By Donu Kogbara
THIS article first appeared in a European magazine called THE AFRICA REPORT last month, just before the ENDSARS protests.
I’m reproducing an edited version of the article here because things are even worse now than they were when the article was written at the end of September; and I am feeling especially sad, at the moment, about the status quo and Nigeria’s failure to be the thriving, safe, admirable nation it should be after more than half a century of self-rule.
Nigeria is 60 and so am I. We are both fraying around the edges and, if prophets of doom are to be believed, both heading towards the graveyard. As I contemplate the possibility that I will outlive this country – scathingly described by a disillusioned uncle of mine as “a useless, artificial colonial contraption cobbled together by the bloody British” – I conclude that though Nigeria gets older with each passing day, it doesn’t get any wiser.
I am the proud owner of an Independence Day – October 1, l960 – copy of the once dominant Daily Times newspaper. And it is full of optimism. The front page is boldly emblazoned with the word “FREEDOM” and a majestic photograph of fireworks exploding above the Race Course in Lagos and around the just-unfurled new green-white-green national flag.
This jubilant iconic image was captured on camera a minute or two after midnight at a “handover” ceremony at which the Union Jack had been solemnly lowered, thus ending 100 years of imperial rule. Inside the paper are faded black-and-white pictures of those who were there: Sir James Robertson, the last British Governor-General; his successor-in-waiting, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe; Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s pioneer Prime Minister; Opposition Leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo; Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin, Princess Alexandra of Kent; and many other Very Important Persons.
Throughout the paper, there are messages from foreign companies operating in Nigeria – some like Elder Dempster long gone, others like Pepsi still going strong – congratulating Nigerians for achieving liberation.
There is a poem by Sir Dennis Osadebay on page 19. Excerpts:
Today a Nation great is born…
…Today we stand before the world
With noble purpose in our eyes…
…We’ll guard our unity and might
And always fight for what is right…
…As we our grateful voices raise
In church or mosque to pray or sing
To God by whose unfailing grace
Nigeria rises bold and free…
OK, so let’s stop beating about the bush and admit that the dizzying aspirations that prevailed in my infancy have been cruelly dashed, that the enormous potential so many patriots and well-wishers saw in 1960 remains unfulfilled and that unity, greatness and nobility are very thin on the ground. The deep cracks began to show very early on. I was only seven when the Biafran civil war started as a conflict between the North and the Igbos. There was talk of a comprehensive anti-Northern Southern alliance that would include the Yorubas and smaller tribes from what is now known as the South South.
But the Yorubas chose to play it safe and stay within Nigeria; and the Igbo secessionist leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, had to settle for patchy support from some minorities. My late father, Ignatius Kogbara, then a Shell executive from Ogoniland in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, was one of the non-Igbos who decided to back Ojukwu; and he was appointed Biafran Representative (effectively Ambassador) in the UK.
For three years, my siblings and I were taught fierce gung-ho rebel songs that proclaimed our determination to never be part of Nigeria again. And I will never forget the bitter tears we shed when Daddy came into the bedroom I shared with my sister in London, to wearily tell us that we had lost the war. This drama occurred 50 years ago, in 1970, when I was 10; and my father was subsequently pardoned for “treason” by General Gowon and invited home, where he was offered a series of senior government jobs at intervals for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, he and my Igbo mother spent the rest of my childhood (reluctantly, to be honest!) trying to erase the uncompromising anti-Nigeria thoughts that they had planted in my head and my heart. My parents’ reverse brainwashing efforts were not enthusiastic by a long shot; but perhaps miraculously, they worked to a large extent.
I can’t emotionally relate to members of IPOB, a born-again Biafran activist group that is headed by Nnamdi Kanu. I enjoy robust friendships with many jolly decent Northerners and Yorubas. And it has to be said that most of the 1960s Biafrans I grew up with have also been in Forgive-and-Forget mode for many moons. Still, there has been a sharp upsurge in divisive ethno-religious rhetoric and sentiment since President Buhari’s administration took over in 2015.
Across the country, natives of (mostly but not-exclusively Christian) non-Fulani communities express an implacable hatred of Northern Muslims, thanks to marauding Fulani herdsmen. Buhari, a Fulani, is accused of being complicit or too inept to keep them in check. Hostilities between herdsmen and villagers have reached fever pitch in the Middle Belt.
Meanwhile, governors of the six Southwestern states were so alarmed by herdsmens’ attacks that they formed Amotekun, a vigilante militia, last year. Resentment is also rife about the fact that irredentists who come from geopolitical zones that produce no oil and aren’t littoral or famed for educational excellence are hellbent on controlling the lucrative hydrocarbon and maritime sectors.
Nigeria, despite Buhari’s assurances, continues to be crippled by chronic security problems – I myself have been a victim of the kidnapping epidemic. As for the economy and society, they are buckling under the weight of massive corruption inflicted by a predatory unethical elite that doesn’t appear to understand the concept of enlightened self-interest.
Central, state and local governments are – in the twenty-first century, for goodness sake! – despised for their woeful inability to provide their citizens with round-the-clock electricity or adequate infrastructural development. One of the comments one hears in almost every gathering of the chattering classes is: “Thank God COVID-19 hasn’t hit Nigeria hard because public healthcare facilities are almost non-existent and millions would have died.”
So whither a Nigeria that’s languishing in the doldrums and gasping for air? I have no idea!
It is worth noting that most of the Millennials around me are desperately trying to take advantage of the Canadian Government’s generous willingness to embrace a certain number of well-qualified young Nigerians every year. A brain drain is in full flood. It’s absolutely tragic.