PoliticsNews & AnalysisAfter the first century, all eyes on the next in Nigeria


Posted on Tuesday, 02 February 2016 16:58

After the first century, all eyes on the next in Nigeria

The country is still healing from its civil war, 45 years on. Photo©Romano Cagnoni/Getty ImagesA new book by journalist Richard Bourne has spurred debate about Nigeria's past and what the future could hold for the country's exploding population.

The first hundred years of Nigeria's formal existence prompted only the most modest commemoration in 2014. With the upcoming national elections, Nigerians had more important matters on their minds. Most of the country also shares a deep ambivalence about the circumstances of Nigeria's invention under the auspices of Frederick Lugard, appointed by the British colonial authorities to run this expansive new territory in 1914.

Some 13,000 people – a medium-sized village – are born in Nigeria every day, according to the United Nations

Nigeria's creation was a colonial map-drawing exercise whose arbitrariness rivals that of that Anglo-French diplomatic couple Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, who divide up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire two years later in the Middle East. Nationalist leader Obafemi Awolowo dismissively commented half a century later that Nigeria was a "geographical expression" rather than a country.

With its well-travelled and youthful population, Nigeria is acutely aware of the weight of culture on its history. There is more harmony than cacophony in this amalgam of more than 300 different languages and ethnicities. It is the richness of that culture that stretches back at least to the Nok civilisation of 1,000BC – which produced those monumental life-sized terracotta figurines–through to the Benin bronzes of the 13th century, to the exuberance of the contemporary art, film, music and literary scenes.

So when veteran journalist Richard Bourne launched his comprehensive tome Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century in mid-October with a seminar in the august surroundings of Senate House, University of London, he invited Chibundu Onuzo to the discussion panel. The youngest female ever signed to Faber and Faber, T. S. Eliot's old publishers, Onuzo published her first novel when she was 17. Another two are in the pipeline.

Analysing her country's febrile politics, Onuzo said the previous government's decision to abandon the teaching of history in schools spoke volumes about an official indifference both to the complexities of the past and the opportunities of the future. Hopes for the coming years are premised on modernisation and technology, but above all on culture and community engagement – a coming together of society.

Leaving nothing to chance, Onuzo later explained that she would get stuck into politics in Nigeria after getting a few novels under her belt.

False starts

It may be that the election of President Muhammadu Buhari, perhaps the last of the independence generation of leaders, will mark a turning point for the country a century after its foundation. For Onuzo and her peers, the size and diversity of Nigeria should be a strength; its tortuous history should be a salutary warning more than a brake on progress.

Has Awolowo's "geographical expression" become a country? The evidence says it has, albeit uneasily. Bourne cites three points when Nigeria was poised to split at the seams: the civil war between the federal side and the Biafran secessionists from1967 to 1970; the annulling of Moshood Abiola's election victory on12 June 1993; and the tumultuous reign of military ruler General Sani Abacha from 1993 to 1998.

Yet, more than the history, it is now arithmetic that concentrates minds. Some 13,000 people – a medium-sized village – are born in Nigeria every day, according to the United Nations. There will be 2.5 billion Africans by 2050, UN demographers estimate, of which some 400 million will be Nigerians, making it the third-most populous country in the world after China and India.

For the pessimists, the trajectory looks perilous. Nigeria could host the world's fastest-growing cities and its highest concentration of jobless young people. Many could be prey to the sectional machinations of devious politicians. The alternative is economic modernisation, the facing down of vested interests that have hobbled the country for decades and the freeing of the country's entrepreneurial and creative abilities. After a generation of false starts, Nigeria could now be edging down that road. ●

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.


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