The various reactions on Independence Day yesterday can only compel us to ask one question: what does Nigeria mean to you or me? I had written a piece on Friday, September 30, in which I advised that Nigerians should embrace hope rather than despair and that in the long run, it shall be well with our country. I also recommended as part of the celebration, Timi Dakolo’s soul-inspiring and masterly song, “Great Nation”, hoping that special attention will be paid to its touching lyrics. But the reactions to my interventions did no more than further reinforce the fact that too many Nigerians are angry with Nigeria as an entity, they are angry with how Nigeria has been run and is being run, they are frustrated with the current situation in the country, and what the future holds for the entire country.
The last time Nigerians found themselves at this kind of crossroads was under the rule of General Sani Abacha. The issue was not just about General Abacha, however, but how military rule had led the country into a ditch, and the people wanted something different. The disappointment today is of a different form of extraction: some people raised the people’s hopes beyond the stratosphere: they assured them that the Nirvana that they wanted was at the door; they told them that to run Nigeria is easy, it was just that the wrong people were in charge. And now, all promises seem illusionary, the scales are falling off the people’s eyes and the people are transferring their anger unto every situation. The change agents who promised a revolution are in disarray, they are caught up in an atomistic war among themselves. The we-are-better-than-them-we-will-save-Nigeria crowd has suddenly discovered that there is a great gulf between election time propaganda and the real assignment of governance. Even the partisan clerics among them no longer know what to tell the congregation. They cannot afford to say that the God they worship speaks with two tongues.
Their nemesis and their hubris lie in a certain lack of understanding or a certain omission, or perhaps oversight. I maintain my earlier position that Nigeria is a complex entity and that it is not a country made for any Messiah, now or in the far future. Nowhere in the world is the age of the messiah real. There is no such thing. Every country must face its own destiny. It is the duty of leaders to manage that destiny, transform it and not destroy it. Nigeria’s destiny is to be great and successful. We only need to find the right combination of people. Note the emphasis on combination. We will never find the right combination if we remain divided by ethnicity, ego and religion.
It is partly the reason, therefore, why every Nigerian moving forward must ask the question: what does Nigerian mean to me? Too many compatriots relate to this country as an abstraction. When they hear Nigeria, the only thing they think of is their ethnic root. They don’t even have any attachment to the Nigerian passport. I bet we would all be shocked the day we take a census of all the Nigerians who have foreign passports and the millions who are still on the queue, begging to give up on this country. Nigeria is thus, regrettably today, a provider of important talents for other countries in all fields of human endeavour in the same manner in which Ireland sold out its talents at the turn of the 19th Century.
We have reached a point and that is perhaps one of the gains of democracy since May 2015, whereby every Nigerian, at home and abroad must ask himself or herself, that simple question: what does Nigeria mean to me? Does it mean incumbent government and its politics? Mere identity? A passport? Home? Association with my parents and old friends and so a homeland linked by blood? Or is Nigeria nothing, no more than a space for opportunities, or just an option, or at best, mere geography crashing into DNA? I guess no other country has such divided and scattered emotional brains like Nigeria. When the people decide individually and collectively that they want a country, may be that is when we can begin to talk of Nigeria. What does Nigeria mean to you? I urge you to answer this question as part of the national reflection process after our country’s 56th Independence Anniversary. I’ll start with what I believe.
I am a grateful Nigerian citizen. I went to primary school in this country at a time when teachers were very proud to be teachers. Our teachers worshipped our parents and vice versa. If your parent ever told you your teacher complained about you, you would feel like running away. Today, Nigerian parents go to schools and beat up teachers, and the teachers ask for bribe. The idea of being in loco parentis has since being destroyed. Something has gone terribly wrong. Quality education is now a matter of cash and class. It actually seems if you don’t have a lot of money, your children cannot make it in in life. In this same country, the children of ordinary people were the ones who had all the hopes because the system supported the poor. My father, God bless his soul, could afford to send me to any level, I was the first son of a second wife married at old age, and he was prepared for the choice he made, but the Nigerian system was behind him too. I pay tribute to those teachers who poured their lives into mine, who did everything to mould me, those selfless soldiers who gave what they had so that other people’s children could grow. That is what Nigeria means to me, Those indeed are the true Nigerians. What am I trying to say? I am saying that in those days in this country, you could make brave choices and the country will stand by you because it was a country that worked. We need to make Nigeria work again.
As a university student, our mattresses were made. There was regular water flow in the hostels. “Bush meats” were accorded due respect, and the “campus meats” were not badly treated either, and only the most brilliant boys were inducted into the campus cults. Everything was respectable. Food was cheap. Life was easy. Our libraries were well stocked. Lagos to Calabar by road was N15, by air it was N40 and for three months, we survived on N42, 500. I was a Federal Government University Merit Scholar. That means I went to university free of charge. My father insisted he would pay and he didn’t need government to send me to school. I used his money to buy books. That was how I started building a personal library that can only compete with that other one owned by the bibliophile called Odia Ofeimun. When I got to the University of Ibadan, I also ended up as a University Scholar. My father again insisted on paying his bills, but Nigeria insisted on training me. I consider myself a product of Nigeria. I got to wherever with my father and Nigeria competing to pay the bills. My father felt a sense of responsibility. Nigeria had a system that looked out of for people like me.. Once upon a time in this country, Nigeria looked out for people’s children and invested in them. I am one of those products. Standing on Nigeria’s investments, I have gone to so many other places in the world. Nigeria has given me a foundation that I could never imagine. And by some sheer accident of fate, I ended up as Presidential Spokesman at Nigeria’s highest level. Nigeria means a lot to me. I cannot give up on this country. No matter the travails, I believe that this country means a lot to so many of us: search your own history.
I have children who despite the difficulties are also not willing to throw away their Nigerian passports. Nigeria remains the home of my children and their great-grand children to come. Nigeria is the country that has given me all the opportunities I have had. It is the landscape of my joys and sorrows. It is your landscape too. What Nigeria means to me is a country that needs to be rescued from many years of abuse, from the locusts that eat things up, and the agents of the devil who turn a good country into a land of regrets. I am consoled by the realization that the people who love this country and who want to see it work and make progress possible are in the majority. Nigeria is a country not only of great potentials but also of great achievements. Let us take certain things seriously beyond satire and parody, and resolve that we all have a duty to make this country great.
I believe in this country because every opportunity that I have enjoyed came my way because in the long run, I am a Nigerian. The world is a competitive place. It is also a rational world. You can have the best CV in the world in any circumstance, but the people in charge of opportunities don’t just look at brilliance and genius, they consider so many other factors. What Nigeria means to me is a country that has given me many opportunities and opened many doors for me. I will confront those who want this country destroyed for false reasons and if ever given the opportunity, I will run this country and place it on the right path.
By now, you know where I stand. I am a grateful citizen who wants to rescue this country. My choice is a reformed and improved Nigeria that serves the interest of all citizens and mankind. What is your exact choice in this matter as we celebrate this 56th Independence Anniversary weekend? What does Nigeria mean to you?
Dr. Reuben Abati was spokesman and special adviser, media and publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan (2011 – 2015). He tweets from @abati1990.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer.