He had saved my life that night. He held my hands, leading my numb feet from the scene of the slaughter. The screams of my butchered roommates chased after me, their cries scraping my spine. He had fought off my assailant, picking me up from the floor where I lay waiting the debilitating blow that would have spelt my life’s end. And we ran, stumbling blindly into the bloody night. “I can’t save them all,” he wailed to me after we had fled. “I can’t save them all.” Abruptly, as if something suddenly came over him, he bent, dipping his hands into a pail of water that lay abandoned in the shed we had taken refuge and commenced his ablution. Then he sat down. Clutching tightly to his tasba, tears streaming from his eyes, he began to pray. And I heard the words that were to change my dream forever: “We are one Nigeria, how can I kill my brother?” In all of my life till this day, I have never seen such dare, such love. He went back to save another, but not before he told me his name: “Abubakar.” And since that fateful day, my dream for Nigeria has been to see her united, bonded by love and friendship; in our trials and hardship, our joys and our sorrows, in our pains and our gains, in our worries and our conflicts. Had we these, no one would have perished that fateful night.
The Federation of Nigeria, as it is known today, has never really been one homogeneous country, for its widely differing peoples and tribes. This obvious fact notwithstanding, the former colonial master, Lord Lugard, decided to keep the country as one in order to effectively control her vital resources for their economic interests. Thus, for administrative convenience the Northern and Southern Nigeria were amalgamated in January I, 1914 (en.Wikipedia.org/Wiki/Nigeria). The growth of nationalism in the society and the subsequent emergence of political parties were based on ethnic/tribal rather than national interests, and therefore had no unifying effect on the peoples against the colonial master. Rather, it was the people themselves who were the victims of the political struggles which were supposed to be aimed at removing foreign domination. At independence in October I, 1960, Nigeria became a Federation and remained one country (Falola, Toyin; Heaton, Matthew M. (2008), A History of Nigeria). Soon afterwards the battle to consolidate the legacy of political and military dominance of a section of Nigeria over the rest of the Federation began with increased intensity. It was this struggle that eventually degenerated into coup, counter coup and a bloody civil war. From a rich history and a turbulent past began this endless sojourn in the mire. The disequilibrium and perceived corruption of the electoral and political process led in 1966 to several back-to-back military coups, an upheaval which led to instability in the country’s leadership and governance, with fleeting periods of marked progress – glorious days compared to what Nigeria has since become – during the government of General Yakubu Gowon, General Olusegun Obasanjo not to mention a few.
The war was the culmination of an uneasy peace and stability that had plagued the Nation from independence in 1960 and despite a return to civilian government in 1999 after a long spell of military dominance, Nigeria remains a fractious nation, divided along ethnic and religious lines. In the South is the ethnic violence in the oil producing Niger Delta region while in the North, sweeping across the country like a whirlwind is the looming crisis of Islamic militants popularly called Boko Haram, threatening to lay national peace and unity to rust. Avarice and her brother, illiteracy stands at the door with poverty. In ignorance we let them in just like in the days of old, selling our own into untimely death and depravity. But once upon a time, we fought for our unity, securing at a high cost, one Nigeria. Many lessons we ought to have learnt from the old wars (The British conquest of Benin in 1897, the Anglo-Aro War from 1901—1902 and the Nigerian civil war), though the restraint or complete destruction of the states that fought the earlier wars, opened up the Niger area to British rule, a coalition that birthed my beloved Nigeria. A blessing indeed, leaving the Biafran war to stand alone in shame and her outcome, a teacher of great many lessons.
But instead of learn and live, we bury our heads in the sand like Ostriches, failing to see the strength in solidarity; instead we take constant stabs at our priceless unity. As a developing country, Nigeria is further plagued by the problems attendant upon a condition of under development, namely; poverty, mass illiteracy, acute shortage of high skilled manpower, woefully inadequate socioeconomic infrastructural facilities, housing, water and sewage facilities, roads, healthcare services, and effective communication system. Faced with these almost intractable problems, which were further compounded by the burden of reconstruction after the civil war, the government and people of Nigeria set for the country, fresh goals, and objectives aimed at establishing Nigeria as: a united, strong and self-reliant nation; a great and dynamic economy; a land of bright and full opportunities for all citizens; and a free and democratic society. It was upon this background to look beyond the immediate present and a fractious past and think instead, of the future of the country that necessitated the mobilization of certain categories of our youths through the National Youth Service Corps Scheme. This was initiated in 1973 under the leadership of General Yakubu Gowon. An unflinching advocate of one Nigeria, General Gowon presided over the extinguish of the firepower of the secessionist forces led by Col. Ojukwu and declared “No victor no vanquished” at the end of the war in January, 1970 (Paul Mamza, October 15, 2004).The National Youth Service Corps Decree No. 24 of 22nd of May 1973, which has now been repealed and replaced by Decree No. 51 of 16th June 1993, was then formally promulgated (www.nysc.gov.nig). The NYSC scheme as well as several other national programs such as the creation of States, The Green Revolution and Operation Feed the Nation, were employed in a bid to reconstruct, reconcile and rebuild the country after the Nigerian Civil war, being established with a view to the proper encouragement and development of common ties among the youths of Nigeria and the promotion of national unity and in many ways, economic growth and stability. Although, the primary purpose of the scheme was to inculcate in Nigerian youths the spirit of selfless service to the community, and to emphasize the spirit of oneness and brotherhood of all Nigerians, irrespective of cultural or social background.
Alongside other vices, ethnocentrism, tribalism, religious persecution, and prebendalism have played a visible role in Nigerian politics both prior and subsequent to independence in 1960. The magician and the politician have much in common: they both have to draw our attention away from what they are really doing (Ben Okri, 1959). Like cankerworms, our very own leaders burrow through Nigeria’s coffers by continually ‘taking’ from our nations treasury without shame, leaving in their wake, a debt of billions, impoverished infrastructures, even an agonizing lack of basic amenities for the comfort and safety of the common man. Our economy has been hopelessly mismanaged. We have become a debtor and beggar nation. There is inadequacy of food at reasonable prices for our people who are now fed up with endless announcements of importation of foodstuffs. Health services are in shambles as our hospitals are reduced to mere consulting clinics without drugs, water and equipment. Our educational system is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Unemployment figures including the undergraduates have reached embarrassing and unacceptable proportions. In some states, workers are being owed salary arrears of eight to twelve months and in others there are threats of salary cuts. Yet our leaders revel in squander-mania, corruption and indiscipline, and continue to proliferate public appointments in complete disregard of our stark economic realities (Brigadier Sani Abacha, December 1, 1984).
Kin-selective altruism has spurned various attempts by tribalists to concentrate Federal power to a particular region of their interests, starving one state for the growth of another (Lancia, Nicole; Ethnic Politics in Nigeria: The Realities of Regionalism). Because of Her multitude of diverse, sometimes competing ethno-linguistic groups, Nigeria has been and is still faced with sectarian tensions and violence. This is particularly a major issue in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, where both state and civilian forces employ varying methods of coercion in attempts to gain control over regional petroleum resources. Some of the ethnic groups like the Ogoni, have experienced severe environmental degradation due to petroleum extraction without adequate compensation from the very people who milk them dry. Hence the birth of aggressive anti-nationalism which has also led to active secessionist movements such as MASSOB, Nationalist movements such as Oodua People’s Congress, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and even a civil war. But like Obafemi Awolowo rightly stated, “Violence never settles anything right; apart from injuring your own soul, it injures the best cause. It lingers on long after the object of hate has disappeared from the scene to plague the lives of those who have employed it against their foes.” Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups (Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba) have maintained, historical preeminence in Nigerian politics; competition amongst these three groups has fuelled corruption and graft (Osita Agbu; Ethnic Militias and the Threat to Democracy in Post-Transition Nigeria, 2004).
Religion has also been a source of unrest; between the North and the South, Christianity and Islam, tearing asunder the patched pieces of our national unity. Riots based (at least ostensibly) on religious affiliation and religious policies have occurred, the worst such being the two confrontations that took place in Kaduna between February and May 2000 (www.nationsencyclopedia.com). Though the constitution prohibits state and local governments from declaring an official religion, a number of states have recently adopted various forms of the Islamic criminal and civil law known as Shari’ah, a move which many Christians believe to be an adoption of Islam as the de facto religion. The constitution also provides for freedom of religion, however, some states have restricted religious demonstrations, processions, or gatherings as a matter of public security. Business owners and public officials have been known to discriminate against individuals of a faith different than their own in matters of providing services and hiring practices. The same type of discrimination exists between members of different ethnic groups (Michael Holman, Nigeria, Politics; Religious Differences Intensify, 24, 1986). Meanwhile, the masses snivel for change, hands pointing to the heavens for help: a mounting wish for peace, for excellence in governance, hoping feverishly this would bring an end to all societal ills and social misdeeds. But in the gloom, no one remembers the story of the broom, strength in collectivity and unity; no one cares enough to see the next man as a brother, except he is from the same ethnic group as the other and probably speaks the same language as the other. Everyone cares only about himself and his immediate family, leaving Nigeria’s problems for Nigeria, thinking only of self. But to what end?
Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence; we rather have these because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence therefore is not an act but a habit (Aristotle, 325 BC). The Nigeria of today is a ‘doodling child’; She prances back and forth the same circles – circles of despair and endless blame. The miracle of a sudden Utopia is expected by all and sundry, to fly in on eagle’s wings and change the bleakness of the Nigerian scene to one of charm and excellence. We forget that excellence is an art won by training! What foundations have been laid to realise this Utopian dream? Chaos upon chaos follows the fatal struggle for power, making national unity a fledging illusion. The elected, postulate laws and edicts that continually favour their deep pockets and overflowing vaults, ignoring the common man and his aching needs. Education, healthcare and security is glanced over with big biro strokes; the master prances back and forth, a big bad wolf.
Obafemi Awolowo in his book, Paths to Nigerian freedom, 1967, wrote: “Nigeria is not a nation; it is a mere geographical expression. There are no ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense as there are ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, and the ‘French’. The word Nigerian is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria and those who do not.” This is as a result of our lack of fellowship; neither do we have the spirit of kinship, or love. For there must arise within us a sense of ownership for our beloved Nigeria, before any talk of patriotism and responsibility; before any talk of good governance and lasting change. For if a leader sees himself as a Nigerian only because he lives within the boundaries of Nigeria, then of course he would think of himself and his family first, then he would consider those who are from his village, then those who speak his language, before any other. Hence John F. Kennedy’s words: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask instead, what you can do for your country.” But selfish and greedy, we are the very evil we preach against. Headstrong not ready for the change we seek, for no man or woman in their right senses sees dirt overtaking his/her living room and sits back to watch, waiting for another to clear the mess. No man! Hard work has long been relegated to the dusty background as the rich flaunt their ill-gotten wealth before the ambling poor. A mentality of the comforts of quick wealth spreads like a morbid sickness, leading each upcoming generation into the mire of its prepared swamp. And we give up too easily, stretching forth the begging bowl instead of an earnest wish to work, on self and for country.
So put the blame on no one! Attack this defeatist attitude that lurks silently in the heart of one too many Nigerians: a fool at forty they say is a fool forever – a blatant lie! Circulated by the very same defeatist syndrome that plagues our minds. Nigeria is an infant, yes, but an infant that needs the collective contributions of not just Her parents (Her leaders), but also Her entire community (Nigerians). At fifty two, and with the communal effort of the average Nigerian, her wobbly steps can yet be straightened, her image can yet be redefined and the Nigerian national creed and flag can rightly take their place amongst the giant nations of the emerging world. But once upon a time, in an era of military tanks and verbal decrees, my beloved country, mother to over a hundred million people, blessed and amongst the largest, wealthiest and most gifted nations in Africa and the world at large; with gargantuan oil reserves and a verdant agricultural promise which, if well cultivated, could feed the world; could boast of sound basic amenities, infrastructures that worked: trains could move from the North to the South, the educational system was once alive and in its prime, virtue and excellence met with rewards; and our fathers had looked on with hope, praying for a brighter tomorrow for their sons and daughters. But instead of growth, Nigeria retrogressed, slipping into this state that arouses concern. The future we seek, we once had its blueprint in our pasts! Violence brewed from anger and hate, ignorance and illiteracy blurred our vision making all to seem bleak, lost.
But I have a dream: that one day, united, this great country will rise again. For in unity we stand, divided we fall! United, She shall bask in her wealth and no longer cower in shame. She shall break free from the shackles of Her nativity, so Her scions can walk as men; proud and tall; not waiting upon serendipity, but willing to shed their sweat, out of love as against self, for Her posterity. And with our unity, shall be the birth of nationalism and patriotism, governance per excellence. Peace and unity shall become the national creed. Bygone shall be the days of cargo trains, poor road networks, power outages, unemployment, homelessness, hospitals that have been reduced to mere consulting clinics without drugs, water and equipment, poor educational system, bribery and corruption and ethnic distrust. Dawn shall come with bullet trains, uninterrupted power supply, jobs for all and sundry, homes for the homeless, first class educational systems, security like a blanket of warmth, discipline and ethnic unity fostered in love and friendship. But to achieve this dream, we must stop in transit, take time to evaluate and weigh; right from wrong, good from bad. The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering (Ben Okri). Let us break free from all hindrances. Our leaders should be eager to wear the guerdon crown, promulgate laws that will favour the common man, take steps to beef up the nation’s security so the citizens no longer have to cower in uncertainty or fear for their country’s tomorrow. For only in peace and equanimity can the landmarks of true leadership and progress be recognized. Paradigm shift in our national polity is also needed for national growth and development, as this would mean the recycling of old politicians with their old ideas and reforms. Birthing the new, empowering the young into governance and leadership; a change that could bring about responsibility in today’s restive youth. The begging bowl is not the pathway to prosperity; responsibility is a blueprint of posterity.
My dear countrymen, the struggle ahead is for the well-being of the present and future generations of Nigerians. If it were possible for us to avoid chaos and civil war merely by drifting apart as some people claim, that easy choice may have been taken. But we know that to take such a course will quickly lead to the disintegration of the existing regions in condition of chaos and to disastrous foreign interference. We now have to adopt the courageous course of facing the fundamental problem that has plagued this country since the early 50s. There should be no recrimination. We must all resolve to work together (Major-General Yakubu Gowon, May 1967). The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining. Nigerians, come together as one, throw away the hindrances of ethno-cultural differences, sabotage the bloated ego that demands unending obsequiousness from our naked prides. A path is made by walking, so let us walk as one and make a path of excellence and charm.
So one day, an Igbo man will look up with pride and call a Yoruba, brother; so one day, the Hausa man will hit his chest and call an Igbo, brother, not minding his religion or ethnicity. The history of our country since independence has clearly indicated the need for unity amongst all our people, and demonstrated the fact that no cultural or geographical entity can exist in isolation. The country has always been ours to groom, not anyone else’s. In our own little ways, we can become the changes we want to see in our beloved Nigeria. Start by picking the dirt that litters your path, or by showing humanness towards your civic responsibilities. Give a little help to the man besides you who longs for it; give applause to the man who deserves it; hold up a smile for the sad face that seems to be losing hope and above all, let the Nigerian child look up to you, and see in you the future you so much want to create. After all, the world is but a stage, and we are her actors. Utopia or degradation, it lies solely with you and I. Most of us plan our lives according to a dream that came to us in our childhood, and as we grow older, we find that life alters our plans. And yet, at the end, we also see that our dream was our faith, our torch in the dark. Only those who truly love and who are truly strong can sustain their lives as a dream. You dwell in your own enchantment. Life throws stones at you, but your love and your dream change those stones into the flowers of discovery. Even if you lose or are defeated by things, your triumph will always be exemplary. And if no one knows it, there are places that do. People like you enrich the dreams of the world, and it is dreams that create history. People like you are unknowing transformers of things, protected by your own fairy-tale, by love. My Nigeria, my source of black pride, beloved nation of the Sahara, the Lion of Africa, Jewel of the Nile, my dream is with you.