Nigeria’s not so golden celebrations

Having been fortunate enough (although some may argue unfortunate enough) to travel to Nigeria early last week, it can be said that 1 October 2010 was as much an anticipated date in Nigeria as 11 June 2010 was in South Africa. The country’s capital and “centre of unity”, Abuja, was awash in green and white and buzzing with celebration and debate, as the largest black population in Africa geared itself to celebrate 50 years of independence. Although Nigeria is not the only state to boast its golden jubilee this year, this West African powerhouse requires our attention: as I was so kindly reminded, if one pictures Africa in the shape of a gun, Nigeria is strategically positioned at the trigger. For good or for bad.

Prior to departing on Arik air for Lagos I braced myself to be confronted by an ethnically divided state, a “house divided against itself”, as all my preparatory reading had strongly warned me. On the contrary, I was welcomed and overwhelmed by the patriotism of the people. From the hats, t-shirts and other trinkets marketing last week’s events, to the excessive draping of sweaty airports in national colours, the celebrations leading up to 1 October seemed to decoratively fill these fissures in Nigerian society much as the World Cup did for South Africans. Even if only for a few days. In the midst of celebrations, however, Nigeria’s golden jubilee was marked by reflection and debate as its people were forced to ask themselves, “What are we celebrating?”

Where Nigeria was once the Big Brother in the region, other West Africans are time and time again proving their competence, stability and reliability.

From the common taxi driver to the party activist, Nigerians are calling for change. For too long, they argue, Nigeria has channelled its efforts toward the rest of Africa in a Father Christmas like fashion, asking nothing in return. Although questions concerning these alleged altruistic actions can surely follow, space permitting we’ll accept this rose-tinted view.  In the meantime corruption, political instability and weak institutions fester back home. Even television adverts echo these appeals as Nigerians, through a series of bad acting scenarios, are encouraged to refuse bribes, to wait in queues and not to operate on African time.  To the outsider such changes appear petty, but in one of the most corrupt countries in the world where everyone scrambles to get his own, the message cannot be repeated enough.

This sense of failure has manifested itself in a bitter attitude toward neighbouring states, particularly Ghana. Where Nigeria was once the Big Brother in the region, other West Africans are time and time again proving their competence, stability and reliability. President Barrack Obama’s visit to Ghana instead of Nigeria, for example, symbolises this rejection and egos were severely bruised.

Even the 50 years of independence celebrations were overshadowed by these national concerns as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) succeeded in disrupting festivities through a series of car bombs in Abuja. A sense of urgency consequently runs deep as it appears as if Nigeria’s former ability to run on big men politics has reached its saturation point.  In almost paradoxical fashion, Africa’s most populous nation and third largest economy now runs the risk of being left behind. In order to use that trigger point for good, Nigeria must turn inward and endure drastic policy reformation. 1 October 2010 should therefore represent a watershed moment in Nigerian politics as the nation prepares itself for the next 50 years. The upcoming elections in 2011 are a good place to start.

  • Mac

    Fair comment, I think you’re dead right about the waning of Nigeria’s star compared to its enthusiastic and comparitively ‘honest’ neighbours. Nigeria has a bad reputation to shrug off and the sooner they get started on the task the better!