In 2005, when I was in the UK, the great patriot and public intellectual, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, after exhorting me to pursue knowledge, went on to give an important piece of advice:
“Then come back to this country that built your schools, that educated you, that gave you scholarship [I was actually not on a scholarship]. Remember all the Nigerians who helped in the civil service, in academia etc to make you what you are. And also remember the millions who subsidised your education, because the investment in the system was at their expense. You are a representative of those voiceless people, they sponsored you and made you what you are. Then ask yourself: What one thing can I commit myself to doing, not for a salary, not for reward, not as a favour, but in gratitude to my country and those people? How can I say to them thank you, for being a part of what produced me? Then do it, do it and never look back. And if that is the route to glory so be it, and if the root to prison so be it, and if the route to death so be it… but stay on course.
Sorry for being presumptuous and offering all this, but after the advice you gave, it is the least I can do.”
Ran sarki ya dade. His own life has been a monument to the sense of gratitude expressed in this golden piece of admonition. The commitment to paying back to the country that gave him so much. That was the country which the generation of his father and grandfather bequeathed. The country that came out of the selflessness of Tafawa Balewa, the unequalled vision of the Sardauna, the uncommon statesmanship of Awolowo. And many leaders and civil servants at different levels. But what kind of country did the generation of our parents give us? The ABU attended by SLS and my uncles in the seventies is certainly not the same that I attended. Our children can no longer attend the schools that we were proud to attend. Many who attended Federal Government Colleges in the seventies and eighties now send their children to private secondary schools. Our politicians who attended ABU, UI, UNN and Unilag in the seventies now send their kids to Europe and North America. So, what kind of country are we handing over to our own children? I looked at the global ranking of the first 1000 universities of the world and found that the only Nigeria university on the list is at the very bottom of the pile. I was sad. Is Nigeria still a country that our people can die for? Is it even a country that our children would want to live in? Will the children of SLS be able to feel the same love that the great emir exudes for the Nigeria that nurtured him?
How can a country unloved by its own citizens survive? People leave the country in droves every day, even at the risk of death crossing the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea. How can a people who think that Nigeria doesn’t care about them care about Nigeria? Many see the country as a burning house, not to be saved but, to be pillaged before everything goes up in flames. How can people who think that the leaders are just there to only take care of themselves and families die for Nigeria? How can a country with a vanishing sense of patriotism endure? How can a country that cannot provide basic education for its poor and basic healthcare for its sick earn love, loyalty and a sense of patriotism from the people? But how can we rekindle a much-needed sense of patriotism in our people?
An interlocutor chides me for dwelling on the actions of others: forget about others’ deeds and misdeeds and concentrate on your own actions, choices and eventual legacies. Yes, by all means. Let’s pay attention to our own legacies. But is it really wise to forget the deeds and misdeeds that brought about the present state of affairs? A historical perspective reminds us that Nigeria could be a lot better. It instructs us not to be the same as the generation of our parents who destroyed what was handed over to them. We learn from their misdeeds. It shows us the impact that greed, tribalism, selfishness, and short-sightedness can have on the destiny of a nation. We learn to avoid fire from the memory of pain. The history of a nation, sweet or bitter, is like the memory of an individual. Just as an individual cannot learn without memory, a nation cannot improve without a historical perspective. We need to engender a profound sense of history in Nigerians. Why do we think that monuments are erected all over the world to commemorate the historical wickedness of humans like slavery, anti-Semitism, genocides and pogroms, Apartheid, racism etc? It is certainly not to focus on the deeds and misdeeds of others but to remind us what great evil we are capable of and to resolve not to follow the same path. To say in our hearts: Never again! And to be eternally vigilant that small actions can have devastating effects. Those ‘others’ are not really others, they are ‘us’. History is the collective memory of humankind. History is a great teacher. From Achebe we learnt that we need to know where the rain started beating us.
We need to learn from history, believe that things can be better, and work for it. Individually and collectively, we need to build a Nigeria that our children can be proud of. Some of us have to start from a point of patriotism and optimism and work to give the rest something to be patriotic and optimistic about.
Happy Independence Day!