In his independence anniversary speech last October 1, President Muhammadu Buhari said he had laid the foundation for building the Nigeria of our dreams. He was not the first Nigerian leader to make such a claim and point the citizens towards a tomorrow country called the Nigeria of our dreams. The Nigeria of our dreams is an old concept that continues to resonate with each of our rulers. There is perhaps no better way for each of them to say that he has worked hard and put the country of our dreams within the reach of the citizens yearning for it.
What is the Nigeria of our dreams? None of our leaders has ever defined it. Each time the phrase is mouthed by each leader, the rest of us assume we know what he is talking about. We do not quite know but we fear to ask. We refuse to interrogate the concept, even if only to satisfy our curiosity as to the real meaning of the Nigeria of our dreams as opposed to its assumed meaning.
Is it an ideal to which the nation and its citizens must aspire to achieve? Is it a transformative development paradigm as in what the Asia Tigers did to discard the unwanted Third World label? Is it a national challenge to be overcome or a propaganda calculated to market the intangible to citizens who look for a better tomorrow? Does a better tomorrow define the Nigeria of our dreams?
No two Nigerians, leaders or the led alike, will define the Nigeria of our dreams the same way. Each Nigerian will define the concept in terms of his personal ambitions and aspirations, as well as his personal disappointments and frustrations with the current system. A poor labourer living in Ajegunle in Lagos would think of the Nigeria of our dreams as a country in which he is lifted from his current station in life and replanted where the rich live in Lekki in Lagos or Asokoro in Abuja. Mercedes Benz in the garage? Right.
On the other hand, the dubiously wealthy Nigerian will think of the Nigeria of our dreams as a nation in which corruption is effectively the way of life. He might also add that the Nigeria of our dreams is a country that each day brings him greater opportunities to steal and increase his wealth.
There is not one foundation but several foundations, each a product of a particular leader’s aspiration for the country he led or leads. Each of our 13 rulers believes or believed that he laid the foundation for the tomorrow country. We can use each man’s core policy as the basis for his claim on laying the foundation for the Nigeria of our dreams. General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, our first military dictator, laid the foundation for that country as a unitary system of government. General Yakubu Gowon, our second military dictator, laid his own foundation on the 12-state structure with expanded opportunities for tribes and individuals. General Murtala Muhammed laid his foundation on the executive presidential system in which the president is the father of the nation and does not share power with the prime minister.
For lack of space, I cannot deal with each man’s foundation for the beloved tomorrow country. Our problem is not lack of a foundation but a surfeit of foundations. Perhaps, therein lies our forward and backward movement. Too many foundations cause national confusion. Remember too many cooks spoiling the broth? My guess is that if all along we had one foundation instead of a multiplicity of foundations, we could have succeeded by now in building that tomorrow country, the Nigeria of our dreams.
What foundation then did Buhari lay for such a country this time around? He did not say. His core policy as a dictator and as a civilian president was/is anchored on the anti-graft war. He wanted to “kill corruption before it kills Nigeria.” Seven years later, I can hear corruption snickering. A poorly managed national economy under his watch has given rise to a multiplicity of national problems such as poverty, insecurity, a less inclusive nation and a debt burden, that will contend with his self-assessment that his administration is the best thing to happen to the country.
I believe each of our leaders came into office, not to lay the foundation for someone else to build on but to build that tomorrow country. Each man laid what he believed was the foundation for rebuilding Nigeria and hoped that his successor would build on it. But our toing and froing is the bane of our development efforts. No leader at national and sub-national levels wants to build on a foundation laid by his predecessor in office. Lagos State may prove to be an exception in this national malaise.
General Yakubu Gowon, former head of state, is the only man so far who gave us a glimpse into that ideal country of our dreams. Here is what I found in the second national development plan, 1970-74, birthed by his administration after the civil war. It was the first indigenous national development plan drawn up by Nigerians for Nigeria. According to that plan, the Nigeria of our dreams would be:
1. A just and egalitarian society.
2. A land of bright opportunity for all citizens.
3. A great and dynamic economy.
4. A free and democratic society and
5. A just and self-reliant nation.
I do not know if these fully capture the character of the Nigeria of our dreams, but these seem to fairly approximate a country set apart from a country grappling with itself. It is still a long trek to that country because our political leaders are still firmly grounded in primordial tribal and religious interests and the defence and shameless promotion of same and are provincial rather than nationalistic in outlook.
The way out is for us is to make tomorrow the responsibility of individual Nigerians. We should abandon the quest for the Nigeria of our dreams because it appears to be an airy nothing mouthed by politicians who want to write their own history and force history to be kind to them. We should instead borrow the American dreams from the Americans and call it the Nigerian dream.
James Truslow Adams coined the term in 1931 to support his argument that “life should be better and richer for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” with no regard to social class and circumstances of birth.
According to Wikipedia, his idea has since become “the national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals including representative democracy, rights, liberty and equality, in which freedom is interpreted as the ideal opportunity for individual prosperity and success, as well as upward social mobility for oneself and their children achieved through hard work in a capitalist society with few barriers.”
The American dream is a beguiling promise derived from that country’s constitution, which affirms that “all men are created equal” and are entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is an ideal, which put responsibility on individual citizens who are free to exercise their freedom to chase after the rainbow, without let or hindrance – at least theoretically. The state has a duty to protect those rights and freedoms and ensure that no man or woman is prevented from pursuing his or her dreams and possibly actualising them – again theoretically.
All men, and I would imagine all women too, may be created equal but neither nature nor the society treats them as equals. Natural and artificial obstacles fence in some and fence out others and make equal treatment of all men and women difficult. Thus, race defined by the colour of the skin is the basis for treating men born equal but are treated unequally even in God’s own country. This and other forms of discriminations have strengthened, not weakened the American dream. When a country gives you the chance to dream dreams and pursue them, whatever might be the odds, it tells you that you alone are the obstacle to your own progress.
We can anchor the Nigerian dream on the same principles and philosophy and make our constitution affirm that all Nigerians are created equal; that our tribes and the deity we worship must not deny us equality and the full exercise of our rights and freedoms as citizens under our constitution; that these are God-given rights and freedoms; that government is duty bound to protect these rights and freedoms so the individual can chase after their individual rainbows;
Those are ideals worth fighting for, not the Nigeria of our dreams. To be sure, the Nigerian dream will not stop discrimination and cynical denial of rights to equal treatment under the law on the basis of tribe and religion but without it, everything rings hollow. The Nigerian dream, like the American dream, must seek to promote the can-do spirit of young Nigerians, fire their imaginations, and rekindle their faith in fairness, justice, and equality in their own country.
Former President Goodluck Jonathan probably epitomised the Nigerian dream. He is proud of the fact that despite his early deprivation in life, he made it to the highest level of our government as president of the Federal Republic. If he could make it, he exhorted us in 2019, the rest of us could make it too by dint of hard work and the singular pursuit of our dreams. It should be the Nigerian dream.