I wasn’t born in 1960. So, I have no memories of the euphoria of the first Independence Day. My early memories of independence are the celebrations in the small government school I attended. My well starched and ironed school uniform, national flags made of paper, singing the National Anthem, and a speech by the headmistress were the highlights. In my final year, I was allowed to pin a small flag on my shirt and hold a slightly bigger one in front of the school because I was a school prefect. Those were proud moments! Even after so many years, the pride still remains. It is totally different today.
Back then, it was more about Nigeria, our country! There was nationalism all around. Even as young kids, there was unflinching commitment to the country. Reading Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi was a passion. I was told so many times by my father that the first few images of post-independent Nigeria weren’t of food shortages, poverty, hunger, inadequacy of almost everything. There was hope!
Where are we after 55 years, and where do we intend to go? As I listened to Buhari’s speech yesterday, I felt sorry for Nigeria. How did we get here? Everything in Nigeria has changed and, in many ways, changed for the worst. We still see poverty everywhere we turn. We are still worried whether the next ship will bring enough food. We are a country floating on crude oil yet we wake up every morning to fuel scarcity, wondering whether we have enough money in our pockets to buy fuel for our generators and cars for the next day. Although our choice of cars is no longer limited to the Peugeot 504 and the Tortoise cars our parents cruised in the 60s, and we may not live in a black and white TV era with just one channel anymore, and there are no more long queues at telephone booths, does that give us comfort? Have we progressed? No. We still have to solve our more complex problems to move forward and we are impatient. We are still looking to developed countries for aid or to the World Bank for more loans. We are still not confident enough or ready to take on the world.
What are the things Buhari needs to do and urgently too?
1: Contain divisive forces and actions. We seem to divide ourselves in the name of tribe, region, religion, group, sub-group, constituencies, and we never unite in times of crisis. There are a number of external forces which may not want Nigeria to become developed and powerful. These forces are creating difficulties both inside and outside the country. They predicted our disintegration in 2015 and they almost made sure it happened. We must differentiate our enemies from our allies. It is also very important that, as a multi-cultural society, we learn to live and grow together and to resolve our differences through dialogue within ourselves and not external influences. Any form of violence, for any reason whatsoever, should be avoided. Instead of expecting the government to solve all our problems, let the civil society take its role seriously and do its bit. The large majority of Nigerians want to get on with their lives in peace. This majority needs to assert its presence.
2: Release the energy of Nigeria’s youth to generate growth and prosperity. Take a look at any young man or woman in Nigeria today, you are sure to find that unusual level of confidence, a confidence to take up a challenge to better the best in any part of the world they find themselves. They are willing to work extra hours, learn new things, and innovate. It is this confidence and the attitude of “Naija no dey carry last” that is Nigeria’s most valuable capital today. We need to support this with the best quality education, infrastructure and training and research facilities, be it in the private or public sector. Nigerian youths shouldn’t be entangled with issues of language or religion. They should be focused on their careers and their growth, which will in turn be Nigeria’s growth.
3: Get the infrastructure right. Young Nigerians are becoming impatient, and rightly so. They want to get going. Inadequate infrastructure, whether it is physical or social, is holding them back. Roads, power, basic services like water and sanitation, social infrastructure like healthcare, education need urgent attention if we want this country to grow. Many of these could come through private sector investment, innovation and efficiencies. The government will still play a major role both in terms of providing funds, encouraging investments and ensuring regulation. Instead of focusing on irrelevant issues, we need to focus on quality and cost of services.
4: Fight inefficiency and corruption. We are all worried about corruption. But when it comes to standing up against corruption, we have failed. Buhari must deter Nigerians from further engaging in corrupt practices by making scapegoats. He has to start by appointing only credible people into his cabinet. They must be discouraged from looting the treasury. If you ask me, I will suggest that Goodluck Jonathan’s government should be probed and those found guilty of corrupt practices should be sent to Kirikiri. All forms of corruption are bad, but it is only the bigger cases that we pay attention to, forgetting that the petty corruption is just as cancerous. It affects the poor more and makes life miserable for the average Nigerian. The civil society needs to stand up and force the change we have all been clamouring for. Luckily, we now have the Freedom of Information Bill which is an effective tool in the hands of the Nigerian citizen to ensure transparency. If Aba manufacturers are empowered, we do not need technology from outside, we just need the will to change age-old and opaque processes. Society needs to make its demand for this change loud and clear.