Awakening the Nigerian Giant: Reflecting on 63 Years of Independence

In a sombre mood, Nigeria marked its 63rd Independence anniversary yesterday. This offered an opportunity for deep reflection. In the days of yore, the cymbals or drums would have been unleashed in exuberant festivities. Yet, the milestone couldn’t be ignored because of its symbolism in our annals.

As usual, the renewal of faith and commitment to the Nigerian project by political leaders; and exhortation of citizens to hope for a better future, flourished. But the bitter truth is that the stars are not presently glowing on Nigeria’s horizon.

Conscious of this sad reality, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, George Akume, last week, had informed Nigerians of President Bola Tinubu’s approval of the anniversary to be low-key, “in line with the present economic realities.” A scenario other than this would have been most insensitive and reprehensible. The theme of this year’s anniversary was: “Nigeria @63: Renewed Hope for Unity and Prosperity.”

The event was held with the haunting spectre of a total industrial darkness. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and its ally, Trade Union Congress (TUC), last week jointly declared an indefinite nationwide strike to begin tomorrow, 3 October, over the Federal Government’s failure to mitigate the sufferings of workers and the masses, four months after the president ill-advisedly removed fuel subsidy in his first day in office.

Wage increase and a slew of other demands, which sparked a series of meetings between the government and organised labour, have come to nought so far. For an economy already asphyxiated by varied challenges, subjecting it to the vagaries of a prolonged national strike could be fatal.

This is not the Nigeria our great founding fathers fought for and bequeathed to their offspring. On Tuesday, $1 exchanged for N1,054 in the parallel market, thereby worsening the country’s inflationary trend. The national electricity grid collapsed three times last month. While the grid provides about 4,100 megawatts for more than 200 million people, South Africa boasts 58,095MW, with a population of 59.3 million.

Spells of maladministration, corruption and lethargy in holding people to account for the serial abuse of public resources by successive administrations, are part of what has plunged the country into its present financial cul-de-sac. It is inexplicable that Nigeria, an oil-producing country and the biggest in Africa, cannot refine petroleum products.

This resulted in the bleeding of the national treasury, such that it expended $1.32 billion on the importation of fuel in 2020, according to the Central Bank of Nigeria. Ironically, the Muhammadu Buhari regime, in a revelation by Governor Abdullahi Sule of Nasarawa State, spent a whopping $19 billion, purportedly on fixing the comatose refineries that never delivered any result in eight years. The action smacks of bankrupt statecraft that should provoke sanctions and recovery of looted funds from contractors.

Islamists insurgency in the North-East in 13 years, banditry in the North-West, kidnappings across the country, separatist agitation in the South-East and militancy in the oil-rich Niger Delta, have strewn a complex web of insecurity, difficult for the security agencies to dismantle.

The human toll arising thereof, involving both civilians and security personnel, has been incalculable. No formal war could have been more damaging. A new study by the UNDP in 2021 said that North-East conflict alone, directly or indirectly, caused the death of 350,000 people, most of whom were children below the age of five. The figure is 10 times higher than previous estimates. These conflicts, in about 13 years, cumulatively drained $100 billion from public coffers, says UNICEF.

Other sectors are no less embarrassing. Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, has 20 million out-of-school children, the worst number globally. With a dysfunctional higher educational system, the country’s youths now move in droves to Europe, the US, and even to Togo, Ghana and South Africa for studies, and in search of jobs. Between 2017 and 2022, a total of 99,985 Nigerians left the country to enrol in UK universities, according to The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). This placed Nigeria third, after China and India, in the global ranking. These students and their spouses contributed £2 billion to the UK economy from 2001 to 2022, according to SMB Intelligence.

The health sector is atrophied due to underfunding and the loss of its best-skilled medical professionals to other countries. This is evident in the University College Hospital (UCH) Ibadan’s lamentation in 2021 that it lost 600 of its doctors, mostly specialists, in one year, while the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) said earlier that 10,296 Nigerian doctors are practising in the UK alone.

However, Nigerians should not resign to fate or condemn themselves to permanent pessimism. Nations across the world go through rough patches in the course of their histories and recover. Such redemption though, is achieved through hard work and with all hands on deck. Nigeria fought a gruelling 30-month civil war between 1967 and 1970 and overcame it, perhaps enamoured of the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon’s war mantra that, “To keep Nigeria one, is a task that must be done.” It is a patriotic awakening that still resonates.

Nations without strong national fabrics and cohesion would have buckled as a result of the gargantuan insecurity which has bedevilled Nigeria in the past 13 years. That it remains one country, with 24 years of an unbroken democratic journey, is a cheery fact and a fountain of optimism to many. However, this should not be taken for granted. The little gains Nigeria has made as it passes through the furnace of nation-building could be consolidated if the foibles of this democracy would be frontally faced and addressed, to put its democracy on terra firma. The giant strides in Rwanda after its genocidal conflict that claimed the lives of more than 800,000 people, once mired in a multi-ethnic jungle and centrifugal tendencies, hold huge lessons for Nigeria in statecraft.

It is obvious that monstrous economic and security unravelling has nudged the country towards the precipice. But it takes a leadership that is focused and above board to rescue it. Therefore, President Tinubu needs to walk his talk. But this is not possible under the nihilistic atmosphere of business as usual that appears to be deepening: corruption, opacity in oil sector management, the lack of public accountability and transparency; and a compromised judiciary. Consequently, a new governance construct with zero tolerance for these vices is urgently needed.

It is troubling that a $89 billion illicit capital outflow was recorded in 18 years – from 1996 to 2014 – and the state and its institutions watched this happen helplessly. The UNCTAD report that revealed this heist, stated that $44 billion of this came from oil exports, while invoice racketeering accounted for the remaining $45 billion. Treasury looting of a magnitude such as this validates a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 2022 report that said, “Nigeria is riddled with unfit, corrupt and self-serving leaders.”

No country has made progress with graft as its biggest industry, as it is now in Nigeria. It is a perverse milieu that must be reversed. The economy should be stimulated and made to work for all. With food inflation at 29 per cent, the savagery of mass hunger in the land has hauled more Nigerians into the dungeon of multi-dimensional poverty, in addition to the 133 million people that had earlier been identified.

Rescuing the victims from the trap needs more than 12 persons sharing a bag of rice as a palliative measure. Nigerians deserve a better deal from their leaders. As a result, Tinubu should strive to be different by providing the required leadership, and by so doing, he would have shown the light for the citizens to follow. This will invariably help to foster the emergence of the new Nigeria of everyone’s dream.

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