Big trouble, as more Nigerians sink deeper into poverty

By Donu Kogbara

DEAR Vanguard readers, please go through the following excerpt from an article I wrote for the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, magazine 10 years ago when Nigeria turned 50 on October l, 2010…and then get in touch via text or email to tell me whether you think that there have been any significant changes since then.

Still standing but standing still

“As the clock struck 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 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…”

There it was in cold, hard print in the October 1, 1960 edition of the Daily Times newspaper. An emotional commentary written by Babatunde Jose, the publication’s editor at the time. The Daily Times, which had been founded in the 1920s, was the oldest and most distinguished publication in Nigeria at the time.

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And Mr 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.

He 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 dictatorship and human rights abuses. In 2008, aged 82, Mr. Jose died and it is true to say that he lived to see his dreams collapse.

Tragically, the rot had set in long before the first decade of an independent Nigeria had drawn to a close, as the country succumbed to multiple dysfunctions and was plunged into a bloody civil war.

Having observed such negative developments with mounting alarm, Mr. Jose was eventually eased out of his editor’s chair in 1976 by Gen. Murtala Muhammed’smilitary regime, which had no use for his passionate idealism and belief in press freedom…

…[The subsequent decline of Daily Times newspaper, thanks to governmental mismanagement] is perhaps symptomatic of the wider leadership problems that have dragged Nigeria down and today robbed it of benefits like sturdy infrastructure and a reliable electricity supply (and all the attendant pressures this has put on Nigeria’s economy today). Mr. Jose was not alone. Many others have endured a plethora of bitter disappointments in the 50 years since Nigerians celebrated their liberty. Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark – an 83-year-old veteran activist from the oil-rich Niger Delta region and a former finance minister – is one of them.

Mr. Clark was a politically active school principal and staunch nationalist on that October day in 1960. He describes his mood then as being “completely elated”. Today, however, he is disillusioned. One of the things that has saddened him most over the past 50 years has been the gradual abandonment of the principle that Nigeria’s different regions should develop at a different pace, and grow their economies in different ways.

Back then, Mr. 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 central government. This status quo is simply not good enough,” he says.

And indeed, the “oil curse” is a recurrent grievance. Eighty-year-old Matthew TawoMbu, who was minister of state for defenceon independence day, remembers that he and his colleagues had danced until dawn.

Before he joined Balewa’s cabinet he had been the Nigerian high commissioner to London and in 1957 had been invited to the Dutch city of Rotterdam to ceremonially discharge the first consignment of Nigerian crude oil to the country.

“We had absolutely no idea, at the time, that oil would become such a major source of income,” he says. “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.”

Others mourn the seeming loss of critical self-awareness in the country. Deborah Ajakaiye, Nigeria’s first female geophysicist and Africa’s first professor in the field, was a student at the University of Ibadan in 1960.

“There was so much excitement on campus. We were so full of hope.” But for Prof. Ajakaiye, Nigeria has deteriorated on several levels since then: Educational institutions have been seriously weakened, the railway sector is dead and the country’s value system has been deeply compromised.

“Murders which used to be extremely rare are now commonplace,” she says. “[And] the acquisition of ill-gotten wealth has also become more acceptable.” Back then if someone built a mansion that was not compatible with his salary, the entire community would query him. “Now, very few questions are asked,” she tells me.

I went on to say that I hoped that the then government’s power sector reform plans and anti-corruption rhetoric would bear fruit. But here we are, 10 years later, still surrounded by billionaire “public servants” and still struggling to cope with endless power cuts.

I concluded my 2010 BBC article by saying that despite the multiple problems Nigerians had battled with in the preceding five decades, Nigeria could boast of one major achievement: That it had somehow miraculously succeeded in staying in one piece.

Considering the extent to which ethnic and religious tensions have escalated since 2010 and especially since 2015, staying in one piece continues to be Nigeria’s greatest achievement…in my opinion!

Yesterday, every MTN customer, including me, received the following text message: One nation. Over 198 million strong.Diverse cultures. Different tongues. 60 years together, beating the odds. Happy Independence Day from all of us at MTN! The most striking words in the above message are beating the odds…because it’s pretty amazing that unity, albeit a very flawed and precarious version of unity, still prevails despite the many mighty forces that have been pulling us apart since Independence.


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