By Bisi Lawrence
“There was a time
When meadow, grove and stream
The earth and every common sight to me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light
The glory and freshness of a dream…”
You must have heard of a very knowledgeable people who woke up one day and, in their great wisdom, declared that Nigerians were the happiest people in the world. Of course, it was not added that they were of Nigerian stock. They must have come to that fabulous estimation during a festive period like Christmas when almost everybody has something to dance about, and Nigerians will dance at the drop of a pin.
The assessors of universal happiness would definitely have mistaken the customary appearance of jollity for habitual cheerfulness among our people. Indeed, we might have been created with the thought of Christmas on the divine mind. And this is the season for the feeling.
William Wordsworth, who wrote the poem quoted above, I believe, must have been indeed reflecting on the period of his childhood. That is associated with Christmas which, in the first place, is the celebration of a birth—the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ. The celebration fills the hearts of children, as it should, but the commemoration goes much deeper in the minds of men and women who have gone through the various experiences of life.
I can remember the Christmas of my childhood when indeed every aspect of life seemed imbued with “the glory and freshness of a dream”. As I grew up, I could understand and fully appreciate the poet’s sadness about the facts of his later life when he lamented that “ the things I have seen, I now can see no more.”
Let me start from childhood. There was only one bus route from Lagos Island to Yaba. It started from Tinubu Square and ended at Yaba bus stop. No trip was necessary to Mushin or Surulere because they were simply not in existence as populated sub-urban areas. Neither did Apapa nor did Akoka and areas to the North of Yaba. Ikoyi was where the cemetery lay, and that made it well known, if not popular.
There was only one bus service run by an Italian named J.N.Zarpas. That was the title by which the transport service as well as the coaches were known—”Sarpas”. There was nothing like traffic “hold-up”, or logjam”. Each Christmas was a “dream”. In several families, especially among the well-to-do, all the special clothing for the festive period for all the children would have been ordered from England.
There were a number of export mail order stores which accepted request orders from colonial territories like us in those days of the late thirties and early forties. Shipment was by the excellent Elder Dempster Lines which communed between Britain and West African territories like Nigeria fortnightly. That meant that if you ordered your goods some two months before Christmas you were sure to receive them in good time for the occasion.
The liners were named after the Capital ports like, Apapa, Accra and others. How was payment made? Simple— with the order, of course. It was made by mail, by postal service or letter, if you please. The money was despatched by “Mail Order” which was sent through the post office in the form of a cheque purchased from the Post Office. A week, or so, before Christmas, we began to play with our bangers and fireworks.
They were safe and not the incendiary kinds that now flood the market and set off fires uncontrollably now and then. And then, on Christmas days and other free days associated with the festive period, we had parades of various sizes, ranging from the small groups of little boys who harassed unwilling adults to bring out some presents to the mammoth Fancy shows, some of which featured horsemen and musical bands too.
But none of the outings was sponsored by the government, though few of the present-day presentations can match the grandeur of those days. Everybody looked prosperous at that time. We all had a merry Christmas without any prospect of power failure—wherever there was power, and that was in every city. And that went through two decades during which there was development in every sphere of our national enterprise.
There were pyramids of groundnuts in the North, there was coal, and palm products and gorgeous cocoa harvests. We began to build universities and turn out graduates who left the college straight into the seats of well-paid jobs waiting for them—with cars and housing benefits too. It was unheard that an undergraduate was unemployed.
Then came the discovery of oil. Happy days in store; unhappy days ahead. One Head of State developed a headache just about how to spend the dividends of the petroleum profits. His name is Yakubu Gowon. But his successors had nothing like that, as the oil flowed and the price of the crude climbed higher with each season. In 1978, the naira was higher than the pound sterling.
However, one leader, in his characteristic far sightedness, warned about the danger ahead of wasteful spending on a national scale. His name is Obafemi Awolowo. He views were opposed and denounced by the man in charge, named Shehu Shagari. He, on his part, was to later prescribe something called “austerity”, by the time he saw the light.
This is not a history lesson. It is only leading to how hollow our sincere wishes of the season may really be. It all happened right before the eyes of many of us. We are not about to apportion any blame either for the crash of our majestic groundnut pyramids, or our lovely cocoa plantations, or our palm produce. The allure of the sweet crude was total. But it has come to the point where we cannot pay the salaries of even our teachers and the pensions of our veterans.
We are treading on the paths of wholesale tragedy, a national calamity which I do not think we can even imagine. For what would be the consequences of teachers working on empty stomachs, or old men and women who had expended the energy of their youth in the service of their country and are now left with nothing to sustain their old age?
But it is happening. The dark days are up…. Nigerians are still a happy people but for how long? For, as it is, “the things that I have seen, I now can see no more”, to borrow one more phrase from good, old Wordsworth. We need to do something effective, and fast. The oil which took us over has now let us down, just as we too betrayed its blessings and turned them into a curse.
The cry now is for diversification. But into what? Agriculture? We never really abandoned agriculture. We are still planting, and harvesting, but with what aim and with how much concentration and direction? That is what we have seldom applied to our undertakings. We would not bewail the loss of the dividends of petroleum products today if we had made a good use of our profits in the past.
We would have made our refineries work and be in no bind of importing what we had exported, in the first place, and having to pay for it in a manner that leaves a large corridor for stealing. The access way got wider and wider that it seemed to have accommodated tycoons one would hardly have associated with such disgraceful, underhand deals.
Of course, there are the experts within the industry who had designed and perfected the network for the wholesale robbery of our national revenue. We have to nail them and destroy their network of villainy to begin a fresh approach to nation-building. We seem to be making fair weather with that assignment so far. So, Merry Christmas.