Tactical Errors in the Nigerian National Anthem Reversal

Ogunsakin Mustapha
10 Min Read

By Adewale Adeoye

Reversal to  the old National Anthem for Nigeria means every child and adult, must begin to learn the new lyrics except those old enough to have witnessed ‘Arise o’Compatriot’ introduced in 1974.

Let us face it. National Anthem is the spirit of a people, the quintessence of a nation, the shortest summary of the history of a country.The National Anthem should, therefore  embody the thrill, the pains, the pang, the tears and agony; the battles and victories, low and high of a country.

There is nothing wrong in a country that decides to change her National Anthem. There are striking examples. After the second world war, Germany changed her National Anthem to reflect the new spirit, the courage and the heat of battles inherited during the war and the emergence of a new country anxious to redefine herself having emerged from Nazism.

South Africa changed her National Anthem in 1994 after the defeat of apartheid,and the rise of a rainbow country borne out of the furnace and sweat of battles. Rwanda did the same in 1994 following the genocide being desirous of a new country founded on justice and freedom.

Ghana, Tanzania, Namibia and the colonial states changed their National Anthems to indicate their march from the dark aisle of history. These countries once under various forms of foreign rule came up with new National Anthems indicating a new aspiration.

Nigeria had her National anthem in the 1960s written by Lilian Jean Williams, a British expatriate and agent of colonialism who worked at the colonial Ministry of Labour, the brain box of British imperialism where Harold Smith, the author of A squalid end to Empire: British Retreat from Africa, once worked but later resigned due to British disdain for anything Nigerian.

The anthem was composed by Frances Benda, whose real name was Mrs Charles Kernot, a Briton and former teacher at Carol Hill School of Classical Ballet in London.

This clearly shows the colonial origin of ‘Nigeria we hail thee.” The anthem was not a product of the bitter struggle against colonialism, it did not reflect the blood and pains, the invasions of Bini and the carting away of artifacts,the attack on Odi located on the historic River Nun, and the sacking of the community in 1899 after hundreds of people were killed, the Sokoto expedition, the forceful conquest of Kano and the subsequent resistance by Nigerians against British lordship.

The Anthem did not reflect our heroic past. It failed to summarise Nigerians’ struggle to free themselves from bondage which culminated in the independence of 1960. The spirit of Nationalism and independence motivated the change of the old National Anthem in 1974 at a period of Africa Renaissance partly led by Nigeria.

It was the period of the struggle against apartheid, the coordinated resistance against colonialism in old Rhodesia, Angola, Namibia and the growing African reawakening. ‘Nigeria we hail thee’ was  thrown into the bin while a new one was adopted.

The Honest and dishonest mistakes

There are those who criticise the national anthem for political convenience. There are those who would wish to score electoral goals from the debate. For me, I suspect President Bola Ahmed Tinubu genuinely wanted a break from the ruin of the past, he appears to seek a new country with a new song and rhythm that reunites a fractured country for greatness and prosperity. While National anthems are indicative of a peoples’ travails and victories, a sudden change does not automatically determine a country’s political and economic prowess. Changing the National Anthem does not mean corruption will vanish or the current almost collapsed values will be rekindled. Netherlands has the oldest National Anthem while Japan has the shortest National anthem. There are some countries with the same National Anthem music like Estonia, Zambia, Tanzania and South Africa, but it is important the National Anthem speaks to a people’s history.

So, I do not doubt the sincerity of his intention. However, if Nigeria is truly a sovereign country, there is no need to revert into the old National Anthem. Apart from its colonial, slavery and imperialistic content, the anthem was full of flaws. For instance, it used the derogatory word ‘tribe’ to describe Nigerians. We are not ‘tribes’ but nations indigenous to our territories. Tribe  is synonymous with savages,  a primitive people collectively denigrated.

Sociologists have argued in various theses that the word ‘tribe’ designates a primitive people figuratively and also in connotative terms. The adoption of the word ‘tribe’ by Williams was a reflection of the British mindset at that epoch. In the last stanza of the anthem,it said ‘Help us to build a nation; Where no man is oppressed’. This is the most grievous insult to our country which is made up of men and women. This aspect is insensitive to gender, it is genderphobic, discriminatory and authoritarian. Africans in the 1960 were largely seen by Europeans, albeit wrongly, to stereotype women as weak. The anthem undermines the role of great women that have shaped and continue to shape the future of Nigeria and an insult to the collective struggle of Aba women and the blood they shed for the freedom of Nigeria.

The old anthem negates the growing wave of women equality campaigns at local, regional, national and international levels. It portrays the country as masculine and gender insensitive.

There is also a socio-cultural and spiritual dimension: There is no mention of ‘God’ in the old National anthem, now made anew;whereas, Nigeria is not a country of atheists. For most Nigerians, God is the ultimate. If Britain and the United States could have God in their Anthem,there is no justification for a Nigerian anthem that has no place for the creator of heaven and earth except to conclude that the writer of the anthem saw Nigerias as heathen that have no conception of God.

Reverting to the old anthem is also an indication that Nigeria is found of celebrating yesterday instead of looking into the future and inspiring the new generation of young and energetic people which form the bulk of the country’s population.

No country should ever trivialise the importance of the National Anthem. It is the past, present and future of a country. It is the shortest and the most meaningful history of a people. For instance, in Algeria, the anthem was composed at a period of national resistance against French colonialism when thousands were killed and millions were detained, tortured and murdered. There is the believe that one of the detainees, Moufdi Zakaria wrote the Algerian anthem with pints of his own blood on the prison wall while in detention. Listening to the National Anthem of France, Cuba, Russia or the United States, one would know they were composed in the graveyard of martyrs. The Nigerian anthem sounded as if composed in a beer parlour, denying our living and dead heroes the solemn honour they deserve.

The choice of ‘Arise o’ compatriot’ is also without the expected democratic input. While there is nothing wrong in changing the National Anthem of any country but the lack of depth, the absence of history, the denial of national debate beyond the hallowed chambers,are great shortcomings. I challenge any of the lawmakers to tell us where they consulted with their constituencies on the reversal to the old anthem. None of them did. To exclude the vast social layers of culture, academia, media, institutions of learning, students, labour movement is a terrible assault on the heritage of Nigeria. It should never have happened. Nigeria would have been better honoured with a new national anthem that in indigenous and that reflects our true history in the most soul listing manner.

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