Atlanta's Nigerians join in 50th independence celebration

Titus Olowokere loves his home country of Nigeria. He'll tell you about the richness of his people, their thirst for learning and how they're involved globally in scientific, literary and governmental pursuits.

That's why Olowokere of Atlanta was embarrassed to see a recent national TV broadcast while passing through an airport that suggested Americans only know his county in this manner: as the origin of e-mail scams.

“We want Americans to look at Nigeria as a partner …  as a country that has produced positive changes to the world,” said Olowokere, who heads the Alliance of Nigerian Organizations in Georgia, an umbrella organization that oversees 50 Nigerian non-profits in the state.

As Nigeria on Friday celebrates five decades of independence from British rule, Olowokere is among an estimated 35,000 Nigerians in Atlanta who will use the milestone to reflect on their former country's ensuing successes and setbacks. For the past week local Nigerians have been celebrating with banquets and symposiums.

Amid the anniversary festivities are Nigerian criticisms of the past but hope for a better future. The country of 150 million people has been marred with political and civil unrest, a history that Olowokere and others don't want repeated.

"It’s bittersweet," Olowokere said. "We still grapple with community insecurity and people under the poverty line, but it’s not been a series of misfortunes. ... We see this as a solemn reflection of where we’ve come, where we are and where we need to be in the next 50 years.”

Atlanta's Nigerians will host weekend parties, a parade and a huge picnic in downtown Atlanta and Stone Mountain. They say it's easier in America to put aside their tribal heritage to celebrate their native country, which is home to more than 250 ethnic groups that have jockeyed for power.

"In Nigeria, two things matter: where you are from and your religion," said Oluwafunbi Awoniyi, who came to Georgia State University five years ago to study biology. "In the U.S. it doesn’t matter, because we are all Nigerians and we need to get together and make the best of everything we can."

Awoniyi said Nigerian-Americans keep close watch on their home country, which still struggles with utility issues such as maintaining an uninterrupted power supply. Yet in the five years since she's been in Atlanta, the country has improved its technology, with many Nigerians operating multiple mobile phones, she said.

More importantly, the Nigerian people still need improved infrastructure, medical care and jobs, said Chudi Okafor, the Consul General of Nigeria in Atlanta.

"We used to joke in Nigeria that a fool at 40 is a fool forever; so at 50, we don’t want to take chances at all," Okafor said. "Today we are the eighth-largest democracy in the world. ...  We have to take off, whatever it is. We don’t want to look too much back, but there is a need to look back so that you know where you were to determine where you want to go."

Okafor said the anniversary is a watershed year for the country that has endured colonialism, slavery, and military and civil strife. With 10 years of relative peace, however, the country is focused on giving its people fair elections, he said. The country's former president, Umaru Yar'Adua, who died in May, was known for criticizing the very election process that gave him his post, Okafor said. Goodluck Johnathan succeeded Yar-Adua and has promised Nigerians more credible and fair elections.

"Before now, the electoral laws we had were not the best," Okafor said. "There were a few loopholes, problems with them. But you know, even when you have the best electoral framework, the human beings who implement it also have to be honest, committed and play by the rules. [Now] I think the government has done everything possible to have an impartial group to conduct our elections."

Looking ahead to January's elections, Okafor and Olowokere said they believe Nigeria is on the verge of fulfilling its democratic promise.

"The idea of doing anything in the name of politics is not going to work again," Okafor said. "Nigerians are prepared to take their destiny in their hands. It’s a paradigm shift from what we used to have."

Nigeria at 50 Celebrations


10 a.m. to 12 p.m., Saturday; Woodruff Park, near Auburn Avenue and Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta.

All Nigeria Family Picnic

health fair, games and soccer match; 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday; Wade Walker Park, 5584 Rockbridge Rd., Stone Mountain.

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