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Authors reflect on Nigeria's path of independence

Eight authors reflect on how the photograph below makes them feel, 50 years after Nigeria gained independence from British rule.

By Jeremy WeateGuest blogger / October 4, 2010

The image above shows a handover of power – from James Robertson, the last British governor-general of Nigeria to Tafawa Balewa, the first prime minister of Nigeria. Last week Nigeria celebrated 50 years of independence from the British.

From www.cassavarepublic.biz/blog

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Abuja, Nigeria

When you type ‘Giant of Africa’ in Google Instant, two of the options provided are “Nigeria: giant of Africa” and “Why is Nigeria the giant of Africa?” Putting aside wounded pride, it’s a good question to ask. And as we gear up to celebrate 50 years of independence from colonial British rule, it’s a pertinent one.

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Can Nigeria legitimately still call itself a force to be reckoned with, both in the region and internationally? Can we call ourselves a superpower of Africa? Or have we been sleeping so long that we’ve unknowingly slipped into an ongoing vegetative state? Fifty years is an awfully short time in which to judge a country’s success, but it is a fair distance from which to look at its failures.

Has the Nigeria Project been a disaster? If it has, was it always doomed, and can it still be salvaged? Or is the forecasted doom and gloom an overreaction? Will Nigeria rise from the ashes of upheaval, scarred and cracked, but still with a fighter’s spirit? Is Nigeria, as Father Matthew Kukah described it, similar to a Catholic marriage: “It may not be happy, but it does not break up”?

To mark Nigeria’s five decades, we dusted down an iconic photograph. The image above shows a handover of power – from James Robertson, the last British Governor-General of Nigeria to Tafawa Balewa, the first Prime Minister of Nigeria. We asked eight writers to tell us what feelings the photograph evoked for them.

Below are their thoughts; some optimistic, some weary, and some resigned.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika, author, "In Dependence"

Two men are waving, but to whom exactly? Tafawa Balewa’s hand hails the people, but what of James Robertson? Is he waving hello, farewell, or not so fast? It’s hard to tell, and yet the stiffness of those gloves, sash, headgear and medals suggest a man no longer at ease. And as for those two young men standing ramrod straight around the flagpole, what expression, I wonder, rests on their faces? Pride, I imagine, and immense hope on a day when a brand new flag waves prosperity and peace to all who stand below. Half a century later, what would each of these men make of Nigeria today? Disappointment, I would guess, at the very least, and yet I hear that there is beauty in turning fifty and being able to look both backward and forward. If this is the case, then I think that today’s picture must be in colour with much less grey, fewer shadows, many more women, and just as much hope.

Carlos Moore, author, "Fela: This Bitch of a Life"

The image of James Robertson, the last British Governor-General of Nigeria and Tafawa Balewa, the first Prime Minister of Nigeria, celebrating the birth of what is today called NIGERIA is nothing unusual. It is an image that says that, for all practical purposes, it is all business as usual. Just a new arrangement of the same colonial, neocolonial and neoimperial package.

Abidemi Sanusi, author; "Kemi’s Journal," "Zack’s Story" and "Eyo"

I am drawn to the flag pole in the background. Has the Union Jack been lowered already, and the flag of the new Nigeria, a phoenix of green and white stripes, been raised in its place? It is hard to tell. The phantom army of witnesses are a little harder to spot, their ghoulish presence a forewarning of what is to come in the ‘new’ country. Finally, I notice the two men; each, with one arm raised high, the white man, James Robertson, the last British Governor-General of Nigeria and the Nigerian, Tafawa Balewa, the first Prime Minister of Nigeria. Robertson’s arm is raised in a wave, whether in farewell or in good wishes, again, it is hard to tell. His face is inscrutable, no doubt relishing the years ahead, when cocooned in his own grave, historians would pore over every muscle of his face in the photograph for a hint of the thoughts that lie within. He knows the photograph will reveal nothing. I’m intrigued by Balewa’s arm. What is it saying? ‘Farewell‘, ‘Stay awhile’, ‘Now what?’ One thought keeps on reverberating through my mind: where was the photograph taken and why the night-time?

Toni Kan, author, "Nights of the Creaking Bed"

Hello and Goodbye. Two knighted fellows waving out an epoch and welcoming a new one; albeit a benighted one. 50 years later we look at this picture and wonder, was it too soon, were mistakes made and who made those mistakes? Fifty years of independence and yet we remain a country fraught with ills that defy logic, balms and unguents. Who knows, maybe Sir James Robertson was actually saying "Good riddance!"

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