We today join Nigerians all over the world in wishing the country a happy 58th anniversary. At independence, the country was described by Time magazine as Africa’s showpiece state. We are still an African leader in many spheres of existence, even if we did fall short of the wondrous expectations of the founding fathers and the international community in 1960. Like all newly independent states we lacked so many vital necessities including education (only 40 PhDs could be counted then), skills in all fields from engineering to medicine to architecture, to say nothing of administrative skills.
Although, the civil service was reputed to be a great inheritance from British administrative excellence, our culture of nepotism was not in consonance with the ethics of absolute impartiality, which remains the sine qua non of good administration from Roman times.
Our lack of experience was reflected in the first challenges that confronted the new nation. Our 1962 census was conducted with poor preparations and scant resources. It was rejected by the Northern region and eventually it was cancelled and rescheduled for 1963. The resulting figures were 29.8 million for the North; 12.4 million for the East and 12.8 million for the West. The South, this time, rejected, the figures, but Prime Minister Balewa accepted it. The East went to court, but the Supreme Court dismissed the case. Ever since, census has been one of the perennial controversies in Nigeria, such that no government wants to expose itself to the discordant passions that tend to accompany it. A fresh census has been overdue for three years, but the Muhammadu Buhari administration seems to act as if it had forgotten the issue.
Even though the country has been familiar with the Westminster system since 1922 when the first municipal legislative elections were introduced in Lagos, it was part of the country’s inexperience that when the first Federal elections after Independence were due in 1964, the House of Representatives was dissolved so late in early December and a general election scheduled for 30th December, three weeks from the dissolution of the House, in a country with very scant administrative skills and zero experience in handling national elections. The impracticality of it all ought to have been obvious. When issues like the review of a voters register cropped up (how do you update a voters’ register, review, and display it within three weeks) and the Federal Electoral Commission was running late in every department, it was not a surprise that the election ended in a fiasco.
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The ill-will that attended the 1962/63 censuses and the 1964 Federal elections fuelled the crisis in the Action Group and the Western Nigeria regional government crises. Those events presented enormous challenges which the nation was not matured enough to resolve before the Western Regional election of 1965 supplied the tinder box that became the excuse of the Nigerian Army mutineers of January 15, 1966, the day which an increasing number of Nigerians have come to regard as the day of catastrophe. With January 15, came the pogroms, the Civil War, the cultural disorientation of Nigeria, the rise of corruption, the glorification of force, power, wealth and the debasement of morality, which created growth without development, leaving the nation without infrastructure, very little power, no transportation system, rudimentary agricultural system and millions of uneducated citizens. Until 1999, the nation was taken through three decades of military dictatorship, which ingrained the centralised and unitary system that is the exact opposite of a federal system which the founding fathers had agreed as the only feasible formula for a peaceful political union for Nigeria.
Fifty-eight years in the life of a nation is considerable a period but knowing nations that have subsisted for thousands of years, we are hopeful that the past 58 years has been a vital learning period and that today we should rededicate our commitment to the federation and to building an enviable nation that would proudly take its place among the comity of nations. We already know what is needed in a world that has been transformed in the last 25 years.
Education, skill acquisition, entrepreneurship and administrative best practices are absolute minimum. Corruption has enriched the few, but we have gained a new notoriety as the largest concentration of the poorest of the poor in the world. That image can only change if we begin a new orientation of paying heed, not lip service, to income inequality, equitable resource allocation, the creation of a conducive atmosphere for industrialisation, diversification of the economy and stepped up investment in infrastructure. That way our huge population can be turned into an asset not a time bomb; our youth would be a great impetus to development, not a source of anxiety.