African viewpoint: Nigeria - an unfinished state

A Nigerian woman in Lagos celebrating the counry's 51st independence anniversary on Saturday 1 October

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Sola Odunfa takes a wry look at Nigeria's post-colonial leaders, as the country marks 51 years of independence.

I have had the privilege of meeting at close quarters with nearly all Nigerian heads of government so far, and one thing I can testify about them is that they are all well-intentioned.

They mean very well for the country and they believe sincerely that their only problem is the incapability of Nigerians to identify and appreciate what is good for them.

There was "Gentleman Jack" who after nine years of hard labour as military head of state decreed that his promised 1976 handover date was no longer realistic and he would therefore, with utmost reluctance, remain in office until a more convenient date in the - preferably distant - future revealed itself in his crystal ball.

Nigeria's post-independence leaders

  • 1960: Abubakar Tafawa Balewa - took power as prime minister at independence
  • 1966 January: Maj-Gen Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, military leader
  • 1966 July: Lt-Col Yakubu Gowon, military leader during the Biafran civil war
  • 1975: Brigadier Murtala Ramat Mohammed, coup leader
  • 1976: Lt-Gen Olusegun Obasanjo, military leader and handed over to civilan rule
  • 1979: Shehu Shagari, elected
  • 1983: Maj-Gen Muhammad Buhari, coup leader
  • 1985: Ibrahim Babangida, coup leader
  • 1993 August: Ernest Shonekan, interim leader after military annulled elections
  • 1993 November: Gen Sani Abacha, coup leader
  • 1998: Maj-Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar, interim military leader
  • 1999: Olusegun Obasanjo, elected
  • 2007: Umaru Yar'Adua, elected
  • 2010: Goodluck Jonathan, elected

Presto, Nigerians turned against him!

Yet that was the man who, to break the monotony of daily battle front news from the civil war, gave Nigerians an unprecedented state wedding, into which huge resources were invested to raise the spirit of the nation.

That was the same man who concluded that his country's problem was not money but how to spend it, and he proceeded to really spend and spend and spend.

There was this other leader who invited me to State House for private discussions one evening shortly after his assumption of office.

He received me in his bedroom because that was apparently the only room to which the large crowd of patronage seekers had not laid siege.

He complained that he had not had a single day's rest since the election whereas his opponents had travelled abroad on holiday.

He was tired, he confessed, and he would appreciate understanding from Nigerians that he too was human.

His countrymen were far from being that charitable. Rather than pity the poor man, the question was being asked everywhere why he fought for the office when he knew he hadn't the wherewithal - physical and otherwise.

'Bank of England'

Start Quote

Sola if you write a wrong report I will kill you”

End Quote A Nigerian military leader before he seized office

It turned out that Mr President merely glorified the office throughout his tenure. No-one could accuse him of doing anything wrong because he did nothing.

In Nigeria the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions!

Enter the "evil genius".

I heard that long before he had access to the big pot, his nickname in the officers' mess was "Bank of England".

What is the responsibility of government if not to take care of the people's welfare?

The genius did just that - smiling at those who embraced his policy of better life for all.

I don't think it was his fault that the majority of the people could not access his paradise - it was not meant for all.

After him came an imposter who was not even allowed to settle into office, before he was shooed off.

I really did not know his successor, because I had decided I should stay as far from him for my safety. He was Satan personified.

My experience of him was during a short private interview I had with his legitimate predecessor at the presidential wing of Abuja Airport when he was the heir apparent.

At the end of the interview he stepped from behind his boss and told me point blank to the hearing of their aides: "Sola if you write a wrong report I will kill you."

One of his aides came back minutes later and warned me that his boss was not joking and I should be very careful. When he seized office, I decided never to go anywhere near him. He turned out to be a monster.

'Mr Patriot'

Start Quote

This country is like the organ of the ram in Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's song which swings wildly when the ram runs but will never fly off”

End Quote

We've also had Mr Patriot. Whether clad in khaki green or in voluminous robe, our man is the epitome of patriotism, knowledge and wisdom.

Another quality he drums into whoever cares to hear is that he is the chosen one of God, therefore he cannot be wrong. Well, I don't like superhuman beings, I cannot trust them.

I remember the first time we met after a long separation. It was at an official event.

As he was being ushered towards the hall entrance he stopped at about an arm's length from me, faced me, faked a smile and said: "Sola, so you are still alive?"

What dry humour, I wondered. So I replied with exaggerated courtesy: "Sir, I'm still hanging around to write your obituary." He turned and marched on.

If only he could shed his bloated ego! He is today his own political orchestra.

Nigeria has just celebrated its 51st independence anniversary: The newspapers, magazines and radio and television stations have been full of analyses why the nation is likely to disintegrate sooner or later.

To me, this country is like the organ of the ram in Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's song which swings wildly when the ram runs but will never fly off.

The elite have so much common interest in looting the treasury that neither tribe nor tongue nor religion allows them break up the country.

The Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah says Nigeria is "an unfinished state", not "a failed state". I agree.

If you would like to comment on Sola Odunfa's latest column, please use the form below.


More on This Story

Letter from Africa


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Bra. Sola your portrayer of the Nigeria "leaders" past, present and perhaps potentials for the future as we used to say in those days at Punch was cartoonishly accurate. They were all opportunists not endowed to lead and perhaps not so good of managing Nigerian variables. Ignorance makes it easy for them to threaten and take lives, even. However, you can tell who is a patriot or a nationalist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Donald, this is not about the there is nothing about negativity of the press or patriotism. This is more about civil responsibility and duty. If our journalist cannot point out to us the ills of our country then who would? The press has to be free and act as our moral compass. God Bless Nigeria

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Dear Sola, dont like the caption of this writing. Nigeria is a developing and growing democracy... instead of the negative press try and be more patriotic. God bless Nigeria

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Hear David Cameron at the conservative conference in Manchester ...’’when you step down from a plane in changhai, China, Mumbai in India and Lagos in Nigeria, you can feel the energy, the drive and the hunger to succeed...We need that in Britain....’’ It is time we Nigerians appreciate our country..we should stop hanging on the fence and make a positive contribution..

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Baba Sola, this article is an unfinished piece. The intentions are good but it is paved with your own views and perceptions. Please step back a bit and finish the piece.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Sola, Haba..... You want to say you don't know the problems of Nigeria! Gross mismanagement, corruption, and lack of accountability. I would have added more, like lack of basic infrastructure, tribalism, etc but they are all related to the initial 3. Check

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    To ProudlySA, The answer is simple. They left Nigeria with high hopes and expectation that, the other country is better and that they can easily pick gold on the flloor without digging. When they discovered that the reverse is the case, they became ashamed of the realities, and have to find ways and means to convince those back home, who are doing better, that it was not a wasted journey afterall.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    To NnamdiUK : Before you agree that Nigeria is a failed state and that she will break up, Please study the effect of unverifiable regional population census allocation, under the Macpherson constitution of 1951 and the civil war For the country to survive such faulty political foundation, changes must occure and there would be resistance and sabotage, No single government develops a country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    i live in joburg and one thing that puzzles me is why are there so many nigerians outside nigeria? who is supposed to solve nigerian problems when they are all running away?the majority of nigerians outside nigeria are not doing nigeria a favour as they are associated with 419scams, drug smuggling, etc well at least this is the case in joburg


Comments 5 of 29


More Africa stories



Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.