Nigeria @ 58: From Promise to Despair, the Story of a Nation that Lost Direction

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As the nation marks another independence anniversary tomorrow, Samuel Ajayi traces the implosion of the country right from independence and why a nation once seen in the league of Asian tigers has remained comatose in terms of growth and arrested development

At Independence, a Nation of Promise…

Tomorrow, the first of October 2018, the ritual will take place again. It is another independence anniversary and day of speeches across the country. From the Aso Rock Presidential Villa to State Government Houses, it will be a day of back slapping and, in some cases, cutting of the independence cake. Tomorrow will make it fifty-eight years since the nation attained self-rule, when the Union Jack was lowered and the green and white colours of the newly independent nation were lifted up. 

At independence, the nation had three regions that had more or less semi-autonomous powers. These were West, East and Northern Regions. Though even at these early stages of the nation’s life, there were already frictions as the Northern Region was bigger than the two other regions combined. But this did not stop their growth. Since there was no crude oil, the North relied on groundnuts, the West on Cocoa and the Eest on coal, rubber and oil palm. 

Seeing the need to invest on education, the Eastern Regional government established the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1960 while the Northern Region established the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in 1962, while the Western Region established the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife) same 1962. 

The regions also embarked on massive social programmes aimed at elevating the quality of life. These programmes included building of hospitals, opening up rural areas and provision of electricity across their respective regions. The three regional capitals-Ibadan (West), Kaduna (North) and Enugu (East)-also witnessed transformations which were aimed at making them compete with other regional capitals, if not in the world, but at least in Africa. 

While the political set-up of the nation, after independence, was such that the regions were setting the pace in terms of development, the crisis engendered by the 1964 elections actually sounded the death knell of the First Republic and set the country on a path of retrogressing that it has not recovered till today. 

The regional elections, of that year, saw the ruling party at the centre, Northern People’s Congress, NPC, exploiting the friction in the ruling party in the Western Region, Action Group, AG, to enthrone an unpopular government in the region. After losing the 1959 elections, the leader of the AG, Obafemi Awolowo, had chosen to reject the idea of a unity government with the NPC which won majority seats in the parliament. Rather, Awo, as he was fondly called, chose to remain in the House of Representatives as Leader of Opposition while his deputy, late Samuel Akintola, assumed office as the Premier of the Western Region. 

While Akintola wanted the party to enter into alliance with the NPC, Awo and majority of members of the party would have none of this. Meanwhile, Awo had been arrested early 1962 on charges of treasonable felony. He was arrested alongside his loyalists like Ayo Adebanjo, Lateef Jakande, S.B Akande, Akanbi Onitiiri and so on. By the end of that year, they were given various jail terms which effectively rendered the Western Region as well as the opposition AG without a leader. 

Crisis later broke out in the Western Region House of Assembly with pro-Akintola and pro-Awolowo factions having a free for all even when observers knew that the latter was in the majority. The crisis led to the declaration of state of emergency in the region and Dr. Moses Majekodunmi was appointed the sole administrator of the Region.  

Akintola was to later set up the Nigerian National Democratic Party, NNDP, under which he contested and won the election of 1965 even when it was widely known that the elections were massively rigged in his favour by the federal government. It was one crisis after the other until military struck on January 15, 19666 effectively ending the nation’s first experiment in democratic rule. 

 

Military Rule, Civil War and Oil Boom…

The coming military rule was not without its own contradictions. The killings of top politicians in the build-up to military take-over were perceived to be lopsided by the Northerners with the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, and the Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, being killed. In West, Akintola was killed as well as the Minister of Finance and then flambouyant politician, Festus Okotie-Eboh. No politician of eastern Nigeria extraction was killed. 

The counter coup of July 29, 1966 saw the head of military government, General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi being killed and other top military officers like Brigadier Ogundipe and Samuel Ademulegun as well as the then military governor of Western Region, Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi. This followed massive killings of Igbo people in the north. 

Rightly felt that the rest of Nigeria did not want them, the Igbos announced the republic of Biafra in May 1967 and this led to a three-year civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. 

The post-civil war Nigeria witnessed massive petrodollar inflows into the country as a result of the Isreali-Arab face-off which culminated in the war of 1973. It was an era of oil boom and massive economic activities. And of course, corruption and abuse of office set in. and the nation was practically drifting until another military change of power took place in July 1975 which saw the emergence General Murtala Mohammed as the new head of state. He embarked on massive reforms and after two hundred days in power, he was gunned down in an attempted coup led by the then Lt. Col. Bukar Sukar Dimka. Though the coup failed, the head of state was killed and this led to the coming of General Olusegun Obasanjo who handed over power to civilian government in October 1979. 

It must be noted that the nation changed from regional system to states in 1967 and this saw creation of 12 states. General Mohammed created additional seven states on February 6, 1976. 

 

Civil Rule and its Imperfections…

The coming of the civilians in 1979 was met with a lot of expectations. It must be noted that the nation did not return to the parliamentary system of government adopted after independence. Rather, the nation chose the presidential system of government with a bi-cameral legislature. However, old habits die hard. With massive abuse of office and processes coupled with wide spread corruption, the death of the Second Republic was not just about if but when. And that ‘when’ came on December 31, 1983 which saw the emergence of General Mohammadu Buhari as the new military head of state. 

 

The Buhari/Idiagbon ‘Interregnum’...

The government came with draconian measures to beat a rudderless society into the moral line. It launched the War Against Indiscipline, WAI, to ensure orderly behaviour both in public and private places. Apart from this, politicians who were deemed to have abused their offices were handed lengthy jail terms and even journalists were not spared. It was a full blown dictatorship that had no regard to basic fundamental human rights. 

Something would have to give. And it gave on August 27, 1985 when the then chief of army staff, Major General Ibrahim Babangida, staged a palace coup that toppled the Buhari/Idiagbon regime. 

It started as a military government with a human face and it embarked on a transition programme which was meant to see the return the nation to constitutional rule. It initially sent the 1990 exit date before changing it to 1992 which eventually was changed to 1993 but even at that, what the nation got at the end of the day was an interim national government after the presidential election that would have culminated in return to full civil rule was annulled by the military. 

MKO Abiola, billionaire businessman, had won the election. Even his perceived closeness to the military was not enough to save his mandate. Even when the Babangida regime could be credited with establishing many social programmes and even bodies (like the Road Safety Commission, Drug Law Enforcement Agency and professionalising the nation’s secret police), the annulment of the June 12, 1993 remains a blemish that has refused to go away 25 years after. 

The political impasse that followed the annulment of the June 12 election was exploited by the late General Sani Abacha who quickly torpedoed the interim government and returned the nation to another full blown military rule. Abacha regime initially chose to tow the path of meekness, but when he finally bared his fangs, the nation was on the brink. Detentions and accusations of coups against it ensured that the nation had, at that time, many political prisoners than at any time in its chequered history. Even the presumed winner of the June 12 election was not spared. His attempt to declare himself president in June 1994 saw him being arrested. He never came out alive. 

As the nation drifted all seemed hopeless. Even the transition to civil rule programme embarked upon by the Abacha regime seemed to be designed to see him transmute into a civilian president. But providentially, Abacha died on June 8, 1998 and the nation heaved a sigh of relief. General Abdusalami Abubakar became the new head of state but as he was settling down, Abiola died in detention and the nation erupted in protests. These were doused and timetable for return to civil rule was set and this culminated in the May 29, 1999 handover which saw the return of General Obasanjo as the new civilian president. 

Even if the nation had gone through hell to get to where she is today, there is a general consensus that her growth has been largely stagnated. In terms of measuring growth in terms of human development index, it is a known fact that the quality of life of average Nigerians has steadily declined since 1960. 

At independence, the nation had a thriving middle class that was also growing. Apart from these, public institutions like schools and hospitals were providing quality services that made consulting private ones largely unheard of.  Apart from this, the country was competing very well with other countries that were at par with at independence. These were countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and so on. It should be noted that none of these countries were even in Africa. 

Abiodun Babalola, a tax consultant, said the fact that Nigeria was being compared with these countries showed that the outside world did not see Nigeria in the league of other African countries. 

“To them, we were seen to be above most of the other African countries that attained independence with us at the same time,” Babalola told THISDAY. 

And perhaps, he has a point. In 1960, quite a number of other West African countries gained independence just like Nigeria. These included Togo, Burkina Faso, Mali and Cote D’Ivoire. Even when these countries attained independence same year with Nigeria, those who were monitoring country’s growths did not see them competing with Nigeria in terms of development. 

“That was why the rest of the world thought Nigeria would be competing with the Asian tigers,” Babalola spoke further. “Unfortunately, this was not so. These nations that were seen as our peers at independence have already left us behind and they are today home to many Nigerians who have migrated to these countries in search of better life.”

 

A Social Malaise and its Cause…

Many have been wondering why the nation’s growth has been stunted. Analysts believe this might not be unconnected with the problem of trying to forge a united country out of a nation of many ethnic nationalities. The thinking has been that the nation has been held back by many centrifugal forces which have made growth virtually impossible.

Perhaps, it is deeper than that. A lawyer who does not want his name in print told THISDAY that one major factor that has held back the nation’s growth was inability to build strong institutions that would be able to withstand ethnic and religious influences. According to him, the nation has produced many powerful men and women but not powerful institutions that could outlive these men and women. 

“Each epoch has always produced different sets of powerful men and may be women. They could manipulate the system and do whatever they liked. The system was never strong enough to take care of their excesses. Unfortunately, we still have same situation today. The election in Osun is a perfect example of what could happen if you have weak institutions,” the lawyer said. 

For instance, the per capita income in the country is less than $2000 which is even not among the top 20 in Africa. Just recently, it was announced that power generation has stagnated at less than 4000MW. Apart from this, the nation has less than 28,000 paved roads and only few hospitals could boast of equipment that could handle life-threatening emergencies.  

And talking of medical facilities, recently, Efe, the wife of late reggae star, Ras Kimono, died due to lack of availability of oxygen she was taken to. Someone who was privy to the late woman’s last moments on earth lamented that she could have survived if there had been oxygen in the hospitals she was taken to after fallen ill. 

“She would not have died but for lack of oxygen in the previous hospitals she was taken to before they got to one that had oxygen. But according to reports, she died as the paper works were being completed. This was in 2018. Fifty-eight years after independence, most Nigerian hospitals could not boast of basic facilities,” the family source who was privy to what happened told THISDAY. 

Today, politicians and Nigerians who have the means prefer to go abroad when they are ill. Ailments that could have been handled in the country 30 years ago are now being taken abroad. Even in the area of education, the nation has not fared better. Now, there are many private educational institutions but they are for the rich as their charges are well beyond the reach of the common man. Even at this, this has not improved the quality of products of these institutions. Most graduates are simply unemployable as many read to pass and not to garner knowledge. 

As the nation marks another independence anniversary, there will be celebrations of mediocrity. Rather than embarking on sober reflections and seek ways out of present malaise, leaders from Abuja to the states will use the opportunity to list their ‘achievements’ which seem only visible to them. 

And this will be the other of the day until another anniversary next year.