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Thoughts on yesterday’s men

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These days when I feel overwhelmed by the mediocrity of the present, I mentally trudge down the path of the profundity of the forgotten past. I do so to make some sense of the present and convince myself that there is a universal agreement that progress for nations and individuals means moving forward. It is a healthy exercise, I assure you.

Each time I do so I find something both interesting and disappointing about our country and its citizens. Here is my latest find from the past. Sometime in 1970 not long after the end of the 30-month civil war, General Yakubu Gowon launched the Second National Development Plan, 1970 -74. It was the first national development conceived and written entirely by Nigerian technocrats and development experts, who, guided by the general’s conviction that it was time for Nigerians to look beyond their noses and begin the challenging processes of making their country rise like the African giant it is touted to be, from the ashes of its grievous political, economic and social errors of the head and the heart that landed us in the bloody civil war. I think the plan was in the larger context of the general’s unique policy of reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation – the famous 3Rs.

It was not possible for me to read the entire plan at this time but from what I have read of it, it represented in a very articulate way, the encapsulation of our collective dreams and ambitions at that particular time in our weary journey towards a fair and just nation in which no one would be oppressed by reason of his faith or tribe. By the current standards of jumbo public votes and expenditures, the entire plan cost less than what a public officer today pockets from the public treasury. The plan was modest in its monetary commitments but profound as a guiding principle of national development. It envisaged a capital expenditure of N3.192 billion in the four years that the plan would last. Of this, the public sector would cough out N2.100 billion with the private sector supporting it with N1.632 billion.

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For that level of investment, the plan expected our gross national product to rise from N3.028 billion in the 1969-70 fiscal year to N3.987 billion within the first three years, 1970-73, of the plan coming into effect. The plan came into effect at a particularly challenging period in our national history. The civil war had caused untold damages to physical struggles in the main theatres of the war; caused enormous human losses and suffering and left a sense of trauma and alienation in the land. The 3Rs were meant to address these in a positive way in a manner that the wounds of war would begin to heal quickly.

The primary purpose of the plan was far and above monetary gains. It was to raise our human capital and engender national pride and patriotism in our capacity to build the nation of our dreams rather than a nation that would perpetuate the nightmare of the immediate past in our national history. The five principal objectives of the plan were eloquent in their articulation of that sense of Nigerianness and of Nigerians becoming the architects of their new nation. These were the five pillars of the national development plan: A united, strong, and self-reliant nation; a great and dynamic economy; a just and egalitarian society; a land of bright and full opportunities for all citizens and a free and democratic society. It was predicated on an annual growth rate of seven per cent.

The Third National Development Plan, 1975-80 that succeeded the second plan echoed those same sentiments. In scale, it was bigger and even more ambitious than the Second National Development Plan. It envisaged a capital expenditure of some N30 billion. This is not a review of the two development plans. My point is that despite those lofty sentiments captured in the two national development plans so long ago, our country has not lived to the hopes of the authors of the development plans.

You do not need to be told you that it has not become a united, strong, and self-reliant nation. Why has it not become a great and dynamic economy but has instead become the poverty capital of the world? Why has it not become a just and egalitarian society but has instead degenerated into an unjust and non-egalitarian society? Why is our country still not a land of bright and full opportunities for all citizens and a free and democratic society but has instead become a polarised nation in which the sons and daughters of those at the bottom of the societal ladder are cynically treated as second class citizens?

I believe something must have gone so badly wrong and turned our collective hopes into hollow hopelessness and our fervent dreams of a great nation into a nightmare and arrested out national development. Fifty years after the launch of the Second National Development with its lofty and patriotic sentiments, our nation remains effectively hobbled by insane competitions for political and public offices along ethnic and religious advantages. Many years ago, the latte Chief Obafemi Awolowo borrowed from Metternich his description for Italy and said that Nigeria was a mere geographic expression. We are still a nation of ethnic groups in which the tribes with greater advantages at the feeding trough fence off other tribes. We are still a nation of religious bigots in which faith rather than qualifications and competence determines who gets what and where.

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Nothing seems to go right. We cannot agree on the criteria for leadership recruitment because to ensure the comparative ethnic and religious advantages, merit must remain a word lost in the dictionary. We cannot get our political party system right because we have turned the political parties into mere instruments of political power and public offices as rewards for making the straight crooked. For lack of service, our nation groans and bleeds. We cannot conduct free and fair elections that meet minimum regional standards because given the penchant of nature to abhor a vacuum, rigging moved into the vacuum left by the absence of fairness and justice.

And everything keeps going wrong. But of course, we no get shame. The smaller and less endowed African nations now thumb their noses at the lumbering giant of Africa. The late Muammar Ghaddafi of Libya once told the late President Shehu Shagari that some African countries were big for nothing. He was too polite to call our country by name, most probably because he was in Nigeria.

The past has been denigrated to a point of wishing it could be obliterated. But if, like me, you do the regular exercise of occasionally looking into dark vaults of the past, you would be cheered by the fact that Nigeria had men and women who dreamed big for it and took steps to plan for its greatness. You would be amazed at the profundity of their thoughts, the breadth of their vision and their belief in “a united, strong, and self-reliant nation; a great and dynamic economy; a just and egalitarian society; and land of brought and full opportunities for all citizens and a free and democratic society.”

I know that you would be disappointed too in our missed and wasted opportunities and the cynical squandering of our national wealth. And of course, our descent from the Olympian height of profound and broad-minded thinking and patriotism into low-minded mediocrity. It is not funny that the giant is catching at a straw in the name of making progress while its feet are tied to the millstone. Think of yesterday’s men.

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In this article:
Dan AgbeseYakubu Gowon
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