Lord Apsley and I were colleagues at Harrow School in England approximately 36 years ago. I have never forgotten his uncharitable remarks about Nigeria which led to a heated argument between us. At that time I found it ironic, and I still do, that this quintessential member of the English upper class not only had the nerve to say such things to me about my country but that he could say it with such confidence. My response to him was that if Nigeria was indeed a ”toilet where evil reigns” then it was a toilet that was created by his British forefathers who not only dumped the evil there by defecating in it but who also refused to wash their hands, to flush and to leave the toilet after they had finished. My point was simple and it was that Nigeria was as much their mess as it was ours. For a young man who had been born into wealth and power and who had been brought up to believe that ”Brittania” had civilized the world and had brought nothing but immense benefits to the natives of her colonies, he found my response most disconcerting. I have never forgotten what he said about my beloved country on that occasion. It was painful and regrettable.
Yet I look at what has happened to us in the last 52 years of our existence as an independent nation and what we have suffered in the last 98 years since the 1914 amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates and I really do wonder. If the truth must be told, things have not gone too well for us. I was born in the same year as we gained our independence and as I ponder and reflect on the last 52 years all I see is violence, bloodshed, dashed hopes, lost opportunities and shattered dreams. I see a brutal civil war in which two million people died. I see a string of violent military coups and repressive military dictatorships and I see suspicion and division between the peoples of the north and the south. I see dangerous tensions between the numerous ethnic nationalities, continuous strife and sectarian violence. I see church bombings, the slaughter of the innocents, Islamic fundamentalist rebellions, battle-ready ethnic militias and bloodthirsty local war lords. I see economic degradation, decaying infrastructures, environmental disasters and untold suffering and hardship. And finally I see poverty and unemployment, poor quality leadership and a dysfunctional semi-failed state which is still struggling to find its true identity. If this sounds like a scene from Dante’s hell please forgive me but this is what I see.
On October 1st every year we make nostalgic and inspirational speeches about the ”labours of our heroes past”, pop the champagne, pat each other on the back, go to churches and mosques to give thanks to God, dance at owambe parties and congratulate one another on our independence. Yet we refuse to sit back in deep reflection, take stock of what has really been going on in our country and carry out an honest and candid appraisal of our situation. We are not ”a toilet of a country where evil reigns” but we must admit that we are in a mess; a really terrible mess. And the question is why are we in such a mess, how did we get there, why have we not been able to get out of it in 52 years and what role did our former colonial masters play, and are still playing, in creating and sustaining that mess? That is the subject of this essay.
If we want to answer these questions we must go back to the beginning. The problem is that the British established a faulty foundation for Nigeria right from the start which they knew could not produce anything wholesome. The Nigeria that they handed over to us in 1960 was nothing but an unworkable artificial state and a “poisoned chalice”. It was destined to fail right from the outset. Worse still they handed us that poisoned chalice with malicious and mischievous intent and without any recourse to our people in terms of any form of a national referendum. The British did the same thing in varying degrees when they left virtually each and every one of their other ”third world” colonies. The most obvious cases however were Nigeria, the Sudan, India and the nation that was formerly known as Malaya. Every single one of these four countries had monumental problems with sustaining their unity after independence and all of them, with the exception of Nigeria, were compelled to break up into smaller entities before they could bring out the best in themselves as a people and fully exercise their human potentials. Consequently India broke up into three and became India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Sudan broke into two and became Southern Sudan and the Sudan and Malaya broke into two and became Malaysia and Singapore. Nigeria is yet to find the courage and fortitude to go that far and whether we will eventually break up or not remains to be seen.
Yet the truth is that when you force two incompatibles with completely different world views together into an unhappy marriage, lock the gates of the house, throw away the keys and bestow leadership upon a “poor husband” to rule over a ”rich wife” in perpetuity, you are looking for trouble. The bible says “if the foundation be faulty what can the righteous do?” Our foundation as a nation is faulty and the consequence of that is that everything that is built on that faulty foundation is unproductive, unsustainable and unpleasant. And until that foundation is fixed the biblical ”righteous”, no matter how well intentioned, can do nothing about it. It will always be a case of one step forward and ten steps back. Some have made the point that what exists in the Nigerian space today was once a collection of confederations and that our level of integration centuries before the British came to our shores was far greater than many care to admit. This may be true but upon their arrival the British, rather than build on that and allow us to forge a united nation ourselves based on dialogue, trust and consensus, instead played up our differences, drove us further apart, set us against each other all the more and compelled us to remain in the same cage hoping that we would eventually kill each other in the process.
The result of the amalgamation was therefore predictable. It was either that Lord Lugard’s “poor husband” (the north) would fully subjugate and eventually kill the “rich wife”(the south) or the “rich wife” would fully subjugate and eventually kill the “poor husband”. And we are right in the middle of that struggle for mutual subjugation till today. In 1960 the British ensured that power was handed over to the most pliable region at the Federal level by establishing an alliance with the northern traditional institutions and political ruling elite and fixing the census figures in their favour. Consequently by 1960 we had a situation where the well-educated, enlightened, progressive and predominantly Christian south was played out through intrigue, deceit and fixed census figures and instead power was given to a fatalistic and ultra-conservative Muslim north who were prepared to do anything the British wanted them to do, who had already overwhelmed and suppressed their own ethnic and Christian minority groups and whose major preoccupation was to dominate and control the entire federation, to keep the south out of power at the centre and to “dip the Koran in the Atlantic ocean”. It did not stop there.
Even after the British left in 1960 they continued to meddle in our affairs and they encouraged, sponsored and supported a string of repressive military regimes, all of which derived their power from a northern-controlled army officers corps whose retired generals, up until today, are the ones that determine who will be what in our country. That is our story. Some have argued that despite the ignoble intentions of the British we ought to have been able to sort out our own problems 52 years after they left us. This is a good point. It does however betray a tinge of naivety and a lack of appreciation of just how chronic those problems were right from the start and just how malevolent a hand the British dealt us. I say this because the bitter truth is that the system in Nigeria cannot be changed simply because the forces that have controlled our country since 1960 are deeply conservative and the foundation and the structure upon which she has been established has been designed in such a way that makes radical and fundamental change impossible. Some have compared Nigeria to a badly wounded, gangrenous and diseased leg which can only be cured through restructuring or which needs to be cut off in order to save the rest of the body. The consequence of doing neither is death for the whole body. It follows that the only way real change can come is if the country is broken up into two or more independent nations or, if we insist on remaining as one, through the auspices of a peoples revolution (our very own ”Nigerian Spring”, similar to the ”Arab spring” that we witnessed in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and Egypt last year and that we are witnessing in Syria today) which will sweep away the old order, convene a Sovereign National Conference, restructure the country drastically and devolve power from the centre. If you are looking for fundamental change in Nigeria these are the only two courses of action that can produce it.
The line up in our country is therefore clear-on the one hand you have the ordinary people, who have nothing and little hope for a brighter future, and on the other you have the ruling elite, who have everything. Those that are waiting for such a change to evolve under the present system and structure will wait forever. This is because under the present system there is no hope for a peaceful, purposeful and meaningful change because justice, equity and fairness has no place. Worse still the most courageous people with the best minds that are prepared to speak the truth no matter how bitter that truth is and that have an element of vision are always destroyed, discredited or set aside. If anyone doubts this they should consider the fate of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Moshood Abiola. Those that have a clear vision about the way that Nigeria needs to go have no say and those that have a say have no vision. Our country is in the hands and grip of mediocre that just don’t care.
Unfortunately the Nigerian people do not seem to have the resilience or strength to effect either of the two options for true change anytime soon. They seem to have been so traumatised, demoralised and subjugated in the last 50 years that they have lost their will to resist inequity, tyranny and injustice, to insist on determining their own fate and to fight for their own future. And who can blame them because the state itself is extremely violent and ruthless in the way and manner in which it fights and resists change and those that advocate it. Very few good leaders can emerge at the federal level in such a system because it was not designed to produce truly progressive leaders. There are a few exceptions to the rule but generally speaking the type of leaders that the Nigerian system is designed to throw up are leaders that are not minded to bring any benefit or hope to the ordinary people but rather that are there to protect the archaic system and to maintain the nebulous and dysfunctional status quo. The relevance of the British today is that they are not only the architects of this monumental monstrosity but they are also the ones that have continued to encourage and support the ruling elite that runs and sustains it.
If they were being fair to us they would have been amongst those that have been encouraging the idea of restructuring our country, devolving power from the centre and effecting a fundamental and radical change in our attitudes and affairs. That is precisely what they are doing in the United Kingdom itself today where power is being systematically and gradually devolved from the centre at Westminster in England to the hitherto suppressed and occupied regions of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. This is good enough for them yet our erstwhile colonial masters have never supported a similar course of action for us. Instead they have done all they can to support those that believe that power should continue to be centralised and concentrated in Abuja, to maintain the “ancien regime” and to preserve the chronically conservative system and the status quo. The idea of a properly-led, prosperous, peaceful and truly united Nigeria has never been something that the British ever sought to establish. It is for this reason that we can blame Lord Apsley’s forefathers almost as much as we can blame ourselves for the mess that our country is in up until today. May God deliver Nigeria.