Fixing Nigeria with an Anthem

By Olusegun Adeniyi

In my 1994 book, ‘Fortress on Quicksand’, which chronicled the presidential primaries of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC) and profiled the contenders during the aborted Third Republic of General Ibrahim Babangida, I wrote that it was glaring to the discerning that the experiment would not last. I had the same premonition about the current democratic journey ushered in on 29 May 1999. Although I am now delighted to have been proved wrong, I had reasons to doubt that we would today be celebrating 25 years of unbroken democracy in Nigeria. But then, it is also glaring that civil rule does not necessarily approximate to democratic rule as we have seen in our country in the past 25 years. Neither does civil rule guarantee improvement in the welfare of the people as it is also evident.

Before I continue, let me state that there are three competing national issues today. Besides 25 years of unbroken democracy in Nigeria, yesterday also marked the first-year anniversary of the administration of President Bola Tinubu. And then, we have the ongoing political ‘game of thrones’ in Kano. While I have decided to allow that palace intrigues play out before expressing my opinion, the discerning can also see that on full display are all the elements that have conspired to hold back our democracy: a power struggle that has nothing to do with the welfare of the ordinary people, a thriving judicial black market where pay-per-order judges (and their collaborators in the bar) make a kill, the abuse of federal might by some Abuja powermongers etc. Whichever way it ends, the real losers are the people of Kano, the once-revered traditional institution and members of the same Fulani family who have now become pawns in the hands of desperate politicians.

For now, let me get back to the issue of our democracy and why I was skeptical that it would endure for this long. In February 1999, I covered the All Progressives Party (APP) national convention in Kaduna. The main contenders for the presidential ticket were the late Dr Abubakar Olusola Saraki, Dr Bode Olajumoke, the late Chief Arthur Nzeribe, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, the late Chief Harry Akande and Dr Ogbonaya Onu who also died recently. For three days in Kaduna, we were treated to a farcical drama by the party’s national chairman, the late Senator Mahmoud Waziri. The altercation between him and Saraki despite being long-term friends and associates added more to the entertainment. He said Saraki wanted to bribe him and provided the bromide of a N30 million cheque as ‘evidence’ to the media. At the end, no primaries were conducted only for us to hear the declaration of Onu’s name as the presidential candidate of the party. Less than 24 hours later in Abuja, under a curious merger arrangement between the APP and the Alliance for Democracy (AD), Onu was said to have ‘withdrawn’ for Chief Olu Falaethe presidential candidate of the smaller party who had been selected by a conclave of old men in Ibadan where an oath of secrecy was administered before ‘voting’!

Ordinarily, the AD should not have been registered because it did not meet the threshold prescribed in the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) guidelines. To be registered, a party was required to secure more than 5 percent of the seats in at least 24 of the 36 states at the December 1988 local government elections.  While both the defunct APP and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) secured more than 5 percent of the seats in at least 30 states, the AD secured 5 percent in only 12 states. But the party was registered because the military, apparently to make up for the annulment of the June 12 presidential election won by Bashorun M.K.O Abiola, had decided the presidency would go to the Southwest. To do that successfully, they needed to get ‘Afenifere’ (whose members formed and had congregated in the AD) onboard. It didn’t take too long for Nigerians to realise that they were only working towards an already predetermined political end. That explains why, for the first (and to date, only) time in our history, we had a situation in which the presidential candidates on the ballot were of the same religious and ethnic affiliations.

A former military leader, General Olusegun Obasanjo, of course, won the presidential election but given what transpired at the time, not many Nigerians were optimistic that the experiment would last. The view from abroad was not different. A joint report by the American Carter Centre and National Democratic Institute (NDI) that monitored the election, for instance, stated: “Nigeria’s transition occurred without a constitutional framework or a genuine public debate on the nation’s constitutional future. Lacking a constitution, Nigerians cast their ballots without knowing what powers their elected representatives would have, how various levels or branches of government would interact, how the federal government and the states would share power, or even how long elected officials would serve in office.”

Given that unsure foundation, those of us who experienced military rule and its brutalities have much to celebrate about 25 years of unbroken democracy marked yesterday. Incidentally, today (May 30) is also very significant in our national calendar. On this day (May 30) in 1967, the late Dim Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, then a Colonel in the Nigerian Army, declared secession of the then Southeastern region which he proclaimed the Republic of Biafra. That marked the beginning of a catastrophic civil war that claimed the lives of millions and set back the development of the nation. And the scars are yet to heal. More significantly, apart from the insanity of Boko Haram, every separatist movement in today’s Nigeria is fueled by real or perceived injustices created and sustained by the current structure. But while we must acknowledge our structural problem as a nation and deal with it, the major problem in the system today is the absence of good governance at all levels.

Nothing demonstrates that better than the haste in which the National Assembly initiated and passed a bill to replace the current national anthem with the old one that was jettisoned in 1978. At a period when the daily hikes of staple foods, transportation costs, school fees, house rent and other inescapable expenses have combined to further pauperise millions of Nigerians, changing the national anthem is the priority of our federal lawmakers. And they did not even bother to seek the views of Nigerians on the matter before rushing to pass the bill. That is also understandable. It is an open secret that our distinguished senators and honourable members acted the way they did just want to please President Bola Tinubu who is on record for saying the old anthem evokes “a strong spirit of patriotism” and that the current one is “far less inspirational”. It is therefore little wonder that the president would use the first-year anniversary of his administration to assent to the anthem-change bill!

Unfortunately, in that disgraceful haste to pass the bill that demonstrates how far removed our lawmakers are from the reality of daily living in Nigeria, there are certain considerations about the old anthem that they either did not know or simply glossed over. The “tribes” and “native land” in the lyrics arose from the prejudices of the British colonialists who gave us the anthem written by Ms Lillain Jean Williams. So, its retention betrays a shallowness of thinking and lack of awareness. Two, the line about standing in “brotherhood” is also contentious in today’s world. But perhaps the biggest issue is that when, during a conversation, any member of my generation (as well as those before us) says, ‘Nigeria we hail thee’, it is more a rebuke than a seal of approvala reminder of our failings as a nation.

More egregious is that this cynical attempt to recreate a past that is not as glorious as being painted is simply because some people are too lazy to take responsibility for the future. It is not an anthem that will inspire leaders to be more accountable to the people. It is not an anthem that would put food on the table of hungry citizens. And neither the lyrics nor the melody of an anthem evokes a “spirit of patriotism.” Besides, there are far-reaching implications to bringing back an anthem that was last sung almost five decades ago in a nation in which more than 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30 and life expectancy is 55 years. So, I foresee a situation in which one day in the not-too-distant future, the National Assembly will pass another bill to revert to the current anthem!

The situation at hand in the country today is about digging ourselves out of the depth of adversity. That requires a different leadership template from what is currently on display. In a piece I wrote six months ago, I stated that most Nigerians are experiencing excoriating hardship before I posed the question: Do we blame Tinubu for the situation we have found ourselves? “Any objective analyst will concede that the president inherited a bad economy and the choices he has made regarding fuel subsidy removal and merging the exchange rates were designed to correct some of the distortions that brought us to where we are,” I wrote then and I still share that position. But I also added: “The problem with Tinubu is that he wants to lead not by example but rather by mouthing platitudes. While demanding sacrifices of Nigerians, he and other government officials want to continue to live ostentatiously.”

If Tinubu’s fixation is with the past, as suggested by the anthem gambit, he has not outlined either an economic or social development policy direction that suggests he even understands the realities of that past. Nor has he keyed into the ideas of the youth who, in yearning for a new world of opportunities like their counterparts elsewhere, have chosen ‘Japa’ with all the inherent risks. Unfortunately, while what we are seeing from the presidency is a preoccupation with personal ego, the current National Assembly has become notorious for unquestioning political sheepishness. As for the judiciary, we need not look further than what is happening in Kano where Judges are hawking conflicting orders almost the same way hungry lecturers sell their course ‘handouts’ to students in our universities.

Yet, what all the actors in the three arms (executive, legislature, and judiciary) fail to understand is that a democracy that is neither anchored on the rule of law nor tailored towards addressing the daily needs of the people is endangered. No matter how many times you change the national anthem! 

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