The modern nation of Nigeria was born in 1960 amidst fanfare. As of then, forty six years had elapsed since the British amalgamation, in 1914, of the Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria. The nationalist fathers fought a good fight, and it is instructive that diaspora students were at the heart of those nationalist struggles. For example, in 1925, Ladipo Solanke established the West African Students’ Union in the United Kingdom, and by the early 1930s it has spread throughout Nigeria and the rest of British West Africa(Falola & Heaton 2008) . These student organisations, along with other nationalist groups within and outside Nigeria, played significant role in the struggle for independence.
Our nationalist forebears dreamt of a nation freed from the shackles of colonialism, a nation ready to unleash its potentials and show the way for the rest of African countries, and indeed, the rest of the developing world. Pan-Africanism was on the rise. There was so much hope, so much enthusiasm, so much optimism for what lay ahead.
Alas, no sooner had the dream began than it turned into a nightmare! Admittedly, much of this was to do with the ideological battles that defined international relations following the Second World War, in particular the battle between revolutionary socialism and capitalism, which reached its peak in the Cold War. African countries, freshly emerging from colonial rule, were caught in the middle of this ideological war of attrition. But we’ll leave this for a moment.
For the main story of Africa’s dashed dream cannot be attributed solely or mainly to external forces, however significant those forces were. And yes, they were significant. When we consider the fact that the pre-independence nationalists also had a big challenge on their hands, and they ultimately managed to surmount them, we have to say that, in the end, in the same way that the pre-independence nationalist fathers are rightly praised for their valiant efforts, so also must their post-independence successors take responsibility for their failures.
A wasted generation
Make no mistake: their failures were hugely significant, not only in the context of their times, but in the light of what followed thereafter. For it is telling that the years immediately preceding and following independence witnessed more significant development and harmonious relationships between the constituent parts of the nation. Nigeria, then a confederacy of three regions, witnessed significant economic and human development as the constituent regions competed in healthy rivalry among themselves. What worked in one region was speedily replicated in the other. It was a period of hugely successful agrarian reform, and significant investment in public infrastructures across the various regions. But then the clouds of despair soon began to gather.
The political elite, unlike their pre-independence forebears, began to see political power, not as an instrument of popular liberation and citizens’ empowerment, but they began to reconstruct power as an instrument of personal aggrandisement and selective empowerment of their cronies and family members. In the pursuit of this selfish agenda, they resorted to underhand means to keep themselves in power. No region was spared from the desperate antics of these power seekers. Alliances were forged mainly on this premise – North, South, East and West. The embers of ethnic discord were being fanned with reckless abandon.
Then a section of the Nigerian army intervened, their intervention becoming more remarkable for its messy execution than the lofty idealism that may have underpinned it. A counter coup followed, attended by a most unfortunate pogrom of innocent citizens of Eastern extraction. Then the seven year old nation was plunged into a tragic civil war, which, according to some estimates, claimed about three million souls.
The civil war was a defining moment in the history of the Nigerian nation, and the problems leading to the war were precipitated and aggravated by a set of political elites that recklessly abandon the lofty dream handed over to them, leaving a big mess in their wake. The following decades have been, by and large, dedicated to clearing up that mess. Even now, the legacy of a missed opportunity seems intractable. For, these political elites, standing at a strategic point in history, had they been foresighted, focused, and visionary, they would set the right tone and agenda for the nation’s future. They would have properly institutionalised the military and keep them away from what has turned out to be disastrous interventions in politics and governance. Instead, they have inflicted great damage on the commonwealth, and actively collaborated with politically ambitious military to do more damage. As a member of that generation aptly puts it, they are the wasted generation. With some much opportunity to shape the future, they fluffed their lines. The dream they turned into night mare.
A new opportunity beckons
But we are not here, ladies and gentlemen, to lament and moan about the past, much as we seek to draw valuable lessons from it. We are here, on the other hand, to contemplate the new opportunity that is laid before this generation. With that opportunity comes an even bigger responsibility to get it right, not only in the interest of posterity, but also for the strategic survival of now.
The Cold War is gone. Even with all the recent rumblings in Ukraine and the conflicting interests of Russia and Europe, we know this is not some re-enactment of the Cold War between Western Capitalism and Revolutionary Socialism. China has embraced free market, tweaking it to suit its particular purposes. It has prospered greatly thereby. Globalisation presents a unique opportunity to the current generation of Nigerians to shape the future, and define what comes ahead. Yes, we have seen the forces of globalisation aggravating poverty and misery in some parts of the world, aided sometimes by ill-thought and badly executed interventions of international agencies like the IMF. We have also seen the other side of globalisation, exemplified by ordinary people in poor countries of the world seizing the initiative and spearheading programmes and intervention to expand opportunities for their people and free them from the shackles of oppression and poverty. The story of Grameen Bank, founded in Bangladesh, showed that ordinary people can dream and successfully execute and sustain original initiatives to fight poverty and promote real economic growth.
Yes, it is true that there are enormous challenges that stand in the way. Arguably, at the very top of this is the challenge of visionary and accountable leadership. As we have observed, Nigeria has been plagued for so long with corrupt and rudderless leadership. It has gone on for so long that it has almost become the norm, and even among educated people, the bar has been set so low in terms of expectation from political leaders. I shall refrain from making any criticism or endorsement of one or the other political party, but it is clear to all that the coming election is potentially an important landmark rebooting and setting the nation aright. At this critical time, the nation will either fall off the precipice, with tragic and drastic consequences, or it will rise with renewed vigour on its certain march to glory. There is no middle ground.
Let me hasten to say, at this juncture, that the current obsession with one or the other political party misses the point of how the current generation should engage with the political process. I will go on and add, in response to those who have proposed this other alternative, that replacing parties with personalities does not cut it either. We have been told, in fairly elegant and eloquent terms, that people should vote for personalities that they deem capable of delivering outcomes, without too much focus on the parties to which they belong. I proposed a third way, and I will like to think it is a more excellent way.
This third way is fundamentally about citizens seizing the opportunity on setting the agenda for national development. It does not stop there, however, for, on various levels and at different points, citizens have tried to participate in setting the agenda for many years. What has been missing, in sufficient and adequate measure, is a nationwide, citizen led, grassroots-oriented system of rigorous and sustained monitoring of performance, post-election. Citizens should commit as much energy to mobilising for election as they do for setting agenda at local and national levels. More importantly, they should commit even more energy and resources to a sustained campaign and process of continuous monitoring and evaluation of performance based on set agenda.
Organisation is key
Organising is key to all these. All movements for positive change in history have been underpinned by effective organisation of the masses of the people. This is the case up with the French, American and Russian revolutions. It is the same with the American civil rights movement of the twentieth century, led by the renown Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The success of revolutionary movements have always owed as much to the success of their organisation as much as to the galvanising power of the message. It is by means of effective organisation that the critical mass can be mobilised to overturn a repressive status quo and establish a new order for progress and prosperity.
Now, of course, there is nothing entirely new in this emphasis on the power of organisation. In so many ways, this association, in this university, is a testament and a reminder of positive things that can happen when people come together with well-defined objectives and clear sense of purpose. What I seek to do here is draw your attention to certain aspects of the current mobilisation for change that has hindered and weakened the collective clamour for positive change:
- Disproportionate and superficial focus on social media activism: since its inception, and with its growing popularity over the years, social media has played a significant role as a consciousness raiser for Nigerians, especially those of the younger generation, including students and young graduates. The Arab Spring was also significant in terms of the way and manner it projected the enormous potential and powers of social media to bring about practical change on ground. However, one of the key lessons of the Arab Spring, and of similar campaigns and movements elsewhere, is that social media was revealed as an instrument and platform by which ordinary people can mobilise and actualise practical change. It was a means, and not an end in itself. Unfortunately, this important lesson appears to be lost on many Nigerian campaigners and commentators on social media. Perhaps it also feeds into our collective penchant for easy solutions. Social media continue to be a unique and important platform for raising consciousness and mobilising citizens, but unless and until the message is carried on and carried through into the streets and to real people on ground, including the vast masses of uneducated and impoverished citizens, little can be achieved in terms of the end aim for positive change. There is an urgent need for more efficiency in the way and manner energy is deployed on social media. The impact evaluation of social media activism must be directly linked to, and measured by, direct influence on people on ground, including those who have no access to social media.
- Prevalence of ethnic and religious parochialism: one of the long standing challenges of the Nigerian nation is the challenge of ethnic division. Ethnicity was at the heart of the collapse of the first Republic, and it was the defining feature of the tragic civil war. It has been said, and for good reason, that the original formation of the Nigerian nation state was artificial, hasty and without adequate thought to the different histories, cultures and values of the constituent ethnicities. There are differences, but difference is not a bad thing. In fact, inherent in the idea of diversity is the fact of differences. Unfortunately, and on account of what is in effect a false start and very poor management at the outset, these differences have escalated into divisions, and the diversity has led to adversity- of pogroms, wars, militancy and insurgencies. Generations of Nigerians, including the vast majority of educated ones, have been nurtured in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and suspicion. They have been fed half-truths and often malicious lies about other ethnic groups, and the power of the bandwagon is such that this miseducation is difficult to unlearn. There is, of course, the vicious cycle inherent in the fact that this attitude of suspicion is replicated between the various ethnic groups, and suspicion is sustained and aggravated by suspicion. Now, of course, I hasten to say that we must repudiate the simplistic and misguided notion that ethnicity does not matter. Indeed, it is the truth that collective identity cannot be built out of nothing. We must start by not just accepting, but also embracing, our ethnic identity, in order to be able to build a strong and lasting national identity. Part of this process also consists in celebrating the values and contributions of others. The strength of a nation-state consists in the quality of unique contributions by the constituent parts. We can proudly proclaim the uniqueness and value of our contributions, but there is no need to project an air of superiority. It is ironically a sign of insecurity for one ethnic group to project superiority of any sort over the other. Sadly, we see this play itself out as much in social media interactions as it on the arena of partisan politics. The current presidential campaign has, unfortunately, been poisoned by much ethnic division. We can, and must, do differently. We must do better.
- Lack of robust, well defined agenda: another problem we have faced as nation is that, at different points when there have been campaign or clamour for change, the focus of the agenda, or the lack thereof, is breath-taking in its sheer superficiality and impertinent narrowness. In the end, so much energy is dissipated with little or nothing to show for it. And here again, in the current election campaign, we seem to be repeating the same mistakes of the past. For example, some have defined the new Nigerian project in terms of a change of personality at the helm of the nation. Others have defined it in terms of a change of party. There has been little or no attention on policies and manifestos. Where there has been any interest at all on ideas and policies, such have been remarkably superficial and short-sighted. There is a pressing and critical need to apply more rigour and thoroughness to our collective engagement with policies and ideas for positive change. And in this respect citizens should take the lead, not leaving it to politicians to serve self-half baked ideas and half -hearted promises.
- Fragmented campaigns for change: The last few years has witnessed a preponderance of various new organisations and associations campaigning for change at various levels from local to national. Many new groups have been started or have been re-invigorated , in various forms from advocacy organisations to pressure groups and think thanks, or some combining two or more approaches and strategies. This is a good thing for our democracy, and there is room for many more. It is especially good and important that many of these groups are concentrating their efforts and projects at their local bases, thereby expanding the democratic space and enriching the values and practices of liberal democracy at the grassroots. The major problem with these local organisations, and sometimes these new national organisations, is that they are especially weak in mobilising bridging and linking social capital in the wider context of synergising for the national agenda. Some of these organisations also over estimate their reach and capability, and the energy of their endeavours is distinctly weakened by a lack of synergy. In order to achieve the goals of the Nigerian project, local and national organisations sharing similar ideas and ideals must come together in a grand synergy to achieve and maintain the critical mass for positive change. They, individually, need not dissolve or close down their organisations, which are, in many cases, providing particular local focus and delivering unique values in local and special contexts, but each organisation, in order to achieve relevance and deliver value to the national project, must begin to reconstruct and redefine their goals and objectives in terms of their relevance and contributions to the national project, and in terms of sustained alliance they are able to forge with other like-minded organisations, preferably under one umbrella.
- Lack of long term strategy: Finally let us dilate for a moment on the question of strategy. One the perennial features of critical episodes in the history of popular activism in Nigeria is the way they reveal lack of long term strategy. It has become almost predictable, the collective behaviour of Nigerian citizens at these various critical moments in our national life. Check out the story of June 12 campaign, or even, more recently, the story of the anti-fuel subside campaign. Part of these stories is, as we have stated, the lack of well defined, robust agenda, but an equally important part is the lack of durability and resilience. And it is in this respect that the current, some say recycled, political elite, have now and again beaten change campaigners to it. For all their glaring, and far reaching failure to provide purposeful leadership for the nation, they do in fact understand the long game, certainly more than the average Nigerian. They bide their time, wait for the fervency of the activists’ campaign to die out, and then, like vultures, they resume their escapades atop the carcass. They have always, and successfully so, put their bet and base their plan on the energy of momentum of popular activism dying out. And now and again, they have turned out to be accurate in their prediction. The new campaigners must show sustained energy, durability and resilience to achieve their goals. We must stick with it in the long haul. The campaign for positive change in Nigeria is not a sprint. It is a marathon.
Conclusion: new approach, new mind-set
Let us now try and bring all these thoughts together in a final word. Nigeria’s past is a story of unfulfilled dreams, of failed promises and dashed hopes. We made a false start, and made an even bigger mess thereafter. But even in this apparently gloomy shadow we see signs of a great future. It is, for example, a worthy testament of the resilience and dynamism of its people that Nigeria has survived today, largely in spite of its leaders, who, as a member of the political elite recently stated, “do not give a damn!”
But the story to which we have today summoned our collective contemplation is not the one of a failed past but of a promising future. Nigeria has got the numbers, in terms of the people, the land and the resources to take on the world. However, these resources are but dry bones. Now we need to summon the sinews of concrete ideas and the spirit of an inspired and determined citizenry to inject life into these dry bones, and reap enormous progress and prosperity into the bargain.
There is a different vision and dream that lie ahead of us. Nigeria can be the arrowhead of an industrial revolution and economic transformation in Africa. More than that, it can become an economic power house in a real sense, with millions lifted out of poverty to prosperity, and the nation taking the rest of the continent on a sure and certain journey to prosperity. Nigeria can be the bastion of freedom, justice and equity, an example of great and noble things, a corrective to some of the tragic inequalities we have seen in even some of the developed countries of the world today. This is a realistic goal, and we can make it happen.
To do this requires a new mind-set and a new approach to doing things. We must consciously and conscientiously fight the deadly virus of ethnic and religious division. We must eschew nepotism, and fully embrace the noble ideals of accountability and transparency in all levels of public and corporate responsibility, from political office to civil service and the private sector. We must cultivate and maintain new attitudes of tolerance and respect for our differences with as much steadiness as we repudiate corruption and mediocrity with utmost vehemence.
This is Nigeria, another way.
Thank you very much for your attention and God bless!
Seun Kolade, PhD
 Falola, T. & Heaton, M.M., 2008. A history of Nigeria, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
This paper was originally presented at the symposium organised by the Nigerian Students Society, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, on 10th March, 2015.