By Donu Kopgbara

“THE place: Lagos Racecourse. The dramatis personae: [The Governor-General] Sir James Robertson, representing Queen Elizabeth II of Britain and [the incoming Prime Minister] Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafewa Balewa, representing the 40 million people of Nigeria…And as the clock struck 12 midnight, [they] took their positions on the dais and watched the lowering of the Union Jack and the hoisting of the Nigerian flag…And so the people sang the National Anthem…And so the Independence of Nigeria was proclaimed…

“…And so ended 100 years of British rule…100 years of colonial bondage…A nation conceived in faith and unity is born today…And I am happy. And I am sobbing…”

This emotional commentary appeared in the October 1, 1960 issue of the Daily Times newspaper and was written by Babatunde Jose, the publication’s then editor.

The Daily Times, which had been founded in the 1920s, was the oldest, most distinguished and most widely-read publication in the country at the time of Independence. And Jose, who joined it as a 16-year old trainee and subsequently became known as “the grandfather of Nigerian journalism”, went on to praise Nigeria’s new leaders for embracing parliamentary democracy and committing themselves to uphold the rule of law.

Jose also confidently declared that the 1960 Constitution and existence of a “powerful” opposition party (the Action Group, headed by Obafemi Awolowo) would protect diverse ethnic groups – and the country as a whole – from dictatorships and human rights abuses.

Jose, who died aged 82 in 2008, lived to see his dreams collapse. Tragically, the rot started to set in long before the post-Independence decade had drawn to a close, as Nigeria succumbed to multiple dysfunctions and was plunged into a bloody civil war.

Jose, who had observed such negative developments with mounting alarm, was eventually eased out of the Daily Times in 1976 by General Murtala Mohammed’s military regime, which had no use for his passionate idealism and belief in press freedom.

Jose is not unique, in the sense that many others have also been compelled to endure many bitter disappointments in the 50 years that have elapsed since the Nigerian people celebrated their nascent liberty and looked forward to a bright future.

Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark, 83, is a veteran activist from the oil-rich Niger Delta region and a former Finance Commissioner and former Minister of Information.

Clark, who is still one of the main players on the national stage, was a politically active school principal and staunch nationalist on October 1, 1960. He describes his mood on this historic day as “completely elated” and says that one of the things that has saddened him most since then is the gradual abandonment, over the years, of the principle that different regions should develop at different paces and grow their economies in different ways.

“Then,” Clark laments, “every region had its own plans for generating revenue internally via agriculture and other activities. But that widespread desire to be as productive and self-sufficient as possible no longer exists. Now, the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja) and most of the 36 states that have been created are almost solely dependent on the oil money that is distributed by the central government. This status quo is simply not good enough.”

Matthew Tawo Mbu, 80, was the Minister of State for Defence on October 1, 1960 and recalls himself and his colleagues dancing till dawn. Before he joined Tafewa Balewa’s cabinet, he had been the Nigerian High Commissioner to London and had, in 1957, been invited to Rotterdam to ceremonially discharge the first consignment of Nigerian crude oil.

“We had absolutely no idea, at the time, that oil would become such a major source of income. And it has been a blessing because it enabled the country to amass a fortune. But the expectations some of us had have not been matched. Corruption, which has increased in magnitude since 1960, has given us a rotten image internationally and prevented us from fulfilling our potential in areas like social welfare and infrastructural development.”

Deborah Ajakaiye, the first female geophysicist in Nigeria and first female professor of geophysics in Africa, was a student at the University of Ibadan on Independence Day.

“What a great day it was!” she reminisces. “There was so much excitement on campus. We were so full of hope. It is such a pity that Nigeria has deteriorated on several levels since then. Educational institutions have been seriously weakened. The railway sector is dead…

“Our value system has been deeply compromised. Human life has been trivialised. Murders, which used to be extremely rare, are now commonplace. The acquisition of ill-gotten wealth has also become more acceptable. Then, if someone built a mansion that wasn’t compatible with his salary, the entire community would query him. Now, very few questions are asked.”

Nigerians of all age groups, from every geopolitical zone and from all walks of life blame a combination of factors for the above malaises. The theories about what went wrong are legion and too numerous to be listed here. Fortunately, every cloud has a silver lining.

The slogan of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (the ruling political party between 1960 and 1966) was “One Nation, One Destiny, One People”. And this yearning for unity may very well be the only lofty aspiration that has been transformed into a reality since Nigeria was initiated into the club of sovereign states.

For, despite the (sometimes understandable) agitations of the various separatist movements that have grabbed the spotlight at intervals in the past 50 years, Nigeria has somehow miraculously succeeded in staying in one piece.

A longer version of this article appeared in BBC FOCUS ON AFRICA MAGAZINE.

Subscribe to our youtube channel


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.