Was There A Country? —Chido Onumah


Two compatriots have commented publicly on the title of my book, “Time to Reclaim Nigeria”. At the public presentation of the book in Abuja on December 15, 2011, the special guest, Osun State Governor, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, in his presentation, “In Search of True Federalism”, noted: “This mission to reclaim Nigeria however is a little bit problematic. To attempt to reclaim something suggests that it was in your possession ab initio. Beginning from the forceful amalgamation in 1914, the despotism of colonial rule leading to independence in 1960, the hegemonic conspiracy of post independence military dictatorship, civilian interregnum of 1979 to 1983, the return of the military and the new era of civil rule in 1999, Nigeria has hardly ever belonged to Nigerians. To attempt to reclaim what you never had therefore is a misnomer.”

In a five-part review of the same book, eminent columnist, Edwin Madunagu, had this to say: “To reclaim, as I understand it, is to take back. I am aware that this ideological slogan, together with Occupy Nigeria, is now popular with radical patriots, democrats and human rights activists in Nigeria. But I doubt if the Nigerian masses had, at any time since Nigeria was created in 1914 and especially since independence in 1960, owned Nigeria”.

I agree with the two foregoing positions that the Nigerian masses have hardly owned the country. But there is also another side of this debate about reclaiming Nigeria, which is whether we actually have a country in the true sense of the word. That is what I intend to address in this essay. My preliminary comments about this poser is that nominally there is a country called Nigeria. That is, Nigeria meets the internationally recognized definition of a country. It has “internationally recognized boundaries, has a government, has external recognition”, etc.

The Chambers Combined Dictionary and Thesaurus define a country as “the land of any of the nations of the world”. Going by this definition, a country presupposes a nation. The same dictionary defines a nation as “the people living in, belonging to, and together forming, a single state”. Wikipedia, the online dictionary gives a more elaborate definition of a nation as “a tightly-knit group of people which share a common culture. Nations are culturally homogeneous groups of people, larger than a single tribe or community, which share a common language, institutions, religion, and historical experience”.

From the preceding definition, it is clear that Nigeria is not a nation. It is also not a nation-state as some people erroneously argue. When Nigeria was created in 1914, it was not a union of the different “nations” that made up the geo-political space that came to be known as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria, but a merger of three regions (the northern and southern provinces and Lagos Colony) that had been under colonial administration for many years. In essence, the country was not created on the basis of the distinct “ethnic nationalities” in Nigeria.

What this tells us is that we needed to build a nation out of the contraption that was created in 1914. Nigeria in 1914 was like an “arrangee” marriage. Such marriages are not meant to work beyond the financial and other benefits that necessitated the union. If on the other hand, the spouses find out that they “love” each other and actually have something in common, they can build a purposeful and lasting relationship. The survival of such unions can’t be taken for granted. Those involved have to make conscious efforts to make the marriage work for it to survive.

This is exactly the position Nigeria has found itself almost a century after its creation. Beyond the fact that, to some extent, the different groups in Nigeria share a common historical experience, there has not been any conscious effort to develop a common ethos, if not a common culture, language, or national institution. This phenomenon is aptly captured by Maduabuchi Dukor, Professor of Philosophy at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka in his contribution to the Sovereign National Conference debate.

“The concept of Nigeria since 1914 amalgamation of the north and south has phenomenologically waned socially, politically and economically,” Dukor notes. “Social, religious, and ethnic conflicts constitute a life style; the political pond is characterized by the interplay of the forces of disunity where the end justifies the means; and the fiscal and economic policies of successive governments are theoretically and practically against the poor (about 75 per cent of Nigerian population).” Essentially, what we have witnessed since that forced marriage in 1914 is an exacerbation of the fault lines in Nigeria. It led to a military coup barely six years after independence, and a civil war followed soon after. It worsened when crude oil, because of the ease of the return on its investment, took over as the only source of income for the Nigerian state.

Today, the politics of oil looks certain to rip the country apart. State governments, and sundry groups across the country are at each other’s jugular over who should get what or who controls what. But it shouldn’t be so and hasn’t always been so. Agreed that the politics of oil is fundamental to the current crisis, but we will be mistaken to think that it is the only issue that threatens the survival of Nigeria because even before the commercial exploitation of oil, the country could not be said to be united any more than it is today.

Over the years, bad leadership and the attendant impoverishment of the Nigerian masses has served to devalue what it ought to mean to be Nigerian. The belief of Nigerians in their country has waned considerably, not minding the occasional bout of nationalism, as for example, when the country won the gold medal in football at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, or recently when South Africa kicked us in the gut by deporting over 100 of our citizens for allegedly possessing fake immunization papers.

The majority of Nigerians do not feel an equal possession of the space called Nigeria. The structure of Nigeria is so lopsided such that injustice, be it political, economic, or social, has become the rule rather than the exception. Statesmen are in short supply whether we are talking about those who managed the country immediately after the civil war or those who have ruled the country as military or civilian presidents. That explains why Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalami Abaubakar, two ex-rulers of Nigeria, have become regional champions, spearheading a regional dialogue when they ought to be in the forefront of a national dialogue to save Nigeria. It appears the only dialogue they want to have is a monologue.

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It is evident that Nigeria has been so abused to a breaking point, that the only thing that seems plausible now is a national dialogue in form of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC). The alternatives to this national dialogue are better imagined than experienced. If there is consensus on the unity of Nigeria because it is “difficult” to split it along “ethnic” lines without resorting to wars, which I am sure no “ethnic” group is ready for, the question then becomes, how do we live peacefully in harmony so that we can build a prosperous nation, pull 99 percent of our population out of poverty, and become a global contender.

We can distinguish four strands of opinions on the SNC debate. There are those who argue that the outcome of a SNC should be, as a minimum, the splitting of the country into at least four parts. What this group is pushing for in reality is a conference of Ethnic Nationalities (CEN) because a Sovereign National Conference in Nigeria cannot be reduced to a conference of ethnic nationalities. To use Edwin Madunagu’s “wall” analogy, a wall is not the sum total of the blocks used in erecting it. If you take the wall as Nigeria, and the blocks as the different ethnic nationalities in the country, you realise that you need more than blocks to erect the wall, and once the wall has been erected, it becomes almost impossible to retrieve the individual blocks in their original state.

The next group is made up of those who like to bury their head in the sand. They argue that the unity of Nigeria should be taken for granted. They talk glibly about the indivisibility of Nigeria. They fail to realize, or refuse to accept, because it suits their immediate interest, that Nigeria is a country in name only; that what holds the country together is the State and its instruments of coercion. The third group, made up of genuine patriots and democrats, argue that the way out of the current political, social, and economic quagmire is the quick convocation of a SNC, taking into account all the contending interests in the country. The major issue before this group is the procedure for convoking the SNC.

The fourth group on the SNC debate consists of those who argue that the problem of Nigeria is basically that of corruption and bad leadership. That if we tackle these problems, we will be able to eradicate poverty and would not have the kind of centrifugal pull that threatens to rip the country apart. While I agree in principle that the twin evils of corruption and bad leadership are about the greatest problems we have in Nigeria, my point of departure is that to take this position is to presume that we have a nation and it is functional. My response to those pushing this mantra of corruption and bad leadership is that they are putting the cart before the horse. Whether we like it or not we can’t deny the fact that ethnic, religious, political, and social tensions exist in Nigeria. They have always been with us even though they have been heightened by poverty and underdevelopment.

It is too simplistic to argue that once we are able to conduct free and fair elections and have credible leaders, we are on our way to building a prosperous nation. While it is correct to posit that we can’t have good politics and build sustainable democratic institutions in an underdeveloped nation, it is equally important to note that the “new” leaders we envisage won’t fall from the sky. So how do we create the environment for these leaders to emerge? The answer is that as a nation, we have to develop workable and acceptable rules of political, economic, and social engagement. Today, even though the constitution talks about states and geo-political zones, the country is still divided along the same fault lines that have made unity impossible and development unattainable.

Now that it is evident that a Sovereign National Conference is one of the very few realistic and safe options to the “clear and present danger” facing the country, the next step is, how do we achieve it? Genuine democrats and progressives have the key to unraveling this mystery. Of course, it is going to be a long and arduous road. For them, political openings have been few and far between. There was an opening between 1993 and 1999, unfortunately they failed to take advantage of it.

Afraid to go for power, they allowed all manner of political miscreants to take over the political space. That miscalculation set the radical movement many years backwards. Today, those mass organizations that were used as platforms for mobilization — Democratic Alternative, CDHR, United Action for Democracy, JACON, Campaign for Democracy, etc — have all but disappeared. If progressives had their structures in place, the oil subsidy/Occupy Nigeria protests provided a veritable opportunity for the masses to attain political power and change the course of our nation’s history. This shortcoming notwithstanding, the protests showed the willingness and readiness of the mass of our people to be mobilised for change.

The question is no longer whether, because the alternatives are too dire, but when and how? For those who genuinely believe in resolving the problems of the country through an SNC rather than wars, this is the time to begin to organise and mobilise. The quest for the control of the political space to save Nigeria and bring about change will be a difficult task because power, especially of the conservative and reactionary hue, will not concede anything. Those who have suddenly found themselves in power are not thinking of using same to better the lives of Nigerians. Their only interest is how to consolidate and perhaps perpetuate themselves. And they will do anything to achieve their aim and ultimately imperil the nation.

We can’t continue to patch up our problems. Maybe there was a country. If the problem was that it never belonged to the people, then now is the time to reclaim it as a civic space, and humanise it. These times call for a progressive movement that will face up to problems frontally. The focus of this movement should be threefold: (1) hasten the convocation of the SNC by any means necessary (2) define the role radical patriots, genuine democrats, progressives, and popular masses would play at the conference (3) define the shape of the New Nigeria we envisage.

•Onumah, author of Time to Reclaim Nigeria, writes from Abuja.

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