Heroes of October 1 and all you should know now about Nigeria Independence Day
The story of the fight for Nigeria’s independence is a compelling history that was learned and internalised at a young age for the generation that lived through both the pre- and post-civil war periods. Of course, it was expected that the leading politicians of the time would rise to prominence as role models for bravery and would later, to varying degrees, be honoured with monuments or other national symbols.
October 1 and 200 million Nigerians
In Nigeria, where the median age is 18, this indicates that more than a third of the 200 million people who call the country home were born after the country gained its independence. As a result, the nation is becoming more and more affected by a reality that many older nations have had to face: coping with younger generations that may not be particularly enamoured of a past valourized by the older generation.
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October and Powerful Politicians
The majority of today’s most powerful politicians were born in pre-independence Nigeria, which is why it is a searing irony that they cannot be said to truly represent the ideals that made the founding fathers of the nation popular and gave them cult-like following.
When people yearn for politics in the pre-independence era, it is not just a cloying idealisation of “the good old days.” Nigeria’s pre-independence politics are incredibly rich in proud touchstones. After all, it was a time when a Fulani man was elected mayor of Enugu and an Igbo man, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, almost won a majority in the Western Regional Assembly.
Heroes of October 1 and the Fulani Man
As absurd as it may sound, Umaru Altine, a Fulani man, served as Enugu’s first mayor, and his election to office was not the result of affirmative action. It also wasn’t an irrational pan-Nigerian choice. He actually did succeed in winning an election, and the fact that he did so is evidence of the cosmopolitan outlook that dominated the nation’s politics at the time.
The rise of Mallam Altine is compelling evidence that, at various points in Nigerian history, particularly in the 1950s and the early 1960s, one’s tribe and creed hardly mattered in terms of political decisions. Although it was about 60 years ago, the situation in Nigeria today, with all of its ethnic and religious divisions, seems to be on a different time scale. A sense of disappointment and memories of what might have been if the noble virtues of nationhood had not given way to base instincts fill one when they reflect on the events that put an end to those glimmering times.
In addition to sweeping to victory in the 1954 mayoral election, Altine also triumphed in his bid for reelection in 1956. He did this both as an independent candidate and as a member of the NCNC, a nationalist party established by Dr. Azikiwe and Sir Herbert Macaulay. It is telling that Azikiwe, the party’s leader during Altine’s electoral victory, supported a “settler” from Sokoto rather than a person from the same region of the country. This behaviour exemplified the broad cultural worldview that both politicians and voters of the time had internalised.
October and politicians of Nigeria’s independence era
The politicians of Nigeria’s independence era, however, excelled in more ways than just their open-mindedness. The trio of Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and Sir Ahmadu Bello, who dominated politics in the Eastern, Western, and Northern Regions, were shining examples of altruism. They had a clear understanding that holding public office essentially entailed serving the public. Therefore, they never used government resources in a way that suggested a desperation for approval. Public money embezzlement was largely the exception rather than the rule. Whatever little money was made was used for the benefit of the general public.
It is instructive that Awolowo used the proceeds from the sale of cocoa to found the Western Nigerian Government Broadcasting Corporation, which is credited with giving birth to Africa’s first indigenous television station. In fact, a video of his speech officially opening the station in 1959 exists, and it serves as an example of how straightforward politicians were at the time. Without the conceit that characterises modern politicians, Awolowo’s speech was dignified and direct. Today, grandstanding and loud drumming would completely mask the significance of the event.
Another noteworthy fact is that Azikiwe, as premier of the Eastern Region, used oil palm profits to construct the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1955. When the institution officially opened at the beginning of independence, there was neither pomp nor a hint of hubris. He also never considered having the organisation named after him, as would be the case in today’s narcissistic politics. Regarding the numerous ground-breaking initiatives they had conceived, the same could be said of other politicians from the time of Independence.
The decision of Ahmadu Bello to continue serving as premier of the Northern Region even after his party, the Northern People’s Congress, had won the majority of seats in the parliament in 1959 and transfer that responsibility to Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, demonstrates the politicians of the independence era’s altruistic bent. He was more inspired by his determination to raise the Northern Region to a level comparable to the Western and Eastern Regions than he was by the frivolity of such an exalted office.
Heroes of October 1 and the cynicism of the younger generations
It is entirely conceivable that the cynicism of the younger generations toward Nigeria’s independence fighters is influenced by the way they see modern politics, which they see as dominated by self-centered old men with a chokehold on power and an insatiable sense of entitlement. Forget the sage-like images of Azikiwe and other nationalists that have become ossified in the public imagination; the politicians of the independence era were young people who were simply ahead of their time. Bello had just turned 50 years old, Awolowo was 51, and Azikiwe was only 56 when the country gained its independence. Anthony Enahoro, who made the first attempt to declare Nigeria’s independence, was 37 years old; Remi Fani-Kayode, whose motion would ultimately succeed, was 39. Therefore, the “youth” were never thought to be too young to run in Nigeria prior to and following independence. Balewa did, in fact, take office as prime minister at the age of 48.
Even so, Nigerians often seem hypocritical when they yearn for a political revival akin to that of the 1950s and 1960s because of the country’s shocking levels of sectarianism. This is clear from the ferocious tribal rhetoric that is spread every day in the media and on social media. The identity politics that somewhat restricted political parties to their regional strongholds may be railed against by the youth. But today, only a select few could truly claim to be unaffected by this albatross: why do we excuse injustices committed by our kin while condemning it when we are the victim?
A sense of unhappiness and alienation, primarily caused by the lack of inclusivity in governance, lies at the heart of the widening national fault lines. Rebuilding trust and societal cohesion requires starting by bridging such a divide.
Despite the fact that the country has been independent for 62 years, the heightened political awareness felt before the general elections next year is reminiscent of the tumultuous political environment of that time. Instilling a sense of propriety in politicians, as it did during the independence era, is the goal of this new political reawakening among the electorate.
Thanks for reading Heroes of October 1.