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Fooling around at 100

If Nigeria is 100, why is there no spontaneous street party like the one the greeted the Flying Eagles’ winning the football gold medal at…

If Nigeria is 100, why is there no spontaneous street party like the one the greeted the Flying Eagles’ winning the football gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics? That was greatest street party in the history of Nigeria. In contrast, this week’s birthday announcement is more likely to be greeted with a grimace by many Nigerians.
I have news for the grimacers. I know at least one respect in which Nigeria was envied by a superpower nation. We visited the Chief Justice of Beaver County, Pennsylvania in the course of an American tour in 1994.  During our discussion, it turned out that he was very unhappy with America’s lax gun laws and with the high level of gun violence in his county. He asked whether things were the same in Nigeria. They were not; I told him about the Robbery and Firearms Decree, and I told him a story about a robber that got the death penalty under the decree even though he robbed his victim with a toy gun.
The American judge was very excited to hear that. He touched his intercom and summoned two other judges to his office. To my surprise, he excitedly told them about the Robbery and Firearms Decree in Nigeria and the robber who got the death penalty. He then firmly declared, “They don’t fool around in Nigeria!”
Did you hear that? A big American judge thinks we are on the right track while his own superpower nation is fooling around. I made no effort to contest his conclusion. Never mind that despite that Draconian decree, gun violence spread in Nigeria like bush fire in harmattan. Right now there are a lot of guns in the hands of armed robbers, communal rioters, pirates, smugglers, oil thieves and insurgents as well, but at least we tried by writing a tough law in the books.
Three years ago, during celebrations to mark 50 years of this country’s independence, I wrote a column titled “They know not what they say.” It elicited sharp reactions from some young Nigerians who thought it projected an unduly positive view about the state of things in Nigeria. Has my opinion evolved in the three years since then? Hardly. I still think that Nigeria has recorded feats that many citizens are not ready to acknowledge, probably because they tend to be eclipsed by some debilitating problems. That doesn’t surprise me anyway. Many young Nigerians today have no patience with a Premier League coach in England who loses a home match even if he won a major trophy last season. Any wonder that they extend the same attitude into evaluation of their own country?
One young reader told me back in 2010 that the only progress made in Nigeria was in terms of infrastructure. I wonder why he thought that was a small achievement. A modern economy and society are basically built on the backs of infrastructure, second only to an educated citizenry and skilled manpower. This country has built a lot of infrastructure in the last 100 years, even in the last 14 years. I entirely agree that we could have built a lot more than that without the corruption that pervades public life. Dr Yusuf Bala Usman said at a lecture in 1985 that during the Third National Development Plan period 1975-80, spending on education increased five-fold but the infrastructure only doubled. He rhetorically asked, “Inda ba wuta micci gawai?” [Where there was no fire, what consumed the charcoal?]
Those who think that Nigeria has been fooling around for 100 years should be excused. This was often not due to lack of trying by ordinary folks. Progress has sometimes been a case of one step forward, two steps backwards. For example, communal integration has been a big problem area for Nigeria. On their own, ordinary folks moved across the country and integrated quite well with local residents. I was amazed one day in the early 1980s to discover that Igbos resident in Ka’oje spoke fluent Fulfulde, which I cannot speak despite having maternal Fulani ancestors. The day I arrived for NYSC at Nnobi in Anambra State, I ran into an Igbo man in the market who outclassed me in a Hausa conversation. I asked him how he spoke Hausa so well and he said he had been a cattle trader in Kano for 35 years. I was 21 at the time!
People who watched NTA Sokoto’s wildly popular 1980s drama series were amazed at the great dexterity with which Abdullahi Mega played the role of village head even though he was ancestrally an Igbo man. His father Dike Emeka [Sokoto people called him Dake Mega] was recruited by the British from Asaba to drive Sultan Maiturare’s first car in 1915. All his children were born in the Sultan’s palace.
Yet, frequent eruptions of inter-communal violence, often  between natives and “settlers” who may have lived there for centuries, shows how far Nigeria still has to go in integrating communities that old man Lugard amalgamated. Some even think we should use this occasion to de-amalgamate.
Apart from infrastructural deficits and the pervasive lack of maintenance culture, Nigerians worry about two things, corruption in public life and low quality political leadership. None of these has a ready answer. Today, the men who ruled Nigeria’s three regions 50 years ago are regarded as political saints even though they were vilified by some people during their lifetimes.
The military men who ruled over Nigeria with absolute powers for 29 years somehow failed to produce a Suharto, a Bhutto, a Pak Chung-hee or a Nasser. The politicians who have ruled in the Second, Third and Fourth Republics also failed to replicate the great act of the pioneer politicians. What accounted for this? I don’t know. I can only agree with those who say that rulers do not fall from the sky. They spring out of this society. They arrive together with its foibles and, if we are lucky, with its wisdom.
Some Nigerians think that the problem is with elections. The day is still far away in Nigeria when election results will be announced, the loser will congratulate the winner and everybody will go to sleep. While many people will blame the electoral commission for the lapses in conducting elections, the problem could well be far beyond that. Maybe the social and economic environment here are not conducive for the thriving of democracy, but let the experts say.
Anyway, the most important thing is not what we have done or not done in the last 100 years. It is what we should be doing in the next 100 years or at least in the next 25. I did not hear a word uttered by government officials all of this year about the ringing slogan of three years ago, “20-20-20.” That Nigeria should be among the world’s top 20 economies by the year 2020. Folks that are my age would chuckle and say, “We heard that before. When we were school kids in 1975, we were told that there will be Health For All By The Year 2000. Where is it?”
Look, we can even begin with a national program to reduce expectations. If only government can ensure in the next five years that Nigerians do not expect it to achieve everything. It can then budget five years after that to ensure that Nigerians believe it when it says it will do something. In other words, we need a national program to banish fooling around in the next 10 years.

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