty of the charge.
A corollary to the endless foisting of mediocre leaders on us is the descent into an assortment of vices which would most definitely diminish the prospect of such a society to attain its potential. This plague of bad leadership accounts for the frustrating level of ineptitude that we have in all areas of our national life. It seems to me that a cloud of cluelessness has descended on Nigeria over the years. The evil of corruption, nepotism, cronyism and waste which now permeate the country are a direct consequence of the lack of vision on the part of those who have ruled Nigeria over the years.
Corruption in particular is one vice in which Nigeria has grown in leaps and bounds over the years. If there were pockets of corrupt practices in the country at the attainment of independence, Nigeria has within the last 53 years grown corruption to the extent that it has literarily acquired a life of its own. Between 1960 and now, about $400bn is said to have been pilfered away or misused by members of the Nigerian political class. This has almost brought the nation to its knees with the resultant collapse of the middle class and the gap between the rich and the poor widening by the day.
As people in government continue to take advantage of Nigerians, every welfare system in the continue has crumbled. Agriculture which was the mainstay of the country's economy up until the end of the First Republic has taken the back burner no thanks to the seeming ease with which petro-dollars have come to us since the oil boom in the 1970s. As Nigeria's oil prospect increased, political leaders found more money to filch even as they neglected to sustain the structures which made life meaningful for the citizenry. Today, life is almost unbearable for the average Nigerian.