Abuja, Nigeria – The lights are off and a few hundred people sit in the darkness of an auditorium facing a glowing stage. The Nigerian poet, Dike Chukwumerije recites a series of poems describing Nigeria’s tumultuous history.
Chukwumerije’s poems convey nostalgia and a longing for the Nigeria he experienced in his childhood. They illustrate a sense of loss in indigenous, cultural pride, a sense that Nigeria – which at 180 million, is Africa’s most populous nation, has lost its direction on the road to nation-building since its independence from the United Kingdom on October 1, 1960.
He laments the rise of religious extremism and the destruction of Nigeria’s natural environment in places like the oil-rich Niger Delta region where the excavation of crude oil and spillages have left the mangrove swamps in a perpetual state of degradation.
“Bring back the trees, bring back the river, bring back the clean and peaceful delta.
Bring back the night, the full-mooned night and the stories we told by candlelight …
Who brought us to this place of tears … before the proof of faith was riches?
Bring back Islam before jihadists, before the proof of faith was murder.
Bring back our love for one another.
When neighbours checked on each other’s children not plotted how to kidnap them …
No matter how fast your internet is, you can’t replace this heritage …
Bring back that old morality that drew its pride from who we were and not from what we wore.
Bring back the days of heroes past …
How did it ever come to this?
The event took place in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on the eve on Nigeria’s 56 years of independence.
Today, on Nigeria’s independence day, Nigerians reflect on what this day means to them.
(The interview responses have been edited for clarity and length)
Nigeria’s independence means a lot to me.
I’m 56 years old. Nigeria is a little bit older than I am, but it means that I am part of a country that is the biggest and the greatest black African country, the number one country for Africans and blacks in the world.
Nigeria is here for eternity.
I believe Nigeria will work. All of us, we just have to put our efforts into making this country great.
I believe that Nigeria is a country of the future. We still do have a lot of work; in particular, we need to find a sort of healthy avenue through which we can resolve our tensions. These things we are facing now, these challenges are temporary, and I believe it is a matter of time.
With this number of people, 180 million and still growing, with this massive energy and resources, with this resolve that we are not going to be left back or behind or out, I have no doubt the future is big for our country.
I am proud of it. And I love my country. I love Nigeria.
And I’m prepared to give it everything it takes to be a great country …
I grew up with the slogan that Nigeria is or was the ‘Giant of Africa’. I’m 58 years old now, and we are looking back, and we are seeing that we have mismanaged almost everything.
Today, we can’t talk about Nigeria being the ‘Giant of Africa’ for any reason other than for negatives.
We are the ‘giant’ of a lot of negatives which is epitomised by what has happened to the Chibok girls.
We have failed ourselves as a nation… which is sad because every day you look at the potentials of this country, the human resources, the natural resources and you know within you that we can do a lot better than this.
The fight for the Chibok girls is a fight for the soul of Nigeria.
When I was growing up, this was not the Nigeria I had envisaged … I had imagined a country where all the divisiveness would have long been forgotten, all the hurts would have been healed, and we would have been working with the shared purpose of building one country.
We would not be manipulated by the political elite in the country, but that is exactly what is going on … You see a Nigerian that has a lot of potential, and when he or she goes out of this country, they blossom.
The same Nigerian finds it difficult to blossom in his own country, and it’s not fair that Nigerians have to go outside this country to be successful.
It hurts to see Nigeria as if it is a walking graveyard. It’s in a graveyard where you see things wasting away.
At 56 years of independence, we still battle an epileptic power supply. At 56, we are still battling with an unserious political class.
I was born at a time when the current president, Muhammadu Buhari, was the military head of state. I’m 31 years old. It was just an era when my dad always reminded me that from that point downwards, you can trace where the mess of Nigeria began.
There was a time we actually had a nation that was near greatness. What we have now is nothing compared to that. Are we going forward or are we moving backward?
At 56, it looks like the country is not growing. What is it that you gain from being a Nigerian?
You must become a government to yourself. People are buying transformers for themselves. People are fixing their roads. People are managing their security by themselves.
So, I am a government to myself. I get my power. I get my water. I get my everything …
Why are we in a recession? Some people say this is not a recession, it’s a depression. When I hear people say ‘Giant of Africa’, I ask, where is the gross domestic product? I don’t even think we have a middle class.
Do I eat three square meals per day? I don’t; I can’t afford it.
The government should be trying to cut costs, but … we still pay our public servants and politicians some of the biggest salaries around the world.
We’re outsourcing Nigeria to the elite.
Nigeria is 56 years, and we’re not talking about human years. We’re talking about 56 years in the life of a country. China has existed for several millennia. Nigeria is a baby.
We also have some things that are special to us.
We are one of the most heterogeneous societies in the entire world in terms of culture and language, in terms of the coming together of a people – and all of these people are bottled into this relatively tiny space.
It’s going to bring up challenges.
We need to have that conversation about the kind of country we want to have, the kind of federation we want to have, a conversation on the tiers of government …
I’m most definitely proud to be Nigerian, and I don’t say that because I’m supposed to be proud …
If you look at the rest of the world, there is hardly another country that has a such a dark past. So, I’m proud of my country because there is nothing unique about our challenges today.
The reason why I believe Nigeria has a great future is because you only need to look at Nigerians themselves: All around the world, Nigeria has contributed great minds to this world.
Nigeria has done many positive things, like the peacekeeping missions around Africa. Look at how we fought the Ebola crisis. But the international media is obsessed with the negative news.
I’m proud because even if I die today, I am hopeful that someway, somehow, in the future, the beautiful minds we have in this country will come together and agree on how to move this storming nation forward.
I am proud of who we are as a people and where we are going.
Many people have died, many are in the hospital, many people they don’t even realise it is independence day because of how much they’re suffering.
But I’m alive, even though I have many problems, but I still thank God for life.
Nigeria is 56 years old, and we have freedom. But in truth, Nigeria is going backwards.
Some people say Nigeria is going forward, and yes, we want to believe we are going forwards and have faith. But, if you go to northeastern Nigeria where I am from, you will see that Nigeria is not going forward because Boko Haram is still there.
The government didn’t take action against Boko Haram when it first started, and that’s why we find ourselves like this.
My husband, a police officer, died in active service. He was killed by Boko Haram. My son was hurt in a Boko Haram bomb blast, and the government has never come to help us. It was strangers from the UK who came and offered to pay my son’s hospital fees.
One hand cannot build a house. One straw cannot sweep until you join straws to make a broom. But this is not being applied in Nigeria. It is to each their own.
There are more than 2,000 people in this IDP camp and the government has not come to our aid. Instead, they are telling us to leave because they don’t want IDPs in Abuja.
They want us to go back home, but how can we go back to our homes when Boko Haram is still there?
It is only charity groups and some churches who are helping us with food, medications, schooling for our children and clothes and small small things.
But this Nigeria, I can only pray.
I am not celebrating for Nigeria. What is there to celebrate? Things are going backwards.
I am 31 and when I was a kid, I know my mother would buy me sandals for just a little money, but now, the cost of everything, even a pair of sandals to wear in your house has tripled.
We used to make products here in Nigeria, like women’s fabrics.
I think all those industries have closed, so Nigeria is going backwards, not forwards.
I am thankful for this taxi job that I have. It’s just a temporary thing, but it helps me save money so I can further my education.
There is no help from the government to go to university. Everybody is on their own. The scholarships go to the children of the rich people who can already afford the tuition. It’s corruption.
I finished secondary school, and I planned to study political science at the university, but I can’t afford it.
The root of Nigeria’s problems are the politicians – senators, the house of representative members, the governors. They are our problem. They don’t care about the poor masses. They can have 20 cars in their convoys … So our problem is the politicians.
With the oil and the many resources that we have, we still see huge problems.
But before I die, I want to see Nigeria with good schools that the poor can send their children to. I want to have light 24 hours a day … better roads.
This is my wish, and I pray it should happen.