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If you have read William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, you will probably recall Cassius’s words to Brutus: “Men at some time are masters of their fates; the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.”
These immortal words remind us that we can change our fortunes through the relentless pursuit of our ideals.
62 years ago, Nigeria gained independence from the British empire. With the departure of the British, it fell to Nigerians to oversee the affairs of a liberated nation. Needless to say, this change of guards inspired hope in the hearts of millions of Nigerians.
Hope that finally, the decisions of state will be taken, not in the interest of the British empire, but for the collective good of Nigerians.
Hope that a new era of prosperity will spring forth from the ashes of desolation.
Hope that the light of freedom will pierce through the darkness of repression, and Nigerians of all stripes can reach for their dreams, unhindered.
Hope that all that had been broken by the iron fists of the colonial masters will be mended by the black hands of an indigenous governing class.
When the clock joined palms on the stroke of midnight and October 1, 1960 finally arrived, Nigerians must have been overcome with a tremendous sense of optimism. But as the fate of the independent nation unfurled, the heady optimism that animated the struggle for independence gave way to despair.
Just a few years after the Union Jack was lowered, western Nigeria, one of the four regions of the country was literally going up in flames. Then followed a bloody coup d’état that some Nigerians saw as an attempt by the Igbo people of the east to end the hegemony of the Hausa Fulani north. Six months later, northern army officers carried out a revenge coup in which they killed Igbo officers and men in large numbers. But more carnage was to come. Some northerners unleashed waves of brutal massacres that targeted Igbo civilians living in the north. It was estimated that 30,000 civilian men, women and children died in these massacres. A civil war soon ensued. Nigeria fought the breakaway Republic of Biafra. The West took sides and fanned the embers of what would become a 30-month long lopsided war.
By the time the blazing guns fell silent in 1970, eastern Nigeria had become a vast smouldering rubble, and over two million Nigerians – mostly of Igbo extraction – had lost their lives.
And so, barely ten years after gaining independence, Nigeria entered the history books for fighting one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history.
In the wake of the civil war, Nigerians still held out hope. Many believed that the country’s race wasn’t run. Many hoped that the end of the civil war would usher in a season of restoration that would see the country correct its course and fulfil its promise.
But the oligarchs pounced, and things fell apart – again.
The oligarchs dismantled economic structures that guaranteed shared prosperity and replaced them with a formidable rentier state. They also saw to it that successive post-colonial policies only benefited the oligarchy.
We have the oligarchs to thank for the catastrophic economic policies that have impoverished Nigerians.
We have the oligarchs to thank for the recurrent power cuts that have hobbled Nigeria’s industrialization efforts.
We have the oligarchs to thank for the millions of Nigerians that have perished in ill-equipped hospitals.
We have the oligarchs to thank for the millions of out of school children that roam the streets of Nigeria.
We have the oligarchs to thank for the recurring strikes that have blighted Nigeria’s higher education system.
We have the oligarchs to thank for the millions of Nigerians that go to bed hungry everyday.
And the list goes on.
The oligarchs are not ghosts. We see them everyday.
They own mansions in Ikoyi, Banana Island and Maitama. They chair Harvest and Bazaar committees in churches. They are fixtures at business conferences, where they pontificate about “Entrepreneurship”, “Globalization”, “Climate Change” and other contemporary topics. They also “mentor” young Nigerians, so, you will find them at youth conferences, waxing lyrical about “hard work”, “resilience” and “positive thinking”. They also serenade their audiences with tall tales about their modest backgrounds and how they started off as street hawkers. There is no mention of the oil wells they “bought” from fellow oligarchs – for peanuts.
It was these oligarchs that Ayn Rand was referring to when she wrote the following: “When you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors—when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you—when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice—you may know that your society is doomed”.
So, here we are at a crossroads on Nigeria’s 62nd birthday, sifting through the wreckage Nigeria’s rapacious oligarchs have left in their trail. Here we are, watching in horror as the country teeters on the brink of economic ruin. Here we are, hoping – yet again – that somehow, we can wrest Nigeria from the iron grip of oligarchs and change the trajectory of the country’s evolution.
So, where do we go from here?
The 2023 elections present us with a unique opportunity to begin what would be a long, arduous work of remaking Nigeria.
In the coming elections, we must all lean in and sniff out the oligarchs. Then, with the power of the ballot, we must bar them from holding public office.
In the seminal book, “Why Nations Fail”, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson argued that nations succeed when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions and fail when they create “extractive” institutions that concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of a few.
In 2023, Nigerians must vote for patriots that will help construct inclusive political and economic institutions.
If we do so, then we would have begun the noble work of remaking Nigeria.
It will be a long march to freedom. But if we the people can lock arms as brothers and sisters, and march in the direction of our dreams for Nigeria, we shall overcome. The fault, my compatriots, is not in our stars.
Osita Abana, a public policy professional, writes from Atlanta, United States.