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Lest we forget

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In January 1962, I landed in New York, USA, to take part in a three month programme under the auspices of the World Youth Forum sponsored by the New York Times and Pan American Airways. Africa was represented by Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe and apartheid South Africa. There were representatives also from Europe, Asia and South America.
What struck me was the instruction to me from the organisers from the first day: “you will speak for Africa” was the constant mantra. I was only 20years old and I could not understand the import of my instructions. After all, Ghana was older as an independent nation than Nigeria by four years.

The import of it was then brought home to me when an anchor at an event where I participated introduced me thus “I listened to the speech to Congress by the Prime Minister of Nigeria. It has been a long time since I had a more impressive delivery by a foreign leader. Africa is lucky to have such a leader. We are lucky today to have Bolaji as a speaker”. Well, I was only 18 years old when Prime Minister Balewa addressed the House of Representatives of the United States Congress and I did not even listen to or paid attention to it. And yet here he was on the basis of that speech being declared African Leader and I was being draped in his robes.

Years later, I listened to that speech on youtube and I was overwhelmed by the majesty and magnificence of that speech.
Lest we forget, Prime Minister Balewa was the first Sub- Saharan African leader to address the United States Congress and until President Mandela was the only African leader. And this was in 1961.

Lest we forget, Nigeria had the first television station in Africa. Nigeria had the first multi-story building in Africa when the Cocoa house was built in Ibadan in 1965. Lest we forget.
Lest we forget, Nigeria instituted free primary education in January 1955, at a time when most countries in Europe did not have free primary education. Lest we forget.
Lest we forget, the Nigerian army was the first African army to be used to put down a coup in Africa,(in Tangayika now Tanzania) in 1964. Lest we forget.

There are many other achievements which can be cataloged whether in ECOMOG or Frontline states. But now, all of these are in the past. What we are confronted with
is the nightmare of the prospect of a failed state. Where
did we go astray? When did the rain start to fall on our heads? One factor stands out: Failure of Leadership. I make bold to assert that no Nigerian leader has ever put the interests of Nigeria above sectional or personal interests. It is as if no leader believes in a Nigerian future that is worth investing in Lest we forget, a Nigerian General, J.T. Aguiyi-Ironsi, was the first African General to head a United Nations military operation in 1964. Lest we forget.
Lest we forget, Nigeria was Chairman of the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee from 1972 to 1994 when it was disbanded, its mission accomplished. Lest we forget.
There are many other achievements which can be cataloged whether in ECOMOG or Frontline states.
But now, all of these are in the past. What we are confronted with is the nightmare of the prospect of a failed state. Where did we go astray? When did the rain start to fall on our heads? One factor stands out: Failure of Leadership. I make bold to assert that no Nigerian leader has ever put the interests of Nigeria above sectional or personal interests. It is as if no leader believes in a Nigerian future that is worth investing in. The British colonial authority, who should have been neutral in mediating the competing interests of the Nigerian nationalities, was at its perfidious, duplicitous and immoral best. So bad is the record that Britain has banned access to two of its colonial files for the next fifty years. Post-independence, no farsighted leadership would have embarked on the ruinous declaration of emergency in the Western region in 1962 or the jailing of Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1963.
No farsighted leader would conceive of and implement policies that are patently discriminatory against other parts to the benefit of only one part or the benefit of one’s own financial pockets. The only conclusion to draw is that these leaders have no faith nor belief in the Nigerian future.
We can only hope for a change of heart, for a change of vision for investment in Nigeria’s today and Nigeria’s future by any leader who is fortunate to be entrusted with the key to the Villa.
•Professor Akinyemi is a former Minister of External Affairs and member of The Guardian Newspapers Editorial Board


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