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Independence: Echoes of What Might Have Been and the Enugu Model

By Laurence Ani

Each time I ponder Nigeria’s widening ethnic fissures and the provincial outlook it has bred, it is mostly the lyrics from a song by Stevie Wonder that readily comes to mind: “What happened to the world we knew.”

The opening line from the song, Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday, aptly captures our befuddling existential dilemma and, indeed, strikes a resonant chord as we celebrate another independence anniversary under the grim shadow of ethnic bigotry and saw the country yet again almost pushed off the brink.

Being as it was then in the throes of a bitter civil war, this song released in 1969 voiced a perfect query to the fledgling Nigerian state where just about a decade earlier a Fulani man was elected the mayor of Enugu and an Igbo man had won a regional assembly seat in Lagos.

For sure, it won’t be the first time many readers of this essay would be hearing that Enugu once had a mayor of Fulani origin. But there’s no doubt that many may still cynically regard this compelling tale as one of those fabulous feel-good platitudes usually invoked by politicians to get out the votes. Such cynicism is not without basis, for whereas the era that fostered such idealism in the country’s politics is one we often recall with fondness, very little is done ironically to suggest a conscious attempt to recreate same.

As incredulous as it may seem, the first mayor of Enugu was a Fulani man named Umaru Altine and his accession to that office was not a product of affirmative action. Nor was it a quixotic pan-Nigerian decision. He actually won an election, and the fact he did is testament to the cosmopolitan worldview that characterized the country’s politics at the time.

Mallam Altine’s ascendancy is strong proof that one’s tribe and creed scarcely mattered in the political decisions Nigerians made sometime in our history especially in the 1950s and early ’60s. That was some six decades ago, yet it seems like millenniums apart compared to the Nigerian situation today with all its ethno-religious chasms.

Pondering the events that scuttled those halcyon days fills one with a sense of disappointment and memories of what might have been had the noble virtues of nationhood not succumbed to base instincts.

This was a theme that featured prominently in a phone discussion I had a few weeks ago with Mr. Bala Altine, first son of Enugu’s pioneer mayor who recalled fond memories of his time in the Coal City. Besides winning the mayoral contest by a landslide in 1954 his father also won reelection in 1956, doing so on both occasions as a member of the NCNC, a nationalist party founded by Sir Herbert Macaulay and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Azikiwe (the Igbo man referenced earlier as having won a legislative seat in the west) was the party’s helmsman during Altine’s electoral triumph and it is instructive he gave his support to a “settler” from Sokoto and not to a fellow easterner. That action was emblematic of the broad cultural worldview internalized by that era’s politicians and voters alike.

At the root of this widening national fault lines is a feeling of discontent and alienation fueled mostly by the absence of inclusiveness in governance. Bridging such divide is a necessary first step to rebuilding trust and national cohesion. Nowhere has this increasingly emerged as an imperative than in Enugu State whose governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, has worked relentlessly to tear down walls of exclusion. This has earned him plaudits even from opposition political parties in the state as witnessed recently during a reception organised by the Enugu State government in honour of retired Major General Chris Eze, Nigeria’s ambassador to India with concurrent accreditation to Bangladesh and Nepal.

Speaking in praise of the governor’s bipartisan inclination former president of the Senate, Dr. Ken Nnamani, said: “Our national vice chairman has alluded to the fact that we are enjoying peace in Enugu State, and we are enjoying somebody that has a large heart, someone whose actions are not based on political affiliation.” Nnamani, a chieftain of the All Progressives Party (APC) further enjoined other states to emulate what is happening in Enugu State.

Indeed, Enugu offers a lot of lessons in inclusive governance that should serve as shining exemplars. It is perhaps the only state with a non-native as member of a state security committee as seen in the appointment of a Bauchi State indigene to the Enugu State Peace and Security Committee. Such can only yield salutary outcome the most remarkable being the fact that Enugu has consistently been ranked as one of the states with the highest peace and security indices in Nigeria.

There is of course the case of Gov. Ugwuanyi’s appointment of Dr. Azikiwe’s son as a senior adviser, a gesture that totally bucks the longstanding norm of excluding non-natives from job opportunities and political offices. Although this appointment has largely been celebrated as a gesture honoring the memory of Nigeria’s first president, it’s important to note that it wasn’t simply one made on account of the appointee’s (Mr. Uwakwe Azikiwe) ancestry. To the governor, it didn’t matter he was from Anambra; what mattered was his brilliance.

The quest for inclusion also reflects in the recent employment of 50 visually-impaired persons by the Enugu State government and scholarship awards to 200 physically-challenged. These are no perfunctory gestures meant to score political points. They are actions shaped by empathy, a strong conviction that a country’s progress is inextricably tied to the fortunes of its inhabitants and, apparently, by the wise counsel of the late Pope John Paul II that “a society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members”.

The level of inclusiveness in governance could as well be glimpsed via the development standard between the city and the rural communities which, more often than not, disproportionately favours the former. Governor Ugwuanyi has long expressed a desire to change this development anomaly which results in a regular influx from our rural communities into cities already grappling with excessive population and barely sufficient utilities.

Fittingly, this desire got an ample mention in his inaugural speech. “Enugu State under us will pay special attention to rural development because majority of our people live in the rural areas. We will create more urban areas to boost economic growth,” he pledged. Twenty-eight months later, words have been matched with requisite action and the outcome is a government that continues to receive huge acclaim on diverse scales of assessment.

The new cities project launched by the Ugwuanyi administration and which has seen a rapid infrastructure upgrade of some major towns across the state’s senatorial zones is consistent with that goal to offer equal opportunities to all irrespective of tribe, creed and economic status. The signing of the Child Rights Act is of course another bold step that reflects the governor’s commitment to enthroning an equitable society and protecting the rights of the vulnerable. These are explicitly justice writ large, standing as beacons to the Nigerian experience as we commemorate the country’s 57th independence anniversary.

*Ani, formerly editor of ThisDay, The Saturday Newspaper and later Saturday Telegraph, is senior research and communications aide to the Enugu State governor.

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