Allen Christopher Bertram Bathurst, the 9th Earl of Bathurst is a British peer whose other title is Lord Apsley. He and I were colleagues at Harrow School, the best private school in the United Kingdom, 30 years ago. In 1985 he said the following: ‘’Nigeria is a toilet of a country where evil reigns’’.
I have never forgotten his insulting remarks. I found it intriguing that this quintessential member of the English upper class had the nerve to say such things to me about my country. My response to him was equally graphic and frank. I told him that Nigeria was not a ‘’toilet of a country’’ but that if he insisted on his insolent characterization then it was a ‘’toilet’’ that was established by non-other than his British forefathers who defecated in it and left a horrible mess before departing from our shores. He found my response most disconcerting and we almost came to blows.
Yet I look at what has happened to us in the last 54 years of our existence as an independent nation and what we have suffered in the last 100 years since the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates and I really do wonder. If the truth must be told, things have not gone too well for us.
I was born in the same year as we gained our independence and as I ponder and reflect on the last 54 years all I see is violence, bloodshed, dashed hopes, lost opportunities and shattered dreams. I see a brutal civil war in which two million people died. I see a string of violent military coups and repressive military dictatorships and I see suspicion and division between the peoples of the North and the South. I see dangerous tensions between the numerous ethnic nationalities, continuous strife and sectarian violence.
I see bombings, the slaughter of the innocents, Islamic fundamentalist rebellions, battleready ethnic militias and bloodthirsty local war lords. I see economic degradation, decaying infrastructure, environmental disasters and untold suffering and hardship. And finally I see poverty and unemployment, poor quality leadership and a dysfunctional semi-failed state which is still struggling to find its true identity. On October 1st every year we make nostalgic and inspirational speeches about the ‘’labours of our heroes past’’ and congratulate one another on our independence.
Yet we refuse to sit back in deep reflection, take stock of what has really been going on and carry out an honest and candid appraisal of our situation. We are not ‘’a toilet of a country where evil reigns’’ but we must admit that we are in a mess. And the question is why are we in such a mess, how did we get there, why have we not been able to get out of it in 52 years and what role did our former colonial masters play in creating and sustaining that mess. If we want to answer these questions we must go back to the beginning.
The problem is that the British established a faulty foundation for Nigeria right from the start which they knew could not produce anything wholesome. The Nigeria that they handed over to us in 1960 was nothing but an unworkable artificial state and a “poisoned chalice”. It was destined to fail right from the outset.
Worse still they handed us that poisoned chalice with a malicious and mischievous intent and without any recourse to our people in terms of any form of a national referendum. The British did the same thing in varying degrees when they left virtually each and every one of their other ‘’third world’’ colonies.
The most obvious cases however were Nigeria, the Sudan, India and the nation that was formerly known as Malaya. Every single one of these four countries had monumental problems with sustaining their unity after independence and all of them, with the exception of Nigeria, were compelled to break up into smaller entities before they could bring out the best in themselves as a people and fully exercise their human potentials.
Consequently India broke up into three and became India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Sudan broke into two and became Southern Sudan and the Sudan and Malaya broke into two and became Malaysia and Singapore. Nigeria is yet to find the courage and fortitude to go that far and whether we will eventually break up or not remains to be seen.
Yet the truth is that when you force two incompatibles with completely different world views together into an unhappy marriage, lock the gates of the house, throw away the keys and bestow leadership upon a “poor husband” to rule over a ‘’rich wife’’ in perpetuity, you are looking for trouble.
The result of the amalgamation was therefore predictable. It was either that the “poor husband” (the North) would fully subjugate and eventually kill the “rich wife”(the south) or the “rich wife” would fully subjugate and eventually kill the “poor husband”. And we are right in the middle of that struggle for mutual subjugation till today.
In 1960 the British ensured that power was handed over to the most pliable region at the Federal level by establishing an alliance with the Northern traditional institutions and political ruling elite and fixing the census figures in their favour. Consequently by 1960 we had a situation where the well-educated, enlightened, progressive and predominantly Christian South was played out through intrigue, deceit and fixed census figures and instead power was given to a fatalistic and ultra-conservative Muslim North who were prepared to do anything the British wanted them to do, who had already overwhelmed and suppressed their own ethnic and Christian minority groups and whose major preoccupation was to dominate and control the entire federation, to keep the South out of power and to “dip the Koran in the Atlantic ocean”.
It did not stop there. Even after the British left in 1960 they continued to meddle in our affairs and they encouraged, sponsored and supported a string of repressive military regimes, all of which derived their power from a northern-controlled army officers corps whose retired generals are the ones that determine who will be what in our country. That is our story.
Some have argued that despite the ignoble intentions of the British we ought to have been able to sort out our own problems 54 years after they left us. This is a good point. It does however betray a tinge of naivety and a lack of appreciation of just how chronic those problems were right from the start and just how malevolent a hand the British dealt us.
I say this because the bitter truth is that the system in Nigeria cannot be changed simply because the forces that have controlled our country since 1960 are deeply conservative and the foundation and the structure upon which she has been established has been designed in such a way that makes radical and fundamental change impossible. Some have compared Nigeria to a badly wounded leg which can only be healed through restructuring. It follows that the only way real change can come is if the country is restructured and power is devolved from the center. Unfortunately the Nigerian people do not seem to be minded to effect this option anytime soon.
They seem to have lost their will to resist inequity, tyranny and injustice, to insist on determining their own fate and to fight for their own future. The relevance of the British today is that they are not only the architects of this monumental monstrosity but they are also the ones that have continued to encourage and support the ruling elite that runs and sustains it.
If they were being fair to us they would have been amongst those that have been encouraging the idea of restructuring our country, devolving power from the center and effecting a fundamental and radical change in our attitudes and affairs. That is precisely what they are doing in the United Kingdom itself today where power is being systematically and gradually devolved from the center at Westminster in England to the hitherto suppressed and occupied regions of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
This is good enough for them yet our erstwhile colonial masters have never supported a similar course of action for us. It is for this reason that we can blame the forefathers of the 9th Earl of Bathurst almost as much as we can blame ourselves for the mess that our country is in up until today.