By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
No Nigerian leader thus far has been able to breast the unity tape. Forget all the fine words and promises and boasts, most Nigerian leaders have been victims of false starts, like overzealous athletes.
It takes a holistic understanding of a plural country to forge unity therein. There are so many questions needing urgent answers before we can truly talk of the unity of Nigeria or even the country attaining a measure of nationhood.
The country is celebrating the 62nd anniversary of flag independence but there exists so much work to be done for unity to manifest. As Chinua Achebe said, Nigeria is neither our father nor our mother, but a child who needs to be nurtured and brought up properly.
Nigeria’s first President, albeit ceremonial, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe famously said that the country won her independence in 1960 “on a platter of gold.” But Zik’s great rival, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, first Premier of the Western Region, did raise the crucial issue of Nigeria being “a mere geographical expression.”
Against Zik’s charge that the many nationalities of Nigeria should forget their differences to forge ahead, the then Northern Premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, countered by asserting that what was needed was for the different nationalities to understand the differences of the diverse peoples. It is amid the cacophony of voices that Nigeria has trudged along over the years without any homogenizing leader actually emerging to lend a measure of direction to the country’s search for unity.
The country courted disaster from the very beginning. The colonizing British masters did not hide the fact that amalgamation was effected to get the Southern “lady of means” as a support valve to the North that had been depleting the resources of Britain. It is against this background of not really growing the talents of the two protectorates that the country was launched forth onto independence, standing on three unsteady and unequal legs. The early politicians simply saw themselves as inheriting the mantle of leadership from the departing erstwhile white masters. Democracy was compromised from the very beginning to ensure a script of hegemony authored in Westminster.
Wole Soyinka wrote his play A Dance of the Forests to mark the independence ceremonies, prophetically listing the war of the tribes as a dark future to behold. Chinua Achebe in his 1966 novel A Man of the People prophesied a gruesome passage of coups and counter-coups.
The five young Army Majors who idealistically staged the bloody 1966 coup did not reckon with the acidic dimensions of the country’s diabolical geo-politics. The bloodier revenge coup of the selfsame year was forged as a means of secession by the North, with cries of “Araba” renting the air, until the British masters ordered a rethink on the part of the hotheaded lot remorselessly marching to arid extinction. The inheritor Yakubu Gowon’s initial speech that “there is no basis for unity” in Nigeria had to be changed to some patriotic marshmallow.
Of course, the civil war supervened, but ages on, no lessons have been learnt. The talk of “No victor, no vanquished” ended up as some comedian’s glib talk. The promise of “Reconciliation-Rehabilitation-Reconstruction” became another military legerdemain worse than a politician’s promise.
The country continues to teeter on the brink of disaster. It has to be admitted that in many accounts Gowon was somewhat a humane, if conniving, war leader, but he was quite naïve in the grave business of building a united country, especially when it is remembered that he told the wide world that Nigeria’s problem was not money but how to spend it!
General Murtala Muhammed who succeeded Gowon had too much baggage in his past to really make the difference. In his haste to clean the Augean Stable, he ended up ruining the civil service, though he must be given a measure of credit for raising Nigeria’s profile in the fight against imperialism.
General Olusegun Obasanjo has enjoyed two incarnations as the leader of Nigeria, but even as he did receive worldwide applause for quitting power in aid of the enthronement of democracy during his first coming, the election he organized was fraught with problems in view of the Twelve Two-Third imbroglio that pitched President Shehu Shagari against Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
It was in his second coming, this time as an elected democratic President that Obasanjo upstaged himself with the tragic Third Term caper that made him leave office in a shambles of the ailing President Umaru Musa Ya’Adua.
Every nation in history must confront and master its own road to Damascus. Mighty America, for instance, used to be a fiefdom of Britain. It took the writings of fine minds, especially Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Commonsense, to challenge Britain’s superintendence over America. This was the intellectual muster needed for the American War of Independence, culminating in the breakthrough of the United States of America by its founding fathers such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington as opposed to starry-eyed adventurers like Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. It took human gumption to put “United” into the “States” of “America”.
Nigeria is today poised on the threshold of monumental historical contradictions. When, for instance, Sharia was introduced in the course of Obasanjo’s tenure people expected the then president to put a stop on the matter as Nigeria was deemed a secular state constitutionally. Obasanjo dismissed it all as “political Sharia” that would soon peter out. The initial seed planted then grew into the monster called Boko Haram, a terrorist endgame pitted ostensibly on the claim that Western education is bad. Bombings, kidnappings killings assassinations are now daily and nightly rituals of current Nigerian life.
Separatists like the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) led by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu and the Southwest self-determination movement of Sunday Igboho are putting up a spirited battle to quit Nigeria for good.
The 2023 presidential election is on the front burner at this time that unity is in short supply in Nigeria. After the tragic death of President Yar’Adua, it took Nigeria almost going to the edge of the cliff for President Goodluck Jonathan to be foisted in power. Jonathan deigned to organize a National Confab in 2014 which he could not implement before his ouster from power in 2015.
The lingering issues of true federalism, fiscal devolution, term limits, inclusivity, power rotation, disunity etc. are still dogging the steps of Nigeria.
Nigerians can only look back in anger to the time when General Ibrahim Babngida annulled the 1993 presidential election won by Chief MKO Abiola and then cobbled up a so-called Interim National Government (ING) led by the hapless Chief Ernest Shonekan. Of course the embattled Shonekan was kicked aside by General Sani Abacha who plotted to succeed himself as a democratic president before dying quite mysteriously alongside Abiola. General Abdulsalami Abubakar who took over after Abacha’s death superintended over the military-to-civil rule election that was grandly tailored to bring the then incarcerated Obasanjo back to power in a manner that the maverick musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would tag “Army Arrangement.” The khaki-to-agbada deal amounted to Nigeria moving round in circles instead of searching for sincere unity.
Another former military Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari, is today at the helm of Nigerian affairs as civilian president, and unity is at its greatest peril in the history of the country. Erstwhile Nigerian patriots are now fleeing Nigeria in droves. The hope is that a sincere leader can still save and restore Nigeria as it happened in Singapore through Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, author of the book From Third World to First – The Singapore Story: 1965-2000.
The Singaporean story is the celebration of genius in leadership such that Lee Kuan Yew, a 1949 First Class graduate of Cambridge University, England left the legacy which made it possible that the third Prime Minister of the country, Lee Hsieng Loong, who was sworn in on August 12, 2004 happened to be a 1974 First Class graduate of the selfsame Cambridge, and his cabinet was made up of: George Yeo – Minister of Foreign Affairs (Cambridge Double First Class in 1976); Lim Hng Kiang – Minister of Trade and Industry (Cambridge First Class with Distinction in 1976); Teo Chee Hean – Minister of Defence (University of Manchester First Class).
Singapore remains a model for countries in dire need of progress with its motto of “Integrity, Service, Excellence.”
One is not arguing that only First Class candidates can rule, but there is the need for fine minds to run a country such that university teachers cannot be on strike for all of seven months and counting!
Only a sincere leader with a fine mind can firm up the unity needed to save Nigeria.
- Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is a renowned poet, journalist and author