MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 6 – (Nigerian Nightmare & Congolese Chaos)

(Lessons from the first (mis)steps following modern Africa’s independence)

Nigeria’s case, considering her human and natural resource potential, is especially pathetic. One of the most mineral rich countries in the whole world and probably the most educated nation-space in Africa, high hopes were pinned on her future. Before he died in 1946, Herbert Macaulay had already for more than two decades championed, stoked the fires and laid the political foundations of Nigerian nationalism. But Nigeria’s greatest strength was also her most paralysing weakness: Diversity in number. A mind-blowing total of over three hundred tribes speaking as many or more languages, additionally split between Christians, Muslims and Animists, with a long pre-colonial history of competition, are indigenous to the most populous black country on earth. As victory in the push for 1960 independence from British rule approached, politics blatantly and shamelessly degenerated into ethno-regional-religious do-or-die contests. Macaulay’s successor, Zik of Africa, eventually abandoned the national canvas and, following the examples of the other regional leaders, retreated into ethno-regional partisanship. From all sides of the federation the message was clear and unambiguous: Pan-nationalism and one-nigerianness were henceforth dead and buried. Political leaders, including the Prime Minister, were seen each by the other regions as simply representing the interests of their regions, tribes or religions. From then on, the Nigeria project became purely a treacherous, mistrustful, coalition poker, a serpentine dance on shifting sands, a volatile cake to be unevenly divided or stolen whole, a mad dash for power. Corruption and selfishness flourished. Nigeria’s stupendous mineral wealth turned into a curse. In the contest for political, economic, resource and military advantage, there was no loud, strong, unifying, pacifying, blending voice. Instead there was a deafening dearth of Will to see themselves as one great people, to detribalise and de-religionise the nation-space, to inculcate national values, to forfeit any right-to-rule mentality, to foster trust amongst one another. There was no leadership effort to awaken in the peoples a sense of being one people, a purpose to being one people, a will to become one people in an equity-based democratic independent African nation. Like an unstable atom, Nigeria wobbled and broke down. Rigged elections, violence, coups, pogroms, civil war, military dictatorships, failed democracies, tribalism, religious violence, calls for cessation from all sides, annulled elections, distrust, disunity, accusations and counter-accusations, all underlined by corruption and financed by Nigeria’s oil reserves – this would consequently be Nigeria’s fate for the next forty years after independence. Wounds and positions from the past still plague the national dialogue, unreconciled, even to this day. Great problems need great minds. Great opportunities require great courage. On independence morning, Nigeria’s leaders proved themselves unable to dream big and visionary, to grasp the spear of destiny inadvertently handed to this unique black nation and to overcome the temptations of regionalism. Nobody was willing to be the one to forfeit regionalism in the interest of nation-building. No-one was brave enough to bell the cat. Nigeria was not plagued by one lifelong dictator; she was and is plagued by one lifelong streak of power-lust and plunder.

Congo, another stupendously mineral-wealthy country, did not even make it past the first few months of independence before intense internal disunities thrust it into the path of civil war, coups and dictatorship. Lumumba, quite simply, never had a chance. Belgian interests and American intelligence were bent on his demise. In the face of outside opposition, the only chance of survival anybody ever has is the unity, support and backing of his people. But, of all the independence era African leaders, probably none was a greater victim of the internal disunity of his country’s tribes and peoples than was Patrice Lumumba. But he was not victim alone. His fiery, fearless and forthright nature – his greatest asset as a freedom fighter and anti-imperialist champion of independence – became his tragic, if heroic, Achilles’ heel once the Congo attained independence and was left to itself, with him as its executive head. Not reconciliation and de-escalation were his modus operandi – such were not in his revolutionary nature. His message was resistance, retaliation, elimination and conquest. His fazit: Congo was full of local and foreign enemies, and they all had to be eliminated or booted out. Fullstop. When the U.N. – whose peace-keeping troops had, at his behest, come into his country with lightning speed – seemed unwilling to help him squash his enemies in the manner he desired, he loudly turned to communist Russia for help, inadvertently touching a raw nerve in global Cold War politics. He was punching way above his weight. Thus, his fate – and that of the Congo – was sealed right from the start. His fellow Congolese, aided by Belgian troops, captured him, held him without trial, tortured and executed him, and hacked his body to pieces; but that too brought no peace. The rest is history. The Congo, alias Zaire, has since then been the plaything of coups, interventions and dictatorships, the most infamous – but not last – of which was under Mobutu Sese Seko. After once suffering and surviving the dark horrors of Belgian oppression and exploitation, the mineral-rich Congo today still remains a tricky multi-ethnic hotbed of internecine guerrilla activity, civil war and internal disunity.

Independence, again and again, is followed by national disorientation and national soul-searching, by disagreements, civil strife and civil war. Even after the fight for political liberation has been won, the acteurs march on in the same spirit of war – hunting saboteurs, persecuting opponents, sidelining adversaries, undermining competition, underdeveloping out-of-favour regions, and taking revenge on defeated former oppressors. In Africa, rather than triggering a united, popular, constructive march towards self-dependent development, political independence exposed and fed a glaring unwillingness or incapacity to unite, to make use of the various strengths of the various components of the nation, to apply the pragmatic common sense and make the tough sacrifices and compromises required to achieve a functional political unity. What became visible was a frightening failure to grasp the concept of the one, big, strong, united Whole, shared by everybody and not just dominated one-sidedly by a few. An integrated Whole to which, and for which, each individual is responsible and free. Instead, under the conditions as they were, all that could flourish were OPPRESSION and CORRUPTION, DISTRUST, CONFLICT and, eventually, DISINTEGRATION. Independence, in the cruel irony of the ways of fate, brought with it more challenges than colonialism ever faced us with, and we were not prepared for them at all. Just as today also, despite the benefit of historical hindsight, South Sudan too was not prepared for the internally disruptive forces that are always set free by independence.

Che Chidi Chukwumerije

… continued in 7 of 11:

Preceding Chapters:
MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 3 (Tunisian Troubles, Libyan Losses, Ethiopian Woes)
MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 5 – (Ghanaian Black Holes & Ivorian Time Bombs)