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Nigeria is 56, should we be celebrating?

When I was younger Nigerian Independence Day was kind of a big deal. My friends and I would paint our faces, don our flags and head down to Stratford Rex (or wherever the big Independence Day party was) and dance the night away in celebration. What exactly we were celebrating was somewhat abstract. None of…
Nigerian children attend independence day celebrations in Lagos in October 1, 2013. PHOTO: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP

Nigerian children attend independence day celebrations in Lagos in October 1, 2013. PHOTO: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP

When I was younger Nigerian Independence Day was kind of a big deal.

My friends and I would paint our faces, don our flags and head down to Stratford Rex (or wherever the big Independence Day party was) and dance the night away in celebration.

What exactly we were celebrating was somewhat abstract. None of us had lived in Nigeria or had a particularly detailed knowledge of Nigerian history. It didn’t matter though, we all felt a sense of pride. We embraced the fuzzy ideal of our founding fathers kicking against ‘the man,’ throwing off the shackles of the ill that was colonialism and marching confidently into a bright future.

In contrast my first Independence Day in Nigeria was muted. To my surprise (I was much more naïve back then), no one was really in the mood to celebrate. Celebrate what? I remember one of my friends asking, How far we haven’t come since 1960?

It was difficult to argue with that.

Even more surprising are some of the arguments I’ve heard since moving here, seemingly in favour of the colonialists. Saying that British left too early, and had they stayed longer things would be better as Nigeria wasn’t prepared for Independence. I was shocked, but it’s a telling indicator of just how bad things have become.

Independent Nigeria was supposed to rise. It was supposed to be the leading country on the continent. It was supposed to be great. I wonder how it must have felt to experience October 1st 1960. The excitement, the hope, the belief that anything was possible and that the brightest days of the country lay ahead. I wonder what’s on the minds of those who experienced that first Independence Day, today. The country that was once full of promise is in disarray on almost every front; sectarian violence, disunity, poverty, economic crisis, the list goes on. We should ask ourselves, is there anything to celebrate?

For some people, there is. One of the most endearing qualities about Nigerian people is our capacity to believe, the capacity to hope that one day things will change for the better. Those celebrating will be lauding the enduring resilience of Nigerian people, the country’s potential for greatness, the belief that ‘one day we will get there.’

This capacity for hope is as good as it is terrible. This idealism keeps us stunted, prevents us from asking the right questions, and most importantly thinking critically. This lofty idea that ‘we will get there’ isn’t rooted in reality. Get where? What does ‘there’ look like? What steps (not speeches) are being made to ensure this happens? Is there a tangible or clear plan that ensures in 50 years’ time we are not still complaining about the same old thing? Hope is a good thing, a necessary thing, but without tangible action it is useless. Development and progress aren’t borne from wishes.

There is the argument that Nigeria is still young and has yet to redefine its post-colonial identity. The name ‘Nigeria’ was given and there are many systems in place today that are simply leftovers of the colonial era. In a lot of ways we are working within a system that was not built by us or with us or our best interests in mind. So how can we expect it to work for us? It raises the question, what exactly are we free from?

Yesterday I again asked some friends their thoughts about Independence Day, there were various answers but one that struck out the most was this: ‘What is freedom without responsibility?’

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