Let me start by stating my position on this matter. I was baffled by news reports last week that said no fewer than 45 African countries have flagged interest in celebrating the 40-year anniversary of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture that was hosted by Nigeria in 1977.
I don’t understand the source of the nostalgia. It is provocative. It is pointless. It is insensitive.
Is there value in commemorating the anniversary of a cultural festival that was widely adjudged to be wasteful. If FESTAC ‘77 was a mistake or a blemish in our history, why repeat that mistake? Who will fund the celebrations, particularly in the current climate of economic hardships that the country is experiencing?
No one should provoke memories of how our military government of the time wasted valuable financial resources to host FESTAC ‘77. In my judgment, rather than recreate our previous error, we should accord it the last rites and let it rest in peace. The idea should be cremated rather than celebrated.
I can understand why sentiments are growing to reinvent FESTAC ‘77. But every reasonable nation must not be ruled by emotion. When Nigeria hosted FESTAC ‘77 nearly 40 years ago, the world watched in admiration and awe. The atmosphere was electrifying. It was like the country had no economic, social, political, or environmental problems to occupy its time and energy.
FESTAC ‘77 reminded me of the popular musical group, Kool & The Gang and their greatest hit, indeed the most pleasant number they released in 1980 known as Celebration. Some of the lyrics read:
“Let’s all celebrate and have a good time
We gonna celebrate and have a good time
“It’s time to come together
It’s up to you, what’s your pleasure
Everyone around the world
In 1977, Nigeria was in a party mood and the military government of Olusegun Obasanjo let the world know about it. Everything worked so well in the country’s favour. The economy was roaring. Hunger and poverty were problems that afflicted only a few citizens. The number of armed robbers or armed robberies could be counted on your finger tips. There were no kidnappers. The roads were immaculate. Although computers and mobile phones and digital technologies did not rule our lives as they now do, we did not feel as though we missed anything even with our Casio calculators tucked inside our back pockets.
FESTAC ‘77 was celebrated by the military government just to show the rest of the world that black and African arts, civilisation, and culture were well and truly alive. Forty years after that fiesta, debate continues in the public sphere whether the huge sums of money spent on the event were good investments or a sheer waste. Today, many people would argue the money would have been used more meaningfully to improve the socioeconomic conditions of many impoverished citizens.
FESTAC was marked with so much flourish and excitement. Lagos and other major cities experienced massive flood of overseas visitors. Streets were decorated with FESTAC emblems. Special vehicles, in particular buses were imported to ease transport problems. The airwaves were jammed with radio jingles about FESTAC ‘77. The government constructed a FESTAC village in Lagos. Decades after the event, that part of Lagos is still known as Festac Town. Experienced and promising entertainers comprising actors, dancers, musicians, singers, comedians and high profile scholars celebrated and rejoiced with Nigeria. No one remembered that Nigeria was under the oppressive rule of military dictators.
The environment was appropriate, it would seem, for Nigeria to splash and showcase its wealth to the world. There was oil money. The international community did not perceive Nigeria as a poor or even a developing country. The naira exchanged higher against other currencies or at par with currencies, such as the United States dollar, the then French Franc, and the British Pound Sterling. Nigerians travelling to different parts of the world enjoyed favourable exchange rates. We had so much money to spend on luxury goods and live the good life.
We lived a fake life, an unsustainable life that later exposed the profligate nature of our national leaders. As evidence of the level of folly that gripped the government of the time, no one remembered the wise old saying that good times don’t last forever. No one in the military government cautioned against financial extravagance. The government cared little about saving for the difficult times the nation might encounter in future. The government was so engrossed in celebrating the wealth of the moment that it did not bother to save for the future, for those unforeseen years in which austerity and belt-tightening would be insufficient to solve our economic problems.
In the 1970s, public and private hospitals had not deteriorated as badly as they have become. Hospitals were equipped with qualified doctors, paramedical staff, and high-powered diagnostic equipment. Patients who went to hospitals were given prescriptions and they could easily get genuine medicines from their local pharmacies. That was then. What about today? It has become harder to access proper medical services and genuine medicines, regardless of whether you are looking for prescription and over-the-counter medications, from even the most rated chemist or pharmacy.
You will be mortified to know that in our current environment, we are increasingly and deliberately marketing fake and adulterated drugs to fellow citizens. The desire for quick lucre is irresistible. That is the beginning of our collective nightmare.
Today, many people look back with sadness, with regrets, and with remarks about how, over a few decades, a nation blessed with natural resources mechanically gambled away its vast resources, including the huge stock of financial revenues earned through oil exports. Nigerian leaders since the 1970s frittered the nation’s resources, including millions of golden opportunities they could have used to make the nation great.
FESTAC ‘77 was, arguably, the most wasteful celebration of a people’s arts and culture. That’s what you get when you are ruled by a military dictator, when citizens are denied freedom of expression and the space to contribute to how their country should be governed. Although the festival was approved before fate brought Obasanjo into government, it was that government that turned FESTAC into an unprecedented street party. The Federal Government at the time celebrated the cultural festival because, as some people argued then, money was not a problem. The problem was how to squander the oil wealth. And so the government found value in FESTAC ‘77. Looking back now after 40 years, only a few people would advance arguments to justify the celebration of FESTAC ‘77.
For many years, many Nigerians believed speciously that their country was the colossus of Africa, the continental leader with the divine power to command high respect and good opinion of other African countries. Unfortunately Nigeria has been transformed from a country once revered globally to a country that has become the object of humour in the international community.
While some people would like to relive the good times of the 1970s, it is simply difficult to return to the past. Everything has changed. The calibre of national leaders has changed. Our current government is frozen even though it continues to spread the propaganda that it is super efficient, that it is achieving results, and that it has a lot more to do for the development of the country. While our attention is diverted regularly by the daily rhetoric about the fight against corruption, corrupt former governors and other officials of state continue to walk about freely, bragging about their rights.
When people talk sloppily about Nigeria as the “giant of Africa”, I fail to find the basis for such exaggerated sense of importance. Why do we make so much noise about our country even when we have absolutely little or nothing to proclaim as our core achievements in the past 56 years?
People say that money talks or that money commands respect. That may well be the case in the mid-1970s when Nigeria was awash with wealth. At that time, many countries in Africa and outside the continent deferred to Nigeria and held the country with high regard. Within Africa, Nigeria was respected and indeed admired because of our hard-nosed, pragmatic, and productive foreign policy. At the time, Africa was the centrepiece of our foreign policy. When the country spoke in international forums, powerful Western nations and some lesser endowed African countries took notice. We were seen as the “Big Brother” in Africa. Today, the beautiful bride that Nigeria was 40 years ago has become derelict, disused, and a relic of its past. How times have changed!
Where do you start to analyse or diagnose the problems that have tied Nigeria down for more than five decades – the numerous opportunities squandered, flagrant misuse of national wealth, widespread corruption, inability of political and military leaders to make a positive impact on the lives of citizens, and endless competition by the privileged class to ransack the national treasury.
Within every nation’s history, there are good times and bad times. In Nigeria, we have been wrapped much longer in endless bad times than good times. In reminiscence, it is easy to see why the good times Nigerians enjoyed in the 1970s were short-lived. The lavish life we lived was informed by unparalleled revenue earned through export of petroleum products and other revenue generating resources. Then came the more extravagant FESTAC ‘77 in which we showed the world how to party and waste national wealth and resources.
I am against the reinvention of FESTAC ‘77 because while other countries laboured to develop their economies, we danced, lived the high life, and observed the Epicurean philosophy that encouraged everyone to eat, drink, and be merry. We must all say, “never again”!