Nigeria at 44

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Nigeria at 44

 

culled from GUARDIAN, Editorial Comment,  October 1, 2004

TODAY is Nigeria's Independence Day and as is usual on such anniversaries the individual nay, the social collective, takes stock of past achievements, present challenges and future prospects. Appraising Nigeria at 44 is, however, a depressing exercise: a catalogue of woes, of lost opportunities, of wasted resources, of failed leadership, and the lamentations of a people desperately seeking relief from the suffocating tyranny of poverty, political oppression and underdevelopment.

At independence in 1960 Nigerians marched into the future with pride and hope, with faith and trust in their leaders. Even when the ruling elite betrayed the people's trust, Nigerians rekindled it with every change of government and did the same when the current government came to power in 1999. However, five years into the current administration, the nation is in despair; a sense of hopelessness and helplessness permeates the land. Nigerians are singing songs of lamentation all year round, rebellion is in the air, and people cannot but ask: whither Nigeria?

The government appears impervious to the people's cries as evidenced by the recent increase in the price of fuel by almost 25 per cent. The rise in fuel price has heated the polity and thrown the economy off-balance. It has demonstrated the government's utter insensitivity and contempt for the people. The government justifies its policy as part of deregulation, but fails to repair the nation's refineries in spite of expending about $800 million on the exercise.

Now labour has given notice of a national strike; militants in the Niger Delta have pledged to launch a rebellion against the state on Independence Day; and the National Council of State has advised the President to crush all rebellion. The situation is, to say the least, very scary and if the Independence Day is of any benefit at all it is that it offers an opportunity for sober reflection on the state of the nation.

Rebellion against the state is not restricted to the Niger Delta. Talibans have emerged in Borno State and have already launched attacks against police stations. Ethnic militias abound across the country. There is currently a state of emergency in Plateau State resulting from the fratricidal conflicts between various ethnic groups. There is in fact a convergence of dissidence across the country. In the last one year thousands of Nigerians have been killed in various parts of the country as a result of ethnic and religious conflicts. It is however quite clear that these conflicts cannot be dissociated from the general economic situation in the country. Poverty provides a good breeding ground for conflict and is the single most important factor connecting the various conflicts and rebellions in the country. But the government would rather crush the rebellions instead of tackling the underlying factors, political and economic, that breed the dissent.

The political factors are quite clear and are echoed in the cries of marginalisation coming from the various ethnic and geo-political groupings in the country. There is a consensus across the firmament that the nation is moving in the wrong direction; that things are getting worse in all aspects of our social, economic and political life. Nigerians appear to have reached a consensus that the current arrangement has failed woefully; that there is a need to redefine the fundamental basis of our association; that the nation's survival depends on creating a new federation based on equity and symmetry among the various component groups. This is the thinking behind the call for a National Conference. Only the government appears to think otherwise and is not in sync with the national mood. The government has turned a deaf ear to the people's call and is carrying on as if all is well.

Can the government perceive despair and despondency in the air? Does the government recognise that a nation in despair, a people without hope, cannot make progress? What is the purpose of government, if not to advance the well-being of the people? Why is the government refusing to listen to its own citizens? Is the government not worried about the low level of legitimacy it has with the people? It ought to concern the government that its policies are perceived to be oppressive, anti-people and protective only of the interests of those in the corridors of power; that the people feel alienated from their rulers.

How can the people celebrate independence when their hospitals are worse than consulting clinics? How can they rejoice when hospital workers go on strike for months because government will not pay their entitlements; when premature babies die in incubators for lack of power? How can they have hope in a country which denies their children good education, or employment? How can they believe in a country which places the very basic essentials of life beyond their reach? How can they trust a ruling elite which flaunts its ill-gotten wealth in their faces with so much contempt? How can they trust a government which ignores their concerns, and pursues policies that pauperise them?

Nigerians are worse off this year than they were last year. In fact the standard of living in the country has been on the decline for years. Things appear to get worse with every passing day, from one independence anniversary to another. There is poverty in the land, and according to the government's own statistics more than 70 per cent of our people live below the poverty line. Nigerians are now divided into two mutually exclusive classes: the rich ruling class, and the poor. There is no middle class, what existed as the middle class has been pauperised by bad government policies and merged with the poor.

The rich look down with contempt on the poor, use them as cannon fodder or storm troopers in their intra-class competition for power, and ignore them until their services are needed again. The poor look at the rich with envy, curse them, and pray for divine intervention to save them from their oppressors. Corruption has eaten deep into the nation's social fabric. In fact it has become a national ethos and a pastime. It permeates all facets of our national life, without exception. There is no greater indictment of the nation's security services than the disappearance of a whole ship from the nation's shores.

Nigeria occupies a unique position in Africa. With a quarter of the sub-Saharan African population and endowed with abundant human and material resources, Nigeria's destiny is to be the catalyst to the development of the continent. Nigeria ought to be the symbol of African achievement and the pride of the black race. Nigeria, in collaboration with South Africa, ought to serve as growth poles for the continent's development and the guarantor of the security of the African people.

Unfortunately, Nigeria has not lived up to the expectations of its destiny. Nigerians, and indeed all concerned Africans, are bound to ask, where did the nation get it wrong? How could a country endowed with the means to provide "life more abundant" for all its citizens remain one of the poorest countries in the world? The tragedy of misrule, of failed leadership, has diminished the advantages offered by the nation's abundant human and material resources.

Amidst these catalogue of woes the Nigerian people, through their resilience, their hardwork, offer the nation an opportunity for redemption. In the face of adversity, of bad governance, Nigerians remain a sincere and patriotic people, committed to their country and eternally hopeful that it will eventually find the true path to its destiny. Nigerians have demonstrated their desire to talk to each other across the ethnic and geopolitical divide. They have brought honour and glory to the nation in their various callings. They know what their country's problems are and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to build a strong and virile nation. This is perhaps the main good news that the people can crow about on this occasion. Nigeria has been sustained more by the heroism of its people than the leadership that is offered by the ruling elite.

As the nation celebrates its 44th independence anniversary, the government owes the people a duty to listen to them, feel their pulse and their pain, and bridge the gulf separating it from its own citizens. It should apologise for disregarding the people as it has so often done. And it should commit itself afresh to run a listening administration, that does not pretend to know the people’s interest more than the people themselves. These times call for sober reflection, not for wining and dining or wastage of our scarce national resources in exotic state banquets. It is of the utmost urgency for the government to reconnect with the people's aspirations. That is the only way the country can realise its destiny.

 

Much ado about 44 years
By Reuben Abati

THE Federal Government is staging a week-long song and dance affair, including a party for children, trips to the church and the mosque and an exhibition in celebration of Nigeria's 44th birthday anniversary. The chosen theme is quite apt: "Our Past, Our Present, Our Hope". But let the point be made that a celebration of Nigeria at 44, at any level whatsoever " Federal, state or local, or in whatever form: media congratulatory adverts, independence balls etc. " would be no more than a misplacement of priorities, a tragi-comedy really, of the equivalent of a farcical, rambunctious show at the graveside of an unfortunate victim of the vicissitudes of life.

Nigeria is a victim at 44. What is imminent on this occasion is not a celebration of life, but the wake-keeping of an otherwise avoidable funeral. I argue that an interrogation of the theme that has been advertised by the Federal Government would be a useful exercise. It would help unravel the trajectory and nature of the Nigerian crisis and whether indeed, there is hope in the horizon given the present circumstances, or despair.

First, Our past: when the Union Jack was lowered at midnight on October 1, 1960, at that significant moment of transition, and the Nigerian Green-White-Green flag was hoisted, to the accompaniment of song, fire-works, dance and efflorescence, the mood of the Nigerian nation that had just gained sovereignty was one of celebration, and boundless hope. The people looked forward to the future with great expectations; they spoke of tomorrow as a land of promise and opportunities. October 1, 1960 marked the first moment of liberation for the Nigerian people: it was the turning point of a long struggle that had taken more than 100 years; that is, the struggle of the people in the geographical space that came to be known as Nigeria " to run their own affairs, and manage their own resources.

So strong was the feeling of nationalism that three years later, the proposal that Nigeria should enter into a Defence pact with Britain was stoutly opposed by Nigerian students and other civil society groups. Nigerians were not willing to compromise their sovereignty. When the generation that lived in the Nigeria of that season reminisces, what is described is an otherwise idyllic country in which values were still respected, if not in government circles, at least in the general society. It was a Nigeria of gardens and parties and great enthusiasm among the people. The country was divided into regions, but ethnic and tribal divisions were problematic only to the extent that they sowed the seeds of bitter fruits of the future.

The story of our past is painfully well-known. It is a past that Nigerians remember not necessarily with mere nostalgia but mixed feelings. By 1964, the Nigerian edifice had begun to collapse. Nigeria had become a curious illustration of the racist assumption that the black man is incapable of managing complex situations. The failings at this early stage made future omissions and violations possible. For the avoidance of doubt, Nigeria was doomed from the very beginning. The nation was constructed to fail; given its structure and politics, the future of the young nation was bound to lead in one direction - conflict and anomie.

The various episodes of our history - military intervention, the rise of a veto class, the civil war, the squandering of riches, the greed of the emergent elite and nouveaux riche - these are symptoms of in-built distortions. The British did not want a Nigeria that would stand on its feet. The civilian and military elite that succeeded the British had equally learnt one lesson of power only: that the only route to personal prosperity is to keep the oil-rich Nigerian nation in a sustainable state of anomie.

The British looted the resources on behalf of the Queen, for the development of England; the Nigerians emptied state resources into their private warehouses. If it was in the interest of the British to keep the people down with the aid of racial myths of superiority, the indigenous elite kept themselves in power by destroying the very institutions and values that could have produced a Nigerian nation. This emergent power elite has proved to be vicious in its hold on power. From 1960 onwards, it has recruited new persons into its fold, and established a culture of performance that is anti-state and anti-people. This criminal annexation of the state and its resources, resulted in the alienation of the very essence of governance, and the removal of the people's interest from the official agenda. Every new recruit into this veto class soon undergoes an orientation process, such that in the eyes of the ordinary Nigerian, the state is a fortress where strange things happen, a secret society that is shut off from the prying eyes of non-initiates. Students of Nigerian politics and society are wont to observe that the quality of life in Nigeria was still relatively high in the eighties but indeed, that was the beginning of the procession to the graveyard.

Our Present: It is amusing that the Federal Government is talking about "our present" in the context of a celebration. The present in this regard should be dated back to May 1999 when after a harrowing season of military rule, and the combined tyranny of Abacha, Babangida and Buhari, Nigerians successfully rose in defiance of bad governance. When President Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn in on May 29, 1999, the pervasive feeling across the land was comparable to that special moment on October 1, 1960. The people felt good about themselves. They had gone through the furnace and won a battle of destiny.

With Obasanjo as leader, there was great conviction that a Nigerian Mandela had emerged, whose personal force and dignity would wield the nation together, correct the ills of the past and raise fresh hopes about the future. Even prisoners were jubilant. President Obasanjo had been jailed by the Abacha regime and hence, the feeling of triumphalism from inside prison walls to the outside world was understandable. Obasanjo's symbolism and its celebration in 1999, meant that Nigerians set much store by leadership; they were looking for a messianic figure whose example would result in positive transformations. The pity of it all is that the failure of the Obasanjo symbol, its pathos, and suicidal streak, began to manifest quite early in the life of this administration and that, I dare say, is at the heart of the worsening of the present crisis.

With the giant symbol exposing its feet of clay, it was only a matter of time before the short distance runners who had learnt their trade under the military overran the land making a mockery of our democracy. The result is that nothing has changed. What has happened instead, is the deepening of the Nigerian crisis, the people's apathy and poverty. Old patterns have been codified into official habits. At all levels of government - federal, state and local - the new leaders are at war with the people. The state and its institutions have been turned into instruments of terror which can be used to achieve any clandestine objectives; including the brazen theft of public funds; violation of the rule of law; religious and ethnic animosity; assassination of political opponents; promotion of nepotism and corruption - anti-values that are antithetical to the objectives of good governance.

Thus, so much happened in the last five years that has displaced the innocence of the average Nigerian. May 1999 was supposed to mean the season of a second liberation, but it has turned out to be the beginning of a third phase of colonialism. What is unique is that government officials in exasperation also readily admit the continuing failure of the Nigerian state. The other month, the Minister of Labour, Productivity and Employment Generation told an international audience that more than 70 per cent of the Nigerian population lives in abject poverty. There is so much anger and despair in the land. Society's value-systems collapsed long ago, and the main beneficiaries are the old members of the rich, veto class, and their new recruits who appear to be learning rather fast.

What is more confounding is the desperation of the present set of leaders. They are prepared to make whatever compromises that suit their limited vision. Is it not strange that the same government that refused a month ago, to use the excess crude oil revenue to cushion the effect of rising oil prices on the people, is now devoting 50 per cent of the same excess revenue to the same purpose in the event of future fuel price increases? Are we being told matter-of-factly, despite the offensive of N53 per litre that prices of petroleum products would still rise? Is it also, not an indication of the nature of these present times that the same Federal Government that would not negotiate with the Nigeria Labour Congress is holding a conversation with Asari Dokubo, leader of an ethnic militia - the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force?

I add that the visit of Asari Dokubo to Abuja this week, is perhaps the most fitting confirmation of the desperation of this government. And realising this, the Federal authorities have been insisting that Dokubo did not meet with the President but with security agencies. Dokubo himself told the BBC and the AP that he was in Abuja for a meeting with the President. So, who is telling the truth? Please note that Asari Dokubo is at best, a terrorist. He and his men have threatened to attack oil installations in the Niger Delta by October 1 and this alone has forced international oil prices above $50 per barrel. Dokubo has a standing army that has upstaged the Nigerian Armed Forces on many occasions. No one is in doubt that he is in a position to carry out his threat. So, what has the Nigerian government done?

The Federal authorities (or is it the President?), decided to negotiate with a terrorist (!) who has also been officially described as a "joker" and "oil thief". He was not given a one-way ticket to Abuja. He in fact, travelled in a Presidential jet (!) according to one report. What message is this Federal Government sending across? That the best way to get the ears of government is to threaten to hold the country to ransom? The invitation of Asari Dokubo to Abuja has turned him into a superstar. Other persons with access to illegal arms and ammunition and the courage to kill and destroy would be emboldened by the official state reception that he got in Abuja. He even went with his own commanders and bodyguards. And he has been boasting about his achievement. This, then, is the state of Nigeria at the moment. The state is organised on the basis of deals and compromises, which do not obey any defined logic.

Our hope: So what hope? What is the guarantee that tomorrow would be different if the present is as bad as the past? At 44, we are in the true sense, a colonised state, and the people are the victims. Besides, where is the Nigerian nation? The day power returns to the Nigerian people, when the security and welfare of the people become the main purpose of governance, when government begins to wear a human face, then we can begin to speak truly of independence. For now, it is "their" independence, not ours.

 

Anniversary of discontent
By Levi Obijiofor

IN a remarkable commentary more than two centuries ago, renowned author Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." That description easily fits a tale of the two faces of Nigeria: the Nigeria that, at independence, brought pride and joy that accompany the feeling that one is associated with a successful country. At independence and some years after, we had every reason to radiate feelings of self-accomplishment. We had vanquished the invincible colonial rulers. Pragmatic charismatic leaders, who promised things and delivered things, were visible at every phase of our lives: they were at the forefront of the ideology of nationalism and economic revolution. The sense of national unity was overwhelming.

With great expectations, everyone wanted to contribute something to the survival of the new nation. Bankers were more honest with their customers and the money deposited in banks' vaults. Police officers did not set up roadblocks to demand cheap naira notes from impoverished transporters. The police responded promptly to emergency calls. They had greater firepower than the petty criminals of the time. Farmers were outstanding in the masterful manner they committed themselves to agricultural production. Within a few years, their consistently high annual harvests served as evidence of hard work. Farmers were proud to be identified as farmers.

No one preached to anyone about the need for hard work or the need for patriotism. Doctors attended to patients in hospitals with a deep sense of commitment to their Hippocratic oath. Doctors did not engage in underhanded deals that diverted hospital patients to their private clinics. Pharmacists dispensed good medicines rather than the fake drugs that are now in large circulation. It was the Age of Innocence, when professional groups placed service to society ahead of financial incentive. Teachers put in extra hours after school without extra pay. The general assumption, though misleading as it turned out to be, was that the reward for hardworking teachers was in heaven. Heaven was the place where people went outside of this earth to receive commendation, compensation or justice for unheralded acts of great courage on earth.

At independence and soon after, everyone knew what was acceptable and what was unacceptable conduct. The law at that time was the law. Judges and magistrates dispensed justice without fear or favour or expectation of elevation to higher rank. Lawbreakers were punished without regard to their ethnic origin or religious faith. Many people were proud to be associated with their profession or craft or occupation. Those were the days. The economic indices soon after independence were very solid. The local currency at the time had real value. With a few coins, you could fill a truck with tubers of yam and bags of rice or garri and still expect to receive some change. You did not go to the bank at the time wondering whether or not armed bandits inside or outside the bank premises would accost you.

Other indices of good life soon after independence included but are not limited to: low inflation, peaceful coexistence among people of different ethnic groups and religious faith, quality education from primary to tertiary levels, well-equipped hospital and medicare system, excellent network of roads, reliable railway transportation system, regular electricity supply, water taps that produced good drinking water, affordable housing and accommodation in cities and rural areas, and above all, political leaders who had vision and knew what they wanted to do for the country. It was a Nigeria that promised things and delivered things to the people. Unity and cooperation were in abundance. Ethnic distrust and tension were not self-evident. It was the Age of the Good Life.

It used to be said that nation states and human beings that inhabit them share one characteristic with a good bottle of wine: they improve with age. In Nigeria, however, our brand of politics, our leaders, our social, political and economic institutions, everything that makes a society to operate in an orderly fashion, deteriorate with age. Today is the 44th anniversary of our independence. I don't know how many people will be celebrating. There is discontent in the land. People who lived the good life during and immediately after independence must wonder how fast things have deteriorated in the past three decades.

Rather than mark our liberation from colonial overlords, we are busy trying to put down internal rebellion in the country, a rebellion caused by bad government and dishonest political leadership. Everywhere you look, you will see the other face of Nigeria: fires of disintegration and cries of injustice erupting from various parts of the country. The people are not happy. Everyone is complaining to everybody. Everybody is talking about poor leadership in various forms: bad government, fraud and massive corruption perpetrated by agents of government, galloping inflation, the falling value of the naira, erosion of social values, ethno-religious violence, armed robbery, political assassination, evangelical religious revival with a deceptive face, poor quality of tertiary education, high prices of petroleum products, high incidence of road accidents, the asphyxiation of the Nigeria Labour Congress, a National Assembly that has become a stooge of the Presidency.

Everything we lack today is exactly what we had so easily and cherished in the years immediately after independence. The political and military leaders we have today are the counterfeit versions of the effective leaders we had during independence and the few years that followed before the military intervened and plunged the nation into the path to perdition.

The best way to mark our 44th independence anniversary is for everyone to reflect on whether we are moving forward or moving backward. How did things get out of control in so short a time? Why are so many people so disenchanted about the notion of government? Why are so many people distrustful of political leaders? Why are our institutions unable to function and to serve the people? Why are so many government officials intent on defrauding the same government that employs them? Why are our primary and secondary school students (not to mention the university students) intent on cheating in order to pass official examinations?

Why are many parents sending their children to do business, to learn how to make quick money rather than to go to school? Has money become the centerpiece of our social value? Every year, we receive reports of sharp increases in the number of cases of examination fraud. No examination body, not even the much-hated West African Examinations Council, has been able to find foolproof means of conducting examinations without incidents of leakage of question papers ahead of the examination dates. Why are so many churches and self-styled priests, pastors and evangelists emerging in our society? Has duplicitous religious practices and practitioners, the variants that are mushrooming in our society, ever solved any country's problems?

We must ponder over these soul-searching questions and find solutions quickly before the nation succumbs to the weight of social and political restlessness. At 44, we must toast the nation's resilience in surviving all manner of challenges. But even as we clink glasses, we must not forget the huge tasks ahead.

 

 

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