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Nigeria @63: A wobbling roller-coaster

By Omoniyi Salaudeen

Devoid of the usual jamboree, Nigeria is marking its 63rd independence anniversary today.

The country had secured the freedom for self-rule from the British government on October 1, 1960, and became a Republic in 1963.

The journey that culminated in that epoch-making event started with series of constitutional developments that evolved from the agitation of the foremost nationalists like Nnamdi Azikwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, and Chief Anthony Enahoro, among others. 

However, the euphoria of the new era of civil rule was short-lived as the First Republic succumbed to military intervention after a bloody coup d’état of January 15, 1966, led by Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna.

In the ensuing encounter, 22 people, including the Prime Minister of Nigeria, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, other senior politicians as well as Army officers on protective duty, were killed.

A reaction to the perceived selective killing of politicians of Northern extraction resulted in what was popularly regarded as the July rematch, which led to the murder of the first military Head of State, Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, and Lt. Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi in Ibadan by the disgruntled non-commissioned officers. Fajuyi was hosting a visiting Aguiyi-Ironsi when the mutinous soldiers struck and mowed them down. 

Upon the termination of Ironsi’s government, Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon (rtd) was appointed Head of State by the coup conspirators. A separatist movement led by the late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu later formed the Republic of Biafra in 1967, leading to the three-year Nigerian Civil War.

In preparation for Nigeria’s independence, the British worked out an arrangement that divided the country into three regions under a federation based on the Westminster model. To allay the fear of the minority, a new region, the Mid-Western Region, was created later in 1963 from the Western Region, making four competing regions. Thus, while Hausa-Fulani held sway in the North, the Yoruba and Igbo predominated in the Southwest and Southeast respectively. That way, each of the major ethnic groups had control of its region and the resources abound. As such, with groundnut pyramid in the North, oil palm in the Southeast, and cocoa in the Southwest, each of these regions engaged one another in a healthy competition for development. Under the Gowon military administration, the regions were replaced by 12 states in 1967 by military decree. Subsequent state creation has increased the number to 36, including the Federal Capital Territory. 

Today, at 63, a lot of national questions bordering on the vexed issues of restructuring the existing quasi-unitary system to a true federal structure, power devolution, separatist agitations, resource control, state police, and the overall national unity of the country have continued to resonate.

Therefore, as with the previous experience, this year’s celebration is a mixed grill of lamentations, wishes, and aspirations for the country in its quest for genuine nationhood.

Chief Frank Kokori in a telephone interview with Sunday Sun blamed the present socio-economic stagnation on bad leadership, lamenting how Nigeria lost its respectability among the comity of nations. 

He said: “My wish for my country is that we should behave and act as the giant of Africa. That was our aspiration when we got our independence on October 1,1960, when I was in college. But down the line Nigeria missed the road. And since then, we have been struggling economically and politically. I remember in the 1960s, Nigerian universities like the University of Ibadan, the University of Lagos, and Ahmadu Bello University were regarded as the best universities in the world. The University Teaching Hospital (UCH) Ibadan, was the best teaching hospital in the whole of the commonwealth. The King of Saudi Arabia used to receive treatment there. So, you can imagine the standard. Those of us who went to school abroad were so proud of Nigeria.

“Unfortunately, we have suffered too many years of bad leadership. The economy is in shambles. After our struggle for democracy, we were disappointed by our political leaders. Former President Olusegun  Obasanjo did fairly well,  but Muhammadu Buhari and Goodluck Jonathan dragged us back.

“I am not campaigning for President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, but anybody who is assessing him based on his four months in office is not being objective. What he met on the ground was too bad. Let us give him more time. Buhari borrowed so much money that I even wondered why. We thought he was a frugal man, but he borrowed irresponsibly. We owe too much and we have no foreign exchange to support our growing needs as a nation.

Chief Chekwas Okorie, in a statement made available to Sunday Sun, chronicled the tortuous experience Nigeria had passed through amidst high expectations of a great nation. 

He said: “Nigeria’s 63 years of independence is checkered. I was already seven years old at independence. The celebration was palpable and widespread. As a pupil in a primary school, we were assured of a glorious future. Civics, a social science subject, dealing with the rights and duties of citizens, was part of our primary education curricula during our time. We were nurtured with a high sense of responsibility and patriotism.

“At the turn of 1963, barely three years after independence, Nigeria had become a Federal Republic made up of four regions namely the Northern  region, Western region, Midwestern region, and Eastern region. “The regions enjoyed substantial levels of autonomy. There was healthy competition among the regions. Development was rapid. At the level of the federation, revenue allocation was based on the formula of 50 per cent by derivation. The Eastern region became the fastest-growing third-world economy based on the Guinness World Records.

“The other regions also recorded impressive developmental strides in education and human capital resources. With the benefit of hindsight, the leadership Nigerians had at that time was the best ever. My generation still refers to that era as the good old days. Nigeria held great promise. The military coup of 1966, which toppled the Federal Government led by Alhaji Tafawa Balewa as Prime Minister and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, as President, shattered the great promise Nigeria held and plunged the country into what has become an irreversible retrogression in all conceivable respects.

“The erstwhile fast development Northern Region, which is now made up of 19 states, has the unenviable tag of the poverty capital of the world. The worst thing that hit Nigeria hard is the imposition of the 1999 Constitution on the people without their consent which a national referendum on the document would have resolved the vexed issue of its acceptability or rejection.

“Nigeria lost its essence as a Federation since the military incursion in the governance of the country. The 1999 constitution was mischievously designed to either retrogress or stagnate development with the overwhelming majority of the citizens holding the short end of the stick.”

According to him, restructuring is the only panacea for the stability of the country.

He, therefore, called on President Tinubu to do the needful.

He added: “Many well-meaning Nigerians look up to President Tinubu to initiate without delay the process of restructuring  Nigeria. The president’s efforts to heal the nation and close the gaping divisions must be sustained to restore a sense of equal citizenship to Nigerians.”

Similarly, the National Assembly must prioritize the review of the electoral laws. They must make the electronic voting system a mandatory provision in our electoral laws.

For quite a while, debate has been raging as to what system is best suited for Nigeria.

While some opinion leaders are clamouring for a return to the old regional arrangement, others insist on the status quo.

For instance, First Republic politician and elder statesman, Alhaji Tanko Yakasai, believes that reverting to a regional system of government can no longer help the Nigerian situation. He maintained that with the array of challenges facing the nation, the regional arrangement would not lead the country anywhere.

He said:  “It has been my long-standing argument that the regional system of government worked better for the country when compared to all other experimentations. However, in view of the changing local and international dynamics coupled with institutional limitations, reverting to the regional system may not be helpful and feasible under our current precarious situations.

“For this, I advocate for people-oriented change and peaceful restructuring of the current federal system to devolve power and responsibilities to the sub-nationals which would, in turn, offer better opportunities for stability and unity.

“We should do away with the present system which is prone to waste, corruption, second mania and discourages accountability.

“The decision to drop the parliamentary system during the military is largely influenced by American-trained elite in Nigeria rather than exhaustive debate and objective evaluation of the full potential of the parliamentary system in Nigeria.

“In my opinion, that decision was not driven by proper rationale of the suitability of the American system in our own peculiar national situation. The decision has not done justice to the parliamentary system and Nigeria as a country and its developmental needs and economic circumstances,” he posited.