“We are grateful to the British officers whom we have known, first as masters, and then as leaders, and finally as partners, but always as friends” was the way Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first prime minister, summed up Nigeria’s relationship with the departing British colonial administration in his independence day speech in 1960.
Today, nearly six decades on, Britain and Nigeria remain friends only in the sense that they are not enemies. The friendship is about as warm as – to borrow the football cliche – Stoke City on a windy Wednesday night. A lot of course has happened since 1960 when a financially bust Britain hightailed it from Nigeria and its other African colonies.
The country became consumed by its own myriad troubles which earned it the title of ‘sick man of Europe’ through the 60s and 70s. A country that had once covered much of the plant through its Empire turned insular.
Along came Margaret Thatcher with her strong medicine to get Britain out of its funk and in the cocktail she administered was immigration reforms that ended the right of people born in Britain to automatic citizenship. This offended Nigerians and quite possibly changed Nigeria’s relationship with Britain in ways that remain till today.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron notoriously described Nigeria as ‘fantastically corrupt’ a few years ago but Nigerians hardly take insults from the British lying down – the British are soon told how their food is horrible, country is cold and how British life is generally boring.
For a country with a very young population, this also means that Britain is just another country that Nigeria can deal with among any number in the world. It will not surprise if China has a more favourable view than Britain in the eyes of the ordinary Nigerian today. The Chinese after all are visible in building infrastructure and many Nigerians earn their living doing business with China.
It is hard to point to an area of Nigerian life where Britain’s presence is so visible and obviously felt by the average Nigerian. Empire has been well and truly decommissioned.
All of this is a shame. There is much more that both countries can do together for mutual benefit. Britain remains a good place to test out ideas – Nigerian music’s current global ubiquity surely had a connecting flight in London on its way around the world.
London remains one of the best places to raise money for businesses from around the world yet very few Nigerian businesses do it. So much of the partnership that Britain provides to Nigeria remains at the government level and (until recently) has been heavily skewed towards aid and not trade.
This kind of support is of course important – a lot of expertise at the highest levels of government in Nigeria is underwritten by Britain – but friendship can be a lot more than technical partnerships and visas.
Football is perhaps one of the best opportunities for a more useful and mutually beneficial relationship between both countries. The English Premier League is incredibly popular in Nigeria across all classes of society yet even as it has grown, Nigerian stars have become harder to find in the league compared to when Nwankwo Kanu, Jay Jay Okocha and Daniel Amokachi were heroes in their clubs and cities. But whatever popularity the premier league enjoys in Nigeria, it is decoupled from Britain, the country – it might as well be a football league from Moldova.
You are probably more likely to find Qatari funded football academies across Nigeria than British backed ones.
As someone who now calls Britain home and desperately wants Nigeria to reach its potential as a country, I ponder on this lost friendship ruefully without having any particularly revelatory ideas on how to warm things up between both countries.
But I am going to the friendly game between Nigeria and England on Saturday at Wembley with these thoughts at the back of my mind. This is only the third game – a friendly in 1994 and a World Cup meeting in 2002 – between both countries in more than 20 years. Only one goal, by David Platt, was scored in those two previous meetings.
So why not put a game between both countries in the calendar every one or two years rotated between both countries? There will surely be no shortage of people who will watch such a game. Football can cut through the frost between both countries and make new friends between people who do not have much of an experience or recollection of the past and as such are not burdened by it. And it need not stop there. There are friendships to be had in healthcare, education, legal and financial services and even consumer goods.
There will be something of a symmetry to the game on Saturday. Both teams are going to the World Cup with young and inexperienced sides – both squads have an average age of 26. The English press who normally need no encouragement to hype the national team to the stratosphere before a major tournament have been noticeably subdued this time around.
Most Nigerians probably feel the Super Eagles have so far punched above their weight and are not burdening the team with any unreasonable expectations. Maybe they will catch some unfortunate teams cold during the world cup and deliver surprises, who knows.
Just about the same time the game will be kicking off, a confident celebration of Nigerian music will be taking place right next door inside Wembley Arena by way of the One Africa Music Festival. Nigeria gets to lay claim to two of the most iconic venues in Britain on the same day at the same time with music and football.
That the singing and dancing will be lit (as the kids like to say) is a given. But I also hope the football will be fia (as the kids also say).
But above all, I hope these two countries can become warm friends again
By Feyi Fawehinmi (Twitter @Doubleeph; www.aguntasolo.com)