The National Question

That Nigeria is inhabited by over 500 ethnic groups is, no doubt, disputable. But it is incontrovertible that, unlike such African countries as Egypt, Lesotho and Swaziland, Nigeria is not a homogenous country. The territory does not fit into Joseph Stalin’s or the dictionary definition of a nation. Yes, Nigeria boasts a distinct territory and economic cohesion; but, besides its not being a stable, continuing community, the country is clearly lacking in several vital elements, like a common language or culture and a common psychological make-up or collective character. The preponderance of the English language – in its various varieties, including pidgin – in Nigeria does not have the same effect or implication for the country as, for instance, the French language has for France or the Italian language for Italy.

Since Britain amalgamated the predominantly Christian Southern Protectorate and the predominantly Muslim Northern Protectorate in 1914, the challenge has been how to sustain and deepen the bond of unity created by that amalgamation. From the Clifford Constitutional Conference of 1922 down to the present National Conference, the effort has been to establish a socio-political framework that will ensure that the nationalities that make up the country live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble Sovereign Nation.

Some analysts claim that having survived a civil war, Nigeria has long solved the national question, a position based on the belief that the hegemony and suzerainty of the Federation can no longer be constrained, limited, questioned or contested by any component part or authority within or without Nigeria. These analysts harbour the conviction that the Nigerian State has conquered religion, ethnic nationalism and some other atavistic nagatives on the path of building a self-sustaining and self-healing nation state. To this category of thinkers, all that Nigeria needs is a robust, competent, fair-minded and purposeful leadership. Their thinking obviously borrowed its foundation from the American experience.

When the thirteen American colonies proclaimed their independence from Great Britain in July, 1776, they formed an alliance of nations under the Articles of Confederation and thereafter adopted the Constitution of the United States of America which established a federal government that did not impinge on the independence of the thirteen federating nations. Under that federal arrangement, the federal government was granted powers to legislate over areas of common interest to the federating nations while the various nations in the union retained their respective autonomy and independence. As averred by a notable historian, none of the nations or states that joined the confederation had any intention of surrendering their independent sovereignty other than those matters they had delegated to the federal government. They all understood that they had the right to secede if and when the alliance no longer served their needs or protected their interests. Many of the states that later joined or were brought into the federation had the belief that implicit in Article Four of the Constitution of the federation was the right to secede. Over time, some of them threatened to secede over matters and issues they felt very strongly about. But they did not carry out their threat until the Southern States, under the umbrella of Confederate States of America (CSA), decided to secede over the anti slave trade posture of the federation, a posture they viewed to be inimical to their interest, as their economy was dependent on slave labour. In their uncritical thinking, the Confederate States of America believed that by seceding, they were only falling back on the autonomy or sovereignty that they never yielded to the Federation. But they were wrong. In no time, the rest of the United States of America, consisting of northern states with non-slave economies, responded by invading the CSA to herd them back to the federation. The victory of the USA over CSA thus laid to rest the question as to which, between the component units and the federation established by the Constitution, constitutes the true nation. The Federation became the nation and the states became subservient component units of the nation.

The only similar component in the history of the creation of Nigeria and the formation of the United States of America is that like America, the territory or geographical expression called Nigeria was under British colonial rule. In our own case, unlike the colonies of America that negotiated their union, the diverse geopolitical units and their differing nationalities were banded together and forced willy-nilly to accept the colonial state of Nigeria. Whilst that singular act benefited the capitalist goals of colonial Britain, we are still grappling with the puzzle of how to establish out of that union of strangers a nation state that can unlock the potentials of its peoples in their quest to create home-grown tools with which to deal with the challenges of the modern world.

As I insinuated earlier, Nigeria is a multinational or multiethnic country. Unlike countries like France and Italy, the nationalities of Nigeria are older than the country. For instance, by the time the French State was established by the French Revolution, not up to 14% of its population spoke good French. It took the conscious, concerted efforts of the state to capture and unify the various languages and dialects into the standard French language. Historians claim that the number of people who could speak Italian during the Italian unification was lower than that of the French. Today the Italians speak Italian and see themselves as Italians. Egypt is a nation state. Ninety-nine percent of its population is made up of ethnic Egyptians who speak the same language, have the same customs, and share the same historic origin. Next door to Egypt is Lebanon with a near homogenous population. To the south of the African continent is Lesotho with its Basotho population. Japan is another good example of a nation state. There are many other examples of nation states around the world, that is, countries made up of people who share the same history, culture and language. Conversely, the nationalities within the geographical portion of the earth called Nigeria were living separately with their cultures, customs, languages and political authorities before the Nigerian state was foisted on them by Colonial Britain. In other words, Nigeria is not a country united by a common descent, a common language and a shared culture. It is a historical accident. Some people refer to the amalgamation as the mistake of 1914. The challenge, thus, has been how to create a national identity out of this Tower of Babel.

One can offhandedly say that not many Nigerians will be dreaming of building a new Nigeria on the foundations of the Fulani Empire, the Ife and Oyo empires, the kingdom of Nri, the kingdom of Benin, the Nok culture, etc. No! Those civilizations have long been left behind, and using them as a vehicle in the catch-up drive will make no sense. But can we really ignore their intrusive influence on the ongoing effort to build a nation state? My answer is NO.

The North South dichotomy is still very much with us in all respect. There is hardly anything standing on the way of building a nation state like the North- South divide. The elite have used this divide for their benefit and at the detriment of the federation. In the words of Dennis Omorojor a lawyer, a united and homogeneous Nigeria would hardly be in the interest of the Nigerian elite who see ethno religious conflicts as useful tools for the achievement of their political and economic goals.

My thinking is that critical thinkers need to add more robust thoughts on how to fashion out a union that can confront religion and ethnicity in a much more realistic way than previous efforts. Our experience has shown that religion is just a façade to veil the greed for central power and oil money. I ther

efore plead for a swift removal of the psychological boundaries hindering the progress of our community. If we have a just and detribalized central government, evil-minded elements will find it difficult to hide behind religion or use religion as a counter measure.

As pointed out by Professor Sagay, the fierce competition and conflict between Nigerian ethnic nationalities regarding the control of political power and resources can be doused by a federal system of government that yields fiscal autonomy to the component states. Let the states be allowed to customize their path to development.

Written by
Sam Kargbo
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