Are you a glass half full or half empty kind of guy?” a female acquaintance asked me the other day on Facebook chat. My answer: “Half full. I stay positive.” That answer stemmed from my firm belief that the last thing a man loses in life is hope. As often said, the day a man loses hope, he begins to die. So, on the basis of hope, I believe that Nigeria will rise again “from the ashes of yesteryears’ cremation”, to quote my friend Okwy Onyia in a poem entitled “Still I rise”.
But beyond the hope factor, I sincerely believe that it’s not over yet for Nigeria. Truth be told, the Nigerian situation – high level insecurity; unemployment; near absence of governance; completely broken down structure; dilapidated (and in many cases non-existent) infrastructure in many parts of the country; housing deficit running in the neighbourhood of 16-17 million; putrefying corruption in every department of the establishment; abject, absolute poverty of the greater majority in the midst of plenty all over the land – is indeed daunting, and it has led many, especially young Nigerians, to give up on their country. In my interaction with colleagues in the office some days back, I discovered that virtually everyone has lost hope on Nigeria. “Why do we need government in this country? Let everybody go back home. If there is an oil well at your backyard, it is automatically yours,” one of my colleagues screamed in anger. Another said he did not believe Nigeria would ever be peaceful until the country is split into as many parts as possible.
Similarly, months back when Anyim Pius Anyim, the secretary to the Federal Government, unveiled plans for Nigeria’s centenary celebration, BusinessDay did an editorial entitled “Nigeria: 100 years of amalgamation” in which it supported the celebration, but pointed out that beyond the euphoria of celebration is the need to engender greater unity among Nigerians. Not unexpectedly, all those who commented on the editorial on BusinessDay website condemned the planned celebration and instead called for immediate dissolution of what they saw as “an unholy wedlock”.
While these opinions may sound too extreme, it is clear that’s how bad it has got. Yet, I say Nigeria must be reborn. In spite of these apparently daunting challenges, I sincerely do not share the “Nigeria-must-break-up” theory. And this is not on the basis of the assumption that we have lived together as one nation (have we, really?) for a century. The truth is that Nigeria has within it both the potential to break up into different nations and to remain as one country. Where we end up depends on which of these potentials we decide to explore and exploit.
Nigeria is not yet a nation, as Wole Soyinka et al have maintained. At best it remains the “mere geographical expression” that the late Obafemi Awolowo called it many years ago. But Nigeria can be built into a nation. Unfortunately, I do not see much of nation-building going on in the country. The elected politicians are still more interested in lining their pockets and returning themselves in the next round of elections, by hook or by crook, their abysmal performance in office notwithstanding. But we can actually come together in a roundtable and begin to decide how to live. The deafening calls for a sovereign national conference have continued to hit brick walls. Nor is anybody paying heed to the suggestion in many quarters that only true fiscal federalism will kill the tension in the country. And these are harsh realities that we must confront if we truly mean well for this country.
Yet, I see hope for Nigeria. I share the optimism of RW Johnson of Good Governance Africa in a 2012 article “Nigeria: Lessons from the America experience” that Nigeria will rise again. Nigeria’s situation, he says, is uncannily similar to that of the USA in the decades after its civil war, the age of the “Robber Barons”, men like Mellon, Carnegie, Pierpont Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller – “a man made so rich by Big Oil that he could openly boast of having bought three-quarters of all the state legislatures”. There were rampant corruption, crooked elections, puppet politicians, political jobbery, and poverty in the South which seemed to breed ignorance, religious extremism, and terrorist movements like the Ku Klux Klan.
But America did get out of that mess – somehow. “In the North and West,” writes Johnson, “a new middle class arose – small-town teachers, lawyers, journalists and other professionals – that resented the dominance of the great plutocrats, hated the corruption of the big city machines, wanted to see fair elections and a re-assertion of America’s founding values, with a general cleaning-up of the system. As this group grew – the Progressives, they were called – politicians began to emerge who answered to this constituency, men like Robert La Follette, who was elected as the Progressive governor of Wisconsin, and Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive governor of New York. Roosevelt showed his mettle by cleaning up New York and vanquishing the most powerful machine of all, Tammany Hall. Soon he was on the presidential ticket, and in 1901-1908 he set about doing on the national level what he had done in New York. He asserted the power of the presidency and the constitution over all other forces, quickly became the most popular president since Washington, brought the great plutocrats to heel by breaking up their trusts and brought in reforming legislation at every level. His example was followed by both his Republican and Democrat successors, Taft and Wilson. By 1920 America had been transformed. Of course, there were still powerful corporations and corruption never disappeared, but things could never be the same again – and by 1932 Roosevelt’s nephew, Franklin, had been elected president with a promise to continue much of the Progressive impulse.”
But more importantly, Johnson further writes, “We feel tolerably sure that Nigeria will follow America’s path; that, first, there will be progressive governors in a few of Nigeria’s states and that, as they demonstrate what they can do there, we should see a growing possibility that one of them will become Nigeria’s president and will do for Nigeria something of what Theodore Roosevelt did for America.”
Already, this seems to be happening in Nigeria, though in pockets. First, there is a growing new middle class which is beginning to demand cleaner and more accountable governance. The January 2012 “Occupy Nigeria” movement is a standout example. This is accentuated by a new consciousness propelled by the rise of the social media which is making the generality of the people, particularly the mobile youths, ask hitherto-unthought-of questions about how their country is governed. Second, a few state governors have proved themselves worthy of greater assignments – Babatunde Fashola is a shining example.
But the tempo of this emerging development must be sustained if Nigeria is to leapfrog into the next decade.
Oluigbo is of the editorial department of BusinessDay, Lagos.
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