African viewpoint: Fifty not out

A performance in Abuja to mark Nigeria's 50 years of independence from the UK

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, filmmaker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers numbers and nationhood.

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A child at a party to mark Nigeria's 50th anniversary of independence

Fifty years, if truth be told, is a miniscule amount of time to judge anything except the end of youth”

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If like me you've been lost in the forest of words over 50 years of Nigerian independence this past week you may have raised your glass to a history you were never actually a part of and said: "Great nation, great people", because which African on earth does not know a Nigerian?

And only the other week Mali too was cutting her 50th birthday cake to celebrate independence from France.

But what's with the multiples of 10? Why is 50 more worthy of celebration than 46 or 35?

And what of the sentiment of independence - what is it exactly?

Is a man's day of release from prison more worthy of memory than the day of his imprisonment?

How are we to judge these nations as they blow out their 50 candles - before colonialism, during and after?

Fifty years, if truth be told, is a miniscule amount of time to judge anything except the end of youth.

Like many other parts of our continent, great strides have been made in such a short time.

School report

When British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the South African parliament in that year of Nigeria's birth that: "The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not this growth of national consciousness is a political fact, we must all accept it as a fact." - that particular all-white parliament he was addressing was to ignore his words for another 30 years.

So - 50, 30, 20 - these numbers now seem so small in relation to the long journey Nigerians and Africa have made.

And who is to say that the "growth of national consciousness" came with the 1960s when, in fact, Africans had been losing their heads and crowns to the "onslaught of civilisation" for centuries?

The thing with these occasions is that history is compressed into some kind of school report: "So and so has survived enormous challenges such as war, corruption, military dictatorships, tribal and religious conflict but still remains a star pupil with enormous potential and could do better…"

And the commentators revel in glib assertions such as "Nigerians are united by little but the football team" - as if football, of course, never unites the English, or the Dutch nor the French.

Of course there is more to this nation to other Africans than just football - a wonderfully brash and exploring national character for one thing, that sees Nigerians popping up in every corner of the earth.

And there are the novelists and musicians - old, dead and fresh ones - who continue to influence my world and I wonder when their prodigious talents will dry up.

Scene of the car bombings in Abuja on the day of Nigeria's independence celebrations Nigeria's independence celebrations were marred by twin car bombings in Abuja

There have also been thoughts on oil - is it better to eat the corrupt crumbs from the multinational oil drillers' table or to sell all your drilling rights to the Chinese?

Even as the nation marked their half a century of freedom, some citizens of the Niger Delta seemed to pick this moment to show their displeasure over where the oil money emanating from their region goes by setting off car bombs that killed 12 people.

The riches of the African earth continue to be a curse.

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Should the measure of any nation be what it has achieved in the years since the white folk left?”

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Will an array of experts predict a break up of the middle-aged republic and a scramble for her resources amongst Nigeria's huge, varied and indeterminate population - just as some experts predicted 50 years ago?

Even as one history is remembered for the sake of national consciousness, new histories are being forged.

We do not know the full extent of Nigeria's reach on this earth in her 50 years of existence.

How many new generations across the world can claim Nigerian parentage?

Should the measure of any nation be what it has achieved in the years since the white folk left? Why?

How long can Nigerians be unhappy with their odd mix of tribes, languages, mismatching borders and religions imposed on them by the departed past?

Lions and serpents

Who but themselves can fix things? Can we expect more celebrations in Abuja in the nation's 51st year?

I like to party just as much as the next man, but independence celebrations leave me feeling a little empty - as if I've had my starter but the main meal will be some time coming.

Nigeria Life Expectancy At Birth

• 1960: 37.8

• 2008: 47.9

Perhaps nation-building is a lifetime's work by each individual, and should be judged individually beyond the grave.

But when we look to any government - Mexico saying "Happy 200th Birthday from the clutches of Spanish rule" or Mali saying "Au revoir Paris" and Nigeria remembering the last high commissioner lowering the Union Jack - is there not an argument for collecting all the money to be lavished on fireworks, monuments, motorcades, military parades and foreign dignitaries and build a couple of new schools and a hospital in every village?

"Fifty not out" is a fine message on any birthday card, but 50 is no longer an age many of our people reach.

In our Africa today it is only suitable to the abstract notion of nationhood.

Gone are the days when great-grandmothers would tell us that the cities which made us urbane where once full of serpents and lions when they themselves were teenagers.

World health bodies are now fond of telling us that life expectancy hovers in the 40s, even the mid to late 30s, as millions struggle for ARVs and the right to live without those elusive millennium goals.

But we are still here, trying to make the next 50.

Sometimes the true measure of our worth is that here we are, despite the predictable disadvantages imposed by prejudiced history.

Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

Excellent write-up Farai, Very good analysis.

Uche, Philadelphia, USA

Thank you Farai for this interesting article. It is very interesting. As a Nigerian, I am glad that we are from colonianism but we haven't achieved much as a nation. At fifty, we are still struggling with basic necessities of life like good roads, water and light etc. Corruption has ravaged the country and there no tangible infrastrures.

Omorodion Osula, Boston, USA

I feel it's wrong to expect so much from a fifty year old nation. With all the misgovernance and embezzlement this same nation has suffered there was never any chance of it acheiving much. Instead of whining and complaining why dont we do something about those rogues who looted our treasuries and denied us the chance to be whatever we could have been!

Obinna Anokwuru Mpi, Lisbon, Portugal

50 years is a drop in the bucket as far as political, economic and social evolution and development is concerned. It took Europe hundreds of years and immense bloodshed to reach the equilibrium it enjoys today. So let's not be too cynical about the prospects of African nations to just pull it off.

Omar Saidy Khan, Banjul, The Gambia

Well, i do not agree with Farai that 50 is young or still growing up. If you keep comparing Nigeria with 150 years or 200 years old country we will remain underdevelop for the next 5,000 years those countries fought for independence because they wanted to acheive something or grow on their own we only asked for it. Try driving a 50 year old car and tell me if you think 50 is young.

Habeeb Sule, Sharjah,U.A.E

Excellent work, i pray our leaders in africa will realise thier mistakes and look for a way forward for continetal growth.

Rowland, Maiduguri, Nigeria

I agree with Habeeb. 50 years is a long time regardless of the fact that it is in relation to a nation's independence. I think we do need to stop assisting said corrupt leaders in limiting our development by saying we're still young or there's still time. At the end of the day the West made things work for them by learning from their mistakes. I think it will be foolish to wait to learn from the our own when we can learn from theirs.

Kolade, Southampton, UK

This is a nicely worded article. If you look at things from an individual level you would think @ fifty, I have not achieved much and so many people think Nigeria have not moved much. Nigeria and Africa are beginning to gain independence since the end of apartheid in ZA. I read the Book "My Nigeria" in this book it explained the damaged Europe did to Africa for centuries. Either we like it or not, if you are told your ways are not good and you leave with that for centuries it will take more than fifty years to really find your own Identity. Unfortunately most of our leaders are bi product of Colonialism. Now we are beginning to see the Son of common man ruling the country from Jonathan. All the previous leaders or their parents are beneficiaries of the Colonialism. I am hoping that from now on we should make faster stride in our nation building. One important thing is that we must call our leaders to account through protest either violent or peaceful. This will make them think twice before making decision. We must move from out docile attitude to a bit more aggressive in calling our leaders to account. May be and maybe the next 50 years will be worth celebrating.

Fred Adegeye, Kent, UK

Happy to read a positive article about my lovely country Nigeria. I am a proud Nigerian even though I believe that things could/should have been better for the Nigerian people. To move the country forward the leaders should come together to assess, plan on a positive strategy for the nation. If when our leaders begin to take pride in themselves, stop the greediness/selfishness and most importantly emulate other successful countries, than Nigeria will see the light at the end of the tunnel. Let us all take pride in our country. Happy belated birthday Nigeria CIAO.

Nkechi Iwundi, United states Virgin Islands

I am so happy seeing my great nation and good people going through the memory lane of the pre-independent and post-independent socio-economic and political activities of giant of Africa. I encourage our leaders to learn fast from past error and put in practice all that have being taught in the university.

worlu charles, port harcourt city, nigeria

Exactly, I agree with you Farai. I always support transparent views and people who will hit the nail right on the head! It's very good when sometimes we make such analysis not necessarily doing comparison but will rather make you know how far you have been being individuals or a nation as a whole. Holistic study is always the best medication. Nigeria @ 50. What next! What are we intending to do? I believe every country should have a mission and vision statement so that it can really put them on their toes no matter the political instabilities. Anyway, " Ayekoo" to Nigeria. May you live to be ........

Elizabeth Kuranchie-Mensah, Accra, Ghana

Celebration is great, but reality is ugly. It is mask to our reality


Great to read a more sophisticated and subtle analysis of our beautiful homeland on the occasion of our half century of freedom, however tortuous at times those years have been. Thank you Farai.

Jim Musto Adeyemi, London, UK

This "article" is a series of unconnected single-sentence paragraphs, often in the form of rhetorical questions. I don't think it says anything.

John, London UK and Lagos

Farai, Your article was very well written. The words spoke to me as if with a soft, firm, voice. My heart and prayers are with Nigeria. May GOD bless you as you continue using your writing to better educate those of us who remain ignorant.

Alice DelaRosa, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Thanks Farai for delicately and intellingently putting the African story in perspective. We are getting there and years can not be a determining factor. Africa has the education and talents, all she needs is political will and political leadership (real politic). African is no exception to the so-called developed World. They went through what African has been experiencing, corruption, wars, mismanagement, hatre for one another and poor governance. There is hope for Africa, and a ligth at the end of the tunnel. It is not coming from a moving train, but from rescuers-AFRICANS.

Chuku Welwolo, South Plainfield, NJ, USA

I cannot agree less, excellent analysis Farai. Poor leadership is the cancer of Africa and unless this matter is addressed Africa's socio-economic problems will persist. So this talk of 'we are fifty and still growing' is nothing but a perception flying in the face of reality.

Billing Moyo, Johannesburg

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