Lagos, Nigeria – For decades, Nigerians would dance on the streets to loud music on October 1, waving the country’s flag in pride to celebrate its independence from the United Kingdom. On the 63rd anniversary of that moment, the country’s streets are bereft of the usual celebratory atmosphere.
In Abuja, the capital, there were often banquets and concerts, sometimes backed by the government. But this time, as in recent years, the streets are quiet save for the flow of traffic as churchgoers throng Sunday masses. Over the speakers, some clerics can be heard soliciting divine intervention to rescue Nigeria from the pits.
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For Olive Chiemerie, a 23-year-old bookstore manager resident in Ikeja, Lagos, it is pointless to celebrate. She was born just as Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999 and used to participate in commemorative activities at school but has become disillusioned in adulthood.
“Becoming an adult in Nigeria under Buhari’s government makes it feel like I have been robbed of my entire future and I can’t do anything but to look on hopelessly as the country falls into disrepair,” Chiemerie told Al Jazeera.
Many youths share similar sentiments.
Nigeria, a fool at 63.
— Bella Hadidn’t (@SkinwithLolami) September 30, 2023
Africa’s largest economy has long been in free fall since the Muhammadu Buhari administration, as youth unemployment, inflation, and debt are at an all-time high and continue to climb. More than 60 percent of the country lives in what the United Nations calls “multidimensional poverty”.
Electricity is still abysmally poor; the national grid has collapsed multiple times this year and uninterrupted power remains a myth. Buhari’s successor Bola Tinubu came to office in a disputed election marred by allegations of vote-buying, voter intimidation, and collusion with institutions of state, by the opposition.
Early reforms, like the removal of a fuel subsidy and devaluation of the naira, were implemented by Tinubu immediately after he took office in May. They were hailed by industry watchers as a welcome development, but people say they have brought them untold hardship.
Tinubu has scaled back some of the reforms but nevertheless doubled down on the need to carry out agonising reforms.
“Reform may be painful, but it is what greatness and the future require,” he said in his Independence Day speech. “We now carry the costs of reaching a future Nigeria where the abundance and fruits of the nation are fairly shared among all, not hoarded by a select and greedy few.”
When the Union Jack, the British flag, was lowered down and replaced by Nigeria’s green-white-green one, Augustine Okofu was a 14-year-old schoolboy in Osisa in what is today’s Delta state. A rally went on in his town for three days and he joined in the merriment.
Okofu went on to be such a believer in Nigeria that when war broke out in July 1967, he fought for federal troops against the secessionist nation of Biafra.
He remembers rallying with the people of his township for days. But now, the day does not hold much meaning to him.
“We were very happy thinking that Nigeria will be better in the future. But instead of things to keep getting better, it is getting darker. The people who think they are wise are finding the ways and manner to change everything,” said Okofu, now 77.
These feelings of disenchantment from the different demographies that Chiemerie and Okofu belong to, stem from the belief that the country should be far more developed, according to Mark Amaza, spokesperson for Yiaga Africa, an Abuja-based civil society.
“If one of the promises of independence back in 1960 was for us to chart our own course, that hasn’t panned out as much as we expected. People can’t see what excites them about independence if we are still grappling with so many issues and moving backwards,” he said.
And while patriotic joy has been on the decline in recent years, experts say things have deteriorated this year. Beyond the state of the economy, lingering ethnic tensions exacerbated by political differences during the last election cycle have contributed to the muted commemorations, they say.
Experts say Nigerians have usually bonded together in times of economic boom and that translated to periods of peak patriotism when the independence anniversary resonated with Nigerians.
Joachim MacEbong, a senior governance analyst at Lagos-based Stears Intelligence, points to three periods in particular – the period after independence in 1960 till the civil war began in 1967; the 1970s when there was a boom in crude oil revenues as the commodity displaced agriculture as Nigeria’s top export; and the first stretch of the post-military era from 1999 to 2007.
“There was a lot of optimism in the country and a lot of people were coming back to the country from the diaspora looking at Nigeria as a place of opportunity,” he said. “But every other time after that, we have had that decline in optimism.”
That decline is particularly heightened this year, especially among the youths whose purchasing power has rapidly decreased during their lifetime.
In the 1980s, the naira was at par with the dollar. Today, $1 is approximately 1,000 naira.
A frustrated Chiemerie has now started plotting to Japa — a Yoruba word that means to escape — as emigration abroad is colloquially called.
“Every morning I wake up, I am despondent,” she told Al Jazeera. “I feel like my life is stuck in a place and I don’t care what I have to do to get the money to get out of here … why should it be the African dream to escape Africa with as much national resources as we have?”
Sentiments like Chiemerie’s should be a challenge to government across all levels, according to Amaza. But most officials behave like the proverbial ostrich with the head in the sand, hiding themselves and denying the obvious, he told Al Jazeera.
MacEbong agrees, saying the only way to improve is for the government to begin working for the majority as opposed to just a select few, to promote inclusiveness.
“If the government continues to cater to the whims of just a few people, that is not independence, that is just really trading one side of the shackle from colonialism to people who look like us. If the government works, people will be able to celebrate Independence Day the way they should,” he said.
In Lagos, Chiemerie has decided to spend the day visiting her aunt after church service.
“I will go on as if nothing is happening in the country,” she said. “If anyone thinks I am disloyal, Nigeria does not care about me so I won’t go out of my way to celebrate.”