If when walking, you walk bent over, chances are high that at some point, you will either collide with some object (stationary or mobile) or, drift off in the wrong direction. Which is why most know that when walking, it is best to have your head up so you can see not just where you are going, but also where you are.
But something is pressing us down. Something has had us, for decades ...maybe centuries, walking with our heads down. And because it is so strong ...always just that little bit stronger than we are, we believe that it cannot be resisted. So, we walk on with heads bowed and eyes to the ground where we can only see what is directly underfoot.
Which is why the Universe laughs and calls us ones who live only for today...
Yet this thing that we think of as invincible is actually not that strong. It appeared powerful the last time we contended because at the back of our minds, we had already picked a point beyond which we would struggle no longer. It saw this. How could it not? Do we not have the same mind? It saw this and knew that to be victorious, it only needed to wait until we reached that point. So it did and so we lost.
If we start again...we must start again, we must start again, but this time with no point of return or retreat in mind.
Start again with the type of total victory that creates irrevocable changes in mind as an end point. Then we will win ...because since we share the same mind with this thing that is pressing us down, if we say that the only option left is the one where it's rule no longer exists, what currently exists will come to an end.
Great countries, like great enterprises, are defined primarily by their successes - significant events that serve as empowering markers for nationals exploring the history of their country. On the other hand, failed countries (like failed enterprises) are primarily defined by historical mistakes.
I do not start this recollection of notable mistakes in Nigeria's history by looking into the era before Europe established a foothold on the coast of Guinea (AKA West Africa). I do not do this because it would not be easy to pinpoint that one event which best represents the fateful turn at the crossroad where West Africans lost their opportunity to prevent the depredations that would be visited upon them (and their descendants) by foreign imperialists.
Nigeria has been described as a dysfunctional marriage - a catastrophic union that is enforced by venal elites whose political ambitions are shaped by selfish desires to establish exploitative hegemonies in whatever sphere of human activity they get a foothold in. A country (which Nigeria is) can also be described using terms normally used by builders. We can therefore speak of building blocks and the materials used to hold them together. We can also speak of foundations.
When erecting a building, the first piece of masonry laid in the foundation is known as the cornerstone. In speaking about the collapsing structure that is otherwise known as The (Federal) Republic of Nigeria, I will start with this first piece.
1: The cornerstone of Nigeria's dysfunctional political system is the idea that a resolutely heterogeneous society with several volatile fault-lines can be governed as a centralised democracy.
Normally, it is recognised that similarly constituted societies can only be successfully governed either by a relentlessly ruthless authoritarian dictatorship or, as a confederacy where pressures that could widen the fissures dividing the constituent parts are avoided via the agency of a decentralised power-structure that allows each part to go its way with minimal scope for interference from the others. In such confederacies, common grounds are recognised and mechanisms that can be used to resolve clashes of conflicting interests in regions of convergence are put in place.
It should have been indeed plain for all to see right from the start that Nigerians could either be governed as the subjects of an authoritarian dictatorship or, as citizens of a confederacy of nations. In fact, under the British, they had been governed as the former. But Nigerians had not been amenable to that state of affairs. So, groups and individuals had risen up to oppose it. And at what had been assumed to be the beginning of the end of foreign rule over the various nations that make up Nigeria, the regions had been granted self-government. However, rather than allow the process to run its logical/natural course, some from the groups and individuals leading the struggle for independence believed that they should be allowed to take the place of the British as foreign rulers of the various nations corralled within the Nigerian geographical space.
It was the expectation that this ambition could be realised that caused the NCNC (under the leadership of Nnamdi Azikiwe) to take the first step along the ruinous path towards the re-centralisation of political power by casting its lot with the NPC after 1959's election. In doing this, the party became not only the 'southern' partner of a decidedly 'northern' party, but also provided essential cover under which a totally false mandate could be claimed on behalf of a national' government that was represented in the so-called south and north of Nigeria.
This NCNC decision is identified as the cornerstone of all that was to go wrong because it represents a first definitive rejection of the idea that the continued political evolution of Nigeria's very different nations should be allowed to proceed in accordance with the particular characteristics of each and in its stead, bound all our fates together to an extent that if one stumbled, all were in danger of falling.
Azikiwe's reason for making this mistake is not hard to fathom out. He had recognised the fact that the type of centralisation required for the fulfillment of his long-term ambitions would not be possible without a coalition that would reduce the operational scope of the Action Group. He knew that a weakened NPC would enhance the capability of the Western Region (under the Action Party's leadership) to go it alone as a more or less sovereign entity. And, he knew that were this to be the case, then the prospect of an Igbo hegemony bestriding the entirety of Nigeria (a state of affairs that he had predicted) would be thwarted.
So, and not for the last time, Azikiwe went along with the retrogressive wing of Nigerian politics and chose to strengthen the center until, as it turned out, all of Nigeria was in a fit state to be misgoverned (from the center) by the most unimaginative and least capable.
2: The next significant mistake was made by Obafemi Awolowo in the run-up to Nigeria's first elections after its alleged independence from foreign domination.
Seduced also by the prospect of exercising power over the entire Nigeria geographical space, he resigned his post as Premier of the Western Region so he could run for the office of Nigeria's Prime Minister. This would turn out to be the biggest mistake of his political career because had this one thing not been done and, even if there had been some other trigger for a clash with Ladoke Akintola over the direction of the leadership, he (Awolowo) would have been in a better position to resolve the matter.
In noting the significance of this error, it seems logical to conclude that it was the beginning of a chain of events that culminated in the coup of January 15 1966. In saying this however, consideration must be given to the possibility that, since the coup cannot be described as an act whose sole purpose was to bring an end to the chaos that engulfed the Western Region after the election rigging of the Balewa/Akintola coalition, there is no reason to assume that the authors of that coup would not have made their attempt even if Obafemi Awolowo was still Premier of the Western Region.
Since the country as a whole was headed the wrong way due to the struggle for overall domination between various interests, and, since coups by the military had already burst onto the African scene as a quick-fire solution to the disruptions that accompanied disputes among the civilian political class, it is quite possible that the same personnel who planned and executed Nigeria's first military coup would still have found reasons to make their move.
However, saying this does not absolve Awolowo of some responsibility as there is a chain of events linking the aftershocks caused by his great error to what was to happen.
3: We have now got to 1966, it has been six years since Nigeria won it's alleged independence, and so far, the most notable events have been mistakes. For sure, some good things had also happened but, this had all happened at the regional level. We are looking here, at events that had a 'national' reach; in other words, we have been looking for notable initiatives taken at the central (as opposed to regional) level and so far, all we have found are mistakes - mostly catastrophic.
This was the pattern that would come to define Nigeria : OK to a point at local levels, but basically rubbish at the central level.
Nigeria's next 'national' disaster was unveiled on January 15 1966.
Much has been said about the "good intentions" of the coup planners. But, good intentions and N200 will purchase a N200 recharge card. In other words, it is pointless (and even morally reprehensible) to try to find excuses for or, attempt to rationalise a poorly executed project that ultimately ended up costing millions of human beings their lives. There are no heroes among the coup planners and their collaborators. They are all equally guilty of a great crime in as much as what they did ultimately served up the death blow to an already tottering edifice (i.e.. Nigeria). The door that they opened was the one through which stepped various monsters of greed and anomie - individuals who, in a world that was the right way round, would have most likely lived out their lives as anonymous low-level functionaries of a professional armed forces.
Instead, in the hell that Nigeria was to become, these became the all-powerful demon-kings.
4: After the coup of January 15 1966, the relay of fatal blunders continued.
At a meeting attended by a rump of disoriented politicians from the ruling coalition, senior civil servants and the military, the politicians, rather than stand firm and assert the authority of the civilian government, allowed themselves to be convinced that the best thing they could do - in a manner reminiscent of ones serving up the best parts of a slaughtered sallah ram to a fashionably late guest of honour - would be to hand over power to the Army's General Aguiyi-Ironsi.
5: The next one of the mistakes that made Nigeria followed the success of Ironsi's coup.
After consultations with a small coterie of advisers - namely Francis C. Nwokedi (sole commissioner of the Administrative Review Commission), Gabriel Onyuike (Attorney General), Pius Okigbo (Perm Sec Finance Ministry and Economic Advisor to the Federal Military Government) - and, emboldened by the propaganda of centrists (who described themselves in relation to advocates for regionalism as 'progressives'), Aguiyi-Ironsi promulgated a decree that turned Nigeria into the centrist State whose ruinous form still remains more or less intact up until the present day.
6: The next mistake was made by Emeka Ojukwu.
This was not in his decision to lead the Igbo out of Nigeria but, in the series of decisions that followed his declaration of the fact that the Igbo needed a place where they could feel safe from deadly animosities. To fully comprehend the dimensions of this mistake, cognisance must be given to one other relevant fact: This is that the perpetrators of northern pogroms had made no moves to extend the killings into Igbo territory (or areas close to it) - and in spite of the alarms raised by Igbo propagandists, there was no proof that such an intention did exist.
From which the conclusion can be drawn that these killings and maimings were not the precursor to an extermination exercise that was targeted at the entirety of a particular people but, was solely embarked upon as a means of removing Igbo from the northern region.
However, notwithstanding this, the Igbo political leadership of the time decided to use this crisis as a springboard for the realisation of other ambitions. Which was why, in delineating the composition of their proposed new country (Biafra), rather than be faithful to the declared intention of creating a secure sovereign space for Igbo people, they instead chose to carve out a mini-Nigeria. An ambition that was made apparent when the Biafra whose map was unveiled to the world did not only consist of the Igbo's homeland, but also included the territories of other non-Igbo - who, just as had been the case when Nigeria itself was manufactured, now found themselves belonging to a country in whose foundation they'd had no input. In other words, they were now the subjects of a putative Igbo empire.
The next blunder was to order an army that should have been trained and reserved for self-defense to go on the offensive. And after committing to that blunder, Ojukwu compounded the error by first attacking in the wrong direction and then, not stopping at the natural border between east and west. That is to say, rather than remain true to the declared intention securing the Igbo homeland, he made it clear, through his actions, that leaving Nigeria was a precursor to the establishment of an Igbo empire by force of arms.
And once this intent was revealed to those whose territories had been selected to provide the stage on which the drama would unfold, these dragooned extras had no other choice but to seek out ways to confound the Biafran aggressor's ambition.
So, just as had been the case with the January 15 coup, an armed intervention into the political sphere of human activities ended up producing negative consequences whose scope far exceeded the worst of the problems that they had been designed to solve.
7: The final mistake - the seal - was made/put in place by MKO Abiola.
As the winner of what was as fair an election as Nigeria had ever experienced, he had the opportunity to play midwife to the birth of a nation. He most certainly knew enough about Nigerian and African history to be aware of the flaws that had been deliberately built in to the structures bequeathed by European imperialists. In other words, he knew enough to know what to do to put things right. But, as on previous occasions, his reactionary side overwhelmed whatever revolutionary feelings events might have stirred within him. So, rather than put himself in the vanguard of forces that had aligned to use his denied mandate as a focal point for the struggle to bring about real progressive change, he instead turned to his half-fish half fowl associates and put his faith in them. And of course, the end result of this strategy was not only his personal disappointment but, more crucially, the entrenchment of retrogressive forces who would even go as far as to validate their own ascensions with his status as a martyr for democracy.
The unifying theme at the core of all the mistakes that made Nigeria can now be identified: It is the intent, the various attempts, and the single-minded desire of various actors on the political sphere to impose (or validate the existence of) centralised power over the disparate nations that make up Nigeria.
However, as stated above, centralised power over such a diverse space can only be possible in a situation where governmental powers are firmly in the hands of a ruthlessly authoritarian dictatorship. The type of adversarial politics that is the basis of democratic electoral government is not possible in dispensations where ethnic (as well as 'religious') differences permeate through every layer of the citizens' consciousness. Add to this a lack of trust that has its roots in historical events and it is plain to see why most will ultimately rely on the self-preservation that comes out of ethnic solidarity than in the as of yet to be proven efficacy of total reliance on ethnicity-blind alignments with others of a similar ideological hue.
It may have been noticed that several prominent names did not make it into the list of authors for Nigeria's tragic-comedy of errors. Names like Gowon, Murtala, Obasanjo, Shagari, Buhari, Babangida, Abacha, YarAdua and Jonathan have not been included because as a whole, aside from the ones whose tenures were too brief for them to have made much of a lasting difference, the most incompetent and/or unimaginative of the rest were/are nothing more than the symptoms of an infection whose vectors were the various mistakes listed above.