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Was Nigeria Ever Great Before?

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Can We Have 'No Victor, No Vanquished'?

The Insight by Lateef Adewole

“The good old days!” If there is a common statement that many elderly people or relatively older persons in Nigeria say so often, it is this opening statement. When were the good old days? Oftentimes, many people in this class go down memory lanes, relishing their past experiences in Nigeria and rueing how things have turned to. It is the present situation that usually triggers such reminiscences. But, how good were these old days? We shall get there later.

Yesterday, I watched a video clip on social media that aptly captured my own summarised assessment of the evolution in Nigeria. The point of the clip was that, at any point in Nigeria’s history, there was never any time that people did not compare the present with the past, and always concluded that the past was better than the present. In that clip, the man cited, as reminders, many songs that were waxed by Nigerian musicians, lamenting the woes of the citizens at that particular time.

He mentioned many songs from 70’s, 80’s, upwards, by Fela Anikulapo, Ebenezer Obey, Kollington Ayinla, Sikiru Ayinde Barrister’s “The Truth” of 1994, Idris Abdulkarim’s ‘Nigeria jagajaga’ song of 2004, up till date. In each of these songs, the musicians lamented about how things were difficult, how life was hellish, how the country was not settled and so many challenges facing Nigeria. Given such background, one then wonders when were these good old days?

The truth of the matter is, human wants are insatiable, like the economists would say. At any point in time, human beings always expect and demand more, and better. While this might not be totally bad, its excesses are what could have negative implications. Like the saying goes, ‘you don’t value what you have until you lose it’. Human beings do not appreciate the present. They complain of everything, losing out from enjoying it, while only fantasizing on some imaginary utopian society, which might never come.

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Sincerely, many people who are citizens of the developed countries, which Nigerians will give an arm to relocate to, still complain. Human nature is such that when you cook food for them free of charge and serve them, they will ask why aren’t you putting it in their mouths. Otherwise, all these countries that Nigerians and other less developed countries see as ‘heavenly’, why do their citizens still complain? That is life and human nature. Lack of contentment.

If those were in the past of Nigeria, why then do Nigerians say that “Nigeria shall be great again”? Was Nigeria ever great before? When was that? What were the criteria that were used to measure that greatness? Who drove it? What happened to it? How did the country become ‘un-great’ (my coinage)? And so many questions that could be asked by anyone who hears this, especially our ‘Gen Z’, the youths of today, who seem to have only witnessed the downside of the country, in their estimation.

In my decades on earth and since being conscious of my environment, I could not recall per se, an era of the country that could be called ‘great’. My opinion is that Nigeria had never been great before, at any point of our history. There could have been some better times than now but nothing qualified for greatness. Although, it is a big shame that this is the reality about Nigeria. This is a country that is blessed with everything; extraordinary human capital, abundant natural resources, extremely friendly weather conditions, lack of natural disasters like earthquake, tsunamis, fertile expanse of land, numerous water bodies, and so on. So, what happened?

We have this tendency to blame others for our woes. Trans-Atlantic slave trades happened before the existence of Nigeria as a country for almost four centuries (1501-1867). This was one thing that Africans blamed for the sorry state of the continent, and rightly so too. More than 13 million Africans were captured, sold and sent abroad as slaves. Although, Africans were already into slave trading among themselves before the Europeans came. Their involvement in it only exacerbated it, as the capturing of slaves became more aggressive. Worse still, treachery became the order of the day where friends or brothers sold one another to slavery, just for money.

After the final end of slave trade in 1867, Africa entered another stage called colonisation. It was ‘fairer’ than the previous savagery of slavery but was still a ‘modernised’ one where no one was openly called slaves, humans were not traded and shipped abroad but same Europeans and other former slave owners’ countries, came to communities in Africa and forcefully took over their lands, resources and power, in what was referred to as “scramble for Africa”. Subsequently, they began to steal from them and ship such loots back to their home countries. The indigenes of these communities were made to ‘slave’ for the white men, not abroad this time, but on their own ancestral lands, ofcourse, with the connivance of natives in their servitude.

This also happened for nearly a century across Africa. In the process, they carved out different areas by grouping communities together, whether homogeneous or not, for their own administrative convenience. It was such decision and action that birthed the country we now called Nigeria in 1914, when the northern and southern protectorates were amalgamated. Each of these protectorates already had many communities lumped together, irrespective of their differences in culture, tradition, language and religion.

So, the decades of exploiting and pillaging the country’s resources cannot be wished away in retrogression of the potential development of the country. It contributed immensely. However, what about after the independence? What happened to the country? Why has it never risen to the occasion? Why has it remained on ground, moving in circle? Or at best, crawling? This was a country that the world had so much expectations of, at independence in 1960. What went wrong? What happened to its potential greatness?

Firstly, it is important to understand what is considered to be great. According to Oxford dictionary, ‘great’ (adjective) is defined as: “of ability, quality, or eminence, considerably above average.” Which means, for something to be considered great, it must be well above average. Can Nigeria be considered to have performed far above average at any point in our history, in many developmental indices that a country is measured with?

At what point in Nigeria’s history was the country ruling the world? Where the whole world looked up to us for one novel development or another? At what point was Nigeria the technology hub where advancements were being witnessed? At what point was the people at their best in human capacity, such that the world relied on us and sourced for our people specially? I can’t recall witnessing or reading about such time.

I am not saying the country never made any progress. My point is that, whatever progress we have made amounted to tokenism, when countries that have made the leap to greatness are considered. Let us look at the countries that were similar to us or worse than us just six decades ago. To start from Africa. Rwanda is now seen as a model for Africa. This was a poor country that went through one terrible civil war too, where over one million people were massacred in genocidal manner. Today, that country has risen out of that ashes and become what it is today.

Another ever fascinating story has been that of Singapore. The former leader who led the transformation of that country, detailed what they did in his book: “From Third World to First: Singapore Story 1965-2000”. All that transformation to the great country called Singapore today, happened within four decades. Many might claim that these two countries I cited have far smaller populations than Nigeria estimated to be over 200 million people, while Rwanda is 14.1 million and Singapore 5.6 million. But, is large population not supposed to a strength?

Again, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This is the toast of the world now. Everyday, we see their leaders thinking of how to revolutionalise the country driven by technology. They have sent their citizen to the moon. They create artificial rainfall in desert. They are building a 2000km underwater rail that will link it to India, with travel time of about 3 to 4 hours by ultra-speed floating train. Let us not begin with infrastructural developments already existing in the country. To say this was a country created from desert. It was on record that the country came to borrow money from Nigeria in the 1970’s. We were so ‘rich’ that we gifted the money to them instead of loan. That is the country that now denies Nigerian citizens visas from come to their country.

The most revolutionary advancement story in the world today is that of China. I don’t know where to start. I have watched so numerous feats that the country has achieved in the last four decades that my question everytime was: “are these Chinese human beings like us?” This is because, most of these infrastructures they build seemed so impossible if not already done. They have so transform the country’s standing that the whole world is forced to reckon with them. They needed not force it.

As far as I am concerned, China is the greatest country in the world right now, but they don’t want to make noise about it or fight for it aggressively, considering that it is the biggest fear of the USA. However, they are miles ahead of USA in many areas but very discrete about it. What China does is to keep advancing under the wrap, away from the prying eyes of the world. Every now and then, they will just exposed one unprecedented feat they have achieved. It will shock the world. Then another. And another.

Longest bridge on water. Road at highest altitude on mountain top. Most technologically advanced port operation. Fastest train in the world. Record breaking construction of roads, rails, massive building, etc. Too many to mention. There was this video that showed how China’s economy was growing from 1980 to date. It was in around number 41 globally in 1980 with a GDP of $191.1 billion (USA was $2.857 trillion) to becoming second to the USA ($26.24 trillion) today, at $18.7 trillion. That is what is called greatness! So, if the size of population was given as excuse by some Nigerians for our challenges, China, at 1.4 billion, is almost seven times of our population. What is our excuse?

A glimpse of such potential for transformational leadership and developments, as seen in these few countries listed above, were witnessed before independence, in the Western region, under the leadership of the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. This has been undisputable. Many firsts in Nigeria, West Africa and Africa as a whole, were achieved under him.

In thinking about all of these, apart from the previously highlighted historical setbacks, I identify some factors locally.

At independence, enthronement of “not the best” among available leaders was a critical factor. How do I mean? With all due respect to the first indigenous Prime Minister of Nigeria and those who worked with him, I believe they were not the best we could boast of at the time. There was something about struggling and fighting for something important, how such persons who fought for it would guard it jealously. In 1960, those who were resilient in fighting the colonial masters for past few decades before then, were not the ones that Britain handed over the country to, possibly deliberately.

Like the Yorubas would say: “Ajogun ewu etu, komoyi agabada nla” (he who inherits undeserved wealth, would never know the value of hard work). Some might say, “but Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe was the Governor-general and he was at the forefront of the struggle for independence.” Yes, that’s true. But, who was the actual person with power? The Prime Minister, ofcourse. And history had it that the leaders from north were reluctant that Nigeria should get independence for many years before 1959. That was why it took additional 7 years after the motion was first moved in 1953.

The north was not ready on each occasion that the demand for independence for the country was raised, until 1959. What kind of leadership did we expect from reluctant leaders? Would the situation have been the same if Awolowo was the Prime Minister, with his visionary leadership and revolutionary development capabilities, as shown in the then Western region as the Premier? Or even if Azikwe was the Prime Minister. Or the combination of these two egg heads? I believe things would have been completely different. That began the beginning of enthronement of mediocre leaders in Nigeria for decades to follow.

Most, if not all, of leaders that we have had were not the best among the crops that were available at each time we wanted to chose the president. As for the military heads of state, there was no criteria other than most senior of the coupists, whether dumb or bright. But, none of them was in the class of Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso. In 2023, we are luckier than before because we got a president who wanted to be president, prepared for it, worked hard for it for decades and got it. He also has a reasonable track record of performance. He was the best among the front runners and he fought for this democracy that we are enjoying today.

Another factor is the kind of government we run. The present presidential system, as we practise it in Nigeria today, can never lead to any greatness in the real sense of it. No matter how much Tinubu wants to try, the encumbrances and bureaucratic bottlenecks will always be clogs in the wheel of progress. The bloated system by the executive with 48 ministers and hundreds of aides, 469 members at the national assembly, with the accompanying bureaucracy. The 36 state governors who are lords in their states, their state houses of assembly, all funded from public pulse, will never bring transformation.

A cursory look at the countries I described earlier. Few things are common to them. Those transformation were not achieved under our type of democracy. They were all authoritarian governments and more or less, dictators. Also, one visionary leader, with autocratic power, still spent between 30 and 40 years to achieve such greatness. Paul Kagame is 29 years in power. Lee Kuan Yew spent over 31 years. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan of UAE spent 33 years as head of country. None of the China’s revolutionary leaders spent less than 10 years each. But here, we have leaders spend 4 to 8 years maximum, with very democratic powers, not authoritarian.

Do we still have any chance at becoming great? Ofcourse yes, but it will be herculean task, especially with the crop of leaders we have now and our broken system. What should or can we do? One. There is need for overhauling of our constitution. The rule of law needs to be strengthened such that it does not discriminate based on class, position, affluence, influence and the likes. Two. The system of government we operate needs to be revisited and changed. The parliamentary system that we copied and inherited from Britain served Nigeria better. This will also require reasonable decentralisation of government to subnational governments.

Three. With strengthened law, anticorruption fight should be more vicious. In those countries that transformed, corruption is not tolerated and serious punishment is meted on anyone guilty of it. Four. Leadership selection process. With the change in the type of government, best candidates should be elected to the parliaments, from among whom the Prime Minister will be elected. Five. Appointments should be more merit-based, with sensitivity to inclusiveness. Six. Our educational system should be overhauled. Academic curriculum needs to be reviewed. We need to weed out unnecessarily burdensome subjects in it.

There are subjuects that are irrelevant to the course of study of many students. They just weigh them down and distract them from their core courses. There is need to educate towards our needs as a country. We need homegrown solutions to our local challenges. Teaching needs to be made more attractive to attract and retain the best. Our scholars need government support. There is urgent need for synergy among academic, research and industry. By this, scholars provide materials for researchers who provide solutions to industrial and society problems. Industry will support the schools and research financially and otherwise, and also take products of scholars and researchers to market for commercialisation. This is how countries become great.

There is no better time to change our story as a country than now. We cannot continue to crawl, despite how hugely blessed we are, with human capital and natural resources. The time is now. Nigeria shall be great!

May God continue to protect us and guide us aright.

God Bless Nigeria.

You can follow me on:
Twitter: @lateef_adewole
Facebook: Lateef Adewole
Email: [email protected]
Whatsapp: +2348036034685

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November 11, 2023.

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