Old wine in a new bottle? Concerned ‘Japa’ reflects on ‘new’ Nigerian National Anthem

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That one is a ‘japa’, residing far away from home, does not in any way diminish one’s attachment to Nigeria. News of the country is sought ravenously on a daily basis

By Joseph Egwurube

([email protected]) Resident in France

That one is a ‘japa’, residing far away from home, does not in any way diminish one’s attachment to Nigeria. News of the country is sought ravenously on a daily basis though I am often unable to explain to my white and African friends here in France how a naturally rich country, very well-endowed with lots of resources and full of promise, today has over 11% of its citizens living in extreme poverty compared to 3.9% in Tanzania and 3.7% in Mozambique. According to the World Bank, in 2023, around 87 million Nigerians were living below the poverty line, the world’s second largest poor population after India, but this fact, while making me disconsolate, has hardly dented my strong attachment to my country of birth, my roots.

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My treatise is not to dissect the country but rather to express my opinion on the ‘new‘ national anthem recently authorized by the Nigerian President. I do not intend to engage in the debate about how ‘new’ the anthem is or about its correspondence to the aspirations and realities of contemporary Nigeria. Because Nigeria and Nigerians have evolved since independence. Tongue and tribes differ in more marked ways than during the immediate tri-regional post-independence period, and such differences have been institutionalized in many ways including the creation of States corresponding to specific sub-national ethno-linguistic entities. The aim to attain some brotherhood among Nigerians appears to have, willy nilly, been sacrificed on the alter of indigeneity, citizens in each of the now 36 sub-national units being categorized into ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, the former having unbridled access to social, economic and political advantages to the disadvantage of the latter.

My intention is to examine the new national anthem, which I define as the pre-text to the text, to the story of Nigeria. I believe that Nigeria is first and foremost a narrative before being a geographical expression, to use the description made by Chief Awolowo many decades ago. Nigeria is to my mind an evolving story of peoples, of communities, of individuals and heroes (Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello, Awolowo, Enahoro, Murtala Mohammed etc), of events (the civil war, the change from right-hand driving to left-hand driving, the institution of the naira and kobo as our national currency etc) and of different forms of institution building. There are periods of euphoria as well as those of dysphoria in such a narrative and different words, images and pictures are and can be used to depict the actions, dreams, intentions and achievements of the various actors engaged in the writing and reading of our national text.

This national text has a para-text, the national flag, which provides the covering page to the narrative that is so bound. And then, of course, it has the pre-text, the anthem, which is supposed to indicate the main values and principles that should guide those writing the national narrative and those reading it. The message or messages echoed by such a pre-text, associated with the words, and images chosen and diffused, determine the enthusiasm and drive with which all those involved in writing the national story mobilize themselves to concretise the values contained therein.

The ‘new’ national anthem remains a mystery to me at several levels. First, at the level of the verbs that predominate it. The first stanza begins with the verb to hail. ‘Nigeria, we hail thee’. Then we have other such verbs in the same first stanza such as ‘stand’. These two verbs which are supposed to set the tone to what follows are hardly energizing. They are state or stative rather than action or dynamic verbs. When you hail a taxi, it is that you’ve been waiting for some time, immobile, and dependent on some other person to take you to your destination. To hail can also mean to attract the attention of someone, something that denotes absence of control and the necessity of someone else’s assistance to bail you out. To stand evokes immobility and passivity. If we compare the first stanza of the ‘new’ anthem with that of the anthem it is replacing, the difference in messaging becomes very clear. For the replaced anthem begins with the verb ‘Arise’. This is a very clear action verb, asking all Nigerians, compatriots, to stand up, to get out of their respective comfort zones in order to obey the call of the nation. This is much more mobilizational and forward-looking than hailing and standing, in my humble opinion.

A second level of mystery to me is the use of some of the words, which might denote something but connote something else. Words such as ‘native’ in ‘native land’, and ‘tribe’ are not neutral and have strong condescending white-superiority connotations. Colonialists believed they were on a civilizational mission to Africa, the dark continent, full of ‘natives’ that needed to see the light. Of course, we don’t have to overreact to such discourse, but I find it very strange that the same heavily connoted words are being used today in a country where many of its citizens are no longer living in remote villages and are well connected to the global digital village.

A third level is the final message given by the anthem and the use of the modal ‘may’ rather than a more forceful modal to indicate certitude. ‘And so, with peace and plenty, Nigeria may be blessed’. This sentence leaves a sour taste on my tongue because, though it’s a prayer to the God of all creations, it does not express the feeling that we really want to be blessed, that we think that God who is listening to us will surely answer our prayers, and that our being blessed with peace and abundance is a foregone conclusion to our mind. Here, we only acknowledge the probability that the objectives we are seeking are going to be achieved whereas we need to be more certain of the outcome. The need for a different modal auxiliary verb that expresses our certainty in the appearance of the outcome we seek is surely more satisfactory and psychologically satisfying. ‘And so with peace and plenty Nigeria will/shall be blessed’ is to me a much more ambitious forecast for the country’s future because this expresses our strong belief in the positive outcome of our prayers.

A fourth and final source of mystery to me is if those who want us to sing the new anthem have really read its wordings and are guided by the values and principles espoused therein. There appears to be a wide gulf between the message and the messenger(s). Truth and justice cannot reign when those who govern think they are above the law. An incumbent governor protects his predecessor from the arms of the law and many other key governing figures remain incomprehensibly silent. Many, in the eye of the EFCC storm in the past for mismanagement of public funds at different levels today occupy important executive and legislative positions at federal and state levels. We wish Nigeria to become a country where there’s peace and where there’s plenty but the reality on the ground is many light years away from such a wish, because of ill-conceived policies and rampant corruption. The average federal civil servant who earns the minimum wage of less than forty thousand naira a month is unable to buy one bag of rice, let alone plenty of other basic necessities for his or her family. Insecurity is rampant such that it is difficult to live peacefully in many neighbourhoods, especially at night.   

An anthem should be sung with lots of emotion. An anthem should be galvanizing. An anthem should make a collective of individuals vibrate with a single soul, proud of who they are, one people, one destiny. An anthem should bring tears to those who sing it because they identify with its message, its wordings and they believe their positions as active participants in the narrative for which the anthem is the introduction is respected by those to whom they have delegated decision making powers in their name. They are not looked down upon or only remembered when their votes are needed. Those who sing the national anthem believe in the ideals contained therein. Today, how many Nigerians, apart from those holding top political and administrative positions, who have exclusive access to the purse of the nation, will believe it when they have to sing that ‘in brotherhood’ they stand, or that ‘truth and justice reign’ in our country, or that Nigeria is blessed ‘with peace and plenty’? Very few, I dare say. Which is a pity, because Nigeria belongs to us all, rather than to the select few that have ‘colonised’ it for their private gains, and for very high personal political, social and especially financial and material returns they derive from their positions. What I find surprising, seeing things from here in ‘japaland’ is how those now asking us to sing the ‘new’ anthem appear relatively unaffected by the visible plight of many ‘compatriots’ who remain oppressed by hunger, ill health and other evitable ailments.

**Joseph Egwurube has retired this year from his teaching position at the Faculty of Law, Political Science and Management at La Rochelle University in France. He has written two novels on the position of women in Nigeria: NOBODY KNOWS TOMORROW and WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER, both published by Olympia Publishers in the UK.

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