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The comeback of an old anthem: Nigeria We Hail Thee

The labour of Nigeria’s heroes’ past is now in vain as the country abandons an anthem written by five of its own for one penned by its colonisers. On May 29th, 2024, President Bola Tinubu signed into law the return of ‘Nigeria, We Hail Thee,’ nearly five decades after ‘Arise, O Compatriots’ became the national anthem.

In less than two weeks, a bill sponsored by Julius Ihonvbere, the majority leader of the House, seeking to replace Nigeria’s anthem received overwhelming support. With the bill now signed into law, Nigerians must heed a new, albeit old, national call.

A primary motivator for this anthem change is Nigeria’s strong ties with its past, previously demonstrated by its recurrent preference for former military leaders.

Read also: Leadership action needed not changing national anthem – Moghalu

According to Godswill Akpabio, the Senate president, “I think one of the most important is to take us back to our genealogy; the genealogy of our birth… Whether in the field of battle or politics, we must hail Nigeria.”

Philip Agbese, the deputy spokesman of the House of Representatives, added, “This anthem… evokes a sense of nostalgia and patriotism in the hearts of many Nigerians. It reminds us of our history, our struggles, and our triumphs.”

Timeline of the anthem change:

Nigeria’s first anthem,’ Nigeria, We Hail Thee,’ was a gift that cost Nigeria 1,000 pounds from a British expatriate named Lillian Jean Williams and composed by Frances Berda.

The anthem resulted from a Federal Government competition, which sought a national song to celebrate the country’s independence. Despite strong criticism regarding its foreignness and blandness, it served as the national anthem until 1978.

In 1978, a national competition was held to create a new anthem that would better capture the Nigerian spirit. The result was ‘Arise, O Compatriots,’ a collaborative effort by five Nigerians: P. O. Aderibigbe, John A. Ilechukwu, Sota Omoigui, Eme Etim Akpan, and B.A. Ogunnaike.

This anthem, emphasising themes of national service, the sacrifices of past heroes, and a collective commitment to building a just and peaceful future, served the nation for nearly five decades.

First suggestion for anthem change

The 2014 national confab committee, set up by former President Goodluck Jonathan, was the first to recommend a return to the old national anthem in recent years.

The 492-member confab, headed by retired judge Idris Kutigi, argued that the current anthem better symbolises unity, peace, and prosperity.

Read also: Jonathan 2014 national confab recommended return to old anthem

The Controversy

Prioritising an anthem change amid record-high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis for many Nigerians has drawn intense criticism. It appears that the only supporters of this anthem change are the politicians who passed it in a hurried move that even Lateef Fagbemi, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, cautioned against, saying it needed more comprehensive consultation.

“Without any form of consultation or leaning into popular demand, that’s how a national anthem that stood for over 50 years was expunged. Nigerians, stop playing with your leadership choices,” tweeted Oluseun Onigbinde, director at BudgIT.

Oby Ezekwesili, a former minister of education, posted on X that she would never sing the new-old anthem. “Let it be known to all and sundry that I, Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili, shall, whenever asked to sing the Nigerian National Anthem [will] sing.”

Many consider the changes to be a tool of distraction by a government that has failed on many fronts. “How convenient to bring up changing the national anthem (that is of no consequence to the life of the average Nigerian) at a time when we should be discussing the one-year scorecard,” tweeted Modupe Odele, popular as Moe (@Mochievous). “That is how you know these people aren’t incompetent. They are wicked. And it is all deliberate.”

“So, instead of debating the performance of the first one year in office, they focused you on old national anthem instead? …” tweeted Joe Abah, a former Director-General, Bureau of Public Service Reforms.

Others consider the shift to an anthem that was written by a coloniser as wrong, viewing the words and meaning as derogatory. “In 21st century Nigeria, the country’s political class found a colonial nation that has pejorative words like ‘Native Land’ and ‘Tribes’ to be admirable enough to foist on our citizens without their consent,” tweeted Ezekwesili.

“Nigeria’s president has just jettisoned a national anthem that addresses Nigerians as ‘compatriots’ in favour of one that describes us as ‘natives’ from ‘tribes’. That is progress, abi? The return of colony is nigh,” tweeted Chidi Odinkalu, a professor of practice in International Human Rights Law at Fletcher School.

Read also: In numbers: Did Nigeria make the right national anthem choice?

Some see it as a form of erasure of heroes’ past. “With Nigeria changing its official national anthem, I cannot help but think about how soldiers killed EndSARS protesters who thought singing our (previous) anthem would save them. What happens to that memory? Erasure continues to be Nigeria’s approach to justice,” tweeted Wale Lawal, founder of Republic Journal.

Experts emphasise that an anthem change will not improve Nigeria’s dire economic indicators, regardless of one’s position on the issue. Hailing Nigeria won’t put food on the table of the average person, they said,

Boason Omofaye, a former business editor with Channels, added on X, “Now that the National Assembly has brought back the old national anthem of 1960, can they please bring back the exchange rate, inflation and interest rate as well…”