Independence celebrations in Nigeria have traditionally been marked by the Head of State urging citizens to be thankful for how far the country has come and promising new beginnings.
Now, it is also a stark reminder of lingering trouble: terrorism. The last few national celebrations have taken place in the confines of the presidential residence, instead of the traditional Eagle Square, after a bomb blast during the 2010 celebrations killed several people.
This year, there will be even more reason for the day to be subdued. The Nigeria that will be celebrating its 54th anniversary will be smaller than the one that turned 50. The militant group Boko Haram, in brazen defiance of the government’s resolve to subdue it, now takes pride in seizing portions of Nigerian territory.
The insurgency shaved half a percentage point off the GDP this year, says Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. In addition, the threat of the Ebola virus, which has swept through West Africa since April, has alarmed investors. From an economic point of view there is much cause for worry.
Nigeria has a history of navigating through choppy waters. A decade ago, militants in the Niger Delta were busy stoking frustrations and amassing weaponry, which they would use to cripple the oil industry that is the country’s mainstay. The force majeures that followed, combined with the global economic meltdown, left the country in a precarious position.
The country that gained its independence on October 1, 1960 – one of 18 African countries that would break free from the colonial grip that year – was a hopeful one. From the day it dawned on Nigerians, three years earlier, that that the much smaller Ghana had beaten Nigeria to freedom, enthusiasm had swelled in the then federal capital Lagos.
“This is a wonderful day, and it is all the more wonderful because we have awaited it with increasing impatience, compelled to watch one country after another overtaking us on the road when we had so nearly reached our goal,” said Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa in his Independence Day speech.
“I promise you, we shall not fail for want of determination. And we come to this task better-equipped than many.”
Barely six years later, it was all over. The republic crumbled, partly under the weight of corruption that critics say has grown worse. They claim corruption is depriving Nigerians – more than half of whom live below the poverty line – of the benefits of hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue.
While the road to independence may have been, in Balewa’s words, without bitterness nor bloodshed, the road since has been rocky. So, like several other African countries, bloodshed has defined much of Nigeria’s post-independence history. From a succession of coups to a bloody civil war, that claimed more than one million lives, and ethno-religious crises.
Added to that is the copious number of deaths from needless causes that Nigerians have long got used to: infants dying from easily treatable diseases, car crashes, petroleum pipeline spills and adulterated drugs.
Amid the gloom, however, Nigeria has never been better placed than it is now to pull off a long-awaited economic miracle. The last decade has been marked by solid growth – averaging in excess of 6%, and placing Nigeria among the fastest growing economies in the world. In April, it emerged, after a long overdue reassessment, that Nigeria, not South Africa, is Africa’s largest economy.
Investor confidence is strong in spite of the country’s challenges. The confidence is fed largely by a large youthful population. A large diaspora also remits around 4% of GDP annually.
A regime of relative macroeconomic stability, dating back more than a decade, also contributes to the confidence. A debt relief package obtained in 2006 freed the country from crippling interest payments, and, with a sovereign wealth fund launched in 2011, signposted the country’s intent to be taken seriously by the international community.
The biggest challenge facing the managers of the economy has been – and will continue to be – converting that abstract progress into a visible lift in the fortunes of millions of citizens.