Nigeria, 105 Years Ago…ll

By Olusegun Adeniyi

In the first part of this series started last week, I excerpted from ‘The Nigeria Handbook 1919 (Issued with the approval of the Nigerian Government)’—a 304-page publication which contains ‘Statistical and General Information respecting the Colony and Protectorate’. The main idea was to draw lessons from the Nigeria of 105 years ago. Although I promised to continue the excerpts, I no longer see the need for it given the feedback I received. Most of the mails centre around our colonial experience and ‘where the rain started to beat us’ which, for me, cannot be a justification for our failings. I do not discount the harm of colonialism, but I believe Nigeria is what it is today because of the choices made in the past 63 years. 

The Republic of Cyprus was not only colonised like Nigeria but also shares with our country the same Independence Day: 1st October 1960. Like Nigeria, Cyprus has faced wars, military coups and all manner of disruptions, instigated from within and without. But unlike Nigeria, the Eastern Mediterranean Island has done relatively well for itself. In practically all development indicators, Cyprus has fared far much better than Nigeria. So, we cannot continue to cite our colonial experience as reason for the rot in our society. The paradox, as I have written in the past, is that while Nigeria may not be doing well as a country, many of our citizens are doing well as individuals—both at home and in the Diaspora. There is hardly any compilation of the Global 100 in any sphere of human endeavour that does not include at least one Nigerian. That has been the consistent pattern no matter the metrics used and regardless of the field profiled.

Interestingly, my young friend, Ejiro Oghenechovwen, who until recently worked with the Nigeria National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPCL), seems to understand the essence of my intervention. And I crave the indulgence of readers to publish his mail before I conclude. “I have just finished reading your column on ‘Nigeria, 105 years ago’. I am particularly jolted by your comment that there was no conscious effort at nation building by Nigeria’s postcolonial leaders. Beyond it being painfully true, it strongly suggests that not even national or subnational government and governing processes (which we aren’t even doing well in) are sufficient for a pluralistic country like ours.

“I am delighted that the compiler of the 1919 handbook under reference admitted that organization and order were existent in precolonial Nigeria, contrary to the widespread Western view of an inherently savage and barbaric Africa. Furthermore, hearing a then-active participant in the country’s blossoming political process describe the obtainable government structure as indirect rule is, to me, liberating, as I had always believed that the term was coined in retrospect by future historians. Interestingly, I find astonishing your statistical comparison of the elements of the trade balance between the period covered and that of 2018. The proximity of 1913’s figures to 2018’s is saddening and depicts a merry-go-round affair over a century later, so that, beyond the incredulous fact that we now import palm seedlings – the products of which we earlier exported at two-thirds output volume as you revealed, we have always been a predominantly mono-product economy. When it is palm seeds and their produce, it is majorly palm seeds and their produce; and when it is crude oil, it is equally almost totally crude oil. In other words, we have historically not fared well with diversification.

“It is, therefore, imperative that we pay serious attention to the nation-building question, realizing that the call to leadership goes beyond maintaining, servicing, or upgrading processes, systems, and entities year after year and one democratic dispensation after another. It is also about consciously and masterfully moulding consensus, ensuring that everyone is on the same page – or at least, the same chapter – and journeying collectively, even if in pools and batches, in the same direction. This requires sincerity, courage, and continuous concession-making. I am reminded of a scene in ‘Invictus’, the 2009 movie on Nelson Mandela. Madiba, as he was fondly called, had just been elected South Africa’s first black president and was on his usual pre-dawn walk when he and his two bodyguards saw that day’s newspaper with a banner headline: HE CAN WIN AN ELECTION, BUT CAN HE RUN A COUNTRY? One guard was amazed at such a question when the man wasn’t even up to a day in office. Mandela calmly stated that it was a legitimate query. In like manner, our leaders at all levels and in all spheres must take an informed pause from their routine and reflect deeply on our national question. Why are things falling apart? Why is the nation’s center not holding? What should be done? The real question, perhaps, is, even when we find answers to those questions, are we sincere and courageous enough to respond accordingly?”

Perhaps Ejiro was reading my mind. Despite being blessed with abundant human and material resources, we have failed to aggregate the parts into a collective whole. With no communal sense to build a functioning society, the ‘whole’ of our country remains far much less than the sum of its parts.  Essentially because the accumulation of individual greed far outweighs the collective need. When You apply the law of the jungle in competing for scarce resources without any sense of order which nation building entails, the chaos that we have in Nigeria today is inevitable.

Since the beginning of the year, for instance, the recurring news in our country is that of kidnappings by sundry cartels of criminals who seem to have overpowered the capacity of the state. Not only is the list of victims becoming increasingly long, but there are also thousands of others across the country who have been in prolonged captivity and whose ordeals are heart-wrenching for their families. They remain nameless: mere statistics in a nation where human life has become easily dispensable. What is the national response? Let us continue to pray! 

Notwithstanding misgivings over the 1914 amalgamation, distortions to our federal structure caused by years of military rule, and disappointment with the current crop of leaders and the choices they make; it is also appropriate to remind ourselves that we have come a long way as a nation. Not even the most implacable enemies of Nigeria will deny its socio-economic potential, the enormous capacity of its people and the bright future that continues to beckon. If only our leaders would look beyond artificial differences, apply themselves to the jobs for which they were elected or appointed and rally our diversity as the real source of our strength.

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