By Michael Chibuzo
On October 1, 1960, in a capacity-filled Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos, the Nigerian National Anthem was sang officially for the first time. As the union jack was lowered and the green white green flag raised, the Freedom Charter was handed over to Jaja Wachuku, the Speaker of Parliament and a new independent nation was born. The hearts of Nigerians that witnessed this historic day at the Tafawa Balewa Square, and across the regional capitals in Enugu, Ibadan and Kaduna were filled with enormous pride and patriotism to their fatherland regardless of their tribe, religion or political divide. It was all about Nigeria!
The Nigerian flag not only became a symbol of sovereignty but a banner to rally the African Continent and the black race. In fact the then Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa alluded to this in his independence day speech when he said:
‘’In these days of rapid communications, we cannot live in isolation, apart from the rest of the world, even if we wished to do so. All too soon it has become evident that for us, independence implies a great deal more than self-government. This great country, which has now emerged without bitterness or bloodshed, finds that she must at once be ready to deal with grave international issues. This fact has of recent months been unhappily emphasised by the startling events which have occurred in this continent.”
‘’I shall not belabour the point but it would be unrealistic not to draw attention first to the awe-inspiring task confronting us at the very start of our nationhood. When this day in October 1960 was chosen for our Independence, it seemed that we were destined to move with quiet dignity to our place on the world stage. Recent events have changed the scene beyond recognition, so that we find ourselves today being tested to the utmost.
“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 civilisation. I promise you, we shall not fall for want of determination. And we come to this task better-equipped than many.’’
The Prime Minister was referring to the events in Congo where the Soviet Union and US-led West were trying to open a new front in the raging Cold War. Congo newly became independent in June, 1960 and within a month a political crisis erupted between the Congolese president and the Prime Minister which eventually spread into mutiny in the military and attacks against Belgians and their interests. Communist Russia and Capitalist USA saw an opportunity to take their ideological Warfare to the Congo who were non-aligned at the time. So, one could understand the ambition of Sir Tafawa Balewa to make Nigeria, as a new power in the African continent, to play a stabilising role outside its borders.
The Congo crisis put on the front burner the urgent need for newly independent African States to protect their newfound freedom by working together. Pan-Africanism became an even more topical discourse, with no consensus. The division led to the emergence of three ideological blocs on the African continent, split between the Casablanca Group (consisting of Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Libya, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria) which advocated for radical and full continental integration, the Monrovia Group (consisting of Nigeria, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sudan, Togo, and Somalia) which proposed a moderate approach to unification to be undertaken in incremental steps, and the Brazzaville Group (consisting of Francophone countries and led by Senegal and the Ivory Coast) which remained tied to the interests of France. The Brazzaville Group however agreed with the ideological position of the Monrovia group.
It was Nigeria’s Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa alongside leaders like Kenya’s Julius Nyerere that worked to bring the Monrovia group and the Casablanca Bloc to an agreement, which led to the birth of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. Nigeria therefore, right from Day 1 of its independence as seen in Balewa’s speech made Africa the centerpiece of its foreign policy. In fact, Sir Tafawa Balewa in less than a week after Nigeria’s independence attended the UN General Assembly in New York on October 7, 1960, where Nigeria’s was officially admitted to the UN as the 99th member of the UN.
Sir Tafawa Balewa did not waste time in his maiden speech at the UN when he went on to advocate for a resolution of the Congo Crisis and asking that Africa be spared from the ideological battles of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. In a speech many historians considered as rousing and perhaps the remote cause of his eventual assassination courtesy of the 1966 coup, Sir Tafawa Balewa boldly call out the world powers to allow Africa thrive devoid of interference. He was a strong advocate for the UN, appealing that the UN take the lead in international affairs and maintenance of global order. As a matter of fact he advised African countries against aligning with any of the world powers but rather maintain an independent view.
You can feel the patriotism in his voice and the ambition to make Africa a force to reckon with, which was shared by many Nigerian intellectuals then. They understood the importance of Nigeria, being the most populous and viable in Africa, to play a leading role in African integration. Nigerians were proud to have their own country and hoped it succeeds. Then the military coups came and altered the continent’s political landscape particularly in West Africa. Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Chad, Togo, Niger, and Sudan all experienced military coups. Internal instabilities ensued in these countries. In Nigeria, a brutal civil war was fought between 1967 to 1970. Nigeria emerged from the civil war divided with patriotism taking a big hit.
After the civil war, Nigeria led an effort once again to create the West African regional block, ECOWAS with main reason being to promote economic and political cooperation in West Africa and find solutions to the instability and conflicts that plagued many newly independent Western African countries. Some of the specific goals of ECOWAS include promoting trade and investment, harmonizing economic policies, improving transportation and communication infrastructure, and enhancing social and cultural cooperation. ECOWAS was also meant to play a role in resolving conflicts in the region.
Soon enough, Nigeria as the biggest power in West Africa found itself shouldering a lot of responsibilities just to maintain stability. The interventionist Nigeria was back. In 1990, Nigeria led the formation of the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in response to the civil war in Liberia. The war had begun in 1989, and by 1990, it was clear that the Liberian government was unable to contain the conflict. The ECOMOG was formed by members of ECOWAS, including Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. The force was tasked with protecting civilians, providing humanitarian assistance, and facilitating a political solution to the conflict.
Nigeria was by far the biggest contributor of troops to ECOMOG. At the peak of its involvement in the Liberian civil war, Nigeria had over 10,000 troops in the country. Nigeria has also been the largest financial contributor to the force, providing a significant portion of the budget for ECOMOG operations. In 1997, ECOMOG helped to broker a peace agreement that ended the Liberian civil war. In addition to Liberia, ECOMOG also intervened militarily in Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau as well as in peace keeping operations in Ivory Coast and Mali.
Nigeria’s interventionism is not restricted to West Africa only. Nigeria has played very significant roles in military peacekeeping operations in Africa and has provided troops for UN peacekeeping missions in countries such as Congo, Central African Republic, and Sudan. Nigeria also played a leading role in the establishment of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which is aimed at stabilizing the country and combating the terrorist group Al-Shabaab. Nigeria has consistently been one of the largest contributors of troops to AMISOM.
Nigeria’s interventionism in Africa need to be seen from the prism of self-preservation. No power stays aloof over happenings in its sphere of influence. To do so comes with certain consequences as seen in the Libyan crisis which led to the proliferation of arms in the Sahel region and easy supply of weaponry to terrorists such as Boko Haram that has troubled Nigeria. In recent times, it appears Nigeria has soft pedalled its interventionism policy in West Africa and beyond. The last major roles Nigeria played in ECOWAS were the enforcement of the electoral mandate of presidential election winners in Ivory Coast (Alassane Ouattara) and Gambia (Adama Barrow) in 2010 and 2017 respectively.
Nigeria just like ECOWAS did not put up a strong pushback against military takeovers in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso. With the latest coup in Niger Republic, it seems the region is returning to the late 1960s when military coups were fashionable. It was therefore necessary that Nigeria and ECOWAS respond strongly to stem this tide. Already, the world is now labelling West Africa as the Coup Belt of Africa. The interventionist Nigeria needed to return and take the lead once again as staying aloof may have disastrous consequences for Nigeria and the West African subregion.
In the light of Nigeria-led ECOWAS response to the Niger coup, what is troubling however is the support the Niger military junta are getting from opposition elements in Nigeria. It is acceptable for a Nigerian to oppose a military intervention in Niger Republic by Nigeria but what is unacceptable is becoming a fan/propaganda arm of the coupists and even calling for a coup in Nigeria just because your preferred candidate lost the last presidential election in Nigeria. That is the height of unpatriotism and it shares a thin line with treason. Some of these misguided Nigerians are happy with the rhetoric from Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso military juntas pledging to join forces with the Niger junta to fight ECOWAS if they eventually intervene in Niger.
This brazen unpatriotism on display by mainly opposition supporters who still have scores to settle with President Bola Ahmed Tinubu driven by the unabating bitterness is however a reflection of a wider problem within the Nigerian society. It is common to see Nigerians adorn their taxis, buses, keke, cars, trucks and even their business premises with flags from Israel, Ghana, Britain, US and Canada with the flag of Nigeria their own country missing. It points to a death in patriotism by many Nigerians. You will hardly see US citizens adorning flags of other nations, not even allies. They declare ‘God bless America’ regardless of whether they are Republicans or Democrats.
What the Niger situation has revealed is that many Nigerians are unable to distinguish between Nigeria as a country and the political leaders/political parties. They think that by spiting Nigeria, they are spiting the leaders or political parties they hate. They are all too eager to share negative news about their own country while doubting anything resembling good news about the country of their birth. The most worrying part is the eagerness to denigrate Nigeria before other countries, painting Nigeria in the worst possible picture. On the social media, these unpatriotic elements attack any celebrity or sports personality that as much as says ‘I love Nigeria!’, ‘God bless Nigeria’ or ‘Nigeria is the best country in the world’.
This is a wake up call to the country as a whole to start a campaign against unpatriotism among its people. It is a cancer that if left unchecked will one day consume this great nation. Civic education is taught in our primary and secondary schools most times to fulfill all righteousness. Now is the time to pay close attention to that subject and how it is taught. The love for country and duty to the fatherland must be instilled into the consciousness of the next generation of Nigerians if we are to prevent the total demise of patriotism in Nigeria. We need rekindle the flame of patriotism in Nigerians, both leaders and followers to reach the October 1, 1960 levels. This is the only catalyst that will propel us to the status of a great economic and geopolitical giant. We a mass of citizens that will make ‘God bless Nigeria!’ a daily refrain.