I checked in at the Protea Oakwood Hotel in Lekki, the next morning, as our accommodation had been wholly sponsored by the First Bank of Nigeria. It was two people to a room, and I met Chude Jideonwo, an editor at Nigeria’s NEXT newspapers, and one of the organizers of the recent Enough-is-Enough rally in Lagos and Abuja, which had been organized to demand for more responsible leadership in the country.
Over lunch, we got introduced to the other participants and facilitators. We had for facilitator, Dele Olojede, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former foreign editor for Newsday. The only African-born Pulitzer Prize winner, Dele had won the award for his coverage of the Rwandan genocide. Dele was assisted by Reuben Abati, chairman of the editorial board of Guardian Newspapers and winner of the Fletcher Challenge Commonwealth Prize for Opinion Writing in 2000.
The reception and welcome speeches over Thursday evening, the seminar kicked off with a viewing of the film, Ghandi, a 1982 biographical film based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, who led the nonviolent resistance movement against British colonial rule in India during the first half of the 20th century. The film begins with Gandhi's assassination, and then the story flashes back 55 years to a life-changing event: in 1893, Gandhi is thrown off a South African train for being an Indian sitting in a first-class compartment despite having a ticket. Realizing the laws are biased against Indians, he then decides to start a non-violent protest campaign for the rights of all Indians in South Africa. After numerous arrests and unwelcome international attention, the government finally relents by recognizing rights for Indians, though not for the native blacks of South Africa.
What followed was an attempt to identify the pivotal points of Gandhi’s life and an attempt to focus on the qualities of leadership that were essential to his mission. As the participants rattled off quality after quality, Dele attempted to bring us closer home to Nigeria, and see if we could identify any parallel in the journey of Nigeria up to this point.
One of the most eye-opening points for me was when participants were asked to mention one person, dead or alive that they admired as a leader, and the quality that they admired in that person. Responses ranged from Mandela, to Malcolm X, to Obama, and Hilary Clinton. Out of the 33 participants, only two individuals mentioned a Nigerian name, and even at that, none of the names mentioned were those of our past or current rulers. Dele was quick to point this out and wonder why we were a nation that never seemed to put its best food forward. This was followed by contentious discussions about the similarities and differences between the India of Ghandi and the Nigeria that was ours.
After a short break, Session One, "Nigerian History and Status" commenced with popular constitution lawyer, Asue Ighodalo leading a discussion of Nigeria’s history prior to its conception, through its infancy, and up to the current moment. He attempted to identify the various points of inflexion in our journey where we could have made the right decision but often ended up on the wrong side of history. He then posed the question of whether the elections of 2011 would be another inflexion point and whether we were going to take the right turn at that point in time.
Another defining moment came when we were introduced to the October 1, 1960 independence speech delivered by Nigeria’s then Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. As a naturalized American citizen, I knew almost every word of the American ‘Declaration of Independence’, and yet this was the first time in my 30 years of existence that I had ever come across the text of the Nigerian ‘Declaration of Independence’, it seemed I was beginning to understand some of the roots of the Nigerian problem. I even wondered how many of our leaders, past and present, had ever seen this text.
Permit me to quote some memorable parts of that Independence speech delivered about fifty years to this day.
“This is a wonderful day, and it is all the more wonderful because we have awaited it with increasing impatience compelled to watch one country after another overtaking us on the road when we had so nearly reached our goal. But now we have acquired our rightful status and I feel sure that history will show that the building of our nation proceeded at the wisest pace: It has been thorough, and Nigeria now stands well built upon firm foundations.”
A couple of thoughts struck me at this point, as I wondered at the happiness with which it seemed our people had embraced independence, I wondered how firm the foundations had really been, such that only half a century later, it seemed as if the house was about to fall upon itself. But then I continued to read.
“Each step of our constitutional advance has been purposefully and peacefully planned with full and open consultation between representatives of all the various interests in Nigeria but in harmonious co-operation with the administering power which has today relinquished its authority.”
The above part went against the grain of the struggles in the Niger Delta and other parts of the country since independence for open consultation about the future of the nation, that I was beginning to wonder if the Prime Minister was talking about a different country. But then he continued.
“We are called upon immediately to show that our claims to responsible government are well-founded, and having been accepted as an independent state we must at once play an active part in maintaining the peace of the world and in preserving civilization. I promise you, we shall not fail for want of determination.”
Now in all my years of living in Nigeria, I had never witnessed a government that could lay claim to being responsible, or one that seemed to show any sign of determination (except to plunder).
Permit me to mention here also, that the speech in my view failed to properly establish a clear vision for the new nation that was being built and the terms upon which it was to exist.
Maryam Uwais, foremost constitution lawyer and female activist also led us through a brief review of the Nigeria Electoral Reform and Constitution, which like most noble initiatives had been mired in such controversy that it died in the legislative chambers as it sought to make the electoral playing field more level, a situation that most of the representatives obviously had no incentive to encourage.