Nigeria at 60: A Tale of Military’s Painful Experiments and Civilians’ Tardy Wastefulness


The strange tale of Nigeria’s metamorphosis is not a bittersweet story. Instead, it is a double-edged sword. Today marks 60 years of Nigeria gaining independence from the British colonial rule. Our past heroes’ struggle with the resource-grabbing white men to regain the freedom to govern their vast ancestral land was the beginning of our nation’s fractured journey. For administrative reasons, the British Royal Family decreed that both Northern and Southern Protectorates be brought under one entity they amalgamated in 1914 as Nigeria  (a name derived from the River Niger area that was chosen by the wife of Lord Lugard).  The two protectorates shared nothing in common apart from the melanin-rich skin coloration. Culturally, geographically, diplomatically, or metaphorically they appeared as distinct nations. While the North is landlocked with an agrarian economy and predominantly Middle-Eastern cultural/spiritual persuasions, the South is a coastal region with convergence of a mix of local traditional and Western Christian persuasions. It did not only stop at that; even the pre-independence patterns of literacy reflected similar kinds of diversity. The North’s literacy pattern shifted towards the Arabic language, whereas the South tilted towards the English language. Even when the British first came to Nigeria, the North had its well sophisticated administrative structure. It used “ajami” for formal writing and administrative work. Having seen such a system existing in the North, the British colonial masters exploited it. They adopted an indirect rule in the North. Therefore, subtle differences later became manifest when leaders from the North opposed Enahoro’s motion for Nigeria’s independence in 1953 to their aggressive Southern counterparts’ chagrin. The North felt it was not ready because it needed some latitude to train and beef up its civil workforce. The South leaders, who thought they were self-sufficient, frowned at such gesture requested by the North. A different viewpoint about the timing of independence nearly became a point of departure for a fractured nation.

Fast forward to 1960, Nigeria was given birth to in a grand and pageantry due to a motion for independence moved by Sir Tafawa Balewa. The Balewa’s motion was acquiesced by Her Royal Majesty, Queen of England. The newly born nation held so much hope and promises for sub-Saharan Africa due to its vast population, diversity, and natural endowments. The nation’s founding philosophy was rested squarely on three semi-autonomous regions governed each by a powerful Premier. Unfortunately, it took the first tragic military experiment to truncate that effective arrangement. In what appeared to be the ethnic cleansing of the political leaders from the northern region, some young military officers of Igbo extraction led by Col. Nzeogwu executed a bloody coup. Coup herald coup. Nigeria was set ablaze by such rude and inhuman military experiments, leaving its trails a disastrous civil war that lasted for almost three painful years (1967-1970). The military under General Gowon as President managed to keep Nigeria as one during its most turbulent period. Still, the military’s preoccupation with experiments saw Gowon toppled and replaced by Brigadier General Murtala Mohammed in 1975. In 1976, a few months after assuming the mantle of leadership, another overzealous military experiment caused General Murtala’s life. Tired of its painful experimentations with power, the military eventually saw wisdom and decided to hand over power to civilians in 1979. General Obasanjo midwife the transition that gave Nigeria fresh from oven President Shehu Shagari as its then-new groom.

It is a trite repeating that our experience with democracy has been a cocktail of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Nigerian politicians appear to have acquired a spendthrift gene. The tale of our short transition with civil rule from 1979 to 1983 was a clear example of wastefulness and lousy management of people and resources. The civilians had failed to play the game fairly. The conduct of elections in 1983 was violent and typified by complaints of rigging, which defined most of the election outcomes. The economy nose-dived, and opposition leaders heated the polity. The unruly politicians desperate to retain power at all costs appeared to have brazenly snatched latitude for the people to choose their leaders. Without the liberty to choose one’s leaders, democracy approximates dictatorship. Such a gloomy picture heralded another round of the painful military experiment. From 1984 to 1999, the nation had four different military heads of States (Buhari, Babangida, Abacha, and Abdussalam) and one short-lived transitional government led by Earnest Shonekan. In that experimental period, the nation’s lost several of its best military men to either the effect of violent coup attempts or court-marshaled consequences of their daring actions. In terms of growth, expanding access, and prosperity, the military experiments were a stagnant phase in our evolution. Critical infrastructures gradually decayed with no clear, robust plan to address future increased demands.

When Obasanjo’s civilian government took over in 1999, the nation was suffocating from cases of human rights abuse, sanctions, and rising political tension. The return to democracy was supposed to be an attempt to get our acts right, once again, but the result is still a far cry from an ideal. There is a little gain in terms of expanding access and opening up the economy to be fair. However, corruption, dilapidated institutions, poor infrastructures, nepotism, indiscipline, incompetence, and collapsing internal security wash away whatever inconsequential gain the nation’s flirting with civil rule brought. Politicians have still refused to stick by the rules of the game they willingly enacted for themselves. Our elections even come across like a do or die appears. Wastefulness is now pervasive! At 60 years, Nigeria still crawls like a toddler for a lack of good quality leadership.

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