Why did Nigeria’s new national anthem spark criticism?

The Nigerian public reacted with outrage to their new national anthem, which was penned by a British expatriate in the 20th century.

Lawmakers passed a bill on Wednesday to reintroduce the anthem that had been discarded nearly half a century ago.

The bill was introduced and passed in less than a week, a notably swift process for significant legislation that typically takes weeks or months to be deliberated upon in the country.

The law is contentious not only because the new anthem reflects Nigeria’s colonial past but also because the government is believed to have rushed through without substantial public input.

Widespread outcry includes some individuals refusing to sing the anthem at public gatherings, while the government faces additional criticism for neglecting other pressing issues such as rising inflation, cost of living, malnutrition, diseases, and security gaps.

Disregard for public interest

President Bola Tinubu endorsed the law a day after it was approved by both chambers of Nigeria’s National Assembly, which is predominantly controlled by the governing party.

The anthem that was replaced, titled “Arise, O Compatriots,” had been in use since 1978, introduced by the military junta during a period of upheaval following Nigeria’s deadly civil war.

Its lyrics include calls to “serve our fatherland with love and strength” and to ensure “the labour of our heroes past” is not in vain.

The new anthem, titled “Nigeria We Hail Thee,” is not actually new. It was originally introduced in 1960 when Nigeria gained independence from Britain.

Written by Lillian Jean Williams, a British expatriate residing in Nigeria at the time, it was publicly played for the first time on Wednesday during a legislative session attended by Tinubu, who marked his one year in office as president.

Many Nigerians expressed their refusal to sing the new national anthem on social media, including Oby Ezekwesili, a former education minister who criticised the government for its apparent disregard for public interests in enacting the new law.

Ezekwesili also condemned the anthem for its colonial perspective, highlighting what she described as “pejorative words” directed at the locals.

“In 21st Century Nigeria, the country’s political class found a colonial National Anthem that has pejorative words like ‘Native Land’ and ‘Tribes’ to be admirable enough to foist on our Citizens without their consent,” Ezekwesili said in her post on X.

Commenting on the anthem, a social media user suggested that the country should even consider changing its name to an indigenous one, noting that the name “Nigeria” was coined by an English woman, Flora Shaw, who introduced it for the territories governed by the Royal Niger Company in an article she wrote for The Times in 1897.

However, there were also some Nigerians who supported the readoption of the anthem, arguing that it was a long-awaited move for the country to discard the anthem introduced during military rule.

Colonial past

Britain officially assumed control of what roughly is modern-day Nigeria in 1885, dividing the land into northern and southern protectorates.

The north and south experienced markedly different trajectories. The British played a more proactive role in developing the south, which boasted ports, fertile farmlands, and newly discovered lucrative oil fields, aiming to make the region key to their economic interests.

In the south, the indigenous Igbo people embraced Christianity under the influence of missionaries, while the resource-poor north was ruled by the British indirectly to collect taxes, allowing local leaders to maintain power.

The predominantly Muslim north resisted Westernisation and Christian missionaries in favour of preserving their Muslim identity.

The consequences of this north-south division are believed to still reverberate in societal and political life within the country today.

In 1914, the British decided to unite the north and south regions, this time causing tribal rivalries over control of the newly formed nation, which persisted until independence was achieved in 1960.

In 1966, a coup orchestrated by Igbo military leaders seized power in the country, sparking a counter-coup by military leaders from the north aimed at regaining control.

These tensions escalated into a civil war in 1967, which the Nigerian government ultimately won, though not without loss of thousands of lives.

Subsequently, a succession of military dictatorships ruled until 1999, when the country transitioned to democracy.

While President Tinubu asserts that the British-composed anthem symbolises “Nigeria’s diversity,” it appears to evoke memories among Nigerians of the colonial past that led the country into political turmoil, and which continues to influence their everyday lives.



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