Neither anthem will do

Nigerians should reject both a song that conjures colonial memories and a tune that evokes years of military rule.

Image credit Zel Photography via Pexels.

Call me naive, but May 29 was the first time I learned of President Bola Tinubu’s administration’s decision to reinstate the Nigerian national anthem originally introduced in 1960, coinciding with the country’s independence from Britain. This move replaced the military-introduced anthem. In my opinion, both colonial and military national anthems are contentious.

“Nigeria We Hail Thee” was composed in 1959 by British expatriate Lillian Jean Williams, with music by Frances Berda. In his Africa Today article, Es’kia Mphahlele, the renowned South African writer who lived in exile in Nigeria, reported strong opposition to the new anthem, leading to a committee being formed to request its replacement. Critics argued the music plagiarized an English hymn, lacked a Nigerian feel, and should have been chosen from Nigerian entries. Some suggested composing the music first and adding lyrics later. Despite widespread opposition, Radio Nigeria continued to play the anthem daily to familiarize the public with it.

The anthem exemplifies colonial imposition, as neither the songwriter nor composer is Nigerian, perpetuating the practice of imposing foreign cultural elements on colonized nations and undermining local identities. The anthem’s use of terms such as “Native Land” and “Tribes” perpetuates outdated and offensive notions that undermine our identity and unity post-independence. It is troubling that our leaders ask us to use these words in the 21st century.

“Nigeria We Hail Thee” was discontinued by the Nigerian military in 1978, and replaced by “Arise, O Compatriots.” Composed during the nation’s recovery from civil war, this anthem urges citizens to “serve our fatherland with love and strength” and ensures “the labor of our heroes’ past shall never be in vain.” The lyrics are a compilation of phrases from five entries in a national contest, set to music by the Nigerian Police Band under Benedict P. Odiase. However, even this anthem fails to realistically represent Nigeria’s diversity, highlighting the dual challenges in the country’s political landscape where efforts toward inclusivity and democratization are continually evolving.

Symbolically, this anthem and its adoption reflect deeper social meanings and collective memories. The prolonged period of military rule in Nigeria created a democratic deficit, especially during a global shift toward a popularly elected government. This period in history is marked by socioeconomic crises inherited from the Second Republic, the annulled presidential elections of June 1993, the imprisonment of Chief M. K. O. Abiola, the return to full military rule under General Sanni Abacha, and the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa along with eight other minority and environmental activists on November 10, 1995. There was also an extensive crackdown on pro-democracy and human rights activists. These events significantly undermined Nigeria’s credibility and contributed to the negative publicity the country experiences today. The anthem, as a symbol, encapsulates these collective experiences and the ongoing struggle for democratic governance and human rights in Nigeria.

National anthems are undeniably important as they serve as ideological declarations that inspire and unify people, helping them stay focused on common goals and shared values. These anthems evoke deep sentiments of patriotism and arouse emotions that embody the values, history, and identity of a nation or group. By singing these anthems or reciting a pledge individuals are reminded of their collective identity, history, and aspirations, fostering a sense of solidarity and purpose within the community. Although the right national anthem can significantly impact a nation’s spirit, we must recognize that there are more pressing concerns facing our society today and a process to get there. 

Nigerians have made it clear that their pressing concerns are the high cost of living, insecurity, rising inflation, and the severe foreign exchange crisis—not the national anthem. However, federal lawmakers introduced and passed the anthem bill in less than a week, a stark contrast to the months or years typically required for important legislation.

If we are to make a change, we must reject both a song that conjures colonial memories and a tune that evokes years of military rule. We need an anthem reflecting our diverse, modern, and unified nation. The challenge lies in decolonizing this process and creating a symbol that embodies our collective identity and aspirations. 

Further Reading