Saturday, 9th December 2023

Memories of Nigeria’s regionalism … at times like this

By Armsfree Ajanaku
15 May 2016   |   2:20 am
Beyond the sentimental attachment to the past, it was apparent then that the British, Nigeria’s colonial masters, had just retreated after lowering the Union Jack.


From the nostalgic musings found in the narrated accounts of the generation of Nigerians, who were present in the years immediately after independence, distant memories of a country that worked are usually portrayed. In that lost place, now a subject of dreams and receding memories, one could imagine a country that had an efficient rail system, an electricity power sector that gave stable supply, and solid roads on which people commuted.

On the whole, the past confronts today with realities of how low the country has descended as a people. So, when a citizenread such personal narratives as the book, There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe, they signpost the grief over the loss of innocence, and ultimately the downward spiral into the hell-hole that is now Nigeria.

Beyond the sentimental attachment to the past, it was apparent then that the British, Nigeria’s colonial masters, had just retreated after lowering the Union Jack. The system they bequeathed was still working seamlessly. Although, those accounts do not paint a picture of paradise; they merely recreate memories of a country where anyone could become whatever he or s/he wanted to be.

Those remembrances, which sound unbelievable when placed in the context of the current nightmare that is Nigeria, astound those who were not there. A younger generation of citizens would find it extremely difficult to come to terms with the fact that the current cauldron, called Nigeria, once worked as a secure and prosperous country.

At the time, there was diversity, a pulsating variety of cultures and people, which gave off an energetic steam that conferred on Nigeria its manifest destiny. In those short, but productive years, the Nigerian space, at least from the narratives, exhibited something close to what the ancient Greeks decided to design with their city-state, known as the Polis.

Ancient Greeks envisioned their city-state as an orderly world, which was a collective space, within which individuals could fulfil their dreams. So, the Greek worldview had it that whatever an individual could not accomplish within the space of the city-state, was humanly impossible.

The Nigeria of the early post-independence era exhibited such sure footedness. It was an exuberant country with values and loads of motivation to dare the future. Oil was still far from being discovered, so citizens maintained a close relationship with the earth.

Agriculture thrived as the tripod of three regions specialised in agro-allied ventures in which they had comparative advantage. In the North, nostalgic remembrances remain of the legendary groundnut pyramids, which spoke to an era of prosperity. The pyramids sucked in the energies and the enterprise, leaving images that dignified honest labour. These were documented in some of Nigeria’s currency notes with pictures of energetic young men arranging the pyramids bag by bag, with their backs gleaming under the Northern sun.

Expectedly, the Northern youths of the era of the groundnut pyramids, with the monies they earned to make life better for themselves, could possibly not be deceived by any crackhead. No one telling them to strap bombs around themselves in order to take theirs’ and the lives of fellow citizens in the guise of fighting a holy war, could possibly have made sense to them. With jobs, money and the possibilities life could offer came a readiness to live life.

In the West too, cocoa provided the basis for an agrarian revolution. In the East, oil palm was the big deal. It drove industries and built infrastructure. Across the regions, the revenue generated by these cash crops in turn, fuelled a determined implementation of social programmes in education, health, and rural development, which all ensured that the ordinary people were touched.

In the West, the leadership pushed through a comprehensive programme of free education that gave the people of the area a quantum leap. Consequently, Nigerian society of that time somehow created a value system, which built a serious nexus between hard work and education.

Vestiges of these ideas still remain in some parts as exemplified by the reality of a cocoa farmer working tirelessly to use the proceeds of his labour to produce graduates in fields that further advanced progress in society. Education and the dignity of labour, combined to give the landscape meaning; there was competition. There were rivalries too. But the kind of competition that existed at the time was about who could out-work the other or who could out-perform the other in the race to make progress.

Across the country, this firmament in turn, translated into meaning. Life had meaning; art, entertainment and music had meaning. As would be seen in the art, literature and cultural productions of those years, the Nigerian mind tended to be beautiful and meaningful. Those times were very much different from the harsh and brutal challenges of today’s Nigeria.

However, it is impossible to suggest that there were no social problems in those times. There were several, but society had a way of healing itself, and the vibrancy and health of the nation meant there was a tendency to recover from setbacks. But soon, it appeared that the forces of history had contrived to enforce the notion that nothing good should last forever. On January 15, 1966, the military struck in a move that irreparably damaged the soul of the nation.

Of the many other events reflecting Nigeria’s quick descent to the unknown, the imposition of the unitary system, remains the most damaging. The idea that a heavily centralised national structure would wade off further secessionist tendencies, after the civil war, proved to be a fallacy. Therefore, the peace that the ardent designers of the unitary system sought to impose, has been shattered every other day, as the ethnic nationalities within Nigeria continuously elbow one another in search of space.

Furthermore, the idea of state creation, which the military sought to use as a carrot to break large ethnic or primordial loyalties in a favour of a national outlook has come back to haunt the nation. As units, the states were never meant to be viable vehicles for transporting development to the grassroots of Nigeria.

Tragically, the states have become elitist contraptions for the capture of resources, which the unitary system concentrated at the centre. Consequently, the realities of unproductive centralisation have pushed Nigerians to create a peculiar brand of what has been derisively described as ‘feeding bottle federalism’, wherein states have to go bowl in hand every month to receive their keep from big brother Federal Government. The implication is the death of initiative and labour at the local level; this indolence has in turn created monstrous social problems.

In the North East, Nigeria is struggling to vanquish the Boko Haram insurgency. In the oil bearing Niger Delta, defiant militants have contrived to bleed the Nigerian state over age-old grievances around resource control.

Across the Nigerian landscape, violent crimes continuously dehumanise the space, making those watching Nigeria from outside wonder if this is not a piece of the real hell on earth. With the ticking time bomb of youth unemployment and a governance bureaucracy, which guzzles much of the resources for development, the future is not looking good.

It is against this brutish background that many recall the nostalgic and short-lived years of the regional system when the Nigerian people at the grassroots had the initiative.

Unlike now, the people took the initiative and worked at developing themselves and their country. A return to a regional system, as viable as it promises to be, invariably depends on the willingness of the political elite to engage in sincere social re-engineering.

The other option is for the people to mount the social pressure needed to bring this to fruition. These two options appear far-fetched at the moment. To the political elite currently enjoying at the expense of a bleeding country, it will not be in tandem with self-preservation to ask them to restructure the system to reflect better ideals.

On their part, in spite of the ripe social conditions, the Nigerian people have not demonstrated sufficient desire to enforce social change.

The middle ground may therefore, be found in regime inspired initiatives, such as the 2014 National Conference convoked by former President Goodluck Jonathan. Despite the initial misgivings, the conclusions reached at that conference could serve as good starting point for healing Nigeria and preparing it for the fulfilment of its manifest destiny.

The Confab recommendations on several issues, including state police, represent some of the best compromises Nigeria’s political and ethnic elite have made since the advent of democracy in 1999. Unfortunately, the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) does not particularly like the Confab document.

Interestingly, it is striking that some of the decisions of the Confab mirror the big issues that the pro-restructuring wing of the APC has canvassed for decades. Many Nigerians therefore, wonder why astute statesmanship, which is about the bigger interest of the country, should not prevail in the attitude of the governing party towards the Confab proposals.

On the other hand, if the APC has a set of ideas different from the Confab proposals on how restructure the country, Nigerians are eagerly waiting to hear about them.