Nigeria At  61: The Challenges of Nationhood       


Garba A. Isa



The Giant of Africa, Nigeria is marking its 61st independence anniversary during one of the most challenging moments. This is  given the current turn of events in terms of Security, Economic, Political, Corporate Existence and other emerging issues,  Nigeria became independent from the British colonialists on 1st October, 1960. It was a product of amalgamation  (merger) of the Southern and Northern Protectorates by the British to form the federation of Nigeria in 1914. Some short sighted folks describe the amalgamation as "the mistake of 1914" Given all the proverbial water that went down the drain 107 years since the amalgamation, it is naive to remain captives to that British colonial decision for which its former subjects  had no hands, not to talk of the subsequent generation of post independent Nigerians. Upon their arrival, the British met in the North, a well established state; the Sokoto Caliphate and the Islamic state of Borno with their elaborate structure and well articulated Trade and Commerce. The disappearance of Ajami (Hausa in Arabic script) and the replacement of Maliki Shari ‘a legal system with the British Common law, were some of the  conspicuous negative effects of colonialism in Northern Nigeria and the outlook of the current federation. The impoverishment of resources of Southern Nigeria and the destruction of its communal value systems by the colonialists is often overlooked  because the British were seen as having brought religion (Christianity) to hitherto largely Animists communities. Mention has been made time and again that much as one may excuse the first generation of Nigerian leaders for elements of ‘colonial hangovers’ this generation  has no justification to continue with the Colonial era Political, Economic and Legal structures which are of no relevance to the majority of our people. The nation has had several trying events 61 years down the line.The country’s first democratic experiment suffered a major set back with the first ever coup in the history of the country; the Nzeogu-led coup of January, 1966 which resulted in the assassination of the then Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Northern Premier, Ahmadu Bello  Sardauna of Sokoto, Brigadier Maimalari   and Chief Samuel Akintola the  then Premier of the Western region, among others. Today, 61 years since the nation’s independence and 51 years since the civil war (1967-1970), a section of the elites were still agitating for the break-up of the nation. Divisive groups such as the outlawed IPOB whose members were too young to experience the devastation of the failed Ojukwu-led Biafra secessionist bid, are now playing with fire. The federal government of Nigeria recently achieved a major victory with the dramatic capture and return to the country of the fugitive leader of IPOB, Nnamdi Kanu.Foreign intelligence agencies cooperated with Nigeria in ditching Kanu after convincing themselves that he was an antithesis of a real Freedom fighter. He was said to be a womaniser (a lady of easy virtues was said to have been used  to lure him into arrest), an imprudent personality and  a cult- like leader who made his followers swear  an oath of allegiance. Beside, a Western Intelligence source hinted that the World was not prepared for an unstable Nigeria. Kanu the social media warrior cannot succeed where the late Ikemba of Nnewi the well prepared ground based secessionist leader, failed. The hard fact is Nigeria's survival instinct is legend and a book maker's delight. Ironically, inspite of its current numerous internal  security, political and economic challenges, the Secretary General of the United Nations recently  tasked president of Nigeria Muhammad Buhari to ensure that the West African sub-region remain stable. This means the greatness of our God-given country is much more appreciated beyond its shores. The record is clear in  Liberia, Sierra leone, Guinea Bissau and  the Gambia among others. Nigeria's political tension is largely compounded by  disgruntled political actors who lost out of the process. They  are also trying hard to destabilize the country using various guises.Those calling for “Revolution Now” for instance, may not try the same move in the US which is supposed to be the bastion of global democracy. The thorny “National Question” in Nigeria is not about how to break-up the country, but how to fine tune the nation to achieve a just, fair and balanced society in which no group feels alienated. We should own the necessary moral courage to distinguish between our opposition to a particular leader (perhaps due to disdain for his or her Tribe, Region or Religion), from the overall “Nigeria Project”


The General Yakubu Gowon-led military regime (1966-1975) was a product of the July 1966 counter-coup. This regime prosecuted the civil war and evolved a 12-state structure to replace the regional one operated under the first Republic. Gowon did his best to lay the infrastructural foundation for the nation in power supply (constructed the Kainji Dam and the Hydro Electric Power Generating Plant), Transportation, Aviation, Agriculture, Education among others. He worked hard to preserve the corporate existence of the country following the bloody civil war. He declared that “ to keep Nigeria one, is a task that must be done”. General Murtala Muhammad’s regime replaced that of Gown following a coup in 1975 amidst charges of corruption and a failed promise to return the country to civil rule by 1976. It is ironic that most of the corrupt public officers of the Gowon era can today easily pass for saints given the current magnitude and dimension of corruption!


General Murtala Muhammad (1975-1976) set the country on the path of return to democratic rule, evolved a new federal capital at Abuja, created six additional states (Niger, Bauchi, Gongola, Benue, Ogun, Imo and Bendel), purged the civil service of corrupt elements, established Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) under the leadership of the late Alhaji Babatunde Jose and gave the nation a new sense of direction and a dynamic foreign policy. This was epitomised by the Nigerian-led successful OAU (now AU) diplomatic offensive on Angola (even as a late foreign minister of Nigeria the late General Joseph Garba said the Western-backed UNITA rebel  forces were at the moment within 9 miles of the Angolan capital, Luanda). America under  former American President Gerald Ford was told to "shut up". After Murtala’s assassination on the fateful Friday, February 13, 1976, his then Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters or deputy, Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo took over. He continued with some of the dynamic policies initiated by his former boss and honoured the promised return to civil rule. In all honesty, General Obasanjo as Military Head of State did not substantially derail from the dynamic domestic and foreign policies of the  late General Murtala Muhammad.


The second republic saw the emergence of late President Shehu Shagari on October 1st 1979. The Shagari led government was overthrown in December 1983 on charges of corruption as ruling party (NPN) stalwarts helped themselves with impunity. Yet it was Shehu Shagari’s government which established the now moribund Ajaoukuta Steel complex in Kogi State with the technical and financial support of the defunct USSR { Russia]. It also set up Steel Rolling Mills at Katsina, Jos and Oshogbo. They were meant to lay a foundation for our industrial development. General Muhammad Buhari whose military coup terminated the Shagari-led regime sought to punish the former president for the crime of the entire regime; but a learned judge, (I think it was justice Lawal Owais), dismissed the case. In the judges’ legal opinion, to charge Shagari for the crimes of the entire regime would have amounted to “setting standards too high even for saints” One always recall a patriotic appeal to Nigerians by the late president Shehu Shagari: " Give and take" "Live and lets live"


 Buhari may have exaggerated it, but he contended that the nation was “on the verge of collapse” when they overthrew the regime of President Shehu Shagari on 31st December 1983.General Muhammad Buhari was a stern and austere brand of leader. He was a kind of personality whose level of honesty and sincerity were exemplary. His War Against Indiscipline (WAI) was honest but its modus operand were in several cases excessive or archaic. Buhari’s economic policies were largely home-grown such as the Counter Trade and SAP. His policies were popular with the masses but unpopular with the elites or the foreign corporations. The Buhari-led military  regime was overthrown in what appeared to be a palace coup led by General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida 20 months after, in 1985. The  Babangida regime was welcomed by many due to the fact that under Buhari, several detained politicians of the second republic were languishing in detentions, the press was gagged by the decree 4 and a number of people mainly hard hit by his harsh, but necessary economic policies were impatient with the regime.


 Babangida on the other hand, played a “Political Soldier” dribbling people from post to post which earned him the title ‘Maradona’ (after a late Argentine football star).He at a point created two government-sponsored political parties, NRC and SDP and after shoving aside all credible politicians, made himself a military president at the centre overseeing civilian governors at the state level. Tinkering with the transition to civil rule programmes (which eventually landed the nation into the June 12, 1993 crisis), poor economic management, financial imprudence, Liberia’s misadventure to shore up his sinking friend, former President Samuel Doe and charges of promoting corruption to the level of government-to-government, were some of the major undoings  of the Babangida regime (1985-1993). However, some noteworthy achievements were credited to his eight-year rule: The actualisation of the transfer of the presidency to Abuja in 1992, the creation of several new states: Akwa Ibom and Katsina; (1987) Abia, Enugu, Delta, Jigawa, Kebbi, Osun, Kogi, Taraba and Yobe; (1991). Babangida also embarked on  far-reaching infrastructural projects as the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos, the Abuja-Kaduna-Kano express way, the Challawa Gorge Dam in Kano State  and among others, the construction of the water—tight security Aso Rock Presidential villa in Abuja. Babangida who reportedly boasted that he was “trained to dominate his environment”  was forced to “step aside” by the June 12, 1993 political crisis. He concocted a so-called interim government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan.


The interim regime went as hastily as it came barely 3 months after. It was shoved aside by the same General Sani Abacha retained from the Babangida regime to ‘protect’ it from threats.General Abacha somewhat sought to cut the image of a ruthless nation builder. He was combative in dealing with both his domestic and foreign enemies often with devastating consequences such as the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa, the Agoni Rights activist and a Playwright. Abacha was a man of ironies; in spite of charges of brutalities, that of amassing ill-gotten wealth and attempt to perpetuate himself in power (Tazarce), it was he who created five new states in 1996: (Ebonyi, Bayelsa, Nasarawa, Zamfara, Gombe and Ekiti ), convened a National Constitutional Conference and evolved the Vision 2020 document. He also built the National Hospital Abuja and in 1997 commissioned the now moribund, Aluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria (ALSCON) at Ikot Abasi in Akwa Ibom State.  His most popular pet project was the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund, PTF. The entrusting of PTF to General Muhammadu Buhari ensured that the nation got value for its money. Buhari was to disclose later that General Abacha never sought for favour or dictated the way he run the PTF. 


Abacha suddenly died on June 8, 1998 and was replaced by General Abdussalami   Abubakar. He promptly handed over power back to the civilians to the delight of pro-democracy groups and foreign leaders including the late former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa. He released General Olusegun Obasanjo from Yola prison where he was wasting away on coup-plotting charges. What nearly spoiled General Abdussalami’s show, was the controversial death of Chief M.K.O. Abiola on 7th July 1998 while still officially under detention. It was shortly after taking tea at a meeting in which top American diplomats including Susan Rice, then Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1997-2001), were present. Charges of spent spree trailed the brief regime of Abdussalami  Abubakar under the guise of completing transition related projects such as the National Assembly complex among others. However, because the catch phrase was to hand over power to civilians, General Abdussalami got away with his apparent failings amidst the democratic euphoria of the time.


The new democratic experiment in 1999 saw the emergence of former military head of state General Olusegun Obasanjo as civilian president. Obasanjo’s second coming was characterised by vengeance, intolerance and endless foreign-inspired reforms such as Privatisation and Commercialisation. The failure of the Obasanjo reforms stem from their lack of direct positive impact on the people. The regime also had to contend with charges of marginalisation. He was ironically more a respecter of law as military ruler (1976-1979) than as civilian president (1999-2007). EFFC and ICPC were truth be told, some of the positive things to emerge from the Obasanjo civilian regime although how he himself measured up to the ethical standards envisaged by them is a subject of immense debate. This was given the several ‘Muddy Waters’ in which the former president dipped during his tenure. The unhappy moments which characterised the regime, were concluded in a running battle with former Vice president Atiku Abubakar  over the failed Third term project and his  ambition to succeed his boss. Obasanjo literally combined his presidential functions with the scorched-earth control of the ruling party, the PDP. The Obasanjo presidential era was also awash with high profile political assassinations, arbitrary impeachment of Governors and removal of estranged PDP leaders notably Chief Abdu Ogbe who was  allegedly forced to sign his resignation letter “at gun point”.


President Umar Musa Yar’Aduwa who was literally selected by Obasanjo and assumed power following a controversial election was at a cross road. He quickly showed a difference between himself and former president Obasanjo. Under President Yar’ Aduwa, the petroleum sub-sector begun to witness both apparent price stability and product availability. President Yar’Aduwa launched a 7-point Agenda. He was ironically worried about the flawed election which brought him to power. This prompted him to take action to reform the electoral process by setting up the Justice Owais panel even as the court’s verdict on his own presidential mandate was then awaited. The most conspicuous challengers to the Yar’Aduwa presidency were General Muhammad Buhari of the then ANPP and former vice president Atiku Abubakar then of AC. Even though the duo did not succeed in dethroning president Yar’Aduwa , the magnitude and dimensions of fraudulent practices during the  2007  Presidential, Assemblies and Governorship elections are book maker’s delight. Obasanjo once described himself as an incurable believer in one Nigeria even though his record somewhat proved otherwise; those who accuse President Buhari of nepotism and divisive tendencies should be able to disclose in which planet they were living during the Obasanjo presidency.


 Under former president Goodluck Jonathan the insurgency by Boko Haram was so ubiquitous in several parts of the North sometimes stretching up to the Federal Capital of Abuja. Jonathan was a stop gap president who came to power following the death of President Umar Musa Yar’ Aduwa on 5th May 2010. Jonathan convened a National Constitutional Conference whose credibility was a subject of immense debate. Niger Delta militants became emboldened as some elements attacked Abuja during independence anniversary celebrations on October 1st 2010 which left 12 people dead and 17 injured. This was despite the Amnesty programme of late President Umar Yar’ Aduwa which largely helped pacify the troubled region. His apparent shoddy handling of the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East and evidence of soaring corruption in high places among others, speeded up the defeat of former president Jonathan of PDP by Muhammad Buhari of the APC in 2015. Jonathan however made history by being the first incumbent President to lose an election, accepted the result without further heating up the polity and went the extra mile to congratulate the winner. This singular act has already propelled Jonathan into an African shuttle diplomat; The latest being ECOWAS mediation mission to  Mali and Guinea Conakry.


After a couple of failed attempts, President Muhammadu Buhari eventually made it to the Aso Rock Villa in 2015. From a struggling almost political lone player gingered by massive grassroots support, he learned the art of political alliances across the Geopolitical divides which paid off when God the Most High destined him to realise his long sought presidential aspiration. More than six years down the  lane, president Buhari may have learned the hard way, that being at the helm under a full blown democracy is not a tea party. Although President Buhari is  known to be honest with personal integrity, many question the behaviour of many of  his top aides. The president's undoings though include the current security challenges,high inflation, rising debt burden among others. Truth be told, the president may  be losing plenty of sympathy even though some of the problems are attributable to his unsanctioned officials or the machinations of his well entrenched political enemies.


Also part of the president’s failings were  lack of interface with the masses; his enduring power support base to gauge their temperature. The president was in deficit in terms of presidential visit to states (although he managed to embark on whistle stop tours of Kano, Borno, Lagos, Adamawa and Imo quite recently) to talk to the masses directly. Shortly after president Buhari took over in 2015, the security situation   greatly stabilised. But six years down the line, domestic security under the President, curiously assumed different negative dimensions as banditry, kidnapping, armed robbery, ethnic and religious violence seem to compete with insurgency in the North East for the available criminality space. The president need to act rapidly end this senseless bloodletting in Nigeria. The popular sentiment then was to replace the former Service Chiefs which he eventually did. We must also address the fundamental pitfalls with our security architecture notably the Quality and Quantity of personnel, Equipment, Motivation, Intelligence, the deployment of Science and Technology and Inter Service synergy etc. The failure of Mambilla Hydro Electric Power project to get off the ground six years into the Buhari regime is a big minus to our quest for sustainable power supply. The expectation was that the Buhari regime would reak the jinx associated with the proposed  Mambilla project after 40 years on the drawing board. After the apparent 'super minister' Fashola wasted years, the recent excuse offered for the failure of the 3,000 megawatt Mambila power plant to take off were unconvincing six years into the Buhari regime. In the wider sense though what the masses expect from Buhari are immediate and  far reaching measures to cushion the devastating impact of poverty and hunger, while the big economic grammar of  reforms  germinate.  The Buhari administration is involved in several high profile capital projects such as the Lagos-Ibadan Railways and express road, the Abuja-Kaduna-Kano highway, the Kaduna- Kano rail project, the ongoing Second Niger bridge, the East-West Road project, among others which place serious pressure to mobilise available domestic and foreign financing sources. The global impact of COVID 19 Pandemic also dealt a fatal blow to the economy which makes reform measures quite imperative. The current Oil price rise breeze must be well capitalized upon by the government to save and fund critical development oriented projects. The Ajaokuta steel company in Kogi state is a national imperative for sustainable industrial development in the country. The most sustainable way to steam the apparent free fall by our National currency, the Naira is to stimulate domestic  production and value addition to rapidly boost export and bring down importation of foreign goods and services.


The lesson of our political and nation-building experience so far is that much as we may be disappointed with the performance of our leaders over the last 61 years, we must not lose hope completely. The National Assembly and its leadership must key into the patriotic process to build the nation of our dream. They must join the fight against the cancer of corruption rather than being its bastion.The people need to be reoriented morally for honest citizenship, leadership qualities impacted and taken into confidence in decision making, youth unemployment be reduced to the bearest as  it is a potential time-bomb. Nigerians must be guided by the leadership to be much more patriotic to avoid being recruited by  enemies of the state with devastating consequence. President Buhari seems still  focussed to fight corruption,  but the same thing may not be said of several of his co-travellers.

 Although some modest gains were made by Nigeria in the last 61 years, there were plenty of lost opportunities occasioned by poor leadership, Corruption, Political Crises, Ethno-religious upheavals and absence of Sustainable Development Goals which kept the nation far behind even its peers notably Malaysia and Brazil among others. Nigerians must unite on a consensus to enthrone qualitative leadership in the polity to drive real Growth and Development. We must build upon the nation’s achievements in infrastructural development such as Petrol-Chemicals, Power supply, Education, Roads, Airports, Railways, Water ways, Agriculture and Industries among others. It is imperative to evolve a true federation tolerant of our peculiarities. Africa’s largest black nation Nigeria which went to other troubled spots to restore peace must itself stay afloat through a delicate process of justice and fair play to all its component parts. We should at least manage a moment to smile as we mark the 61st anniversary of our independence. There is an ongoing furore among Nigerian politicians to further  polarise the country over the zoning of presidency between the North and South in 2023. The hard fact is rhetorics aside, real political  issues are not resolved in the media space. Political squabbles are best addressed through dialogue, mutual consensus and bridge building across the various divides. Political power rotation may not be in the National Constitution but is a good tool for measuring  political maturity or otherwise among the political actors. An enduring feature of Nigeria as stated by the late Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, is that “it is big enough to accommodate our differences” Finally, leaders and other political actors  may come and go, but the common denominator is our only God-given country; Nigeria.


Garba A. Isa  is a retired Civil Servant  and a Current Affairs Observer, Kano