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Date Published: 07/21/10

Nigeria and the imperatives of the french revolution By Atayi Babs Opaluwah atayibabs@yahoo.com 

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Today, the 14th of July, is ‘Bastille Day’. This is the French ‘Fête nationale’ which originally commemorated the ‘Storming of the Bastille’ marking the beginning of the French Revolution and the subsequent fall and demise of Louis XVI and the French Monarchy. Bastille Day is celebrated on 14 th July each year. In France, it is called "Fête Nationale" ("National Holiday"), in official parlance, or more commonly "quatorze juillet" ("14th of July"). The French national holiday commemorates the storming of the Bastille, which took place on 14 July 1789 and marked the beginning of the French Revolution. The storming of the Bastille is seen as a symbol of the uprising of the modern French "nation", and of the reconciliation of all the French inside the constitutional monarchy which preceded the First Republic during the French Revolution. 

The Bastille was a prison and a symbol of the absolute and arbitrary power of Louis the 16th's Ancient Regime. By capturing this symbol, the people signaled that the king's power was no longer absolute: power should be based on the Nation and be limited by a separation of powers. Although the Bastille only held seven prisoners at the time of its capture, the storming of the prison was a symbol of liberty and the fight against oppression for all French citizens. Like the Tricolour flag, it symbolised the Republic's three ideals: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity for all French citizens. It marked the end of absolute monarchy, the birth of the sovereign Nation, and, eventually, the creation of the (First) Republic, in 1792. Bastille Day has such a strong signification for the French because the holiday symbolises the birth of the Republic. As in the US, where the signing of the Declaration of Independence signalled the start of the American Revolution, in France the storming of the Bastille began the Great Revolution. In both countries, the national holiday thus symbolises the beginning of a new form of government.

The significance of this day cannot be lost on Nigeria as both countries, just revving up after a peculiarly hectic transition processes that ushered in brand new leaders, are presently enmeshed in an intrinsic drive for rebirth, re-direction and restoration in the face of extensive socio-economic and political challenges of epic proportions. This commonality of experience is further enhanced by the geographic forces of history, which localised Nigeria in the matrix of four francophone African countries namely Républiques du Benin, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. There is no gainsaying the obvious that this singular fact underscores the importance which France attaches to Nigeria as it is also conscious of the fact that Nigeria, with its gregarious population which constitutes one fifth of the total population of Africa south of the Sahara, inhabits an area almost twice the size of France.

It is equally noteworthy that relations between the two countries have developed steadily on the economic, political and cultural levels since former President Jacques Chirac’s trip to Nigeria in July 1999 shortly after Obasanjo’s inauguration. A return visit by former President Obasanjo in February 2000 further contributed to giving new impetus to economic relations between the two countries. Incontestable statistics reveal that after picking up vigorously in 2005 (increasing by 37,5% and exceeding for the first time €1 billion – attaining in fact €1, 048 million), French exports to Nigeria surged spectacularly by 78% in the first five months of 2006. French imports from Nigeria too, mainly consisting of hydrocarbons, have also grown considerably by 63% since the beginning of 2006. With this record, Nigeria became the second largest client to France in the sub-Saharan Africa and by inference, a significant trade partner of France.

A peep in to the historicity of the two nations unearths an inextricable but active relationship that dates back as early as 1902 with establishment of Compagnie Française de l’Afrique Occidentale (CFAO) in Lagos. Other companies in various sectors soon followed that example. As at now, more than 120 French companies participate in Nigeria’s economic development. French presence in Nigeria’s industrial sector is substantial with the establishment of MICHELIN in Port Harcourt, producing unprocessed rubber from its rubber tree plantations, manufacturing tyres and exporting same to 25 countries, Air Liquide supplying industrial gas and oxygen all over the country, PEUGEOT operating the largest assembly plant in West Africa, Cementia Lafarge rolling million tonnes of cement, and TOTAL leading in the vigorous development of Nigeria’s petroleum and gas sector. In infrastructural development, BOUYGUES pioneers the construction of first-class facilities from Abuja and in electrical engineering; ALSTOM, AREVA, SCHNEIDER and CLEMESSY are major French electrical sector suppliers boosting the local energy capacity. In GSM telephony, ALCATEL and SAGEM are churning out technological mysteries while ACCOR, AIR FRANCE and SDV-BOLLORE are all leading the revolution in the services sector namely Hospitality, Aviation and logistics. Over the years, investment by such French enterprises in Nigeria has reached a total stock of about US$ 4 billion, more than in all of the rest of West Africa. Accordingly, in terms of current investment in the country, France ranks slightly behind the United States and ahead of the United Kingdom, our so-called coloniser and Commonwealth brother.

On the cultural plane, Nigeria, being an English-speaking nation surrounded by French speaking nations and constituting with them, a region on its way to integration, the need to learn French can only be compared to the necessity of learning English in France. However, Nigeria’s educational sector which has wobbled severely under conscious under-funding by Governments has received appreciable levels of funding from the French Ministry of Education with the establishment of a network of more than 120 secondary schools and 24 institutions of higher learning on a pilot basis and an establishment of three zonal centres (Jos, Enugu & Ibadan) specialising in training Teachers of French language. Further cultural presence is actualised through the establishment of Ten Alliance Français institutes and Cultural centres and a teacher-training programme, run in partnership with the Agence Internationale de la Francophonie and aimed not only at modernising their teaching methods which have gone rusty due to Governmental insensitivity but also at making the learning of French more appealing to Nigerians. My brief experience at the Nigerian French Language Village in 2002 would forever remain evergreen in the aggregated nationalistic efforts at achieving national unity and global relevance through the voice of a common language.

In bringing to bear, the consequences of the French Revolution on Nigeria, there is universal agreement that the political and administrative face of France was wholly altered: a republic based around elected – mainly bourgeois - deputés replaced a monarchy supported by nobles while the many and varied feudal systems were replaced by new, usually elected institutions which were applied universally across France. Culture was also affected, at least in the short term, with the revolution permeating every creative endeavour. There is no doubt that the revolution permanently changed the social structures of France as Europe was also changed. The revolutionaries of 1792 began a war, which extended through the Imperial period and forced nations to marshal their resources to a greater extent than ever before. Some areas, like Belgium and Switzerland, became client states of France with reforms similar to those of the revolution. National identities also began coalescing like never before. The many and fast developing ideologies of the revolution were also spread across Europe, helped by French being the continental elite’s dominant language.  

The imperatives of the above and many others on our nation cannot be oversimplified in the light of the urgent need for a revolution that would restructure our bogus federation and an immediate overhaul of our constitution. The past eleven years have not only brought out the naked deficiencies of our constitution but have also revealed in its truest shape, the knock-kneed and distended nature of the Nigerian federalism. The advent of separatist agitations laced with hostage-taking and other Mephistophelean luxuries as well as an past administrations that swept aside all questions of national existence by the simple process of arrogating naked powers to itself, small circle of cronies and party faithfuls, has of course further galvanized the thinking, inserting the possibility that one way to ensure that these aberrations are nipped in the bud, is to activate the French revolutionary instinct by way of looking into and modifying the very structures of this nation being that made such an unthinkable possible, for if the unthinkable could happen once, and the internal arrangements of a nation’s democracy are not drastically overhauled and rendered more equitable and accountable, then of course, the temptation to repeat that phase of our history will ever remain with us.

Atâyi Babs OPALUWAH

Ikoyi – Lagos

 

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