In this season of quit notices to ethnic groups, hate speech, election boycott threats and other high-wire acts of political brinksmanship, we need to keep our eye on the ball. That means reminding Acting President Yemi Osinbanjo of the political responsibility of the Federal Government of Nigeria to keep Nigeria united by going beyond rhetoric and confronting and addressing, concretely, the National Question. While he is to be commended for his efforts at pacifying the protagonists, we must tell truth to power and let our Acting President know that the time for platitudes and pious exhortations is over.
It is time to act. It is time to begin the process of rebuilding Nigeria by boldly confronting what ails our country. That ailment is the fear of domination and political suppression of some ethnic nationalities by others. It includes the structural inequities that underpin this fear and have left some groups palpably marginalized. And it is about the resentment and distraction to the process of development that these injustices have bred. It is not enough to focus conveniently on the reactions of marginalized groups, label them “unpatriotic”, and declare Nigeria “indissoluble”, and all the while avoiding the issues that drive the disaffection and calls for self-determination in various parts of the country. That is not nation-building. It is, rather, a “straw man”. Even for those of us who strongly believe in the viability and possibilities of Nigeria, this approach has passed its sell-by date.
As a young political affairs officer in the United Nations Secretariat Headquarters in New York nearly 25 years ago (well before I later switched careers to economic policy), I learnt about the theory of “ripeness” in resolving conflicts as we battled to restore peace in Rwanda, Somalia, Angola and the wars that broke up the Former Yugoslavia.
As advanced by Professor William Zartman of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in those stressful days, that theory says that conflicts are often most effectively resolved when we can capture the psychological moment that, owing to a combination of factors, make such conflicts “ripe” for resolution. We may be at such a moment in Nigeria regarding the National Question, which includes but goes well beyond the matter of Biafra. We must seize it and turn our ship of state around. The moment exists now because, with very few exceptions, it is dawning on the vast majority of stakeholders that something will have to give.
I believe, like the Acting President and many other compatriots whose voices are not as loud as the protesters and their traducers, that we can and should build a new Nigeria. But we can’t be a nation in name only – poor, unjust, inequitable, unstable, and misgoverned. The real question is: what is the quality of our union? If, as we all seem to agree, that quality is not as good as it should be, even if it cannot be perfect, what then are we doing about it? We must first of all stop the hate speech from all sides.
Persuasion is the most effective and preventive way to accomplish this. But the federal government also must be prepared, in a balanced and even-handed manner, to bring the purveyors of such hate speech to accountability. The warning issued recently by the Department of State Security is therefore timely.
We must put a decisive end to spreading distorted accounts and interpretations of Nigerian history calculated to demonize any ethnic group or groups in Nigeria. The federal government should establish an official, factual and balanced account of Nigeria’s national history from the Amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914 to the present, relying as much as humanly possible on original-source historical documents of colonial Britain and our founding fathers and institutions. The purpose of this official history should not be to blame any persons or groups for the multiple errors of judgement that led us to our current precipice, but rather to focus on accurate historical facts for the knowledge of Nigerians. This is a necessary foundation for future nation-building efforts, and is done in many civilized nations of the world. A team of eminent Nigerian historians should be set up to accomplish this task, and the resulting history should be part of the standard curriculum in all secondary schools in Nigeria.
We must as well confront our history and memory with decentralized exercises in truth and reconciliation.
I am not recommending another grand, well-intentioned but ultimately ineffectual Oputa Panel, the official report of which has not been seen publicly, let alone its recommendations implemented. There are several formats that a confrontation with history and memory might take.
The main reason we are not yet a real nation is because we lack any discernible worldview. In other words, we don’t have a common goal and destiny we seek that is far bigger than, and diminishes, our differences. We need a view of the world and who we are in it as a nation. A worldview is anchored on where we are coming from, where we are going in a competitive world relative to other societies, and a clear road map of how to get there. Identifying and inculcating a value system is also a core component of a worldview. In the absence of such a national worldview, small views thrive. Atomistic identities reign, and ethnic and religious chauvinism becomes the prism for all politics and governance.
Being Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo or Ijaw or Muslim or Christian is interpreted in a single narrative. That narrative makes accommodation of, and equitable co-existence with others on the basis of mutual interest, difficult. We need a New Nigeria Declaration to be developed by a committee of distinguished intellectuals and representatives from all registered political parties in Nigeria. The goal will be to produce a concise document of not more than two pages that sets out the philosophical foundation of the Nigerian state, a set of beliefs that drive governance and serves as a lodestar for every Nigerian.
There is no avoiding the imperative of a rational constitutional redesign of Nigeria’s federal system of government for stability and prosperity. The argument for restructuring is even more compelling given present governance trends. The imminent end of the dominance of oil as a global energy source, and Nigeria’s uncontrolled population growth that will likely create a “youth bulge” of additional restless, unemployed youth in the future, have implications for any thinking, patriotic Nigerian: our country will face a reckoning in the years ahead if we do not reposition it.
This is why it matters that a constitutional restructuring should not just be done, but done well. I can predict without equivocation that any effort to restructure Nigeria based on the current structure of 36 states (most of which already are unviable) or the creation of additional states will ultimately fail to achieve the desired outcomes.
The is the Achilles Heel of the otherwise progressive 2014 Constitutional Conference report.
The logic of state creation in Nigeria, in which too many atomistic-identity groups want their own state, is unsustainable. It cannot stand up to the superior logic of the economies of scale that a regional structure will have. The ruling APC party came to power on the promise, among others, of restructuring and devolution of power. We haven’t seen it yet. Is this, as the party’s critics might perhaps put it, “another promise cancelled”?
As Prof. Osinbajo understands, many groups in Nigeria feel marginalized. But it is also true that the Igbo, given their population as one of the three major ethnic groups and the contributions they have made to whatever progress Nigeria has achieved as a country, have been uniquely hard done by in the political sphere. Nigeria has responded with very different standards to agitations by the Yoruba after the June 12, 1993 debacle, and to militancy by the minorities in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
You may agree (and there are many Igbos who don’t) or disagree with Nnamdi Kanu and his IPOB followers. But nature abhors a vacuum. He simply stepped into one created by the political failure of the federal government to move beyond the rhetoric of One Nigeria to the real construction of such an entity. The young man also stepped into the gap of the leadership failure of the distinguished Igbo elite itself which, until recently was unable to move beyond self-seeking to demand justice for their people inside a united Nigeria. There is no greater falsehood that pervades our polity today than the attachment of self-determination sentiments exclusively to the Igbo, who in truth were late-comers to this impulse. Other groups had severally moved to secede from Nigeria in the 1950s and the 1960s, well before Biafra, and that position was resisted by pan-Nigerian politicians of Igbo origin. Anyone in doubt should read the excellent essay by Jibrin Ibrahim in the Premium Times online newspaper of June 23, 2017 titled “Is Osinbajo Right that Nigeria Is Indissoluble”?
To the extent that many nations are made up of numerous ethnicities, they all have their own versions of our National Question. Belgium, with its Walloons and Flemings, Canada’s French-speaking Quebec region, Spain’s Basque region, UK’s Northern Ireland and Scotland, and the US with its multiple ones, are examples. The time has come for us to build a new Nigeria into, in the words of our national anthem, “one nation bound in freedom, peace and unity”. But mollifying platitudes and ex-cathedra declarations alone won’t do it. What will do it are the laws, policies and political and governance practices that will counter fissiparous tendencies in the court of public opinion and in the battle for hearts and minds. This is how democratic countries address, or ought to address, their National Question.
We need to pull up our sleeves and go to work, boldly and decisively, on nation-building.