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By John Daniel Obioma
Nigeria’s ride to independence on October 1, 1960 was quite a smooth one. The lowering of the Union Jack and the hoisting of the Green-White-Green flag, a banner without stain, signified a turning point in our history. It marked the end of colonial rule and the beginning of another era of self-rule, with local dramatis personae on the stage.
Several social commentors and freedom fighters have described colonial rule as glorified slavery, an evil system involving the unconscionable subjugation and exploitation of a people by another – usually a militarily stronger foreign power. Politically, it often involves an imposition of the insatiable will of the power-hungry leviathan in order to maximally exploit the colony economically. Thus, the leviathan does not care about the interest and comfort of the colonized; and does not hesitate to crush any obstacle, human or cultural, against the realization of its prime objective. Imperial laws are fashioned and forced down the throat of the local people while their economic/natural resources are siphoned by the overlord. This was basically the colonial machinery anywhere in the world, including Nigeria.
Given the above scenario, the gaining of independence by Nigeria was seen as the triumph of good over evil. It was a moment of wide jubilation and merry-making by Nigerians for being in control of their affairs and taking their destiny in their own hands. Why not? The country was blessed with quality material resources, including oil and gas; the emerging human capital was quite promising (including a vibrant political elite); it was and is still Africa’s largest market and most populous nation. Besides, Nigeria’s balance of trade and payment were both favourable, and its national currency had significant value. In addition, the independence constitution had a federalist structure designed to protect the interest of all diverse groups in Nigeria. Overall, the country had a robust outlook that was envisaged to transform it into a prosperous state.
However, in less than six years after independence, the rather bigoted politicians had failed to manage and convert our great potential into gains. Ethnic divisions (as against unity in diversity) re-emerged to produce deep cracks on the wall of “One Nigeria”, hitherto suppressed by desperate nationalists in their quest for political independence. The nationalists had claimed they were equal to the task but in reality they lacked sufficient political experience and tolerance to manage a huge heterogenous polity such as Nigeria. They could not manage the 1963-64 census crisis, the federal elections crisis of 1964 and worse still the Western Nigeria election crisis of 1965, all of which threatened to tear the country apart.
Besides, the political platform which the British assisted to power, the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), was a myopic, sectional party with incurable ethnic sentiments. Thus, from the beginning, an independent Nigeria lacked quality leadership with strong national interest necessary to galvernise the country into a prosperous regional power.
Consequently, the military seized power on January 15, 1966 to save Nigeria from an impending destruction. But that singular intervention instead led to a series of events that shook the foundation of our co-existence. In fairness to them, the coupists probably had good intentions for the country, as later events would vindicate them. But the way and manner the coup plot was executed and the failure of the original plotters to hold on to power so as to carry out their heart-felt reforms, made the coup look like an ethnic agenda to impose Igbo hegemony on the country. The unintended consequences, were catastrophic for Nigeria.
A counter-coup, sponsored by the Northern oligarchy, took place on July 29, 1966. It was more or less an “ethnic cleansing” operation against the Igbo. By then the issue of tribalism in Nigerian politics had become strongly entrenched. The Igbo who were so badly battered, almost out of existence, decided to go their separate way under the name, Republic of Biafra. A civil war followed immediately and continued for almost three years to forcefully reintegrate the Igbo and preserve “the unity of Nigeria”. Having done that, and lured by the perks of office, especially the plenty oil money, the military brats continued to recycle themselves in office for 29 years, ostensibly to right the numerous wrongs of the politicians. In actual fact, however, the military ended-up worsening the Nigerian predicament and plunging her into a cess-pit of woes.
The protracted military rule aliented the people from political participation; destroyed our emerging political elite corps; entrenched unitarism, a system for which they wasted Major General J.T.U Aguiyi Ironsi, Nigeria’s first Military Head of State. The military elevated corruption to the sky as its stench was perceived and condemned even by our worst enemies abroad. There was no more accountability as military leaders and their privileged civilian friends lived above the law. The rising middle-class and politicians that were supposed to champion the evolution of good governance were defused, subdued and marginalized. Those of them who still had guts remaining to agitate, did so from far away foreign countries where they ran to seek asylum.
The oil boom of the 1970s, rather than complement the giant strides made in agricultural productivity, was partly wasted on frivolities like the FESTAC; and also plundered by a conspiracy of military/political cabal and their collaborators. Agriculture was gradually abandoned while oil became the sole foreign exchange earner. Resulting to an over–dependent economy, the situation gave birth to the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), as a redeeming measure, which left in its wake greater poverty, collapsed middle-class, unemployment and inflation.
The botched June 12, 1993 presidential election was another sordid example of a huge wastage of the nation’s resources. The military was not willing to relinguish power, yet it conducted an election to play to the gallery. The cataclysm that followed the aborted victory of Chief Moshood Abiola nearly tore Nigeria apart. When General Ibrahim Babaginda reluctantly stepped-aside on August 26, 1993, his defacto successor, Gen. Sani Abacha, also wanted to perpetuate himself in power.
Military leaders who retired from service actually invested their loots in creating political platforms from where to relaunch themselves into leadership. Thus, by 1999, when it was said the military had finally disengaged from politics, they were still very much in control of affairs, either overtly as civilianized soldiers or covertly through their cronies, as god-fathers. That’s why corruption has worsened in the system, reducing the quality of life of the average Nigerian far below what it used to be by 1960.
The purpose of this narrative is to show how certain internal dynamics in Nigeria have conspired to frustrate the gains, hopes and aspirations attendant upon our independence, making our freedom look more like a curse. Take a look at our social infrastructure – education, health, transport (road, rail and air), water and electricity supplies, all have collapsed. Industries have closed down or relocated to other better-managed countries due to unbearable cost of production; workers strikes (by ASUU, ASUP, NMA, NUPENG etc.) are frequent and rampant. There is mass poverty, hunger and unemployment, and young Nigerians who constitute 69% of the population are leaving the country in their droves in search of greener pastures. Also, due to long years of alienation and frustration, people have been driven back to their ethnic enclaves to form militant and terrorist groups as platforms to fight for what they deem to be rightly theirs. That explains why the invincible Boko Haram has formed a parallel government in Nigeria and is busy fighting to sustain its caliphate. Today, 54 years after independence, the idea of “One Nigeria”, as enshrined by our heroes past is seriously in contention – to be or not to be.
There is always a meeting point between leadership, good governance and standard of living of a people. That meeting point has never been realized in Nigeria’s history since 1960. Our leaders are not responsible or responsive because flawed elections produce unworthy representatives whose allegiance is to the god-father or political party in charge, rather than the people. Thus, in addition to lack of credibility, members of the political class are not accountable to the people they purportedly represent. That’s why the masses are markedly detached from those in power. And even when politicians commit treasonable or impeachable crime, they are protected by their political parties. That way, corruption is being encouraged by the instruments of government.
Whatever may be the case, Nigeria can still survive. If we could survive three years of civil war and the fracas of the 1993 annulled presidential poll, it is possible to reunite the country again. But that can only be done when the issue of leadership failure is addressed and credible ones are allowed to come on board. Nigeria is in dire need of charismatic leadership. The fight against corruption and injustice is the key to our real independence and national reconstruction. While there is urgent need to restructure the country and achieve greater autonomy and prosperity for the constituent parts, wise decision must also be taken on the subject of resource control. Above all, Nigerians from all walks of life must note the gospel truth: “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”
* Obioma is an Associate Editor with The Economy magazine