1960 was deemed ‘The Year of Africa’ because 17 countries on the continent secured their independence that year. Nigeria was among them. Outside Africa, the only other country to gain independence that year was Cyprus. As we mark our diamond anniversary, I am sure much will be written and said about Nigeria today. I can also wager that most of what we will hear and read will be lamentations, including from those whose actions and/or inactions helped to put the country where it is. But to reflect on how far we have come as a nation, I want to take a panoramic look at those other 17 countries that secured their independence in 1960.
Let’s begin from neighbouring Niger Republic. This largest country in West Africa (by land mass) has experienced a series of military regimes. Ranked 189th out of 189 countries in both the 2018 and 2019 reports of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI), Niger Republic has a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of $413.98—easily one of the poorest countries in the world. Another ‘classmate’, the Central African Republic (CAR), has been fighting a civil war since 2012. It has also been led by a succession of despots, including Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa who came to power through a coup d’etat on 1st January 1966 and ruled (as well as reigned) for 33 years until he fled the country in 1979, following national uproar over the beating to death of more than a hundred school children in which he directly participated. Despite abundant deposits of natural and mineral resources, including crude oil, uranium, gold, diamonds and cobalt as well as hydropower and fertile lands, CAR is second from the rear (188th out of 189 countries) in the 2019 HDI, bettering only Niger Republic, and classified as the worst country in which to be young—with a GDP per capita of $475.72.
Also in the class of 1960 is Somalia, Africa’s most culturally homogeneous country that has been ruined by a combination of military regimes, prolonged drought, civil war and insurgencies led by self-serving war lords. With a GDP per capita of $225 and collapse of state institutions, Somalia has earned its title of “Africa’s most-failed state” from The Economist magazine. Togo of course is practically owned by one family and its miserable $679.26 GDP per capita explains why the country is ranked 167th out of 189 in HDI. Seven years after independence, Gnassingbe Eyadema staged a coup d’état and ruled for 26 years as military leader. He then followed with a dubious transition to multi-party democracy in 1993 and ‘won’ three presidential elections in succession until his death in 2005 after 38 years in power. His son, Faure Gnassingbe, succeeded him and remains in office today.
The story of the former Republic of Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, is also a tumultuous one of coups and countercoups. First president Maurice Yameogo was ousted in a 1966 coup d’etat by Sangoule Lamizana who was also deposed in another 1980 coup d’etat by Saye Zerbo. In 1982, Zerbo was overthrown by Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo, also later toppled by Thomas Sankara who was then killed by his close friend, Blaise Compaore, in yet another palace coup. Compaore spent 29 years in power before he fled the country following a popular uprising in 2014. These disruptions have only added to the plight of the country ranked 182nd out of 189 in the 2018 HDI with a GDP per capita of $715.12.
Cameroon was first in the class of 1960 to gain independence (1st January) but with a GDP per capita of $1533.74 and ranking of 150 out of 189 countries in HDI, it cannot be said to be doing well. President since 1982 (after being prime minister in the previous seven years), everything in the country revolves around Paul Biya who rarely makes public appearance these days due to his declining health. With such natural features as mountains, beaches and savannahs, Cameroon is one of the African countries that has failed to harness its potential.
That the Republic of the Congo or Congo-Brazzaville, as it is also called, is ranked low in the human development category (176th out of 189 countries and a GDP per capita of $2,147.22) is a huge shame. Small in population (5.2 million) but rich in oil (fourth largest producer in Gulf of Guinea), the vast resources are concentrated within the family of President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who first came to power in 1979 and has ruled the country for 36 of the past 41 years. Despite a vast expanse of unused arable land and untapped substantial mineral resources, “maternal and infant mortality rates remain high…chronic malnutrition affects 21% of children” in Congo, according to the World Bank.
The history of Chad has been one of power squabbles, civil wars and insurgencies. But ever since he seized power in a military coup 30 years ago, Idriss Derby (a General turned president) has ruled the country with an iron fist, just like his predecessor, Hissene Habre, who was in 2016 found guilty of sundry human-rights abuses, including ordering the killing of 40,000 people. Chad is among the eight countries whose nationals are restricted from entry into the United States by President Donald Trump and is ranked 187th out of 189 countries in the UN HDI with a GDP per capita of $861.25.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), formerly known as Zaire, was born in a crisis that pitched Western powers against the old Soviet Union. That eventually culminated in the November 1965 military coup that brought to power Joseph-Desire Mobutu, who renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake). Reputed as one of the most corrupt and brutal African dictators of the last century, Mobutu was overthrown after 32 years in power by Laurent-Desire Kabila whose ascension marked the beginning of another Congo war which resulted in the deaths of more than a million people. Assassinated by one of his bodyguards in January 2001, Kabila was succeeded by his son, Joseph who was essentially forced out of power last year after 18 years. Ranked 179th out of 189 countries in HDI and with a GDP per capita of $500.55, the DRC remains a very poor country.
Cote D’Ivoire was ruled from independence in 1960 by Houphouet Boigny who died in December 1993 after 33 years in office. He was succeeded by his deputy, Henri Konan Bedie. Six years later, in December 1999, Bedie was toppled by General Robert Guei, a former army commander he had sacked. In the political transition in which he was a candidate, Guei was defeated by Laurent Gbagbo but refused to concede. He was forced out by public protest. Two years later, a civil war broke out in the country. In 2010, after two terms in office, Gbagbo was defeated by Alassane Quatarra but he (Gbagbo) also refused to accept the results. That led to another crisis that ended only with his capture along with his wife inside the presidential palace. After ten years (two terms) in office, Ouattara, who in March told his country that he would not be seeking an extra-constitutional third term has recanted. In a national broadcast last month, Quattara said he had “decided to respond favourably to the call of my fellow citizens,” to run again. “Given my previous promise, this decision represents a real sacrifice for me,” he claimed! Standing 170th position out of 189 countries in HDI and GDP per capita of $1715.53, Cote D’Ivoire is another sad story of what might have been.
El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba was just 24 when Gabon gained independence in 1960 but by a stroke of fortune he became president seven years later and held power for 42 years until his death in 2009. His son, Ali Bongo was elected to succeed him and has been in power ever since. Rich in natural resources such as diamonds, gold, petroleum, natural gas, niobium, cement, phosphate rock, manganese, uranium, and iron ore, Gabon has a GDP per capita of $7,952.53 and is ranked 115th out of 189 countries in HDI. But that doesn’t tell the complete story of a country whose wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. President Ali Bongo who suffered a stroke in Saudi Arabia in October 2018 has been out of circulation since then, leaving the administration of Gabon in the hands of varied vested interests.
Having first come to power through a coup detat in 1975, Didier Ignace Ratsiraka was president of Madagascar for 18 years until he lost out in 1993. He came back four years later in 1997 before again losing out in 2002. Despite its unique biodiversity of wildlife hardly found anywhere else in the world, the GDP per capita is $527.50 and is ranked 162 among 189 countries in HDI. With nearly half of the country’s children under five years of age malnourished, Madagascar is regarded as one of the world’s poorest countries with the majority of citizens living on less than a dollar per day.
Ranked at 184th out of 189 countries in the HDI, Mali has a GDP per capita of $899.66 that makes her a very poor country. But Mali also lacks security. Just about five weeks ago, both its president and prime minister were arrested by the military following a mutiny spurred by public protests over a worsening economic and national security situation. The following day, the duo resigned at gunpoint and the military now hold sway and call the shots. An ongoing insurgency continues, with a never-ending civil war and continuous civil unrest. That in a nutshell sums up the story of Mali in the past 60 years.
Like most other African countries, the history of Mauritania has been characterized by military coups, the most recent of which took place in 2008. Despite an abundance of natural resources, Mauritania remains poor with a GDP per capita of $1188.83 and is ranked161 among 189 countries in the HDI. Meanwhile, with a GDP per capita of $1,521.95 and ranked 166th among 189 countries, Senegal cannot be said to be doing well even though it is one of the most politically stable countries in Africa. With a tumultuous history of military coups before it stabilized under a multiparty democracy, the same goes for Benin Republic where the GDP per capita is $901.54 and is ranked at number 163 in HDI.
The foregoing captures the state of affairs in the 16 African countries that gained independence in 1960 along with Nigeria. So, it is easy to conclude that none of our classmates can be described as doing well. But we can also invent excuses for them. Almost all have experienced a similar history of colonial subjugation, military incursions, weak institutions, rise of powerful men, security challenges, including insurgency and civil wars, etc.
However, before we conclude, it is important to look at the last of the nations in the class of 1960—the only one outside the continent: The Republic of Cyprus, an Eastern Mediterranean island country. Instructively, Cyprus and Nigeria share the same 1st October Independence Day and the country is also marking its 60th anniversary today. Like Nigeria, it has faced wars, military coups and all manner of disruptions, instigated from within and without. But unlike Nigeria, Cyprus has done relatively well for itself. The GDP per capita in Cyprus is $30,800. That of Nigeria is $2,250. Nigeria ranks 158th out of 189 countries in HDI, Cyprus is on number 31. In almost all the indicators I have looked at, Cyprus has fared far much better than Nigeria.
What this suggests is that the year 1960 is not culpable for jinxing any nation. Nor can colonialism be the excuse for the failings. In our own case, the real paradox is that while Nigeria may not be doing well as a country, many Nigerians are doing well as individuals—both at home and in the Diaspora. There is hardly any compilation of the Global 100 in any sphere of human endeavour that will not include at least one Nigerian. For instance, of the five Africans listed in the current edition of TIME Magazine’s 100 ‘Most Influential Persons in the World’ for 2020, three are Nigerian professionals (a writer, an entrepreneur and a medical doctor). That has been the consistent pattern no matter the metrix used and regardless of the field profiled. Giannis Sina Ugo Antetokounmpo, who has been breaking all manner of records in the United States, recently joined a tiny elite of two-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Players. Although born in Greece, his parents (Charles and Veronica Adetokunbo) are of Nigerian heritage. Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua is a two-time unified boxing heavyweight champion. Yes, he is British but he has also never denied his Nigerian roots. In fact, he remains proud of it.
So, either in the field of sports or in the intellectual world, Nigerians are there. Yet, this has not reflected in our country’s development.
Of course we can open a debate as to why and how we have fared so dismally as a nation despite enormous potentials. The elephant in the room is leadership at practically all levels and in all spheres, but that is not even my point today. I am more concerned about what has become the defining ethos of our togetherness. Despite being blessed with abundant human and material resources, we have failed to aggregate the parts into the collective whole. With no communal sense to building a functioning society, the ‘whole’ of our country remains far much less than the sum of its parts, essentially because the accumulation of individual greed far outweighs the collective need. How we redress that is the urgent task before the current generation of Nigerians.
At the interdenominational church service to commemorate Nigeria’s 60th Independence anniversary on Sunday, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, took his message from the Biblical Book of Nehemiah (who rebuilt the broken walls of Jerusalem) which he said should be a metaphor for the challenge of nation-building. “Fortunately for us, our walls are not yet broken, but there are apparent cracks that could lead to a break if not adequately addressed,” said Osinbajo in a statement that is being deliberately distorted by some sectional titans who consider themselves more Nigerian than others and are now issuing meaningless threats. However, the aspect of that Biblical story which Osinbajo left out is actually what interests me: Ezra’s charge to the people who were weeping for their failings after hearing him read from the Book of the Law of Moses. He said: “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Notwithstanding misgivings over the 1914 amalgamation for those who still refuse to come to terms with that or the distortions to our federal structure caused by years of military rule or the disappointment we may have with the current crops of leaders and the choices they make, it is also appropriate to remind ourselves that we have come a long way as a nation. Not even the most implacable enemies of Nigeria will deny its socio-economic potential, the enormous capacity of its people and the bright future that still beckons if only we can look beyond artificial differences and rally our diversity as the real source of our strength.
I wish our beloved country happy 60th independence anniversary.