Nigerians no longer celebrate Independence Day. In fact, they are afraid any form of celebration will only put more money in the pockets of corrupt state officials. They don’t think there is anything to celebrate. This is why every October 1 must be a day of sober reflection. What happened to us? When will Nigeria rise again and become a giant with the feet of steel?
Today marks the 59th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from British colonial rule. On Saturday, October 1, 1960, Nigerians gathered at the Race Course (now Tafawa Balewa Square) in Lagos as Princess Alexandra, the representative of Her Majesty the Queen of England, handed over the instruments and symbols of independence to Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa. It was 12.01 a.m. as the Nigerian flag of green-white-green was hoisted. It was a high moment for Nigeria. It was a major turning point since the amalgamation of 1914. It marked Nigeria’s exit from colonial, imperial rule. It was the birth of a new, independent nation. In his famed golden voice and clear, crisp diction, Balewa told the audience:
“When this day in October 1960 was chosen for our Independence, it seemed that we were destined to move with quiet dignity to our place on the world stage. Recent events have changed the scene beyond recognition, so that we found ourselves today being tested to the utmost. We are called upon immediately to show that our claims to responsible government are well-founded, and having been accepted as an independent state, we must at once play an active part in maintaining the peace of the world and in preserving civilisation. I promise you, we shall not fail for want of determination. And we come to this task better-equipped than many.”
Hope, determination, readiness to partner with the rest of the world and confidence about the future were key elements in Balewa’s speech. The people were joyous, there was dancing in the streets. But 59 years later, do we still feel the same way? Would Nigerians dance on the streets on the occasion of the anniversary of their independence, one year to the diamond jubilee? Can any Nigerian leader today connect with the people as Balewa did on October 1, 1960? Nigerians had great expectations in 1960, and that was why three years later, when an attempt was made to sign an Anglo-Nigerian Defence Agreement, the people rebelled. They wanted Nigeria to be truly free, and not be tied in any way whatsoever to the apron-strings of the British Empire. That same year, Nigeria became a Republic.
It is often said that Nigeria got its independence on a platter of gold, a reference to the fact that we did not have to organise guerilla warfare against the British as was the case in East and Central Africa, or against apartheid as in South Africa; but while that may be true, Nigerian history is full of reports of resistance to British colonial domination from the 19th century exploits of the likes of Ovonramwen Nogbaisi to King Jaja of Opobo, to King Kosoko of Lagos, all through the early 20th century with the protests over water tax in Lagos led by Oba Eshugbayi Eleko (1908), the nationalist press in Lagos, Aba women’s riots (1929), Abeokuta women’s revolt (1946), the Enugu coal miners’ strike (1949), the cultural protests by the likes of Hubert Ogunde, the nationalism of Herbert Macaulay and others including Labour Union leader Michael Imoudu, all leading to the various conferences – 1953 to 1957. Independence in Nigeria was a product of struggle, no doubt. October 1, 1960 was therefore as much a tribute to the efforts of the then living contemporaries, as it was to the valour of heroes past.
When Tafawa Balewa said, “we found ourselves today being tested to the utmost”, he probably was referring to the tensions that surfaced even as Nigerian political leaders negotiated the country’s independence. The British had amalgamated, not just the Northern and Southern Protectorates and the Lagos colony to form a country called Nigeria, they had brought together more than 400 ethnic nationalities, each with its own distinct culture and language or peculiarities or inter-ethnic affinities. And yet out of all these nations, three groups became dominant: the Hausa-Fulani (yet another curious amalgam of ethnicity and language) led by Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Yoruba led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and Igbos led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. In the negotiations, all the groups were united by the idea of independence, but they could not reach a consensus on when and how. By 1957, the minorities were beginning to feel left out. The effect of their protest was the setting up of the Willinks Commission (1957/1958) to address the minority question in Nigeria. Even as Nigeria celebrated independence on October 1, 1960, the foundation on which it sat already had so many cracks: religious, ethnic, geographical and ideological. The British have been accused of laying a weak foundation for the new Nigeria, with their divide and rule colonial administration policy, and the many booby traps they placed on the path of the newly independent nation, but let the point be made, the new leaders who inherited Nigeria from the British and on whose laps fell the mantle of leadership, did not really see themselves as Nigerians. They were leaders of their ethnic groups, doing business, on their people’s behalf, with an enterprise called Nigeria.
Six years after independence, the tensions came to a head, and the country broke out into a civil war. It turned out that Balewa under-estimated the challenge of “being tested to the utmost”, which he alluded to on October 1, 1960. Nigeria has not yet recovered from the blow-out that followed, from 1966 to 1970.
I do not intend to write a short summary of Nigerian history. It is rather unfortunate that History was removed from the Nigerian school curriculum for many years, only to be returned later as an optional subject. What kind of country plays with its own history, and deliberately grooms a generation of citizens without memory?
Six years after independence, the tensions came to a head, and the country broke out into a civil war. It turned out that Balewa under-estimated the challenge of “being tested to the utmost”, which he alluded to on October 1, 1960. Nigeria has not yet recovered from the blow-out that followed, from 1966 to 1970. There are persons who believe, and we need not blame them, that the Nigerian civil war has not yet ended, instead it has gotten worse over the years, and assumed new forms. But despite the war and the subsequent domination of Nigerian politics and space by the military, Nigeria – once upon a time – looked different. The discovery of oil and the oil boom of the ’70s turned Nigeria into a centre of growth and development. When the war ended, the Yakubu Gowon administration embarked on a programme of rehabilitation, reconciliation and reconstruction. The effect was far-reaching. Chinua Achebe has written that “There Was A Country.” Indeed, there was a country.
Nigeria was so prosperous at a time that the naira was as strong, if not stronger than the pounds sterling. Nigerians went to London as if they were going from Ikeja to Ibadan. Every weekend, they trooped to London to shop or have a party and returned to Lagos on Monday morning. They didn’t have to travel on any foreign airline. There was a national carrier known as Nigeria Airways. It had a big fleet and boasted of international standards and some of the best pilots and crew in the world. There was even a London office of the Nigeria Airways. Each time Nigerians showed up in London, the shops either shut down or the Nigerian got assigned a special attendant. We were the big spenders in every cosmopolitan centre of the world. Africans looked up to us. And we lived it up. In 1960, Nigeria’s population was about 35 million. Prosperity made Nigerians more fertile. Men acquired more wives and procreated recklessly. Our population figure shot up. Even if we could never conduct an accurate population census, it was obvious, however, that we were more populous than every other African country.
This wasn’t quite a problem because everything seemed to be going well. The military, who had taken over from the civilians, embarked on ambitious projects. There were constructions going on everywhere. There was work to be done. I grew up to see a Nigeria that had a thriving manufacturing and construction sector. Every morning, staff buses ferried people to work in the Ikeja and Apapa industrial areas and to and from the textile industries in Kaduna and other parts of the North. Nigeria moved from an agricultural phase to an industrial and manufacturing phase. There were car assembling plants in the country. Consumer goods flourished. There were supermarket stores all over the place: Leventis, Kingsway Stores, UAC. Nigeria was a mini-London of sorts and even much better.
We built state of the art hospitals and universities. Ailing persons used to be sent on referral from other parts of the world to the University College Hospital (UCH) in Ibadan because the teaching hospital had on its staff some of the best specialists in the world. The University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) had the most beautiful campus in Africa. It was a major tourist centre. The zoo at the University of Ibadan was one of the very best in the continent. There was a research laboratory in that same university that was regarded as a leading centre of knowledge. Scholars and students came to Nigeria to study, teach and learn. As an undergraduate, many of my teachers were expatriate scholars: from the United Kingdom, the United States and parts of Asia. Secondary schools also recruited teachers from India, Pakistan and Ghana, who earned their living in Nigeria and enjoyed excellent working conditions.
Nigerians once looked up to their leaders, now they look down on them as thieves and opportunists. The discovery, exploration and exploitation of crude oil once brought us so much prosperity, today, the mismanagement of that resource places Nigeria on the road to Venezuela.
I saw a Nigeria that placed much premium on education. Secondary schools, even in the rural areas, had libraries and good teachers. Education was practically free. The naira had value then. You could get a university degree with less than N5,000. I am not talking about Nigeria of the ’60s. No, as recently as 1980, the standard of living in Nigeria was high and the cost was cheap. A flight ticket from Lagos to Calabar was as cheap as N50. Students were given rebates on flight tickets and so many other services. All you needed to show was your identity card. It was a great privilege to be a student in Nigeria. Things were so good, standards were so high, foreigners sent their children to school in Nigeria, in the same manner in which Nigerians now send their children to school abroad. University students were pampered. The Nigerian government gave us bursaries and scholarships. This country was so good teachers supported students with every talent and resource at their disposal. At a point, public hospitals dispensed prescription drugs free of charge.
Unemployment was not Nigeria’s problem during the season that I describe. Talent hunters used to storm university campuses to look for bright students. The same with the National Youth Service Corps camps. Many students got jobs even before they enrolled for NYSC. National service was something we all looked forward to. It was a place to get a wife or a job. Nigeria was generally a happy country. Suicide was very rare. Nobody wanted to die. Nigerians travelled abroad but there was no massive brain drain. Travelling abroad was a matter of choice, and not because Nigeria was hellish. National security was not a problem. People could move about at night, go to the cinema and have fun. There was armed robbery, yes, but kidnapping was uncommon and for a while before the civil war, and a short while after, Nigerians worked hard to live together as one nation.
But everything has since changed. The current generation of Nigerians does not know the Nigeria that I have tried to describe. Nigeria used to be the Dubai of Africa. They don’t know that other Nigeria. In 1963, Nigerians rejected a defence agreement with Britain. In 2019, Nigeria is begging for defence agreements with any country that is willing to offer it. Nigeria once looked down on private schools, accusing owners of mission schools and private schools of compromising standards. Today, those who attended government schools at all levels will not send their own children to the same schools. All their children are either in private schools or somewhere overseas. We were proud of the Nigerian national anthem. Our own children can’t sing that anthem because they don’t know it. Our hospitals have collapsed. No serious member of the Nigerian middle class will patronise Nigerian hospitals, except the ailment is mild, but there are many persons in that class who won’t even treat headache or malaria in a Nigerian hospital.
Nigerians once looked up to their leaders, now they look down on them as thieves and opportunists. The discovery, exploration and exploitation of crude oil once brought us so much prosperity, today, the mismanagement of that resource places Nigeria on the road to Venezuela. In the Nigeria that I knew, every civil servant could afford to buy newspapers every morning. Nurses bought a Lada vehicle or a Volkswagen Jetta shortly after leaving Nursing school. Food was in excess supply in the country. Today, Nigeria is the poverty capital of the world. Our population is so large we don’t even know how many we are. I talked about a well-kept zoo at the University of Ibadan. All the animals in that zoo have either been stolen or turned into pepper soup or bush meat for sale. On October 1, 1960, Balewa boasted that “we are better equipped than many.” We certainly can’t say that today.
We once blamed the military for Nigeria’s descent into the lower depths. We organised protests against the military and chased them out of power. But we have not fared better either after 20 years of civilian rule. Our civilian rulers have been very busy giving excuses. They blame others. Those who have tried to make a difference are demonised and blackmailed. My generation looked forward to Independence Day. We wore white and held the Nigerian flag and trooped to the stadium for the march past. Nigerians no longer celebrate Independence Day. In fact, they are afraid any form of celebration will only put more money in the pockets of corrupt state officials. They don’t think there is anything to celebrate. This is why every October 1 must be a day of sober reflection. What happened to us? When will Nigeria rise again and become a giant with the feet of steel?
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.