By Tonye Princewill
“These are the times that try men’s souls”.—Thomas Paine, U.S. Patriot.
It’s not often that I extol the virtues of other people’s heroes. I think we do too much of that in contemporary Nigerian discourse already.
But I quote Thomas Paine, on this occasion, to convey a very urgent message to our young: Things may be difficult now, but like Paine and the American Patriots, we must look beyond present circumstances, and envision our destiny, as a nation.
Sacrifices, such as the ones this generation is being called upon to make, is the price national destiny imposes: Especially if it is a Grand Destiny, bequeathed by a great nation, in the formative phase of its political evolution.
Every nation imposes a levy on its people, in return for the benefits it has to offer. Those benefits may not be apparent, at this juncture, when we are mired so deeply in crises. Crisis can easily blur one’s vision and induce despair. Pessimism and hopelessness are products of crisis, corollaries of an opaque vision.
That is what Thomas Paine was saying to his people—the context in which he uttered those inspirational remarks, which helped to mobilize and galvanize revolutionary sentiments during the U.S. struggle for independence, two centuries and a half ago.
That is also the context in which I write. The difference, of course, is that I am not trying to instigate rebellion against established authority, as Paine and his co-conspirators, the early American intellectuals, were doing.
Nigeria attained its political independence from Britain, nearly 52 years ago. Unlike the American insurgents though, we shed very little blood in the course of our agitation and uprising. Nigeria was handed back to its owners, more or less on a silver platter.
That may be part of the problem. Political freedom might well have come too easy—so that we now labour under the illusory notion that all subsequent challenges, all of the problems that were, in reality, being handed to us on that platter, would lend themselves to simple solutions, requiring little effort to solve. A fierce battle against an external force would have strengthened our bonds. Instead we had internal battles against internal forces.
The Civil War should have taught us better. It ought to have shattered that illusion, once and for all. And for a time, it looked that way. We emerge from that conflagration, from the crucible of war, as an aggressive and confident people. “New Nigerians,”is what we called ourselves.
The New Nigerian was not exactly a myth. There is no question, but that the events of 1966 to 1970 transformed our national character. The question is: “Transformed into what?” What have we become?
The answer is not so simple. But there is an answer for anyone who is perceptive and will face up to the truth. It is, stated succinctly, that we have not “become” anything. Rather, we are still becoming—and always will be.
As I have said many times before, the evolution of a nation is, in a sense, similar to that of an individual. It is conceived out of necessity and born through political labour. The birth of a nation can be pacific and painless, as was the case with Nigeria; but its evolution rarely ever is.
Yes, we are “New Nigerians”. Yet, like a newly born individual, we began to evolve at birth, indeed at conception—and will continue to do so, in perpetuity. We’ll keep “becoming”, keep shaping and reshaping ourselves, continuing to work out our national destiny, from one crisis to the next.
In fact, we’re still fighting for our independence, not from the colonial master but from a far more dangerous and deadly oppressor. We’re struggling to free ourselves from collective weakness and self-doubt, from disparateness and discord.
Our survival is threatened, not by crisis, not by Boko Haram, AIDS or Lassa fever, but by a lack of confidence in ourselves and a waning collective will. Crisis is inevitable in the evolution of a state, just as it is in the life of an individual.
That’s why I opened with a quote from Thomas Paine. I could have used a passage from the writings or speeches of Tafawa Balewa, Majola Agbebe, Obafemi Awolowo or any of our national heroes.
But I wanted to put things into perspective, to impress upon the young that crisis is not a curse visited upon Nigeria alone.
It is the common affliction of nation-states; and the antidote is the same, everywhere and for all times: courage, confidence, commitment and a resolve to retain our national vision, our sense of destiny.
We are forever being tested, forever descending into the abyss and undergoing the periodic ordeals that shape the character of a people.
It’s Boko Haram and corruption today. It’ll be something else tomorrow: And with each crisis, the soul of our nation is on trial.