FACING THE NEXT FIFTY
The fiftieth anniversary of Nigeria's independence is a landmark event for Africa as a whole. Although it has become commonplace for Nigerians themselves to denigrate the achievements, or lack of them, that this anniversary represents this cannot be denied. Africa's most populous, and arguably its most adventurous, nation cannot be regarded as an onlooker in the celebration, or the commemoration, of the continent's golden jubilee of decolonisation. Ghana was the pioneer but Nigeria has been the most important nation in the overall pantheon of post independence governance in Africa almost in spite of itself. There can be no doubt that the Nigerian has established a characteristic image on a global scale that is hard for anyone to ignore.
The brash self confidence, even in the face of disaster, for which Nigerians are justly famous has become the hallmark of an incredibly complex nation that might still seem to be in the making but which every Nigerian knows deep in his or her heart is already a challenging reality. While it often seems as if the divisive sentimentality that provoked the Civil War when Nigeria was not yet ten years old is on the verge of being revived, the fact that forty years have passed since that conflict ended without the nation fragmenting is cause enough for celebration. The problem is that what has been held together often appears to be a distressing conglomeration of unfulfilled promise. The potential for the development of greater economic growth and social advancement over the last fifty years is seen as having been betrayed by corruption, official incompetence and political instability. For this reason it is widely assumed that Nigeria's golden jubilee has been rendered virtually unnecessary. We hold a different opinion.
Having lived in Nigeria for forty four of its fifty years I am convinced that its potential for greatness has been enhanced by its experience of independent nationhood. In fact many of its achievements should be regarded as signposts to greatness in themselves and some of them are of such signal importance that they must be celebrated. Nigeria's role in championing the cause of African liberation in both material and moral terms cannot be denied. Its stance in the UN against apartheid in South Africa and in opposition to the continued colonisation of the frontline states of Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Mozambique should forever be celebrated by all true African nationalists. The construction from scratch of its capital Abuja is an incredible feat of infrastructural renewal. No matter what we may feel about the dysfunctional politics of its military establishment Nigeria's role as a peacekeeper throughout the world and especially in West Africa is a key achievement of its independent status. We believe that the Nigerian civil war might not have occurred if the government had not been taken over by the soldiers.
However in relation to those that have occurred elsewhere in Africa since decolonisation the conduct of that conflict was disciplined and comparatively free of major violations of the human rights of innocent citizens. The restoration of the rights of the former secessionists was also promoted with gusto by the Gowon government after the war. This Government was also responsible for the successful regional integration represented by the formation of ECOWAS. Regardless of what might be considered deficiencies of implementation, West African unity has become one of the key initiatives of Nigeria's post-independence foreign policy. The nation regarded as a stumbling giant at home is seen throughout Africa as a problematic but always dependable big brother.
Some pre-eminent and problematic issues and challenges have emerged over the last fifty years that no amount of self-glorification can conceal. First and foremost among these is the inability of the nation's managers to ensure adequate energy supply and effective accountability in the economic affairs of the nation. These two issues might at first appear to be exclusive entities but in reality they are inextricably intertwined. The industrial expansion needed to provide adequate employment for the youth of the nation can hardly become reality in a situation where the power supply is at best erratic.
Without such an expansion of opportunity the nation is doomed to remain an unstable economic entity especially where it is a giant market and a minuscule producer of goods. Instead of investing its enormous hard currency earnings in local production it has become a core market for foreign imports as well as a choice destination for expatriate contractors. These are the sort of problems that are recurrent and all pervasive and are thus responsible for the widespread disenchantment that has become common currency in the mood of most Nigerians as they contemplate their fiftieth anniversary.
Nonetheless we are convinced that the benefits of independence far outweigh the liabilities and that all true Nigerian patriots must recognise this. The creation of states has generated levels of development for some smaller communities that were unlikely to ever have been contemplated under a colonial government. Nigeria's inability to expand and improve on such colonial legacies as the railway service and the energy supply are largely failures of vision rather than of deliberate decisions. Such anomalies must be corrected in the spirit of mutual progress and harmony of purpose. Nigerians should not simply throw up their hands and assume that what has not been done so far cannot ever be done in the future.
I have always assumed that beyond the call of duty every Nigerian loves the idea of a united Nigeria. The misfortune however is that Nigeria is a nation of such diverse peoples that each Nigerian might have a different vision of unity than that being visualised by his neighbour. The harmonisation of these differences rather than the subordination of each individual's vision will eventually make the nation great. However Nigeria's collective will has been seriously tainted by the political record of successive governments.
Military fiat has become so deeply ingrained in the psyche of our last fifty years of governance that the so-called democratic process instituted over the last decade gives us no cause for the self-congratulation that this anniversary demands. This key deficiency has created anxiety over the issue of what should be celebrated and whether the nation should reflect on, or rejoice over, having attained the age of fifty. From my vantage point as a perennial observer who is always seeking to justify choosing the nation as my home rather than having been forced by birth to accept its nationhood as the key to my destiny my greatest worry is not about Nigeria's first fifty years but rather its next fifty.
I have many children who have no other home that they can call their own and whenever I contemplate the future that they will inherit I worry about the tendency to polarise their national heritage through the imposition of either ethnic, religious, or so-called ancestral presumptions. The nationalist imperatives of good governance, freedom from oppression and tolerance of each other's historical assumptions appear to be coming under siege at this time. Some recent political events are threatening to revive these dangerous imperatives. Nigerians must reflect on how and why the nation has survived thus far. Its next fifty years might demand the rejection of much that existed in the first fifty but there are also enormous lessons to be learnt from the past.