As the country gears up to celebrate its independence, many Nigerians wonder if the country is heading in the right direction.

Today, Nigeria marks 60 years of independence from Britain with parades and festivities. But the celebration comes with mixed feelings for its citizens.

Nigeria's 180 million citizens surely have diverse views on how far the country has come since October 1, 1960, when Nigeria exited colonial rule. But very few will argue that the world's largest Black population, with massive wealth to spend as the largest oil producer in Africa, is far from where it ought to be.

Nigeria, a country with over 250 different ethnic groups, has gone through brutal civil war and over three decades of military dictatorship to become a democratic nation. Its return to civilian rule in 1999 was widely seen as an opportunity for the country to restructure governance and ensure equity in its distribution of resources. 

But growing corruption and a brutal insurgency in the northeast region of the country that has lasted for a decade have contributed to its failure to effectively tackle some of its most critical problems.

"There's almost nothing to celebrate in a country where almost everywhere is so insecure," said Christian Anozie, a Nigerian journalist and editor of Event Diary International, a magazine that covers major entertainment and political events in Africa. "People are worried about the growing poverty in the country and very few are concerned about celebrating Nigeria at 60."

Four years before the country gained independence, large oil reserves were discovered along the coastal Niger Delta region, bringing hopes of prosperity for so many. But, as Nigeria emerged as one of the world's largest oil exporters, the ruling class was accused of mismanaging resources accrued from oil sales mostly to its own benefit.

Today, the outlook is bad.

According to Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index for 2019, Nigeria occupied the 146th spot out of 180 countries listed, falling to its lowest ranking ever.

Last December, Nigeria's Attorney-General Abubakar Malami stated at the eighth session of the Conference of the State Parties to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) in Abu Dhabi that over $400 billion have been looted over the years by corrupt Nigerian leaders and their foreign accomplices including multinational companies. That staggering figure almost represents the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country.

"The amount of money stolen by the political class is enough to fix the most important infrastructures in the country," said Anozie. "It is so annoying to see millions of Nigerians languishing in poverty while a group of persons squander the country's resources."

The anger of many Nigerians towards the state of the country is justified. Two years ago, The World Poverty Clock revealed in its report that Nigeria has overtaken India as the country with the most extreme poverty in the world despite having a population seven times less than the South Asian nation and boasting of vast oil riches.

In fact, the development effectively makes it unlikely that the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to end extreme poverty by 2030 will be met.

With about 87 million Nigerians—representing close to 50 percent of Nigeria's population—now living in extreme poverty, the country's poverty problem could worsen as it faces a huge population boom. It is estimated that Nigeria will become the world’s third largest country by 2050.

Usually, Independence Day celebrations in Nigeria are filled with fanfare, including a colourful military parade and a dramatic air show, but it is unlikely many will appreciate any such display at a time when Nigerians appear to be overstretched by their government.

Thousands of people have on different occasions in September hit the streets of major cities in the country protesting against the recent hike in electricity and petrol prices, with some protesters describing the action as the “highest level of insensitivity and wickedness" from the government.

“Whereas I agree that Nigeria cannot afford to continue paying billions in subsidies for electricity and petrol, I have concerns about the timing of these government policies as Covid-19 has worsened an already struggling economy that has seen millions of jobs and livelihoods affected,” said Kofi Bartels, a prominent radio host and human rights advocate who has in the past been targeted by Nigerian security officials. “Nigerians have historically faced such actions by the government for most of the 60 years of the country’s existence.”

Rocky road

Nigeria's journey to independence is a particularly interesting one. Spanish and Portuguese explorers, who did business with the locals from coastal towns along the Gulf of Guinea, were the first to establish a presence in the West African state. But, in the early 19th century, the British Empire, which fended off German competition for resources, began to establish itself in the territory and created the borders of present-day Nigeria following the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates in 1914.

Eventually, Nigeria was granted independence in 1960 after calls for the abolishment of colonial rule became widespread following the end of World War II. But the country has struggled to find stability and a trusted government since then.

The country's first-ever democratic government was a parliamentary government modelled after the British system of governance. Three years after independence, the country became a federal republic after parliament introduced a new constitution.

But a bloody military coup in 1966, followed by a three-year civil war that killed more than a million people, truncated democratic rule until 1979 when elections were held and a presidential system of government was introduced for the first time. The military seized power again in 1983 and held onto it until 1999 when democracy was restored for the second time.

Since then the country has enjoyed uninterrupted civilian rule but has faced a huge battle with extremist groups linked to the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) and Al Qaeda that have declared war on the state.

In the northeast, attacks by Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) have claimed more 35,000 lives in the past decade and have forced tens of thousands to seek refuge in neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Over a million internally displaced persons have equally been forced to remain in makeshift camps in less volatile towns in the region as the insurgency shows no sign of ending soon.

In the northwestern, armed bandits operating out of abandoned forest reserves constantly ransack communities and have joined the lucrative kidnap-for-ransom industry just as clashes between predominantly Christian farmers and Muslim Fulani herders continue to affect the stability of the central part of the country.

Despite the country's enormous problems and challenges, many point to Nigeria's ability to remain as a single nation as one of its biggest achievements since independence.

"We fought a devastating civil war more than 50 years ago and have witnessed a number of unfortunate ethnic and religious clashes but this country has still not broken up," said Mohammed Chiroma, an Arabic scholar and historian in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri. "It shows that despite our differences we are committed to remaining as one nation."

But Nigeria's proud moments, many say, go beyond its ability to remain indivisible. The country's film industry, Nollywood is among the biggest in the world and its economy has become the largest in Africa in the last decade. And when its national football teams excel on the pitch there's always a huge excitement and a real sense of unity across the country.

"Let's not also forget that there are numerous Nigerian nationals creating huge impact abroad and making this country proud," echoed Chuma Nnoli, a seasoned broadcaster who has interviewed numerous Nigerian personalities abroad. "When I see women like former World Bank Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and award-winning author, Chimamanda Adichie, do great things on the world stage, it gives me hope."