By Martins Oloja
THE so-called grand finale of the year-long centenary celebration, which culminated in last Friday’s award/dinner night in Abuja was a grandiloquent celebration of mediocrity! The other day, a Dutch journalist who has done some works in West Africa and Nigeria had noted in a remarkable article that mediocrity was fast overtaking graft in Nigeria. This newspaper culled the controversial article that was hailed by many readers. I do not have any other word to describe the whole Centenary narrative last weekend, other than a “cerebration of mediocrity”. As a Nigerian, one had expected to see in the grand finale some historical documents and documentaries on Nigeria in the last 100 years. Was it material poverty or poverty of the mind and ideas that deprived the Centenary Committee from doing and publishing something grand, something historic and historical, something remarkable about Nigeria for the young and old, local and foreign observers to see? What has been the highpoint of the year-long celebration? Is the award night the highpoint? Award dominated by all former heads of state? What is the significance of the award to Chief Ernest Shonekan whose Interim National Concoction (Government) was declared illegal by a court? What is the worth of the award to the late General Sani Abacha when the federal government is still recovering some disputed loot in Swiss Banks from his family? Why were there so many obvious and avoidable omissions? Why was the entire civil service omitted from the list of nominees? Those who are familiar with the public service parlance know that “public service” is not a synonym for “civil service” in any material particular. Was the media adequately represented by the late Herbert Macauley, Ernest Sisei Ikoli and Babatunde Jose alone in the last 100 years in Nigeria?
As a journalist and researcher, I had expected the Centenary Celebration Secretariat to have commissioned some experts, historians, political scientists and others to document for us some newsworthy stories often ignored, or never explored in the last 100 years. What is more, why was Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike ignored among historians and pioneers when he was the one who reportedly formed the Historical Society of Nigeria in 1955? Professor Dike was the first Nigerian Principal of the University College of Ibadan. He was the pioneer Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan. He was said to have established the National Archives in 1952 and served as its first Departmental Head as Director. The Society had a colloquium on the Centenary in Abuja. Why didn’t the Centenary Committee commission the Society to do a grand documentation of Nigeria at 100? Even when the Rivers State organized its own Centenary tagged Port Harcourt @ 100 in November, 2013, there was a grand ceremony and it was properly documented in a grander style in a book edited by famous scholars, Professor E.J Alagoa & Judy Nwanodi. The book is entitled, Port Harcourt at 100: Past, Present and Future. Foreword to the book is written by no less a person than a famous History scholar, Patrick Dele Cole, PhD. It is a world-class scholarly document. Why didn’t the presidency borrow a leaf from this worthy effort? More questions!
What is more, I listened to the Masters of Ceremony that handled the grand finale in Abuja and the impression created by their not-so-grand performance was that they were either recruited in some haste or they were briefed to celebrate mediocrity. This is the thing: why couldn’t the MCs recall simple facts about all the former presidents and heads of state that were present there to make the occasion remarkable? In the last 100 years, there have been some landmarks in Nigeria, notably, establishment of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC); building of a brand new capital, Abuja and there are more. But for that occasion, the creator of NYSC, one of the most enduring monuments of unification, General Yakubu was there and he was honoured, yet no one mentioned NYSC. Alas, no MC could link Dr Gowon with this noble effort for the world to see that some of the good old men that have nurtured Nigeria are still alive.
Even Abuja, our Abuja was diminished
ALAS! Even Abuja, Nigeria’s unity capital and major symbol of our unity was never mentioned by any speakers on any of the many ceremonies. What is more, even when the late General Murtala Ramat Muhammed was mentioned for honour, no speaker could associate him for proclaiming Abuja as Nigeria’s capital on February 3, 1976 and legalising it with a decree the following day, (February 4, 1976). It was General Olusegun Obasanjo as then No.2 who reportedly assisted his boss to ‘procure’ Justice Akinola Aguda, a legal luminary and former CJ of Botswana who headed the Presidential Panel that recommended the site of the “Centre of Unity”, Abuja. He (the late Aguda) could not be remembered. Most people are persuaded that the late Aguda too is more historically significant than some of the awardees including even Edwin Clark and Rilwanu Lukman. But then the MCs could not link General Obasanjo who took up the daunting task of building Abuja from scratch. No one remembered Obasanjo who could normally qualify any day for the “last man standing” whenever Nigeria’s unity is discussed. He began the building of Abuja and former President Shehu Shagari reportedly celebrated Nigeria’s independence anniversary in the uncompleted capital in 1980. Besides, democracy returned Obasanjo to power in 1999 and he had yet another opportunity of restoring Abuja to its original Master Plan in 2003 when he was sufficiently angry that the plan had been desecrated: he brought in Malam Nasir el-Rufai, considered to be the right man to do the job of restoration. He did it to everyone’s admiration. The point is that even General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB) who actualized the Murtala dream by relocating the capital proper on Thursday, December 12, 1991 was at the award ceremony. Too bad no one remembered the role of Generals Murtala, Obasanjo & IBB in the building of Nigeria’s most significant Monument of Unity since 1914. Why didn’t the Centenary Committee that worked for more than a year remember to give Abuja a separate award? Why was there no colloquium on Abuja either on December 12, 2013 or February 3, 2014 as part of the grand finale? It stands to reason that Abuja, our Abuja, should have been used to showcase the highpoint that the amalgamation of 1914 symbolises. I mean that even the MCs could not recall these historical facts that could have deepened understanding of the journey from 1914 to 2014? Whatever happened to the Committee’s sense of history on this score?
Lest we forget, how could they have honoured Niger Deltans without remembering the significance of Adaka Boro and Ken Saro Wiwa? In this connection, why would the Committee recommend an honour to General Sani Abacha without remembering Henry Townsend and Samuel Ajayi Crowther? What really happened to the simple cognitive power of recall at the Committee? Who else was more pioneering than pioneers such as role models that shaped history before 1914? Even if Townsend who set up the first newspaper in Nigeria in 1859 and Crowther, an Anglican priest who translated the English Bible into Yoruba were irrelevant to the centenary points at issue, what about the pioneer civil servants within the 1914-2014 construct? Why was there no proper civil servant honoured? Why was the name generally associated with the civil service from the Western region, Chief Simeon Adebo omitted? Civil service literature has been constant with the review of journals and books on the evolution of the Nigerianization of the service. And Phillipson-Adebo Commission of 1953 was a testimony that even a serving permanent secretary, Dr Tunji Olaopa cited to justify claims that Simeon Adebo should have been honoured in this context. Olaopa’s article on the centenary of the civil service was published in this newspaper before the grand finale, yet no one read it to correct some anomalies! Curiously, the civil service was not represented in any groups. If there had been research works for the centenary, there would have been discovery of the lacuna that will haunt the organisers for life. They recognized only public servants, no civil servant was honoured. What a rush! Again, why were the armed forces not recognized as the most potent instrument of the Unity that we are celebrating? Is it not a fact that Abuja, the centre of unity was conceived by a military junta, built by a military junta, consolidated and legalized by a military regime? Why didn’t the Committee recognize the gallantry of the armed forces in Nigeria since 1914?
Oh my God, I recall that there have not been many quotable quotes in recent years in Nigeria but no one could have forgotten the often quoted one by General Muhammadu Buhari:
This generation of Nigerians and indeed future generations have no other country than Nigeria. We shall remain here and salvage it together.
I just still wonder why no speaker or MC recalled this General’s word on marble when the point at issue at the award night was Nigeria’s Unity. This is one of the reasons, in this connection we have had to intervene with this remarkable compendium to mark the centenary in style for our wonderful readers. Just flip through, read and keep this memorable publication and forget about Abuja’s men afflicted with selected amnesia.
Epilogue: I hope our people will continue to remember Abuja as the major symbol of unity and collective effort to showcase to the world that Nigeria too can build a monument. I hope someone has learned some lessons and picked some architecture in the ruins that this centenary debacle has become. Never again shall we celebrate mediocrity
Martins Oloja can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org