It is 50 years today (January 15, 2020), the war came to an end which engulfed Nigeria for close to three years between 1967 and 1970. The coup that unseated the democratically elected government of President Nnamdi Azikiwe and Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and which ultimately ushered in the war was staged on 15 January 1966. In that brutal fratricidal war, purportedly fought to keep Nigeria one, it was estimated that the country lost about two and a half million of its citizens – infant babies, the cream of its youth, old men and women, young boys and girls, even nursing mothers. The war ended officially on 15 January 1970. And today, 50 years later, Nigerians might as well reflect on those war days and ask themselves if 15 January was mere coincidence or was the hand of God on the history of Nigeria?
Many reasons were adduced for the war. Some people argued that the odd bed-fellows the British colonial government lumped together as a nation for its own economic and political aggrandizement were never meant to be, that conflict was inevitable. Others said the politicians who controlled the country after the exit of the British government precipitated conditions which degenerated into war by their actions and policies. Some said it was because the Igbo were so marginalized despite the fact that they were the people who, through their hard work, resilience and commitment to nation-building kept Nigeria together, they no longer felt wanted in Nigeria. Blames upon blames, the situation in the country began its steep journey which finally culminated in war after Biafra seceded.
Looking back after all these 50 years the war ended, it is now simpler to understand why the country had to pass through all these challenging years of uncertainty. A major reason is that those who prepare to win a war should also prepare to win the peace after the war is fought and won. In the case of Nigeria, no visible efforts were made to win the peace after the war. And so, even after 50 years the war ended, echoes of agitations and secessionist inclinations which created the scope for war in the first place continue to challenge the leaderships of the country. The country continues to wobble on shaky, unstable feet in its frantic search for genuine unity and the building of a great nation that can take its rightful place in the comity of African and world nations.
In 1970, soon after the war, General Yakubu Gowon made something like an attempt at peace when he spoke to the nation. He insisted there was no victor, no vanquished. He spoke about reintegration and rehabilitation of all ethnic nationalities. He spoke of reconstruction of infrastructure which had suffered in the wake of the war. But 50 years later, most Nigerians who were either born in Biafra or fought the cause of Biafra were yet to be reintegrated and fully rehabilitated into the Nigerian mainstream. Most of them come from the Igbo heartland. Others come from the riverside areas like the Niger Delta Region. Marginalization which was the fundamental cause of the civil war is still very much the problem of the country. At the end of the day, the system only succeeded in breeding ethnic militia of sorts all over the place, local champions of ethnic interests.
In the Deep South, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND and similar militant groups became the dominant voices of the people. Armed militia groups like the Oduah People’s Congress, OPC, in the South-West; the Movement for the Realization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB and the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, IPOB, in the South-East and Arewa People’s Congress, APC, in the North all sprang up supposedly in defence of ethnic concerns. Even as we speak, security in the land has become a matter of speculation. Boko Haram has continued to make the lives of Nigerians a nightmare in the North-East while in the South, the menace of armed robbers, rapists, kidnappers, cultists and ritualists has continued to make many Nigerians sleep at night with their eyes wide open.
These things are happening because, right from the beginning of military incursion into the democratic evolution of Nigeria after the war, the short-lived government of General Murtala Mohammed abandoned Gowon’s vision of reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Each succeeding government afterwards failed to rehabilitate the majority of the Nigerian people because they all simply had one idea of “continuity” in common. They shared the tendency of advertently or inadvertently creating conditions of official corruption which continued to make the country’s richest families richer while the poorer families were made poorer. The poor families continued to be marginalized from the enormous wealth the country boasted of from its vast oil fields and its innumerable solid mineral deposits, turning the country into a paradox.
Citizens continued to moan daily because of lack of safe drinking water. The Water Boards in most cities in the country suddenly disappeared. Urban dwellers were expected to drill borehole in their houses in the city. The average urban resident who could not afford to sink a borehole was forced by circumstances to resort to fetching water for domestic use from shallow wells or from far off streams. Some bought water from peddlers who sold it on the streets of the cities. Overcrowding in houses in cities and its attendant socio-economic problems which included environmental degradation were also part of the national problem. General unemployment, especially of university and college graduates, gave rise to an ever increasing spate of sophisticated cyber crimes.
Youth restiveness, cultism in colleges and universities, an increasing wave of bank and highway armed robbery, kidnapping, drug addiction and things like that became the trend in the Nigerian society. Children became condemned to street hawking and street life. Exploitative child labour, unaffordable healthcare delivery, commercial sex and sexual exploitation, girl prostitution, juvenile abortion, teenage motherhood and child abandonment, youth drug addiction and delinquency culminating in teenage crimes became the way of life of many young people in most Nigerian cities, especially in the North where education of young Nigerians was being impeded by clerical leaders in the name of religious dogma. The danger was that children became hardened criminals. These and various harmful traditional practices against women, such as female genital mutilation and high maternal mortality rates remained indications to government of the level of underdevelopment and deepening poverty that was ravaging Nigeria despite all the wealth the country boasted of.
Indeed, Gowon had told the Nigerian people he had five primary objectives when he launched his Second National Development Plan in 1970, soon after the war ended. The plan was to build a free and democratic society. It was to evolve a just and egalitarian society. It was to create a united, strong and self-reliant economy. It was to turn the country into a great and dynamic economy and a land full of bright opportunities for all citizens. But 50 years after the plan was launched, not one of these goals has been attained. Instead of a free and democratic society, Nigerian society became para-militarized – with ethnic militia movements of sorts growing sporadically from all nooks and crannies of the country.
Instead of the just and egalitarian society Gowon planned, Nigerians had an unjust and insecure society characterized by child abuse, ritual killings, extra-judicial murders, cultism, kidnapping, ethnic riots and religious rivalry. Impunity crept into the social way of life, not from the back door but straight from the front door. Instead of being united, strong and self-reliant, the country continued to be divided along ethnic and religious lines. Even as we speak, nationalism is still a strange vocabulary in the lexicon of the average Nigerian.
In terms of resource control, “Federal Character” [whatever that means] and what came to be “as man know man” continued to displace merit and right. Instead of bright opportunities for all citizens, Nigeria continued to be a country where the vast majority of citizens were seen rightly or wrongly as massive failures. In terms of infrastructural reconstruction, the World Bank estimated that 50% of federal roads were absolutely deteriorated. The result of that sort of situation was that the bright ones who should have shaped the future of Nigerian nationalism travelled abroad to live and work for foreign countries. They are still travelling out in their droves in search of “greener pasture” abroad. And consequently, Nigeria continues to suffer from brain drain.
When Chief Olusegun Obasanjo took the front seat after General Murtala Muhammed was killed in a military coup, he abandoned Gen. Gowon’s vision and introduced his own “Operation Feed the Nation”. Alhaji Shehu Shagari abandoned Obasanjo’s Operation Feed the Nation and came up with his “Green Revolution”. Gen. Buhari dumped that and came up with his “War against Indiscipline”. General Ibrahim Babangida left that and introduced his “Better Life.” Babangida had the longest list of development visions and programmes. They included the National Directorate of Employment, the Directorate for Foods, Roads and Rural Infrastructure; the Better Life Programme, Peoples Bank, Community Bank and the National Economic Reconstruction Fund. General Sani Abacha abandoned all that and came up with his “Family Support” and Vision 2010.
When Obasanjo was democratically elected as the President of the country in 1999, he introduced what he said were his National Poverty Eradication Programme and National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS), and mentioned the Vision 2020. Alhaji Musa Yar ‘Adua dropped all that and came up with his 7-point agenda. It included power and energy, agriculture and food security, wealth creation and employment generation, qualitative and functional education, the Niger Delta, mass transportation and land reforms. But within the first two years, the vision was whittled down or modified to electoral reform, rule of law, the Niger Delta, power and energy sector, rebuilding human capital, accelerating economic reforms and security. The fact was that most of those policies were wonderful on their own, but they were ultimately abandoned by the incoming government and they failed.
Nigeria has always had brilliant, impeccable and well written policies by any standards. The problem with their implementation was that if a government was unable to conclude its plan before its tenure terminated, the in-coming government would abandon the policy and the projects and start the nation’s development all over again, from the scratch. The logic was that government wanted to justify its existence by impressing Nigerians with a new vision. But that logic does not hold water. It is only a waste of time and money.
But despite these and several other challenges, the foundation of true democracy was hugely laid after the country returned to democratic rule in 1999. Talk of free and fair elections. This idea became so ingrained in the mentality of most Nigerians during the last decade that about 90% of the population became conscious and willing to blow the whistle on anyone caught or even suspected of trying to rig an election or to pervert the collective will of the people. Special mention must be made on the role the police force continued to play in this regard. We should be thumbs up for them for contributing so conspicuously to ensure that Nigeria practises true democracy. Every election that has been conducted since 2010 has been accepted by locals and the international community as free and fair. Nigerian leaders are literarily afraid now to reverse the trend or return on the gains made along this line of democratic practice.
In an attempt to bridge the educational gap between the north and the south, many more Almajiri schools and more federal universities were built in the north. Nigeria also celebrated 100 years of the amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorates in 2014. Many countries had predicted that Nigeria would be dismembered after the period but as they would say, Nigerians decide, and the people appeared to have decided to remain as one big, populous and massively endowed country , if for no other reason, at least to shame those who believed that African countries can be dismembered in order to be plundered.
The signing into law of the freedom of information act was also a huge milestone in the democratic evolution of Nigeria. Now, Nigerians can get information officially as to how public money is being utilized and can hold public officers accountable for how public funds were dispensed with, under their watch.
The replacement of train services deserves some mention. During this era, train services which practically phased out as soon as Nigeria had self rule were re-introduced into the system. All through Europe and America, train services have become so important in the daily commuting of citizens that it was beginning to make Nigeria look ridiculous that it could not afford train services for its people despite its flouted oil wealth. Although these services are yet on a low key, it is important that at least the scheme has been started and it is hoped that in the next few decades Nigerians would have caught up with the standards that are prevalent in the more advanced democracies.
Infrastructural development in the country also deserves some mention. New roads have been built. Old ones have been fortified. New airports have been built. Seaports have been fortified. Those are great strides in making life more comfortable for the average Nigerian. But perhaps, one of the great strides the country made during the half century and which will finally define its place in the evolution of true democracy was the emergence of two dominant political parties, the All Progressives Congress, APC and the Peoples’ Democratic Party, PDP.
In concert with what obtains in Britain and America, the two countries that mostly influence Nigeria and where the ruling Conservative Party and the Opposition Labour Party and the ruling Republican Party and the Opposition Democratic Party have continued over many decades to alternate in producing the Prime Minister and President, Nigeria can now be sure that it has joined the bandwagon. Nigerians can now choose between the APC and the PDP which is more credible to produce their President.
But also, the two parties must be careful not to take the voters for granted. An example of what could happen can be found in the political history of Britain where at first the Liberal Democrats were the main opposition party. But with careful planning, the party was overtaken by the Labour Party and since 1920 Labour and Conservatives have been the parties alternating in producing the Prime Minister.
But while Nigeria has journeyed so far in these 50 years, it is worth the while reminding its leaders that it is not yet ‘uhuru’ and that a lot more needs to be done to get the country on a more proper footing. Nigerian political leaders must appreciate that government is continuity and that a new government must continue from where its predecessor stopped. The old practice where all the vision and investments of a previous government are abandoned for brand new ones is simply a waste of money. It is like winding the clock of development backwards for the country. So, Nigerian leaders must adopt this deliberate policy of a new government continuing from where its predecessor stopped.
There is also the vexatious and sensitive issue of cutting down on the remuneration of public offices and especially that of legislators to make public offices unattractive for rogue politicians and their rogue accomplices in the business community. The executive arm of government must muster the courage to table the motion before the hallowed National Assembly. A condition where Nigerian legislators are said to be the highest paid in the world is certainly not the best testimony for Nigeria’s growing democracy. If the average pay of legislators from 4 or 5 rich countries is taken as the net pay of a Nigerian legislator, then the country’s leaders can have something to explain to the people who voted them into public offices. How can they explain that they are the highest paid legislators in the world?
There is even a serious need to change the current constitution in its entirety. The 1999 constitution was created by the military to favour them and to keep them at the forefront of democratic governance in the country, governance that only reflects the unitary government that is the army, masquerading as democracy. A new constitution that will take the interest of the minority into account, a constitution that will recognize that Nigeria is a pluralistic society that has about 250 ethnic nationalities and that will bring their various interests into account, a constitution created by the people’s elected representatives is what Nigerians need at this point in their democratic growth.
Most importantly, there is a dire need to restrict the military to external defence of the country. The government should have no reason to deploy the army within the confines of the country. Their business should be to defend the territorial integrity of the country. They should leave the police to do their work. And if the Inspector General of Police feels that he has not got enough staff to go round, he should employ more people. Millions of qualified Nigerians would be glad to join the police force. They should be employed and given the opportunity to serve their country.
The military should stay completely out of democratic dispensation. They belong to the other room (courtesy President Buhari) where authority flows from up downwards and not the room where people share the same opinions and if there is a disagreement, it is put to the vote and majority carries the day. The President as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces must play his role better in diffusing what can best be defined as “military-democracy”. The area that stipulates military engagement in the internal affairs of Nigerians should be expunged from the constitution of the country. It should not bear on the demands of democratic governance and this is most vital to the achievement of true democracy.
There is a need to evolve a national spirit, a national way of life that is acceptable and by the people themselves and by the international community. If we take America for example: it is a conglomeration of people from all parts of the world. America has about 50 states, some of them bigger than Nigeria. The people come from many parts of the world and settle in as Americans. It doesn’t matter whether they are Japanese, Chinese, Mongolians, Israelis, Palestinians, Latin Americans, Asians or Africans. They come, they throw away their original habits and imbibe the American way of life because it makes them proud to be called and known as Americans – normally touted as the most powerful people in the world.
Nigerian leaders must realize that most Nigerians want to be proud to be called and known as Nigerians. Nigeria has produced so many illustrious sons and daughters, very well known across the globe that the country cannot be taken for granted anywhere in the world. But unfortunately, so many of these successful and unique Nigerians are literarily running away from their original country to serve the interest of foreign countries abroad because the conditions Nigerian leaders created in their country do not favour them. We find so many educated Nigerians and even the not-so-educated ones leaving the country in their droves in search of greener pasture abroad.
So, many Nigerian university graduates in America and Europe end up doing such menial jobs as street cleaning and security guarding. But, ironically, they are happier doing such jobs than staying and working in Nigeria. One reason is because in these foreign countries, they are paid their wages at the end of the day and no one owes anyone salary arrears.
Building a democratic nation involves dedication, time and consistency. Fortunately, Nigeria’s case is not so difficult to fix if only the political leaders would develop the will to do what is needful to save the country from self-destruction and give it the place of pride it deserves in Africa and the world. In this case, there are just practical things to do to set the country on the right path to true democracy.
- Make the Nigerian Anthem, Flag and Passport the symbol of One Nigeria because they don’t recognize tribalism. They don’t know who is from Edo, Fulani, Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba. Nigerians can always remember this with the acronym: NAFAP – meaning “Nigerian Anthem, Flag and Passport”.
- Make the three major languages compulsory in all primary schools. In less than two generations the ethnic gap would have been bridged as every Nigerian would understand every other Nigerian and respect the various traditions and culture of the people.
- Pass laws to pay all categories of workers as at and when due – as it is done in developed countries. Nigeria has got the money. What it seems to lack is the political will to fight corruption the right way.
- Set up employment tribunals in every local government area of the country to follow up defaulting employers and penalize them according to law.
- Challenge party politics and allow those who aspire to public offices to test their popularity as independent contestants. For so long after the war, incompetent moneybags have been shielded by political parties as they perform shoddily in public offices.
- Give the six zones a level of autonomy that will enable them control their own resources, manage their own education, medical services, sports, airlines and airports, ships and sea ports, police force, infrastructure and so on – and allow them pay a percentage of their annual budget to the federal coffers for the maintenance of the Central Bank, Immigration Department and the Armed Forces.
Nigeria has lost so much in its search for true unity. Millions of people died during the civil war 50 years ago and many millions have also died since the war ended. Many gave their lives willingly or unwillingly in this frantic march towards nationalism and true democracy. The least we who are alive can do for them is to ensure that they did not die in vain. We will continue to celebrate them. 50 years today, and every day, we will remember them.