A Tale of Two Anthems

By Olatunji Dare

THE NATIONAL Anthem which ushered in Nigeria’s independence from colonial rule in 1960 and prefaced every important official ceremony until it was replaced in 1978 on the eve of the inauguration of the Second Republic, sprang back into life two weeks ago, literally and figuratively.

The debate that resurrected it took just two days in the National Assembly.
While it lasted, many in the attentive audience compared the effort to revert to the old Anthem to a solution in search of a problem, as something ginned up by a legislature bereft of a sense of the nation’s priorities to create the illusion of momentum.

The National Assembly voted unanimously in favour, and President Bola Tinubu signed it into law in double quick time. Goodbye, Arise, O Compatriots; welcome back, Nigeria We Hail Thee.

Personally, I prefer the latter to the former.

There is a cadenced solemnity, an evocativeness, to Nigeria We Hail Thee that is missing in Arise O Compatriots. The first time I heard Arise, I burst instinctively into something between a jig and a marching drill. Its rhythm called to mind the chants of the white-garment churches in the neighborhood and the parade-ground orders of the military that decreed it into being.

It has been claimed that Nigeria We Hail Thee was composed one languid summer between dinner and bedtime by a British “housewife” – never mind the sexism – who could find no better use for her time. But when it comes to the sociology of Nigeria, she is far more percipient than her critics. To distill that sociology into 95 words arranged in three evocative stanzas is no mean achievement.

It has also been argued that reverting to Nigeria We Hail Thee smacks of atavism. But atavism has its uses.
In the evolution of the species and society, it serves as a mechanism of correction and regeneration. Any wonder, then, that there is a clamour for a return to parliamentary government in place of the predatory assembly that now passes for the legislative branch?

There is some irony in the return to Nigeria We Hail Thee which, remember, was the unofficial anthem of NADECO and the Opposition during the struggle for the validation of MKO Abiola’s election as President – an election annulled by military president Ibrahim Babangida.

His successor, the loathsome Sani Abacha, warned darkly through a senior official, that singing the old anthem at any ceremony would be regarded as treasonous and punished as such. But that did not deter the June Twelvers. It is a mark of the desperation, the mendacity of the regime that, even when activists sang the official National Anthem at their outings, “security reports” had it that they had sung the old anthem.

I recall three such events.

The first was an international conference of the Africa Leadership Forum (ALF), at the Gateway Hotel, in Ogun State. At the time, its president, General Olusegun Obasanjo, was a prisoner in Abacha’s sprawling Gulag. I was chairing the final session when the security official – there was no mistaking his French suit and the jacket’s bulging pockets and the walkie-talkie — ordered us to disperse.

I often wondered where the inspiration came from, but I asked the audience to rise and sing the official National Anthem as an affirmation of our faith in and commitment to Nigeria. I have since realized that it came from an overweening sense of self-preservation. Even under Abacha’s brutal rule, it seemed to me, they were unlikely to shoot people singing the National Anthem.

The official who had looked so menacing when he walked in now stood at attention and executed a salute, while those his superiors regarded as unpatriotic, if not downright subversive, were singing the National Anthem lustily. Much to my perverse pleasure and doubtless to the pleasure of many others, confusion, nay, bewilderment, was stamped all over his face.

The second was a lecture (May 23, 1996) organized by the

Lagos NUJ to mark the first year in prison of Kunle Ajibade, editor of TheNEWS magazine, who had been jailed, based on perjured evidence, for being an accessory to a coup that was for all practical purposes a phantom.

Just before the event started, the intruder approached me and he said he had “orders from above” to preempt the “meeting.” I told him it was not a meeting. The “conference” must not be held, he reiterated. It was not was not a conference, I replied testily.

Whatever it was, he said with a hint of exasperation, he had come with orders from above to stop it. His back-up stood not too discreetly at the back.
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Could I see the order?

No sir, he said, barely concealing his surprise that anyone could have the audacity to make such a request. How then do we know that you have such an order, and that it comes from the proper authority?

Sensing that his patience was running out, I asked the journalists assembled to sing the National Anthem as an affirmation of our faith in Nigeria. It was rewarding to watch him and his backup spring to attention and take a salute as we sang the anthem, after which we dispersed.

The third occasion was nothing if not surreal.

We were gathered at the Conference Hall of Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, in Victoria Island,

Lagos — judges of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, ambassadors, university professors and administrators, captains of industry, eminent political and literary figures — for the public presentation of Chief Bola Ige’s memoir, People, Politics and Politicians of Nigeria (1949-1979). Odia Ofeimun and I were the designated masters of ceremony.

The indications were unpromising. The lights and the air-conditioning had not been switched on at the time the event was scheduled to start the hall was musty.

Soon enough, the inevitable security official surfaced. Pulling me aside, he stated that the ceremony must not hold. After some jousting, I led him to Bola Ige and asked him to repeat what he had just told me.

Ige, who had no tolerance for humbug, was a study in composure. Sweeping the audience with one arm, he did a roll call for the intruder’s benefit.

The former Chief Justice of Nigeria is here, he began. So is the Chief Judge (now President) of the Court of Appeal. So are several Senior Advocates. So is the Ambassador of the United States. So is a former head of the Nigeria Security Organisation. So is the vice chancellor of the University of Ibadan, So is Chief Anthony Enahoro, one of the architects of Nigeria’s independence. . .

“And you say you have orders from above that this ceremony must not hold?” Ige said, looking the officer in the eye.

Yes sir, the officer replied tremulously.

“You will have to make the announcement yourself,” Ige said.

Just as the officer was finishing, I respectfully asked the audience to sing the National Anthem to affirm our citizenship and respect for the laws of the land.

Not a few shook their heads in sorrow and despair as they walked out of the Auditorium.

In each of the instances I have cited here, the “security report” claimed that I had been rousing disgruntled elements to sing the old National Anthem. A solicitous inside source warned, per a well-connected uncle, that something nasty might happen to me if I did not leave the country at the earliest opportunity.

It is a delicious irony that the 1960 Anthem, the rendition of which Abacha’s regime criminalized, has been restored as the National Anthem.

Nigeria, we hail thee. June Twelve, our Democracy Day, we hail thee. To all Nigerians born on June 12, 1993, and its anniversary, Happy Birthday. To their mothers, Happy Anniversary.

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