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.
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!"
Teju Cole, author, "Everyday is for the Thief"
“A painful disappointment, though one must admit it was not a total failure” – these were the words Nnamdi Azikiwe used to describe the Constitutional Conference of 1957. The British stymied Nigerian demands for independence by 1959. But independence did eventually come, in 1960. Two hands raised in the darkness, a flicker of hope. The British packed their bags and left, after poisoning the well, and Zik’s words might as well serve for the fifty-year journey Nigeria has undertaken since then. Things went wrong very quickly for the country once the Okotie-Eboh model of kleptocracy supplanted the humble civil service of Tafawa Balewa. There were utter disasters along the way, the three most notable, in my view, being the Civil War, the Babangida dictatorship, and the Abacha dictatorship that succeeded it. The years rolled on, and we swallowed one missed opportunity after another. Still, there was FESTAC. There are our great artists, particularly in literature and music. And there is the incomparable intensity, creativity, and resurgence of the city of Lagos. A painful disappointment, then, this maddening Nigerian journey, but not a total failure. Not yet.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, author, "I Do Not Come To You By Chance"
Five decades ago, the white man waved goodbye to Nigeria. But today, Nigerians remain in captivity. The colonialists rule our minds. We obsess over what they think about us, we struggle to imitate their ways, we are in awe of their abilities. As Nigeria celebrates 50 years of independence on Oct. 1, I have a dream that my people shall be free at last. With the white man and his West safely out of our heads and our minds obsessing over more progressive purposes.
Chika Unigwe, author, "On Black Sisters’ Street"
Whenever my father talks of the 1st of October, 1960, his voice carries a certain sense of awe, as if he were talking of something sacred. Looking at this photograph, I am reminded of my father’s voice. There is a sense of the sacred in the way both men are standing still, unsmiling, hands raised as the clock strikes midnight to usher in the birth of a new country and announce the irreversible death of colonization. But there is also a sense of excitement, of optimism. It is easy to read on Balewa’s face, the eagerness to get on with the job of leading Nigeria to its destined greatness as an independent nation. Fifty years later, Nigerians of my father’s generation have seen their hopes for Nigeria betrayed by kleptomaniac regimes. And we, their children are finding it more and more difficult to remain optimistic that things will change enough to bring Nigeria back to its days of glory.
Amatoritsero Ede, poet
The promise and dream of that celebratory image of – I presume Tafawa Balewa, first ‘Head-of-State’ of an independent Nigeria beside the representative of the colonial British Crown – has become a nightmare and an illusion. The ex-colonial state (I refuse to call it post-colonial to emphasise the continuities with colonial dependence) has continued the plunders of imperialism. As Prof. Wole Soyinka put it in a public statement recently, we celebrate shame. It is like celebrating the death of an infant first-born child. It is very un-African. This should be a time for inward looking, not for pomp and pageantry. The leadership has failed woefully. A country blessed with all the human and mineral resources which Nigeria has should not become the failed state that it is today, where a lack of maintenance culture, entrenched corruption in government, criminal politicians or ex-military men vying for office is normalised. Nigeria has taken itself out of any kind of global competition – even on a continental level. This house has fallen! It can only be rebuilt by a complete shift in its leadership and civic mental orientation.
Now it’s your turn. What do you see when you look at the photograph? And what does the next half-century hold for Nigeria?