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So we are now 49!

By Tony Momoh
WE were 49 on October 1 and many had more reasons to weep than to laugh. I was asked what my impressions were. Have we made it enough to claim that there is hope for the future? Where was I on October 1, 1960? Are there changes I would ask for, and what prayer would I say for a future Nigeria? Won’t I be part of the huge and mass move of sensitive and religious people in Nigeria who are asking God Almighty to help us? What help do we need and can we have?  What do we do about those who impede the flow of help from whatever source, visible or invisible? The questions came pouring in last week.

Print and electronic media were putting together the stuff they would give us this year to mark our age 49 as an independent country. One newspaper editor friend was so angry he asked why his paper should make the independence day a lead story. I decided to answer the questions in an unusual way.

I will tell you about that unusual way by telling you a story, but I am not the author of that type of communication. Sam Amuka was Nigeria’s foremost writer of self-hurt to reflect the ills of the society he lived in. That was when he wrote Sad Sam in the 60s and 70s.

He castigated himself for whatever happened.You couldn’t call him to order for what would amount to self-defamation because you have a right as a citizen to self-defame. But those who read between the lines and watched things unfold knew that Sam was not hurting himself, but telling us what we were guilty of.

Once in a while, he came out frontally to make statements you thought were no more than exaggerations. Like when he suggested what should happen to us as corrupt people! Simple, he said. Kill every Nigerian! Which means that stealing may not be in our stars because God did not ordain it, but in ourselves because we learnt it.

And it is we who have sustained those ills and perfected ways to preserve them. A few days ago, we were 49 years old, on our own, doing the things we have manured to adulthood.So, where was I on October 1, 1960?  I will tell you because it was my own or my group’s contribution to entrenching what in retrospect has become national indiscipline we are associated with today.

I was in Sapele in present-day Delta State, then part of the Western Region when Nigeria had only three regions, North, West and East. I had gone there to spend the independence holiday with my friend, I think Henry, who was a forestry officer, there. I was supposed to have been at Auchi where I would have been part of celebrating initiation into manhood of my age group. This happens at age 20.

For the previous three or four years, you were expected to be on the first rung of the ladder to manhood. You were introduced into the ways of life of your people, in addition to what you might have imbibed in the home environment. If you breached any of the customs of the people, you were dealt with by the structures of the community. I failed to be at home for the initiation, was not even available to be part of the grooming years that led to the event of 1960.

True I was not the only one. Many of us had to go to school and be exposed to influences that were suspect in our communities. But looking back, what I was proud of has come to haunt me as wrong, very wrong. I belonged, and still belong in an age group that made history, call it negative history. We were the only age-group since the practice came into effect about the early parts of the 16th century.

We called ourselves Otu-Ibo, that is the group of Europeans, that is the group of those who are learned. Not one of us there was who could not read or write because of Awolowo’s free education programme. Because we were learned, we found it difficult to perform the community chores. It was below our dignity so to do. Oh yes, many of us were teaching and many others were in secondary school.

But where there were such clashes between the call of the community to perform your age-group duties and the work you had to do, there was a way out. Pay for labour so that the community work would be done!  We refused to pay for labour and pleaded that we were working and so could not perform the community chores! That was wanting to eat our cake and having it! The Otaru said he would not give us the traditional name that would qualify us to be initiated into manhood.

We called ourselves Otu-Ibo and that has stuck to date. Many thought we would die, defying tradition, but we did not die. Those of us who have passed on did not do so because of defiance of tradition, but they left because it was time for them to go. But something did die. My people today have about 45 age groups and only ours since 1960 did not have a name given by the community, with the attendant community blessings.

But we rose in life, did well as others did and suffered no harm visible to any other. But something was wrong. The other age-groups would have enforced the sanctions imposed on failure to work for the community. We rose in life proud that we defied tradition and that the heavens did not fall. Looking back, I wonder if the heavens would have fallen if other age groups had called our bluff, had moved into our homes at Auchi to enforce community sanctions for failure to perform communal duties like security, communal farming et al.

We were proud promoters of the virtues of the Empire Day when we prayed for the Queen of England to rule the empire forever, an Empire where the sun would never set. We swallowed hook, line and sinker what we were told about the place of blacks in the history of man on earth. Shaka the Zulu was not a military strategist of world renown we discovered him to be in later years of independent searching, but a witch doctor who wore feathers in confronting the rampaging Whites.

We preferred serving tea and coffee at government rest houses instead of growing food crops we could make money from. Holding the hoe and cutlass for farm work was a chore for the unlettered. The thing that paid was what they called a white collar job where you may move a file from one desk to the other all your life in the civil service, where the district officer had grown before independence to be the White Master of the highest traditional institutions you knew.

Like happened in our community with the boastful sidelining of our traditions because we went to school, we have grown in abuse of the ways we inherited from the colonial masters.  They introduced democracy to us, and for hundreds of years have sustained it, infusing changes to suit their levels of economic development. We pounced on the system and made it a business. So, for the years we have adopted other roads to grow our systems, we perfected the art of manipulating the only way we can be initiated into manhood through those other ways.

It did not start with Professor Maurice Iwu who from recent advertorials of what he had been doing with our electoral laws would want to be celebrated. So, if there is something to celebrate, it is the woes we have inflicted on the people, not that woes should be celebrated but because the people, like mine who let Otu-Ibo defy tradition and was boastful doing so, lack the will to make a statement that abuse of  rights does not pay.

Calling the bluff of those who have been brought up since we adopted the western ways we have domesticated to the chagrin of the West, can be celebrated if we do take that decision at age 49 to do so.  Better late than never is a mantra that can revive hope in a country whose future may be in doubt, but whose mission can never fail, even if those of us there to prepare for its fulfillment deliberately subvert it. Let them pray, but prayers of intercession will only make sense when those they are meant for open themselves to receive. How prepared are we?


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