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Buhari’s vacuous Independence Day speech: A missed opportunity

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Independence Day speech

By Olu Fasan

President Muhammadu Buhari’s speech on Nigeria’s 60th independence anniversary two weeks ago was striking for its utter vacuity. The speech was full of sanctimonious preachiness and platitudes but totally bereft of substance. For such an “epochal event”, it was a missed opportunity!

The recurring theme was “togetherness”, which chimed with the slogan “TOGETHER” adopted for the independence anniversary. But the choice of that slogan itself suggests the absence of a strong sense of “togetherness” in Nigeria.

After all, if Nigerians were united, if there is a strong sense of shared identity, why would the president devote a speech to urging them to “work TOGETHER”? So, there is a problem of disunity.

But once we acknowledge that Nigeria is not united, then the next step is an accurate diagnosis of the problem – why does it exist? Unless you correctly define a problem, you cannot identify the right solution to it. But Buhari misdiagnosed the problem of disunity in Nigeria and, inevitably, came up with the wrong solution.

According to President Buhari: “An underlying cause of most of the problems we have faced as a nation is our consistent harping on artificially contrived fault-lines that we have harboured and allowed unnecessarily to fester.” So, then, there are no real problems in Nigeria, no structural weaknesses, only “artificially contrived fault-lines”!

Of course, once President Buhari admits there are structural problems, he cannot sustain his opposition to restructuring. So, it’s a convenient perspective for him to take. But for a president who said Nigerians “entrusted” him with their “hopes and aspirations for a better and greater Nigeria”, the misdiagnosis of the problem is utterly disingenuous.”

President Buhari should have read the transcript of the debate on the “Nigeria Independence Bill” in the UK House of Commons on July 15, 1960. He will find that the British did not believe that Nigeria’s problems were artificially contrived.

Rather, they believed the problems were inherent in Nigeria’s nature as a multi-ethnic country and required an appropriate solution.

Thus, the UK’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, Iain Macleod, said while opening the debate that, given Nigeria’s “extraordinary” diversity, “it is not the least surprising that the political development it has chosen is that of a Federation in three regions, with each region self-governing in its own concerns.”

Another Member of Parliament, Arthur Creech Jones, said Nigeria’s independence constitution was “of great delicacy where various interests have had to be reconciled.” Then, Fenner Brockway, another MP, said: “I welcome the fact that Nigeria is a Federation”, adding: “It is not one nation but many”!

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The truth is that Britain’s politicians and Nigeria’s independence leaders always knew which political and constitutional arrangements best suited the country. For instance, Britain acknowledged that the Macpherson Constitution of 1951 over-centralised governance in Nigeria, and promulgated the Lyttleton Federal Constitution of 1954, which shifted power from the centre to the regions. The 1963 Constitution devolved powers even more, enabling strong and effective regional governments.

Unfortunately, from a Federation of self-governing regions, Nigeria is now a pseudo-federal system under which power is over-centralised and controlled by one politically- dominant ethnic group.

So, when President Buhari says that Nigeria’s problems are due to “artificially contrived fault-lines”, when, in fact, they are due to a flawed politico-governance structure that doesn’t suit its nature, he is guilty of deliberately misdiagnosing the problem.

Of course, having wrongly diagnosed the problem, President Buhari then reached a concocted solution. He declared an eleven-month period of “modest commemorative activities”, ending on September 30, 2021, during which he called for “individual and collective self-assessment.”

But what the “commemorative activities” entail or how the “individual and collective self-assessment” would be conducted remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that this is about putting symbolism above substance, and about addressing the symptoms rather than the root-causes of problems.

Surely, if President Buhari was concerned about the problem of disunity in Nigerian and if his TOGETHER slogan was to be meaningful, he should have used the Independence Day speech to announce the establishment of a political and constitutional conference to spearhead the negotiation of a new constitutional and political settlement.

Alternatively, he should have announced the establishment of a committee of eminent Nigerians to review the reports of all the national or constitutional conferences since the 1950s and pull together recommendations that would be put to Nigerians for consultation.

By the next Independence Day, on October 1, 2021, President Buhari would have just one and a half years left in office, and his administration would be caught up in the politicking for the 2023 general elections. Buhari said in his speech: “Today, it is my unique privilege to re-commit myself to the service of this great country.”

But how? Well, he could be a Nelson Mandela, who bequeathed enduring political and constitutional settlements to his country.

In February 1990, when Mandela stepped out of prison after 27 years, he was confronted not only with racial division between Whites and Blacks, but also deep tensions among the Black ethnic groups, leading to a spiral of devastating Black-on-Black violence.

But Mandela led a government of national unity that included his arch-rivals, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of Inkatha Freedom Party, and F.W de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president.

Together, they negotiated and crafted a new constitution, believed to be one of the most inclusive in the world, with significant powers devolved to the provinces and a Bill of Rights.

Those who say restructuring and political settlement won’t work in Nigeria should explain why it worked in South Africa. When I interviewed South Africa’s last apartheid-era ambassador to the UK, Kent Durr, in 1994, he said the negotiated political and constitutional settlement would bring relative peace and stability to his country, and it did!

Like Mandela, President Buhari could be the ‘father’ of a reconstructed Nigeria or he could squander the opportunity for such an enduring legacy. His vacuous Independence Day speech suggests he prefers the latter. Pity!


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