When the Union Jack was lowered and the Nigerian flag was hoisted in the early hours of October 1, 1960, there were great ecstasies across the land. By that symbolic lowering and hoisting of flags, a new nation was born with a promising future for its people. For nationalists, who were part of the struggle that led to the granting of independence, it was a dream come true and the only path to a great future. For the diverse people of Nigeria, it was the dawn of a new era; and for the world, it was a beacon of hope for Africa and the black race. Its huge landmass, rich in agricultural and mineral resources, and a large population were clear signs of its enormous potential for greatness. With this euphoria, the task of nation building was expected to begin in earnest.
But that rapturous delight soon gave way to a pall of gloom and uncertainty within the first few years of independence, due to a poorly managed interplay of centripetal and centrifugal forces. Starting with the Western Region crisis, which led to the declaration of a state of emergency on the region in 1962, and the arrest and imprisonment of the leader of opposition, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, for treason, a propitious future began to look bleak.
By the sixth year of independence, the First Republic had collapsed following a bloody military coup which claimed the lives of the Prime Minister, Sir Tafawa Balewa; Premier of the Western Region, Chief Ladoke Akintola; Premier of Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello; Federal Minister of Finance, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh; and some military officers of northern and south-western origin. That bloody putsch led to an era of military rule that lasted 13 years during which there were bloody coups and counter coups, a pogrom against Igbo people in the northern region, and a civil war fought for two and a half years, with about two million lives lost and much more displaced.
The advent of the Second Republic in 1979 after a successful general election where some of the key players in the failed First Republic participated actively, and even formed the government, rekindled hope that the nation was back on track. This renewed hope was based on the belief that lessons learnt by these political gladiators would be applied to governance and politics. Alas, that was not the case, as that era was also cut short by a military coup following violent electoral disputes and perceived corruption in government. Thus, another military epoch that lasted 15 years began. It was an era marked by palace coup, coup attempts, phantom coups, a protracted political transition programme culminating in the annulment of an election widely acclaimed as freest and fairest at the time – a development that plunged the country into serious political crisis, particularly in the South-west where the presumed winner of the annulled election, Chief MKO Abiola, hailed from. The political tension ended in the formation and imposition of an interim government on the country.
A political transition programme launched in 1998 by the military administration of General Abdulsalami Abubakar, after the death of General Sani Abacha (who was head of state) and Chief Abiola (who was in government detention for attempting to reclaim his mandate), birthed the current democratic dispensation. Though the current democratic dispensation has been on for 18 unbroken years, the nation has continued to teeter on the brink of collapse due to its entanglement in a web of social, political, economic and security problems. And for a long period, it wobbled due to activities of militants in the Niger Delta who were demanding a better deal for the oil producing region.
Oil pipelines were blown up, flow stations were shut down, and oil workers became targets of armed kidnappers. The result was a drastic drop in oil production. The country was starved of badly needed funds to run its affairs. Through a mix of intervention policies, constitutional amendments, and negotiations, relative calm has returned to the region.
A more existential threat sprang up from Boko Haram, a religious sect in the North-east, with a vicious campaign of death and devastation. Over 2, 000 lives have been lost while more than two million people have been displaced in almost a decade of the sect’s deadly activities that includes carving up portions of the Nigerian territory for itself. While efforts are still being made to tackle the Boko Haram challenge, marauding armed herdsmen have turned villages in the Middle Belt into killing fields, and are gradually extending their atrocious activities to other parts of the country.
In the South-east, cries of marginalisation have spiralled into growing agitations for secession. More than any other time in the nation’s post-civil war history, it has, in the last few years, faced the grim threat of disintegration.
Despite deliberate attempts to build a great and prosperous nation, harnessing the heterogeneity of the country for growth and development has remained a Gordian knot. Even issues as basic as the system of government and structure of the federation are still being debated almost six decades after independence.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Despite its multifarious challenges, there is still some good news about Nigeria. The country has emerged the largest economy on the continent and just recently it exited a severe economic recession. It has also continued to play a leading role in the West African sub-region and on the continent as a whole.
57 years on, the task of nation building continues. And just like all other nations, Nigeria remains a work in progress.