Today makes it 52 years since Nigeria got her flag independence from Britain. Even though nations do not exactly grow, mature and wither away within the time frame of a human life a period of 52 years is a good time frame to review the progress made, challenges on the road and the projections for growth in the years ahead.
As always, today’s Independence celebration offers us another opportunity for a sober reflection to identify what we have done right for the purpose of replication; what we have done wrong so that we can avoid repeating such wrongs and our unique opportunities which can be harnessed to fast-track the development and growth of the nation in the years to come.
Instructively, it will amount to denying the obvious if we are to insist that no progress has been recorded over the past 52 years.
While complaining about Nigeria’s underachievement, a senior colleague once pointed out that in the 1950’s and 60’s, there were very few schools, hospitals, airports, highways, cars and that most of the buildings in the countryside were made of mud and thatch.
For him, a lot of progress has been made and all these things have changed for the better. Indeed, things have got better and are heading for more drastic improvement.
The white man had left and in his place, we have our brothers and sisters in charge of our governance and we have hoisted our flag in the comity of nations as a people exercising their right to self-determination.
Are the foregoing really the indicators of the progress of nations? It will amount to celebrating underachievement if we are to roll out the drums, as we are wont to do, in the excitement of counting the number of years we have existed as a nation.
A number of issues come to the fore. Are we developing at the pace of our peers – Singapore, Brazil, and South Korea? The answer is obvious. No. Are there concrete plans by the elite and leadership to lift Nigeria out of the pit?
Apparently, there is none. We are a people content with offering apologies for things that do not require apology but developmental actions based on strategic thinking.
As a young man, I grew up to hear apologies that our underdevelopment could be traced to slave trade and colonialism. Admittedly, these historical facts left indelible marks on our developmental strides.
But, we were not the only ones who were enslaved or colonised. The military were in power then and as such, they were not officially added to the list of the apologies.
Military rule was later added to the list after the soldiers had left. Thirteen years of civil rule have changed nothing. What is the apology this time? Yes, I know that a culture that was institutionalised in about 28 years of military rule cannot be changed overnight.
But 13 years is enough time to begin the steps to correct the anomalies of military rule. Is it about those who have led us since 1999 – Olusegun Obasanjo, Musa Yar’Adua or Goodluck Jonathan?
It is the position of this discourse that a review of the challenges facing our nation will reveal that the fundamental challenge of development and nationhood is that the country is in denial of its basic nature and challenges.
Forty two years after fighting a bitter civil war that led to the loss of over a million lives, the fundamental questions of who we are and how we need to govern ourselves are still unresolved.
The questions that arose from the contradictions of elite contestation for power before independence and continuing up to the civil war are still unanswered. The leadership has not come up with a concept of development that is sold to the populace as a national vision for resolving our myriad of problems.
We are still faced with the challenge of integration and defining the identity and benefits of citizenship. Our leadership question is not about how to bring out the best to lead or a contest of ideas, it is about the ethnic and religious origin of a proposed leader. Is he from the North, East, West or any of the new six geopolitical zones? This is not the path to nationhood, neither is it the path to development.
The other day, the Petroleum Industry Bill was presented to the National Assembly. The next thing in the media was that the Northern Governors’ Forum had set up a committee to review how it will affect the North.
Maybe there are other groups who have not come out publicly to state their own views. The International Oil Companies have a common position on the bill based on the profit motive. Present beneficiaries of the decadent system in the oil industry will be taking steps to frustrate the reforms proposed in the bill.
But who is speaking or who is researching on behalf of Nigeria? Is there really a Nigeria where a majority of its citizens devoid of where they come from are committed to the vision of its progress, honour and glory?
That vision of Nigeria does not currently exist in the minds of the leadership and indeed in the minds of majority of Nigerians. The voting pattern at major federal elections bears this out.
Sadly, we are in denial of our differences in religion, ethnicity, culture, and history. We believe we can suppress these differences and move on with our lives without having thorough discussions on how to manage them.
Continuing this denial accounts for national policies that are not in the overall interest of the nation but skewed to favour one group or the other, poor quality leadership at the federal level, the indigene/settler dichotomy and the attendant loss of lives and properties it engenders, religious extremism of all forms, among others.
It may be fashionable to paper over these cracks and pretend they do not exist. But that is the tradition of the ostrich.
Even the young who may have no cause for hard-core ethnic attachments, having been brought up in cosmopolitan environments, are confronted with the reality of the danger of being killed by religious fanatics based on their religious or ethnic identity as well as having to fill their state of origin on every form while applying for employment, among others.
These young men and women are being indoctrinated with perverse values on a daily basis by the existential realities of living in Nigeria where merit is continuously thrown overboard.
Therefore, a national dialogue has become overwhelmingly imperative. It should be the dialogue of the people through their freely chosen representatives, convened specifically for the purpose of agreeing on a suitable framework of government that takes cognisance of the diversities, pluralism, rights and obligations of all.
Continuing to pretend that all is well at 52 and that the National Assembly as presently constituted can give us that framework will lead us to nowhere. Such a framework will be based on the need to suppress the mischief in the existing system while advancing remedies to enhance the creative abilities of all groups to harness their resources for their development.
This is a task that must be done before we head for the explosive elections of 2015.
•Onyekpere, a lawyer, is the Lead Director, Centre for Social Justice, Abuja.