Nigeria: back from the precipice by Ike Okonta

Fifty years ago, hopes were high for Nigeria’s independence. Will they finally be realised?

Nigerians don’t quite know how best to mark the 50th anniversaries of their country’s independence from British rule tomorrow. In Abuja, the new capital, government officials insist that the fact that Nigeria is still in one piece and citizens go about their daily business unmolested is cause enough for celebration. They’ll be bringing out the flags for colourful public ceremonies to make the point.


But the mood is more sombre in the 36 states of Africa’s most populous nation. Factories, faced with a sporadic power supply and stiff competition from cheaper Asian imports, are shutting down. Unemployment is soaring. Public education at all levels has collapsed, and cholera and other easily preventable diseases are back, even as the new government of President Goodluck Jonathan continues to talk up its “visionary” healthcare programmes.


As if this is not enough, the country itself is now on the edge of the precipice as politicians in the People’s Democratic party (PDP), in power since 1999 when military rule ended, jostle for the right to contest the office of president in next year’s general elections. The crisis has split Nigeria’s elite into northern and southern camps, bringing to the fore religious and ethnic faultlines.


It was not supposed to turn out this way. The union flag was lowered for the last time on 1 October 1960, after a relatively peaceful struggle for freedom spearheaded mainly by educated southerners in the post second world war period. Nigeria – given its size, population and natural resources – was hailed as a potential power that would represent Africa’s diverse peoples globally. In the first few years after independence it seemed as if this promise would be realised. Agricultural exports boomed. New investments were made in education, healthcare, highways and rural roads.


Nigerian politics in this period rested on a delicate federal tripod, roughly corresponding to the three regions dominated by majority ethnic groups – the Hausa/Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the west and the Igbo in the east. Smaller minority groups declined states of their own, fitting themselves as best they could in these three regions.


But the Westminster parliamentary model inherited from the British was unable to contain the powerful ethno-regional tensions. Elections in 1964 and 65 were marked by violence and vote-rigging, anarchy enveloped the country, ultimately triggering a bloody three-year civil war pitting the northern-led federal government against the mainly Igbo Biafra, which surrendered in January 1970.


Power rotated between the armed forces and the politicians from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, when ordinary people, under mounting difficulties as the oil-induced prosperity of the 1970s gave way to economic collapse in the 1980s, began to demand that the “army boys” return to the barracks for good. The military ruler, General Ibrahim Babangida, called elections in 1993 but then cancelled the results. This precipitated a citizens’ revolt that even the draconian methods of his successor, General Sani Abacha, could not quell. Abacha and Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of the 1993 elections both died in mysterious circumstances in 1998. This paved the way for the PDP, a coalition put together by the retreating generals and their civilian friends, to take power following elections in 1999.


After 11 years in office, the PDP has not been able to deliver the fruits of democratic rule to an increasingly restive nation. Cynicism is widespread, and meanwhile youth in the oil-rich but impoverished Niger Delta region, and their northern counterparts, are threatening a new civil war. Millions of barrels of oil could get locked in. Nigerians are sitting on a boiling cauldron.


Nigeria has, though, always displayed an uncanny ability to step back from the precipice. Its electoral commission is being overhauled under its new chairman, the respected Professor Attahiru Jega. A reinvigorated central bank has taken the big stick to corrupt chief executives and is working with the private sector to inject new life into the economy.


The political opposition has also received a boost with Wole Soyinka, the Nobel literature laureate, and Nuhu Ribadu, the popular former chairman of the economic and financial crimes commission, indicating that they will mount challenges to the PDP next year.


Maybe, just maybe, the country will step back from disaster again and – given time, a new leadership and a large dollop of luck – go on to take the leadership position that was so widely expected that bright morning in 1960.

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