On Saturday, October 1, 1960, Nigeria became an independent nation. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, whose oratorical skills have not been matched by any Nigerian leader, dead or alive took over the mantle of Nigeria’s leadership from our colonial masters – the British – at a ceremony held at Tafawa Balewa Square Lagos.
It took the British Colonial masters and Nigerian nationalist leaders two years to prepare for the event after the date had been fixed. Nigerians eagerly awaited the date. This was a clear evidence that the British handed over to us a country where things were planned ahead and did not just happen at the impulse of the moment.
Speaking with great dignity and in a tone that became known worldwide as the “golden voice of Africa” Sir Abubakar had this to say:
“At last, our great day has arrived, and Nigeria is now indeed an independent sovereign nation.
“We are grateful to the British officers whom we have known, first as masters, and then as leaders, and finally as partners, but always as friends.”
October 1 remained our National Day of independence as the country lurked from one crisis to another – military take-over, counter military – take over, civil war, more military take overs and attempted take overs followed.
When the military became weary of running the country, they gave up. But October 1 still remained the day after they had stayed in power for fourteen years. On October 1 1979, General Olusgun Obasanjo handed over power to Alhaji Shehu Shagari who was elected to run the country as President in a new system of government that was poles apart from the British Parliamentary democracy that was handed down to us.
October 1 still remained the day. Three years after he was sworn in as President, Shehu Shagari tried a new style of cerebration with the date. The Military had decreed in their days that Nigeria’s should capital be moved away from the coastal crowded town of Lagos to a more central, expansive location in Abuja. Shehu Shagari as President decided that for the first time in our history, the Independence-day celebrations should be held in the new federal capital.
By 1982, Abuja was still a thick bush – a building here and there but largely undeveloped. I covered that event, held at what is now known as old parade ground as a young reporter for the New Nigerian with Mike Reis, Joshusa Ebene (photojournalist) and Shitu Saude (who is sadly now late). Mike has remained my friend since then. To his credit, Shagari brought all the big wigs in Nigerian politics to the ceremony: The Great Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Mallam Aminu Kano, Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim. Even Tunji Braithwaite was there as Presidential candidate of the Nigeria Advanced Party, NAP.
We were hosted by the President at a sumptuous lunch in that Presidential Palace which he started and had reached an advanced stage of construction but was soon abandoned after the military booted Shagari and the civilians out of office. A man of some rare humour, Shagari took us all by surprise when he told his audience that four years was too short a period to complete all his plans for Nigeria; he had not even completed building his official residence. He thus urged Nigerians including the other presidential aspirants present to drop their ambitions and support him in the elections coming up in 1983.
At the elections of mid1983, Shagari emerged the winner and was sworn in, again on October 1 1983. But the military did not think much about his reelection. Three months after the swearing in, General Muhammadu Buhari moved in his troops to sack Shagari who was in Abuja to enjoy the end of year holiday on December 31, 1983. His government was accused of ineptitude, corruption, election rigging etc.
There followed another long spell of military rule with a succession of Generals taking their turn to rule: from Buhari to Ibrahim Babangida to Sani Abacha and finally Abdulsalam Abubakar. The military had always cited corruption as their reason for taking over power. In 1966, Major Nzeagwu who terminated the first Republic accused politicians of demanding 10% on contract awards. But after years of military rule, 10% became old fashioned. The military governments simply looted the economy without the inconvenience of contract awards and kickbacks. They also accused the politicians of election rigging. But the military organized an election that was considered free and fair but they tragically went ahead to void the results.
Like market square magicians, the military discovered they had exhausted their tricks of holding on to power when General Sani Abacha expired on June 8 1998 in unspeakable circumstances of moral debauchery. A hasty transition program had to be arranged. There was no time to wait until October 1. So on May 29th 1999, General Abdulsalam at a ceremony at the newly constructed Eagle Square handed over power to one of their own, Olusegun Obasanjo who had stepped aside and handed over power to Shagari in 1979.
”This day, May 29, 1999, must rank second only to October 1, 1960,” General Abubakar said, thus making the date of his handing over to Obasanjo compete with the day on which Nigeria gained its independence from Britain, whose colonial officers cobbled together patches of land in West Africa to create present-day Nigeria in 1914.
An excited Obasanjo went ahead to christen the day “Democracy Day” and declared it a public holiday much to the annoyance of those who fought for the validation Chief Abiola’s election on June 12 1993. Obasanjo stuck to his guns and so did his successors. They ignored calls by Abiola’s supporters to declare June 12 “Democracy Day.” That momentous decision was taken last year by President Buhari who did not only recognize June 12 as “Democracy Day” but hunoured it’s principal actors.
From October 1 1960, we have now progressed to June 12. The relegation of May 29 has already begun. President Buhari and his Vice President Osinbajo took their oath on that day without making a speech. What do we expect on the new day June 12 2019?
Only time will tell.