By Ray Ekpu
When the Union flag was lowered and the Nigerian flag raised 57 years ago there was a sense of euphoria. Many former colonies had to fight a war of independence in which many lives were lost but we were spared that trauma. So it would be fair to say that Nigeria got its independence on a platter of gold. But that gift was thrown away six years later. The war we didn’t have before independence we had it after the Biafran war.
That war which lasted for 30 months and cost one million lives still haunts us today like an inscrutable mystery. At the end of that war, General Yakubu Gowon had on Biafra’s surrender announced that there was “no victor and no vanquished.” He also established a three-pronged programme of reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction, as a way of bringing the war-weary Easterners from the cold into the comfort of the Nigerian family again. The rebel leader, Emeka Odumgwu-Ojukwu, who had fled to the Ivory Coast remained in exile for 12 years. When President Shehu Shagari pardoned him he was allowed to return to the country without any pre-conditions. That gesture represented the final nail in the coffin of secession.
The Igbos who were the major victims of the war or of its cause in the first place have never felt convinced that they have been fully reabsorbed and their rights as full-fledged citizens of Nigeria fully restored. This argument has gone on for years and many Nigerians on the opposite side of the war are convinced that the Igbos having fought and lost a war could not expect to be treated as if they had won the war. War is a serious business that often comes with serious and dangerous consequences. In the political arena, the Igbos have produced a vice president, several Senate presidents, a Central Bank governor and a number of ministers that took charge of important portfolios. In the security sector, two Igbos had become the Inspector General of Police, while another Igbo man had occupied the strategic position of Chief of Army Staff. But many Igbos have argued that they have been denied the top trophy: the Presidency.
The Presidency is the top job in the land and many people from various parts of the country covet it. No one is likely to wrap it like a parcel with a ribbon around it and donate it to the Igbos. If they want it they must work for it by networking with other groups and doing the necessary horse-trading. However, I believe that their flirtation with secession through MASSOB and IPOB is clearly the wrong way to go. If the thesis is that an attempt, even a half-hearted attempt, at secession will induce the political decision-makers to donate the presidency to the Igbos it is a fraudulent thesis. In fact, on the contrary, the agitation for secession will rather damage almost irreparably the case for an Igbo presidency. My advice to the Igbos is for them to begin to mend fences now instead of allowing Nnamdi Kanu and his gang to put a fly in the Igbo ointment.
The two major parties, APC and PDP have allocated the presidency to the North. If the Igbos choose to contest for the presidency in the PDP they will have to wait until 2027. But if they want to run in the APC they have to pray that President Muhammadu Buhari runs again in 2019 and successfully brings his second term to an end in 2023. If someone else from the North runs in 2019 he will go for two fresh terms which will terminate in 2027. But the Igbos can choose any of the minor parties as a platform but the chances for success on such party platforms are extremely slim. The starting point is to rein in Nnamdi Kanu and his gang and begin to build trust as they network with other political and ethnic groups in the country.
At present, Nigeria is in a state of confusion arising from agitations from different groups in the country. Old questions about the Nigerian condition have arisen and these questions are begging for new answers. The reason for the search for new answers is that the old answers have not been adequate in laying to rest the ghosts of these questions. Ours is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious community. In such a heterogeneous polity with several nationalities each with their own set of values and expectations, there will always be differences of opinion. The problem is often how to find many points of convergence and reduce the many areas of divergence so that all groups can find comfortable accommodation within the polity. As of now, no group is certain that it has found its comfort zone. That is why we have several discordant tunes.
It is most unlikely that we can all agree all the time on all the issues that confront us and affect our lives. But we must understand where we all stand and where we all want to go. We must search for shared beliefs, shared expectations, shared goals and common grounds. We moved from centrifugalism instalmentally in the 60s into the extreme centripetalism that the military bestowed on us. This has brought a political gridlock that manifests itself in unpaid bills, new foreign and domestic debts, unsettled staff salaries and pension benefits, spiralling inflation, corruption, unemployment, a crisis of rising expectations and high crime and many other dysfunctionalities. These have combined to put pressure on the country’s unity and sense of oneness. This has also made the search for a new direction urgent, very, very urgent.
A lot of things are wrong with our country and these are problems that have been with us for many years. A time like this offers us an opportunity for introspection. The World Bank says that about 67 percent of Nigerians go to bed every day on an empty stomach. That is a dangerous situation because a hungry person can become an angry person. Besides, there is a long unemployment and underemployment queue whose estimate is more than 25 percent. That means that we all are sitting on a keg of gunpowder. The worst aspect of the problem is that the opportunities are shrinking further as factories close shop or trim their operations and show some of their staff the exit door. We have been told that the economy has made its exit out of recession but we need to stimulate it for optimal growth so that we can begin to experience some worthwhile improvements in no distant date.
Every year we go through the ritual of drawing up, presenting and defending the national budget. Most of the time these budgets are passed in the middle of the year. This means that there is often not much time for implementation before the year draws to a close. Then the ritual starts again without any information to the public on how much of the previous year’s budget was actually implemented. This year’s budget had experienced some hiccups which led to its late passage. Even when it was passed with all the padding that was done by the legislators no one was truly sure what was eventually approved by the executive. Isn’t there a way of reducing these uncertainties and the acrimony that reduce budgeting to the science of voodooism?
How can we make our governments work better so as to reduce the level of poverty, disease, ignorance, corruption, terrorism, cultism, infrastructural decay etc when the bulk of our budget, about 80 percent, goes into recurrent expenditure? With only 20 percent left for capital projects, how much can we achieve to turn around a country with decaying infrastructural facilities? Pretty little. So it is clear that as a nation we are living above our means; we are piling up debts, foreign and domestic again, we are mortgaging our future and the future of our children. Our governments and parliaments are engaged in conspicuous consumption not minding the dire state of the economy and the poor state of its people. No one expected that at 57 Nigeria’s economy would be in the bind in which it is now considering our massive mineral and manpower resources. But it appears the presence of such solid and liquid mineral resources has unbelievably become a harbinger of doom, a disincentive to hard work and creativity, a curse from which we have made very little effort to exit.
The little piece of good news is that there have been some encouraging happenings in the agricultural sector. If we do not take our eyes off the ball in that sector we may be self-sufficient in food production before 2019. That would be a good legacy for the Buhari administration and an indication that oil or no oil we can survive. And thrive.
Buhari is President at a momentous time in the annals of our country, a time during which the very existence of the country as a unit is being challenged once again. The nation expects him to be a great bridge-builder and unifier and one with a vision of a greater Nigeria. That vision demands that he rises above the din of ethnic and geographical irredentists and comes up with a life-changing transformation agenda for Nigeria. That demands courage and the right dose of political will. The next two years will reveal whether he has them or not.