By Chris O. O. Biose
The conventional explanation of crippling poverty, economic backwardness and perennial social turmoil in the midst of vast human and material resources in Nigeria is in terms of leadership failure, administrative ineptitude, technological deficiency, moral decadence and more recently, grand corruption. Other factors advanced include ethnic and religious differentiation and nepotism. There is scant recognition of the absence of the spirit of nation behind the inability of Nigeria to take its rightful place among developed countries of the world.
Most Nigerian military and civilian political elite proceed on the highly questionable premise either that the National Question does not exist or that it was resolved with political independence in 1960. This class of citizens also ignores massive distortions which have taken place in the federal structure of the country since the advent of military dictatorship in the country in 1966.
The delusionary assumption of the political elite that Nigeria is already a nation poses the greatest hindrance to the solution of several problems besetting the country.
Is there a Nigerian Nation?
It is significant to recognize that Nigeria was not a nation ab initio. Numerous independent kingdoms, empires and nations existed before the idea of a Nigerian state was conceived by the colonialists. Indeed, an attempt to identify distinctively ‘Nigerian’ traits would stretch the imagination quite a bit.
British colonial masters who amalgamated the territories known as Protectorate of Northern Nigeria with the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria to form the Protectorate of Nigeria on January 1, 1914 administered the territory to foster the national interest of their home country. They did not come for the purpose of building a great African nation.
Indisputably, since it gained political independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has had requisite characteristics of a state namely, a defined territory, population, government, currency accepted within its borders and recognition as an international person. It however lacks qualities of a nation. There is clear absence of strong feeling of affinity among diverse nations within the country necessitating periodic resort to force to compel some sections of the country to remain within it. As the Anglo-Irish political theorist and philosopher, Edmund Burke (1729-1797) observed in the 18th century, “a nation is not governed that is perpetually to be conquered.” Some nations within Nigeria resent being ruled by those they perceive as aliens or people who do not share the same value ideals with them. In addition, internal functionality of the state in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and credibility of state institutions is in high deficit in the country.
The issue is aggravated by the hypocrisy of the ruling class. Unlike most of the current leaders, the founding fathers of Nigeria were reasonably honest and often spoke with sincerity. As far back as 1947, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who became Prime Minister of Nigeria from 957 to 1966, stated the issue with eloquent candour when he told the old Legislative Council (LECO) in Lagos in March 1947:
“Since 1914, the British government has been trying to make Nigeria into one country, but the Nigerian people themselves are historically different in their backgrounds, in their religious beliefs, and customs and do not show themselves any sign of willingness to unite…
“Nigerian unity is only a British intention for the country. Many deceive themselves by thinking that Nigeria is one particularly some of the press people … this is wrong.
I am sorry to say that this presence of unity is artificial and it ends outside this chamber, the Southern tribes who are now pouring into the north are more or less domiciled here and do not mix with the Northern people … and we in the North look upon them as invaders.”
Concluding, Sir Abubakar stated in clear and unmistakable terms:
Chief Obafemi Awolowo also expressed a similar sentiment at pages 47-48 of his book, Path to Nigeria Freedom published in 1947.
“Nigeria is not a nation: It is a mere geographical expression. There are not ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense as there are ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’ or ‘French’; the word Nigeria is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria from those who do not.”
Most of the things that appear to unite the country or which most Nigerians share in common such as federal constitution, parliament, official language, currency, defence, postal system and other federal agencies are things brought from outside, specifically British experiment. Nigeria was expected to evolve on the basis of cooperation and mutual respect with a view to forming a more complete union. But this process is yet to commence.
In opening his insightful piece entitled How to be a Nigerian published in May 1966, Peter Pan asserted in his humorous style of writing:
“The search for the Nigerian is in progress. Optimists say that before this (20th) century is out, the experiment begun in the 19th century will produce such a people. Meanwhile, there are Hausas, Yorubas, Tivs, Edos, Fulanis, Ibos and 87 other lesser peoples inhabiting that area of geography” called Nigeria.
And Nigeria’s 2nd Military Dictator, General Yakubu Gowon (retd.) asserted with vigour that “the basis for Nigerian unity no longer exists”, as he seized power in an anti-Igbo military coup in July 1966.
Dismemberment of the Nigerian Federation
Nigeria’s fledgling democracy appeared to be on course until it was violently torpedoed by some misguided military officers in the first military coup in the country in January 1966. The coup involved the killing of the Prime Minister of Nigeria, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and several high ranking civilian and military officers in the country.
The coup leader, late Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was however quickly shoved aside by superior officers who were not part of the planning and execution of the coup. Whatever might have been the revolutionary zeal of the plotters, they had no opportunity to show it.
By the Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree No. 1 of 1966, the Federal Military Government assumed “power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Nigeria or any part thereof with respect to any matter whatsoever.” This was a classic case of displacement of goals as the Nigerian Armed Forces took on the main business of government allotted to the Legislature and the Executive under the Republican Constitution, 1963.
The soldiers did not only subvert constitutional democracy in the country, they instigated a civil war, the Nigeria-Biafra war which lasted from July 6, 1967 to January 15 1970.
The end of the war was followed by over 20 years of military dictatorship during which period military dictators dismembered the four-regional structure which existed in 1966 and created 36 unviable states, a Federal Capital Territory and 774 local government areas, most of which remain economically unviable. Unfortunately, those leaders who succeeded military dictators prefer to live in denial rather than address the crucial issue of nation-building. Consequently, 58 years after becoming an independent country, the search for the Nigerian is yet to take off.
National Interest and Political Power
National interest is often mistakenly associated with the interest of an individual incumbent or group in power. This grievous error makes strategic government functionaries, particularly security agencies to victimize citizens who are patriotic and courageous enough to point out the errors, failures and misdeeds of rulers which detract from the ideal of a united country or nation-state.
The fact that a person is a Head of State does not, ipso facto, make him or her a national leader. A nepotistic leader who utilizes his position to bolster his sectional interest is not a national leader but more likely a tribal leader.
Properly construed, national interest must be defined in terms of broad issues relevant to orderly development of a united Nigeria. A true nationalist would promote universalistic values such as meritocracy, democratic governance and rule of law as indispensable tenets of a growing national culture.
Therefore, partisan regimes dedicated to protection of group or class interest represent only sectional interests whatever big names they may assume. Whatever praise singers may say, such leaders have no legitimate claim to national leadership.
Nigeria is a conglomeration of about 250 nations spread from the fringes of the Sahara Desert to the Bight of Biafra on the Atlantic Coast in West Africa. The fashioning and building of a nation out of such a poly-national state cannot be left to happenstance. It must be consciously designed, cultivated and nurtured by informed, patriotic and visionary nationalist leadership, devoid of parochial and sectarian bias.
Nation building means that there should be a conscious effort to erect integrative social forces to moderate the potentially polarizing influence of ethnic, religious or group allegiances. National interest should be pursued to the benefit of the whole system, not to the overriding benefit of sections of it.
The National Question Defined
The national question has been variously conceptualised in terms of several significant questions in the Nigerian society. Principal among these are the continuing relevance of British Design for Nigeria, power politics, problem of minorities, ethnicity, religious fundamentalism, the Igbo Question, the Niger Delta Question, the Middle Belt Question and more recently, Islamist terrorism as well as cultural and class issues.
The national question arises when two or more nations are joined in one state. The Nigerian experience is that perceived oppression by any of the nations against one or more of other nationalities participating in the state enterprise often leads to social tension or threats of breakup of the union.
In an article titled “Whose national conference?” published in THE GUARDIAN, Thursday, June 21, 1990, p 9, Dr. Edwin Madunagu noted that the Nigerian society is increasingly structured against some social groups and classes. He defined the National Question as “the range of specific problems that arise when two or more ethnic groups are merged under one polity and governed by one state.” In the Nigerian context, the questions that arise under this rubric include “ethnic and religious questions” as well as “human rights”.
A genuine National Question is that whose solution advances the interests of the working and toiling population –the overwhelming majority of the people.
The National Question pungently described by late Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1947 and Peter Pan (Peter Enahoro) in 1966, was compounded and aggravated by 28 years of barbaric military dictatorship which lasted from January 1966 to October 1979 and again from January 1983 to May 1999. During this period, democratic governance was banned, constitutionalism was abrogated in place of arbitrary Military Decrees, the rule of law was thrown to the dustbin while the federal structure established at Independence in 1960 was bastardised.
Resolving the National Question in Nigeria
On the resolution of issues National Question, Madunagu argued that “the National Question is a structural question, not a constitutional one. It can only be resolved the same way it was created, namely, by deliberate political decision, sharply and courageously executed. In other words, structural imbalances are not redressed through the application of constitutional provisions. On the contrary, constitutional provisions are made to legalise and formalize structural shifts that have already taken place through deliberate political action. This is the historically correct line that must be urged on the government.”
Therefore, resolution of the National Question must be direct, categorical and precise.