Listening to President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday was almost like going back 31 years. That October 1 in 1984 was his first and last as military head of state.
A lot has changed since then, yet so much more has got worse. I didn’t quite realise this until I found an online copy of the Statesman newspaper which reported Buhari’s Independence Day broadcast in its edition of Tuesday, October 2, 1984 – exactly 31 years ago today.
The newspaper reported that, “the Federal Military Government has ordered the immediate release of 250 detainees (Chief Audu Ogbeh was reportedly among them) including some businessmen….
“General Buhari stated that because of the economic situation, this year’s independence was being marked with minimum cost, stressing that the occasion calls on Nigerians to count their blessings and resolve to remove obstacles in their way to happiness and prosperity….
“The head of state pointed out that the present administration was committed to giving a leadership of service and sacrifice because the military did not take over power to accumulate wealth…
“He said the FMG was determined to eradicate senseless greed in the country and urged all public officers to give the country committed and selfless service…General Buhari stated that the public service must abandon corruption, incompetence and slow pace of executing programmes and remarked that the days of easy money and reckless spending were over.”
It was a much younger Buhari that gave that speech – 41-years-old at the time – and he carried on his shoulders the burden of a few other military officers who, along with him, thought they could redeem a drifting country with military discipline.
Thirty-one years on and six and a half governments in- between, the demons have not only refused to go away, they have festered. October 1 has receded from being a day of thanksgiving and national pride to one of obscurity and regret.
And I’m not saying so out of nostalgia. I still remember how, as a student, we wore our best uniforms for the October 1 parade. On D-Day, we would turn out with our starched uniforms, white socks and little green-white-green flags.
After filing past the dais either at a local government headquarters or the state’s stadium, depending on how far your school performed in the pre-selection drills, we would listen to speeches from the guest of honour as we stood at ease in the noonday heat.
The speakers would often promise a better life, a better future; the fulfillment of not only our dreams but those of our founding fathers as well. Education was free up to secondary school and a good number of our teachers were Ghanaians who had fled the hardship in their country.
Nigeria was different. It was gifted and potentially great – a giant of a country whose citizens were the envy of a number of countries. Unlike the heart-rending stories of migrants dying to escape the country today, Nigerian travellers did not require visas to travel to many countries.
Whatever problems were at the time, whether erratic power supply, inadequate provision of potable water or the high cost of staple, politicians promised that by 1990 everything would be fine. Well, that was a quarter of a century ago.
Promises die first. Buhari’s October 1, 1984 speech showed we’ve been living a pipe dream. The same demons he complained about 31 years ago – greed, incompetence, corruption and reckless spending – have brought the country to its knees, leaving you to wonder whether that brief spell of hope only existed in your head.
Perhaps the lowest point in Independence Day celebrations was October 1, 2010. That year, militants belonging to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta exploded car bombs at the Eagle Square where former President Goodluck Jonathan was reviewing a parade. At least 12 people died and several others were injured.
It was Nigeria’s 50th anniversary celebration and Jonathan’s first as president.
It was a declaration of war and Nigerians expected their president to rally the country. Not even during the three-year civil war was such an outrage visited on the nation’s capital during the October 1 ceremonies.
Jonathan needed to make the point that whoever was responsible for the Abuja bombings on October 1 had crossed the line.
But what did we get? Two days later, the former president not only absolved MEND of responsibility (even though the group had claimed the bombings), he said MEND was not a terrorist group and had only been used as a straw!
That changed the game. Even after the leader of the group, Henry Okah, was arrested, convicted and jailed in South Africa, the next four October 1 ceremonies were never the same. The government retreated every year until the fear of MEND was replaced by the fear of Boko Haram and the fear of Boko Haram confined the former president and the country to mark October 1 as a curfew.
In a tribute to the vestiges of the Jonathan years, Governor Ayo Fayose on Wednesday asked the people of Ekiti to mark October 1 in their homes. That’s OK for him and those who made him their governor.
As for the rest of the country, as we deal with echoes of the ghosts of 1984 – the corrupters and incompetents who have made our lives miserable – we must still find it in our hearts to be thankful for the beginnings of change.
The unfinished business is back on track. We can wave the flag with some pride in the hope that, 31 years from now, our children will wonder whether there was indeed a country as badly afflicted as the one we now lament.