Compatriots, do we hail thee?

Nigeria’s anthem change comes at a time when citizens need to interrogate Tinubu’s first year in office and ask critical questions about what democracy means to them.

Photo by Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Unsplash.

“Nigeria, We Hail Thee,” which has replaced the more recent “Arise, O Compatriots” as Nigeria’s national anthem, was written in the early years of Nigerian independence in 1960 and abolished in 1978.

Perhaps changing the national anthem is President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s way of ridding the country of the marks of military rule, as one who fought against the military as part of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). It could also be a political jab at former President Olusegun Obasanjo, with whom he has had disagreements. It is therefore not very surprising that the change came as an executive bill, fulfilling a promise the president had previously made to that end

On the surface, this change may appear insignificant, but the speed with which the bill was passed—merely two weeks—suggests that the government has different priorities from those of its citizens. It reveals a troubling trend in Nigerian governance: misplaced priorities, flawed decision-making processes, and a disregard for its citizens’ sentiments and aspirations.

The old anthem may evoke nostalgia and patriotism for some, but it does little to address the severe challenges of unemployment, insecurity, and inflation that Nigerians currently face. Moreover, publicity is not cheap, and this switch may mean expending scarce resources on media and sensitization at a time when the unemployment rate stands at 33.3%, with over 23 million people out of work. The situation is particularly dire for the youth, with 42.5% of those aged 15–34 unemployed. Lack of economic opportunities has contributed to a rise in crime and insecurity, with kidnappings, banditry, and Boko Haram attacks claiming thousands of lives in the past year. Inflation has reached record highs, with the consumer price index increasing from 22.41% in May 2023 to 33.69% in May 2024. The situation is exacerbated by the ongoing fuel scarcity and power outages, which have crippled businesses and disrupted daily life. 

Despite these pressing issues, the National Assembly has prioritized changing the national anthem. This calls into question the government’s ability to effectively address the nation’s multifaceted challenges and highlights the absurdity of Nigerian policymaking, in which frivolous goals overshadow critical national issues. Important bills that faced delays include the Electoral Act, which was rejected thrice before the 2019 elections and faced repeated delays and rejections before it was finally passed in 2022, and the Petroleum Industry Bill, which languished at the National Assembly for nearly two decades before being signed into law as the Petroleum Industry Act in 2021. The gender equality bills aimed at expanding rights and political quotas for women remain unpassed, despite constitutional provisions and treaty obligations mandating equality and nondiscrimination based on gender

The intergenerational divide in Nigeria is already significant, with different age groups reacting differently to cultural, social, political, and economic experiences. This is reflected in the older generations’ deep sense of nostalgia for “Nigeria, We Hail Thee,” which serves as a reminder of the heady highs of independence. In contrast, the younger generations, who have grown up with “Arise, O Compatriots,” see it as a symbol of their own national identity and a reflection of their values and aspirations. The process speaks to the different generations’ varying perceptions of the Nigerian dream, exemplified, for instance, by the #EndSars movement.

The fact that “Nigeria, We Hail Thee” was composed by a British expatriate, Lillian Jean Williams, only adds to the problem. At a time when anti-Western sentiments are on the rise and a Nigeria-led ECOWAS is under fire for perceived subservience to Western powers, returning to a colonial-era anthem only reinforces perceptions of Western stoogery and erodes national pride and prestige. In a region where colonialism has left deep scars, the move undermines Nigeria’s status as a champion of African liberation and unity. It sends a message to neighboring countries that Nigeria is willing to abandon its hard-won independence and embrace symbols of colonial subjugation. 

The anthem-change bill comes one year after Tinubu’s inauguration and 25 years after the country’s return to democracy in 1999. But it appears to be a distraction at a time when citizens need to interrogate Tinubu’s first year in office and ask critical questions about what democracy means to them. Moreover, the speedy passage of bills without clear citizen engagement has some worried about a pliant legislature empowering the executive. This is especially true as the passage of other bills follows the same pattern—for example, the amendment to the Cybercrimes Act of 2015 passed less than three months ago. It sends a strong warning signal that any law could be passed by executive order, including one that elongates the tenure of the president. 

Overall, an anthem or the change of it does not inspire nationhood in a vacuum if it does not reflect a disciplined, patriotic, and selfless leadership that improves the standard of living and security of citizens. After all, the reintroduced anthem was sung during the first republic, which was characterized by the Western Nigeria Crisis of 1962–65, the coup and countercoup of 1966, and the civil war in 1967.

Further Reading