Book review: Remaking Nigeria: Sixty years, sixty voices
By Mahmud Jega
This compendium titled Remaking Nigeria: Sixty years, sixty voices edited by the indefatigable journalist, author, and anti-corruption fighter Chido Onumah is a monumental work that is guaranteed to add rich insight and perspective into our search for a better, more efficient, fairer, and more inclusive Nigeria.
As the editor explained in the Introduction, it took a whole decade for the book to materialize. It was initially meant for release to mark our 50th Independence Anniversary in 2010 but has now been released to mark the Silver Jubilee of our Independence, that too, nearly a year behind schedule, except that the Federal Government said the Silver Jubilee celebrations should last for a whole year.
Apart from the Introduction, Foreword, and Prologue, the book contains 60 different articles, all of them concise, all of them rich and insightful, and all of them written by young Nigerian men and women outlining their views of the current and future state of Nigeria, as well as their ideas as to how to make it better. As the editor explained, the youth are the critical change agents and their ideas are the tool for mobilization to reflect and proffer solutions to the issues that have dogged the country’s march to democracy, development, and nationhood.
As is to be expected from 60 fertile young minds, there is no agreement on the single or even twin issues that have stymied the country’s march to progress and prosperity since 1960. All kinds of issues and circumstances have been thrown up by the various contributors to explain the failure of Nigeria to achieve its full potentials. These range from colonialism to the 1999 Constitution to imperfect federal structure to poor quality leadership to mutual distrust to corruption to capitalist economy to mismanagement of cultural diversity to subjugation of women to environmental spoliation to exam malpractice to election rigging to faulty political structure to weak foreign policy and climate change! Phew.
I have been given the impossible task of reviewing this book. Since it is not possible to review all the sixty different points of view, some of them contradictory, let me add to the confusion by making some observations on the viewpoints relying upon the African adage, I hope, that an elder sees something sitting down which a young person does not see even when he is standing up.
For example, several contributors blamed the 1999 Constitution for many of our problems as a country. I doubt if this is true because the United Kingdom made a lot of material and cultural progress in the last 800 years even though it does not have a written constitution. The Constitution of the United States is much slimmer than our own but the USA has made more progress than we did. On the other hand, India’s constitution is bulkier than our own but India is also bedeviled by problems, the latest being a massive spike of COVID.
The allegation made by a contributor that the 1999 Constitution is not a people’s constitution because it was written by a military government may not be true. As Simon Kolawole pointed out, the 1999 Constitution is essentially the 1979 constitution with minor adjustments, and the latter was approved by a popularly elected Constituent Assembly in September 1979.
One contributor blamed British colonial rule for our failure to fulfill our potentials but then, Honk Kong made a lot of progress under British colonial rule and became the shipping, banking, and finance hub of Asia.
There is a lot of obsession in the minds of these young writers with democracy and the assumption that it is the panacea for progress. Well, the Asian Tigers, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea, and more recently Vietnam, made a lot of material progress under very authoritarian conditions, so democracy is not necessarily a requirement for rapid national progress. Even the Nigerian Civil War, which lasted 30 months and cost a million lives, could not explain all our problems of today because the Vietnam War lasted for 30 years after the Second World War, cost many more lives than and inflicted far more damage than our Civil War did. Yet, I have seen many Made in Vietnam goods in our markets today but I doubt if there are any Made in Nigeria goods in the markets of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.
In the 1990s when Western countries were putting much pressure on Nigeria to democratize, due to irritation, I asked a visiting British Foreign Office minister, privately, why UK was not putting similar pressure on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, and Oman to democratize. All of them are absolute monarchies that have no constitutions, no parliaments, no political parties, no trade unions, and no civil liberties. The British minister whispered to me conspiratorially that, “Look, those countries you mentioned are ok as they are. Democracy does not fit everyone.”
Some contributors in this book spoke about the lack of true federalism as an obstacle to our progress. Well, Ghana is not even a federation. It is a unitary state but it appears to be more stable than Nigeria. France and UK are also unitary states, so it is not as if federalism is the only structure capable of advancing a country. There is also no guarantee that a “true” federal system has solved everyone’s problems, as we see with the continuous quest by Quebec Province to secede from the Canadian confederation.
Some contributors blamed the concentration of power in the Federal Government for our lack of progress. I support the devolution of more powers to the states, but I must observe that concentration of power did not prevent Nazi Germany, the USSR, or more recently, the Peoples Republic of China from making rapid industrial progress.
One contributor gripped about what he called “unequal development” in the country, perhaps a reference to the allegation that Northern Nigeria is feudal. Well, Japan leapfrogged in the 19th Century from a medieval society run by Tokugawa shoguns, samurai warriors, and Shinto priests to an industrial society within four decades, or twenty years less than the 60 years we have spent since Independence.
One contributor blamed an unjust social order for Nigeria’s slow progress. However, injustice did not stop some societies from making rapid progress. Vile as the Apartheid system was, South Africa became the continent’s most industrialized country under it. Some countries developed using slave labour. The monumental injustice of wiping our four million Red Indians and 100 million bison in North America did not prevent the USA and Canada from becoming what we see today as progress.
Even corruption, which almost everybody blames for Nigeria’s problems, did not stop some countries from advancing. During my NYSC days, I read a book titled Sinews of American Capitalism. It was full of stories about how the “robber barons” ripped off Americans in the railroad, oil, and steel industries but they still launched the country to world power status.
I noticed in some places in this book a lot of pessimism about the Nigerian situation, which I think is not justified even though there is a lot of room for improvement. The editor himself wrote, for example, that since 1914, “a combination of poor leadership, the quest for control and domination among different groups in the country leading to internal strife, as well as external economic interests have combined to wreck this country.” In other words, the editor believes that this country is a wreck, which makes the work of Remaking it difficult if not impossible.
The editor also approvingly quoted the poet Chiedu Ezeanah, who said, “We are stuck with a predatory and repressive nation where the only order that endures is disorder.” I think the poet was talking about Somalia, Burma, Haiti, Syria, Afghanistan, or Yemen.
On the other hand, I found a lot of wise and thoughtful passages in the Foreword titled Unfinished Greatness—Towards A More Perfect Union in Nigeria by Dr. Kayode Fayemi, being a lecture he delivered at Arewa House in Kaduna last year. I am not bootlicking him because he is a sitting governor and a future President, but I found profundity in his observation that “as a people, if not as a country, Lord Lugard did not introduce us to ourselves. Long before the Whiteman set his foot on our land, our people had developed an intricate network of relationships.” Therefore, I believe that while the impact of colonial rule on us as a people was profound, we should not exaggerate what the Whiteman did as the entire basis of our relationships.
Another profound observation by Dr. Fayemi is that cultural differences and diversity are not in themselves a problem, but it is the stigmatization of differences and the weaponization of diversity that is a problem in Nigeria. I think the biggest culprits here are the politicians who, in the absence of clear ideological direction, weaponize cultural differences as the essential tool in the strategy of divide and conquer.
Another very important observation I noticed in the foreword is that the second stanza of our national anthem tells us to strive to build a nation where peace and justice reign. However, Dr. Fayemi wrote, the path to nation-building is peace; the path to peace is justice; while the path to justice is equity and inclusion.
All four concepts are relative and utopian. Perhaps at some point, we may have to choose between peace and justice if we find that we cannot have both. I say this because I remember a statement that the then President of Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, made in 1984 when some groups in his country threatened peace. After all, they said there was an injustice. Houphouet-Boigny said he personally preferred injustice to the disorder he did not know anyone who died from injustice, but he knew a lot of people, most of them innocents, who died from disorder. I pray that Nigeria will never have to choose between injustice and disorder!
Finally, I would again like to warmly congratulate my friend Dr. Chido Onumah and all his colleagues for the very patriotic effort over more than a decade that produced this compendium. It is a great addition to the continued search for a solution to our country’s numerous problems and people may well look back to it 50 years from now and say it contained the kernel idea that finally saw us out of the woods of stunted national development.
Thank you very much.