May 25, 2024
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Why Nigeria has failed to achieve greatness – Kukah

By Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah

Foundations once destroyed, what can the righteous do? (Ps. 11: 3)

Let me first congratulate Dr. Bode Ayorinde, Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of this august University and thank you immensely for the honour of being invited to give the Convocation Lecture and to also receive an Honorary Doctorate Degree from your University. I was pleased to note that the University grew out of the frustration of the people of Owo on being bypassed on four different occasions when Federal and State Universities were cited in parts of the South West way back in 1962. I also noted that even when Owo’s favourite son, the late Chief Adekunle Ajasin, founded the first State University in Nigeria, very much against the run of play he did not locate it in his hometown. We are therefore thankful to God that Dr. Bode Ayorinde seized the initiative and has accomplished what both the Federal and State Governments were unable to do for the people of Owo. I join my other Awardees in advance to congratulate him and, as I said when I wrote a tribute to Aare Afe Babalola, just next door in Ekiti, it is true that with the right nutrients, one tree can really make a forest!

You stated in your letter of invitation that my nomination was born out of what you called, my commitment to societal ideals, leadership qualities and my contributions towards peaceful co-existence and national cohesion. On this, you scored a bull’s eye because I am ideologically convinced that the fight against corruption, building infrastructure, trying to take our people out of poverty and a range of other government ideals, would all amount to what the lawyers refer to as placing something on nothing if there is not a united country!

The theme of national cohesion has run through many of my lectures. I went back and looked at a few titles of my previous Convocation Lectures across Nigerian Universities and I will cite just three to illustrate my point. At the Convocation Lecture in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the title of my Lecture was: After the Insurgency: Some Thoughts on National Cohesion (March 27th, 2014). On February 24th, 2017, my Convocation Lecture for the University of Abuja, was entitled: Though Tribe and Tongue May Differ: Managing Diversity in Nigeria. Only last year, on June 22nd 2018, at the University of Jos, my Convocation Lecture was entitled: Broken Truths: Nigeria’s Illusive Quest for National Cohesion.

Strange as it may sound, I have never felt the need to correct or change my reflections expressed in those previous lectures and therefore, I am not sure whether I should feel a sense of vindication or am a victim of repetition. However, I strongly believe that the problems of Nigeria will, in the final analysis be resolved within the Nigerian University system. In other words, if we lose the intellectual argument, we cannot hope to build a country. It is my belief that statecraft lies within the realm of ideas generated by intellectuals and not by vendors of moral claims.

When I accepted to deliver today’s Lecture, I reflected and concluded that I would like to examine the theme of Nigeria’s low level of performance. My intention in this lecture is to identify only five out of the hundreds of reasons why our country has not achieved greatness. I wish to speak briefly about each of these five reasons, not by order of any importance. I am hopeful that I will simply generate ideas and hope that the Lecturers and Students can continue the debate in the Lecture and Seminar Halls of the University.

1: Fractured Tongues and Broken Memories

To be sure, a lot of Nigerians have attributed our problems to what they call the mistake of 1914, or the idea that Nigeria was a mere geographical expression. As such, in moments of frustration and anger, people have tended to simply say, well, Let every group go its way because we were never meant to be one country in the first place.

On this matter, which I refer to as Fractured tongues, I argue that our differences should be an asset not a liability. Rather than work to pull these threads of differences into a beautiful mosaic, our leaders have often sought halfhearted solutions, more out of ignorance than malice. Lacking in the art of statecraft, at the level of geopolitics, we have been set against one another, divided into factions and fractions, through the creation of new States, Local Councils, new cultural spaces (Chieftaincies). Thus, wherever the pieces fell from this balkanisation, new identities and new animosities emerged as yesterday’s victims became today’s oppressors. Many great Nigerians grew up, attended the same institutions with people of other tribes and religions and had big dreams for our country, but found themselves forced to retreat to the womb of ethnicity, religion or region. Today National cohesion is in retreat as every community is now a nation with its own anthem and flag.

Every country in the world is a work in progress, and if border issues are still not on the table, new identities based on economics, history or culture emerge that are daily being contested. Those who created Nigeria did not foresee globalisation in the shape and form of competing, counter penetrating and contending identities as we have today. The challenge today is not the boundaries of geography but the spread of ideas and knowledge, and of course memory is a source of knowledge.

On the issue of broken memories, I remind us that history is about memory and we all remember even the same incidents differently depending on experiences and circumstances. In 2018, our internationally renowned historian, Professor Obaro Ikime, emeritus Professor of History, University of Ibadan, called attention to this dilemma with a publication provocatively titled: ‘Can Anything Good Come out of History?’ He rang the alarm bells by recalling that as far back as 1987, he had Chaired a team of Moderators who looked at the questions set for the Joint Admission Matriculation Examinations in 1987 and discovered that right across the entire country, only 8,000 candidates had offered History!

Our situation got progressively worse when the government itself decided to remove History from the syllabus. Strange as it may sound, I do not recall that the Historical Society of Nigeria rose up against this decision nor did it seriously consider putting down tools in protest. Today, we have paid the supreme price even as the subject has crawled back but not getting the attention it deserves.

This is not the time or place to examine when we took the wrong turn. Before the novelists came to the fore, our Historians were at the forefront of putting out some of the most distinguished accounts, interpretations and re-interpretations of the cultures, histories and legacies of our people. They gave us a new way of looking at ourselves. How could we have forgotten that this country holds the record for churning out some of the most brilliant historians on the African continent? Who can forget the extraordinary scholarship of people like Professors Dike, JF Ayandele, Tekena Tamuno, Nzimiro, Eskor Toyo, Obaro Ikime, Bala Usman, Mahmud Tukur, Monday Mwangvat, EJ Alagoa, Anthony Asiwaju, Elizabeth Isichei, B. Barkindo and perhaps, the greatest of them all, my dear friend, Professor Toyin Falola. Had there been a Nobel Prize for History, Professor Falola should have taken it a long time ago.

Without History, a nation navigates without a compass and memory becomes subjective. Today, Nigerian youth are total strangers to their own local, cultural or national history. Ask a young person where they come from and they say, Daddy said we are from Owo. Too many of our youth have no sense of ownership of their narratives. No nation can develop in ignorance of its past.

  1. Multiple Colonialisms and Consequences

Citizens of what is now modern Nigeria carry the burdens of the legacies of multi colonialisms, namely; feudal colonialism (e.g., the Sokoto caliphate, Benin or Oyo empires), British colonialism and military colonialism. All these forms of colonialisms were characterised by force, violence, domination and the imposition of new cultures, altered identities and legacies. An appreciation of this is fundamental to appreciating Nigeria’s state of stasis, anomie and stagnation and why national cohesion remains so illusive. Very little has been done to purify memory and create a united narrative for our people. The result is that we remain victims, creating counter narratives of historical injustices etc.

The legacies of ethnic hegemonies arising from the Benin or Oyo Empires for example are extant and, in some cases, still culturally felt. The same cannot be said of the Sokoto caliphate, British colonialism and military rule whose scars are still visible. Whereas the impact and influence of secular and ethnic empires tended to be largely cultural, the Sokoto caliphate and British colonialism combined religion, state capture, power and domination. Their impact and dominance still hover over the polity.

While the British oversaw the growth and development of their empire through resource extraction, forced labour and extreme taxation, the Fulanis as junior partners had their Emirate system adopted as a form of administration across the north while deriving economic benefits to run their Emirates.  Immediately after independence, confronting this injustice would form the bedrock of the politics of, for example, Mallam Aminu Kano’s Northern Elements’ Progressive Union, NEPU, framed around the theme of liberation of the oppressed, Talakawa, from the shackles of oppression. This resistance and contestation laid the foundation for the development of the radical tradition in Northern Nigeria. Students of Nigerian politics might recall that the first thing that the two States of Kano and Kaduna did under NEPU was to abolish the Jangali, cattle tax across the two states!

The succeeding elite had barely settled down when the military struck. That single event set a chain reaction across the new country. The ripple effects have not died till date, not to talk of the fact that we still have military Presidents in power! The military that staged coups was not a foreign army. Tragically, thoroughly ill equipped to govern, having no ideological slant towards negotiation and consensus, the military soon threw the country into a civil war. Even after war, the military dug its heel into politics and destroyed the foundations of law and order. Till date, this legacy still accounts for the deep fractures and fissures on the polity. Digging deep into these legacies and their consequences is fundamental to understanding our state of disequilibrium.

  1. The De-legitimation of Democracy

Military rule bred uncertainty and indiscipline because there were no term limits, no training, no transparency, and no institutions of accountability or clear process of recruitment. Whoever pulled the gun first qualified to take over the reins of power. The coup culture institutionalised opportunism and subversion of process, thus constituting the worst form of corruption. No qualification was required for any office including that of the President or Head of State. We may recall, even though Col Dimka did not seem to know the difference between times of the day (remember the coup speech that suspended movement from dawn to dusk!), he could still have become our Head of State. The legacy explains why our elections are often a coup by other means (recall the heavy military presence on election days or the remaking of the Judiciary).

It is important, therefore, that we understand why our journey from Military rule to Democracy has been such a herculean task. Whereas Democracy sees Opposition as a value, an asset, the military sees it as an evil, an enemy to be destroyed. Democracy is about process, discipline, order, education, vision, freedom, values and accountability. Democracy is about consensus, persuasion, appeal to reason, managing diversity of expression and association for individuals and groups. This is why, with its imperfections, Democracy is seen as the best system of government for ensuring equitable development.

When Nigerians say that Corruption is killing us, they are mistaking the symptom for the disease. The lack of openness and freedom during military rule or any dictatorship severely compromises governance. As the world-renowned Indian scholar and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics (1998), Professor Amartya Sen, would say, without freedom there can be no development for individuals and community. The inability in Nigeria to allow free flow of ideas and channel individual and collective efforts, creates a culture of selfish pursuit and monopoly of power without responsibility. In response, the Citizens succumb to the philosophy of: Everyone for himself and God for us all. This is why corruption is ubiquitous and now, strangely, seems to be the only thing that works in Nigeria.  This is why we cannot summon enough moral courage to end it. When Mr. or Mrs. Integrity is wheeled to power by the proceeds of corruption or the corrupt, Mr. or Mrs. Integrity is corrupt by association! All he or she has done is to outsource corruption to a third party.

  1. Lack of Political Culture, Vision and Goals

Nigerians continue to wonder why is it that all governments over time have continued to look the same and why they leave us the same legacy of frustration and regret. For example, in the heat of their collective national euphoria that greeted his December 31st, 1981 coup, Ghanaians baptised Flt Lt JJ Rawlings as Junior Jesus. Midway, in their frustration, when they discovered he was not the Messiah, they renamed him Junior Judas!

Why do we followers succumb to what I call the disease of Israel? You recall that faced with the hardships in the desert, the people of Israel became nostalgic of their chains of slavery in Egypt. Reminiscing about Egypt they said: We sat around pots of meat and ate bread to the full…We remember the fish and the cucumbers, leeks, onions and garlic (Ex. 16:3, Numb. 11:5). In our case in Nigeria how often do we hear, Oh, under Abacha, the Naira was stable, under Obasanjo, we knew where we stood, or under Jonathan, a bag of rice was N9, 00 at least. So, what shall we say tomorrow when President Buhari is gone? The delusion of our messianic search is part of our frustration.

Military coups disrupted and destroyed the basis for the emergence of political culture. A political culture is a set of more or less immutable laws even if un-written; they guide conduct and behaviour in the political arena. Political culture relates to processes, rules of engagement and fair play, bilateral expectations that all actors play by the same rules etc. When imbibed, political culture guides our expectations and prepares us to accept that there is another day and that only one person can win, and that we must live to fight again without bitterness, that elections are not a war and politics is a game. The do or die in our politics are clear indicators of the death of political culture.

The lack of a political culture sows the seeds for prebendalism and clientelism where godfathers make their own rules or seek to compromise existing institutions like the Judiciary, the Electoral Body or the Security agencies. Politicians with no political culture see politics as a distribution agency. They hide their incapacity, incompetence and inefficiency under the table by appealing to ethnic, regional and religious evangelism, thus further dividing our people along these lines. This is one of the reasons why, for us in Nigeria, national cohesion and development have becomes dreams deferred.

  1. Lack of National Monument-Heroes-Totem-Constitution

Ours is a nation with no national heroes. Our heroes are unable to cross the boundaries of our ethnicity, regionalism or religion. The nation has no Fidel Castro, no Mandela, no Abraham Lincoln, no Pandit Nehru, no Mahatma Gandhi, and no Churchill. A culture of relativism means if you call the name of prominent Nigerians, they will have to go back to their region or ethnic enclave to command respect. Thus, Awolowo is leader of the Yoruba, Azikiwe for the Igbos, Sardauna for the Hausa-Fulani North, Tarka for the Tiv, and so on down the line. Often, a leader is hoisted on a national pole by party fanatics, hypocrites and sycophants with the sobriquet of Baba, as long as they are on the throne. No sooner do their tenures end than they are sent back home with no more title of reverence.

As a corollary, Nigeria has no Monuments, no Totems and its Constitution still remains suspect and inspires little confidence even from those who operate it. The Constitution should be our sacred secular text and should command awe. We see Executive lawlessness at the highest level with disobedience of Court orders and appointment to the Judiciary the subject of political maneuver.

Today, what would have passed even as National or Regional monuments are all in various stages of decomposition: Tafawa Balewa and Tinubu Squares, the National Theatre, the National Stadia across the country, the Niger Bridge, Cocoa House, etc. The country has no sacred spaces which can metaphorically serve as places where citizens can mourn, celebrate or look back and ask if the dreams of the nation have been sustained or betrayed.

In the United Kingdom, they have Hyde Park Corner, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, London Eye etc. In the United States of America, the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Memorials, the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument and a host of iconic institutions command the awe and respect of citizens. In China, they have the Great China Wall, the Terra Cotta, The Forbidden City, The Guangzhou Tower, China’s incredible bridges spanning into so many miles. In Paris, France, you can see the Louvre Museum, the Eiffel Tower and so on. The Vatican has St. Peter’s Basilica/Square, the Museum or the Sistine Chapel.

Apart from being imprinted in the minds of the young and inspiring citizens to greatness, or serving as places of cohesion, can you imagine the billions of dollars that these countries have continued to reap from these monuments and the millions of citizens from around the world who troop to these countries every year as tourists? Can you think of a single place in Nigeria where the Local, State or Federal Government collects a single Naira, not to talk of dollars, from tourists – even enough to buy a generator? The Vatican Museum attracts over 20,000 visitors on a daily basis, every day of the year.

A history of the triumph and sacrifices of the military in American life is celebrated through the Arlington Memorial.  Built in 1864 (May 14th), it has a total of almost 500, 000 graves. The Memorial is one of the most beautiful, scenic, picturesque, breathtaking sights I have ever seen. It conjures up emotions even for the stranger and visitor to the United States by the sheer idyllic architecture and layout. It is a piece of history in memory of those who have, over the years, from the War of Independence, died in the cause of wars across the world. Every year, May 25th, America marks Memorial Day and evokes memories of pain, sorrow, joy and hope, the knowledge that it is the sacrifices of those buried there that has kept the country strong. America uses this history to romanticise valour and patriotism. This is what has inspired them to the feeling of invincibility.

Think about us in Nigeria. Where is the nation’s Military cemetery and who remembers anything about it? Nigeria has no memory. Apart from the tomb of the so called, unknown soldier, which only appears on television when the President of the day is laying a wreath, I am not aware of anything that the Nigerian government, despite being ruled by military Heads of State and Presidents, has done to evoke emotions in Nigerians regarding the sacrifices of those who have given or risked their lives for our nation. National cohesion arises from deep, intangible emotional symbols that inspire us.

  1. The Power of One

I want to end by reflecting on what I call, the Power of One.  How many people do we need to effect change in a society? How do the great men or women of history come about? What inspired them? Was it in the genes or by divine providence? History is replete with men and women who have risen to prominence and have assumed a larger than life stature in our memories. Very often, we marvel, we believe that God made them special and that their greatness is one of those things that happen only to a few selected ones.

Yes, our lives are a vocation and yes, like little Samuel, we get a call and we often refer an Eli to guide, one who can interpret God’s will to us by directing us to say, Speak Lord, your servant is listening. However, the Bible tells us that God has no photocopies and that we are therefore all originals, made in the image and likeness of God. We will not all be Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul 11, or Mother Theresa. There will only be one Mohammed Ali, one Pele, Lionel Messi, or one Abraham Lincoln.  Some will be great composers while others will be great listeners or dancers.

God created us for a purpose and a meaning in life. He is the Lord of History and time. However, for us Nigerians, God has become the greatest excuse for the inefficiency, corruption and shameful degrading life of our people today. We are over 90% Christians and Muslims in Nigeria but there is nowhere in the world where Religion has become an incubus, a burden and a source of dreadful violence as it has done in Nigeria. Our leaders are constantly kneeling before Pastors and Imams seeking blessings while the rest of the world is moving on, drawing inspiration from sweat, brains and brawn even without evoking God. We evoke God to witness to our corruption and outright larceny.

In Nigeria, Government is the major source of wealth and power. Someone undertook an analysis of the billionaires of Nigeria. Surveying 47 billionaires, the study shows that the source of wealth of Group One, made up of 24 members of the list, made their money from using public office. Group Two is made up of 10 Members who made their money from being close to those in power (read beneficiaries of humungous contracts, oil deals, subsidies etc). The Group Three is made up of those who made their money from industrial activities and run real businesses with no obvious linkage to those in power. Group Four is made up of those who are smart but whose source of wealth is said to be hazy, grey, and undefined.

Today, Africa has over 400 million Young people whose future seems to hang on a balance. There are over 7000 million people out of Africa’s 1.2b people who have no access to electricity, water or food. Africa is full of challenges and too many stories of tears and pain. However, as the Holy book says of Esther, perhaps, it was for a time like this that we have prophets for the future like the founder of your University, Chief Ayo Ayorinde. Nations are built on the shoulders and visions of great men or women like him. What has held Nigeria down has been the octopussean power and hold that the centre has had on the resources of Nigeria, a hold that those who run our country have used irresponsibly.

Yes, it is important that our country opens up to business. However, it seems to me that so much effort is being made to make Nigeria an attractive bride often to the detriment of our local professionals and contractors. We have remained on the same spot of potentiality for too long, with a landscape littered with thousands of abandoned projects. Some parts of the country often look like a post war environment with the litter of abandoned projects. Surely, Aliko Dangote and Tony Elumelu must have junior brothers or cousins. The gap is far too wide for smaller competitors. Most of this is because the adrenalin of the politicians is often high when it comes to serving as middlemen and fixers, often sabotaging their countries in the name of oversight.

We seem to have outsourced the development of our country to foreign partners. Yesterday we were in China looking for help, today we are in Russia and Saudi Arabia. I stumbled on a list of activities by foreign countries and companies, thus raising the question as to what the future of our local industries and businessmen and women is in the eyes of the federal government. It reads thus:

Russia is to build rail tracks for Nigeria. China is to build roads and bridges. India is to help Nigeria with its ICT. Germany is to build new power plants. US are to provide Nigeria with Vaccines. UNDP is providing grants to farmers and improved seedlings. Bill and Melinda Gates are helping us fight malaria. President Jimmy Carter helped us to dig Laterines and fight hookworms. Turkey is planning to build a garment factory in Nigeria. The UK wants to build a new terminal in the Niger Delta. So, what are we doing for ourselves? Where do our thousands of excellent Engineers fit in in designing our future?

Finally, on your behalf, and on behalf of your parents, we thank Chief Ayorinde and all those he inspired to invest in this University. I salute all those great individuals across Nigeria who are daily investing in education and other areas of life. The honour you Graduands owe your parents and the founders of this University is hard work and achievement.


As Nigerians, we are not just made up of just Muslims or Christians, Men or Women, Rich or Poor, Happy or Sad, Young or Old. We are citizens with different tastes and different convictions even within these same categories. There is so much more to define each one of us. What matters is not who your parents are, your tribe or town, but what you can make out of the talents God has given you. Your name is already written on God’s palm (Is. 49:16). Don’t try to cut corners. The road to success is often long and hard. It is often the road less travelled, but it is the most rewarding one. What you have in your hands as a Certificate today should now become your new tribe, new religion, and the new region.

My dear Graduands, I appeal to you, throw away the oppressive and tyrannical yoke and petard hung around your necks by our generation. Being an alumnus of Achievers University is the surest way to enable you swim successfully in the ocean of life. The choice is yours; remain locked in the dark abyss of ethnicity and religion or liberate yourself. Armed with your certificate, listen to what the Holy Book says: Stand at the crossroads and look, ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, walk in it (Jer. 6: 16). And, as Rumi said: It’s your road and yours alone. Others may walk with you, but no one can walk it for you. God bless you.

Matthew Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese wrote this piece for the  8th & 9th Convocation Lecture, Achievers University, Owo, Ondo State,  November 8, 2019






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